Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Stocking Envy and Decadent Holiday Potatoes

We had a wonderful Christmas around here and I hope yours was jolly and bright too. The Colorado weather even held out quite nicely for this Texas transplant with unseasonably warm temperatures. On Christmas day it managed to soar to the low 50s which around here feels more like a late summer’s day than the beginning of winter. We have also had a very dry winter at the lower elevations and record snow in the mountains; so all of you Coloradoans complaining about the lack of snow in the Denver area this winter head up hill there’s plenty of it waiting for you there.

Personally, I really haven’t missed a magnesium chloride glazed car or news about flight delays one little bit thank you very much. I’m so sorry for all those people in the Northeast dealing with the blizzard of 2010, but better you than me.

Even though I revelled in the warmish weather, I must admit getting into the Christmas spirit took a little bit more doing because of it; even decking our halls didn’t help much. I think that Christmas finally started to take root when I hit Walgreens for stocking stuffers.

When I was a kid, I don’t think my parents even did stockings that I can remember. All I know is that I don’t have one of those ancient artifacts from my childhood like my husband. His stocking has been used since his very first Christmas. I’m not saying that it is old or anything but I swear if you look very closely on the back you can barely make out the words “Designed by Betsy Ross”.

It is made of red felt and lovingly appliqued with hand cut white seasonal symbols. You know the ones, the singing angel, the double ringing bells, the slightly lopsided snowman, and Santa’s favorite reindeer, all accented with thoughtfully placed sequins that have now been dulled with the passage of time. The only problem with this quaint little stocking is that it was originally engineered to hold only a handful of treats, not the bonanza of odds and ends that Santa delivers today, so the excess is carefully annexed on the mantle above.

The once modest offering of a candy cane, a new toothbrush and an orange in the toe have now been replaced by our over the top generation with gift cards, Godiva chocolates, and new cell phones. No wonder my husband experiences stocking envy every year seeing his scrawny little stocking hanging next to our sparkling supersized ones brimming with gifts. His just simply can’t hold the amount of booty that ours can.

He does make a good point; even the dog’s stocking holds more goodies than his. If he wants to go out and buy himself a big glitzy new one more power to him, but personally every time I hang his well-loved antique my Christmas spirit soars, which brings me to the realization that maybe he’s not the only one with stocking envy around here.

Shortly after we empty our stockings, the great feast begins. Since we aren’t with our extended family and our numbers are small, we try to make our dinner something really special on Christmas Day. In years past we have had lobster bisque, tenderloins (beef and pork) and Cornish hens. This year I decided on an herb encrusted beef rib eye roast. I have done this before a couple of years ago and since I sorely misjudged the time it would take to cook, that year we didn’t eat Christmas lunch until 3 in the afternoon.

This year, I was armed with the knowledge that my roast was going to easily take 2 hours to achieve medium rare so I planned accordingly. In addition to the slow cooked roast, I also decided to make my almost famous three cheese au gratin potatoes. Made with a combination of bleu, Parmesan and cheddar cheeses with a generous sprinkling of bacon, it has a smooth flavor that is subtly sharp and slightly smoky. Served with beef or ham it is close to perfection. I also sautéed some tiny Brussels sprouts with bacon and onions in a light balsamic glaze that was a delicious accompaniment to the potatoes and beef.

Decadent Three Cheese and Bacon Au Gratin Potatoes

6 medium to large size russet potatoes (approximately 2 pounds, 1 kilo), thinly sliced
1 medium size sweet yellow onion, thinly sliced
4 – 6 slices smoked bacon, chopped and fried until almost crispy
Salt and Pepper
Granulated garlic
1/2 cup bleu cheese crumbles
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1-1/2 cup grated medium cheddar cheese
1 – 1/2 cups heavy cream (this is why they are called decadent)
1-1/2 tablespoons butter, cut into small pieces

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Spray a 2 quart (2 liter) baking dish with non-stick cooking spray. Layer 1/3 of the sliced potatoes in the bottom of the prepared dish (leave a few “holes” so the cream can seep between the layers), followed by 1/2 of the onions. Add salt and pepper and granulated garlic to taste before topping with 1/2 of the blue and Parmesan cheeses and 1/2 of the bacon. Top that with 1/3 of the cheddar cheese. Repeat the layers with the remaining ingredients ending with the remaining 1/3 of the cheddar topping the last layer. Slowly pour the cream over the top allowing it to seep down to the bottom between the layers. Dot the top with butter, cover and cook for 1 – 1 -1/2 hours until the potatoes are fork tender. For those of you at higher altitudes like me it takes closer to 2 hours. Remove the foil covering and brown for the last 15 minutes of cooking time. Remove from the oven and cool for 10 minutes before serving.

