Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Gingerbread House Tradition

Here it is! The finished gingerbread house! I am so excited about this accomplishment of ours! It was two or three years ago when I first watched Gale Gand make a house like this on her Food Network Show Sweet Dreams.  I'd been wanting to make one ever since. Last year, I got as far as making the gingerbread pieces, but the hustle and bustle of the season got in the way and so we just ate them (delicious just on their own!). I think I was a little intimidated by the icing since I hadn't used it before. But since we used the same icing to finish the gingerbread bears (see previous post here), I had a bit more courage this year. I'd been saving leftover Halloween candy for at least a year with a gingerbread house in mind and the kids were begging me to make one after they saw a decorated house at the neighbor' this is the year.

I started by covering a pizza pan with foil and assembling the baked gingerbread pieces. The walls go up first, glued together with royal icing made with powdered sugar and egg whites. After the "glue" has had a chance to set, the roof goes on. We used Frosted Mini Wheats for roof shingles and Dots along the top edge.

I gave each kid a wall to decorate the way they wanted and then wrote their names on that side. I was very impressed with the ideas for decorating that they came up with, especially since our candy supply was limited. I vowed I was not buying any special candy just for this -- all the candy came from our rejected Halloween candy supply.

Ben made the marshmallow snowman using whole cloves for the face and we made a gingerbread family with the leftover dough and icing.

You can grow flowers out of the snow using M&M's and we embellished the house with some royal icing piped along the edges.
I will not be skipping this tradition again - it's so much fun! I have a friend who has been saving all of the gingerbread houses they've made for the past several years, and now she has an entire city to display at Christmastime! It's fantastic!

Gingerbread House
By Gale Gand via The Food Network

8 ounces unsalted butter (16 tablespoons or 2 sticks), softened
1 1/2 cups packed light brown sugar
2 eggs
1 cup dark molasses (not blackstrap)
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
6 1/4 cups cake flour
4 teaspoons ground ginger
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon salt
Gingerbread House Templates, recipe follows
Royal Icing:
3 cups confectioners' sugar, plus more as needed
2 egg whites

To Assemble and Decorate the House:
  • Heavy cardboard base for the house
  • Pastry bag with a medium plain tip and a small plain tip
  • Frosted shredded mini-wheats for the roof, as needed
  • Mini tootsie rolls for a fence, as needed
  • White Hershey Kisses for roof top spikes, as needed
  • Small candy canes for a lamp post outside the door, as needed
  • Granulated sugar for snow drifts, as needed
  • Necco Wafers for a cobblestone path, as needed
  • 3 large marshmallows, for snow man
  • Pretzel sticks, for snowman arms, as needed
  • 2 whole cloves, for snowman eyes
  • Graham crackers to build a shed, as needed
  • Assorted candy such as gum drops, peppermint drops, M & M's, white chocolate chips, red hots, non-pareils or snow caps, silver dragees, green mint jelly leaves, Life Savers, and Animal Crackers
In a mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream the butter until smooth. Add the sugar and mix until light and fluffy. Add the eggs 1 at a time until incorporated. Add the molasses and vanilla and mix.
Sift together the flour, ginger, cinnamon, baking soda, cloves, and salt. Working in batches, and mixing after each addition just until combined, add the flour mixture to the butter-sugar mixture. Shape the dough into a thick disk, wrap in waxed paper, and refrigerate 1 to 2 hours.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F and grease 2 cookie sheets.
On a lightly floured surface, divide the dough in half and roll each piece out into a large 1/4-inch thick sheet. Transfer the dough sheets to the sheet pans; then cut out the required shapes with your templates (see Gingerbread House Templates below).
Bake until stiff and toast-y, about 10 to 15 minutes. Let cool completely.
Make the Royal Icing: In a standing mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whip the confectioners' sugar and egg whites together. Add more sugar, if necessary, to reach a spreadable consistency.
Assemble and Decorate the House: Glue the house walls together by setting them up on the cardboard base, and piping the royal icing at the joints with a medium plain tip from the inside. Prop the sides up with wine or soda bottles and let set for 30 minutes. Attach the roof pieces, using the icing in the same way
Using a spatula to apply the icing, glue the frosted mini-wheats on the roof to look like thatching. Attach the front door, with hinges made from icing (leave it open to be more inviting).
Decorate as you like, following the suggestions in the ingredient list, using the icing as glue, if needed. Use a small plain tip for any filigree style decorative line work, you may want.
Gingerbread House Templates:
Brown paper bags, as needed
You'll need to make 7 templates, by drawing the dimensions out on brown paper and cutting them out. Use the templates as a stencil to cut the dough into the required pieces. Here are the templates you'll need:
Two front and rear walls: 5 inches high by 8 inches long. Cut out 2 windows from each wall, and 2 1/2 by 1 1/2-inch door in one.
Two side walls shaped like a house (triangle on a square): 5 inches high by 6 inches long, with a triangle 7 inches high on top (cut all in 1 piece). Cut 1 window out of each side.
Two overhanging roof pieces: 4 1/2 inches wide by 9 inches long.
One door: 2 1/2 inches high by 1 1/2 inches wide.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Pinched Orange Macaroons

