Merry Christmas!

Hope you all are having a wonderful holiday!  We’ve been busy making Estonian Kringel bread (a favorite of Peter’s family), although to be honest my only contribution was to braid it.  Unfortunately there are no Kringel photos, due to a busy Christmas morning involving waking up early to open presents before running off to have a Christmas brunch with Peter’s extended family (to which the Kringel was our humble offering).  The other major culinary accomplishment of the last few days was to finally put together a gingerbread house using the recipe for Gingerbread People Cookies.  While we had been planning to pay homage to the Tower of London, we thought it may be difficult to construct so many towers.  Last year we tried the Parthenon and used a rather disgusting-tasting white frosting as glue to keep the structure together; the frosting was very effective, but it made eating the gingerbread Parthenon a little tricky.  And yes, we do eat our gingerbread houses, because gingerbread is delicious!  This time we used toothpicks and string to keep the house together and finished it off with chocolate ganache and unsweetened coconut.  Did anyone else make a gingerbread structure this year?

Holiday Cookie Extravaganza: Gingerbread People and Plain Old-Fashioned Sugar Cookies

The holidays would be rather dull without the sugar-goggles innocently donned by plain old-fashioned cookie consumption.  I am no different, although I may try to sneak in some white whole wheat flour (or even whole wheat flour), alternative sweeteners (molasses and honey), and the occasional veggie or fruit.  The beauty of sharing the holidays with people other than my parents is that I get to try new cookie recipes that would otherwise take a backseat to the usual Thumbprints and Spritz (although this year I’ve been told my family is trying quite a few delicious new cookie recipes… figures).  First on the list is Gingerbread People, which turned out more like the physicist’s approximation of cows (that is, circles) due to a lack of holiday-themed cookie cutters.  Unfortunately the gingerbread circular cows were eaten before they could pose for my camera, but we remade the recipe in a double-batch to use for our 2nd Annual Gingerbread Non-House (last year was the Parthenon).

Gingerbread People (or for a gingerbread house)
(makes 14 medium people-shaped cookies)
1/2 cup butter (1 stick)
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup molasses
1 1/2 teaspoon white vinegar
1 egg, beaten
3 cups white whole wheat flour
1/2 teaspoon soda
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1/4 teaspoon salt
Combine the butter, sugar, molasses, and white vinegar in a saucepan and bring just to a boil and then take off the heat.  When the mixture is cool, add the egg and then the dry ingredients (flour, soda, cinnamon, ginger, and salt).  Mix the dough well and wrap it in parchment paper or plastic wrap.  Chill the dough in the fridge for a couple hours.  Once chilled, preheat the oven to 375 degrees F and roll the dough to 1/8 inch thickness and cut the dough into shapes using cookie cutters, knives, or circular plastic containers.  Place the cut cookie dough on greased cookie sheets and bake at 375 degrees F for 8-10 minutes.  Cool on wire racks.

Second on the list are simple sugar cookies, also made in the shape of circular cows.  I was sneaky this time and hid them away to take a couple photographs before leaving them to be devoured on the counter.

Plain Old-Fashioned  Sugar Cookies
(From Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Cookies)
1 1/2 cups butter
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 eggs
1 tablespoon milk
3 1/4 cups flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
Cream the butter and vanilla together and then add the sugar.  Add the eggs in individually, incorporating each one in fully.  Add the milk and mix well.  Combine the dry ingredients (flour, baking powder, and salt) and add them slowly to the wet ingredients.  Divide the dough into two portions and chill each wrapped in parchment paper.  Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.  Roll the chilled dough to 1/8th – 1/4th inch thick and cut cookies using cookie cutters, knives, or plastic containers (to make circles).  Bake the cut cookie dough on ungreased baking sheets for 8-12 minutes depending on the cookie’s size.  Keep a watchful eye if you like your sugar cookies barely cooked, as they will brown quickly.  Decorate with sprinkles or pretty sugars before baking, or ice the baked cookies with festive designs.

