Sunday, November 27, 2011

Savory Bread Pudding

Bread pudding was my go-to dessert in college. A small chain of restaurants called The Garden Café had an outpost in my university town, and the bread pudding they served was warm, sweetly comforting and excellent with cream.

This recipe for a different kind of bread pudding, perfect for a weeknight dinner, was shared by my friend and fellow alum Katie, who adapted it from Moosewood Restaurant Simple Suppers. This is also the perfect dish if you are like me and cube and freeze leftover bread for Thanksgiving imagining you are getting ahead and congratulating yourself on being frugal and über organized but then decide you are craving cornbread dressing or elect to make a polenta-based one for your dear friend who is on a gluten-free diet.

The beauty of Savory Bread Pudding, aside from the extreme comfort food factor, is its adaptability. The original recipe and Katie’s version were meatless, but it is delicious with a little bacon or ham. This is a nice way to include kale or other greens in your diet, but you aren’t limited to those. I’ve made it with ham, goat cheese and a greater amount of leeks, and experimented with roasted Brussels sprouts, walnuts and cheddar. The version pictured below incorporated frozen spinach, bacon, leeks and goat cheese.

Savory Bread Pudding
(adapted from Katie Fortney, who adapted it from Moosewood Restaurant Simple Suppers)

1 (12 to 16 oz.) loaf crusty bread, preferably a day old or a bit stale
4 slices bacon, chopped
1 leek, white and light green part only, sliced and thoroughly washed; or 1/2 onion, chopped; or 6 scallions, chopped
1 bunch greens (such as chard, kale, spinach or turnip greens), washed and trimmed; or 1 (16 oz.) bag frozen spinach, thawed and excess moisture removed
3 T. butter
5 to 6 eggs
2 c. milk
Salt and pepper
1 T. Dijon mustard
1 c. shredded cheese, divided; or 5 oz. goat cheese, crumbled and divided

Cut the bread into 1-inch cubes. Toast the cubes if they're soft.

In a skillet over medium-low heat, cook the bacon with half of the leeks, until the bacon is done and the leeks are starting to brown. Add the greens and sauté until wilted. (If you wish to use frozen spinach, add it to the skillet after the bacon and leeks have cooked; cooking it for a few minutes will help remove more moisture from the spinach and pick up the nice browned bits left on the bottom of the pan.)

Turn on the oven to 375°F. Put the butter in a 9x13-inch pan and place the pan in the oven. When the butter has melted, remove the pan from the oven and tilt it around until coated.

In a large bowl, mix together the eggs, milk, salt, pepper and mustard. Add half the cheese, and the greens, bacon and cooked leeks. Stir in the bread cubes until they're moist. Transfer to the prepared pan. Sprinkle the remaining leeks and cheese over top.

Cover with foil and bake for about 45 minutes, or until the egg mixture is set. Remove foil and bake another 5 to 10 minutes, or until the top browns.

Variation: Omit the bacon and add 1 c. cubed cooked ham to the egg mixture with the cheese and greens.

Copyright 2011

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

My Thanksgiving Menu

My shopping for the Thanksgiving meal is complete! I had the dubious distinction of being the morning's high total for my cashier at Trader Joe's. We do love a good feast around here (and leftovers!).
Friends are bringing the mashed potatoes and mashed sweet potatoes, and we'll also serve Dark Chocolate Sea Salt Caramels (of course!) and Apple Pie Cider. We'll have olives, cornichons, cheeses and crackers, Spinach-Artichoke Dip, carrots, celery and radishes to nibble while we finish cooking. Below is the rest of our menu, complete with links to the recipes should something strike your fancy. 
Roast Turkey: We're going with a simple version this year, roasted with onion, celery, butter and whatever else sounds good.
Polenta and Sausage Dressing:  Most of the work for this favorite from Gourmet can be done the day before. Because of food sensitivities, we'll be using our own pork sausage.
Classic Green Bean Casserole: We love this from-scratch version from the November 2006 issue of Cook's Illustrated, not the least because the components can be made ahead of time. (Note: You need a membership to the Web site to access the recipe.)
Roasted Acorn Squash Salad: We are going to make this with butternut and goat cheese this time. (More on my love for this dish here.)
Cranberry Sauce with Dates and Orange: Another Gourmet recipe that is becoming a new tradition for our house (I really miss that magazine!).
Spiced Apple-Cranberry Pie: Little Man requested this after seeing a photo. He has good taste.
Pumpkin Pie: Miss C has been waiting and waiting for this. I usually make the recipe on the back of the can, but this year I'm going to make the filling according to this recipe from Bon Appétit.
White Chocolate Cranberry-Almond Clusters: I will be making these using the method for the Dark Chocolate Cherry-Pepita Clusters. They would be great with pistachios or pecans, too.
Looking forward to the cooking and the baking and the feasting, and the wonderful day spent with friends and my little family. I love Thanksgiving!