Serves 8 – 10.

Monday, December 20, 2010

All I Want for Christmas

It is just a few days before Christmas and the really hard part for me has arrived. I’m not talking about what to get my husband, my son or my daughter. I’m talking about making my own Christmas list so my poor family can get their shopping done. I’ve tried the “don’t get me anything, my present is making you happy” thing and they just don’t buy it. I don’t blame them, why should I be the only one that gets to experience the joy of giving? So here I am, again this year, sitting at my keyboard with my thinking cap on, trying to conjure up something. This always makes me feel incredibly lucky that I don’t need new crutches or a hip operation or food for my cupboard. What a problem to have, to need to come up with a list of things that a group of people who love me can go out and buy and lovingly wrap and present to me in the warmth of our beautiful home on Christmas morning. I rest my case, I don’t need anything that I don’t already have, but that just isn’t good enough for them. Well, after much consternation, I have managed to come up with a few things that would make me happy but as you can tell, they might not be so easy to find at Macy’s. So, dear family, here’s my list in no particular order of importance. Happy shopping!

Mom’s Christmas List for 2010:

1. A good $40 bra that’s straps won’t constantly slide off of my shoulders with underwires that poke me in the armpits. I know that Oprah endorses some really good $100 ones but you shouldn’t have to mortgage the farm to comfortably hold up the girls.

2. A washer proof cell phone. I want one that can go through the whole heavy duty cycle and still work. They put a man on the moon in 1969; you would think that 41 years later something like this wouldn’t be such a big problem.

3. Universal cell phone chargers so you don’t have to buy a new car charger every time you wash your cell phone and have to buy a new one.

4. A family dinner at that intriguing looking little Middle Eastern restaurant on the sketchy side of town without any complaining by any teenage boys.

5. Never having to hear the words Heidi, Spencer or Kardashian ever again.

6. A winning lottery ticket wouldn’t hurt.

7. Age appropriate clothing for Cher.

8. A new meat thermometer since my old one was used to check aquarium water temperature last year while I was in England.

9. A good therapist for a couple of members of my extended family (don’t laugh, everybody has ‘em).

10. Osama Bin Laden’s head on a stick.

Well, that’s about it. See I’m not so hard to shop for, although I’ll admit some of these things are going to be really hard to wrap, but remember you asked.

To repay my sweet little family for all of their hard work and shopping, I’m going to cook one of their favorite soups. I started making this one day when all I had to work with was the dregs of my vegetable crisper and a store bought rotisserie chicken carcass. With just a splash of cream, which can easily be omitted if desired, it will give you a nice little break from all the rich holiday food that seems to be everywhere now days.

Creamy Chicken Soup

I always save my roast chicken scraps for soups. Throwing away all of those flavorful bones to me is like throwing away the change from a $5 bill. I’d never dream of being so wasteful. Whether you make this recipe or throw in some vegetables with some rice or noodles, you will definitely get a bonus meal for four people out of what you once thought to be nothing.

1 leftover rotisserie chicken carcass or reserved cooked or uncooked chicken bones (turkey works well too)
6 cups water
2 tablespoons chicken bouillon granules
2 celery stalks, chopped
1 medium size onion, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
1 large bay leaf
1 tablespoon fresh parsley, coarsely chopped
1/4 teaspoon ground sage
1/2 cup cream (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

Place chicken, water, bouillon granules, celery, onion, carrots and bay leaf in a large stockpot and bring to a boil over medium high heat. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for 30 minutes. Remove chicken bones and transfer to a cutting board to cool; discard bay leaf.

If you have an emersion blender, blend vegetables and stock until creamy in the stockpot. If you are using a countertop blender, remove from the heat and cool mixture. Working in 2 or 3 batches, blend until creamy. Set aside 1/2 cup of the stock and return the remainder to stockpot; set aside.

Remove chicken meat from the bones and discard bones. Chop the meat into small bite size pieces. Add meat to the broth in the stockpot and heat through over medium heat. Add parsley, sage, cream and salt and pepper to taste.

Place the 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour in a small bowl and slowly whisk in the 1/2 cup reserved broth to form a paste. Add to the hot stock in the pot and bring to a slow boil, stirring constantly, whisk in the flour mixture, cook for approximately 2-3 minutes.

