Thursday, October 31, 2013

Happy Halloween!

Ready for my trick-or-treaters tonight! Hope your Halloween is fun!

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Fall in the Garden

I love spring in the garden, all the plants come out from their winter slumber, everything is new, green and pretty again. The summer is filled with blooms of all kinds, butterflies, bees, birds and, unfortunately, weeds (sigh!) I devote many hours each week to tending the flower beds but it's a labor of love. After spending hours sitting at my desk it's nice to putter in the dirt, prune spent flowers and enjoy nature's show. However,I think I exert the most labor in the fall. The perennials need to be pruned, soil amendments need to be done, dead plants need to be pulled and leaves are everywhere. As the summer flowers have come and gone I find that I plant a lot of annuals this time of year so that we can enjoy color in the garden all throughout the winter. I plant pansies, cyclamen, primrose, snapdragons. They all are colorful and last through our somewhat mild winter. My backyard garden was particulary pretty this morning, the morning sun highlighted the flowers. Birds were flitting about everywhere, singing their cheery songs. I thought I'd share!

Sunday, October 20, 2013

A Pumpkin Kind of Day!

It seems this day was devoted to all things pumpkin.  I took a dessert to Stitch 'n Bitch, a variation of pumpkin bars that I call a pumpkin torte. After stitching and gabbing for a while I came home and baked mini loaves of pumpkin bread, mostly to give to neighbors and friends. Later in the afternoon I took granddaughter #3 to a friend's farm where they have over 1/4 acre planted in all kinds of pumpkins. We brought quite a few home!
Long before there were blogs, message boards were popular.  I found myself at the Food Network message boards many a night.  When Food Network closed the boards down some of us gravitated to our own board. We are still together and, though small in members, the recipes, hints, general advice and friendship has been an amazing experience. I've even had the opportunity to meet up with fellow members from Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Arizona, as well as California. One of the favorite recipes on our board originated from the Food Network days and is named after the original poster.  These pumpkin bars are more like a cake, than a traditional firmer bar.  No matter where I take them, how many times I make them, people rave about them.  They are that good. 
Today I decided to tweak the presentation a little bit and assembled the cake into a torte-style cake.  To do so, I made the bar recipe per the instructions.  I lined the pan with parchment paper, letting it overhang the pan so the cake could easily be lifted out.  I then trimmed the edges and cut the cake into three equal sections, then layered the cake sections with the cream cheese frosting (I doubled the frosting recipe for this). I tinted a little of the frosting and, using pumpkin candies, decorated the top like a pumpkin patch. It made a very festive dessert.
I had a small strip of cake leftover so cut them into the traditional bar shape and gave to my hubby.  They were gone in a heart beat!

Chefbeck's Killer Pumpkin Bars

2 cups sugar
1 cup butter (2 sticks), room temperature

2 cups canned pumpkin (one 15-oz. can)
4 eggs, room temperature
2 cups flour
2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. each cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, ginger, ground cloves
1/2 tsp. salt

Preheat oven to 350. Lightly grease a 15 X 10 1/2 X 1 pan.

Sift flour, baking soda, spices, and salt together; set aside.
Cream butter and sugar until smooth. Add pumpkin and eggs; beat until smooth. Add dry ingredients and mix until well combined.

Spread mixture into pan. Bake for about 20-25 minutes until cake springs back when touched or toothpick comes out clean. Cool completely and frost.

3 oz. cream cheese, room temp.
1 stick butter, room temp.
1 tsp. vanilla
1 tsp. orange zest (optional)**
2 cups powdered sugar

Beat together until smooth.

** The orange zest is really a nice flavor with these bars and tends to lessen the sweetness of the frosting. Orange oil can be substituted for the orange zest (I used 1/4 teaspoon).
The recipe for the pumpkin bread also comes from the food board and is attributed to Patricia.  She says this is her variation of the pumpkin bread recipe shown on the Libby's pumpkin can. It's an easy, moist and delicious bread and fantastic with a latte in the morning!

