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A very Merry Christmas to all and a huge Thank You!!

December 24th, 2008 | 1 Comment »

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You’ll notice the orange fluff to the right of this photo- that’s Harmon, trying to get in on the Christmas action by the tree.

So it’s Christmas- again. We have lots of fun family time planned for the next few days and I hope you do too, if you indeed celebrate something this time of year, whether Christmas or Hanukkah or anything. I hope you do celebrate, raise a glass of cheer and see smiling faces all around you. We all deserve, and need that.

The Fur-Boys say ‘Merry Christmas!!!’

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There’s one little box of new toys under the tree for the cats, as is the norm each Christmas for our catnip addicts. New toys are always appreciated, and often fought over. We need to be fair and make sure there is an equal share or we might see trouble.

Griffin, at 14 shows some excitement for Christmas, but it isn’t the same as when he was, oh maybe 4 or so. He likes getting gifts but he loves the food more, and better yet, hanging out with family. That’s the best part for him. Last night he surprised me before heading to bed by crawling- as best a 130-lb boy can manage- into my lap and snuggling with me, listening to me reminisce about my most favorite Christmas memories of him when he was little. I would have kept him there all night except my leg started to tingle. And to think he once fit perfectly on my forearm.

We continue to get great snow, and the landscape is beautifully white and very Christmas-like. I’m enjoying my cross-country skis, taking twilight excursions through the park near our house. It’s great for de-stressing.

My wish for everyone is to have a wonderful Christmas, and I want to say Thank You from the bottom of my heart for your comments, visits and feedback. Words cannot express how much I appreciate your readership and support. Enjoy the holiday! I’ll see you all soon!

National Date Nut Bread Day

December 22nd, 2008 | 5 Comments »

And you thought I was done talking about food holidays!!

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December is National Fruitcake and National Eggnog Month.  Blech. Just the word ‘fruitcake’ conjures up images of crazy people, and the real deal is not at all appetizing although I would like to taste one, for real, that is fresh and worthy of praise instead of ridicule. The poor Fruitcake just never gets any respect- the lil’ Rodney Dangerfield of food.

Today is National Date Nut Bread Day. I’m a big fan of dates and have been since childhood. My mom made the standard Date Bars- you know, with the oat topping?- and I loved them dearly. Sadly, her recipe isn’t in my treasured recipe box of hers, and despite several attempts with recipes found on-line, I haven’t been able to duplicate her offering and gave up, full of sad face and regret, resigned to a date-less existence.

But the holiday intrigued me because this is bread, and it has dates and it shouldn’t be too hard to come up with an option that doesn’t make my teeth hurt from being too sweet. Dates are notoriously sweet and contain the highest concentration of sugar in any dried fruit. They are also higly caloric, but they are loaded with potassium and fiber and can be an enjoyable treat, in moderation. One thing they don’t need at all is any extra sugar, so in finding a recipe that relied on only the dates for sweetness was a bonus in my mind.

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I’m not one to expend too much effort searching online recipe databases for the perfect recipe. I’m not patient enough for that. If I’m looking through Recipezaar, AllRecipes, Epicurious or any other site, I want to find something quickly and not spend endless time perusing through countless offerings, reading dozens of reviews and gazing at pictures. I trust reviews the most and they need to be unanimously positive. Coming across this bread recipe on the AllRecipes site, the first thing I noticed was that it had no added sugar, the next thing I read were the enthusiastic reviews that claimed this moist tender bread would surely be a hit. I didn’t need any more than that.

The best part was, they were right. Even slightly overcooked- which seems to be a recurring theme in my kitchen lately- the bread held a nice moist feel and was chock full of date flavor without making my eyes water from the sweetness. Without the sugar, the true flavor of the fruit shone through, and really, isn’t that why we eat something in the first place? This will be a repeat in my kitchen, with proper oven timing, whether it’s a food holiday or not.


Moist Date Nut Bread
from AllRecipes

  • 2 1/2 cups chopped dates
  • 1/4 cup butter
  • 1 1/2 cups boiling water
  • 1/2 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup chopped walnuts
  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees F). Grease and flour a 9×5 inch loaf pan.
  2. In a medium bowl, combine the dates and butter. Pour boiling water over them, and let stand until cool.
  3. When the dates have cooled, stir the mixture to break up any clumps. Mix in the brown sugar and egg until well blended. Combine the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt; stir into the date mixture until just blended. Pour into the prepared pan.
  4. Bake for 50 minutes in the preheated oven, or until a wooden pick inserted into the center comes out clean.

