12/30/13

Happy New Year!


I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas! And may 2014 bring you much happiness.

Jack Frost slogged his way through the Midwest recently, leaving hundreds of thousands of people (and yours truly) without power, for nearly a week.

Things are back to normal, for the time being. But if it hadn’t been for my guys, who kept me entertained, my splash with watercolors, and hours of fun with bubble wrap, I would’ve come unhinged.

Unfortunately, without electricity, I didn't get a chance to make my usual  gingerbread sculpture this year. But, let us  hypothesize it's on its way. Lest you start believing I never finish anyth . . .




11/27/13

Pumpkin Cheesecake with Bourbon Praline




Right now, Wednesday seems so far from Thursday. And I just don't think this cheesecake will be safe until then.


I've been in  pumpkin paradise  since one local farmer filled his stand with myriad of  orange, cream and  bluish-green pumpkins. The latter I'm completely enamored with.

There's something about fall that puts me in nesting mode.  I bake. I sew. Then I'll sit by a crackling fire and read about  nesting,  baking and sewing.  Ready for  more non sequiturs?
How about the bluish pumpkin-shaped cake, with sugar leaves and berries I made for Mr. Man Pants' birthday? 

 Another reason to love pumpkins is the following recipe for  pumpkin cheesecake. It comes from the sister I never had, Susan Branch. It features  the colors and tastes of fall, with my adaptation of her Bourbon/Praline playing a supporting role; it is loaded with pecans, maple syrup, cream, and I repeat, bourbon.

I dare say this is better than a shirtless Hugh Jackman.  In fact, this is  better than a shirtless Hugh Jackman covered in Bourbon /Praline.  
And I think I speak for everyone when I say, 'Let us give thanks.'


Please Note:   For this cheesecake, I ask that you first combine the cream cheese, sugar and vanilla together, then set aside a small amount of the batter  before combining the rest of the filling ingredients.

The reason is, you'll need a batter with a firmer consistency and enough body that will hold up well for piping your designs.
If you were to combine all the ingredients at once, you would end up with a very runny batter, which would be impossible to control. 

If you'd rather not decorate this cake at all, simply combine all filling  ingredients and beat until smooth. Pour into your prepared crust and bake as directed.

Pumpkin Cheesecake

Crust:

3 cups broken gingersnaps
½ cup chopped pecans
¼ cup sugar
2/3 cup melted butter

Preheat oven to 350°F.
Cover bottom of springform pan with two layers of aluminum foil. In a food processor, finely grind gingersnaps, pecans and sugar. Add butter and process until just combined. Press mixture onto bottom and sides of a 10-inch springform pan. Bake 10 minutes. Set aside to cool and prepare the filling.


Filling:

4 - 8 oz. packages cream cheese, at room temperature
1 2/3 cups sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 15 oz. can pumpkin purée*
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon allspice
½ teaspoon mace
½ teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon cloves
4 large eggs, room temperature

Have a pastry bag fitted with a #7 round pastry tip at the ready. If you do not own a pastry bag, use a parchment paper cone. I can't recommend a plastic sandwich  baggie, because I can't internalize its 'practicality.' To me, a filled baggie handles much like a wet cat.  And let's face it,  humans and  soapy cats do not  mix.  Them frisky felines will always have the upperhand, or paw, as it were.
However, if a plastic baggie is all you have, go with that. Just keep in mind, a pastry bag is inexpensive, and will give you far better results.

To bake cheesecake:

Place a 9-inch x 13-inch pan, filled halfway with water, on lowest shelf in oven.
In mixer bowl, beat together the softened cream cheese, sugar and vanilla extract until smooth.( If you're decorating the cake, now is the time to remove 1/3 cup of  the cream cheese mixture and set aside). 

Add the pumpkin purée and  spices, beating just until smooth. Add eggs, one at a time, and beat until  combined. Pour cheesecake mixture into cooled crust.

If you'll be decorating the cheesecake, read below for how-tos. Then,  bake cake for 1 hour and 15 minutes, or until slightly golden around the edges.
 Remove cake from the oven, and run a thin metal spatula around the edges  to loosen cake and prevent it from cracking.  Leave cake in the pan and allow to cool, then refrigerate overnight. 
 When ready to serve, gently warm the Bourbon Praline (below), and drizzle over cheesecake. Serves 10-12.

*I used a roasted pumpkin instead of canned. To roast a pumpkin, poke a 3-4 pound sugar (or other pie) pumpkin all over with a knife. Place whole  pumpkin on a cookie sheet with sides, and bake in a 375°F oven for about 1 hour, or until a knife effortlessly goes through pumpkin.

Set the pumpkin aside until cool enough to handle. Then, slice in half, remove seeds and process pumpkin flesh in a food processor until smooth. Measure what you'll need (I used two cups), and if there's any left, freeze it.

