Thursday, December 29, 2011

An Attitude of Gratitude

As we prepare to ring in the New Year I am counting my blessings, which are made more clearly evident to me by my awareness of the difficulties many in our country and the world face.

It is so easy to get caught up in the negative media hype, the political shenanigans, and future fears. We can loose sight of the most basic truth; we are here now, in whatever life situation we find ourselves,  and we have the capacity to love and be loved. Everything else is, well, imagination, really.

Today I am giving thanks for the loving that is present in my life and letting the rest go. My resolution for 2012 is to have the presence of mind and the strength of conviction to do so every day.

If you are reading this, thank you for being in my life, you are a blessing. I wish you a very Happy New Year with the hope that the light of love fills your heart in 2012 and beyond.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Sweet Finish

I love finding recipes that remind me of the wonderful cakes and torts of Europe. Personally, I find our baked goods in the U.S. overly sugared. In the summers when we travel to Europe to teach at our watercolor retreat I have been known to beg the villa chef for his wonderful cake recipes. Often though, I loose something in the translation (my Italian is so-so) and once stateside I find it difficult to reproduce his simple but elegant cakes. So I was in heaven when I found this amazing Cranberry Cake that reminds me so much of the delicious cakes baked by Chef Jimmy. Once you try it I think you will agree it is also the perfect holiday cake.

I made this cake twice over the holidays; one to give and one for our Christmas dinner and it did not disappoint!
I topped it with the pecan crunch AND the whipped cream which took it to a very festive level! I have had nothing but rave reviews for this dense, moist cake with the burst of cranberry tartness! I plan on stashing a few bags of fresh cranberries in the freezer so I can enjoy this cake later in the year!

Cranberry Cake
Adapted from TheKitchn’s Recipe for Cranberry Cake  
makes one 9x13-inch or one 10-inch spring form cake

3 eggs
2 cups sugar
3/4 cup unsalted butter, slightly softened and cut into chunks
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon almond extract (optional) I would highly recommend
1 tablespoon kirsch (optional) not omit this and do not use the liquor, use the Kirsch Wasser
2 cups flour
2 1/2 cups cranberries (1 bag)

Preheat oven to 350°F. Lightly grease a 9x13 pan or a 10" spring form pan.
Beat eggs and sugar together for at least 5 minutes — probably as long as 7 or 8 minutes — the egg and sugar mixture should double in volume and turn pale yellow, leaving ribbons on top of the batter when you lift the beaters. (Be sure to beat for at least 8 minutes) 
Add the butter and flavorings and beat for 2 more minutes. Stir in flour and fold in cranberries. Pour into greased pan. (I found it worked best to add room temperature butter in small pieces at a high speed a little at a time, as it was easier to incorporate. Don't worry if you still have some butter that doesn't mix in)
Bake 45-50 minutes for a 9x13, or a little over an hour for the spring form. You may need to tent the cake with foil in the last 15 minutes or so to keep the top from browning too much. (Definitely tent the top especially if you add the pecan topping)
Cool completely before serving.
Optional pecan topping:
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 cup pecans, toasted
Heat the butter in a pan over medium-high heat. Add the sugar and stir. Add the toasted pecans and cook for several minutes, stirring, until the butter and sugar mixture is shiny and smooth and the nuts smell toasted. Spread over the cake batter and bake as above.

I topped the "gift" cake with freshly whipped heavy cream which I piped with a rosette tip and then added a few fresh cranberries on top (which I had cooked and added a bit of sugar to) for color. It gave it that Ohhh!...factor! Check out the pretty picture here to view The Kitchn's recipe photo. Mine looked exactly like Faith's picture....wish I had better photos....things were moving pretty fast here on Christmas Eve!

This is the one I made for us. I add the whipped cream as I serve it. The extracts give this cake an amazing flavor so do not omit! Michael is not big on sweets but he loves this cake. Probably for the same reason I do, great flavor, little sugar and a bit of tartness. This recipe is going in my favorites file! Enjoy!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Christmas Angel

Do you ever catch yourself in the middle of searching for something yet keep finding something else altogether; something that stirs up a memory or a creates a 180° shift in the direction of your thinking?

