Holiday Baking: Shortbread

My dad loves shortbread. I tried making him some for Christmas one year. I think I was about 13. As I wasn’t one for planning (Who am I kidding, I’m still not…), I forgot to take the butter out of the fridge beforehand. Strike one. I also think I added too much flour. Strike two. Then I over-mixed it, which was kind of necessary as it’s difficult to cream butter and sugar when the butter is a little yellow brick. This resulted in a mixture that ended up looking the same after 90 minutes baking as it did going into the oven. It was kind of grey and chalky. Strike three. Not good. I vowed never to bake again.

Now, obviously I’ve gotten over this and have learned a thing or two about shortbread. First of all, the butter HAS to be room temperature. You can always put the dough back in the fridge to firm up, but you won’t be able to mix it without it being room temp. Next, it’s easier to use confectioner’s (powdered) sugar. And, thirdly, sift the flour and add it gradually. DON’T OVERMIX.

Here’s the basic ingredients:

1 stick of butter

1 cup of flour

1/3 cup of confectioner’s sugar

1 small pinch of salt

1 tsp vanilla (I added this as I think it adds a nice flavour)

1. Preheat the oven to 300F. Cream the butter.

2. Add the sugar, flour, salt and vanilla.

3. Press into a round 8 inch cake pan. Crimp the sides with a fork. Bake for about 30-35 minutes or until lightly golden.

4. While still hot, score with a butter knife into 8 slices (like a pie). Let cool completely before removing from the pan. Cut along the score marks with a serrated knife. Nom.

Oh, and watch out for those Abominable Snowmen again. Those little bastards love shortbread!

And because I find these hilarious, here’s another Santa-Screaming Kid picture.

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Holiday Baking: Chocolate Snowballs

Snowballs are a traditional Newfoundland Christmas cookie. They’re eaten throughout the year, but a Christmas cookie tray is not a Christmas cookie tray without a Snowball. They are basically little fudge-y balls that are rolled in coconut. Oh, and these aren’t baked. You heard me. Not baked. I guess this post should be called “Holiday Non-Baking”. But I digress…

Ingredients:

3 cups of sugar

3/4 cup melted butter

1 1/4 cup milk

3 cups quick oats

1 cup of unsweetened coconut, plus extra for rolling

1.5 cups cocoa powder

small pinch of salt

1 tsp vanilla extract

1. Add sugar, butter and milk to a pot. Bring to a boil until it reaches soft ball on a candy thermometer. If you don’t have a thermometer, about 4-5 minutes at a good simmer/gentle boil should do it.

2. Add the remaining ingredients and mix well. I usually add the vanilla last, when the mixture has cooled a little. Allow mixture to cool completely. I put it in the fridge, covered, overnight.

3. Roll into little balls and then roll in the extra coconut. These are very sticky, so I like to roll them all, then roll in the coconut and place on a cookie sheet. I like to put them back into the fridge to firm up or even the freezer. Chow down. Keep away from Abominable Snow Men…

That’s it. I got about 35 balls, slightly smaller than a golf ball each. These are tasty, most kids like them (I didn’t as I didn’t like coconut then, but I was a weird little kid) and super easy. AND they freeze well for up to 1 month (freeze in a single layer and then place into a freezer bag with the air pushed out). What more could you want? I know it’s early, but because they freeze so well, they’re the perfect cookie to start your Christmas baking!

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Christmas Cards

It’s that time of year again. Time to spend hours thinking of witty and memorable little quips to write in your most beautiful script, scrounging for addresses and postal codes (Zip codes for my American readers…) and scraping your dried-out tongue along yet another glue-flavoured envelope.

It’s tempting to just send everyone a lame-ass e-card and call it a night. But STOP RIGHT THERE!!!

While they may be a little tedious, Christmas Cards are a time-honoured tradition that is slipping by the wayside. There’s so much crap in my mail box this time of year that I really enjoy opening a pretty little card with kind words from friends and family. And you get something to put on display for decor or as a tangible way to prove your popularity (bonus). Here are a few of my tips:

1. Buy Christmas Cards at the end of the season. This way you get some really pretty cards for super cheap. There’s still quite a selection and then you get the chance to get them all written and addressed before the real craziness of the holidays begin.

