Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy New Year, Coffee Mates!

Well, here we are. Another year, all wound down and coasting to a stop. Time to snip off the loose ends and tuck everything in and put it away. It was certainly a year full of highs and lows for this sturdy band of Coffee Mates. Some of us welcomed brand new loved ones into the world, some of us suffered grievous losses when loved ones left this world. And everything in between.

So here we gather at this end of the cycle, all ready to open the door and let in the next year. Before 2010 toddles in, though, I just wanted to let you all know I've loved hanging with you this past year and will be very grateful to be able to extend the privilege through the next one. Whether you've spent 2009 up, down or sideways, I have a hug for each of you -- some for celebration, some for consolation, all for friendship. Hugs are healthy. It says so right here.

Oh . . . no matter how late you stay up tonight, I'll have the coffee on for you. (See above.) Special coffee. Magic coffee. Enhanced coffee. (wink, nudge)  See you next year!

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Art of Twisting

Still munching on leftovers, are you? Me too. Good thang I love leftovers, that's what. It's so much fun to figure out a new twist on a regular dish and what didn't get eaten the day before just sort of sits there and asks to be reinvented, don't you think?

Like the mashed potatoes. Lots of things you can do with mashed 'taters. Topping on a nice cottage pie. Shaped into patties and fried -- or baked. Added to bread dough. Made into gnocchi. But today I got hungry for a quiche and thought, hey, how about a quiche with a mashed potato bottom crust? So I Googled the idea and, sure enough -- all kinds of examples of mashed potato crusts, most of them being more or less of the twice-baked variety. That is, one bakes the crust while it's still empty, then fills it, then bakes the whole thing again.

For the most part, I'm not giving you specific measurements. This is the sort of thing you play by ear, according to what ingredients you have on hand. Also, you have to build according to however many you plan to feed. I put this quiche in a 9 inch pie pan but it really isn't enough to feed a hungry family. Nice for one or two people but you put any more at the table and somebody is going to get stabbed with a fork. I'm just sayin' . . .

Anyhoo, I slapped about 2 cups (guesstimate) of mashed 'taters in an oiled graniteware pie pan and patted it fairly even across the bottom and up the sides. Baked it for 40 minutes at 375 degrees but I think next time I'll do it for half an hour at 350 degrees because the edge will brown more on the second bake period.

While the crust was baking, I rummaged through the fridge, deciding what vegetables might work well in the quiche. Some leftover roasted carrots, cut into coins. Some minced green bell pepper and minced onion, sauteed lightly, just to get the raw edge off. When the crust came out of the oven, I sprinkled the veggies around, then scattered about a cup of grated mozzarella cheese over everything. Whisked 3 eggs and 1 cup of buttermilk together, seasoned it liberally with salt and pepper and poured it over the veggies and cheese. Poifect! (I could have added chopped up meat of any variety but wasn't in the mood. Your mileage may vary.)

Back in the oven, 350 degrees, 30 minutes. As you can see, the top edge of the crust got very brown but it was still tender-crunchy and delicious. The filling will be all poofy when you take it out. You're supposed to let it set for 10 minutes before cutting into it. The poofy will go down as it rests and you will go nuts trying to keep yourself from tearing into it too soon. It smells incredibobbly good.

I could have taken a picture of the first slice I pulled from the pie. And I would have -- except I messed it up. My fault entirely. Cut the piece way too big (well, I thought I was starving) and it is, after all, merely a mashed potato crust. Needs some support as it's lifted out of the pan and my piece was so wide, some of it fell off. Didn't look pretty at all. Smelled pretty. Tasted gorgeous. Yes. I ate the evidence and there's nothing you can do about it. Unless you want to make your own twisted leftover quiche. Might want to double the egg/milk mixture if you make a larger pie. You'll know. Have fun!

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Meet Marvin

Please meet Marvin the Musical Moose.  He has been such a good little buddy the last few years. Here he sits on the window sill, guarding the Christmas card crop and looking adorable. You may also notice he is sporting a bright red tree ornament, dangling from his antler.

Yep. The very same red tree ornament I got from daughter Patti when I was hellbent on putting up a Charlie Brown Christmas tree. The way I had it figured was, I'd trot around outside, scouting through all the trees, looking for just the right blowdown branch to emulate a pathetic little tree. Given that there has been plenty of boisterous wind over the last month or two, I thought there would be a reasonable assortment of branches from which to choose. Well, there was. The problem was, there was not a single branch that came even close to being The One.

I could have grabbed the hatchet and chopped off a suitable limb from a suitable tree but that seemed, somehow, uhmmm -- unsuitable. And mean. Mutilating a perfectly good tree to score a single branch is just not descriptive of the spirit of the season. What to do? What to do?

Then I thought about Marvin. Hey! There ya go! Marvin is a good sport and I knew he'd be delighted to dandle the dangly for me. It adds a bit of color while he sings his Christmas song, don'cha know?

