Sunday, December 28, 2008

Holiday Appetizer Hacks

Here are two great holiday appetizers that you can make with kitchen staples. These are great for when you forgot you needed something to bring for a potluck. Everyone loves them, and they are so easy!

Bacon Wrapped Dates -
24 pitted dates
12 slices bacon, cut in half lengthwise

Preheat oven to 400 F. Roll each date in bacon and place on a parchment covered cookie sheet with the edge down. If it won't stay rolled up, fasten it with a toothpick. Cook until bacon is browned nicely, about 30 minutes. Meanwhile, wrap those gifts you forgot. These taste great warm or cold. People are totally impressed.

Deviled Eggs

7 eggs
2 T. yellow mustard
2 T. mayonnaise
paprika and capers for garnish

Use old eggs for this recipe - if you only have fresh eggs in the house, buy some at a party store. (translation: "Party Store" means "Liquor Store" in Michiganese) Eggs at party stores are always old - who buys eggs at a party store? They are guaranteed to be not fresh. While you are there, buy a bottle of sparkling wine to give to your host.

Check out my method for how to make easy to peel hard boiled eggs,

Put eggs in a pot of water filled to a depth of 1 inch more than the egg tops. Heat the eggs until the water is boiling, shut off the pot and put a lid on it for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, do your hair and makeup. After 10 minutes, peel the eggs under cold water. Stale eggs peel easily, fresh do not, but you've got one spare egg in case there's a bad peeled eggs. Eat that egg with a little salt on it - it will make sure you don't eat too much at the party you are going to...a little protein will fill you up.

Slice the remaining eggs in half, and then remove the yolks and mash them in a bowl. Add the mustard and mayo - equal proportions are important. That is the key of a successful deviled egg. Stir up the mixture - it should be just moist enough to hold the yolk mash together - if you need more mayo/mustard, add it, but it should be equal proportions.

Spoon the yolk back into the whites. Sprinkle each with paprika and garnish with 3 capers. People love deviled eggs. I have a special Tupperware deviled egg tray I bought at a garage sale and it's the best thing I found to transport them to the party. I put them on a pretty plate when I get there.

Hope this helps!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Tamales for Christmas Eve

Let me start out by saying I am not a ethnic heritage is a veritable gamut of Eastern Bloc nations. To make it simple, when people ask, I say I am "half Polish and half Russian". On Christmas Eve, my nationalities dictate abstaining from meat - as a kid, we'd have fish of some kind. In recent years, I have put on a veritable seafood fest for my family. But this year, I decided I'd try to make tamales.I love tamales. I first had them at a now defunct Ann Arbor restaurant called La Pinata. They had a menu item that said "Tamales - In Season". I had no idea when tamale season was...but as it turns out, tamale season is Christmas time. Any chance I see tamales on a menu, I have to order them. I decided this year was the year I'd give them a try - there was a wonderful article about tamales in this month's Cooking Light magazine. By the way, if you haven't yet started reading Cooking Light, I'd highly recommend it. For years I resisted it because I thought it would be full of recipes that included stuff like Splenda and light margarine, but it isn't. It's got wonderful recipes, as well as exercise ideas and food related travel. If one of your goals in the new year is to lose weight (mine is - I currently have a bad case of muffin top), it will inspire you!

Anyway, back to tamales. I improvised them based on a couple recipes - the one in Cooking Light, which featured corn kernels and ancho chilis in the masa, and the one on the package of corn husks I bought. I actually used lard, as Cooking Light suggested, to improve the flavor. Their philosophy is using fat judiciously as a flavor enhancement, therefore, they use real butter, olive oil, bacon, etc. whenever possible. I had some corn kernels that I preserved by freezing last summer, so I used those in my masa. For the filling, I used a recipe based on the one in the corn husk wrapper, but I used chipotle chilis instead of the New Mexico ones it called for, because I didn't have any, and I used pork tenderloin, because it is a leaner cut than the pork shoulder the original recipe called for. I also modified it to make it in the slow cooker, which worked really well.

I found all my ingredients at Meijer - they have a huge Mexican food selection, much better than any other grocery store in town. My guess is because they were founded on the west side of the state, where there is a higher migrant worker population. I really liked the Mexican tomato sauce I found there - El Pato brand.

Making tamales is a two day affair. On the first day, make the filling. Here's how I did it:

Tamale filling
7 lb. pork tenderloin
4 medium onions, diced
6 garlic cloves, minced
6 chilis in adobo sauce, cut in small pieces
1 T. cumin
2 t. oregano
2 T. salt

Place all ingredients in a slow cooker. Cover with water. Cook on low for 8 hours. Shred pork, reserving broth. Add pork to broth and refrigerate.

On the second day, make the masa dough and the tamales.

