Friday, December 28, 2012

Prosciutto & Gruyere Pinwheels

One of the hot appetizers we made for a friend's party in mid-December and then for the families on Christmas Eve was Prosciutto & Gruyere Pinwheels. These are very easy to make and very tasty.
It might look like too much prosciutto and gruyere when you start to layer them on the puff pastry, but don't skimp. Use all 4 ounces of prosciutto and all 2.5 ounces of shredded gruyere. One time we skimped because it looked too 'stuffed' and they were not as tasty.
The rolled logs can stay in the refrigerator for 2 days before slicing and baking, which is nice because they can be made in advance. They also are tasty the next day after baking, eaten at room temperature.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Cookies of Christmas

In spite of everything going on in December, we managed to bake 12 kinds of cookies for Christmas plus have SP's family over for a Christmas Eve buffet of veggies & dip, cheeses & crackers, mushroom turnovers, puff pastry prosciutto & gruyere pinwheels, crabmeat squares, smoked salmon, shrimp cocktail, pork balls, and vegetable soup. Whew! So much baking! So much food!

 So here they are, the Cookies of Christmas 2012:

Cherry-Almond Biscotti - always on the list
Ischl Tartlets (AKA Linzer Tarts) - a family favorite, grandma's recipe
Walnut Cups - the inevitable
Biscotti All'arancia - a new cookie, definitely not one of my favorites, will not be making another appearance on the Christmas Cookie table
Chocolate Dipped Crescents - a constant, one of mom's favorites, and mine, too
Cinnamon Bun Pinwheels - one of my favorites
Triple Ginger Cookies - the one that dad, SP, and I kept gobbling, we even made a second batch
Raspberry Shortbread Bars - one of SP's favorites, this year made with peach jelly
Lebkuchen - sounded delicious with cloves, allspice, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, molasses, orange marmalade, candied ginger and almonds, but did not look at all like the photo in Food & Wine. These tasted OK but turned out like pancakes and were very sticky. Lebkuchen might show up again, but not this particular recipe. 
These were kind of a pain with needing to freeze the dough and then keep taking it back to the freezer in between baking a sheet of them. all those ingredients, all that time, all that effort, and they turned out like pancakes and then got sticky and soft. Ugh! The results of the stickiness - cookie tearing:
Cut Out Sugar Cookies - the usual family recipe
Peppermint Crunch Cookies - a new one this year, turned out just so-so, if they show up again it'll be as chocolate cookies with these peppermint crunch bits
Pizzelles - the usual anise-vanilla recipe
We have lots & lots of cookies to enjoy now! And of course, to give away to family & friends.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