This is the cookie that may not make it to see Christmas Day - I may eat them all before then! I just love almond paste and anything made with it. I first saw these cookies being made on the Martha Stewart Show and I knew had to work them into my baking schedule. They come together pretty quickly with few ingredients. The rolling in egg and sugar is the most time consuming. And then you let them sit for 30 minutes, pinch, and bake. The result is a chewy almondy-orange inside with a crispy outside. If you like almond macaroons, you'll LOVE these!

Pinched Orange Macaroons
from Patrick Lemble, pastry chef at The Four Seasons

Makes 5 dozen.
2 large egg whites, separated
1/8 teaspoon pure almond extract
1/2 cup confectioners' sugar, sifted, plus more for rolling and coating
1 pound almond paste
Zest of 1 orange
1 tablespoon orange liqueur, such as Grand Marnier

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with nonstick baking mats; set aside. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine 1 egg white and almond extract. Add confectioners' sugar and almond paste; beat until creamy, about 2 minutes. Add orange zest and orange liqueur; beat to combine, about 1 minute.
Lightly dust work surface with confectioners' sugar. Turn dough out onto work surface; roll into two 3/4-inch-thick logs, about 18 inches long. Cut each log crosswise into 30 1/2-inch pieces. Roll each piece into a ball.
Lightly beat remaining egg white. Coat each ball with egg white and roll in sugar, tapping to remove excess (I used a spoon to roll in egg and sugar); transfer to prepared baking sheets. Let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes.
Pinch each piece of dough with three fingers to form an irregular pyramid shape. Bake until lightly golden, about 15 minutes. Transfer baking sheet to a wire rack and cool completely. Store in an airtight container up to 1 week.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Lime Nut Buttons

Last week was our very first annual Soul Sisters Christmas Party. I've been anticipating the party for weeks and it was so much fun! We drank mimosas, made crafts, and exchanged gifts. We were asked to pick a name and bring a handmade gift for that sister and spend no more than $10. The gifts that everyone came up with were fabulous! (see my chalkboard to the right!) We also had a cookie exchange and everyone was asked to bring 4 dozen cookies to share.
For me, a confessed cookbook and recipe addict, this was the most difficult part. Which cookie do I choose? There are so many! How can I pick just one? I definitely overanalyzed and stressed over this one little thing. I mean, I couldn't pick a cookie that was too ordinary, and I didn't want to choose a cookie that was too fancy or time consuming.
Well, it was the night before the party and I was down to the wire. I just had to choose! I pulled out my Best of Fine Cooking, Cookies Edition magazine that I picked up on impulse this year at the supermarket. (Like I NEEDED more cookie recipes!) I decided on these cookies called Lime Nut Buttons. They were not too fancy, just an ordinary-looking, unassuming cookie, but with a slight twist to make them a bit different - essentially a pecan ball with a hint of lime and coconut - Perfect! I doubled the recipe and had just enough to divide among my four fabulous friends. Is it too early to be thinking about what cookie I'll make for next year's party?

Lime Nut Buttons
Fine Cooking

4 1/2 oz (or 1 cup) flour
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup confectioner's sugar, plus more for coating
1/3 cup coarsely chopped pecans
1/4 cup sweetened flaked coconut
1/2 cup unsalted butter at room temperature
2 tsp finely grated lime zest
1 tsp vanilla extract

In a small bowl, combine the flour and salt. In a food processor, pulse the confectioner's sugar, pecans and coconut until the pecans are finely ground. In a bowl of an electric mixer, beat the butter until creamy. Add the pecan mixture and beat until well blended. Beat in the lime zest and vanilla. Scrape the bowl and add the flour mixture, beating just until combined. Wrap the dough in plastic and chill until firm, 3 hours or overnight.
Heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Measure the dough into heaping teaspoon-sized pieces (I used the larger end of a melon baller) and roll each piece between your palms to form a ball. Place the balls 1 1/2 inches apart on a cookie sheet lined with Silpat or parchment. Bake until the edges of the cookie barely begin to brown, 12-14 minutes. Allow the cookies to cool for 1 minute, then roll in confectioner's sugar while still very warm. Repeat the rolling if needed to coat the cookie completely. Allow to cool completely before storing in an airtight container.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Ellen's Favorite Butter Toffee

