Friday, December 19, 2014

Saltine Cracker Toffee Bark

SEVERAL YEARS AGO, A WOMAN AT MY OFFICE brought in a plate of these tasty treats to share. She called them "Mock Heath Bars". I loved them and was amazed when she told me how she made them. . .with saltine crackers.

Mention the words, Heath Bars, and I am transported to happy memories from childhood. My Mother and her best friend loved those things. So many summer afternoons were spent swimming at the lake with Mama and her friend with her two daughters. On the way home, we would stop by the country store for ice cream--fudgcycles, drumsticks, sherbert push-ups, little cups of ice cream eaten with a wooden spoons, eskimo pie, whatever we chose. Mama and her friend would get Heath ice cream bars and practically swoon while savoring them.

And isn't that part of what Christmas Baking is about? Recreating joyous memories while making new ones for the children?

Saltine Cracker Toffee Bark
35 saltine crackers (about 2 sleeves)
1 cup (2 sticks) butter
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 tsp. vanilla
8 oz. (about 1 1/3 cups) semi-sweet chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Line a 15x10x1-inch rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil. Spray with cooking spray.

Place crackers, salty side up, in prepared pan. In a saucepan, boil butter and sugar for 2 - 3 minutes, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and stir in vanilla. Pour mixture over crackers and bake for 4 - 6 minutes.

Remove from oven, and sprinkle chocolate chips all over the top. Spread evenly as chocolate begins to melt. Cool slightly and transfer to wax paper. Allow to cool completely before cutting or breaking into smaller pieces.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Sugar Plums

I AM TAKING A DIFFERENT APPROACH TO MY CHRISTMAS BAKING this year. Rather than baking one batch of cookies from start to finish one by one, I have had a few days of mixing doughs. Some are refrigerated, some frozen.

I have rolls of dough to use as slice and bake cookies. I have balls of dough which would traditionally be drop cookies. Some will be pressed into sheet pans for bar cookies. Also, my husband gave me a beautiful shortbread pan last month for my birthday, so I will be baking those too.

I feel much more productive this year and I don't have to worry if my cookies will be fresh when the time comes for sharing. We will see how this approach works when it comes to baking days.

Meanwhile, here is a no-bake goody that is actually pretty healthy.

Sugar Plums
4 cups rice krispies cereal
2 cups toasted pecans
15 oz. golden raisins
10 oz. pitted dates
3/4 cup honey
2 tsp. orange zest
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. nutmeg

Pour cereal into a large mixing bowl.

Finely chop the pecans, raisins, and dates. (Or grind in food processor if you have one).

In a small bowl, combine the honey, orange zest, cinnamon, salt, and nutmeg.

Pour the fruit mixture and the honey mixture into the bowl with the cereal. Mix all together with a wooden spoon. Roll into 1 1/2" balls with greased hands.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Cinnamon Roll Pretzels

CHRISTMAS BAKING IS IN FULL SWING. Today, I give you a quick and easy snack to placate cookie monsters around the house while you get some more serious cookie baking done.

These Cinnamon Roll Pretzels have that sweet and salty taste we love. Although I am not ordinarily a fan of white chocolate, I do use it for these treats. I think it gives a more "cinnamon roll" look. Vanilla candy melt will also work if you prefer.

Cinnamon Roll Pretzels
4 heaping cups pretzels
1/4 cup melted butter
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 cup melted white chocolate or vanilla candy melt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a large bowl, toss the pretzels with melted butter. In a small bowl stir together the sugar and cinnamon until well blended. Sprinkle over the buttered pretzels and mix until evenly coated.

Spread the pretzels into an even layer on parchment lined baking sheet. Bake 12 minutes. Remove from oven and cool for 10 minutes.

Drizzle with melted white chocolate or vanilla candy melt.

Allow the pretzels to cool and the candy to harden before serving.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Savory and Sweet Pineapple Cheese Ball

CHEESEBALL. HAVE YOU EVER CALLED SOMEONE THAT or gasp, been called a cheeseball yourself? Silly, corny, cheesy, goofy.