December Disaster

Sometimes, life take an unexpected turn or two. It's best to roll with it, but sometimes, the turns are so sharp and steep that I end up feeling like I'm careening out of control. Like this entire month.
Soft Pretzels
It was just last weekend that were at our friend's annual holiday party. It seems so long ago! There was lots of tasty food and drink and a white elephant gift exchange. Since we've been careening along, we were last minute gift buyers and only took one gift instead of two. I let SP 'play' and after everyone had selected/stolen their gifts, he had a bottle of Cake Vodka. I've heard good things and we tried it mixed with cranberry juice and soda. Tasty stuff indeed!
Cheese & crackers
We lurched into the first half of December with our 'basement project guy' here every day, sometimes until 7 or 8 at night. With a lot of pressure from us, he finished in time for us to clean all the debris and dust and move everything out for the new carpet. We also cleared out SP's office, which is upstairs, for new carpet. This means the sunroom, dining room, and my office were filled with boxes and boxes of books and computer parts and just... stuff.
Chocolates! Truffles!
That wouldn't have mattered if all the carpet had been installed on Monday. Unfortunately, the installers hadn't brought the piece for his office. Then when they called to have someone deliver it (while they did the basement carpet), they discovered the wrong size had been ordered. The company put a rush order on the correct size. Not being one for clutter or mess or disorganization, this made me kind of.... twitchy. I really wanted my house back together!
White Chocolate Cheesecake, Deviled Eggs, Meatballs
Tuesday I headed out for an already rescheduled twice hair appointment. Maybe trivial and girly to some, but my was long, for me, which annoys me, and my lovely genetic gray early hair had that fantastic skunk streak as the roots were like an inch of gray/white. I was so happy to depart the salon with all hairs brown. That happiness was short lived.
Fruitcake and Deviled Eggs
SP had texted me that the gas company detected a leak at our house, shut our gas off, and we had to get someone to fix it because it was our responsibility. Given that the water company is replacing the water main on our road, I figured they were responsible and my temper flared. I was already annoyed at the near constant construction noise and vibrations since December 11, there had already been one water line break, and we had to wait on Tuesday for plywood to be put down over the trench at the top of our driveway in order to get in/out.
Candied ginger
So I cancelled my lunch plans and shopping plans and headed home. There was much confusion and many phone calls. Turns out the gas company mis-labeled the gas lines. So when the water company was digging the trench for the new line, they hit the gas lines. Not just of our house but of 3 homes that we know about. The gas company repaired that break, but when they tested the line, they found a leak near our house, which is our responsibility.
We called our trusty plumber/rooter/sewer pump guys (kind of sad that it's like we're all old pals now because they've been here like 7 times in 4 years). Of course we had to wait for them to finish their immediate jobs and then get to us, so it was nearly 4 pm when the guy got here. He was pretty sure it was the riser, but it could be something worse, so he gave us a range of $800~$2,800 to fix the problem because they weren't sure what they'd encounter. But they couldn't start until the next morning because they needed daylight for the digging and stuff.
Mini beef burger sliders
So it was a cold, cold night. My dad got into town that night. Fortunately, the sunroom and the basement guest room have baseboard electric heat, so we spent the evening in the sunroom, my parents' room was heated, and we had an electric blanket. But by morning it was 57 degrees in the house. Brrr! They started early, but it was not easy. It was not simple. It was not just the riser, there were like 3 leaks. Our entire gas line had to be replaced. The yard was dug up, our mulch and shrubs uprooted, a concrete slab of the walkway moved, then they had to get in the house to where the gas comes in (which made me fear for our day old new carpet in the basement), the new line wouldn't feed through the old line because the old line was actually two pipes of different sizes connected plus the old line was apparently a complete piece of crap that was disintegrating. Blah, blah, blah. Then the gas company wanted to red flag our hot water tank - which made me almost dissolve into tears, but our guys fixed the issue there, the new gas line passed inspection, the gas company came in and checked our gas stove and furnace and water tank and lit the pilot lights. And at 6 pm, after 30 hours without gas, without heat, without hot water, without showers, it was fixed. Except that they had to come back the next day to fill in the holes and re-plant the shrubs and put the concrete slab back.
White chocolate cheesecake
So they finished up Thursday morning, the concrete slab was placed back intact, which was a huge worry for us because we weren't sure how I'd get in/out of the house in the wheelchair if there was a slab missing, and the gas disaster was over.

Obviously, it cost us the high end of the range. It seems every December is some kind of disaster. I am only half joking when I say I'm going to add a category to our budget called 'December Disaster.' Last December we had to replace the furnace, and the year before that we had 2 water line breaks, one time without water for 12 hours and the other time without water for 9 hours.

As if that wasn't enough, our new couch was delivered on Wednesday in the midst of the water company digging up the road and the plumbers fixing the gas leak and one delivery guy got a stone in his shoe and it left a big scratch in the hardwood, which we just put in last year.

Then I dropped the flour container and poofed flour all over the hardwood and SP had to dig it out of the cracks with a toothpick.

Oh, and our basement guy? He's coming back tomorrow to finish some small things plus fix a new issue: some closet doors no longer shut because of the new carpet. SP's office carpet came Friday afternoon. Things are slowly getting back to normal.

But we're still a little frazzled. And I am dreading the bills in January: new carpet, new couch, basement guy, gas line repairs, holiday stuff... We thought we had it all spaced out better but somehow, it all bunched up in December.

I think it's going to be a while before we recover from this December!!!!

But at least the house isn't still 57 degrees and we can shower.

Friday, December 14, 2012

It Never Fails

Every year, I say I'm not going to make the nut cups. I don't really like nuts in cookies, and a cookie chock full of nuts definitely isn't my thing. But then someone says 'aaaawwwww.' Usually my very good friend L, who looks forward to these every year.
Then I re-think my position and realize I don't have to eat any, I can just give them all away.