Ok girls, I know a few of you tried the caramels I posted a few weeks ago. Well here's a chance to try out that candy thermometer again. These are Ellen's absolute favorite thing that I make at Christmastime. I make at least two double batches and give some to all the kids' teachers and to friends and family. The recipe is an old one that my mom got from an elderly friend. If I were one to keep a secret recipe, this would be it, but I hate it when people keep recipes a secret. If you've got a good recipe, you've got to share it - so what if someone has the gumption to sell the stuff and make millions, you could've too! So since I'm not planning to make toffee commercially, I'm sharing this special one with you. I think the toffee is a lot tastier that caramels and easier to chew. To make these you will need:

a candy thermometer
a jelly roll pan (rimmed cookie sheet), and another cookie sheet for flipping
a silpat mat or parchment paper

Butter Toffee
from a friend of Mom's, looks like it came out of an old newspaper

1 cup butter
5 T water
1 cup sugar
1/4 tsp salt
approx 1 cup ground almonds
approx 1 1/2 giant Hershey milk chocolate bars, melted in the microwave

Line a jelly roll pan with parchment or Silpat liner. Melt butter in a heavy-bottomed medium saucepan. Add sugar, salt, and water. Stir until the sugar is dissolved. Heat to boiling and cook to 310 degrees on a candy thermometer, stirring constantly. Working quickly, carefully pour the toffee onto the sheet pan, spreading the candy out slightly with a silicone spatula. The liquid does not need to be spread to the edges of the pan, just spread out a little so that it's not too thick. Allow it to cool for a minute or two and spread 1/2 of the melted chocolate on top of the toffee. Sprinkle with 1/2 of the almonds before the chocolate has a chance to cool. Place the pan in a cool place (the cold garage is my cool place) and let cool about 15 minutes. Place another cookie sheet on top of the toffee and invert the toffee onto the second cookie sheet. Spread melted chocolate on the other side of the toffee and sprinkle with remaining almonds. Allow to cool completely. Break into pieces with you fingers.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Shrimp Fra Diavolo

I know, I know, we're supposed to be talking about goodies, cookies, candies, and sweets this time of year and goodness knows there's been a lot of butter and sugar used in my kitchen in the recent days. I would blog about the sweets, but since it's approaching the shortest day of the year, and I've been working, I haven't had enough natural light to take a decent photo of the goodies (sorry). But don't all those sweets have you craving something just the opposite? - a little spicy, savory, or salty? This recipe requires your full attention, so if you have some time and you're craving something not-so-sweet, give this a try. It's delicious! Also, you can cherish the huge eyes and gaping mouths your kids will have when you flambe the shrimp! Be sure to have all the ingredients ready and read through the whole recipe before you start. --oh and have a lid ready to place over your skillet just in case the flambe gets out of hand.

Shrimp Fra Diavlo
adapted from a recipe from the folks over at Cook's Illustrated

1 pound peeled and deveined shrimp
1 tsp crushed red pepper or a little less to taste
6 T olive oil
1 1/2 tsp table salt, divided
1/4 cup Brandy
4 T minced garlic, divided (I used probably half of this amount)
1/2 tsp sugar
1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes, drained
1 cup white wine
1/4 cup fresh minced parsley
1 pound angel hair or linguine

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. In the meantime, heat a large skillet over high heat for 4 minutes. While the pan is heating, toss the shrimp, 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes, 2 T olive oil and 3/4 tsp salt in a bowl. Add the shrimp to the hot pan and spread to a single layer. Cook without stirring for about 30 seconds. Take the pan off the heat, stir the shrimp, and add the Brandy. Let it stand off the heat until the Brandy warms slightly, about 5 seconds, then return the pan to high heat. Wave a lit match or lighter over the skillet until the Brandy ignites; shake the skillet until the flames subside. Transfer the mixture to a bowl and set aside.

Add 3 T olive oil and 3 T garlic to the now empty skillet, reducing the heat to very low. Cook the garlic until it's browned but not burned. Add 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes, 3/4 tsp salt, sugar, tomatoes, and wine. Increase heat to high and simmer until thickened, about 10 minutes. At this point, add the pasta and some salt to the boiling water and cook while the sauce is simmering. When the pasta is almost done, add the shrimp, the remaining 1 T garlic and the minced parsley to the tomato sauce and simmer until heated through, about 1 minute longer. Serve the shrimp and sauce over the pasta and drizzle with a bit of olive oil. Serve immediately.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Disastrous Sticky Buns

Here's to prove that not all attempts at deliciousness are successful in my kitchen. It's been a tradition at our house for the past few years to have homemade sticky buns on Christmas morning. I thought I'd be real smart and get them made almost two weeks ahead of time and put them in the freezer until Christmas. I'll chalk it up to two things which foiled my plan: 1) I have never used fresh yeast before and 2) the recipe was no good.