To decorate cheesecake:
Fill prepared pastry bag with the reserved cream cheese mixture. You'll be piping a sequence of 'half-moons' that roughly resemble Christmas trees.
At this point, drag the tip of the pastry tube (or a wooden skewer), through the center of each 'tree' (starting at the narrow end), draw your skewer through each one. This step transforms them into simple, pretty leaves. You could pipe a series of leaves around the edge of the cake (as pictured), or scatter them all over the cake, if you like. You could also tint the batter with paste food colors.
You hold the artistic reins here.



Bourbon Praline 

¾ cup pecans, chopped
2 Tablespoons butter
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup maple syrup
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 teaspoons bourbon

Melt butter in a skillet. Place chopped pecans in melted butter and toast until fragrant. Add remaining ingredients, except for bourbon. and stir until sugar is completely dissolved. Do not let it boil. Stir in bourbon and pecans. Makes 2 cups.



A few days ago, we woke up to a light dusting of snow. A sight to behold. But I will miss the autumn sky.

May your cornucopia runneth over with thankful hearts, amid joyful noise  from your favorite people and many lasting memories. Oh, and lump-free gravy.

 Happy Thanksgiving to all!


7/4/13

As American as Baseball, Apple Pie and Chevrolet...






It's been an unusually cool summer here.  And between the beautiful noise emanating from the birds' tiny condos nestled  in the majestic maple tree outside my window, and the playful swaying of the tree and rustling of its leaves, I surmise  heaven can't be too far away.


And then, there's the food.  The day wouldn't be complete without the all-American  hot dog (made with 10% natural  ingredients and 90% what-you-don't-know-can't-hurt-you). 
Homemade apple pie (this one is an adaptation of Susan Spungen's Caramel Apple Tart,  easily found on the interwebz). 

Then, the guys are taking me out to the ball game :) Which will be  followed by  fireworks. And that, in a nutshell, is how we're celebrating Independence Day. Party animals that we are.


But, more importantly,  we remember and  honor our heroes. And we pray for our service men and women and their families. May God bless them. And may God bless America!


May this day be as spectacular for you  as the sparkliest  fireworks. Or Purry Mason's eyes.


Dear brigade, as I'm running a little behind with this entry,  I will  disable comments.


6/26/13

Chilled Guacamole Soup and Cornmeal Crisps




I moved from a bustling city to a small  town, so thickly-painted with Mayberry charm, that I decided to stay a little while. Twenty one years later, this  laid-back  town is still one I enjoy exploring, even alone, day or night.  

My biggest worry?  Being mugged at needlepoint in a Walmart parking lot, while Andy Griffith lurks in the shadows, whistling a familiar tune.

You're probably asking yourself,  where is this pleasantly-strange  little town? 

Whereas my question is, what in the heck is sheriff Andy Griffith doing  hanging around Walmart?


If, like me, you  live in a town that atlas forgot, then you'll appreciate simple recipes, like the following. 

Only three ingredients make up these addictive Cornmeal Crisps, because  (unless you live in the Sahara desert) who counts water? 

Make. Eat. Share (as always, the latter is optional).

  
Cornmeal Crisps

1 cup stone-ground white cornmeal
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons butter
1½ to 2 cups boiling water

Preheat oven to 375° F.

Whisk together cornmeal and salt in a mixing bowl. Add 2 tablespoons of butter cut into small pieces.

Slowly stir in enough boiling water until mixture resembles watery mashed potatoes. Continue to whisk until butter is melted and batter is smooth. Set aside.

Lightly grease two rimless baking sheets with nonstick vegetable spray, and wipe off  the excess, leaving a light coating on the pans. Drop batter by teaspoons onto baking sheets. Slam baking sheets onto the kitchen counter a few times to spread the batter very thin.

Bake crisps for 20 to 30 minutes until  golden around the edges. To get the crisps to curl up as shown, turn them over  during the last 5 minutes of baking. Makes about 50 cornmeal crisps. 
Adapted from  'The Gift of Southern Cooking,'  by Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock.

Please note: You might be tempted to use parchment paper, but I don't recommend it. Parchment paper will buckle, making it difficult to remove the crisps without breaking. 

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention  Edna Lewis' version  for a simple and  dramatic way to serve these. Instead of dropping the batter by teaspoons,  divide  batter among two baking sheets, tap, tap, tap,  and bake as directed. Once cooled, break them into shards.

Did you notice the grated lime zest in some of the crisps?  A nice touch.
There are times, however,  when the men-folk request a little heat, so adding a tiny pinch of cayenne to the batter  makes them happy. As for me, I like them plain.

But I urge you to plunge into it with blind faith, and  share your experiments with me.