Baked Opah with Caramelized Carrots

The Santa Barbara Fish Market is something I could become addicted to.  Firstly, they usually stock at least a couple different types of locally caught fish, and secondly, they remind me why I want a job: so I can afford expensive fish.  The fish of today, opah, is not constantly stocked at the Fish Market because it doesn’t school and thus is only caught as by-catch.  Peter and I had the good luck to try it two Thanksgivings ago when we brought it to his parents’ house as the meat of honor.  I don’t quite remember the details of what we did to our first opah, other than that we marinated it in fresh lemon and lime juice and it was delicious.  By chance, we ran into it again today (I think we’ve visited the Fish Market less than 5 times while living here for over 2 years) and, of course, had to try it again.  It didn’t hurt that opah was the cheapest locally caught fish on the menu, but more than that, I was in the mood for a hearty fish.  The following is a very simple way to bake opah with lime juice, fennel stalks, and leeks.  We also had deliciously sweet caramelized carrots, which are so easy and so good that they really deserve to be cooked much more often.

Baked Opah with Citrus Marinade
(Serves 2 folks with plenty of other veggie dishes)
1 pound opah
Juice of 1 lime
A couple fennel stalks
1 leek, cleaned carefully and cut into long ribbons
Olive oil
Salt and pepper
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.  Marinate the opah by letting it sit in the baking dish covered in the lime juice for about 30 minutes.  The color of the opah flesh may change slightly, but that’s ok (we are essentially dousing it in acid after all).  Take the opah out of the baking dish (keeping the lime juice in the dish) and lay down the fennel stalks to line the bottom of the dish.  Put the opah on top of the fennel stalks and surround it by the ribbons of leek.  Drizzle olive oil over the fish and leeks.  Season with salt and pepper.  Bake the opah until the flesh turns a lighter color and is flaky; the specific time will depend upon the thickness of the cut, but our rather thick cut took about an hour. Serve the opah with the deliciously citrusy leeks.

Caramelized Carrots
(Serves 2 people as a side)
5-6 carrots, washed and cut into diagonal slices
1/2 tablespoon butter
Drizzle of honey
Salt and pepper
Melt the butter in a small pot.  Add the carrots and cook, stirring frequently, about 5 minutes.  Add 1/2 cup of water, or enough to come up to half the height of the carrots.  Let the carrots cook, uncovered, stirring every once in a while, until the water evaporates.  Once only the butter is left, keep a careful eye on the carrots, stirring frequently again.  Once they begin to brown a bit, add a drizzle of honey, salt, and pepper, and continue to stir frequently.  When the carrots have cooked another 5 minutes or so, turn off the heat and serve the carrots warm or hot.

Whole Wheat Chocolate Cupcakes with Guinness

These cupcakes didn’t start out quite so alcoholic (or so healthy).  But I didn’t have milk (or white flour), and as you may have noticed, we’re all very fond of Guinness and chocolate in baked goods around here.  We were invited to a hot cocoa party (sounds so innocent, doesn’t it?) and for some reason that made me want to make chocolate cupcakes with such a force that, well, despite having only half the ingredients, I went ahead with the experiment.  Owning a book like Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Chocolate Desserts requires some dedication.  When you have a dessert baking craving that involves chocolate, you are morally bound to consult it first.  Not remembering a section on cupcakes (apparently they weren’t quite so popular 40 years ago) I thought I was off the hook and free to browse the internets to my heart’s content.  But no, hidden in the “bonus recipes” section was indeed a recipe for chocolate cupcakes, which even more miraculously called for cocoa instead of baking chocolate, the only chocolate substance presently in the house.  The following is the recipe as I made it, but to revert to the original is easy: use white flour in place of the whole wheat flour, use milk in the place of Guinness, and use vanilla extract in place of the Grand Marnier.  While that may sound like me complaining about using Maida’s recipes, what I mean to say is: I’m so lucky to not have to sift through terrible recipes on the internets when instead I can just make any recipe at all from a single book and it will be the best dessert I’ve had in a long time.

Whole Wheat Chocolate Cupcakes with Guinness
(24 cupcakes)
2 cups whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup cocoa powder
10 2/3 tablespoons butter (less than 1 1/2 sticks of butter, in case the number 10 looks too daunting)
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon Grand Marnier
3 eggs
1 cup Guinness beer
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.  Line two muffin tins with muffin liners/cups.  If you only have one muffin tin, as I do, bake the cupcakes serially (one batch then the other).  Mix the dry ingredients together in a small bowl (flour, baking soda, salt, cocoa powder).  Cream the butter, add the sugar and Grand Marnier and cream them together, and then add the eggs one at a time, incorporating each egg fully into the butter/sugar before adding the next.  Then add the dry ingredients to the wet in thirds, adding half the Guinness between thirds.  Make sure the batter is fully mixed, but don’t overmix.  Fill the muffin liners 2/3 full (they will puff up when baked) and bake for 25 minutes or just under.  They are done when you stick your finger in the hot oven to press down on the top of a cupcake and the cupcake bounces back (almost literally into your hand, it wants to be eaten so badly!).