Let me explain for those of you who haven't used fresh yeast either. Yeast comes in a few different forms. Fresh yeast, also called cake yeast, is perishable, you find it in the refrigerated section of the grocery by the eggs, and apparently it comes in two different sizes: a cake which is 0.6 ounces and a block which is 2 ounces. Both sizes look identical except for the size and my grocery only carries the 2 ounce size. I therefore was unaware of the two sizes. Dry yeast, also called active dry yeast, is less perishable and comes in packets which are sold in the baking section of the grocery store because it does not need refrigeration (although refrigeration or freezing is recommended after purchase to prolong its life).

My recipe was vague and maybe the authors didn't know there were two sizes of cake yeast either. It simply called for "two cakes of yeast" or two packets of dry yeast. So I, unknowingly, put my two cakes of yeast (2 ounces each) in the recipe -about 4 times what was supposed to be used as I found out later. It seemed like a lot, but hey, I was following the recipe, right? What first tipped me off was when I let it rise in a bowl for the recommended 1-2 hours, I came back after 30 minutes and the dough was HUGE! It had grown so fast...but I continued with the recipe anyway.

I continued with the glaze which you typically place in the bottom of your pan and place the rolled and cut dough on top, so the sugar caramelizes in the oven and you serve the buns upsidedown with the gooey stuff on top. The recipe for the topping looked all wrong in proportion and I should have followed my instincts and reverted back to my old standby recipe to salvage what I could from all this effort. But I loved this cookbook! I'd read it from cover to cover! The photos were extremely enticing and I so wanted the first recipe from this book to work! So I continued...but as you can see from the photo, it was a FLOP!... a gooey, soggy, yeasty mess! I'll have to go back to good old Betty Crocker and my dry yeast and hopefully I'll have another sticky bun post before Christmas!


After more than 5 years of white walls, we have color! Check it out!
The family room is Southern Wood...

The dining room is Cordial...

The kitchen is Pea Soup...

And the entryway and upstair hall are Applesauce Cake...Mmmm!

The sunroom, powder room and laundry are Halcyon Green...

Yes, we finally have color and we love it! Now for the upstairs...

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Vanilla Caramels with Sea Salt

Here's something I've always wanted to try making but I've never gotten around to it until now. I saw the recipe in Pittsburgh Magazine and it beckoned me. I thought I could give them to the kids' teachers along with my usual special-recipe-toffee and various biscottis. Although I may have to make another batch because the original stash is dwindling. (Note to self: hide caramels out of the kids' sight before they're gone!)

I simply wrapped them in waxed paper which required no ties or ribbons, just a twist on either end and that's it! Basically, if you have a candy thermometer you can make these. They're easy!

I cut this recipe in half and still got plenty of caramels...

Vanilla Caramels with Sea Salt
Makes 120 caramels

4 cups heavy cream
1 1/3 cups light corn syrup
1 1/3 cups honey
2 cups sugar
8 ounces unsalted butter, softened
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 pound walnuts, toasted and chopped (I omitted these)
1/2 tsp sea salt

Grease bottom and sides of a 9x13 pan. For half recipe, use 9x9 pan. Line the bottom with parchment. Grease the top of the parchment. Combine cream, corn syrup, honey, and sugar in a large pot. Cook over medium heat, stirring often, until a candy thermometer reads 260 degrees F. Remove from heat. Stir in butter, kosher salt and vanilla. Fold in walnuts, if using. Pour into prepared pan. Sprinkle with remaining sea salt. Allow to cool. Run a knife around the edge of the pan and invert the caramel onto a cutting board. Cut into 1-inch pieces with a large, sharp knife. Roll individually in waxed paper.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Gingerbread Biscotti

I'm no fan of cold weather and we've been getting our share of it lately as this picture shows. My way of coping with it is to make a cup of hot tea, light a fragrant vanilla or pumpkin pie spice candle in the kitchen and crank up the oven to make some delicious biscotti (so I can dip it into my tea, of course). Some might call it hibernation. I've had this recipe in my files for a while and have finally gotten around to trying it. I've found that I keep a neater kitchen when I'm baking by gathering my ingredients ahead of time. Below is a photo of my mise-en-place. There are very few ingredients in biscotti - this one has just a few more than normal because of the added molasses and spices.