Serve immediately or cover, cool and refrigerate until ready to eat.

Serves 4

Friday, December 10, 2010

Oh Fudge!

I love this time of year. Once I tear the November page off my calendar, Christmas is on. I can't wait to get out our decorations and unwrap the old friends that patiently wait for our return year after year. I even love our tattered artificial garland that was once proud and pert, but is now limp and wobbly and sheds all over our house like an old shorthaired terrier. Once my husband pulls the boxes out of the crawlspace, our family triage unit gets to work and carefully combs through the bags and boxes searching for casualties and sadly discarding the mortally wounded. Our dining room ER set-up is where the salvageable are taken and rehabilitated with an assortment of glues, silver polishing clothes, nail polish and glitter. We would never consider replacing these old friends by buying new just for a crack or paint scrape so they are lovingly repaired and put back into action. We look upon purchases such as garland and ornaments as an investment that you make but once and are only thrown away as a last resort. The only exception to this philosophy of generosity and kindness being those damned twinkle lights. I honestly think that somewhere in those 8’ wires is a miniscule brain that has two functions; shine beautifully and brightly to instill a false sense of security, and go black as soon as they have been firmly mounted on a tree or worse yet, the eves of a house. It never fails that it is usually lights out as we stand back to survey our finished handiwork.

A few years back I was forced to purchase a new artificial tree when the branches of our old one began to fall off out of sheer exhaustion. At an after Christmas clearance at a high end department store I was thrilled to be the lucky “winner” of a 75% off pre-lit simulated Norfolk pine that was no doubt made of quality material, or so I thought. The first year I pulled it out of the box; I easily assembled it and plugged it in with no less than magnificent results. Its twinkle lights were designed with magnified lenses on the end to give them an almost blinding shine. I couldn’t help but pat myself on the back every time I passed by it, congratulating myself on such a great bargain. The following year, the first section went out on us a couple of hours after firing it up leaving us to wonder what the hell goes on in that box when we aren’t looking? I mean it was working perfectly when we packed it away. By the end of that second season, no less than 1/3 of that tree was as dark as Broadway on a Monday night. We turned the dark side of the tree to the wall and carried on. The third year my awesome husband worked his magic on our tree using his special combination of profanity, ohm meters and electrical tape and got the lights working again. This year, when we plugged it in, things were different, only 1/4 of the tree would even light up. Feeling totally betrayed by “that big green piece of @*&!” in the corner, he turned his back on us both suggesting that I either buy new or get creative. Since it is so close to Christmas and I have been hemorrhaging more money than I care to admit to him, I chose the latter. I went and purchased a couple of new strings of lights (I believe that this is what my mom called “throwing good money after bad”) and wound them around the branches of my big bargain, problem solved . . . kind of. As I write I am now sitting here looking at my patient wondering if I now need to buy a few new ornaments to cover up the wires from all of those aftermarket lights. Oh shoot, I don’t know, I think I’ll just go with it this year and maybe look for another one of those fabulous pre-lit clearance bargains in a few weeks. Always an optimist, I can’t help but thinking that I’ll have better luck next time.

Life, like those crazy lights, is full of uncertainties, but thank goodness there are some things that we can all depend on year after year. One of my favorite constants is preparing the tons of Christmas goodies that my family loves so much. A few Christmases ago my friend Kim delivered the most delicious tin of fudge to us that I had ever eaten. Unlike my own gritty squares of chocolate that I had been making for years, hers was rich, smooth and creamy without a hint of grit. She was happy to share her recipe with me and I have been making it to the delight of my friends and family ever since. We sadly lost Kim almost a year ago but she is still very much alive in our hearts. In her memory I am happily passing her recipe on for you to enjoy too. I think she’d really like that, so here’s to you my dear friend! I am also including a recipe from another friend for her almond butter toffee. It comes highly recommended by my husband. He just can't stay out of this stuff hence the reason there are only a couple of pieces left in the candy bowl in my photo.

To all of you who are reading this, if you still have the ones you love and care about around you this Christmas let them know how much you love them, for their presence in your life is your greatest gift of all. I hope you all have a very merry Christmas and a happy New Year!

