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Archive for the 'Holidays' Category

Recipe Hack: Lower-Sugar Christmas Treats!

One of the things I love about Christmas is the excuse to start baking and keep it up beyond what would otherwise be considered the bounds of reason. Although I love to cook family favorites for the holidays, I also love the excuse to be experimental and somewhat “fussy,” making the types of putzy things I never have time for during the rest of the year.

This past week, I experimented with a few new items while looking for some lower-sugar options for diabetic friends and family. I call this a “recipe hack”; cracking the chemistry of cooking to understand what gives a recipe its yum and consistency while also making it work for what you need. In this case, the need was less sugar! Sadly, all this hacking leaves me pressed for time to take and process pictures, but, since I modified existing recipes, please feel free to go admire the pictures on the recipes linked below! This is going to be a quick and dirty explanation, just to give you an idea of how you can play with recipes on your own to work with your guests’ needs and preferences.

First up: Savanna cheesecake bars by Paula Deen.

Yes, Paula is usually more known for decadent yumminess more than healthier options, and no, this isn’t a health food, but it does have several redeeming qualities over many other holiday baked goods. My version packed the cookie crust with pecans and whole grain flour, I used lower-fat Neufchatel cheese instead of cream cheese in the cheesecake part, and I slathered the completed bars with a homemade fresh cranberry glaze spiced with ginger and cinnamon. We love cheesecake, and I have a thing for fresh cranberries; this one was a big hit in the taste testings in our house.

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Let the Christmas Nom-a-Thon Begin!

Like a good chunk of the Midwest, snow dumped on us pretty badly yesterday. We are officially all dug out, however, and now I get to enjoy a day at home straightening up, slurping delicious cocoa, and starting on holiday sweets. I love giving gifts of treats at Christmas, and I’m feeling adventurous this year. Adventurous enough, in fact, that I am going to blog today’s kitchen sweatshop extravaganza here. Keep checking back for updates on this post!

For anyone who has missed the writing on the wall, I am an experimental cook. So, in all honesty, my Christmas goodie-fest actually started two days ago when I made mint chocolate “fudge.”

I knew full well that messing with fudge was to tempt fate since fudge, like caramels and other types of candy, is a chemistry project first and foremost. For that reason, I attempted to respect the protein, sugar, and fat ratios as much as possible while also trying to replace half the sugar with agave nectar and cutting the overall sweetness of it. I knew full well I wasn’t guaranteed fudge, but I figured I’d wind up with something interesting. And I did: a delicious, soft, creamy concoction that could be scooped and keep its shape. I had, I quickly realized, the perfect center for a minty truffle. So today, that’s where I started. I scooped the filling into balls and popped them into the freezer for about 15 minutes while I melted dark chocolate over a very low heat on the stove. I then smoothed out the minty bits, rolled them around in the dark chocolate until covered, and popped them onto a cookie sheet covered with parchment paper to harden.

Quoth the Unicyclist: “A smooth and tasty little minty treat.” A flop if you had your heart set on fudge, but a total score as an all-natural, reduced-sugar chocolate truffle.

Since I still have chocolate on the stove, I think I’m going to go right into the predictable-but-delicious world of chocolate-covered pretzels. Then, however, I’m going to get really nutty. Cranberry caramel tarts, rosemary pine nut cookies…who can say? Stay tuned for updates and pictures!

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A Thanksgiving Post That Just Barely Involves Food

Thanksgiving came in a rush at our house this year and disappeared just as quickly. We didn’t host, so we simply took our made-from-scratch green bean casserole to the family shindig and brought back an empty dish and some full stomachs. The family event was, of course, very tasty. Mom’s pumpkin pie with fresh pumpkin, a fruit salad tossed with cheese tortellini, roasted yams, creamy corn, a mountain of mashed potatoes with an ocean of gravy, and almost enough sweets for everyone to have their own personal pie. It was a delicious and dizzying affair. It also brought home the fact that although we’ve remained snow-free so far here, the season has turned.

As the leaves grow bare and brace themselves under the freezing temperatures of late fall, I tend to shift into a more introspective mood. I make tea, embrace books, listen to the calls of birds swooping southward.