Don't these just beckoned to be dipped?

So Old Man Winter - bring it on! - because I'm armed and ready (to bake)! Just don't make me step outside!

Gingerbread Biscotti

From Southern Living Christmas 2006

1/2 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1/4 cup molasses
2 1/2 cups flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1 1/2 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/4 tsp cloves
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup almonds

Preheat oven to 350. Cream butter and sugars together in a large bowl. Add eggs, one at time, beating well between additions. Add molasses and mix well. In another bowl, combine all of the dry ingredients except the almonds. Add to the egg mixture and beat just until combined. Stir in almonds. Divide the dough in half. On a cookie sheet lined with parchment or Silpat liner, make two flattened logs approximately 2 inches wide and 1 inch high. Use water-dampened or floured hands if dough is too sticky to form the logs. Bake for about 25 minutes. Remove from oven and cool 10 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 300. Transfer the logs to a cutting board (don't slice on the Silpat) and slice the logs on a diagonal at 1 inch intervals with a large serrated knife. Place the slices, cut side down, back onto the cookie sheet and bake 10 minutes on each side. The biscotti will become more crispy as they cool. Store in an airtight container.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Homemade Yogurt

Homemade yogurt is delicious, healthy, easy, environmentally friendly (no plastic containers to throw away), versatile, and did I mention delicious??? I make yogurt every few weeks and I keep the recipe inside a cabinet right next to the stove along with other handy tips and conversion charts.
You will need:
1 quart milk
1/4 cup dry milk (optional but helps the yogurt become thick, especially if using skim milk)
an instant-read thermometer
small container of Dannon Plain lowfat yogurt (which is your starter)
a yogurt maker
and some time
First, measure out the milk and place it in a pot over med-low heat. Add the dry milk (this helps the yogurt become thicker) and heat the mixture to 185-190 degrees F. I set the oven timer to go off every 5 minutes so I can stir the mixture (so it doesn't burn on the bottom) and to check the temperature with an instant-read thermometer. This takes a little time. I have found that if I don't set a timer, I'll get distracted by something (I'm a mom after all!) and the milk will boil over.

After the mixture has reached 185 degrees, I pour it into a pyrex bowl and wait for it to cool down to between 110 and 115 degrees. Again, it helps to set a timer for 10-15 minutes and check the temp each time. Skim off and discard any film that forms on top of the milk as it's cooling. Place 2 T of Dannon yogurt (for some reason this brand makes the tastiest yogurt) into a small bowl and stir it to remove any lumps. When the milk reaches 115 degrees, gradually add about 1/2 cup warm milk to the yogurt and stir until smooth. Add the yogurt mixture back into the rest of the milk and stir to combine. Pour the milk into your yogurt maker and come back in 6 hours. Refrigerate the yogurt before eating.
I have two yogurt makers, both of which I love. I double the recipe and use both yogurt makers at once. The Donvier maker has individual reusable cups, great for adding some homemade jam for a grab-and-go breakfast. It also has a timer which is a very nice feature. The Salton yogurt maker has one large container which makes it great for the yogurt you may need in recipes.
I use milk from a local small farm called Brunton's. You can get it at Soergel's or McGinnis Sisters. The glass bottles are returnable for even less waste in your recycling bin (and let's face it, do we really know if all that plastic is really recycled anyway?) The milk is so good, my kids have even commented on how great it tastes! I use 2% milk for yogurt because it sets up better if you use milk with some fat content in it.
To make yogurt-cheese, set the yogurt in a strainer lined with a coffee filter and set the strainer over a bowl. Cover it with plastic and place it in the refrigerator overnight. Use it in place of cream cheese or sour cream in recipes

Bottom line: homemade yogurt takes some time, but the result is definitely worth it!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Scandinavian Apple Cake

As of this afternoon, I am a "secret Santa" to one of my "sisters", we have about a dozen "field trips" to plan, and I am the proud new owner of 5 narcissus bulbs which I hope I can water sufficiently to bloom. I also need to watch 50 First Dates and Legends of the Fall so that I don't continue to feel lame for not watching a movie since before 1996! We shared our individual answers to questions like "what is your favorite food" to "what 3 things would you take if you were going to be stranded on a deserted island". We gave ourselves makeovers and ate Apple Cake. It was a productive and, as always, an enlightening experience. Thanks girlfriends!