What song? Oh. Well, Marvin takes great delight in telling folks how Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer. I can tell he's having fun because he wiggles and jiggles while he's singing. I don't want you to think he's being a tattle tale, either. Actually, he's providing an early warning system, sort of. Kind of. The song clearly illustrates what happens when a team of reindeer have to travel so many places so very fast that they don't have time to brake for liddle ol' leddies who step out in front of them. Especially liddle ol' leddies who have been nipping at the brandy that was supposed to go in their fruitcake.

But I guess we don't have to worry about that now. The reindeer are all back at the North Pole and Grannie is recovering nicely. I think she'll probably be in fine shape by the time New Year's Eve gets here.


Friday, December 18, 2009

Making God Laugh

If you want to hear God laugh, tell Him your plans.  

And only God knows who came up with that line originally. I've seen it attributed to everything from "Old Folk Proverb" to Woody Allen and assorted cultures and folk in between. Doesn't matter. It falls into the "best laid plans of mice and men" category and I do believe I heard a fairly subtle heavenly chuckle somewhere in the background today.

Which is why you're getting the LOLcat photo of those cutie-pie fur kids instead of a CBG photo of the Charlie Brown Christmas tree. (Sorry about that, Kate.) When the weather was decent earlier today, I was busy with company and "stuff" and couldn't go out to gather the perfect CB tree. When I was free to do the deed, it was raining. Of course. I'm not feeling particularly desperate about it. There's still a week to go. No pressure. No need to deliberately get wet when I can be reasonably sure of helpful periods of relative dryness.

Oh wait. Do I hear a distant chuckle again?  I was not making plans, God. I was merely speculating, okay?

I did get one element of the project safely in hand. Patti brought me the perfect little red ball ornament. Yay! That's got to count for something.

I was also quite pleased with the results of a new (to me) experiment in the culinary department. Do all y'all know about creme fraiche? There are accent marks in there somewhere but we aren't going to worry about it. I'm informed it's pronounced "krem fresh" and it's like the French version of our sour cream. Only more decadent and silky. And it doesn't separate in sauces and soups like sour cream can. You can get details by clicking on this Epicurious link and those folks, unlike moi, know of what they speak.

I've never seen it in the store myself but apparently the creme fraiche in this country is ridiculously expensive. I don't see why that should be when it's so easy to make it yourself. After skimming at least a dozen different sites for recipes, the consensual formula seems to be as follows: for every cup of heavy cream (whipping cream), add 2 tablespoons of either cultured buttermilk, cultured plain yogurt or sour cream. Mix together in a non-reactive container (canning jar, plastic food keeper, etc.) and leave out, covered, at room temperature for one to two days, until it thickens. Shake or stir from time to time. The warmer the room, the faster it will set up. Then you can give it another stir and put it in the refrigerator where it will keep for a week or two, getting thicker and developing flavor as it goes.

I did up a pint of whipping cream with 4 tablespoons of buttermilk and it took two days to thicken to almost sour cream consistency. At that point (yesterday) I put it in the refrigerator. When I took it out today, parts of it were very thick, parts were more custardy -- which evened out when I gave it a good stir. At any rate, the flavor is getting wonderful and it certainly tasted great in the potato soup I made this afternoon.

By the way, it is safe to leave it out at room temperature while it's "making." The good bacteria keep out the bad bacteria. As long as your cream and buttermilk are okay, the combo will be fine.

Prices vary, of course, but going by what I pay at the little market here in town, it costs me all of 15 cents more to make the creme fraiche than to buy a tub of sour cream. The only downside is that one needs to get it started a couple of days before one will need it.

Just remember, if you plan ahead, you might be making God laugh.

PLEASE NOTE: I apologize to any of you who were messed with when you clicked the link to the YouTube video last night. Somehow I messed up the original link but didn't catch it because I didn't do my usual check. Fortunately, Becky and Wendy were on the ball and gave me a heads up. Thanks, gurlfriends! Just for the record, I did check the Epicurious link in this post. (big goofy grin)

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum . . .

It's the darndest thing . . . I got all caught up in a Charlie Brown fever and messed around until too late to trot outside and DO something about it. If you will forgive a bit of a mild rant, hang in here with me and I'll explain.

It sort of started with this YouTube video. Go ahead and watch it. [Idiot Alert! Sorry, Coffee Mates. I did not double check that link. Fortunately, Becky let me know what I had put in wasn't working and she even sent me the correct one! Thank you, Becky. So, okay -- now the link works. ] I'll keep the coffee warm until you're done. Really. Might even have some more of that cranberry shortbread laid out for you. (I know. I could have done the embed thing but, for some reason, it wasn't working tonight. Thus, I'm letting you click over to YouTube for the viewing -- and bribing you with coffee and cranberry bars so you'll click back.)