I think of the Cheese Ball itself to be rather cheesy--middle brow, 1960's suburbia cocktail party,

Be that as it may, I love cheese balls. There are so many varieties and they beckon fun and creativity. Shapes can be altered, cheeses varied, decoration ideas are endless. Try forming one into a cone and roll in chopped parsley to make a Christmas tree, which can be decorated with roasted red pepper and green olives. How about one with smoked salmon, formed into a fish shape with sliced almonds for scales. Or make one with blue cheese, roll in walnuts and serve with pear slices. Try rolling your ball in smoked paprika or coarsely ground black pepper.

This is my favorite cheese ball. I adore the flavor combination of sharp cheddar cheese and pineapple. The red bell pepper and scallions add dimension and the crunch of the toasted sliced almonds gives the perfect bite.

With crackers and crudites, I could happily eat this as a meal.

Savory and Sweet Pineapple Cheese Ball
8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
8 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, grated, room temperature
1/4 cup finely chopped red bell pepper
2 - 3 scallions, sliced
1 cup chopped, fresh pineapple (or canned, unsweetened)
1/4 tsp. (or more to taste) cayenne pepper
1 1/2 cups toasted, sliced almonds

Beat the cream cheese, cheddar cheese, bell pepper, scallions, pineapple, and cayenne until blended. Cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes. Shape into a ball; roll in sliced almonds. Cover and refrigerate for several hours or overnight. Serve with crackers and crudites.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Old Fashioned Southern Sweet Potato Pie

There has been much activity lately around this, my beloved Aunt Ruby's sweet potato pie, which I posted 3 years ago.

Can you believe, right here is the midst of pumpkin spice season, this pie uses none? I do love those spices--cinnamon, cloves, ginger, nutmeg, but I don't want everything in this season to taste and smell that way. You know what I mean--pumpkin spice latte, pumpkin spice room spray, pumpkin spice dog biscuits, pumpkin spice scones, pumpkin spice beer, and so much more. . .

You are just a click away from our family Sweet Potato Pie.


Tuesday, November 18, 2014

A Simple Baked Cabbage and Pear Side Dish

The lowly cabbage is one of my husband's favorite vegetables. I love it too and am constantly thinking up new ways to use it. 

And there are many ways: coleslaw, sauerkraut, cooked with corned beef for St. Patrick's day, kimchi, vegetable soup, stir fry, borscht, stuffed cabbage rolls, braised, steamed, roasted, egg rolls, and so much more.

Cabbage is an under recognized nutritional powerhouse, is available year round, and is cheap!

I made this simple pear and cabbage side dish to serve as a salad with a rich meal. The pears added a sweetness to the dish and mellowed the often piquant taste of the cabbage.  Some of my dining companions didn't even know it was cabbage.

You can fancy it up if you wish. Some crumbled bacon would be delicious. Chunks of blue cheese and toasted walnuts would be scrumptious.

Baked Cabbage and Pears
1 small head cabbage, cored and chopped into bite-sized pieces
1 small sweet onion, chopped
2 pears, cored and sliced
2 Tbsp. butter, plus more for pan if desired
Salt and pepper to taste
Juice from half a lemon
Cayenne pepper, optional

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Butter (or spray) an 8x8 inch baking dish.

Place cabbage into prepared dish, then layer the onions. Add salt and pepper to taste. Spread pear slices over the cabbage and onions and sprinkle with lemon juice. Dot the top with butter.

Cover the dish with foil and bake for 20 - 30 minutes, until desired tenderness.

Arrange on salad plates and dust with a little cayenne pepper if desired.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Sweet Potato and Black Bean Chili

IT SEEMS THAT ONE MINUTE WE WERE PICNICKING, enjoying the gorgeous fall colors, and crisp, fresh air and the next it was snowing. I made my first official cold weather food--a healthful and spicy vegetarian chili.

This chili is hearty but not heavy. Black beans and sweet potatoes are a favorite food combination of mine and I am always dreaming up new ways to serve them together.

I started my chili with dried beans, about 1 1/2 cups. But if you prefer, you can use 2 (15 oz.) cans, rinsed and drained. In my recipe, I call for 5 to 6 cups of cooked black beans and you can decide how you want to arrive at them.

I love cheese and tortilla chips with chili, but you could also serve it with coleslaw and cornbread.

