Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Chessman Family Christmas

Christmas is a magic time for Americans.  Unless you're a doctor or a plumber, you're pretty much guaranteed a day off from work.  So, as a family of Jews who aren't stressing over trees in the living room and gifts for the neighbors, it's the perfect time for a family get-together.  And what does any good family do when they get together?  They eat!

We started our festivities backwards - with home made cake and ice cream to celebrate my niece Zivah's first birthday.  Zivah will turn one on December 30th, but since her parents are abandoning her in favor of warmer weather, we had a party early.  Her mother made her an adorable lion-faced cake (which she had absolutely no idea what to do with) and we made Peppermint Chocolate Chunk Ice Cream from scratch.  This was my first foray into the world of making ice cream from scratch, and I found it to be pretty easy.  Not so easy that I want to make it every night though, which is a bonus for my waist line.

After a lovely Christmas Eve dinner of sushi, we all tumbled off to bed to awake early the next morning.  This had less to do with hopes of gifts from Santa and more to do with the fact that small children seem to think that 6 a.m. is an appropriate time to wake up during vacation.

On to prepare Christmas dinner!
On the menu this year:
Herb-rubbed Prime Rib Roast
Roasted Root Vegetables
Balsamic-Honey marinated Ostrich Fillet (yes, you read that right)
Dry Rubbed Steak Tips
Broccoli Souffle

Treacle Sponge (see below)
Apple/Pear/Cranberry puff pastry pie.

You'd think we live in some sort of dystopian society in which you only get meat one day a year, huh?  Actually, there was a coupon to a butcher involved.


Here is my resolution for next year: LEARN TO FOLLOW DIRECTIONS.

For example, when the recipe for the roast says to cook at indirect heat for 1 1/12-1 3/4 hours and after an hour and a half it's still not to temperature, DO NOT listen to your mother when she says to turn on the middle burner.  Why not?  Because the GRILL WILL CATCH ON FIRE.  And with the grill, the meat will also catch on fire.  This will all cause me to stare at the grill, holler at the house, and when I realize that nobody can hear me and therefore is coming to rescue me, turn off the grill and remove the still flaming prime rib.  I put it out with the pot holder. 

Amazingly, the roast turned out ok, a little more cooked than I might have wanted and not with the exact kind of crust I wanted, but it was pretty good.  The rest of the food was as well.  The ostrich even grew on me.  My favorite were the steak tips though, which goes to show that anything dry rubbed with chipotle chili powder is the way to my heart. 

OK, the Treacle Sponge.  I've wanted to make a treacle tart since Harry Potter came out ten years ago.  Of course, until about five minutes ago, I didn't actually know what treacle was.  I now know that treacle is the burnoff from molasses, but the stuff you make treacle tart out of is really golden syrup. 

I couldn't find golden syrup, but, at the last minute, in the British food sections of the Mashpee Stop & Shop, I did find Treacle Sponge Pudding in a CAN. 

That you cook IN A CAN.  Although I have been raised to be wary of things you boil in a can for 35 minutes, I have to admit, it was pretty good.

All together, it was a nice Christmas dinner.  I have now eaten enough to not have to eat again for a week.  Or until later.  Where is that goat cheese...

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Reindeer Cookies

Now, I know what you're thinking, why would a good Jewish girl like me, be making reindeer cookies? And it's a good question.  UNTIL you actually see the cookies, which are so cute I couldn't resist.  I found them on Bakergirl's blog, where she made creating them appear to be extremely easy.  I found that not necessarily to be the case, but I got through it.

Look at these things, just look!
 Are they not the cutest cookies you've ever seen?

 Basically, they were the cutest cookies ever, and I had a Christmas party to go to, so I figured it was a match made in heaven.  They were quite a hit with the kids.  And being that they were peanut butter cookies, I didn't kill anyone, so I considered it a double success.

I think Bakergirl's came out better than mine because her cookies were smaller and she had smaller chocolate covered pretzels.  I would definitely recommend that.  I had to hold the bigger ones in place for a few seconds to ge them to set.  Also, since my cookies were bigger, I had to put the noses lower.  The first few dozen I made ended up looking like bears with red noses.  

All of that aside, the recipe is awesome.  The cookies came out smooth and soft, which is normally an issue I have with peanut butter cookies, so this will definitely be my go-to recipe from now on.  Everyone at the party, as well as the staff at Metrorock seemed to enjoy them!

Reindeer Cookies

3/4 cup peanut butter
1 1/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1/2 cup shortening
3 tablespoons milk
1 tablespoon vanilla
1 egg
1 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
Chocolate-covered mini pretzels
Mini brown M&Ms
Regular-sized red M&Ms

Preheat oven to 375°F.

Combine brown sugar, peanut butter, shortening, milk, and vanilla in large bowl. Beat at medium speed until well blended. Add egg; beat until just blended.

In a separate bowl, combine flour, baking soda, and salt. Add to creamed mixture at low speed. Mix just until blended.

