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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Wine Jelly

The nice thing about enjoying cooking is that it provides a great way to thank and gift those special people in your life.

I try to keep my jelly pantry well stocked so that any time I need a small gift, I have plenty of beautiful, tasty varieties to choose from! In this picture, I have raspberry, pineapple, strawberry, peach-rosemary, cranberry-orange, Bing cherry, Merlot, and blackberry.

The other bonus is that you get all the jam and jelly your household could want. I think I currently have five varieties open in my fridge. The hardest part of my day is deciding which one am I in the mood for!

While most of my jellies get put up in the summer when fresh fruit is abundant, some can be made any time of the year. A perfect example is wine jelly. Just as "in season" in the winter as the summer, it is the quickest and easiest jelly to make because there is no fruit processing required. I can make a batch in about half an hour. And the taste is divine! The vast majority of the alcohol burns off, so that isn't a concern. It's like grape jelly with the pizazz factor ramped up.

Canning simple jellies like this requires very little special equipment compared to a lot of canning, but there are a few things you will definitely want. While you don't need a huge canning kettle here, you will need a large stock pot (test fit jars before starting so you know how many jars you can fill). A canning funnel will make your life much easier and canning jars are a must since they are specifically made for this type of processing. Also, you cannot do without a jar lifter. If you're unsure what these things are, just looking under the "Canning & Preserving" section of my aStore for examples.

Before you start making the jelly, you want to have your water bath and jars ready. Fill your large pot with enough water so that when all your jars are submerged, their tops will be at least one inch under the water line. Bring the water to a low simmer. Add a splash of vinegar to keep water deposits from forming on your jars (not very attractive). Wash jars (no need to sanitize). Heat one cup of water to a boil and submerge flat canning lids until ready to use. Have screw caps, jar lifter, and canning funnel handy.

Wine Jelly
Yield: 4 cups

1 3/4 cup wine
3 cups sugar
1 pouch liquid pectin (do not use the powdered for this recipe)

Stir wine and sugar over medium-high to high heat to dissolve sugar and burn off alcohol. Bring to a gentle boil and let cook for 2-3 minutes. Be careful of the steam; the strong alcohol vapors can make you a little tipsy!

Remove jelly from stove and immediately add pectin. Stir thoroughly and pour into jars, leaving 1/4 of an inch of "head space" at the top. Head space varies depending on the type of canning you are doing, but is required for a good vacuum to form.

Wipe rims of jars down to be sure there will be a clean seal. Carefully remove canning lids from the hot water and place over jar, using screw top to seal. You do not have to put the screw band on very tightly; hand tight is plenty. Using your jar lifter, gently place jars into the simmering water and place lid on pot. Turn heat up to bring water to a gentle boil. When water comes to a boil, begin processing time. Remove jars after ten minutes onto a towel lined counter. Let jars cool undisturbed. When completely cool, carefully remove screw bands and make sure jars are clean and dry. It is typically best to store them without the screw bands on unless you are very sure that the threads on the jars are completely clean and dry. Store jars in a cool, dark place. Canned jelly is best within the first year, but unless the seal breaks or you see other hints of contamination, they are good for two to three years.

Unlike most jelly recipes, this one doubles well. If you want to double it, just use a whole bottle (750 mL) of wine, twice the sugar, and two pouches of pectin. The type of wine you use is completely your choice! Merlot is my favorite, but I've made pinot noir (second favorite), white zinfandel (very pretty), and chardonnay (tastes good but not so pretty). Hmmm... I think I'll go have some toast.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Broiled Salmon

I have occasionally been intimidated by fish. No one wants to eat fish that makes you think you're eating a sponge. The good news is that not all fishes are equal. Having grown up in the clouds of the Pacific Northwest, I've come to know salmon quite well. It's relatively high fat content makes it less prone to becoming dry and tasteless. It's also full of heart-healty omega-3 fatty acids. It's a fish to put all other fish to shame.