Monday, November 21, 2011

Of Apple Cider

One of the many reasons I love autumn is it's finally cool enough to enjoy a mug of sweet, spicy apple cider. On rainy Saturdays at home, we might have a small saucepan of it simmering on the stove. We serve it at our pumpkin carving party, Thanksgiving and any other holiday gathering we host.

When we make cider for a crowd, we use our slow cooker. It works beautifully! It leaves the stove burners free for other cooking, and it keeps the cider warm all day. We like to use mulling spices to season the cider (Penzey's are my favorite!); they add a depth of flavor that we love. To keep the spices from floating in the beverage and an unsuspecting guest from swallowing them, we put them in a stainless-steel tea ball. (And although that is my preferred method, you don't need mulling spices to make great cider. When visiting family one Christmas, we simmered a couple of cinnamon sticks and a few thin strips of orange peel with the apple juice, which made a very appealing drink.)

For something a little bit more elaborate, try the variation. Long before Starbucks was known to us, my mom was making Apple Pie Cider during the holidays. I'm not sure where the idea or recipe came from perhaps a magazine or perhaps Mom's own ingenuity and taste for good food. Topped with freshly whipped cream and a sprinkle of cinnamon or nutmeg (or both!), it may be the coziest thing you drink all season.

Apple Cider for a Crowd
Scant 1 T. mulling spices
2 cinnamon sticks
2 (48 oz) bottles apple juice, preferably unfiltered

Place mulling spices in a stainless-steel tea ball, or tie up in a bit of cheesecloth. Add the mulling spices and cinnamon sticks to a 4-quart slow cooker. Pour in apple juice. Heat on HIGH until it reaches the desired temperature*, then set to "Keep Warm," if available, or LOW.

Variation: Apple Pie Cider
Prepare cider as above. To each mug of cider, add 1/2 oz. (or to taste) caramel drink syrup, such as Torani. Top with whipped cream. Sprinkle with ground cinnamon and/or ground nutmeg, if desired.

*We've never timed it, but I would estimate 30 minutes to an hour.

Thanks to my husband for taking today's photo!

Copyright 2011

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Acorn Squash, Revisited

I confess, I’ve never understood the allure of acorn squash. It lacks the depth of flavor of butternut; it's not quite as versatile as a pumpkin; it's difficult to peel. I do, at times, appreciate the subtle tea-like flavor of the fruit, but I’ve always wished for something more, something greater.

A couple of weeks ago, my husband picked up a large acorn squash at the market. It sat in the bread box*, briefly considered and then rejected every time I reached in for an onion. For a side dish, our usual mode of cooking has been to fill the cavity with butter, brown sugar, maybe some cinnamon and nutmeg, and bake. The label even calls this out as the perfect way to enjoy it. Well, my friends, the label-writer, acorn squash–promoter types are wrong.

A few nights ago, I decided the thing must be cooked before I was led down the road of produce spoilage–induced guilt. A quick search on uncovered Lidia Bastianich's Roasted Acorn Squash Salad. I had the dish’s few ingredients on hand, and it seemed simple enough to create while the meatloaf baked. And thus, a convert was born.

