Monday, December 20, 2010

DIY Christmas Tree

So, not that bad for a tree I made myself, right? I haven't bought a Christmas tree in years, mostly because I'm sort of a bah humbug-ish type of person. But the past few years I've been making tree-like structures because it's sort of fun. Last year I turned a tomato cage upside down and wrapped grape vines around it. Like this:

I wrapped blue lights around it and called it a day. It was minimalist, but what doesn't look good in the dark wrapped in blue lights? This summer it was a cucumber trellis, and now, it's back to being a Christmas tree. Except this year, what with my two-year old becoming very quickly savvy to what goes on this time of year, I decided to step it up and throw some greens on it. Like this:

I used green wire to attach the boughs to the cage and vines. I scavenged the evergreens from my property.

The cat found it very intriguing. And who knows what will happen next year. Maybe I'll have a big enough tree to cut down from my property. I do know this: throw some lights and fun ornaments on anything, and you will have a little boy's eyes all aglow. And maybe a cat's, too.

Tonight is a lunar eclipse, along with a full moon and the winter solstice. Peace out!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Vegan Chocolate Cake

I should call this Ridiculously Easy Vegan Chocolate Cake. That you don't need much on hand to make. No milk? Eggs? Butter? No problem. It's a tasty, moist cake that will not disappoint! Even if you're not vegan. With all the holiday tasks to finish, sometimes you have to take care of yourself. That means that dinner last night was steamed veggies over brown rice. That also means beet carrot ginger juice. But it also means a little cake. And this is a nice way to indulge lightly.

I used a recipe from the Joy of Cooking called Dairy-Free Chocolate Cake, but I've also seen it on the internet in many places and variations.

Oven preheated to 375 degrees. Square 8" pan greased and ready to go.

1 1/2 cups flour
1 cup sugar
1/3 cup of cocoa powder
1 teaspoon of baking soda
1/2 teaspoon of salt

Mix together in a bowl. Add to the dry these mixed wet ingredients:

1 cup of water
1/4 cup of vegetable oil
1 tablespoon of white vinegar
2 teaspoons of vanilla

Bake for 30 minutes. Let cool in the pan for ten minutes, then removed from the pan to cool on a rack.

This cake gets that reddish tinge from the cocoa powder, where red velvet cake possibly originated from. The baking soda and the vinegar react to form this great squishy cake. You need the vinegar to activate the baking soda. You won't taste it!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Egg Nog Smoothie

I've been thinking about an egg nog smoothie for a few days now. When I googled it I found tons of recipes, not surprisingly, but they all used boughten egg nog. Well, duh! But I was looking for something that didn't want me to go out an buy some gross eggnog. (Just curious, do you prefer to spell it "egg nog" or "eggnog?") I know there's organic, awesome egg nog to buy out there, but you know me, I don't want to buy it, I want to make it. And of course, I'm not talking real egg nog here, I just want a little seasonal smoothie to enjoy with my little boy when he wakes up from his nap.

Now, you want to talk real egg nog? When I was a kid my Dad made the most spectacular, pull-out-all-the-stops egg nog. It was thick and foamy and warming, filled with cream, eggs and brandy, like a good egg nog should. That was the special thing that my dad would make for Christmas. We got a small mug-full, each of us three children, and savored every last bit. (No one was afraid to dole out a little booze to kids back in the seventies.)

So here it 'tis:

Egg Nog Smoothie (doesn't egg nog start to look weird since I wrote it so many times?)

1 cup of full fat yogurt (can people stop eating fat-free yogurt? It's horrible.)
1/4 cup of cream (that's right. More cream.)
1 teaspoon of good vanilla
a hearty sprinkle of nutmeg
1 or 2 tablespoons of sugar, depending on your taste

Put the yogurt in a pint jar. Pour the cream over it. Add the sugar, nutmeg and vanilla. Put a lid on it and shake the heck out of it for about a minute. This is key. Don't do it in a blender. Shaking it causes the fat to whip up, like whipped cream. What you are left with is a soft, very rich, thick deliciousness. Give this to a cranky toddler when they awake from a nap and they will be putty in your hands. Until it's done.

You could add a banana, but then it just tastes like a banana smoothie to me, and while that's fine, it's just not an egg nog flavor. Do you put bananas in your egg nog? Right.
You could also add honey, but the honey, in my estimation was too strong a taste. Again, in deference to the nog, I say: no honey.
You could also add some booze or boozey extract. I won't mind. Boozey smoothie? Hmmm. That might be my next post.