Growing up, the only way I ever really ate it was smoked on a grill. While that way is fabulous (I'll post it sometime), I don't always feel like dragging out the grill when salmon starts to call me. Broiling salmon for dinner has to be the quickest, simplest, tastiest way to make dinner, ever. Cook for one, cook for ten, all in a smattering of minutes.

Broiled Salmon

Salmon filets (skin on or off)
Extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt
Coarse ground pepper
Crushed dried rosmary

Turn on the broiler in your oven; raise the oven rack to the highest position. Line a sheet pan with foil. Place filet(s) on pan, drizzle with olive oil. Sprinkle with salt, pepper, and rosemary. Place under the broiler. While the cooking time will depend on the thickness of your filets, I find typically they are ready in about ten minutes. Salmon is easy to tell when it's done because it is such a flaky fish. To test, use a fork to try and pull apart the fish, if it comes apart easily, and the fish inside is opaque, you're good to go (be sure to test somewhere near the middle, as the edges will cook faster). While salmon tends to give you a little more leeway than other fish, for the best results, try not to let it stay under the broiler longer than necessary. Remove from the oven and drizzle with a little more olive oil. Serve immediately.

Salmon filets are much better, in my opinion, than salmon steaks (which cut completely through the fish). Filets rarely have bones, unlike steaks, and tend to be thinner and cook faster. While fresh salmon is great, I also use the portion sized, frozen salmon found in the grocery freezer section. And while I love a good wild-caught chinook, I enjoy Atlantic farm-raised too (just don't tell the Seattlites!).

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Cheesecake Tarts

I've been trying very hard to not bake too much, since everything I bake, I have to eat and I'm trying to limit that somewhat. Summer is coming, after all. But I was experimenting with cheese making earlier this week and the result, which I had hoped might make a nice herbed cheese spread, came out more like a cream cheese, but fluffier and softer. Oh well. The only thing I could really think of to make to allow the cheese to fulfill its destiny was cheesecake. I decided to make individual cheesecake tarts, though, because they freeze well so I don't have to gorge myself on them all at once (which I would). I've written the recipe using fromage blanc, which is available in a lot of grocery stores these days. It would also work well with ricotta or cream cheese. And, just so you know, I'll get around to posting some cheesemaking posts before too long.

Cheesecake Tarts
Yield: 5 mini tarts

For the crust:
1 individually wrapped package of regular graham crackers
1/4 cup sugar
4 TBS melted butter

Pulse crackers in food processor until broken down into crumbs, add sugar, pulse to mix. Add butter and pulse until well mixed.

For the filling:
2 cups fromage blanc
2 eggs
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla
2 tsp lemon juice
1/4 cup heavy cream

Mix all filling ingredients in a bowl until smooth.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Place 5 mini tart pans on a baking sheet. Spoon 3 TBS of crust mixture into each tart pan. Press down and up the sides a bit. Spoon filling into crust , almost filling to the top (filling will rise slightly while baking, but will fall back down when cool). You can leave them plain, or swirl some fruit in them. I took some raspberry freezer jam and spooned five small (less than 1/2 a teaspoon each) dollops around the top. Then I took a knife and gently swirled the jam through the filling. Don't worry about it looking weird. As long as you don't overdo it, it will look fabulous when baked. Bake for 30 minutes. Tarts may start to crack slightly and will not jiggle when shaken, but otherwise may not look very different than when you put them in. That's okay! Take them out and let them cool. Refrigerate in their pans until ready to serve. No adornment needed! If you want to freeze them, once they are thoroughly chilled, remove them from their tins, and place on a parchment lined baking sheet. Set in freezer until frozen solid and then package in air tight containers for long term (yeah, right) storage.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Steak and Sauteed Mushrooms

I had some mushrooms in the fridge that needed to be used up and nothing sounded better than sauteed mushrooms falling all over a steak. When I first went out into the world, I did a fair amount of food service work. One of the places I waited tables was a steak house. They made great steaks, but I could never get past the "sauteed" mushrooms they served with their steaks. Boiled in margarine was more like it. Yuck. If you're going to make (a.k.a. eat) sauteed mushrooms, you might as well make 'em right. And there are a few important things to remember when making them:

1. They cook up pretty fast but hold decently, so I always make them first, before cooking my steak. Now, I like my steak mooing, so it doesn't take mine hardly take any time at all to cook. If you like to make sure your steaks are good and dead, you could probably prepare steak and mushrooms simultaneously.