Creamy Chocolate Fudge

7 ounces (210g) mini marshmallows
1 – 1/2 cups granulated sugar
5 ounces (147ml) evaporated milk
4 tablespoons (56g) butter
1/2 teaspoon salt
12 ounces (340g) milk chocolate chips or chopped milk chocolate bar
8 ounces (240g) plain chocolate chips or chopped plain chocolate bar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 ounces (60g) nuts (optional)

Line an 8 x 8” pan with waxed paper or foil then spray with non-stick cooking spray; set aside.

In a large saucepan over medium high heat, combine the marshmallows, sugar, milk, butter and salt. Bring to a boil and cook, stirring constantly for 5 minutes.
Remove from the heat and stir in chocolate, vanilla extract and nuts. Stir until the chocolate is melted. Pour into the prepared pan. Cool in pan for 2 hours or until firm before slicing and eating.

Vanilla Fudge

7 ounces (210g) miniature marshmallows
1 – 1/2 cups granulated sugar
2/3 cup (147ml) evaporated milk
4 tablespoons (56g) butter
1/2 teaspoon salt
12 ounces (340g) white chocolate chips or chopped white chocolate bar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 teaspoons maple flavoring (optional)
2 ounces (60g) walnuts

Line an 8 x 8” baking dish with waxed paper or foil then spray with non-stick cooking spray; set aside.
In a large saucepan set over medium high heat, combine the sugar, milk, butter and salt. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly and cook for 5 minutes. Remove from the heat, add the white chocolate and stir until it is melted. Stir in the vanilla and maple flavorings. Pour into the prepared pan. Cool for 2 hours or until it is firm before slicing.

Almond Butter Toffee and How to Salvage It When Things Go Wrong

I have to be honest this isn’t my friend’s recipe. Because I’ve asked her for it on several different occasions, I was embarrassed to admit that I had misplaced it once again, so I found this one on the internet. It went pretty well until the second five minute timing when it separated and got grainy, and despite the encouragement in the recipe, it didn’t come back. I have read different reasons as to why this happens: heat is too high, stirring it too vigorously or crystallized sugar from the side of the pan falls into the boiling toffee. Whatever the reason it is frustrating and disappointing.

Since I didn’t want to throw away $7.00 worth of butter, sugar and almonds, I turned the temperature down to medium and slowly stirred in some hot water a tablespoon at a time until it equaled about 1/4 cup and the butter slowly started to blend in again (please be careful if you have to do this as the hot mixture might spit out of the pan when the water is added). I got out my candy thermometer because the almonds didn’t pop like they were supposed to. I quit the constant stirring and let my mixture slowly boil until it reached 300 degrees (hard crack stage), only stirring very gently every now and then just to make sure it didn’t burn on the bottom. This took a good long time (probably 40 minutes) but what did I have to lose? The good news is that with a little patience and perseverance I managed to salvage my toffee and it is delicious. My toffee is a rich walnut brown and has a depth of flavor that may be the best I’ve ever had. So, if your toffee turns out the first time, good for you! If not, try my salvage method and you still might be alright.

As simple as it delicious, you’ll need about 15 uninterrupted minutes. Don't answer the phone; don't answer the door. And you need a good-sized (3-1/2 to 4-quart) heavy saucepan -- the heavier the better -- and a stout wooden spoon. Ideally, you should have an 11-inch by 17-inch jellyroll pan with a 1-inch lip on it. If you don't have that, then two flat cookie sheets will do. Line the pan or cookie sheets with aluminum foil, letting the excess hang over the edges, and set them on a heatproof surface. Sprinkle each cookie sheet with a tablespoon of finely chopped almonds. Have a candy thermometer handy just in case things go peared shaped on you.

2 cups (4 sticks or 454g) butter
2 cups (400g) sugar
3 cups (675g) coarsely chopped almonds (I reserve 1/2 cup and finely chopped them to sprinkle on the pans and chocolate)
1 - 12-ounce (340g) package milk or plain chocolate chips or chopped chocolate bars(optional)

Put the butter and sugar in the saucepan and, over medium high heat, stir while the butter melts. Stir constantly while sugar dissolves, and let mixture come to a boil. When a uniform boil is reached, set your timer for 5 minutes. Keep stirring.
At the 5-minute mark, the mixture will start to look light and creamy. Add the almonds all at once, and start stirring them in. The almonds will cause the mixture to cool, so it will immediately get thick and some of the butter will separate, and you may think you've made some terrible error, but persevere. Just keep stirring slowly with that stout wooden spoon.

When the mixture comes to a boil, again set your timer for 5 minutes. However, you don't really need the timer because -- and this is the best part -- the almonds will tell you when the toffee is ready. That's right.