1 16 oz. pkg. corn husks
8 c Masa Harina
1 1/3 c. lard
2 tsp. salt
2 cans beef broth
6 dried ancho chilis
3 c. corn kernels
Mexican tomato sauce

Soak corn husks in water in a bowl weighted down with a can for 30 minutes. Place anchos and broth in a microwave safe bowl and cook on high for 4 minutes or until chilis are soft. Reserving broth, remove stems, and place peppers in a blender with corn kernels and salt. Blend until smooth. In a large bowl, mix together lard and masa. Add ancho blend and reserved beef broth and mix with a fork until the mixture resembles coarse meal.

To make tamales, separate corn husks, removing any corn silk. Put a dish towel on the counter top and lay down a leaf. It will be triangle shaped. Scoop a couple spoonfuls of masa on the wide end of a corn husk, and form a 3 inch wide inch bar that lines up with the bottom of the husk. The bar should be about 4 inches tall. Along the right hand side of the masa, place a couple spoonfuls of the pork filling. Roll from right to left, and then fold own the pointy top.

Place tamales on a rack (broiler rack, cookie cooling rack) that has been covered with an old wet dish towel. When you have the rack full, cover it with another wet dish towel. New cloth diapers are just the right size for this, by the way. Place the rack over a jelly roll or broiler pan. Put the pan in a 450 F oven and add water to the pan to steam the tamales. Steam for 55 minutes. Remove from oven and let stand for 10 minutes. Serve tamales peeled from their corn husks covered in Mexican tomato sauce. Or, tamales are an ideal food to make for the freezer. To reheat a frozen tamale, reheat in a microwave on high while wrapped in a damp towel. This recipe makes about 50 tamales - plenty to freeze!

For those of us that will be starting back on the Weight Watcher's Points program come the new year, by my estimates, two of these tamales are 6 points.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The best chocolate frosting ever

After a particularly bad tasting box cake mix/container frosting experience that I had earlier this year, I have vowed to master cake baking from scratch. I have never considered myself to be a fabulous baker, but I am getting better at it. My one experience with baking a cake from scratch was when I was dating my husband. I tried to bake a cake for my future inlaws, and the cake came out tough and I overbeat the whipped cream frosting and it had butter chunks in it. Yuck!

For my son's birthday, I decided to bake a cake from scratch. I figured a group of middle school boys will eat just about anything. I turned to one of my favorite cookbooks, Ina Garten's Barefoot Contessa Cookbook. Can you remember when Ina was a protege of Martha Stewart's? I the early days, she frequently contributed recipes to her magazine. This cookbook is a compendium of the best sellers at Ina's now defunct gourmet take out food store of the same name. Every recipe I have ever tried in this book has been great. On the back cover of the book is the recipe for a chocolate buttercream cake. I made it for my son's birthday, and it was wonderful. The cake is really, really chocolatey - too chocolatey for kids, but the frosting is wonderful. It is a meringue icing - which means it uses whipped egg whites in it. It tastes deceptively light despite the full pound of butter it requires.

For my daughter's birthday, I made the same frosting, but instead made a devil's food cupcakes. I followed the recipe in the classic BH&G cookbook. It was's the recipe I followed, making a few changes to make it be a little more streamlined and less spendy than the original.

4 and a half (4 oz.) bars of 60% cacao Ghiradelli chocolate
3 egg whites
1 c granulated sugar
Pinch cream of tartar
1/2 t salt
4 sticks unsalted butter at room temperature (this is important - must be at room temp)
2 t vanilla extract
2 t instant coffee powder

Break up chocolate bars in squares, and then break in half again. Microwave in a plastic container (not glass - it holds the heat for too long) for 1 minute on high and stir. Return to microwave and heat on high for 10 second increments, stirring after each heating, until it is about 75% melted. Set aside to finish melting and cool.

Mix the egg whites, sugar and the cream of tartar in a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment. Heat a pan of water to simmering, and place the metal mixing bowl in it. Heat the egg white mixture about 5 minutes, until they are warm to the touch. Return the bowl to the mixer and whisk on high speed for 5 minutes, or until the meringue is cool and holds a stiff peak. It will be like marshmallow creme.

Cut the butter up into tablespoon sizes pats. Add the butter a pat at a time while mixing at medium speed. Scrape down the bowl and add the melted chocolate, vanilla and coffee powder. Mix until the chocolate is blended in. If it seems too soft, put the bowl in the fridge for a while and beat it again.

Makes enough to frost a double layer cake.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Jewel Cookies

I hate to be "bah humbug" and all but Christmas cookies are very often not as good as they look. Years ago, I used to sit next to a gal at work that baked a ton of cookies for everyone during the holidays, and gave us all beautifully wrapped plates of them. She spent days on it - and the cookies looked fantastic, but tasted really bland and had a tough texture. I bit into one that was so bad, I actually had to fake blowing my nose so I could spit it out into a Kleenex! I tried to put them out by the coffee pot at work - engineers are notorious for eating any free food they can get their hands on, but even these beauties were left uneaten. When she wasn't looking, I threw most of them out in a garbage can on the other end of the building. Like Santa does each Christmas eve, I left a couple cookies on the plate with a few crumbs so that she thought that her cookies were well received. She had spent so much time on them.