KATE’S NOTES:
I followed this to the letter except for the walnuts. I don’t do walnuts, not after a childhood of dealing with walnuts in every home baked goodie I ate. I loved my mother’s baking, just not her love for walnuts. Instead, I finely chopped almonds and sprinkled them over the top of the loaf before baking. I think pecans would be nice too.

Be sure to thoroughly allow the dates and butter to cool and absorb the liquid. It will become a thick fragrant paste and really, is quite delicious all on it’s own but keep your spoon out of it and use it in the bread! A little fresh grated nutmeg would probably add a nice flavor touch to this, but the date flavor all on it’s own is really delicious.

Finding Stollen…and loving Facebook

December 21st, 2008 | 3 Comments »

This amazing Stollen recipe that I’m posting has been made possible by the good folks who created Facebook and the hundred bajillion people who have made it the most popular (and fun) social networking site available.

Here’s the Stollen to keep you interested while I regale you with my tale of adoration. For the bread…… this love is about the bread, folks.

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My love affair with Stollen started at the artisan bakery where I was employed in the office for five years. Every Christmas there would be Stollen, which I coveted heavily. It was rich and buttery, coated with dusty powdered sugar and full of sweet chewy fruit.  After the chocolate cherry bread that was made there, I loved the Stollen the most and would look forward at Christmas to having a loaf or two of it to enjoy. It’s been one item sorely missed since departing that job, and that was almost seven years ago now. That’s a long time to miss bread, but that job introduced me to some of the most stellar breads I have ever had, and cemented a lifelong love affair with those yeasty fragrant loaves. I could never do low-carb; bread is like oxygen to me.

I was able though, through the magic of Facebook friends, to ask my former boss if the bakery was making Stollen this year, as it seemed all I could think about was the sweetness of that bread. He told me it was available at a local gourmet grocery store so I made a trip to find out and came across one gorgeous loaf that was stamped with a $12.00 price tag.

Um, no. And I mean a big ol’   ‘Oh HECK no!’

Even my coveted Stollen was not worthy enough of that amount. Not in these lean financial days. I knew in my culinary mind that I could probably make half a dozen loaves for less than the cost of one of those in that store.

Back home, full of sad face about Stollen, I set about making a pan of Scotcheroos for a party that night and again, with Facebook, I posted a status about wishing I could make Stollen instead and lo and behold, the very next day came a message from one of my distant FB friends (through the magic of networking) with an authentic German Stollen recipe from her grandmother, who brought it with her when she came to this country from Frankfurt.

By this point, I think I can’t get any more crazy about Facebook. There’s a tight community of food bloggers there and not only has it allowed me to reconnect with almost all of my old high school friends, some whom I haven’t spoken to in 20 years or more,  it’s given me a lot of new connections, mostly through food lovers, that have led me to some pretty amazing finds. Like Stollen.

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The message and recipe couldn’t have come at a more opportune time as a major winter storm descended on Minnesota yesterday, and there was little to do but hang tight in the domicile and do something to keep busy. I took my cross country skis out in the morning to the convenience store and, much to my surprise, found candied cherries there, but no yeast. Mike was gracious enough to brave the snowy roads to the grocer to get my needed ingredient- bless his kind heart.  So I made Stollen and watched the snow come down, down, down. By dinnertime there were three glistening loaves on the countertop,  my mouth was in the throes of sweet carb overload and there was a thick fresh layer of glorious winter white over everything in sight.

And for this very first official day of Winter ’08-’09, it was a terrific way to start.

(jump for recipe)

Come in to my kitchen…

Perfecting cream-less pasta sauce

December 19th, 2008 | 11 Comments »

In getting used to living without dairy in my diet, I have found some easy loopholes for my own personal use of casein. Most everyone lacks the enzyme in their body to digest cows milk protein, or casein, but many people simply don’t recognize any discomfort, or equate it with consumption of milk products.  I do not have an allergy to dairy as many people quickly assume; when I eat dairy products I just get a very bad stomach ache as I’ve now been able to recognize that I can’t digest the protein in cows milk. A dairy allergy is when the body can go into shock upon consumption of dairy, or an anaphylactic reaction. My friend Angela has this. For me, it isn’t that dangerous, it’s just uncomfortable. But as I learn to manage this in my daily eats, I have found some interesting outcomes. I cannot consume any milk product made from mass-produced, factory raised cows. Period. A slice or two of supermarket cheese and I am in agony. A blob of sour cream has the same outcome and lets not even talk about cream or milk. Pizza has sadly disappeared from my menu, although sometimes I am willing to suffer for a slice or two, popping a Lactaid to help. But….and here’s the interesting part….. I can consume high quality cheeses, artisan style products that are made from small batches of humanely raised cows, grass fed cows, or pastured animals. These products do not affect me. Top quality yogurts that are chock full of beneficial flora also do not bother me. For these reasons, you will still see some dishes on the blog that contain cheese. I can still eat cheese, it’s just pricier for me to do so and that doesn’t bother me.

