Saturday, January 30, 2016

Cookie of the Month

Back when I used to subscribe to Martha Stewart Living, there was a monthly column on the last page called "Cookie of the Month." Since my husband, boss, and doctor mandated break from work, I have been trying to do the things I love to do that energize me and bless others, and one of those things for me has always been baking. And from the very beginning, my favorite thing to bake has been cookies. For years, my friend Annie made one of her New Year's resolutions to bake more bread. And I always thought that sounded great so I copied her but then never actually followed through. Because here's the thing I realized: I can buy really good bread. I live within walking distance from a really good French bakery and another little market that carries the daily wares from one of Des Moines' best bakeries, South Union Bakery. But most cookies one finds at a typical bakery are just not good. Generally speaking, I find bakery cookies to have more flour in them than flavor. And grocery store bakery cookies all have the same, unnatural preservative filled taste. Yuck! And don't even get this family started on national brand cookies. With the possible exception of the Oreo and Pepperidge Farm Chessman or Milano, no one will never find store-bought cookies in our house. Okay, okay, there's one other funny little exception, but that is another post. The point is, I really love to bake cookies, and it is a great way to bless my family with otherwise unattainable deliciousness. It took me a while to realize all of this so I felt it was worth a few words.

Anyway, so far this year, I've made a different batch of cookies each week. The first week, I didn't try anything new, just an old favorite, chocolate chunk mocha cookies. The next week, I tried one that I remember first seeing and trying when it was published about twelve years ago in the Better Homes and Gardens Christmas cookie issue, Laura Bush's cowboy cookies. I only tried it that one time, but with ingredients like coconut, oats, and chocolate chips, I figured it was worth trying again. It was! The next week, I felt like a peanut butter cookie. I tried this recipe from Smitten Kitchen and it was great. But the best cookie I tried all month, and therefore my pick for January's cookie of the month, was an M&M cookie. I asked the kids what sounded good and Elspeth asked for an M&M cookie. She has always been a girl after my own heart! I could've made the Nestle Toll House cookie recipe and subbed in M&M's for chocolate chips, but I have long wanted to perfect the texture of chocolate chip cookies and find that it is tricky to do. One thing I think is always necessary is mixing by hand rather than using an electric mixer. An electric mixer seems to over mix the dough and cause the cookies to spread too much in the oven. But the main problem of spreading dough in my mind has always been butter as it has a lower melting temperature than shortening or the margarine I used when I first began baking. The problem with margarine and shortening, of course, is that they are  disgusting. But I have never quite been able to get the nice, thick cookie I want with butter. Until now! According to the recipe I tried, the over mixing is definitely a culprit, but the lower melting temperature of butter is definitely the main issue. And that is why this recipe requires freezing the dough for at least four hours first. Furthermore, there was a bit more flour in this recipe than in most chocolate chip cookie recipes, a full three cups as opposed to just two and a quarter cups in the Nestle Toll House recipe. While I tend to think many cookies have too much flour in them effecting both the texture and the flavor, I decided to trust this recipe. The flavor was amped up with a full tablespoon of vanilla as opposed to a mere teaspoon of vanilla in the Nestle Toll House recipe and also with the use of browned butter. Browning butter is simple and it really adds a richness to the butter's flavor. The result was one of the best cookies I've ever made or eaten!

Bakery M&M Cookies

1c. butter
3/4 c. sugar
1c. brown sugar
1T vanilla
2 eggs
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
3c. flour
1c. M&M's
1/2c. chocolate chips
- melt butter in a saucepan over medium heat; swirl melted butter over heat until butter solids turn brown. remove saucepan from heat and allow butter to cool slightly
- in a large bowl, mix sugar, brown sugar, and vanilla. pour in cooled brown butter and mix together.
- gently stir in eggs- don't over mix
- sprinkle baking soda, baking powder, salt, and flour over sugar mixture and fold in
- mix in chocolate chips and m&m's
- use a tablespoon to scoop dough into large balls
- freeze dough balls on parchment paper for four hours
- bake frozen dough on parchment lined baking sheets for 10 minutes at 375