For those of us who live in northern states, migration is  a concrete fact of the season, woven into our cognitive and emotional conception of autumn. Geese fly in sharp angles overhead, calling out in their harsh voices, over and over. Huge clusters of sparrows swoop over the now-empty grain fields. Gradually, many animals disappear to warmer climes. However, until my uncle Mike, an avid naturalist, took me to Indiana in 2004, migration was just a single thread running through the fall tapestry, much like the rust-colors of the landscape,  the acrid smoke of burning leaves, and the growing chill in the air. Six years ago, he took me to Jasper-Pulaski, Indiana, for the first time, and I caught a glimpse of the phenomenon on a completely new scale. Yesterday, I packed up some gear and brought the Unicyclist with me for a return pilgrimage.

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Cookies and Goodies…

I have been popping into the kitchen almost daily to make up some wonderful concoctions for Christmas. So far, I have raspberry bars, oatmeal butter cookies, raw whole foods fudge, chocolate covered peanut butter balls, triple ginger gingersnaps, dark chocolate coconut bark sprinkled with sea salt, spiced candied nuts, caramel corn, and now turtles with homemade caramel. This picture was taken a couple days ago, which means it was after the caramel corn and oatmeal cookies were gifted away and before the turtles and coconut bark had been made. It’s been an entertaining affair, as only about half of those have involved recipes.

Our first Christmas guest arrives tomorrow, so I will start laying them out to sample. I’ll let you know what the biggest hits are and hopefully give some directions here for you to make some of the highlights in your kitchens! Speaking of which, I still have dreams of a wonderful shortbread. Does anyone have a recipe?




Thanksgiving with Bean Pie–Hold the Turkey

It took a bean pie to get me back here.

It started with the beans themselves–heirloom Christmas beans splashed with maroon and cream. They are the size of giant Lima beans. Broad and flat, with  rich, chesnut flavor and creamy texture. These are the beans I wanted.

I soak them, cook them, whir them into a nutty cream with vanilla, eggs, agave nectar, and barley malt, and pour the fragrant mixture into a flaky cream cheese crust. I sprinkle the top liberally with pecans and bake the pie for the better part of an hour.

I wait.

The house smells delicious. And soon, I will be trying a recipe from Native Seeds that I have been wanting to try for literally years.

I just had to wait for the perfect beans. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

Things have changed drastically around here, beyond the new job that kept me hopping. The Unicyclist and I moved to Wisconsin in August, a move we had been talking about for more than a year. Southeastern Wisconsin certainly has no shortage of food adventures, however, and now that we are as unpacked as we will be for a while, I’ll be posting here again more regularly. Farms and orchards and CSAs and co-ops are plentiful here, not to mention family and community gardens. Plus, we folk like to eat.

In the meantime, Jessica tipped me off to this very fun map of regional recipe searches for Thanksgiving, which illustrates that regional food is not entirely dead…though it is sometimes odd. Why is Nevada devouring mac and cheese and a virtual desert of cheesy carbs, for example? Who can say? Take a peek and let me know, if you did up a Thanksgiving feast for the holiday–what are your must-have staples, and where did you try something new this year?

(I do still promise to give the details on the rest of that Colorado trip…that cholocate is still pretty vivid in my mind. But for now…it’s just about lunchtime.)


Dark Days Challenge Recipe: Sweet and Savory Kabobs

Early this morning, awakened by the dulcet tones of one Mr Hippo singing to the sunrise, I got up, got dressed, and headed to the farmers’ market to see what I could scavenge for our Dark Days Challenge meal.  The fridge was a little bare, since our CSA pick-up last week was canceled due to the holiday.  However, the Unicyclist and I had an inkling of what we wanted: kabobs.  Rich and savory kabobs to slather with the leftover muhammara from our Christmas Eve shindig.  Last night over dinner, just as we’d decided this, the Unicyclist was struck with a bolt of inspiration.

“What about dessert kabobs?”

Brilliant.  And timely.  As everyone knows, nothing makes a party like food on a stick, so consider these recipes my belated Christmas gift to you.  Both the savory and the sweet kabobs we made would be a wonderful, healthful addition to any New Year’s Eve fiestas.