Sweet Potato and Black Bean Chili
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 large sweet potato, peeled and diced
1 large onion, diced
1 Tbsp. chili powder
2 tsp. ground cumin
2 cups spring water
5 - 6 cups cooked and drained black beans
1 can Rotel tomatoes
Juice of 1 lime
Salt and pepper to taste

In a large soup pot, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add sweet potato and onion and cook, stirring often, until the onion is beginning to soften. Add garlic, chili powder, and cumin, stirring constantly for about 30 seconds. Add water and bring to a simmer. Cover, reduce heat to maintain a gentle simmer and cook until the sweet potato is tender, about 10 - 12 minutes.

Add beans, tomatoes, and lime juice. Return to a simmer until slightly reduced, about 5 minutes. Taste and add salt and pepper, if desired.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Muffuletta Sandwich for a Fall Picnic

THE BLUE RIDGE PARKWAY is scenic highway which runs from the boundary between The Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Cherokee Indian Reservation in North Carolina to The Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.

The Parkway is a product of the New Deal's efforts to provide jobs to the unemployed during the Great Depression of the 1930's. Construction began in September, 1935, took 52 years to complete, and runs for 469 miles.

The Blue Ridge Parkway is my favorite part of living where we do. While driving the parkway, you encounter 26 mostly hand dug tunnels which were designed to reduce excessive landscape scarring. They are so beautiful! You will encounter old farmsteads, an old grist mill, hiking trails, waterfalls, scenic overlooks to park and take in the beauty. You might see a bear, fox, coyote, skunk or another animal. What you will not see are power lines, traffic lights, billboards, or any other sign of commercialism. It is a two-lane highway and the speed limit is never more than 45 mph.

Lucky for us, there is an entrance to the Parkway just about 5 miles from our home. We have taken a few drives in the past couple of weeks to enjoy the glorious fall colors. This has been an especially brilliant fall.

I am not equipped to photograph the sweeping and breath-takingly beautiful mountain vistas, but I recently packed a picnic and shot some photos around a picnic area where we lunched. It was a glorious day. The skies were brilliant blue with fluffy white clouds floating about. The air was crisp but quite warm in the sun.

I made Muffuletta sandwiches because they are delicious and travel well.

Muffuletta Sandwich
1 round loaf Italian bread
1/4 pound each thinly sliced:
   Genoa salami
   Cooked ham
   Mozzarella cheese
   Provolone cheese
Olive Salad:
   1 jar Giadeniera, chopped
   1 1/2 cups pimiento stuffed olives, chopped
   3 - 4 cloves garlic, crushed
   1 Tbsp. chopped fresh oregano
   1/2 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
   Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
   1/4 to 1/2 cup olive oil

Combine the olive salad ingredients and stir well. Cover and refrigerate for several hours. Stir well again before applying to the sandwich.

Cut the bread in half around the horizon. Tear away some of the fluffy interior to hollow out the bread a bit. (Save to use for bread crumbs later).

Generously spread olive salad on each half of the sandwich. Layer the meats and cheese. Close the sandwich and press down. Wrap tightly and refrigerate until later or serve right away, cut into wedges.

Leftover sandwich wedges and leftover olive salad keep well.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Friday, October 24, 2014

Shredded Beef Enchiladas Made with Leftover Pot Roast

WHEN I DRIVE, I LOVE LISTENING TO audio books though I have to be careful with this habit sometimes. Recently, when I was driving to Alabama to visit my Mother, I was listening to the beautifully narrated novel, Ripper by Isabel Allende.

It is an engaging, well written, thrilling page turner. If I were sitting in the comfort of my own home, I would have been riveted to this book. At one point, a particularly intense part of the story coincided with my navigating through the sprawling hellscape of Atlanta.

I found myself tensed, gripping the wheel, heart palpitating, barely breathing. . .and I stopped the book. Whew!

I lowered my shoulders and focused on my breath. Once I was all the way through the city, I took a pit-stop. Then I returned to my book, but now I was driving through unruffled and serene parts of Georgia and Alabama.

Last week, I was driving home from an unpleasant yet necessary medical appointment. The day was gloomy and it was pouring rain. I was listening to a novel based in London. Two of the characters were extolling the virtues of a proper pot roast. It suddenly hit me as the most delicious sounding thing in the world. I stopped to buy a roast.