This summer I was antiquing with my mother in Indiana, I had drawn my sister-in-law's name for Christmas and Mom and I were searching diligently for a special vintage basket at a fancy antique store (I live rather remotely so shopping is challenging). It was determined to find the basket before I returned home to New Mexico. We were totally immersed and on task, but I kept running across things that brought back childhood memories of growing up with my brothers and sister. There was the game of "Kootie" that kept us busy for hours, the favorite firetruck my brother loved the paint right off of; the Magic Eight-Ball we believed could tell the future, the much loved Barbie lunch boxes,  bags of marbles and jacks. Each nostalgic distraction transported me from the task at hand to happy times with my siblings.

Then I spotted it. No, not the basket, but our family's Christmas angel! Could it really be her?  It had been so many years! Memories of Christmas' past  came flooding in. We all loved our Christmas angel. Every year, after a wonderful evening spent decorating the tree, Mother would do the honors, and set the angel lovingly at the very top most branch. We would plug in the lights and the tiny spinner situated behind her "cloud" would begin to turn moved by the heat of the lights. The angles in the silver shell behind her made the light move and sparkle like magic. In a scene right out of a Rockwell painting all seven of us would gather around our beautifully decorated tree adorned by the beautiful angel resting on a cloud with light radiating all around her; the five of us, the boys in footed "jammies" and girls in flannel nightgowns and we would "ohhh and ahhh". It was glorious!!

What a wonderful memory to have, whilst standing in the middle of a store in the middle of Indiana in the middle of July! I didn't buy her, but I snapped her picture to share with my siblings. So today, I share her with you as well; with my most sincere wish that this year, despite all that is going on during these uncertain times, you too will find your moment, a sweet distraction that will transport you to your place of joy and peace and the magic of an angel. This is especially for you, Norman, Bret, Robin and Scott.
Merry Christmas to all!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Happy Anniversary to Us!!

Twenty-one years ago today I married the love of my life, my best friend, confidant, dreamer and schemer buddy, and a man of incredible talent and creative energy. Every day is an adventure with Michael on a journey I am so happy to say I am on...I love you dear heart. Happy Happy day indeed!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

MORE Brussels Sprouts

Since I am a major Brussels sprouts fan, I was thrilled when my friend Susan recommended this great looking side dish from Tyler Florence. I need something today I know I can cook after my caramel melt-down (no pun intended!).
This is a great recipe; so full of flavor this will make sprout lovers out of haters! Here is the link for Tyler's recipe  Bacon and Brussels Sprout Hash on the Food Network

Brussels sprouts (see how here) and cut them in half
Slice potatoes (I only had red potatoes so I sliced them 1/2")
Slice the bacon into 2" strips
I had Trader Joe's frozen pearl onions which worked out great

Set a large sauté pan over medium heat and add a 2 Tbs of olive oil. Cut bacon into long strips and add to pan together with thyme. Cook for 5 to 7 minutes to render the fat then strain and set bacon aside.

Add Brussels sprouts, potatoes and pearl onions. Season with salt and pepper and cook until slightly browned. Remove the thyme stems.

Add chicken stock and steam for 10 - 20 min. (depending on the size of your veggies) until liquid has evaporated and vegetables are fork tender.

Add 2 Tbs of good balsamic vinegar and toss to coat. Cook until balsamic has reduced then fold in fresh parsley and bacon.

 This is the perfect side for your holiday dinner, even if you have haters among you! Yum! Enjoy!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Salted Caramel Bars-Sweet Disaster!

Today, with my sis on my shoulder, I am attempting to make caramel bars! This is my first attempt at even using a candy thermometer! I don't know why really, but I have never embraced making candy. I think all that "soft ball, hard ball stage" stuff has put me off. I spotted these on the What's Gabby Cooking blog; salted caramel on top of short bread, are you kidding me?!! Can I take a bath in it?!  Here is my step-by-step, and Gabby's link. Thanks Gabby!