2. Lube the pan. I like butter, but any kind of cooking oil would work too. I like the toasted flavor the butter gets as the mushrooms sear.

3. Make sure not to crowd the pan. You want to sear the mushrooms so that they get a nice color on them. If you overload the pan, they tend to steam. A good rule of thumb is to only have the mushrooms one layer thick in the pan.

4. Throw the heat to them! Turn on the fan and let it rip. I start on high and then move to medium high as needed to keep from burning them. But you want to hear sizzle the whole time.

5. Hold off on the garlic for a bit. A pinch of minced garlic really is essential, I think, to sauteed mushrooms, but burnt garlic's not so good. I wait to throw it in until the mushrooms are mostly cooked.

6. Booze is good. Using that high heat means that all the best flavors end up stuck to the pan. Use a little booze to deglaze the pan and add some great flavor. I like Madeira the best (same fortified wine as used in my French Onion Soup), but you can use just about anything: white wine, red wine, sherry, etc. If you're opposed to booze, you can use a little chicken broth.

7. Don't forget the salt and pepper!

If you really feel like making some special mushrooms, deglaze the pan as usual, but use a little bit more booze than you normally would. Turn the heat down to medium-low and add some light or heavy cream (depending on how special the occasion is) to make a sauce. To die for!

I made a little time-lapsed video of the mushrooms I made tonight. You can see the progression and what the mushrooms look like when I add the garlic and deglaze the pan.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Farm Fresh Eggs

It was a sad day yesterday...

For the last three years, my husband and I have lived on a small farm in Ohio where I had a flock of laying hens. I have always enjoyed having chickens; they are such interesting creatures! In addition to their entertainment value, you just can't beat a farm fresh egg for taste or nutrition (click here for an article - although I cannot speak for the scientific validity of their research, it only makes sense to me that a bird given free access to a more widely varied diet would produce eggs with a better nutritional profile). The other thing I like about farm raised, free-range eggs is that I don't have to feel guilty about the hens' quality of life. While I am certainly not a supporter of radical animal rights groups (I do really like meat and I have raised and butchered my own groceries), I do like to be sensitive regarding the quality of life of those animals whose products I consume.

Unfortunately, being a military wife, we're off to our new duty station in Florida... and living in suburbia again. So the last chicken went away two or three weeks ago.

Yesterday, I used the last of my farm laid eggs. When I pulled out the store-bought eggs to finish out my recipe, I decided I had to take a picture of the difference in yolk color. And this was during winter when there wasn't a lot of foraging going on!

They often cost more, but I think I may need to find a place in our new home where I can buy farm fresh eggs. I think they're worth it. If you want to find fresh eggs in your neck of the woods, try the Local Harvest website.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Caramel Toast

Well, I suppose necessity is the mother of invention... especially when you have a sweet tooth like I do. Being on my own for dinner last night, I had a plate of fresh asparagus and was going to go back and toast some baguette because I was still hungry. I didn't feel like using the toaster because then I'd have to fish all those little rounds out of it. I didn't feel like washing a big baking sheet, so I didn't want to broil them. I then thought maybe I'd toast them in a pan like a grilled cheese (makes for a better butter vehicle anyway). Well, as you might imagine, I started thinking about how cinnamon toast might taste good, and then I thought about how much I wanted to eat a palmier (you know, those delectable French pastries). So, sugar became involved, and then some cinnamon. And, I gotta tell you, I almost wish I hadn't experimented with this; now I'm gonna want to make them all the time!