2. Organize your addresses. You can keep a cute little address book or even a Rolodex, but I prefer to use my computer to organize my addresses. I divide them between His and Hers, Family, Friends and Business. You don’t really want to send a Christmas card to your old boss from 3 years ago. You may be tempted to print off all of the addresses onto handy little labels, but I try to do it all by hand. There’s nothing nicer than getting a hand-addressed envelope.

3. Try to think of a few generic phrases in advance. Change them up a little so everything doesn’t sound the same. Especially if going to send cards to brothers/sisters. Write the names of the recipient on the top of the card. I also try to add something a little personal in a card if it’s a milestone year (Best Wishes for your First Christmas as a Married Couple!), but don’t feel you have to write a novel. Or worse yet, a full-on Christmas Letter. With pictures. And captions.

4. Assembly line time. I get the cards in a stack and begin with the names, greeting and signature. Next, I write my return address on all of the envelopes. Next I stuff the cards and address the envelopes. Then lick all of the envelopes. Then the stamps. I know this sounds a little disjointed, but, seriously, it really speeds things up.

5. Get a drink (more on that in a minute…), crank up the tunes and get ‘er done! Enjoy the smug sense of superiority as you drop the cards into the mail box in the first week of December. If you get them out early, people who might not have sent you a card will now feel obligated to return the favour. Double bonus.

You definitely need a drink for this. Remember the dried out tongue, scraping along the glue-flavoured envelope? You want to prevent paper cuts in your mouth if at all possible.

Seeing as it’s the holidays, here’s a recipe for a Merri Christi (courtesy of marieclaire.com).

Merri Christi

2.5 oz Christiana vodka

2 TBsp hot chocolate powder mix

2.5 oz milk

Mix all ingredients. Pour into a martini glass. Garnish with some chocolate shavings.

Yummy.

 

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Long time, no blog…

Hi Everyone! So sorry it’s been so long since I’ve posted. I’ve had a pretty busy fall. I won’t bore you with the details, but I’m back! And I’m working on a few things for the holidays.

This year, I realized that I’m actually sick of the commercialization and craziness of the holidays. I know, I know, that means I’m getting old. When I was a kid I couldn’t imagine not getting excited about presents. But after spending the day shopping yesterday and contemplating homicide as people chit-chatted and blocked the lanes (seriously, MOVE OVER!!!), I realized that I really needed to step back and look at what I enjoy about Christmas. And, surprise, it’s not the crazed drivers poaching spots in the parking lot.

I love getting together with my family and enjoying the Christmas meal. I enjoy looking at outdoor lights with my sweetie-pie husband. I like decorating the tree and listening to music (especially with the “fireplace in a box” on the DVD player). And, most of all, I love baking Christmas cookies while listening to Christmas Music on the radio. So, I figured, why not combine my love of baking with my hatred of shopping? Instead of buying a whole lot of gifts that people don’t really want, I’m buying a little gift and giving a collection of cookies. Grant’s grandfather is also getting some banana bread that he really likes, as well.

I’ve started researching good holiday cookie recipes (if you have any, please send them my way) and already I’m more relaxed about the holidays. I only have 5 more gifts to get and 3 are for Grant, so I’m doing pretty well so far! There’s also going to be a bake sale at work for a Kids Christmas charity, and I’m going to make some lemon meringue pies.

I know I’ve been negligent of my blogging duties, but keep checking back here. I’ve got a lot of baking to do!

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Frugal Shopping

I love grocery shopping. I know, I know, I should probably get a hobby. And I’m not going to pretend that I love grocery shopping on busy Saturdays. Especially when I get stuck behind a gaggle of old ladies who walk incredibly slowly and block up the aisles. Thursday is really my favourite day to shop for the week’s necessities. But this time of year, I usually feel a bit of a pinch, money-wise. Not only are the holidays coming up, but I also usually need either a new coat or boots, as well as winter tires for the car.