Roasting the squash in thick slices brought out its sweetness, and the vegetable was elevated when combined with the tangy, slightly sweet, almost nutty flavor of a balsamic vinegar glaze. Toasted almonds accompanied it perfectly, providing texture and a nice layer of flavor. The salad is wonderful without cheese, although I do think it would be divine with some goat cheese crumbled on top. 

I used olive oil (not extra-virgin) for roasting, and next time I would use a bit less, perhaps 1 to 1 ½ tablespoons. For drizzling over top, I used a good-quality extra-virgin olive oil. I did slice my squash a bit thinner than instructed; I wanted to have it in the oven with the meatloaf, which was baking at 375°F, and fully cooked when the main course was.

Balsamic vinegar can be pricey, but you needn't feel compelled to make a full batch of the glaze. I had ¾ cup in the house and reduced that with ½ tablespoon of honey and a bay leaf. It made enough glaze for at least 3 batches of the salad. Lidia claims the glaze keeps indefinitely; with that part of the prep completed, I believe this new favorite might make the cut for our Thanksgiving menu.

*We keep the bread in the refrigerator and the squash, onions and garlic in the bread box. Makes perfect sense. And it has not, as of yet, led to human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together, or mass hysteria.

Copyright 2011

Wednesday, November 9, 2011


Dark Chocolate Sea Salt Caramels from Trader Joe's
Copyright 2011

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Tom Valenti's Butternut Squash Soup with Crisp Pancetta

I love autumn. Once the calendar turns to September, I'm at the store, in search of pumpkin, sweet potatoes, brussels sprouts, butternut squash. I'm ready to bake cinnamon rolls, to stand over a pot of risotto, to roast whatever is at hand.

Even though the weather hardly ever cooperates and is usually warm and sunny, we try to squeeze a little bit of autumn into the menu for our annual pumpkin carving party. We always serve a lunch of soup and maybe sandwiches, maybe cornbread, before the carving commences. For a big crowd, my husband's chili will be simmering in the slow cooker. But the one thing that must be on the menu is Butternut Squash Soup with Crisp Pancetta, a recipe I discovered in Food & Wine a few years ago. One year we cooked a different butternut soup, and our guests nearly mutinied. And, being a party where jack-o-lanterns are born, the guests have sharp things, so we don't change up the main course anymore.

It is hard to improve upon a soup that begins by roasting squash swathed in pancetta (or bacon, in a pinch). We have noticed, in fact, that most of the vegetable soups we make begin with some form of cured pork. We love the extra layer of flavor it adds. And here it also is the perfect garnish, although it was all consumed by the time I took my photo. Sometimes we add a little drizzle of balsamic vinegar, sometimes olive oil. This year, a friend spooned in a dollop of bacon-leek-goat cheese dip and declared it a successful pairing.

This recipe is ideal for entertaining this time of year because the soup can be made ahead and reheated the day of your gathering. When we do so, we wait to add the cream until the soup is heated through and we are ready to serve. We've never found it necessary to add sugar.

Welcome, November!

Copyright 2011

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Have Fun Storming The Castle!

In its October 2005 issue, Real Simple magazine ran an item on a simple, creative, fun Halloween dessert/centerpiece: a spooky, sugary castle composed almost entirely of highly processed chocolate junk food. Chocolate snack cakes, chocolate graham crackers, chocolate sugar cones, chocolate doughnuts, all held together with chocolate frosting and decorated with gummy worms, candy corn, Skittles and other treats of the season. (The castle was designed by Clare Crespo, author of The Secret Life of Food.)

Miss C and I first created this homage to trans fats a couple of years ago.

2009 Halloween Castle

Yesterday we revisited it, and Little Man joined in the fun. We don't ever make it exactly as written; it's more fun that way, and as Miss C informed us last night, "We don't need instructions; instructions just boss you around." And, really, who needs more of that?

This year's project was almost entirely kid-directed. For the main body of the castle, they opted to use eight large Entenmann's chocolate doughnuts, stacked in twos and cemented with homemade buttercream frosting. Each tower is composed of three small chocolate doughnuts, one upside-down Hostess cupcake and a sugar cone. (If you can find them in your area, Oreo Cones are specified in the article and would continue the chocolate theme. If you want to use the instructions, that is.)