Okay. Now you have the idea.That's what got me going. Before you could say, "Sic 'em, Snoopy!" I was Google-gallivanting through assorted trivia about Charlie Brown and his famous Christmas tree. Now, if you've never seen the special, Wikipedia has an excellent synopsis. And you've just got to cheer the little guy for seeing the beauty in that pathetic, scraggly tree and, in effect, striking a solid blow against the commercialization of a holiday.

It doesn't much matter whether you're celebrating the season from a religious perspective, a secular one, or both. The point is that all our celebrations have mutated into some weird kind of pressure cooker roller derby, driven by a frenzied cash register drum beat.We've lost sight of the simple, warm, GOOD things we need to reaffirm so we can balance and restore our poor, harried selves. Thus Charlie Brown's Christmas tree has become a symbol of rejecting the glitter and gloss for the humble and real.

Well, sort of. Because -- here's the dose of irony -- a second glance at some (many) of those Google links were for (gasp) store after store selling (not cheaply) fake Charlie Brown Christmas trees! Remember, in the video clip how Linus wrapped his precious blanket around the bottom of the tree to give it a little love? Well, folks, if you pay a bit extra, you can have your fake Charlie Brown tree with its own blue blanky.

I applaud the folks in Concord who opted for their version of the CB tree. Good ON them! And, by golly, as a show of support, I'm putting up my own Charlie Brown tree this year. Yuppers. I'd have hauled in what I needed earlier this evening but it got dark before I realized it was so late. (sigh) So -- tomorrow, tomorrow. Yes. Daughter Patti will be down tomorrow and she's giving me one of the red balls from her own tree -- because the CB tree has to have a red ball, don'cha know?

All together now, Coffee Mates: "O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree, your branches green delight us."

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Stuffing Gallons Into Quarts

I don't know how we do it. I don't know how we can keep squeezing gallons of activity into pint jars of Time when the holiday season rolls around. Okay, maybe they're quart jars. But we still have more "stuff" than jar. There is probably an obscure scientific law that explains how that can be but it's so obscure, nobody knows what it is.

One of the things that has been taking a lot of my time has been the yearly -- obsessive -- search for new and different recipes for holiday occasions and gift giving. I might compare a dozen or two recipes for a single dish, trying to decide which one sounds like The One. And that's just for one item. You would not believe the number of various and assorted cranberry recipes I've been scanning, drooling and slobbering as I go.

Like, for instance, the one I found at the Joy of Baking web site. It turns out to be easy to put together and utterly delicious when done. This one's a keeper, Coffee Mates.

You can copy the recipe from the above link if you want, or grab it from here, whichever is easiest. It goes pretty much like this:

9" X 9" baking pan, buttered -- preheat oven to 375 degrees fairy height

For the filling: In medium-sized sauce pan, put:
2 1/4 cups (8 ounces or 225 grams) fresh or frozen cranberries
2/3 cup (130 grams) sugar
3 tablespoons water
On medium-high heat, bring to a boil and continue boiling until mixture is thick and syrupy. This will take about 5 or 6 minutes. She didn't say, but I stirred the mixture the whole time, just in case. It's amazing to watch all the resulting liquid cook down and thicken. Once it's thick, remove from heat and set aside to cool.

For the crust: In a mixing bowl, whisk together:
2 cups (270 grams) all purpose flour
2 tablespoons corn starch
1/4 teaspoon salt (I used a teaspoon of salt.)
In the bowl of your stand mixer, cream 1 cup (2 sticks) butter until smooth.
Add 1/3 cup (70 grams) sugar, beat 2 minutes, add 1 teaspoon vanilla, blend in.
Gently stir in the flour mixture just until incorporated.

The dough will still look very crumbly. That's okay. With all that butter, it'll come together just fine in the pan. Dump two thirds of the dough into the buttered pan and pat it into a reasonably level layer with your fingers. See? It holds together just like it knew what it was doing.

Now you take the cooled filling and spread it over the layer of crust, leaving a quarter-inch margin all around the edges. Then take the remaining third of the dough and crumble it over the filling. It's okay if there are little gaps that show bits of the filling. Gently press the crumbs into the filling, put it in the oven and bake for 30 minutes, or until crust is golden brown.

When you take it out of the oven, set the pan on a cooling rack and cut the squares/bars while it's still hot. Then let it cool completely in the pan. Cutting it while hot enables you to wiggle out each gorgeous little bar without excessive crumbling and unseemly deterioration of your culinary artistry.

Just in case you didn't get a good enough look up top, here's a closer view of these tasty morsels.

Mmmmm! Look at that tender crumb. Gaze with delight on that lush, tart-sweet filling. Wipe the drool off your chin and head right into the kitchen to whip up a batch for yourself.

Listen, I would love to share this batch with you, really. Oh, WHEN will they invent email that allows you to send real live food attachments? Geez, if the hackers would just consider the benefits to themselves, I'll bet they could come up with such a program -- I'd be happy to keep sending attached Cheetos to such genius persons.Wouldn't you?