So instead of subsisting on ramen noodles and “wish” sandwiches (bread with butter that you wish had something on it…), I shop wisely. I actually enjoy this more, as it’s almost a little challenge. Whenever Grant and I go shopping, he always says, “No way this is under $200.”, when I know, just by looking at the cart that it’s $110, tops. Usually I’m right and he is amazed at the alchemy in the kitchen, turning these ingredients into delicious meals for the week.

Here are some of my tips:

1. Look at cheaper meats. There’s a reason that prime rib is more expensive than a pot roast. And that reason is that you’d have to be a troglodyte (new big word of the day!) to make prime rib taste bad.

Seriously, pot roast is absolutely delicious.When. Done. Right. The key to frugal shopping (and the subsequent frugal cooking) is to know how to transform tough meats into flavourful, tender, fall-apart, melt-in-your-mouth meats. This is usually achieved through braising, low and slow cooking, marinading and brining. And, as previously promised, I really am working on my pot roast post. It should be up this weekend. Promise!

Anyway, these meats tend to be on sale, at which point I buy two packages, one for this week, one for next. There will be more on sales a little later on, though, so beware of “Sale”.

2. Shop in season and locally. Seriously, I don’t just shop at my farmer’s market because it’s trendy. Actually, that’s a bit of a turn off. There tend to be a lot of yuppies and their children named Tristan and Skylar, all wearing matching sweaters, running around and underfoot. The real reason I like to shop there is because, other than the darling little baskets, they are WAAAAAAY cheaper. I can usually buy tons of veggies for the week for under $20. You can also get eggs and poultry, and some markets also sell beef and pork, which would be awesome. These aren’t always cheaper, though, so pay attention to the prices.

3. Only buy what you need. How much do you throw out during a week? I am a big offender, breaking this rule if I get slack. I hate waste, but with just two of us here, it is easy to have things go off before we can get to them. Prevent this. Canned and frozen goods are fine, but watch your dairy and produce. For example, I’m making Red Velvet Cupcakes again this week for a little work party (it’s actually a party for me as I’m going to be leaving for a new position in a new department. I’m also making caramelized onion dip, as well. Not quite sure how I managed to cook for my own party, but I digress….). Normally, I would need to buy buttermilk for this recipe. But, I know that I can substitute milk with vinegar and I need milk for mashed potatoes and a bechamel sauce later in the week, so I just bought regular milk. I normally don’t drink dairy, so this wasn’t an ordinary purchase for the house. Now I won’t be wasting an entire carton of buttermilk and have just what I need for the rest of the week, which leads me to the next tip…

4. Plan your meals. If you don’t plan your meals, it’s easy to buy a whole bunch of things that don’t really go together for dinner. Grant says that only I can spend $200 on groceries and manage to only have condiments in the fridge. So instead, I make my grocery list while thinking about the week’s meals. And I try to make meals that will result in delicious left-overs for lunch the next day. This also saves money and is much better than a crummy old sandwich in the lunch room.

5. Beware of sales and coupons. I know this sounds weird, but I can tend to buy things I don’t need just because they are on sale. I don’t really want or even like soy mayo, but I am tempted to buy it when it’s on sale. Before you buy something on sale, think about how you will use it for the upcoming week. If it’s too much of a stretch, leave it on the shelf. It’s only a bargain if you will use it.

I have plenty of other little tips and tricks, but these are, by far, the biggest help with keeping me on track with the budget. Now, if this only worked with shoes…

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Autumn Vegetables: Broccoli

Broccoli is a superfood. Not only is it delicious (stay with me here), but it is FANTASTIC for you. It is incredibly high in vitamins C and K, which aid in vitamin D metabolism, as well as a good source of folate and fiber. It is a cruciferous veggie, which is great for your liver and digestive health. It has also been known to aid in lowering cholesterol as the fiber binds with bile to help remove it from the body