Caramel Toast

1/2 inch thick rounds of French baguette
cinnamon (optional)

Put non-stick skillet on the stove to preheat at medium. Slice bread and lightly coat each side with butter. Place slices in skillet and let lightly toast on both sides. Place some sugar (and a small amount of cinnamon, if desired) on a paper plate or other flat dipping vessel. Dip both sides of the hot bread into the sugar and return to the pan. Turn on exhaust fan, as some of the sugar will invariably smoke a bit. Try not to turn them too much. Keep on one side until sugar is completely melted, shiny, and starting to brown a bit, flip and repeat. Remove onto a cooling rack. Let cool at least 5 minutes. Enjoy! Yummmmm. I think I'll go make some!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Crispy Pizza Crust Rounds

One thing you'll find about me is that I'm all about making my own convenience foods. I like to eat homemade; it's often cheaper and almost always better tasting. But sometimes, I just want something quick. That's when I reach in the freezer and pull out something I prepared a different day. For many things, if you're going to make it, it really isn't much more time consuming to make a bunch of it and save it for later use. That's the point of this recipe. My husband and I really love homemade pizza. I'm not a huge fan of the store bought varieties whether it be from a can or a shelf. These pizza rounds are easy to make, taste great, and store in the freezer perfectly. When you're ready for a pizza, take them out of the freezer, top, and bake. There's no waiting around or hassling with it. And everyone gets their own! No more fights over toppings; what a relief!

Crispy Pizza Crust Rounds
Yield: 7-8 pizza crusts
(based on a middle eastern flat bread called Lavash)

2 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
1 tsp salt
1 pkt dry active or instant yeast
1 cup warm water
4 TBS plain yogurt
1 TBS olive oil

Mix flours and salt together in a large bowl. Mix warm water, yeast, yogurt, and oil in a small bowl. Let yeast soften for a couple of minutes (if you are using instant yeast, you can just throw everything together at once). Add liquid to dry and stir until comes together in a ball. If dough seems too dry and won't incorporate all the flour, add a little drizzle of oil until it becomes workable.

Turn out on counter and knead until forms a nice ball that is not overly sticky to the touch. If you have a stand mixer with a dough hook, all the better! Just mix everything in there and let it do your kneading for you. Prepare a large bowl with a drizzle of oil and put finished dough in bowl, turning to coat. Cover bowl with plastic wrap to keep moist and set in a warm spot. Let rise until dough doubles in size and does not spring back when you poke it, about an hour.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Turn dough out on counter. Divide into 7-8 balls of 4 oz each. I use a kitchen scale, but you can estimate. Roll each ball into about an 8 inch circle (see video below). Two rounds should fit on a full-size baking sheet. Brush both sides of each circle with olive oil and prick 8-10 times with a fork. The nice thing about oiling both sides is that once you have an oiled side down, you can "shape" the round and the oil keeps the gluten from pulling the dough back out of shape.

Bake for 8-12 minutes, or until the dough is slightly browned and no longer doughy looking, flipping once. How done you bake them is a matter of preference. I like mine more done and crispy, my husband prefers his softer. Either one works.

Remove from oven, cool completely on a rack. When completely cooled, slide into a gallon zip top bag and freeze. Now they're ready for use when you are!

To bake the pizza, preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Pull rounds out of the freezer and place on baking sheet. Immediately begin topping. Bake in top half of oven until cheese is browned and bubbly.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Chocolate Chip (or Blueberry) Muffins

Out of all the things that I ate in my high school cafeteria, only one item ever stuck in my mind. And it really stuck in my mind. Every morning, I would arrive early to school just so I could eat breakfast there (well, yes, and to get good parking). Anyway. I would buy a chocolate chip muffin and a box of milk. It was fabulous. I tried for years to get a recipe that tasted the way I remembered them, but everything I tried just wasn't right. Then I came across a recipe online that was pretty darn close. It was too sweet and way too greasy, but after making those adjustments, they are perfect! These little bad boys are my most common breakfast. The nice thing is that the recipe makes 2 dozen and they freeze really well. So, I make them once a month or so and freeze them in zipper top bags. I tend to eat two for breakfast and they zap up in the microwave in about 40 seconds. I highly recommend them. You can also make these muffins with blueberries and they are also very good.