Castle base
Using more frosting and some chocolate graham crackers, we created the outer walls of our castle. At the entrance stand two Oreo Stix, topped with candy corn. The castle and grounds were then decorated withh more candy corn; gummy worms, pumpkins and spiders; and Sunspire dark chocolate SunDrops (a natural M&M-type candy). We even have some "monster traps" made of pink ice cream cones, purple frosting and chocolate cupcakes.

2011 Halloween Castle

And here is a "witch." A gummy pumpkin head impaled on a candy corn. I love my kids' imaginations and senses of humor!

We used ours as a centerpiece for our annual pumpkin carving party, although the preface of the article was to create a no-bake Halloween party dessert. It was a good family project, and it will be fun to see how the castle evolves each year. And I will simply shove down the guilt I feel buying two types of chocolate doughnuts, Hostess cupcakes, Oreo Stix, ice cream cones, powdered sugar and candy. Ah, motherhood: So much guilt, so little time!

(Thanks to my sweet husband for taking tonight's photos!)

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Dark Chocolate Cherry-Pepita Clusters

My paternal grandmother was known for her peanut clusters, creamy candies made on the stove and begun with a base of sugar, caramel chips and evaporated milk. They were a favorite of my father's and part of the family Christmas tradition, which my mother continued when my grandmother no longer could.

Chocolate clusters are a staple of my annual holiday baking, too, occasionally making an appearance for other fall and winter celebrations. They are the perfect foil to the requisite sugar cookies and gingerbread men on our goodie trays. They can be made ahead, and they don't require a candy thermometer or other special equipment. And they are so easy, you can display your awesomeness by whipping up a batch while another treat is baking!

My usual MO is to melt a big block of dark chocolate and stir in whatever sounds good: peanuts, pistachios with dried cranberries, slivered almonds with dried blueberries. Inspired by a bag of dried cherries in my cupboard and the pepitas left over from making the Sweet Maple Snack Mix, I created these for Little Man’s birthday party a few weeks ago.

Ridiculously simple and ridiculously good, this recipe will take you through Halloween, Thanksgiving and into Christmas with its rich, decadent flavors. I may have licked the spoons after making these. And scraped out the bowl. And licked the spoons again.

If you don’t have a Trader Joe’s in your neighborhood, Guittard Extra Dark Chocolate Chips are an excellent option. Of course, microwaves vary, so use the directions as a guide. I use a Pyrex bowl with a large, flat bottom, which allows for the chocolate to be in nearly one layer. The chocolate may still have lumps after 2 minutes of microwaving, but the residual heat from the chocolate and bowl will melt them as you stir. I use dried Montmorency cherries, also from Trader Joe’s.

Dark Chocolate Cherry-Pepita Clusters

1(17.6 oz.) Trader Joe’s 72% Dark Chocolate Pound-Plus bar, broken into several large pieces
1 (8 oz.) bag dried pitted tart cherries
1 c. roasted and salted pepitas

In a large microwave-safe bowl, arrange chocolate in as close to a single layer as possible. Microwave on HIGH for 2 minutes. Remove from microwave and stir until smooth. Stir in cherries and pepitas. Drop by spoonfuls on sheets of waxed paper and allow to set. Store in single layers on waxed paper in an airtight container.

Copyright 2011

Monday, October 24, 2011

Lingering Summer

Summer is hanging on here in Northern California. The forecast this late October weekend was 83° and sunny. The children donned shorts and pleaded (again) for a sand-and-water table. Darling Husband decided it was perfect weather for pumpkin ice cream. We even contemplated turning on the air conditioning. (We resisted.) While waiting for autumn to assert itself, we are trying to enjoy these few last bursts of summer, including their perfect excuse for making Vietnamese-style iced coffee. 

I became smitten with the drink during one of our summer visits to my brother- and sister-in-law, who are friendly with the owners of a wonderful Asian restaurant. We dine there at least once during our stay, and always on order are the sweet, tangy, saucy house tofu and the sublime Vietnamese iced coffee, the bitterness of the brew tamed delightfully by the sweet creaminess of condensed milk.