But…..back to cream-less pasta sauce.

One aspect of eating dairy free, obviously, is avoiding milk at all costs and thankfully it’s really easy these days as most outside sources such as restaurants, coffee shops and the like will offer a dairy-free alternative,  but when I look at a restaurant menu and see pasta after pasta dish with cream sauces and the lone dairy free alternative is red sauce, that ain’t making me want to skip for joy. So I was thrilled upon opening a menu at one of my favorite little bistros to find a cream-less alfredo sauce on the menu. My friend Joanna and I pounced on it as we were splitting an entree that night along with our half-price bottle of wine. I do love a good alfredo, but with the heavy cream and butter, the calories and fat are astounding and now that most milk makes my insides implode, alfredo is definitely off the list.

This ‘alfredo’ dish, however,  was made with pureed cauliflower, and although it did have cheese in it, it was an artisan style cheese that my stomach can tolerate. And it was divine. With my first mouthful I swore to recreate this at home.

My first attempt, surprisingly, was pretty good.

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Nothing like the wan light of winter to make a food look so unappetizing! But then again, how do you photograph pasta to make it look good at all?

If you’ve ever used cauliflower as a sub for mashed potatoes then you can grasp the concept of this ‘sauce’ made from pureed cauliflower. Cooked until very tender, the cauliflower is placed in a food processor with some of the cooking liquid and processed until smooth. Cheese, salt and pepper is stirred into it, then it is mixed with cooked pasta. I also added in broiled roma tomato for some color and extra nutrition.

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The first attempt was pretty good, but more cheese would have added to the flavor and I had thought my fridge held more than it did. It also needed a little more seasoning with the salt and pepper but overall was a really good first try. I think that a handful of chopped kalamata olives would have really sealed the deal. Be sure to cook the cauliflower until it’s pretty tender as it helps to make a very smooth ‘sauce’ once processed.

Cream-less Alfredo Sauce

One medium head cauliflower, washed and sectioned
1/2-3/4 c. top quality shredded parmesan cheese
salt and pepper to taste

Steam cauliflower until very tender, reserve cooking liquid. Spoon cooked cauliflower into food processor and add about a half cup of liquid. Process until smooth, scraping sides as needed. Pour back into saucepan and add cheese, stirring to melt. Season with salt and pepper and adjust to taste, adding more cheese or S&P if needed. Asiago, or romano cheese can also be used to add more flavor to the sauce.

A word about chickpeas

December 17th, 2008 | 8 Comments »

I’ve often been wary of chickpeas.

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The very name sends images into my head of a certain something that I never consider to be a food, and for some reason, I expect a particular texture from them- something certainly un-legume like- and as a result, have been overly cautious about putting them, whole, into my meals.

But I’m more than willing to eat them after they’ve been ground to a pulp. I adore Hummus, and we are pretty regular consumers of the chickpea/tahini spread, usually adorned with kalamata olives and tangy with plenty of lemon juice and good zest.

This past summer I took a tentative foray into the world of whole chickpeas, or garbanzo beans as they are also called, and made a wonderful grilled eggplant and garbanzo bean salad that earned rave reviews and for me at least, a lot more respect to the round little legume I’ve been avoiding. The texture that had held me back was unsurprising- it was a legume and it tasted like a legume- primarily, it tasted like whatever I had added to my dish to create a flavor base. That’s the beauty of legumes, the empty palette of them, one of the many tabula rasas of the food world; alone they don’t taste like much but add them to a robust recipe that smacks of flavor and they become something else all together.

So back to Hummus. As I said, we love the stuff, and when I made it I always used canned chickpeas for ease and we were perfectly fine with it. Really, really fine with it, in fact we held more concern for the state and freshness of the pita bread we enjoyed as a means of transfer for the spread, often traveling across town to the Middle Eastern deli to buy bags of it that were fragrant with thick rounds, and often still warm or sweating from the days baking. We take our bread seriously in this house, no matter what form it comes in.