I cooked a chuck roast which becomes juicy and extremely tender in the slow braising process. I shredded the leftovers to make enchiladas. I even made my own enchilada sauce and the recipe for that will follow. Of course you can used canned enchilada sauce if you prefer.  I also roasted a couple of poblano peppers, but you can use a can of green chilies instead. And I added some sliced black olives, which are completely optional. Yellow corn tortillas are traditional in Tex Mex style encliladas, so that is what I use.

Both the roast dinner and the enchilada dinner were delicious and now that I've had a meat fix, I'm ready to go back to our mostly vegetarian diet.

Shredded Beef Enchiladas
Leftover Pot Roast, shredded (I had about 3 heaping cupfuls)
2 poblano peppers, roasted and diced (How to Roast Poblano Peppers)
1/4 cup sliced black olives (optional)
8 oz. Monterey jack cheese, shredded, divided (more to taste)
2-3 cups red enchilada sauce
10 - 12 (6-inch) corn tortillas

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Combine shredded beef, roasted peppers, and olives in a mixing bowl. Toss together with a handful or so of the shredded cheese. Stir in just enough enchilada sauce to coat everything well.

Pour about a cup of the enchilada sauce into an 11x13 inch baking dish. Spread the sauce to cover the bottom.

Warm stacks of 4 or 5 tortillas, wrapped in a clean kitchen towel, in the microwave, for about 45 seconds, until soft and pliable.

Place about a fourth cup of so of the beef mixture on each tortilla, roll tightly, and place seam side down in the prepared baking dish. Continue in this fashion, warming the tortillas, filling, and rolling. Pour remaining sauce all over the top of the enchiladas and sprinkle with the remaining cheese.Cover with foil and bake for 20 - 25 minutes. Remove foil and bake another 5 minutes.

Serve with shredded lettuce, sliced avocado, sliced tomatoes, and sour cream.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Butternut Squash Risotto

REMEMBER WHEN I TOLD YOU ABOUT MY FIRST RISOTTO experience a few months ago? I had been thinking about it again and I still had aborio rice on hand, so I made it again. This time, I used butternut squash.

I looked at many recipes for butternut squash risotto and wound up incorporating elements from several different ones. Some call for roasting the squash, some cook the squash right along with the rice, but that method seemed a little risky. Another recipe I saw called for grating the butternut squash! I'm sure that would work beautifully, but I sure don't want to grate one of those things.

And of course, what has practically become my nemesis in modern cookery, chicken broth, was well represented amongst risotto recipes. I did not want my butternut squash risotto to taste like chicken.

I used spring water, seasoned with bay leaves and thyme, to make my risotto. Vegetable stock would be good and if you like chicken broth--go for it. I used both poached and roasted butternut squash, as well as onion, celery, and garlic.

I was very happy about the results and believe this is one of the best things to come out of my kitchen in a while. I will be making this again--probably for Thanksgiving, and I won't change a thing about the recipe other than adjusting for number of servings. As given this is enough for 2 to 3 people to have as an entree, or 5 to 6 as a side.

Butternut Squash Risotto
1 (approx. 2 lb.) butternut squash
4 Tbsp. olive oil
3 cups spring or filtered water
1 or 2 bay leaves, to taste
1 or 2 sprigs fresh thyme, to taste
1/4 cup butter
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 stalk celery, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup aborio rice
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, grated, plus more for serving
Salt and pepper, to taste

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Peel squash and separate the bulbous end from the slender end. Cut the slender end into cubes, toss with 2 tablespoons olive oil, and sprinkle with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Roast in the oven until golden brown on the outside and tender inside, about 30 minutes.

Cut the bulbous end of the squash in half. Use a spoon to scrape out the seeds, and cut squash into half-inch pieces. Heat the water, bay leaves, and thyme over medium heat. Drop in the squash pieces and leave to poach.

Over medium-low heat, warm a skillet then add the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Add the onions and cook until they become transparent, about 3 minutes. Stir in the celery and garlic. Cover and cook for 2 minutes. Increase the heat slightly and stir in the rice. Stir uncovered for about 5 minutes as this helps develop the toasty aroma of the rice.

Stir in the wine and let it bubble away to almost nothing. Reduce the heat and begin added the warm water, a ladle at a time, stirring gently and constantly during each addition. It will take about 20 minutes to reach the final ladle. By then, the squash in the water will have softened. Remove the bay leaf and thyme and using the back of the ladle, smash the squash, then stir into the risotto.