Whether you decide to spice up your Cornmeal Crisps, or not,  try pairing them with this quick and refreshing Guacamole Soup, and enjoy. I always do.

 Chilled Guacamole Soup 

2 cups buttermilk
2 cups chicken broth
1 large avocado, peeled and roughly chopped
2 tablespoons freshly-squeezed  lime  juice
2 tablespoons salsa
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro*

Purée soup  ingredients in a blender or food processor. Salt & Pepper to taste. Cover and refrigerate for several hours before serving.
Garnish with crema fresca,  diced avocado, chopped tomato or chopped cilantro. Serves 4.

*I'm not a fan of cilantro, so I use  fresh mint.


 
 Did you miss that? Go back up.  And look at my 'new' antique kitchen scale. 

I went right into a schoolgirl rave when I laid eyes on this old scale, at an estate sale recently. 
This is not just another pretty copper  face, it's also pretty accurate. The kind of thing I'm incapable of walking away from. 


And this one kept calling my name. But I ignored the voices, and brought it home with me anyway. 


Another recent find was this humble marmalade crock.  Being in the antiques business with years of experience under my belt, I believe this fine piece could be traced back to the turn of the century. Or possibly  T.J. Maxx.  Not sure which.

I filled it with violets, because "they're the only flowers I cannot destroy," she said in a tremulous voice


Enjoy the rest of the week, ya hear?



2/6/13

Whipped Buttercream




"It takes a touch of genius to move in the opposite direction."



I'm no Albert Einstein, but I love the quote.  And you could say  I have lived my life blazing my own trail,  so to speak.
 For example,  I  blog only when  inspired. No more, no less. Even, alas, at the risk of losing potential readers.

   And today—with Valentine's Day around the corner—I'm inspired.


And so, I'm blogging about Christmas...


Yes, it is common  knowledge that the sheltering sky moves faster than me.   But truth to tell, I'm here to deliver on a promisethe buttercream  recipe I offered to share, before life got its nose in my business.

  I used the buttercream  to decorate the Christmas gnome. Don't you just love that he's 50% beard?

His imperfect little tree house, with lopsided windows, is just right for the tiny man and his wildlife friendsIt consists of four 6-inch layers, with filling in between. Then, everything is covered with a chocolate version of my buttercream.

I used a decorator's comb for the 'bark' on the tree but a new, wide-tooth comb, or even a fork, will achieve the same effect. 

The gnome is simply a cupcake baked in a mini Wonder Mold pan.

  
 As you can see, this buttercream is made with all butter, so it's not perfectly white. 

I will admit that, during the hot summer months, I  tend to incorporate a little Crisco shortening into the buttercream to give it some stability, and to keep piped flowers from wilting.  Don't judge me.

And please,  don't get me wrong either.  The idea of eating white, vegetable fat makes me queasy too. But consider this, when was the last time you looked forward to gnawing on a solid stick of butter? 

At any rate, this buttercream is simply delicious, with a very light texture, and not cloyingly sweet. Use it to cover a cake, pipe borders and flowers. It's a bit fancy and kind of special.

Submitted  for your approval...


Memories in the Baking Whipped Buttercream

½ cup granulated sugar
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup boiling water
¼ cup meringue powder *
1 pound sifted confectioner's sugar
1½ (3 sticks) cups unsalted butter, room temperature
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
½ teaspoon Crème Bouquet, or a few drops of Fiori di Sicilia, optional

Dissolve sugar and salt in the boiling water (I normally do this in the microwave. You could put the sugar, salt and water in a small saucepan, bring it to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer, until sugar is completely dissolved).

 Set sugar mixture aside to cool to room temperature. You can make the syrup ahead of time, and keep at room temperature  for a few days, or refrigerate indefinitely.
 If you decide to refrigerate the syrup, be sure to bring it to room temperature before using.

In a mixer bowl, fitted with a whisk attachment, combine sugar mixture and meringue powder, and beat until soft peaks form.  Gradually add sifted confectioner's sugar and beat until stiff peaks form. You're basically making  stiff Royal Icing.

On low speed, beat in the butter for about 5 minutes, or until fully incorporated. Add the vanilla extract,  and the Crème Bouquet or Fiori di Sicilia, if using. Continue to beat buttercream a few more minutes, until smooth.

Use immediately, or cover well and refrigerate for up to a month. When you're ready to use it, bring buttercream to room temperature and beat  at low speed,  to a light, creamy consistency.  

For the chocolate buttercream:

Gently melt 4 ounces of dark chocolate. Allow chocolate to cool to room temperature.  Beat chocolate into prepared whipped buttercream,  using  the paddle, or wire whisk attachment.
 

 So start practicing the messy art of piping  decorations  on for your Valentine. Yeah, let's go with that.