Chocolate Chip (or Blueberry) Muffins

4 cups all purpose flour
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup sugar
7 tsp baking powder
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter softened
4 eggs
2 tsp vanilla
1 1/2 cup milk
1 1/2 cups mini chocolate chips OR 2 cups blueberries dusted in flour

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Combine dry ingredients. Cut in butter and mix until resembles coarse crumbs. Separately, beat eggs, vanilla, and milk until frothy. Add wet to dry, mixing only until blended. Fold in chips or berries. Spoon into lined cupcake tins. The batter should fill the tins about 3/4 full. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until nicely browned. Makes 24 nice, puffy muffins.

One of the keys to this recipe is to be sure that you don't over mix the batter. Over mixing can lead to tough muffins because the gluten in the flour is activated. Gluten makes things stretchy. Stretchy is good in bread, bad in muffins. If I'm making blueberry muffins, I like to dust the tops with sanding sugar (a pretty, coarse sugar used for decorating). It makes them so much prettier, and I like the added crunch on the top.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Red Zinger Iced Tea

My family was living in Boulder, CO back in the '70s when Celestial Seasonings first released their Red Zinger herbal tea. My mom made an iced tea using honey and orange juice that we practically grew up on. Well, as so many things, for reasons we don't always quite remember, we stopped drinking it. Last year, I was feeling nostalgic and wanted to recreate this tea, but my mom couldn't remember the proportions she used. So I set out to figure it out... one batch of tea at time. Eventually, I came up with this recipe which I like very much. This tea is reminiscent of fruit juice, but without all those calories. A great drink for the whole family. (Just remember that children under one shouldn't be given honey).

Red Zinger Iced Tea

3 cups almost boiling water
8 Red Zinger tea bags (available in my aStore)
1/4 cup honey
4 cups water
1 cup no pulp orange juice

Makes 1/2 gallon of tea.

I heat the water in a 4 cup Pyrex measuring cup until it's got bubbles but is not actually boiling. Add tea bags, stir, and then cover with a plate to steep for 5 minutes. Remove tea bags, add honey and stir. Add 4 cups of cool or cold water. Then add orange juice and stir. I prefer no pulp OJ for this recipe despite really liking pulpy OJ. It just makes a cleaner, prettier tea, but it certainly doesn't hurt it to have pulp in there!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Swimming Rama

I really enjoy being able to make ethnic dishes at home. I like going out to eat, but sometimes if I have a craving, I like being able to take care of it at home. One of my favorite dishes when I go out to eat Thai is swimming rama, sometimes called swimming angel. It has a peanut sauce that I love. The actual recipe involves sauted chicken, onion, carrot, bean sprouts, and spinach. While I love this version, I sometimes like a simpler meal. Every time I see beautiful, fresh green beans in the market, I have to make this.

Swimming Rama Peanut Sauce

1/3 cup smooth peanut butter
1 TBS chili paste (sambal oelek, see my aStore for the one I use)
2 TBS regular soy sauce
1 TBS thick soy sauce (see my aStore, this one can be hard to find sometimes)
1 1/2 tsp ground coriander
1 TBS shredded, fresh ginger OR 2 TBS dried ground ginger
2 tsp lemon juice
1 TBS brown sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
1 1/2 cup coconut milk

Mix all ingredients together, except coconut milk. Once mixed, add coconut milk and stir thoroughly. Heat over medium heat until it comes to a boil. Remove from heat and hold until needed.