As you continue to stir, the mixture will really start to come together. The butter that separated out will get stirred back in, and the mixture will begin to darken as the sugar caramelizes. At or around the 5-minute mark, you will begin to hear the almonds popping. The heat causes them to expand, which causes a low, dull popping sound. And then you know that your toffee is ready! (If graininess appears, refer to my salvage method above and say a little prayer).

Pour the toffee out evenly into the foil-lined pan or cookie sheets. Be very careful; it is extremely hot. If you are topping the toffee with a chocolate layer, wait 5 minutes and when the toffee has begun to set, and sprinkle the chocolate chips over the hot surface. They will quickly melt and become spreadable. Spread the chocolate in an even layer over the toffee. At this point sprinkle with the reserved almonds over the warm chocolate. When toffee has cooled completely, it can be broken apart. Store in layers separated by waxed paper in an airtight container.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Karen's 2 Days of Christmas Extravaganza and a CSN Giveaway

It seems like all I do lately is whine, and I’m sorry about that but I’m at it again. I hope you’ll give me this one because I have just spent no less than 15 minutes trying to figure out my username and password for my Domino’s Pizza account… really??? I finally just gave up and made a grilled cheese. Why does everyone think they need to complicate things by asking for a login?

I’m not stupid; I know that you aren’t supposed to use the same password for everything just in case someone cracks your top secret code. Then, heaven forbid, the crook could for instance have access to all of your Domino’s information and order pizzas without permission. Just the thought of that makes me shiver with fear. To keep the identity thieves as confused as I am, I have several different passwords that I shuffle around. I am beginning to believe that the only person that this clever system of mine confounds is me; which leaves me spending precious moments of my life entering every possible combination of letters and numbers until something, anything works. . . or not.

The only problem with this is now I am sometimes limited to the number of times I can fumble around and try the wrong password before I am locked out. In sheer frustration I have considered hiring an identity thief to help me break into my own online accounts. I guess if nothing else, I’ll just write all my passwords down and carry them around in a briefcase handcuffed to my wrist. Sheesh! This is progress?

Moving on, the other thing on my mind are all these Favorite Things and 12 Days of Christmas extravaganza shows that Oprah and Ellen Degeneres do every year. I’m really sick and tired of seeing the audience jump up and down and scream because they get to take home a new car and two week vacation to Australia. I mean I’m happy for them and all (no, let’s get real, I hate them) but I’m tired of feeling like the bridesmaid and never the bride. Now Oprah has done her last Favorite Things show and I never did make it (damn!). Ellen does hers for 12 days but something tells me I’m not going to make it there this year either.

I know that most of you have never gotten to go either so I’m going to do something about it. I’m going to have another giveaway this month and I’m going to call it Part 2 of Karen’s 2 Days of Christmas Extravaganza. My big prize is a very generous $65.00 online gift code to the CSN stores. Take that Oprah and Ellen! So, let’s make everyone else watch us jump up and down with glee at our good fortune. Oh yeah, since I only have one to give away, I’m treating the rest of my “audience” to the consolation prize of a really great chewy bar cookie recipe that is patterned after a fabulous old Italian almond cake recipe. These cookies are so addictive you won’t be able to keep them it the house. These are definitely on the list of my favorite things.

My 2 Days of Christmas, CSN $65.00 giveaway is open to all of my followers in the US and Canada, one entry per person please. On December 10th around noon, I’ll have select my winner so you have plenty of time to make your selection from one of CSN’s 200+ online stores in time for Christmas.

Italian Almond Cookies

3/4 cup (170g) butter, melted
1-1/2 cups (300g) plus 1 tablespoon granulated sugar, divided
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1-1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1-1/2 cups (225g) all-purpose flour
2 ounces (60g) sliced almonds

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a medium size bowl, combine butter and 1-1/2 cups of the sugar; stir until creamy. Add the eggs, salt, vanilla extract, almond extract and flour; stir well.
Spray a 9” pan with non-stick cooking spray. Spread dough in the prepared pan. Sprinkle the sliced almonds evenly over the top, followed by the remaining tablespoon of the sugar.

Place in the preheated oven and bake for approximately 35 – 40 minutes.

Remove from the oven and cool in the pan for approximately 10 minutes before carefully turning out onto a large flat plate or cookie sheet. Carefully invert onto a cutting board and slice into 2” square cookies. Slice again diagonally for bite size cookies if desired.

Makes 16 – 2” cookies