I've had these little ceramic loaf pans for over 5 years now.  Every year I say I'm going to  use them and every year they sit.  This year I finally used them! Now I think I need to buy more as they make such a cute gift!
Pumpkin Pecan Bread

Makes two 8x4 inch loaves

2 ¾ cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 ½ teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon ginger
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon cloves
1 cup pecans

1 cup butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup packed dark brown sugar
4 eggs
1 can Libby’s solid-pack pumpkin

In a small bowl, combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, spices, and pecans; set aside. In large mixer bowl, cream butter and sugars until light. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Blend in pumpkin. Add dry ingredients; mix just until moistened. Turn into 2 greased and floured 8x4 inch loaf pans. Bake at 350° F for 1 hour 10 minutes, or until toothpick comes out clean. Cool 10 minutes. Remove from pans; cool on wire racks.

Mini loaf pans :
7 small ceramic pans, 3x5x2 inch, about 35 to 45 minutes (on half-sheet pan)

With two freshly-baked pumpkin breads in hand, granddaughter #3 and I drove out to my friend's farm.  They farm mostly walnuts and almonds but have carved out a 1/4 acre area where they grow pumpkins each year.  This year they grew 17 different varieties!  They had a pumpkin patch party last weekend and we were unable to attend.  Bernice graciously invited me to come out and gather some pumpkins.  At first, my city-slicker granddaughter wasn't too sure about traipsing through a dusty patch of pumpkins and she got a few splinters from the pumpkin stems.  But she ended up having a great time and got to pick a few special pumpkins. She was a tired, dusty mess when done and fell asleep on the way home. She got an early bath and then spent the rest of the night talking about going to the pumpkin patch. We can't wait until next year's party!

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

It's Fall So It Must Be Soup Time!

When the fall weather begins to arrive my culinary thoughts turn to soup.  Soups are easy, they're pretty (can a food be pretty? I think so!), they are nutritious and nothing warms you up better! I recently bought a new cookbook (despite my vow to buy no more!), The Soupbox Cookbook. What a great book! There is a restaurant in Chicago called The Soupbox and it was voted best soup in Chicago. I can understand why! The book has many pictures and easy-to-understand recipes as well as the author's personal anecdotes. It's a keeper!

So far, I've made two soups from the book, mushroom barley soup and roasted butternut squash soup with sage and apple. We enjoyed both.

Lots of mushrooms and veggies! You just know it's got to be good for you!
Though it looks "light" it really is a substantial soup, very filling.

Mushroom Barley Soup

8 oz. button mushrooms, sliced
8 oz. shitake mushrooms, sliced
1 medium onion, diced
1 medium carrot, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon thyme
2 bay leaves
48 oz. vegetable stock **
1/2 cup pearled  barley
Salt and fresh ground pepper to taste

In a large stockpot with a lid, sweat the mushrooms, onion, carrot, and celery in the olive oil over medium heat for 10 minutes, stirring often. Add the garlic, thyme and bay leaves and cook till fragrant, about one minute longer.  Add the vegetable stock, cover and bring the soup to a simmer.  Add the pearled barley and cook for 35-45 minutes until the barley is tender.  Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper if needed.

Lots of color and flavor in this pan! I've made butternut squash soup many times but this is the first recipe I've used where the vegetables were roasted first. 

Garnished with an apple slice, this soup was slightly sweet and very flavorful due to the herbs and the roasting of the vegetables.

Roasted Butternut Squash Soup with Sage and Apple

1 butternut squash, peeled and cut into 2-inch chunks
2 medium carrots, quartered
1 medium onion, quartered
2 Gala apples, cored, peeled and cut into quarters
3 cloves garlic
2 tablespoons olive or canola oil
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon dried sage
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
32 oz. vegetable stock**
1 cup heavy cream

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.  In a large mixing bowl toss the squash, carrots, onion, apples, garlic and the dried herbs in the olive oil and spread them evenly on a foil-lined baking sheet.  Roast in the oven until the squash is tender, approximately 35-45 minutes. The vegetables should be tender and lightly browned.  Remove them from the oven and transfer the contents of the baking sheet to a large stockpot set over medium heat.