Form dough into 1-inch balls. To make reindeer-shaped cookies, pinch the bottom of the ball slightly to form a point, then gently flatten with your hand. Space cookies about 2 inches apart on a greased cookie sheet and bake for 7 to 8 minutes, until set or just beginning to brown. 

Remove from oven and immediately (and gently) press two mini pretzels into the tops of the cookies for the reindeer's antlers. Press two mini brown M&Ms in for the eyes and one red M&M for the nose (or any other color... some of mine ended up with green noses. They might be South Pole reindeer.). 

Allow to cool 2 minutes on the baking sheet and then transfer to a wire rack or paper towel to cool completely. 

Makes about 40 reindeer cookies.

Source: Peanut butter cookie recipe from Jif.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Tea at L'Espalier

In lieu of getting each other gifts we would inevitably return this year, my friend Kim and I decided to celebrate the holidays by going out for a fancy meal.  We settled on afternoon tea and after asking around, it seemed that L'Espalier was the place to go for just that. 

 L'Espalier offers what they call a "fantasy tea party."  There are three different tea menus to choose from, all based off of fairy tales and nursery rhymes.  Beyond the names, the fantasy aspect is nonexistent.  In fact, the whole tea service, though good, was presented somewhat awkwardly.  Beginning with our arrival.  We came in through the Mandarin Oriental hotel.  To get to the restaurant, you walk through the hotel lobby, upstairs, down a hall, through Sel de la Terre (another restaurant) and then into a round vestibule area.  In the vestibule, a gentleman took our coats and told us to have a seat in the lounge until our table was ready.  Being that we were the only people we could see in the restaurant, and had made a reservation, being asked to wait was somewhat confusing.  A few minutes later, the gentleman reappeared and showed us to one of two tables directly off the lounge area, separate from the regular dining area.  It was private, which was nice, but it was also a bit like being seated in a hall.

When the waiter arrived, he was dressed in a full suit.  It was formal, but also confusing.  I wasn't actually sure if he was the waiter or another maitre'd.  He described the teas to us in general terms, but offered no leaves to assess. 

We both opted for Red Riding Hood's Basket, which is the full tea, sandwiches, tea service and pastries.  We also both chose the Darjeeling tea.

 The tea came first and was promptly followed by the sandwiches.  They had no issue replacing the ham and cheese on my order with a plain grilled cheese.  The waiter (dressed in waiter garb) who brought the tea seemed confused about who was getting what and had to return to the kitchen before bringing us the service, making him the first of three waiters who made it half way to our table, stopping and returning to the kitchen and finally returning to our table. 

The sandwiches themselves were very tasty and quite filling for the small size.  I found the lobster salad to be disappointing, as that it didn't have a lot of flavor and the lobster was stringy.

 The maitre'd returned to clear our plates and then another waiter made the halfway to the table, turn, pivot, retreat, re-approach move before bringing us new spoons and then we were served the pastries.

The pastries consisted of a signature L'Espalier swan cream puff filled with mocha cream, an almond cookie with pomegranate seeds, a fig bar, chocolate decadence cake, cranberry scone and panna cotta.  Not being much of a sweets person, this part might have been slightly wasted on me, but I enjoyed the chocolate cake, panna cotta and scone.  Their having replaced our knives and forks with spoons (of multiple sizes) made cutting the scone and spreading the clotted cream, jam and honey a bit difficult.

 Kim, on the other hand, had no issue going to town on the poor swan.  The maitre'd/waiter reappeared at one point to refill our tea pots.  They let us stay for as long as we liked and eventually seated another couple in our hall/lounge area, which made it only slightly more awkward to be in a small, secluded area with another group so close.

milk and sugar service
our view
 The situation of the restaurant being in the hotel and our table being in the weird area meant that there were constantly people walking in our peripheral and waiting for the elevator off the lounge area.  There was also some sort of birthday party consisting of screaming children that was not addressed until another diner found the original maitre'd and complained, and then only addressed mildly.

All in all, the afternoon was lovely, but I think that was more a product of the company and conversation than the tea event itself.  While the food itself was tasty, the situation of the table and seemingly confused waitstaff made the whole event something to scratch your head over more than walk away wanting more.  L'Espalier has most likely deservedly earned its stars for their food and presentation (which I've never had, way out of my budget), but did not make much of an impression for afternoon tea.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Stenciled Peppermint Birthday Cake

 I am in a peppermint mood!  It's most likely because every catalog I've gotten for the past month has been chock full of peppermint bark, peppermint marshmallows, peppermint brownie mix, floating candles, ornaments, cocoa, and well, you get the point.  

So, I'm in a peppermint mood and my coworker Karen's birthday just happens to be this week.  To be honest, I don't even know if she likes peppermint, but that's what she's getting!  

There are four of us who traipse through the laptop and book cart strewn office in the back of the library, and we certainly don't need a whole 8" or 9" cake on our own.  Normally, we just bring stuff down to the staff when we're done, but I'm sick of sharing (nobody else does, it's uninspiring).  So, this time I decided to make a 6" cake.  It's very cute.  Of course, I only have one 6" pan, so it took twice as long to bake, but I also got eight cupcakes out of it and I have a party to go to on Saturday night, so it all worked out.