Green Bean Version

Cook rice, peanut sauce, and fresh green beans. Spoon a mound of rice on a plate, top with green beans, pour over peanut sauce. Garnish with chopped peanuts, if desired.

Traditional Restaurant Version

Prep the following:
1 cup choped chicken
1 small onion, chopped
1 medium carrot, sliced and steamed until crisp tender
1/2 cup mung bean sprouts
2 cups fresh spinach leaves

Put rice on. Prepare peanut sauce and keep warm. Drizzle 1 TBS oil in a large saute pan. Saute chicken and onion until nearly cooked. Add carrot, sprouts, and spinach leaves. Cook until just heated through. Serve over rice with peanut sauce. Garnish with chopped peanuts, if desired.

NOTES: This sauce keeps well in the refrigerator. Simply save what you don't use and reheat later. I strongly urge using fresh ginger. Ginger stores for a long time, but if you have trouble using it before it goes bad, but want to always have some on hand, peel chunks and then freeze in a baggie. Grate ginger while it is still frozen and use as if it were fresh. I once thought I would try the "lite" coconut milk because I thought if I could get the same taste with fewer calories that would be great. It would be great... if that were the case. I really recommend against going this route. I was really disappointed. See my aStore listings under "Cooking" for the chili paste and thick soy sauce that I use.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

French Onion Soup

I didn't want a heavy dinner tonight, so I thought it was a good time to make some french onion soup. I love making this soup because it has a rich flavor and is so easy.

French Onion Soup

2 TBS butter
2 large onions (preferably sweet onions)

1 TBS flour
1/2 cup dry white wine
bouquet garni (thyme, bay, and parsley)
2 - 14 oz. cans beef broth (approx. 4 cups)
3 TBS Madeira
salt & pepper to taste

Slices of Toasted Bread (preferably french baguette)
Shredded Gruyere cheese

Slice onions fairly thinly. Melt butter in a soup pot over medium-high heat, add onions and stir to coat evenly. Cook over medium-high heat until onions begin to soften and brown. Turn heat down to medium as necessary to prevent burning. Cook 15-30 minutes until onions are well browned and caramelized. How browned you let the onions get depends on how patient you are. I wouldn't proceed until they are at least at far along as what you see in this picture.

Add flour and stir to coat. Cook for a minute and then add wine to deglaze the pan. Add broth and bouquet garni. Bring to a simmer and cook for 20 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste. Remove bouquet garni, add Madeira, and let cook 2 minutes more.

To serve, ladle into bowls, place slices of toast floating on soup, cover with shredded cheese. Place under broiler until bubbly and browned. Enjoy!

Notes: A bouquet garni is simply a bundle or pouch of herbs. In the summer, when I have fresh herbs, I simply tie them together with kitchen twine. This time of year, I use a linen bag with a pull tie (sold as bouquet garni bags in some specialty shops). Madeira is a fortified wine that is available for a reasonable price at the liquor store and some supermarkets. Don't be concerned about having to buy a whole bottle just for this recipe, Madeira is a great cooking wine and you'll be glad to have it around. As far as the cheese goes, there are a lot of cheeses that work well for garnishing this soup, Gruyere (a type of Swiss) is my favorite, but regular Swiss, mozzarella and provolone are also superb. This recipe makes 4 small bowls of soup or two large bowls.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Rice Pudding

I really love rice pudding. But I'm something of a pudding snob... I know... what are you going to do? Make your own!

I know a lot of folks make rice pudding from left over long grained rice, but it never seems very creamy, and I like creamy. I also am opposed to custard puddings. I mean, I don't want to feel like a sinner for eating the stuff. Well, after a little bit of research and a little bit of trial and error, I came up with a simple, no frills recipe that is absolutely divine. And there are no eggs and no heavy cream. Eat your heart out!