Let’s get into it.  First: the ingredients.

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I Want A Hippopotamus for Christmas

Christmas at our place was rich with stuffed squash, soup, pies, ambrosia, and fresh bread; all the usual suspects.

Unlike past Christmases, however, this one also contained something more out of the ordinary. Specifically, we had ourselves a hippo this Christmas. No, not on the table.  In our living room.  He’s pretty cute, actually.  This hippo is likely to eat up quite a bit of my time in the coming weeks, which is why I’m breaking from my usual postings about food and policy to tell you about him. If postings are sparser than usual, I can guarantee you that his skinny shoulders carry a good part of the blame. So, who is this hippo? Well, he’s a bit unusual, as hippos go.  First, this hippo is not especially fond of water.  Second, he’s neither as corpulent nor as leathery as you might expect.  This hippo—rather, this Hippo—is a tiny, terrified little creature who accidentally found his way into our lives, and who now has a spot in our home.

All evidence thus far suggests that he’s okay with that.  Here you can see our Hippo exploring the basil in the garden.

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And So it Begins…Christmas Sweets in the Making

Audience, meet my Darkest Mint Stars:

And have you yet made the acquaintance of my diabetic-friendly, cinnamon-sprinkled, maple-kissed mixed nuts?

Did I mention yet how delicious December was going to be?  Mmmm…

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Dark Days Challenge Recipe: Apple and Sweet Potato Bake with Greens

Apparently last week over at Urban Hennery, some murmurings started sneaking in about how many of the Dark Days Challenge recipes people had been submitting seemed…well…complicated.  It seems some of the folks taking the challenge for the first time were taken aback by the ambitiousness of multi-course dinners and fancy sauces created by those who have been local fooding and cooking from scratch for a good long while.

I’m sure you all know my stance on that.

I dig fancy-pants meals sometimes.  I really do.  But simple is also good.  Very good.  And tasty.

I can do simple.

So, this week, I decided to keep my Dark Days meal extra-simple and use some ingredients that more folks would be able to find without, you know, having to move to the desert.  With the exception of the orange, I think I done good. Basically, I am excited that so many people did sign up at Urban Hennery for the challenge, and I hope they keep it going.  You know, sometimes you have scrambled eggs for dinner  or squash and a salad.  That counts, too!  And so does this week’s project: sweet potato apple bake with a side of wilted winter greens.

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Before You Gobble Your Gobbler: The Real Deal on Turkeys

Thursday is fast-approaching.  Welcome to Thanksgiving 2008.  Or, as it’s also known, Turkey Day.  Is it just me, or is that an odd nickname?  It makes it sound like of fun, poultry-based activities intended to honor the noble turkey, even though it’s more like “The Day All Turkeys Must Die.”

Imagine if the same was true of other holidays so named, like Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.

Yeesh.  Okay, extreme, but do you get the aforementioned weirdness now?

If you’ve not seen the video of Sarah Palin pardoning a turkey for Thanksgiving while others are being slaughtered on camera right behind her, perhaps you should take a gander.  While it’s rife with irony (and innuendo from the interviewer at times—”programs on the chopping block”?), it does bring up an issue that I want resolved. And no slight on Governor Palin, here.  This is far bigger than either this interview or the governor herself.

Can someone, ANYONE, out there please explain the whole “pardoning a turkey for Thanksgiving” thing?  I know how it started—that’s not my question.  I really don’t get the rationale.  Frankly, making a PR opportunity out of pardoning a specific turkey while encouraging the deaths of countless others seems to smack of a sick sort of humor.  It’s only because so many birds will wind up on dinner tables for the holiday that marking one to have the chance to die a natural death is remotely noteworthy.  This is particularly true when you consider that the president/governor/other public figures in question fully intend to have a turkey at their family dinners, just not that particular one.

“Heh heh heh.  Yous guys is all invited over for dinner, if you know what I mean.  But hey, I gots a heart, so…you there, with the feathers and the red bobble on your noggin, you gets to go free.”

Seriously, wha?

Watch the drama of the pardon unfold on an episode of the West Wing, shown here.

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