Add the vegetable stock, bring the contents to a simmer and cook for 15 minutes to allow the flavors to marry. After 15 minutes, remove the soup from the heat and puree with a food processor in batches.  If the soup is too thick, add a bit more stock.  Add the heavy cream.  (Be sure to remove from heat first.) Taste the soup and adjust seasonings with salt and pepper as needed.

** The authors provide recipes for vegetable and other stocks, I used a boxed organic stock.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Pomegranate Jelly...From Tree to Tabletop!

For over 15 years I've been making pomegranate jelly.  It's my hubby's favorite jelly. Each year I make 4-5 dozen jars, giving most out as Christmas gifts. I bought the juice from a local farmer, he had a small orchard and pressed all the juice.  As promegrante juice gained in popularity so did the price. Last year I paid $30 a gallon for the juice.  My annual jelly project wasn't cheap!

In January we planted a 2-year old pomegranate tree. The landscaper I purchased it from told he me got about a dozen pomegranates from it last year.  So I was hoping to get the equivalent. I enjoyed the growing process of the tree from its first blooms in the spring and small red orbs in the early summer.  By the end of summer we had a tree laden with fruit, so heavy that the still immature branches were hanging on the ground.

This was my first harvest. My hubby laughed and wanted to know when I was going to go to the farmer and buy my juice.  I had read that an average pomegranate produces about 1/4 to 1/2 cup juice so I was hoping to get enough juice to make a few jars of jelly.

His pessimism did not deter me!  Using a pomegranate press that I bought from Amazon I set up shop in a corner of the garage one evening and went to work. An hour later (it was such an easy process!) and I had almost 3 gallons of juice.  This is more than enough for my annual jelly making.  My hubby was impressed!

Pomegranate juice freezes very well which enables me to spread the jelly-making process according to my schedule. I did get 2 batches done this week.  Each batch makes 5-6 8 oz. jars of jelly so I have plenty of batches to go before I'm done for the year. It's an easy jelly to make, doesn't take much time once all the supplies are organized. This recipe was given to me by the pomegranate farmer's wife, many years ago.  She passed away this year but I will always remember my visits with her and her love for her family orchard.

Love the deep red color of the juice!
 Beautiful jelly ready for our toast and for gifts!

Pomegranate Jelly

3 ½ cups pomegranate juice
1 package dry pectin (Sure Jel)
5 cups sugar

Measure juice into 6- to 8-quart saucepot.  Measure sugar into a separate bowl.  Set aside.  Add package dry pectin to juice, mixing thoroughly.

Place juice over high heat.  Bring to a full rolling boil, stirring constantly to prevent scorching.  (If mixture starts to scorch, reduce heat to medium.)

Stir in sugar, mixing well.  Bring to a full rolling boil, stirring constantly.  Continue to boil 2 minutes. 
Remove from heat.  Skim off any foam. (I usually strain, using cheescloth over a strainer).

Fill hot jars quickly to 1/8 inch of tops.  Wipe off jar rims.  Cover quickly with flat lids.  Screw bands tightly.  Invert jars 5 minutes, then turn upright.  After 1 hour, check seals.  Or, use USDA water bath method.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Halloween Gingerbread Houses

I've always loved gingerbread houses and am in awe of some of the very talented decorators and the intricate and creative houses they create.  We made a few Christmas houses when my children were little and my mom used to make a Christmas rice krispies house every year when I was young. I wanted to start a tradition with my granddaughters but Christmas is such a busy season for everyone, I knew trying to schedule a day for this activity would just be one more obligation.  Four years ago I decided to do gingerbread Halloween houses. It's a less hectic time of year and they are very cute and colorful.  The first year it was just granddaughter #1 and I.  She was 4 at the time.

Last year her little sister, then 4, joined us.

This year we added granddaughter #3 to the mix.  She is only 3, so I was a little unsure as to how she would do. As expected, her attention span didn't last long, she was much more interested in eating the candy than decorating her house! Thankfully, her mommy was here and she decorated most of their house.

The mommy of the two oldest girls was here this year, too, which enabled each girl to have one adult assisting them. This really came in handy with using the piping bags full of royal frosting, the kids just don't have the manual dexterity to handle that. So, on this Saturday morning, I got to spend time with my two daughters and  three granddaughters. It was a fun morning!