A recipe for a cookie that's often featured in Christmas cookie platters - the "jewel" or "thumbprint" cookie is a frequent Christmas cookie offender. I've had many terrible versions of this cookie - tough dough, rancid nuts, fluorescent red and green maraschino cherries placed in the centers (a sin committed by yours truly in junior high). But done right, these cookies are sublime! Did you preserve some raspberry jam last summer? Now's the time to crack open a jar and make this cookie. Strawberry jam would work well it it, too. I got this recipe years ago out of Martha Stewart Living.

Jewel Cookies

printer friendly

3 sticks unsalted butter
1 c light brown sugar, packed
2 eggs, separated
2 t vanilla extract
1/4 t salt
2 2/3 c flour
2 c pecans, finely chopped
1 c raspberry jam

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line baking sheets with parchment paper. Cream butter and sugar. Beat in egg yolks, vanilla, salt, and then flour. Shape into 1 inch balls. Brush each ball with beaten egg whites, then roll in chopped pecans and place 2 to 3 inches apart on baking sheets. Press center of each ball with your thumb, and fill with 1/2 teaspoon jam. Bake 8 to 10 minutes until just golden around edges. Cool on a rack.

Makes 5 dozen

Thursday, December 18, 2008


Yes, we are in for a snow storm tonight, so says the National Weather Service. I admit it - I loved the weather. I even am a trained weatherspotter for my county. We're supposed to get 6 - 10 inches, which would be wonderful for Christmas. The kids are doing all the practices that currently are rumored to guarantee a snow day for tomorrow, which include:

  • wearing your pjs inside out
  • putting a spoon under your pillow
  • putting an ice cube in the toilet
  • placing a quarter on your windowsill
  • dancing in front of the refrigerator

I tried to explain that having a snow day tomorrow would be a bummer, because it's the last day before holiday break and there won't be much education going on anyway, but they don't care. They're already planning on sledding at our neighborhood hangout, which is called "Cardiac Hill" or simply "Cardiac" in the neighborhood vernacular. I think it's called that because it is a fast hill, but I know that I have felt near chest pangs hiking up it when the kids were small and I had to pull the sled up with them on it.

The whole thing is putting a wrench in my Christmas machinery, because I planned to take the afternoon off to finish the shopping. Fridays are my telecommuting work day, anyway, so I won't have to worry about the people that forgot how to drive in snow. This is Michigan, folks! You should now how to drive in it by now.

A favorite book of mine as a kid was "Snowbound with Betsy" by Carolyn Haywood. I should get that out of the library and reread it again. I wonder if my kids will have the fond memories of certain books like I still do from my childhood.

Bring on the snow - hope I am not disappointed.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Raspberry Liqueur

I bought a book for 25 cents at a garage sale last summer called Cordials from Your Kitchen by Pattie Vargas and Rich Gulling, and in September, I made raspberry liqueur from rasps (as the British call them) that I bought at an apple orchard in Romeo when I was there for work. Here's my recipe, adapted from one in the book, that I made. It came out fantastic. Next summer, when you are looking for ways to preserve all those raspberries, this is a great one to try.

I was interested in figuring out what proof this liqueur was, so I did the math. Proof is just double the number of the percentage of alcohol in a beverage, i.e. 100 proof alcohol is 50% alcohol. Wine is generally about 12% alcohol, which is 24 proof. A typical mixed drink, such as a vodka and tonic, would be about 15% alcohol, which is 30 proof. I calculated the proof of this liqueur to be 34 proof, which 17% alcohol. So it's a bit stiffer drink than a typical mixed drink or wine, but it doesn't taste strong at all, so be careful! Drink it in small cordial glasses to pace yourself.

Raspberry Liqueur

Makes 4 wine bottles

4 pints fresh raspberries, washed

2 cups sugar
2 bottles of cheap white zinfandel wine, or any white wine will work, too
A fifth of the cheapest vodka you can find. Nowadays, I guess a 5th is called a 750 ml bottle. Don't waste your Grey Goose on this liqueur.
4 cups water

Crush berries and sugar in a bowl and let them macerate for about an hour. In a gallon sized container that has a lid (I have a big glass jar that I make picked eggs in that has a cork lid that I use for this) add berries and remaining ingredients. Cover and let stand in a cook, dark place, for a week. Shaking the container at least once a day.

After a week, use a fine mesh strainer to strain out the solids and discard them. Rinse out your gallon container and put the liqueur back in it and let it stand for another week. Then you have to filter the liqueur, read this post I found for a veritable epistle on all the ways you can filter liqueurs. I rack filtered mine, which is fancy talk for using a hose like you would use to drain an aquarium to clean it. I might do a second filtration the next time I make this as I ended up with a little bit of sludge in my bottles. I put my final product in some pretty wine bottles I had been saving, but you can put it in whatever you have - canning jars, liquor bottles, whatever catches your eye. I used old wine corks to close my bottles - I closed them lightly in case there was any gasses that might be generated, but there didn't seem to be any. Let it age in the bottle for at least a month.