Then I let myself feel the pressure to actually use the mini muffin tin. We have a lot of kitchen gadgets. We both like to cook/bake and we separately accumulated lots of stuff, and then we moved in together, and now... well, there is a lot of kitchen stuff. Every so often I look in a cabinet and think, hmmm, creme brulee ramekins and two torches, we really should make creme brulee for the first time in 3 years. Oh look there's the bundt pan/springform pan/regular muffin pan/large muffin pan/mini muffin pan/donut maker, etc., and we really should use these things more than once a year.
Then I feel guilty, and spoiled, and I realize how fortunate I am to have all these things. I realize it's a little ridiculous.

And I realize the poor mini muffin pan hasn't seen any action since last Christmas.

So I get out the walnuts and start making Walnut Cups.

And SP gives me that knowing smile as he unwraps one of these goodies and whispers,"I knew you'd make the nut cups."

Recipe here.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Peppermint Crunch Cookies

Last year I discovered the deliciousness of Andes Candies Creme de Menthe baking bits. This year, after SP accidentally grabbed the pink/red instead of green bag, I discovered the almost as delicious Andes Peppermint Crunch baking bits.

I think these baking bits are chunks of peppermint-white chocolate. I wasn't quite sure what to do with them because none of the Peppermint Crunch recipes on the Andes Candies site intrigued me. The cookie recipe on the back of the bag used rolled oats, pecans, and coconut - yuck! I finally decided to use the Creme de Menthe cookie dough recipe with these peppermint bits.
They turned out good, but not, in my opinion, great. They have a very nice minty flavor, but not so much white chocolate flavor, and I wish I had gone ahead and added some chocolate chips to the dough. Or maybe drizzled chocolate on top? The baking chips might be tastier in a chocolate cookie. I considered a chocolate cookie, but in the end rejected the idea simply because usually I don't really like chocolate dough cookies. I prefer cookies with chocolate chips or dipped in chocolate to an actual chocolate dough.
I think if we bought these again, I would make a chocolate dough and add these baking bits. I love peppermint flavor, especially at the holidays, and these bits are definitely pepperminty.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Baking Begins: Biscotti All'arancia

This past weekend, the holiday cookie baking began! It's a little... unorganized this year. I have a sheet of paper on which are listed 28 kinds of cookies to bake. Obviously, we are not going to bake 28 different kinds. I think I am so unorganized and indecisive with the cookie baking because of 'The Basement Project.' Yes, I know - I've been writing about it since last April and you are probably thinking, really? That's still going on? Yes, it's still going on. The 'basement guy' is making progress, but I am pretty stressed over him meeting the deadline to be done by Friday night because the new carpet is coming next Monday and the new couch next Wednesday. I kind of can't focus on much of anything else because I am fretting so much over the basement. Every time he leaves for lunch, I take a peek and a fresh wave of 'time terror' washes over me. On the bright side, he seems to be doing excellent work and seems meticulous.

So there's no official cookie list. Just kind of a, hmmm, well here are the candidates, here are the usual suspects, here are some new possibilities, these need chilling time, these will need rolling time, these are a pain in the neck but oh so good but will we have time because the basement is a huge mess and we have to move so much stuff for the carpet installation and then we have to get everything back into place and we have to get it cleaned up because everything is covered in dust and we have to bake cookies and gift shop and we're having guests and oh my gosh I'm going crazy.

But, OK, so, cookies, which on the list can we easily make right this second?
These first cookies were selected because we had the ingredients and they weren't too difficult. First up, a new kind: Biscotti All'arancia, otherwise known as Orange Cookies. My aunt used to bake an orange cookie and I loved those orange cookies. I have her recipe, but I've never made them. Instead, I always made an orange-coconut cookie I got the recipe for when I took a holiday cookie class at Crate many, many years ago. But I am not really into coconut, so those were out. Back in June, I ripped a recipe out of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for Orange Cookies and I thought they might be a tasty addition to the Christmas Cookie Plate. SP made the final decision, and my aunt's cookies lost because they use shortening and he really dislikes using shortening.
These were an easy cookie, just a bit time consuming because of the dough chilling time. Once the dough is shaped into logs and chilled, slicing and baking is easy and quick. The glaze part takes a bit of time. We let the cookies cool overnight and I glazed them the next morning.

They're pretty tasty, too. Soft, not crisp. By itself, the glaze is too sweet for me, but on the cookies it tastes much better and the cookie is definitely better with the glaze, so don't skip that part. My final verdict is still undecided, because while these are good, I am not sure they are good enough to show up in future years, so I have to do some more sampling and collect some opinions from family & friends.