Apple Cake
from Country Home March/April 1997

4 cups peeled, cored, and finely chopped cooking apples
1 cup sugar
1 cup chopped walnuts
2/3 cup butter, melted
2 eggs, slightly beaten
2 tsp vanilla
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
3/4 tsp ground allspice
1/4 tsp ground cardamom
1/8 tsp salt
powdered sugar for top

In a large mixing bowl combine apples, sugar, walnuts, and melted butter. Stir in eggs and vanilla. In a medium mixing bowl, stir together the flour, cinnamon, baking powder, soda, allspice, and salt. Add dry ingredients to apple mixture, stirring just until combined.

Spread the batter into a greased and floured 13X9 pan or a 10-inch fluted tube pan. Bake at 350 degrees F about 30 minutes for 13X9 pan or 50 minutes for tube pan. Sprinkle warm cake with powdered sugar. Serve warm. Makes 12-16 servings.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Gingerbread Bears

A friend of mine was looking for a cute but inexpensive item to give as favors at a baby shower she was helping with. Of course, working at Mimi's has me thinking all things baked and we came up with this idea...gingerbread bears decorated with pink icing, appropriately tied with great "baby-girl" ribbons. The finished bears were adorable and delicious, but we got lucky - very lucky! I used two recipes, both from the Martha Stewart website and both needed some major adjusting after I was already in the process of making them. The recipe for the gingerbread called for refrigerating the disks of dough overnight and then rolling it out. The dough was so soft it was unworkable, so I ended up kneading in at least a whole cup of flour after rolling one disk out. I had a moment of panic there, especially since these had to be made THAT day, but fortunately it worked! I made the recipe for Royal Icing as written and it was so thick that it was obviously wrong as well. Can I never trust Martha's recipes again? I added at least 1/2 cup of water to the 1/4 cup called for in the recipe and probably even more before it was thin enough to pipe. I have looked at other recipes, even others on Martha's site, and think that maybe the merigue powder amount should have been 5 tsp and not 5 TBSP? It just goes to show that every baking project is a learning experience and you just have to roll with it and keep on baking!

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Mint Brownies

Who can resist chocolate paired with mint? We made these delectable brownies yesterday to celebrate Morgan's 10th birthday since they are one of her favorites. I've made this recipe several times and it never fails to please. And, if you have the ingredients on hand, they are just as easy to make as those from a box! Needless to say, they are all gone this morning. The recipe came from, but I've changed the directions slightly to make them more clear (after making the same mistake more than once!) Let me know if you try this recipe!

Mint Brownies
adapted from

For the brownies:
1/2 cup unsalted butter
2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped
2 large eggs
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
pinch of salt
1/2 tsp peppermint extract
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

For the toppings:
1 cup sifted powdered sugar
2 T unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 T milk
1/4 tsp peppermint extract
green food coloring, optional

4 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped, or chocolate chips
2 T unsalted butter

Preheat oven to 350. Lightly butter an 8x8 or 9x9-inch metal baking pan. Melt the butter and chocolate in a small saucepan over low heat until smooth. Set aside. Using an electric mixer, beat eggs and sugar in a large bowl until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Add chocolate mixture, flour and salt, and peppermint and vanilla extracts; stir until just blended. Transfer batter to prepared pan. Bake 25 minutes for 8x8 pan and a little less for 9x9 pan. Cool slightly.

Beat powdered sugar, 2 T butter, milk, peppermint extract, and one drop of green food coloring, if using, in a bowl until creamy. Spread over brownies and chill until set, about one hour.

Melt chocolate and 2T butter in a small saucepan over low heat until smooth. Cool slightly. Pour over mint topping, spreading evenly. Cover and chill until set, about one hour. Makes 20 small brownies.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

1st Annual Pie Contest

This year, Mark's mom planned a pie baking contest to celebrate the summer and to pay tribute to the "lost art of pie-making". It was a fun excuse to gather friends and family.

Ellen baked her very first pie. It was an apple pie with cut-out pastry leaves decorating the top. It was delicious! She was the youngest contestant. The pies I made were pumpkin pie (left) and raspberry/blackberry pie with a lattice crust (right).

The pies filled at least 5 long tables.

The judging was difficult. These were two of the most experienced judges - they took their job very seriously!

Annie trying to sneak a piece of chocolate mousse pie.

Here are the winners! Congratulations!

The Making of Apple Cider

While my kids loved the hay tunnels and corn stalk maze and the hay ride around the orchard, my favorite part of visiting Soergel's this year was the cider press demonstration.

First, they use a forklift to bring in a huge bin full of different varieties of apples and dump them into a holding area at the start of a conveyor belt.

The apples are fed into the machine which rinses them and carries them up the ladder to be ground up by a very loud "food processor". I had always envisioned whole apples being pressed, but now this makes much more sense!