Monday, January 25, 2016

Sunday Breakfast at Night

For a couple of years now, I've been making breakfast for supper on Sunday nights. A lot of breakfast foods are quick to throw together so even if it's just scrambled eggs and toast, I can get supper on the table in time for everyone to get to bed and be ready for the week ahead. And because I am terrible about going to the store almost every day for some key ingredient to a recipe, breakfast is a good trip saver because I almost always have basic baking ingredients for pancakes, bacon, eggs, etc. in the fridge. I also just like narrowing down the possibilities. For me, half the trouble of cooking dinner every night is coming up with the idea in the first place. If I know it's going to be breakfast, I don't waste a lot of time trying to think of what in the world to make. Sometimes I do want to be a little more creative though. I have tried a lot of different ideas lately, including some not so great baked eggs with kale. One dish that we have really enjoyed is a home skillet. (Ha! That always makes me think of the opening scene of Juno when Rainn Wilson calls Ellen Page home skillet.) I looked in my pantry one Sunday afternoon and pretty much all I saw was potatoes. I had had a big dinner party where we served lasagna the night before and had a smidge of leftover basil and mozzarella. So, rather than go to the store, I googled potatoes, eggs, basil, cheese and found this recipe! I made several batches because we were all pretty hungry, but the cook time is quick, and the recipe is super simple. I have made it multiple times since then using different kinds of cheese. It's just a great, filling, quick meal. I have streamlined it only slightly to save myself typing it exactly as it appears originally.

Breakfast Skillet
2-3 red boiling potatoes, diced into 1/2" pieces
2tsp. olive oil
3 eggs, lightly beaten
1/3c. grated cheese

- place oil and potatoes and 1/4c. water in a skillet over high heat. Cover and bring to a boil, then reduce heat slightly and continue to simmer for 5 minutes. Stir mixture a couple of times during cook time. After 5 minutes, potatoes will be tender and have begun to brown and water should be evaporated. Uncover and loosen potatoes from bottom of skillet, reduce heat to medium-high and cover again, cooking another 2-5 minutes.
-pour eggs over potatoes and add salt and pepper to taste. cook until eggs are set, just a couple of minutes, then turn off the heat and add cheese and (optionally) any fresh herbs you might like. The residual heat will melt the cheese.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Elusive Austen

I'm working on my book list, but the second book I chose for the year has 630 pages and is not the easiest read. So I find myself daydreaming about the book I will read next! I am eager to read Jane Austen again. However, and this is really sad, I do not own any of my own copies of her books. The reason is because I don't much care for paperbacks and have long since sold or donated my paperback copies of her books. I long for nice hardcover copies. I actually think this set would be the perfect set for me. I saw it in the Christmas issue of InStyle last year and it was love at first sight. It's pink! However, it's also $200. And the actual books, minus the dust jackets that are neither leather nor vellum but just "a special tear and water resistant paper," are only $40 on Amazon. So, that means the "special tear and water resistant paper" covers alone are $160! Yowsa! But they're gorgeous! And they're pink!!

This is the set minus the covers though. 

And that's just not going to look nice on anyone's shelf. Not in this century anyway. Yuck! I wish they would sell just the covers. I wouldn't mind paying $10 a piece for the covers, as silly as that is. At $40 for the books and $60 for the covers, I could get a whole set for $100. That seems more reasonable to me. It's still a bit much to charge more for the covers than the books, but I'd be willing to do it because these are so difficult to find with pretty covers. 

My dad is a big fan of Easton Press. The problem with Easton Press in the past was that they bound some of the books together. I have seen this a lot. Why would I want a big bulky book? I wouldn't. I want six volumes because she wrote six books. I have looked again today and discovered that Easton Press has now put out a very beautiful six volume set. But ugh, they do this to me every stinkin' time, they are red. I hate red. Except for at Christmas or if we're talking about wine, red is just not for me. It makes me want to say "shh!" or "calm down!" And anyway, six monthly installments of $69? Holy cow!

I did find a nice grey set from the 90s put out by the Folio Society (which is apparently a London based publisher) used on both Amazon and ebay. At $125, the price is still not quite right. Although it appears they are reissuing Austen's books now at just over $60 a piece! It really is a pretty set. I think grey makes more sense than pink too. And it's still really a beautiful color. 

What I don't want is a set that doesn't look like a set. That is just too busy on the shelf. Barnes and Noble had a great little bargain priced copy of each of her novels last fall for about $7 a piece, but in the end, I couldn't do it. When the dust jackets were removed, they were all different colors. It would be distracting on a bookshelf. And as nice as any one of the covers are in the new Penguin set, altogether, the grouping is busy and messy looking to me. 