Recipe can be found here

Monday, December 10, 2012

Getting Into the Holiday Spirit

It's no secret that since spring, instead of eager anticipation for the next season, I've been dragging my feet into the next season. I wasn't quite ready for summer, and then I didn't want it to end, which was surprising because autumn is my favorite season, Thanksgiving didn't really seem like a mid to late November event, and, despite the calendar saying it is December, I am not really excited about the winter holiday season. That is unusual because usually I can't wait to start cookie baking (and eating). I usually love getting out all the Christmas decorations and getting misty over grandpa's University of Rhode Island ornament (where he studied engineering) and sniffling at great grandma's red bell ornament. I smile with glee when we plug in grandma's light up Frosty (to me, all snowmen are called Frosty).

We trimmed the tree and decorated last weekend, so that helped a bit. This past weekend, we attended SP's work holiday party, and that helped put me more in the holiday spirit. This year, his work holiday party was at the Carnegie Museum. The first part of the evening was being able to view the dinosaurs - so nice to see the exhibit without the usual crowds and over excited children! There were cocktails and hors d'oeuvres on the balcony overlooking the dinosaurs. Duck on tiny pieces of toasted bread, pot stickers, bacon wrapped scallops, tiny egg rolls... yum!

The next part of the evening was in the Music Hall Foyer. I don't remember having ever been in this area before, despite our numerous trips to the museum. It's beautiful, a 50 foot ceiling of gilded baroque d├ęcor, supported by pillars of marble from five different countries, plus an ornate metal balcony.

On our way there we passed a table filled with shrimp cocktail shooters:
They were delicious, but I didn't drink my tomato-vodka shot! I just ate the shrimp.
In the foyer were several stations. The first one we visited was a crackers & dip station. There were many different crackers and toasted breads. My favorite was the row second from left in the photo, the light colored, round cracker.
There were four 'dips' (spreads). I think there was a hummus, an olive one, a spinach one, and not pictured was a hot artichoke one, I think, and that one was my favorite.
There was a potato bar with potato chunks, a cheesy mashed potato, short ribs, and I can't remember what else, but the mashed potato and short rib martini glass treat I had was delicious.

A sushi station (SP's favorite station):
There also was a station with a really delicious, tender, flavorful beef tenderloin sliced and served on a mini bun, asparagus spears with chopped egg, and wild rice.

Last, but definitely not least, my favorite station, the cookies:
So many different kinds - I enjoyed even more kinds than were on the plate in the above photo. 

In addition to the wine and mixed drink stations, there was a station with an ice sculpture. Bartenders would mix up a martini, or I suppose get you a shot of something, pour it through a tunnel in the ice sculpture and into a small glass. In the photo below on the left is a tasty peach concoction and on the right a lemon drop:
Wimp that I am, these were very tasty but a wee strong for me. I enjoyed a white wine and a red wine and tasted SP's whiskey sour. Towards the end of the evening SP's boss let us sip a taste of a pomegranate drink he got through the ice sculpture and it was delicious. I had SP get me one, and then another, but since it was late in the evening, neither was quite as tasty nor as alcohol filled as the one we tasted. They were mostly pomegranate juice, which was OK because I was thirsty and so I was drinking them kind of quickly. That, of course, would not have been possible if they were strong because if a martini is strong, it takes me hours to finish it as I take wee little sips. 

Some of my friends grumble about their work parties, or having to go to their spouse's work parties, but I've never really minded work holiday parties. I've never had a horrible time, or gotten drunk and puked on a boss, or horribly embarrassed myself (well, OK, I hope I've never done anything embarrassing). I enjoyed meeting SP's co-workers and their spouses and I have to say, these are some of the nicest people I have ever met.

The last part of the evening was tough because there was LOUD music and dancing. We are not dancers. and, well, we're old. We don't like LOUD music anymore! It made it really, really difficult for me to talk to people because I could barely hear them, even when our heads were so close we were about to bonk them! I suppose music and dancing are just a part of every holiday party, much as they are for nearly all weddings (but not ours - no music and no dancing were non-negotiable!) so I'll just have to cope!

Tasty food, good beverages, interesting & nice people to talk to -- what more could one want from a party?!