But then, I started noticing in my food magazines that recipes for Hummus were appearing regularly, and extolling the virtues of cooking garbanzo beans from scratch for the ultimate flavor. I was intrigued, but it took me a while to get my act together and really do it, and wow, do I wish I had taken this one on quicker. Fresh cooked chickpeas taste nothing like the canned that I have previously used. (Insert a great big ‘Duh’ right about now- it’s OK, I don’t mind)  The Hummus that resides in my fridge right now has the nicest, freshest, most garbanzo bean-y flavor I have known; nothing has even remotely come close, not the containers I’ve tried, not the batches I’ve whirred up at home. Nothing. I’m hooked on the good stuff and ain’t looking back.  And the most important aspect of it is that cost-wise, making anything from dried beans is really inexpensive.

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I cooked the garbanzos in the crockpot over the course of a lazy snowy Sunday afternoon. They took longer than I anticipated, and once finished, I simply drained and rinsed them-or tried to anyway- as the one thing about garbanzo beans I have a wee bit of trouble with finally reared it’s ugly head- the skins. Gads. I don’t know what it is about them but I became obsessed with removing the offensive looking milky little things and just try to do that to a pound of recently cooked chickpeas! It’s an act of futility, but I charged forward and did my darndest. It might be slightly easier if I just didn’t look at them, touch them, think about them or even start the process next time. They can’t possibly be all that bad, can they?

Ugh, now I can totally feel them clinging to my fingers and feel like I need to wash my hands. Rant over!

jump for the rest……

Come in to my kitchen…

Cookie zen

December 12th, 2008 | 2 Comments »

I’m not surprised that baking is a soothing enterprise for me. It calms and centers me and usually it’s because I always feel my Mom’s presence when I bake. She gave me my baking gene and my love for all things flour and butter and it channels my inner child to get out my K5 and open the pantry. This time of year is especially hard for me, as Christmas was such a favorite of hers, but I find that the very act of cookie making can be like entering a zen mode and it takes some of the grief away to see all the delightful baked discs on my counter, and feel the spirit of my Mom’s beaming proud smile.

Plus, I just HAVE to get my cookie in to Susan!!

foodbloggacookielogoFor the second year in a row, Susan of Food Blogga is hosting this event and getting a mountain of responses in return. Last year I was ambitious and submitted three recipes, but this year I have only this one. But I have to warn you, this is a killer cookie recipe.

May I present the Lemon Ricotta Cookie.

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This cookie in it’s basic form, was a winner in the Holiday Cookie Contest held by our local paper. Although I love the idea of a cookie chock full of ricotta cheese, I imagined that by adding the tart and heady scent of lemon that it might just add something magical to this recipe.

Magic indeed! While the cookie itself was pillowy, moist, tender and rich, the added element of lemon and the tang of a little zest gave it so much more character. It’s like the cheesecake cookies I made last year for this same event, but lighter and fluffier, and lately I just can’t get enough of anything lemon. And although I might be asking for it by consuming ricotta cheese, the stomachache I get from the dairy in these would be well worth it. And so far, it hasn’t happened, but I also haven’t OD’d on them either.


LEMON RICOTTA CHEESE COOKIES

For cookie:
4 c. flour
2 tbsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
1 1/2 c. sugar
1 c. (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 (15.-oz) container ricotta cheese
1 tsp. lemon extract
2-3 t. fresh lemon juice + 1-2 t. fresh lemon zest
2 eggs

For icing:
1 1/2 c. powdered sugar
3 tbsp. milk
Red and green decorative sugars, optional

Directions

To prepare cookies: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line baking sheets with parchment paper. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder and salt and reserve. In a large bowl, using an electric mixer on medium-high speed, beat sugar and butter until creamy, about 5 minutes. Reduce speed to medium, add ricotta cheese, extract, juice, zest and eggs and beat until well-combined. Reduce speed to low and add flour mixture, mixing just until dough forms. Drop dough in small mounds on prepared baking sheets. Bake until cookies are very lightly golden, rotating trays halfway through, for about 15 minutes (cookies will be soft). Remove from oven and cool 2 minutes on baking sheets before transferring cookies to a wire rack to cool completely.

KATE’S NOTES:
I initially wanted to make these an Almond Ricotta cookie, with almond extract and finely chopped almonds, and sometime I do intend to try out that version, but my almond extract had evaporated so I went with lemon. Be sure to really whip the butter and sugar for a while- the loftiness you achieve makes the cookie very fluffy. Thoroughly scrape the bowl at least once during the mixing of the cheese and egg; you want to really blend the wet ingredients well. The dough, while not very stiff, should ONLY be mixed until the flour is just incorporated. Do not overmix at this point. Once the flour is mixed in,  turn it off and give the dough a few turns, gently, with a rubber spatula in case there is any flour in the bottom of the bowl. I made two batches of this, and inadvertantly let both of them sit after the dough was ready. Whether it made a difference, I have no idea, but that’s what happened with mine. I did not use the icing.