Salted Caramel Bars
Prep time: 10 min.
Cook time: 30 min.
Total time: 40 min.
Serves: 8-12
  • 10 tbsp unsalted butter, softened
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 egg yolk, whisked
  • 1 2/3 cups AP flour
  • 1 cup unsalted butter
  • 1 cup light brown sugar
  • 12 tbsp light corn syrup
  • 2 tsp sea salt
  • 4 tbsp sugar
  • 4 tbsp heavy cream
  • 1 1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
  • Sea salt flakes
  1. Line a 9-by-9-inch pan with parchment paper with the edges of the parchment hanging over the sides. This will make removing the bars easier.
  2. In a large bowl combine the butter, sugar and salt with a fork. Add the yolk and combine with the fork. Add the flour and using your hands, combine the dough until its flaky. Transfer the dough into the parchment lined pan and press down with your hands or the bottom of a measuring cup. Refrigerate this for 30 minutes and Pre-heat your oven to 350 degrees. Once the shortbread is  chilled, bake for 25 minutes until lightly browned.
  3. Once baked, remove and set aside to cool.
  4. Meanwhile, in a pot combine the topping ingredients; butter, brown sugar, corn syrup, salt, sugar and cream. Bring to a boil and make sure all the sugar is dissolved. Stir for about 5-10 minutes until its thick and bubbly. If you have a candy thermometer – the caramel should be about 230 degrees. Remove from heat, stir in vanilla extract and pour on top of the shortbread.
  5. Refrigerate for 2-4 hours. Then sprinkle with the sea salt flakes and serve!
  6. To cut, run sharp knife under hot water for each slice.
 Mix together the melted butter, sugar, salt (I used table salt)...

 Mix in the whisked egg yolk...

 Mix in the flour, with your hands! Then...

press evenly into your parchment paper-lined pan ( I only had an 8" x 8", who has a 9" x 9" anyway??) Into the fridge it goes for 30 minutes. Preheat your oven to 350° Once cooled...

bake at 350° for about 25 minutes or until golden brown. Let the shortbread cool, while you make the caramel.

In a saucepan, mix together butter, brown sugar, corn syrup, salt (sea salt), granulated sugar, and heavy cream. I used a pan deep enough to accommodate my candy thermometer (its maiden voyage!). Start on a low heat, keep stirring and make sure all the sugar dissolves. Bring to a boil. This took me about 20 minutes because I was being cautious.

I had to turn up the heat slightly to get the thermometer to reach 230° Careful here, I think it could burn at this point! I took it off the heat...

 Stirred in the vanilla and...

 immediately poured it on top of the cooled shortbread

Into the fridge it goes to cool for few hours. YUm!

Now what?? Your good saucepan is full of hardened caramel! Being a candy-making novice, I had to look this one up! Pour in water, add some liquid soap and bring it back to a boil on the stove top.  The hot water will soften the caramelized sugar and you can then pour it out with the hot water. The same goes for caramel covered utensils...whew!

Okay, this did not work out. The caramel was heated to the "soft ball" stage but hardened to the "hard ball" stage. So I am left with caramel that is like brittle or toffee. The fact that it is on top of shortbread makes it impossible to break without cookie flying everywhere. So, where did I go wrong? I am at 4,500ft above sea level here and I think that has something to do with it. I overcooked and overheated the caramel. I should have set the timer to 8 minutes once it reached a boil and stuck with that no matter what the thermometer read. At least that's my story, and I'm sticking to it! Anyone with candy experience, I could use some suggestions! Overall, the taste is amazing, the shortbread yummy. If you want to see what they are supposed to look like, click here. I hope you have a better day in the kitchen!

    Sunday, December 18, 2011

    Oh the Comfort of Friends

    My sister Robin and I in 1979, skiing in Chambéry, France
    "Oh, the comfort, the inexpressible comfort, of feeling safe with a person,  Having neither to weigh thoughts, nor measure words, But pouring them all right out just as they are, chaff and grain together, Certain that a faithful hand will take and sift and, Keep what is worth keeping , And with the breath of kindness, bless the rest away."                     ~Dinah Maira Mulock Craik~

    I am missing my best girlfriend today. I would add to the quote above, "Oh, the comfort, and inexpressible joy...." My sister Robin is always in my thoughts and in my heart but this time of year she  is right in front of me. I hear her contagious laughter and her witty banter; the memories are sounds spoken in my heart. I ache for one more moment of her loving presence. What joy she brought, and her memory continues to bring, to me and all who knew her. To those who are missing loved ones this time of year I wish you Peace.

    Friday, December 16, 2011

    Sweet Potatoes Steal the Meal

    I love sweet potatoes and usually prepare them baked with a bit of butter and salt but when I went looking for something to serve alongside Trader Joe's apple/chicken brats I came across this recipe from Fine Cooking magazine for sautéed sweet potatoes and I knew I had a winner! The sautéed sweet potatoes are tossed with gremolata; a garnish of chopped herbs, garlic and, in this case, citrus. The gremolata adds an amazing depth of flavor!