Many years ago mom gave me a cast iron gingerbread mold that she used to use, similar to this one.

I used this mold with my children and the last few years with the granddaughters.  This year I decided to ramp it up a bit and bought an online template.  A week ago I made 3 batches of gingerbread and cut out all the various house pieces.  During the week my hubby and I did the house construction.
And, yes, wine does help!
When the girls showed up this morning they were greeted with their own basic house, with melted candy windows and a front porch. On my kitchen island were bowls of candy, jars of sprinkles, suckers, marshmallow ghosts, candy pumpkins and various colors of royal frosting.

 I also gave each girl a hand-appliqued apron in an attempt to keep them somewhat clean.

I showed them some online pictures, we talked about ideas and then they pretty much called the shots. It is a lot of fun watching their personalities shine through their houses, their very distinct ideas on what they want on their houses.

It took us about 1 1/2 hours to decorate our houses.  The cutting out, baking and assembling took many hours but it was a labor of love.  If I get any more grandchildren I will have to start making my houses in July!

Grandchild #2's house.

Grandchild #3's house (with much assistance from Mommy!)

Grandchild #1's house

I hope our tradition continues on for many more years. I have visions of teenage grandchildren coming over to play in the kitchen with their Nana, keeping me informed about their lives. We'll just see what happens!

This is what my kitchen looked like after all the activity.  Took me a while to clean up our messes.  Next year we decorate out on the patio!

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Someone's In The Kitchen With Nana!

Someone's in the kitchen with Nana, someone's in the kitchen I know -oh-oh-oh, someone's in the kitchen with Nana, stirring in the mixing bowl! (with much apologies to whoever wrote the original nursery rhyme!)

With a preschool nursery rhyme DVD playing in the background, grandchild #3 and I made cookies this morning. The cookie-making process took a lot longer than usual as we had to run to the TV to sing and dance to her favorite songs (Ring-Around-The-Rosy, ABC Song, 5 Little Monkeys).  She wanted to "help" so flour was spilled, her pajamas were a cinnamon mess and dishwashing water was sloshed everywhere. Like most grandmothers, I'm much more relaxed with my grandchildren than I was with my children. She was the only thing on my agenda this Saturday morning and the memories made far exceed the messes!

We've always loved Snickerdoodles. They are easy to make,  use ingredients normally stocked in the pantry.  This pumpkin variation is quite good and a great fall treat.

Pumpkin Snickerdoodles

2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons cream of tartar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice ***
1 3/4 cups sugar, divided
2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
1 large egg
3/4 cup pumpkin puree
2 tablespoons ground cinnamon

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  Line baking sheet(s) with parchment paper; set aside.

In a large bowl, whisk together flour, cream of tartar, baking soda, salt and pumpkin pie spice; set aside.

Using a mixer, cream the butter and 1 1/2 cups sugar at medium speed until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes.  Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula as needed.  Add the egg and beat at medium speed until combined, about 30 seconds.  Add the pumpkin puree and beat at medium speed until combined, about 30 seconds.  Add the dry ingredients and beat at low speed until just combined, about 30 seconds, scraping down the bowl as needed.

Combine the remaining 1/4 cup sugar and cinnamon in a shallow bowl.  Roll a heaping tablespoon (I use a small ice cream scoop) into a 1 1/2-inch ball, roll the ball in the sugar mixture, and place it on the prepared baking sheet(s), spacing the balls about 2 inches apart.

Bake the cookies, until the edges are set and just beginning to brown but the centers are still soft and puffy, 10-12 minutes.  Cool the cookies on the baking sheet about 5 minutes; transfer to a wire rack and cool to room temperature.

Note:  The dough is a little sticky, refrigerating for an hour or so will be less messy.

*** I make my own pumpkin pie spice.

Pumpkin Pie Spice

3 tablespoons ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground ginger
2 teaspoons nutmeg
1 ½ teaspoons ground allspice
1 ½ teaspoons ground cloves
Combine spices in a small bowl, mix well to combine. Store in a small jar or spice container.