Dot the top of the risotto with butter, add a few grinds of black pepper, and sprinkle over the Parmesan cheese. Cover, remove from heat, and leave to rest for about 3 minutes, then stir through, checking the seasoning.

Spoon the risotto into shallow bowls and sprinkle with the roasted squash and additional grated Parmesan.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

White Cheddar Cheese Bread

I USED TO BAKE HOMEMADE BREAD ROUTINELY. For one thing, I love delicious bread. For another, good bread used to be almost impossible to find commercially and I have never lived in Paris.

However, over the past few years, good artisanal quality loaves have become easy to find in almost every grocery store.  I look at them and admire them and want to eat them. So many delicious flavors and combinations, olive oil and rosemary, roasted garlic and kalamata olive, multi-grain, sesame tahini, tomato basil, sour dough, cinnamon raisin. . .

Now I only bake bread for special occasions--because homemade is still the best.

I do still enjoy baking quick breads--biscuits, cornbread, banana bread, and this easy and delicious cheddar cheese loaf. This recipe welcomes many add-ins, diced apple, olives, spices and herbs, black pepper is good as is rosemary. Mustard powder works well and cayenne give a nice punch. Garlic is always good. I have made it with different cheeses, but cheddar is my favorite (and good with apples).

Here, I have used an extra sharp Vermont white cheddar and refrained from any additional ingredients. It depends really, on what you will use the bread for. The day I baked it, I was making omelets for supper. The next morning, I made toast and spread it with apricot jam. Then I used it as a base for Kentucky Hot Brown Sandwiches. And the next morning, because I had secreted away a thick slice of bacon, I had a bacon sandwich. Mmmm.

White Cheddar Cheese Bread
2 cups flour
1 Tbsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
3/4 cup milk
1/2 cup butter, melted
2 eggs
1 1/2 cups shredded sharp white cheddar cheese

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease bottom only of a standard loaf pan with shortening or cooking spray.

In a mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt.

In another bowl whisk together milk, melted butter, and eggs.

Add the wet ingredients into the flour mixture, and stir until combined. Stir in cheese. Pour batter into prepared pan and bake for 50 - 55 minutes until a toothpick comes out clean.

Cool in pan for 10 minutes. Remove bread from pan to cooling rack. Cool completely about 1 hour.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Poached Mozzarella in Fresh Tomatoes

OUR TOMATO SEASON IS COMING TO A CLOSE. And I am eating as many as I can. This is a lovely, fresh, and flavorful way to use not only fresh tomatoes, but some of your fresh herbs. I will really miss stepping out the kitchen door to snip some fresh basil and parsley, won't you?

My Mother made this dish for me when I visited her last week. I loved it so much, I came home and made it again to share with Pritchard Parker.

It is Capri-like with the fresh tomatoes, basil, and mozzarella cheese, but it it served hot, as an open faced sandwich, with oozy cheese. The herb topping brightened with a squeeze of lemon juice adds another layer of fresh flavor.

Poached Mozzarella in Fresh Tomatoes
4 slices French bread, sliced 1/2" thick, brushed with olive oil
1/4 cup onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
Pinch of red pepper flakes
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1/2 cup dry white wine
2 cups fresh tomatoes (about 4) peeled and diced
1/2 cup vegetable stock
2 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
3 Tbsp. sliced fresh basil
3 Tbsp. chopped fresh parsley
Lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and pepper to taste
4 slices fresh mozzarella (1/2-inch thick)

Saute onion, garlic, and pepper flakes in oil over medium-high heat until onion softens, 5 minutes. Deglaze pan with wine; simmer until reduced by half, 5 minutes or so. Add tomatoes, broth, and vinegar; simmer until tomatoes begin to break down, about 10 minutes.

Toast bread under the broiler and set aside.

Toss herbs with lemon juice, oil, salt, and pepper.

Add cheese to tomatoes, and cook gently until it's soft and a little gooey, 2 - 3 minutes.

Place toast in shallow bowls, lift a slice of mozzarella from the tomatoes, and place on the bread. Spoon more tomatoes around and top with some of the herb mixture.