It just seems strange to me that it is this hard to find a good set of books that are public domain. Can't anyone who wants to bind these up in pretty covers? I would myself if I knew anything about book binding. But since I don't, the search continues. 

Monday, January 04, 2016

First Day Back

The kids started a new school today. I think it went okay. It sounds like both students and teachers were kind and friendly. And for the first time since May, I found myself alone inside my house! I am so much more capable of action when I don't have an audience, or just people around who may need me. If it's me all by myself, much can be accomplished. I had a hard time getting to sleep last night so I was only functioning on three hours of sleep today. I'm sure subsequent days will be more productive. Even so, I managed to make a cranberry cake and a pot of chili and get some grocery shopping done. After school, I took the kids out for cupcakes and heard about their adventures. By the time we got home, we had just enough time to get Elspeth changed for lessons and over to the dance studio. While Elspeth was in her lessons, I was able to go back to the store for buttermilk (I almost never remember it all the first time!) and then get the cornbread made. I'm not sure if it's hyperbole to say cornbread is a polarizing food item. But I do know that Northerners tend to like sweet cornbread that has a bit more flour, almost like a cake, and Southerners tend to like a savory cornbread with a coarser texture. So when you look at Food Network or other recipe site ratings, it's tricky to find a consistently well rated cornbread recipe. As a Southerner, I have found that the easiest way for me to determine whether or not a cornbread recipe is worth trying is whether or not it has sugar listed in the ingredients- if sugar is listed, I skip it. And while I never really considered Oklahoma the South, I have heard that many Oklahoma people consider themselves very much Southerners. My apologies to Oklahomans!

Why am I talking about Oklahoma? Because Ree Drummond, aka The Pioneer Woman, is from Oklahoma and for the last couple of years, I have settled on her cornbread recipe. It's pretty good!

Skillet Cornbread

1c. yellow cornmeal (white is fine too)
1/2 c. all purpose flour
1T baking powder
1 tsp. salt
1c. buttermilk
1/2 c. milk
1 whole egg
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/4 c. plus 2T shortening

- preheat oven to 450. place 2T shortening in cast iron pan and allow to melt in pan during preheating.
- combine cornmeal, flour, baking powder, and salt in a bowl
- measure buttermilk and milk in a measuring cup and mix together with egg. add baking soda
- pour milk mixture over dry ingredients and stir to combine
- in microwave, melt 1/4 cup of shortening in a small bowl. pour into batter and mix.
- pour batter into preheated pan- it will sizzle and make a delightfully crispy crust!- and bake until golden brown, about 20-25 minutes

We laughed a lot over dinner. I am so grateful that my children are generally able to see the humor in most situations. They certainly come by it honestly. It felt like a pretty good first day back to school for all of us. Many prayers have been answered!

Saturday, January 02, 2016

Happy New Year!

It has been a great end to 2015 and beginning to 2016 for us. We had a fun time on New Year's Eve at the home of some friends. There was a lot of good conversation and good food!!! My contribution was a smoked salmon spread from an Ina Garten recipe and a yummy prosecco that the lady at Gateway helped me find. It had a nautilus shell on the label and was labeled extra dry though it was much fruitier than most champagne and prosecco I have had. Sadly, beyond that information, I have no idea what it was that a purchased. I can provide the recipe I used for the salmon spread though!

Smoked Salmon Spread

8 oz. cream cheese at room temperature
1/2 c. sour cream
1T freshly squeezed lemon juice
1T minced fresh dill
1 tsp. prepared horseradish
4 oz. smoked salmon

-Cream the cheese with an electric mixer until smooth, add sour cream, lemon juice, dill, and horseradish and mix. Mix in salmon and chill. Serve with crackers. (I also serve with baguette slices. Also, I  mixed this all by hand without using a mixer and it was no problem.)

For New Year's Day, I grew up having black eyed peas for luck and greens for fortune (because it's the color of money I think?) I am not a fan of the long cooked greens I was given as a kid, mostly because of the smell. I am learning that collards don't have to be cooked that way, but in recent years, I have had sautéed kale instead. Tonight, my friend Carrie, who knew about the greens tradition, brought a delicious kale salad. She also brought homemade rolls and roasted root vegetables! Delicious! My friend Sarah brought the rum cake that her husband's grandmother made on New Years. It too was delicious! All I had to do was roast a couple of chickens, open some wine, and make my friend Annie's fantastic black eyed pea dip. We had such a nice time with our friends and good food and the kids played so well together. Without even realizing it we partied until midnight again!