Now enough of that, it is also tasty! I know, I know, broccoli is one of those foods that people love to hate. Seriously, though, it was probably from a bad experience of over-cooked broccoli. I present exhibit A:

Notice the gross, dull, brownish-green colour. The stalk is limp and mushy, as is the cluster of nubbles (not a technical term) on top. It smells sulfurous and bitter. It will actually smell worse if refrigerated for a few days. Don’t do this to your broccoli. It gets angry. And you wouldn’t like him when he’s angry…

Anyway, some of the best ways of eating broccoli is to simply steam it until slightly tender. The colour actually intensifies and turns a lovely, vibrant, bright grass green. If cutting into small pieces, peel the fibrous skin off the stems and cut into coins on a bias. This will help it cook at the same time as the florets. I like to drizzle a little soy sauce and sprinkle some sesame seeds on top. Yummy.

Another favourite way to enjoy broccoli is to roast it. Cut the stems into long, thin pieces. I tend to cut a floret into two or three pieces. Toss with olive oil, salt and pepper. You can add some garlic if you wish. Then roast in a hot oven for about 15 minutes. Toss it half-way through. Don’t overcook it. This results in a different texture for the florets, they get softer but have a crisp texture, as well. It’s easy and tasty.

You can also top broccoli with cheese sauce (yummmm) or bake it into a gratin. It’s delicious with a little bechamel, Gruyère cheese and bread crumbs. Actually, pretty much everything is delicious with bechamel, Gruyère cheese and bread crumbs.

Broccoli is also great raw in slaws and salads. It pairs well with a warm bacon vinaigrette, onions and toasted pine nuts. You can also shred it with some raisins and a creamy dressing, as well.

Experiment with broccoli! It’s not only plentiful this time of year, but it’s also tastier when it gets cooler. Look for tight florets, crisp small leaves, a firm stem that is not spongy, and a dark hunter green colour. Buy some broccoli and enjoy it! When cooked correctly, you don’t have to bribe kids or your spouse to eat it!

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Baking: Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup Cupcakes

First of all, sorry for the delay in getting this up. Things have been crazy at work as I’ve been trying to get a lot of stuff done before I go on vacation at the end of next week and I’ve also started a new workout plan, which has been kicking my ass. No excuses, though! Here’s my latest post on baking.

Usually when I bake, I tend to bring it into work. I usually enjoy one and then bring them into the office so I don’t end up weighing 500 pounds. One of my co-workers (and good friend) transferred to an out of province branch last year, but moved back home last weekend. Since she usually misses my cupcakes, I decided to make a special batch for her.

I’ve heard about Peanut Butter Cup cupcakes and decided that this would be the occasion. Besides, what else can we eat at work to brighten the day? Anyway, I researched a bunch of recipes and decided to give Martha a rest, especially after the red velvet fiasco. One of my favourite cookbook authors and cooking show host is Ina Garten, otherwise known as the Barefoot Contessa. I find her food simple, elegant, easy and always delicious. And she has a recipe for Chocolate Cupcakes with Peanut Butter Frosting. Throw in a mini peanut butter cup, and voila! Peanut Butter Cup Cupcakes!

For the Cupcakes:

1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature

2/3 cup white sugar

2/3 cup light brown sugar, packed

2 extra large eggs (I only had large and it worked out fine)

2 teaspoons vanilla

1 cup buttermilk, room temperature

1/2 cup sour cream, room temperature

2 tablespoons brewed coffee

1 3/4 cup all purpose flour

1 cup cocoa powder

1 1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

mini-peanut butter cups, one for each cupcake

1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Cream butter and both sugars until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, then vanilla.

2. Whisk buttermilk and sour cream together. Sift flour, cocoa, baking soda and salt. Add the dry ingredients in 3 batches, wet in 2 (again in the order of dry, wet, dry, wet, dry).

3. Divide amongst the cupcake liners, plunk in a mini-peanut butter cup and bake for 20-25 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. It’s hard to get to the center as the peanut butter cup is in the way, but you’ll figure it out. Let cool completely before frosting. Next time, I’ll add a tablespoon of batter, then the peanut butter cup, then the rest of the batter so they’re more in the middle of the cupcake. They kind of stuck out of the top, but were still delicious.