Happy chocolate cupcake eating!  I iced mine with frosting made from the rest of that second stick of butter (one stick minus 2 2/3 tablespoons) beaten together with about 2 cups powdered sugar, three teaspoons of Grand Marnier, and a teaspoon of water.  Perhaps I should just admit that a chocolate sauce frosting would have tasted better, but I’ve been on a mission to use up my powdered sugar for a while now, so creamy white sweetness overload was the order of the day.

Pomander: Clove-Studded Oranges (+ a simple plum crisp)

I had forgotten all about these, how they could smell so good and hang so prettily in my kitchen.  My friend Anna suggested them as stress relief, and if sticking pointy cloves into an orange isn’t good enough, the smell will make you melt, literally, into a holiday state of mind where peace, joy, and all good things reside.  I also made a plum crisp with a mixture of almond nut pulp and other delicious things on top.  You could make a traditional crisp topping, like the ones here, here, or here instead, but I do recommend planning some sort of holiday baking after making a clove-studded orange, because, well, you’ll see.

The clove-studded orange smelled so good that I couldn’t wait for the plum crisp to come out of the oven and I was forced to make some spiced chai tea.  How does one make spiced chai tea?  Start by boiling water in the volume of 2/3 of the amount of tea you want to make (the other 1/3 will be milk).  Use a mortar and pestle to crush a couple cardamom pods and whole cloves.  Add a cinnamon stick (or a dash of ground cinnamon) and some slices of fresh ginger (or again, ground ginger) to soon-to-be-boiling water, along with the cardamom and cloves.  When the water has boiled with the spices for a few minutes, add a couple bags of black tea and simmer until the tea is done.  Add milk to the pot and bring almost to a simmer.  Fish out the tea bags at any point.  Drink piping hot, perhaps with a spoonful of sugar and a tea biscuit (slightly sugary and buttery cracker) on the side.

Plum Crisp with Almond Nut Pulp
(bake in a regular-sized bread loaf pan)
For the filling:
5-6 plums (mine were small and not very delicious raw, luckily that changed when they were cooked) sliced into ~1/4 inch thick slices
1 tablespoon port or other such tasty alcoholic beverage
1/4 cups raisins, or to taste
1/2 lime worth of fresh lime juice
Dash of salt
Freshly grated nutmeg, to taste
1/4 tablespoon of butter or a couple small pats of butter for the top of the fruit

For the crisp topping:
1 cup of almond nut pulp from making almond milk, or 1 cup almond meal/flour
1 heaping tablespoon of virgin coconut oil or butter
1/2 tablespoon port or other such tasty alcoholic beverage
2 teaspoons honey (I like my desserts not too sweet)
Dash of salt

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.  Butter a regular-sized glass loaf pan, or similarly sized baking dish.  Layer the plums in the dish and sprinkle them with the port, lime juice, nutmeg, salt, raisins, and a couple small pats of butter.  For the topping, mix together the ingredients in a small bowl (almond nut pulp, port, honey, salt, and coconut oil).  If using coconut oil in the topping recipe, scoop a heaping tablespoon from the jar while the oil is still solid (I realize that sounds like a contradiction, since oils are usually liquid at room temperature), which should be the case normally unless you live in the tropics or keep your house unnaturally hot during the winter.  If you set the heaping tablespoon of coconut oil on top of the other topping ingredients in a very warm place, such as on top of your preheating oven, or in the microwave (we actually don’t have one of those nifty things… not enough counter space in our kitchen), the oil will melt at 76 degrees F at which point you can stir it in with the other topping ingredients.  Simply spoon the topping over the fruit and bake, uncovered, for about 40 minutes or until there is delicious fruit syrup in the bottom of the pan and the topping is starting to brown.

Perhaps you are wondering why I use coconut oil in this recipe?  Well, it was on sale at the Co-op  and I had been meaning to try it for a while.  The unrefined version I bought has a delicate coconut flavor that almost goes away when it’s been cooked.  As such, it is absolutely perfect in baked goods where you don’t mind a bit of extra flavor.  I’m sure that butter would make a fine substitute in the above crisp topping.