I used a Duncan Hines Chocolate Fudge cake mix (I like cakes mixes!), and subbed half the water it called for for peppermint schnapps.  I also used the stick blender to mix it rather than getting the stand mixer out.  It turns out both of those were good calls.  The cake puffed way up and came out moist and fluffy and it was all way easier to clean up and put away. 

 I planned on icing the cake with peppermint chocolate ganache and thought I would fill it with whipped cream, then I thought I might as well mix in some crushed up candy canes to the whipped cream.  I had crushed up the candy canes the day before for decoration.  I'll need them for fudge soon anyway, so now I'm ready.

 After a painstaking reminiscence of my childhood with a sieve at the beach, I managed to separate out the larger pieces of crushed candy canes from the very fine powdery remains.  (This will all make sense in a minute)
 I used the ganache recipe I have seen as standard (1/2 cup heavy cream, just simmering, to 6 oz of chocolate, pour hot cream over chocolate and let stand for three minutes, then whisk until smooth).  I added some peppermint schnapps and creme de menthe to it while whisking.

 OK, so the mystery of the candy cane powder will now be solved.  A few weeks ago, my friend Anne asked me if I wanted a set of cake stencils that someone sent her and she didn't need (she already had two sets).  I said sure and have been waiting for a chance to used them.  I decided this was my chance.  I used the little flowers one and I think it came out alright.  It's a little fuzzy around the edges, but the stencil was meant for a bigger cake and I chickened out rather than pressing it down. The stencil was surprisingly easy to use, though I never would have thought to spray it with non-stick spray without reading the directions.  Finally, something to be said for directions!

 I think it looks kind of like flowers that have been lightly snowed on.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Thanksgiving Desserts

We've been doing Thanksgiving with the same general group of people on the Cape for about six years now.  One year, we actually ended up with just about a dessert for every person attending.  Since then, it's been a bit of a joke, can we actually have a dessert per person?  I think it's really just because everyone in my family and extended family likes to bake.  This year we had some new additions, like the chocolate bread pudding (thanks Ben!) and sweet potato pie.

My brother Dave always comes up with a magnificent dessert that he blesses us with.  This year it was rice pudding baked in a sugar pumpkin.  That way, you could scoop out the rice pudding and tender pumpkin filling.  Yum!
Bourbon Sweet Potato Pie

Candied Cranberry and Chocolate Tart

Clockwise from the bottom right: apple crisp, pumpkin pie, pecan pie, sweet potato pie, chocolate bread pudding, cranberry chocolate tart.

Rice pudding baked in a sugar pumpkin.

The Extremely Late and Extremely Long Thanksgiving Post

Sorry about the lateness of this post.  I kept putting it off, but plan on doing some baking this week, so thought I should probably get my act together before then.

Thanksgiving this year was a magnificent success.  I was told that it was the best menu to date and that all the flavors complemented each other perfectly.  It also was a small Thanksgiving, with only 13 people rather than our usual 20-25.  Thirteen people is a lot easier to deal with and meant that we could get all the food on the table at the same time and piping hot.  And when I say piping hot, I'm not kidding.  My father's complaint in the past was that by the time the food got onto the table it wasn't hot anymore, which was a valid complaint, but this year we fixed that.  The cure?  I think it was having the turkeys finish cooking an hour and a half early.  Made us move a little more quickly on the other items...

This year we made two turkeys.  We got two because we wanted the kosher all natural and the biggest they came was about 16lbs and we never have enough leftovers.  They were named Fred and George (after the Weasleys, my mother's choice).  We always name them and by the end of the cooking process, I always end up referring to them as Bubba and Joe.  One (George) was brined overnight in a water-salt-beer solution and they were both cooked on the grill.  They were done about 90 minutes before I expected them to be and they came off perfectly after sitting for a bit.  (Like wings fell off in transfer from pan to cutting board perfect).  I also seem to have mastered carving.  It was a good turkey year.

First Baste
Second Baste

Third Baste


I also mastered gravy, for the first time in my whole life.  The day before I boiled some mushroom stock, chicken stock, celery, onions, rosemary, sage and whatever else I could find.  Then on the day of I boiled the necks in other water, mixed it all together, added the drippings and some cornstarch and it was like magic.  Seriously, gravy is what stresses me out on Thanksgiving, and it was perfect!

Other items on the menu:
Classic stuffing with celery, onion, cranberries and apples.

Wild mushroom stuffing

haricot verts with roasted fennel and shallot

herb mashed potatoes

sauteed parsnips and carrots with honey and rosemary

Butternut squash with maple streusel topping
All of these recipes were altered slightly.  Some to take out the dairy (we do a kosher meat meal), some because they taste better and some because I used all the rosemary in the gravy stock without remembering it was supposed to go into the carrots...

For desserts, click here.