    Sautéed Sweet Potatoes with Orange-Mint Gremolata
    adapted from Fine Cooking Magazine

    3 Tbs. olive oil
    3 Tbs. unsalted butter
    1-1/2lb. sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into
       1/2" dice (about 5 cups)
    Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
    2 Tbs. coarsely chopped toasted pecans
    3 Tbs. lightly packed, coarsely chopped fresh mint
    1 small clove garlic, coarsely chopped
    2 tsp. lightly packed, finely grated orange zest

    Heat oil and butter in 12-inch skillet over med.-low heat.
    When butter stops foaming, add potatoes in an even layer, season
    generously with salt and pepper and cook, shaking the pan occasionally,
    until the just start to brown, about 10 minutes. Carefully toss the potatoes
    with a spoon, reduce the heat to low and continue cooking, tossing
    occasionally, until the potatoes are soft and easily pierced with fork, about
    10 minutes. Add the pecans and toss until fragrant, Transfer to a serving bowl.
    Meanwhile, mince the mint and garlic together on a cutting board; add to the
    sweet potatoes along with the orange zest and toss. Season with a generous
    pinch of salt and serve immediately. Easy! Delicious!
    Cut into 1/2" dice

     Mince garlic, mint and zest one orange, then mix it all together with your knife.
    Carefully toss the potatoes while don't want to mash 'em!
    At the end of the sautée add 2-3Tbs of toasted pecans, mix together

     Add the gremolata, mix and serve!!

    Dinner in 30 minutes: Grilled Sweet Apple Chicken Sausage with Sautéed Sweet Potatoes with Orange-Mint Gremolata and a side salad of Mache with pomegranate seeds and a drizzle of olive oil.

    The orange zest, garlic, and mint balanced the caramelized sweetness of the sweet potatoes perfectly. This is a very easy dish to prep, AND cooking time is fast! Great for holiday meals of course, but this side dish is going into my regular line-up as my new favorite way to eat sweet potatoes!! Enjoy!

    Wednesday, December 14, 2011

    Give A Hoot? (Sorry)

    I don't quite understand the popular fascination with owls (maybe someone can enlighten me) but owls are out in full force! There is something endearing about an owl; wise and cute at the same time. I thought it would be fun to go hunt owl and bring a few of my favorite finds "home" for you to see.

    Owl postcard set by Mindy Lacefield at Tim's Sally on Etsy Love these AND her other work as well!

    Owl ornaments by Evelyn at Etsy shop EvelynX

    (These boys "wisely" drink tea!)

    Ceramic clay Owl figurines by Claylicious on Etsy soooo cute!

    Crazy Owl - Crochet Pattern by Etsy artist CAROcreated
    Wacky cute!

    Owl monotone print by lovelysweetwilliam on Etsy
    Oooo...I think I need this baby!!
    Okay, officially into owls!! Enjoy!

    Monday, December 12, 2011

    Mmmmm....Brussels Sprouts

    Have you ever seen Brussels sprouts growing?? The are attached to a long stem, like bulbs on a stalk, so cool. We found these on our last trip to Trader Joe's. I just had to take the "taste test".

    It was no small chore getting them off the stalk, but definitely worth it! These beauties were tasty!

    I was raised on Brussels sprouts that tended to be mushy and stinky! But a few years ago I discovered how wonderful they taste baked. Here's what I do:
    Rinse under cool water and peel off any leaves that look unappetizing (if you were going to boil or steam at this point, it helps them cook more evenly if you make a crisscross hatch into the stem, watch your fingers!!) To bake them, I slice them in half, then toss with 2 Tbs. of olive oil and mix in some Kosher salt and  fresh pepper with my clean hands. Set the oven to 425°, spread them in one layer on a baking pan. After 20 minutes I flip them over, then let them bake approximately 20 more minutes, depending on the size of the sprouts. Careful not to burn them.
    This is not your mother's Brussels sprout! The baking caramelizes outer leaves and mellows the often too fragrant cabbage smell of the sprouts. Serve with a little butter if you prefer, but I like to eat them as is.The final verdict on the fresh sprouts still on their stem; flavorful, tender and easy on the nose. A  YUM factor of 10!! In conclusion, eat more brussel sprouts as they contain sulforaphane,  a chemical believed to have potent anticancer properties!!