Now, on to the fun part: sticking cloves into oranges.  Step 1: find an orange.  Step 2: find some cloves (or use up the old ones that have been in your cupboard forever).  Step 3: find a ribbon and tie the orange up like a present.  Step 4: use your fingers or a thimble to poke the cloves into the orange in a nice pattern.  Step 5: bake some holiday yum yum yum.  You’re done!

Smooth Butternut Squash Soup

In addition to canning paraphernalia, I also received a purple Cuisinart immersion blender for my birthday.  And oh my, what fun!  I had previously reserved myself to only making chunky soups, but what another world now awaits!  Somehow it took an entire week to finally find the time to make something blendable, but can I just say that smooth squash soup is perfect?  That it can be made with a million variations (pears, apples, curry spices, caramelized nuts) and thus with the random vegetables still left in my kitchen at the end of the week is, perhaps, the real reason it won the blender lottery.  Below is the simple version I made, but next time there will be fruit!  And maybe sweet potatoes, as I’m still in love with the squash soup we ate at Thanksgiving.

Smooth Butternut Squash Soup
(Enough for 4 people or more)
1 onion, finely diced
4-6 medium carrots, chopped into disks
1 medium butternut squash, pealed and diced into dice
Chicken stock or bouillon
Cayenne pepper to taste
Salt and pepper
1 tablespoon butter
In a large soup pot, melt the butter and add the onion.  Cook until the onion is softened and then add the carrots, squash, chicken stock, cayenne, salt, pepper, and enough water to make a good soup consistency.  Cook, covered, on low heat until the squash and carrots are very soft and the broth has good flavor, 30 minutes to an hour.  When the soup is done, blend with an immersion blender or carefully transfer to an normal blender in batches.  Serve with fresh ground pepper, grated cheese, and perhaps some fresh herbs.

Dilly Beans (Pickled Green Beans)

It was my unbelievable luck to come back from Thanksgiving with a whole set of canning paraphernalia, ranging from a pot the size of my stove (seriously, it could sit on four burners simultaneously, although I think it wouldn’t be the most efficient way to heat 10 gallons of water) to brand spanking-new canning jars with lids that hadn’t been adulterated by past canning catastrophes.  Oh, and perhaps most importantly, I was the owner of a new cookbook: Canning for a New Generation, by Liana Krissoff, which is chock full of just the kind of recipes I like.  First on the list: dilly beans.  If you have  never had dilly beans, I’m sorry.  That’s all I have to say.  Or maybe you aren’t very into pickled things, in which case I’m still sorry, but that leaves more for me, I guess.  Dilly beans are my second favorite pickled thing, right after homemade cucumber pickles, which I have only eaten half a dozen times (regular cucumber pickles are still good).  As it is now December, and thus not the right time to buy cucumbers at the farmer’s market, I decided to practice canning things that I could find: green beans.  I won’t lie, real canning was quite the adventure, especially the part where the instructions said to “work quickly”, which meant that once the cans of dilly beans were already processing in their water bath (pretty much the last step of the process) I realized I forgot two very important steps.  Or maybe they weren’t that important, because 4 out of 5 of my dilly bean jars sealed properly (yay!).   And that last jar?  I think I was secretly happy it didn’t seal, because now it’s in my fridge and I have dilly beans to eat.

As the canning process is rather detailed, I will defer a complete description until I am more of an expert.  However, if you are already familiar with the canning process, I hope the following instructions will suffice.  I also imagine that one could make refrigerator pickles and just skip most of the canning steps, although I would still make sure the canning jars are cleaned very well (maybe even sterilized in boiling water) and that the pickles are put in the fridge after an hour of cooling on the counter.

Special equipment:

  • 5 pint-sized glass canning jars with new sealing flat lids (the new sealing lids are very inexpensive and sold separately so you don’t have to buy new pint jars every time you can something) that have been washed in hot soapy water.
  • A very large pot to boil water in that is big enough to hold the 5 pint jars standing up without them touching the bottom and leaving an inch or more of water on top of them.
  • A small rack to put at the bottom of the very large pot to keep the pint jars from touching the bottom of the pot.
  • A set of grippers to get the pint jars out of the water bath.
  • A funnel for filling the pint jars with hot brine.
  • A medium pot big enough to boil 8 cups of liquid, and finally
  • a chunk of time to make these darn tasty things.