This recipe yielded about 17 cupcakes. Not quite enough for the office, but it was fun watching the scramble for them. Next time, I hope to draw blood…

And now, the frosting:

1 cup confectioner’s sugar

1 cup smooth peanut butter

5 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature

3/4 teaspoon vanilla

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/3 cup heavy cream

1. Cream sugar, peanut butter, butter, vanilla and salt until smooth.

2. Beat in cream until light and fluffy.

That’s it. Yummy.

They’re pretty ugly. The frosting recipe didn’t quite make enough to pipe the frosting on neatly, but they were really, really yummy. Forgive the rushed pictures, I was getting ready to bring these to work and I was going to be late if I didn’t push it…

First they just look like like ugly, little cupcakes. But when you take a bite….

PEANUT BUTTER CUPS!!! WOOT WOOT!

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Laundry

I hate doing laundry. HATE it. I actually worked in a laundromat the summer between high school and university. It was extremely hot and while I loved my bosses, I hated washing, drying and folding laundry. But it is a necessary evil. I find it easiest if I do it as I go as opposed to doing 6 large loads on the weekend (Grant uses a lot of towels and face cloths). And I like soft clothes, but I tend to get a little itchy if I use fabric softener or scented sheets. Here’s what you can use instead:

Vinegar

That’s it. Add about 1/2 a cup into the rinse cycle (or put it in a little washer ball that holds regular fabric softener at the beginning of the wash cycle). If you really want it to smell nicely, you can take some vinegar and add some essential oil. Shake it before you use it, as vinegar and oil don’t really like each other. Vinegar is also great at cutting the soap residue, which is even better for itchy skin like mine. It’s cheap, easy, chemical free and your clothes are softer. What else could you want?

Well, a drink would be nice. Here’s one of my favourites: a Cosmopolitan. I know, I know, it’s the typical “girl drink” right now, but it is really tasty. And the cranberry juice is great at preventing UTI’s, so drink it for your health!

1 1/2 oz vodka

3/4 oz triple sec

1 oz freshly squeezed lime (keep a slice for a garnish)

1 oz cranberry juice

ice cubes

Shake all the ingredients (except the lime slice) in a shaker with ice until very cold. Serve in a martini glass with a slice of lime as a garnish. Drink. Your fitted sheets may end up in a ball after 3 or 4 of these, but who really gives a crap?

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Autumn Vegetables: Butternut Squash

Butternut Squash is the quintessential autumn vegetable. It’s sweet and creamy when roasted, with beautiful yellow-orange flesh. High in vitamins A and C, potassium, magnesium and folate, it is also one of the healthiest foods you can eat during the cold fall and winter months. It has anti-cancer properties and is supportive of men’s and general lung health. It’s a powerhouse of phytonutrients.

Butternut squash may look a little daunting to prepare, but it’s a lot easier if you have a y-peeler, like so:

I first remove the stalk and bottom (where the root is) and then I like to chop the squash in two, dividing it into the round bulb and the cylindrical part. Next, using a y-peeler, peel each half, making sure you get through the tough outer peel and past the lighter coloured flesh on the very outside of the squash. Much like a rutabaga, this is really fibrous and not very tasty. Next, scoop out the seeds. You can clean and toast these, which makes a tasty snack. I usually then chop the squash into smaller cubes, toss with olive oil, salt and pepper and roast. You can add some woody herbs, like rosemary, or just leave it as it is. Some people just half the squash, scoop out the guck and seeds and roast it with the skins on, then when tender, scoop the flesh out. This is good if you are making a smooth puree, but I like to optimize the surface area for browning by dicing the squash. This makes it sweeter.