    Saturday, December 10, 2011

    All You Need is Love

    I grew up with four siblings and young parents. Life was busy for my parents of five; with both working a full-time job and participating in many activities outside the home, family time was scarce.  As a child I looked forward to the Christmas holiday with great anticipation. Yes, receiving gifts was always exciting but what I enjoyed the most and what I remember with great fondness, is the extra time spent together as a family. My parents, made it so. This was a our time to focus on family, church and charity.

    We always trimmed our Christmas tree together, just us. We cranked up the record player. I remember Sinatra and Elvis singing in the background as our father wrapped the tree lights perfectly and mother placed the tinsel just so.  We sipped eggnog and watched and waited anxiously for our turn to hang our favorite ornaments. Year after year I chose the same sweet ornaments; the ones with the spinning parts generated by the heat of the tree lights, the beautiful balls with angels perched on puffy clouds of spun fiberglass and the balls with stripes of bright color and loads of glitter. With each passing year, these special ornaments, became a touchstone for the joy and love I felt while sharing this time with my family.

    This year family is scattered and far away, so I am cranking up the Elvis Christmas CD and bringing out the (now vintage!) ornaments to help keep me in touch with the girl that needed so little to feel the joy of Christmas. Do you have a way of tapping into the spirit of Christmas? Peace everyone.

    Thursday, December 8, 2011

    Fake but Fab...A DIY Beaded Tree!

    Bowl of ornaments for my DIY beaded Christmas tree; beaded and embellished fabric, mini grapevine wreaths, glittered winged hearts found in the scrap-booking section of a craft store.

    I used vintage salt shakers to make the tassel ornaments. I just wired through the shaker holes to make the hanger, then glued in a ready-made tassel in the hole at the bottom, replacing the stopper. I added a little trim at the top of the tassel, and done! I love the variety of vintage shakers available.

    The base of the tree is wrapped in a funky leopard print, so I keep it simple with a few glittery ornaments and some glass bead covered fruit.

    For the ornament with the ribbon and vintage mother-of-pearl buckle, I wrapped mini store-bought grapevine wreaths with wired seed beads, then tossed the ribbon and buckle on for color and fun.

    Another tassel ornament...I am partial to birds.

    One of my mosaic bowls filled with Christmas cheer!

    The completed can see from the close-ups, the branches are wrapped with satin ribbon and beaded elements, for more detail, see yesterday's post here. The tip of each branch is decorated with a fragrant anise pod. The "trunk" of the tree is also wrapped in ribbon and is mounted into a fabric-wrapped wooden block. I wish I had a before photo of this sad little tree, it was the perfect candidate for wrapping and embellishing!

    A little holiday flourish on this sweet bird sculpture, gifted to me by the immensely talented Maria Wimmer, (check out her blog here) completes my Christmas vignette! Are you having fun yet? Happy decorating! 

    Wednesday, December 7, 2011

    "Snap Out of It"

     Do you feel "antsy" around the holidays? I do. For some reason, my list of "shoulds" increases twenty fold. I begin to make Martha Stewart comparisons; I think I should be baking every cookie recipe I come across; I think I should have my (handmade) Christmas cards addressed and mailed and; I think my home should be beautifully appointed with breathtaking Christmas decor...What the...! All the while, my life should be running smoothly; i.e, dinners on time, house always clean, business projects completed. I wonder what little kernel of an idea was planted that it should grow into this monster expectation? Doesn't matter...there it is, nagging at me like a whiny child. Hmmmm, maybe there's a clue!

    Okay, so now, what to do about it? Get busy. I know, that sounds like opposite world, but the cure has to be to get out of my head and jump headfirst into the holiday. Weeeee....!

    The first item on the Christmas agenda is to dig my little tree out of storage. Yes, it's a little fake tree, in fact, it was once a sad little Charlie Brown fake tree that needed to be rescued. This is a true Cinderella story. My talented friend took this sad little tree mounted it into a wooden base (which she covered in a yummy leopard print!) and proceeded to "ribbon and bead" this sweet tree back to life. Here are some photos to drool over.

     I wrapped some funky lights into the tree and then I decorate with handmade ornaments. I will blog photos of the fully decorated tree in tomorrow's post. :)

     This is such a great DYI project..truly a labor of love...but of course, enjoyed year after year.

    Can you spot the dried anise pod? They are all over the tree at the tips of the branches, wrapped in with ribbon. They give the tree a wonderful scent.

    Okay, tree is out, decorations underway! Have you begun? Or maybe you analyze less and DO more? Either way, it's all good! Happy decorating.
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