Dilly Beans (Pickled Green Beans)
(Makes 5 pint-sized jars of dilly beans)

To be pickled:
2 pounds green beans, washed and trimmed to 4 1/2 inches long (to fit in a pint jar)
5 cloves garlic, peeled and left whole
5 sprigs fresh dill
5 dried chiles

For the pickling brine:
4 cups of cider vinegar (5% acidity)
4 cups of water
3 tablespoons of salt

1)  Boil water in the very large pot.  I did this by boiling water in every pot I own and then adding the boiling water to the very large pot.  No joke, boiling the water is the longest step, so leave plenty of time for it, perhaps as long as 45 minutes.  For proper canning, put the glass jars in the very large pot to get them ready.  Put the sealing flat lids in a heat-proof bowl.

2)  Trim the green beans and prepare the other ingredients (garlic, dill, and dried pepper) by setting them out in groups of what you need per pint jar.  The step where you stuff everything into the jars is a bit stressful, because you should do it as quickly as possible, but don’t panic, like me, and forget to do every step.

3) Once the very large pot of water is boiling, combine the ingredients for the brine (apple cider vinegar, water, and salt) in the medium pot and bring to a boil.  As soon as the brine is at a boil, take it off the heat.

4) Get the pint jars out of the very large pot of water with the grippers and set them on a clean towel, pouring the water inside them back into the pot (that’s precious water that took a lot of time to heat up!).  Take the water from inside the first pint jar and pour it into the heat-proof bowl of the flat sealing lids.  Make sure the lids aren’t right on top of each other, since this step is meant to soften the sealing ring around each lid so that the jars seal properly.  After emptying out the last pint jar, drain the water off of the sealing lids.

5)  This is the step where you’re supposed to hurry to do the following things:

  • Put one garlic clove, fresh dill sprig, and one dried chile in each jar.
  • Pack the green beans into the jars carefully so that they are standing up.  I tried not to pack them too tightly, but you don’t have to leave room around every bean.
  • Pour the brine into the jars using the funnel, leaving 1/2 inch of room at the top of each jar.
  • Use a knife or other pointy instrument to pop any large bubbles around the top of the brine.  This is one of two steps I forgot to do and most of my jars still sealed properly.
  • Wipe the rims of the jars with a dry towel so that the sealing lids will stick properly.  I forgot to do this too, but since I used a funnel, the rims weren’t too messy.
  • Put the sealing flat lids on the jars and then put the ring lids on, but tighten them only “finger tight”.  You want some of the air to get out when you process the jars in boiling water in the next step.
  • Using the grippers, lower each pint jar back into the very large pot of boiling water (that’s right!  Keep that pot boiling!) to process, making sure that the jars aren’t touching each other.  Once the very large pot of water has returned to a boil (mine never stopped boiling, it was so full), set the timer for 10 minutes.

6)  After 10 minutes, use the grippers to remove the pint jars and set them on a clean towel to cool and to be left, undisturbed, for 12 hours.  After 1 hour, check to see if the pint jars have sealed.  The most simple way to do this is by seeing if the tiny bump on the sealing lid has gone down.  The lids often make an audible pop when that happens (and sure enough, for the four pints that sealed, I heard 4 pops).  I would double-check that they are sealed by taking off the ring lid and gently pulling up around the sealed lid (not pulling too hard, obviously).  If the sealing lid comes off, refrigerate the pickles and enjoy.

7)  Once the jars have cooled all 12 or so hours, clean the outside of the jars of any residue from them boiling in the very large pot of water for so long, making sure not to break the lid seal.  Label the flat lids with the date of pickling, just in case they actually last a year and you are forced to eat them.

You may wonder why I am interested in canning things in the first place, since I wouldn’t say I have copious amounts of time as a graduate student.  My first reason is that I find it hard to justify buying expensive, high quality pickles because they always seem like a luxury food item.  And yet, I love to eat them.  Perhaps the few dollars I save by making pickles myself won’t really make a difference, but at least (my second reason for canning things) I’ll be able to make a larger variety of pickles than I can easily buy at the store (yellow pickled beets anyone?) and hopefully have fun learning something new… we scientists really love that.

Next on the pickle docket (YES, I can finally say that exists!) are:

  • yellow and candy-cane pickled beets (ok, the purple kind too)
  • spicy carrot pickles
  • radish pickles
  • summer squash pickles
  • pickled turnips
  • good old-fashioned cucumber pickles

And, due to excellent results from a simple freezer (read: not properly canned) strawberry preserve, I am dying to make a canned strawberry preserve, eventually widening my horizons to make the lavender, lemon, and Thai herb versions.