The apple "mush" is then pumped into trays lined with canvas. When each tray is filled, the canvas is wrapped around the apples and another tray of apple mush is made on top until they have about a dozen trays of apple mush all stacked on top of one another. The trays are then pressed between the "floor" and "ceiling" of the machine and all of the liquid is captured in the tray around the "floor" of the press. The liquid is then pumped through tubes into a large holding tank where it is pasteurized and then bottled. One batch of trays will make about 300 gallons of cider (I think that's what they said). The pulp/fiber left over is as dry as cardboard and they use it as mulch which eventually returns the organic matter to the soil. Pretty cool, huh?

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

And the winner is...

The tomato harvest was good this year. Above is only a fraction of our harvest. I probably didn't water them as much as I should have when we endured a fairly long period of drought. We lost some to blossom-end rot. The tomato hornworms tried their best to foil me. But we had no aphids and the pests generally left the plants alone, going for the tender cucumber plants instead. So we waited...and waited...and waited until finally the tomatoes ripened starting in late August-the longest I've ever waited for tomatoes!

I planted about 8 different varieties, and THE WINNER IS (drum roll please)... a variety called CARO RICH. They are the orange tomatoes in the picture above. I think the seeds were a packet of freebies I got from Seeds of Change when I ordered the other varieties. These plants almost didn't make it into the ground as they were the spindliest seedlings, but I'm sure glad I gave them a shot! They are a larger, meaty tomato perfect for slicing onto a juicy burger or tomato sandwich or BLT. They were the best tasting of the bunch - if only I'd watered them a bit more I may have gotten a few more. I'm sad to see the last of the tomatoes being harvested, but I've canned and frozen quite a few to enjoy in sauces throughout the year until we start all over again - and I'll be sure to include the Caro Rich in my order next year.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Butternut Squash Soup

The star of our garden this year was something I didn't even intend to grow! I noticed some type of squash seedling popping up here and there - in the raspberry patch and in the center of one of the new raised beds. I decided to leave them to grow and see what we would get. I never imagined they would be the most successful plants in the garden. Last week we harvested about a dozen or so big, beautiful butternut squash! I peeled, diced and roasted most of them to freeze for use in the winter and I made up a big batch of my favorite butternut squash soup. There are not too many ingredients...'s the squash, carrots, and onions sauteeing in butter.

Add thyme and saute until the vegetables are mostly tender. Add chicken stock and simmer until everything is very tender. Puree in a blender, add some seasonings and garnish with fresh chives. Serve the soup with hearty toasted sourdough or multigrain bread. The result is wholesome and delicious!

Butternut Squash Soup
adapted from Bon Appetit

1/4 cup butter
5 1/2 pounds butternut squash (10 cups diced)
3 cups chopped onions
3 medium carrots, thinly sliced
5 tsp fresh thyme
1/8 to 1/4 tsp ground red pepper
7 cups or more chicken stock
1/4 tsp nutmeg (optional)
1/4 cup heavy cream or half and half
fresh chives for garnish (optional)

Melt the butter in a large pot. Add the squash, carrots, onions, thyme, ground red pepper, and salt and pepper to taste. Saute until the squash begins to soften and brown. Add broth and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until vegetables are very tender, about 30 minutes. Cool slightly. Working in batches, puree the soup in a blender until smooth (or use an immersion blender right in the pot). Add nutmeg and heavy cream, and adjust seasonings. Sprinkle with chives when serving. If reheating, add more broth or water to thin to desired consistency.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Lemon-Thyme Tea Cookies

If only you could smell my kitchen right now! It's been a long time since I've made cookies and since I've also been looking for ways to use the herbs in my garden, I thought these would be the perfect ones to make. The cookies are crisp and delicious and the combination of cornmeal and currants and lemon is perfect with a cup of tea. If you're coming to my kick-off party you'll be able to try them for yourself! If that isn't incentive enough, stay tuned and you'll be sure to see some other goodies I'll be serving...
Lemon-Thyme Tea Cookies
adapted from The Perfect Pantry's recipe for Lemon Thyme Cornmeal Cookies
1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup finely ground yellow cornmeal
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp sea salt
1 cup unsalted butter, room temp.
1 1/4 cups sugar
2 large eggs
3/4 cup dried currants
1 tsp lemon zest
1 heaping tsp finely chopped lemon thyme
Preheat oven to 350. In a large bowl whisk together the flours, cornmeal, baking soda and salt. Place butter and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer and mix on medium speed until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition and scraping the sides of the bowl as needed. Reduce the mixer speed to low and mix in the flour mixture until just combined. Fold in the currants, lemon zest and lemon thyme.
Drop rounded tablespoons of dough onto baking sheets lined with Silpat liners or parchment paper, spacing the dough about 2 inches apart. Flatten the cookies slightly with a dampened flat-bottomed drinking glass and sprinkle with coarse sugar. Bake 10-12 minutes until pale golden color. Allow the cookies to cool for 2-3 minutes before removing them from the cookie sheet.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Zucchini Soup