P.s. The probability is high that you could win a jar of Christmas Jam! Leave a comment on my post for Christmas Jam. The possibilities are finite!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Jelly Glazed Roll Cookies

I will admit right off the bat that I'm not a great cookie maker. I am, however, a great cookie admirer and eater. When I was growing up, my mother and I would make cookies: gingerbread men with currants for eyes, roll cookies with colored icing, and Pfeffernüsse. Nothing too overboard. I think maybe a few years we even attempted gingerbread houses. The biggest baking tradition was something I wasn't overly involved in, except for the eating of it, and that was croissants for Christmas morning breakfast. It was probably the only thing that could pull us away from our gifts. Flaky and warm, pull them apart and add more butter, and black cherry Hero jam, which we would always have, our special jam.

For the past fifteen years I have carried my cookie cutters around with me in a slowly deteriorating ziploc bag. I haven't used them much. But now that I have a two-year old who shows interest in baking with me, I've pulled them out from the back of the least used cabinet, high above the fridge, realizing that I had an opportunity to get back into the fun of cookie making for the holidays. I'm not sure if I'll ever be good enough to put together snazzy boxes that some people do, but you've got to start somewhere, right?

I decided to just do some plain roll cookies using those sweet old shapes that I used as a child. I glazed them with quince and apple jelly that had a soft set, and when they dried I sprinkled them with confectioner's sugar. I used a basic roll cookie recipe from The Joy of Cooking.

The only problem? It was hard to get my son to help with making the cookies because all he wanted to do was to eat the dough. I totally understood! I scooted him away until the cookies were done and cooled, and we had a cookie feast at 10 a.m. on this drizzly, cold Sunday morning.

Do you make cookies for the holidays? I'll bet you at least eat them. I'd love to hear what people are making or posting about on cookies. And don't forget to leave a comment on my post for Christmas Jam, for a chance to win a jar of it!

Kate from Hip Girls Guide to Homemaking is also hosting a jam giveaway. You have to come up with a clever name for her marmalade though. This ain't no random generator thang. I'm still trying to think of my entry.

Some inspiring cookie posts I've seen lately:

Mrs. Wheelbarrow's cookie check list. Wow!
The Project Girl's cute little boxes for cookies. I don't think I can make anything that cute.
Shae from Hitchhiking to Heaven's great jam cookie round up. Comprehensive!
Rumballs and Soft Caramels from Rebecca at RCakewalk.
Advanced cookie exchange reading from Ashley at Small Measure, who wrote this last year for Design*Sponge.
And just for fun, here's a recipe for Croissants from Three Clever Sisters, who always seem to have something awesome in the oven. Maybe one day I'll try this!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Christmas Jam - The Final Tigress Can Jam of 2010

For the finale of the Tigress' Can Jam 2010, I decided I needed to jam. No, not to jelly, but to jam. And no, I did not jam econo. I jammed hardcore deluxe. I made a Ferber-inspired Christmas Jam loaded with dried fruits, Tigress' pick for December. I've been eyeing this recipe for a while. Something about so many dried fruits sounded so rich and luxurious, I'm glad I finally had a reason to do it. And of course, it's the holidays, so it's perfect.

But first I have to address this: Oh My Goodness! The end of the Can Jam! I remember way back in November of last year, peeking in Tigress' site and noticing the announcement, and I sent a shy little e-mail, piping up that I'd like to join, please! And twelve months later I feel like I've been part of something big, and met so many wonderful people, and learned so many amazing things. Well, gosh, all I've got to say is that I'm awfully thankful. To all of my fellow jammers, but most of all to Tigress, for bringing this vibrant community together. What fun it's been!!

Because it's been such a special time, I'd love to send one of these jars out into the universe. Please leave me a comment about your favorite holiday treat, and next week I will pick a winner. You have until Wednesday, December 15 by 12 midnight, EST. Make sure you leave me your e-mail address or where you can be reached!! If I can't contact the winner in three days, I'll draw a new number. Many thanks for participating, following along, or just showing up now for the Tigress' Can Jam!

So, now that we have discussed that: back to the jam. This is what it's all about. I riffed, as usual, and did my own thing for this jam. The recipe I poached from is truly stunning, and the book is well worth it just for inspiration. It contained dried pear slices soaked in quince juice, and nuts, too. I left those out. What I put in was super tart tangerine juice and zest, and as mentioned before, a big assortment of dried fruit. It came out very soft and syrupy, which is I think is keeping in the Ferber style. I think I could have took it a few degrees higher, but I didn't want to err on the side of a too hard gel. There's too much in here that spreading would ruin. This is a jam that wants to drape on top of things.