Many months later, I have eschewed caffeine and realized a decaf version will be more difficult to find when dining out. I’d thought of making it myself, but it seemed wasteful to open a new can of sweetened condensed milk for one or two drinks, when I knew the remainder would languish in my fridge for weeks, alongside the box of almond milk no one remembers buying.

Enter Trader Joe’s. While browsing the aisles the other day, I came across this new gem: 

Sweetened condensed milk in a squeeze bottle. As Little Man would say, “That be perfect!” Now I can easily make something akin to Vietnamese iced coffee at home. Although traditionally the coffee is brewed in a phin*, which is similar to a French press, we make do with our Bunn. Which makes coffee in 3 minutes, so really, we can't complain.

On this warm, lazy Sunday morning, we brewed some extra-strong dark-roasted coffee, filled our glasses with ice, and stirred in a couple of tablespoons of sweetened condensed milk. I may have enjoyed mine with a slice of chilled pecan-pumpkin pie, content to wait a few more days for autumn to claim victory.

*For more information on traditional methods and a tutorial on how to use a phin, visit CoffeeGeek.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Sweet Maple Snack Mix

Recently we celebrated Little Man’s birthday with an afternoon party in the park: a delightful, casual tractor-themed bash on what turned out to be a gorgeous October afternoon. Happily needing to feed nearly 50 of our wonderful friends, we had drawn up a menu of easy-to-prepare snacks. Lots and lots of snacks. Savory bites such as salami, fresh mozzarella, olives, gherkins, crisp vegetables, and three types of homemade hummus, including pumpkin. We also had the birthday boy's favorite Cheese Crunchies and mini cheese sandwich crackers from Trader Joe's. (Cheesy carbs! He is his mother's son.)

Along with the tractor-shaped (theme!) birthday cake, we served a few sweet treats. One of the favorites among them was this snack mix, adapted from a recipe I found online. It was my mom who suggested I make snack mix for the large crowd we were entertaining. Every fall and winter, Mom would make Chex mix to have on hand for Husker game parties, family gatherings, the holidays, or to serve to family and friends who dropped by. On those crisp afternoons when it was fresh from the oven, I loved snagging some warm cereal bits, especially the extra-crispy, extra-coated ones, savoring the salty tang of Worcestershire on my tongue.

Mom always made Chex mix in a large, battered baking pan, the outside painted a lovely 1970s russet; it was a bridal shower or wedding gift, if my memory serves. It was perfect for the task. Roomy enough to make a big batch and with high sides so you could stir without spilling. Alas, I have no such pan. I baked this on two rimmed cookie sheets, but I had to bake it for longer than 25 minutes. Next time, I plan to divide the mixture into thirds for baking. And the dishwasher (aka my darling husband) says the sweet, sticky goo dissolves in warm water, so cleanup isn't too much of a chore, but you could line the pans with parchment paper.

Sweet Maple Snack Mix (adapted from Tanya's Sweet Chex Mix)

7 c. Kix cereal
7 c. Crispix cereal
2 c. roasted and salted shelled pepitas (pumpkin seeds)
2 c. pretzel sticks
½ c. brown rice syrup
½ c. pure maple syrup
1 c. sugar
¾ c. butter
Dash natural maple flavor
Pinch baking soda
¾ t. ground cinnamon

Preheat oven to 250°F. In a very large bowl, combine cereals, pepitas and pretzels. Set aside.

In a large saucepan over medium heat, melt together brown rice syrup, maple syrup, sugar and butter. Bring to a boil. Remove from heat. Whisk in maple flavor, baking soda and cinnamon.

Pour syrup mixture over cereal mixture and toss to coat. Spread mixture evenly on large, rimmed cookie sheets or jelly roll pans. Bake for 25 minutes. If mixture is still sticky, bake for an additional 5 minutes, or until mixture appears dry. Remove to sheets of waxed paper, breaking apart any large clumps. Cool completely.

Copyright 2011