This soup is an all-time family favorite. I've made it every year since my husband and I got married and my mother-in-law gave me the recipe.  The original called for canned tomato soup, but I have changed the recipe to make it all from scratch so I could use my garden tomatoes.  There's something to be said about a recipe that you never get tired of. I can't tell you how many recipes I've tried and, while it's wonderful the first time, the second and third tries just don't live up to the first. This one is different. It's good year after year and holds up well in the freezer so I know I'll have a quick meal to turn to when kid activities are many and time is short. I used peeled and pureed tomatoes right from the garden but canned ones are just as good. You could easily vary this recipe and add chopped carrots or white beans, although I think it's perfect as written.

Zucchini Soup
Serves 10

2 pounds hot and/or sweet italian sausage (I used sweet)
1 medium onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
3-4 red and/or green sweet bell peppers
1-2 hot peppers, chopped, optional
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 quart homemade chicken broth
2 quarts canned tomatoes
2 good-sized zucchini, cubed
3 or 4 fresh basil leaves
2 Tbsp fresh parley
salt to taste
Slices of provolone cheese for serving, optional

In a skillet, brown and drain the sausage and set aside. In a large stockpot, saute the onion for 3 minutes. Add garlic and cook another minute or two. Add peppers and continue to cook until the peppers begin to soften. Add cumin, pepper and oregano and cook 30 seconds or so. Add chicken broth, tomatoes, zucchini, sausage, basil, parsley and salt to taste. Simmer 2-3 hours. Add water or chicken stock if the soup is too thick. To serve, ladle into a bowl and place a slice of provolone on top if desired.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Colors of Summer


Purple Cabbage from the farm


Russian Sage

Somehow, even the color palette of the hung laundry is pleasing to the eye. Goodbye summer...I'll miss you!

Related post: Colors of Late Spring

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Zucchini Chocolate Cake

Thanks to Megan for letting me know about this awesome recipe for Zucchini Chocolate Cake - actually, the recipe (from Allrecipes) is called Zucchini Brownies, but they're not as dense as I would consider a brownie to be - so Zucchini Chocolate Cake it is! The zucchini is undetectable (in fact, Annie, my 6-year-old told me I was mistaken when I talked about zucchini in the recipe), the flavor is awesome, and the leftover cake was still moist after sitting on my counter for 2 days (believe me, it will not last longer than that). Definitely do not skip the frosting because it is simply delicious on these. My daughter thought that chocolate chips would be a nice addition to the batter and I agree. Who can argue with more chocolate? I even froze a few 2-cup portions of grated zucchini so I could make this again when the winter doldrums start to settle in. Just remember to pour yourself a tall glass of milk and you'll be in chocolate heaven!

adapted from Marian's Zucchini Brownie recipe on AllRecipes
Zucchini Chocolate Cake
Yields: 24 servings

For the Cake:
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 1/4 cups white sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder (not Dutch process)
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups finely shredded zucchini

For the frosting:
6 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1/4 cup butter
2 cups confectioners' sugar
1/4 cup milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract


1.Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Spray a 9x13 inch baking pan with cooking spray.
2.In a large bowl, mix together the oil, sugar and 2 teaspoons vanilla until well blended. Combine the flour, 1/2 cup cocoa, baking soda and salt; stir into the sugar mixture. It will be VERY thick. Fold in the zucchini until well incorporated. Spread evenly into the prepared pan.
3.Bake for 25 to 30 minutes in the preheated oven, until brownies spring back when gently touched.

To make the frosting, melt together the 6 tablespoons of cocoa and butter; set aside to cool. In a medium bowl, blend together the confectioners' sugar, milk and 1/2 teaspoon vanilla. Stir in the cocoa mixture. Spread over cooled cake.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Contact Me!

If you have a question about any of the recipes on this blog, please email me at

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Images from Phipp's Conservatory

Last weekend, we were invited to take a tour of Phipp's Conservatory in Pittsburgh. I just love looking at all the plants and flowers and fish and, of course, the butterflies...

Phipp's was able to keep several of the pieces from the Chihuly Glass Exhibit

Canna Lillies

Cool butterfly in the Butterfly Room


Pretty Goldfish


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