Next time, I might add some vanilla and rum, to add a warmer bottom line. The tangerine juice kept it light, and mixed nicely with the floral notes of the quince. This could be off the hook with a baked brie, or on top of vanilla ice cream. Or on a nice pork loin. Or potato pancakes. Hmmm...

Christmas Jam
adapted from Christine Ferber's Christmas Jam

3 pounds of quinces (should yield about 2 to 2.5 cups of quince juice)

Quarter the quinces, removing the blossom end. Put in a pot, add water to just cover and bring to a boil. Simmer for about an hour. Let it sit for about an hour. Sieve and collect juice in a bowl. (Use the rest for membrillo, or a fruit butter. Or simply put it all through a food mill, add some sugar and spices to taste. Like applesauce, but so special!)

Put the juice in your jamming pot, and add:

2 cups of sugar

juice of two tangerines (about a 1/2 cup)
zest of one tangerine (do this before you juice!)
juice and zest of 1/2 lemon

1/2 cup of julienned dried apricots
1/4 cup sultana raisins
1/3 cup of chopped prunes
1/2 cup of chopped dried figs
1/4 cup of candied ginger, chopped finely

pinch of ground cinnamon, nutmeg
one cardamom pod, opened, seeds only
tiniest bit of star anise (tiny!)

(Note on the spices: I questioned using so little, but in the end, I recommend it. The flavoring is subtle, and lets the fruit shine. But, don't let me stop you, if you beg to differ.)

Mix to combine and bring to a boil. Boil for about 10 to twenty minutes. I use a thermometer for guidance, but don't rely on it. I pulled this at 216 degrees. It was doing the double drip, and it was incredibly viscous. I'm not sure if it would have jelled much more firmly. But, in the end, I'd rather have a softer set than a firmer one, in the case of this lovely, packed full of goodies, jam.

Ladle into hot half-pint jars. Process for ten minutes. Joyeux Nöel!

Our new cat is on the windowsill in the background. She tried to pull this jam off the table it's on. She wanted to eat it! Needless to say, she's in the right house.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Quince Candy

I've been quincing out lately, because the case I bought is starting to show signs of age. There are brown blooms on a few of them, so I've decided to begin the quince onslaught and preserve my way through the rest of them. And really, it's a delight to do so. I'm past the preserving craze, well into the winter phase, so I welcome the return to slaving over a hot pot every day.

This quince candy was worth every minute I spent on it. Though it took a few hours to make, it was just to stir it every so often and check up on it. The most work was the peeling and coring. Quinces are hard! And doing this is a chore. And you really want to make sure you do a good job, because if you leave in some core bits they will turn into little piece of gravel once cooked. So be warned.

When folks refer to quince candy they usually mean the cooked paste of the pulp, like membrillo, that has sat and dried. Once dried, you can cut it up and roll it in sugar. It was a traditional Dutch treat that was enjoyed here in the Hudson Valley by the settlers back in the 1700s. It's also a traditional treat all over the world. I made it last year, along with these other jellies. I have a thing for jelly, as you may have noticed. But this candy is a little different, somewhat similar to the quince in red wine and honey that I made a few weeks ago.

The quince is peeled, cored and cut into small, squarish chunks. Then it is simmered in a syrup of sugar and water until all the water has cooked away and the quince chunks have soaked up all the sugar, become soft and chewy, and taken on their trademark rosy hue. I could eat about ten or so pieces of this in a sitting. The texture is just perfectly chewy. The outside gets slightly tough and yields to inner softness once a molar presses it just so. They are very sweet and really are candy, not preserves. They could stay in the fridge a long time, if you could resist them. I would recommend this as a sumptuous addition to a holiday cheese plate. Or as a dessert, served in a bowl alongside some almonds.

Quince Candy

3 large quince, peeled, cored, cut into small, squarish chunks
2 cups of water
1 teaspoon of lemon juice
1 1/2 cups of sugar
1/2 vanilla bean
a few whole cloves

Put everything in a large, heavy bottomed pot. Bring to a boil, then simmer on low heat with the lid off, for about two hours. You want this to be a slow process, to ensure that nice color, and so the quince have the proper time to get soft and soak in the sugar. Keep an eye on it, stir it every so often, and make sure it doesn't boil to high or stop simmering. When it's done, let it cool. Store in the fridge in a glass container.

Mine took 2 1/2 hours, but that's because I had the lid on for the first hour. It's better if it's off. Now I know.