You can eat it like that, or toss it into a pasta or risotto dish. It’s very tasty with some bacon, a little sage and pasta. As well, you can make a warm salad with the squash. It’s also GREAT for soups. It purees beautifully. I just sweat a little onion, carrot and garlic, throw in the roasted squash, add some chicken stock and puree with my little immersion blender. If you don’t have an immersion blender, do yourself a favour and get one. It is, easily, one of my most-used kitchen tools. Anyway, back to the soup, you can throw in a little cream for richness and serve with a little goat’s cheese and herb croute. It is absolutely delicious. A sprinkle of nutmeg never hurt anyone, either. In fact, nutmeg is a perfect compliment for the sweet squash.

Because it purees so beautifully, it is also great for making your own baby food. Just steam it until tender and puree with a little water to loosen it. Babies love the sweet flavour, as well. And because of the sweetness, I’ve also seen it replace pumpkin in some fancy desserts. I haven’t personally tried that myself as of yet, but it’s on my list…

Squash keeps for a pretty long time, as long as it’s in a cool, dark, dry place. And they’re pretty cheap. Go get some this autumn and give it a try! You’ll be suprised at how much you like it!

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Recipe: Macaroni and Cheese

The weather is pretty crappy here today. We are suffering through the tail end of Hurricane Igor (actually I think it may have been downgraded to a tropical storm) as it works its way up the north east edge of Canada. It isn’t that cold and the wind isn’t too bad, but the rain is teeming down. It is absolutely pouring outside. I got soaked running from the car to the house (well, I was wearing a slight heel, which I can’t run well in. I guess I was trotting, for lack of a better term). Now that I’m in, I want to stay in. Unfortunately, I work for an insurance company and when the weather is bad, I still have to go in. People tend to drive around and smack into each other and their roof’s leak during inclement weather. How inconvenient. Anyway, I am in the mood for comfort food, and comfort food doesn’t get any more comforting than home made macaroni and cheese. Much like many of my favourite recipes, this also gets better as it sits, so it’s great as leftovers for lunch.

Macaroni and cheese is probably one of the first recipes I mastered. I have adapted this recipe from Company’s Coming Pasta book. I remember trying to decide what to make for dinner one evening and looking through Mom’s cookbooks. I found this recipe and we had all of the ingredients on hand, so I made it. It called for breadcrumbs, which we didn’t have, so I used Special K. It was surprisingly tasty. The recipe was very forgiving and I’ve adapted it to include a lot more cheese, as well as a bit of a variety of cheese. Because more cheese is better. And bacon. You can always add in a few lardons at the beginning instead of just butter and make a roux with the bacon fat. Just make sure to wipe the grease off your fingers so you can dial 911 (or 999 for my UK readers) when you suffer from a coronary. Or it could just be a foodgasm. Nah, it’s probably a coronary.

1 pound of macaroni

3 + 1 tablespoons butter

1 large onion, minced (I actually blitzed it in the food processor as it was dirty from grating all of the cheese. Normally I do it by hand, but I was feeling a little lazy tonight.)

3 tablespoons flour

2 3/4 cup of milk

pinch of salt, pepper and paprika

2 cups each of grated gruyere and cheddar cheese

1 cup parmesan cheese

1/2 cup or so of panko breadcrumbs or whatever topping you like

1. Cook macaroni in a large pot of boiling water with a handful of salt. If you don’t salt the water, you can’t really season the pasta itself. Cook for about 7-8 minutes. Make sure you drain it before it is fully cooked, as it will continue to cook as the pasta bakes.

2. Melt butter in a saucepan. Add the onion and a pinch of salt and cook until translucent and sweet, about 10 minutes or so. Add the flour and stir to combine well. Cook the roux for about 2 minutes. Add the milk and whisk to combine. Add another pinch of salt, pepper and paprika.

3. Bring to a boil then reduce heat and simmer for about 15 minutes. Remove from heat and add most of the cheese, reserving about a handful of each for the topping. Pour into a buttered casserole dish.

4. Top with the remaining cheese, bread crumbs and butter broken into pats with your fingers. Bake in a 350 oven for about 30 minutes or until browned and bubbly.

I’m going to go chow down on this while watching a few episodes of Mad Men. Ketchup is optional…

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