Now, here's what I'm going to say about this dip- it's not enough. Next time I will go ahead and get two cans of peas and double everything else if I'm having friends over. I have a small oval casserole dish that is great for serving dips in. It holds a full recipe of spinach artichoke dip nicely and could have easily held this recipe doubled.

Black-Eyed Pea Bake

1 can black-eyed peas
1/4 c. choppped onion
1/4 c. sour cream
1c. shredded cheese (Annie never said what kind so I use sharp cheddar)
8+ jarred jalapeño slices
1/4 c. salsa
hot sauce to taste

- pulse peas and jalapeños in food processor a few times. imagine whirled peas. (Hahaha!) add onions and pulse a few times more. add all remaining ingredients and pulse a little more. then put your mixture in a small casserole dish or pie plate and bake at 350 for twenty minutes or until bubbly. serve with tortilla chips.

I was almost able to finish my 2015 reading list but the library never got my last two books in for me. And then there's the Julia Child book. I just can't get myself excited about it. It was number one on my list last year and I did get it in time to finish it, but I just didn't ever want to read it... I still have it checked out from the library so we'll see. I am not putting it on next year's list though. If I read it, okay, but if I don't, that's okay too.  So, for 2015, 85 books! I'm kinda proud of myself! I don't know if I could do it again though. But I do have a list started for this year. I'm starting with a list of 25, two of which are the leftovers from last year's list. In this list, instead of putting an asterisk by it until I finish, I'll put one by it when I do finish- which is confusing, but oh well.

*1) A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith -- this is one of those that kept popping up on lists I looked at during the year.

*2) Adam Bede by George Eliot -- George really enjoyed this book in college and wanted me to read it way back then, but I was sick of classic literature at the time.

3) Middlemarch by George Eliot -- Middlemarch is one I started a long time ago when my friend Rebekah told me about an online book club for it. I didn't make it very far, but what I read, I liked.

*4) Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton -- I read this in high school and remember really liking it. But other than that, I remember nothing about it. It appears I'm on a classic literature kick...

*5) Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell -- I have never read anything by Elizabeth Gaskell. I don't really want to read Wives and Daughters because she never finished it! But if I love this one, I may decide to read that one anyway. I loved the BBC Wives and Daughters so I am interested in reading one of her novels.

*6) Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen -- speaking of loving books...

*7) Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

*8) Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

*9) Emma by Jane Austen

*10) Persuasion by Jane Austen

*11) Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

*12) Jane Austen by Peter Leithart -- George gave me this book a little while back and I haven't ever read it. I wanted to reread all of her books when I did so I think I'm ready.

*13) Jane Austen's First Love by Syrie James -- I don't remember who recommended this to me or when but I am willing to try a little Jane Austen fan fiction from time to time.

*14) Stonewall by John Dwyer -- I don't really know who recommended these books to me either, but I actually ordered them and own them. I think maybe I got them about five years ago? Finally time to read them!

15) Robert E. Lee by John Dwyer

16) Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy -- at one point, I really loved Thomas Hardy. I hope I still do...

17) Tess of the d'urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

18) Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy

*19) Life in Motion by Misty Copeland -- I ordered this in hopes it would be an inspiration for Miss Amabel. I don't think she's interested in being inspired, but I am hoping if I read it first, she will give it a try.

*20) Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole -- I have also given this one a try in the past and didn't really  get into it. I think this could be one of those that you either love or you hate. But I want to try to love it just one more time.

*21) Uncle Fred in Springtime by P.G. Wodehouse -- I got these three for Christmas from George after loving Uncle Dynamite this summer. It turns out Wodehouse wrote four books with Uncle Fred and his shenanigans.

*22) Cocktail Time by P.G. Wodehouse

*23) Service With a Smile by P.G. Wodehouse

*24) After You by Jojo Moyes --  the library emailed me yesterday to let me know it was ready, but when I got over there, I remembered the library is closed on Thursdays! It was a double downer too because of course the library was also closed today for New Years Day.

*25) The Bronte Plot by Katherine Reay -- this one has been "on order" at the library for months

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