The big thing leading to success in this recipe is the rice grain. In the attached picture, I have long-grain rice and pearl rice side-by-side. It is easy to see the difference between the grains here. The pearl rice is much b
etter at sopping up liquid (which is why it is also used in risottos). However, don't be fooled into buying that expensive Arborio rice unless you absolutely have to. I buy "Arroz Grano Corto" or pearl rice in the Hispanic aisle of my grocery for much less.

Rice Pudding

1 cup pearl (Arborio) rice
2 cups water
3 cups whole milk
1/2 cup sugar
1teaspoon vanilla
1/4 to 1/2 cup raisins
1 - 2" stick cinnamon

Bring water and rice to a boil in a heavy sauce pan (minimum 2 quart size), reduce heat, cover, and simmer for 20 minutes. Remove cover and add remaining ingredients. Stir to combine. Increase heat to medium until milk is heated through. Reduce heat back to low and let rice continue to absorb milk, stirring occasionally for about 45 minutes, or until milk is mostly absorbed. Watch to be sure it doesn't stick or scorch. Remove cinnamon stick. Pudding is great warm or cold.

You don't have to use the raisins, but they add a very important flavor element to the pudding. If you really can't stand those plump little things in there, I've experimented with simmering the raisins in the water for a few minutes (and then straining them out) before adding the rice and it comes out OK. The pudding is fine without them at all, but as I said, the flavor is much simpler. And this is a great recipe to use those old, almost like a brick raisins in your cupboard. They plump up just as well as the new ones do. Also, while you can use 2% or even 1% milk in here, you will not get the creamy texture without using whole milk. It also will not firm up when chilled unless you use whole milk.

Another way to serve this recipe is as a dessert. Mold pudding in small plastic wrapped bowls or ramekins. Let chill until firmed. Unmold onto a plate and top with something sweet. I made a simple blueberry compote (see below) and poured it over the top. Yummy!

To make the blueberry compote, I put 1 cup of frozen blueberries into a 4 cup glass bowl with 1/4 cup water, 2 teaspoons corn starch, 1/3 cup sugar, and a pinch each of cinnamon and nutmeg. Then I microwaved it, stirring frequently until it thickened and the sauce became translucent and shiny. You could do this with just about any fruit and can also make it in a sauce pan on the stove.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Homemade Granola

One of my favorite breakfasts is yogurt with granola. However, I find most store bought granola is either too sweet, not sweet enough, or has a bunch of grains in it of which I'm not a big fan. Fortunately, making granola is so easy, you can make a big batch of it in approximately two hours and it keeps well in air tight containers. I only need to make a batch every couple of months. Additionally, you can easily modify it to your tastes by adding whichever grains you want!

My favorite way to serve it is shown in the attached picture. I spoon some vanilla yogurt in a bowl, add a small spoon of fruit jam (freezer jam is best, gives a truly fresh-fruit flavor), toss on some granola, and top with frozen blueberries. I love the contrast of textures and flavors. My favorite jam is raspberry, but they're all good - use your favorite!

Homemade Granola
Yield: about 10 cups

2 cups quick oats
4 cups old fashioned oats
1 cup sliced almonds
1 cup puffed rice
1 cup coconut
1 c wheat germ

1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 tsp vanilla
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 2/3 cup honey

Mix first six ingredients in a large bowl. Mix remaining ingredients together thoroughly in a small bowl. Add wet to dry and mix completely.

Preheat oven to 250 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease two full size, rimmed baking sheets with cooking spray. Spread mixture evenly on the sheets and bake, stirring every 20-30 minutes until golden brown. It takes between 1 to 1 1/2 hours typically to get a nice golden brown. Do not expect the granola to be crunchy until it cools. Also, once it gets toward the end, it can brown up very quickly, so you'll want to be a little more attentive at that point. To get the most crunchy product, you'll want to cool it spread out a bit more than the baking sheets will allow. I have a vinyl tablecloth that I keep for this type of use; I spread the granola out on to cool on the tablecloth. This recipe yields approximately 11 cups of granola.

As I said, the great thing about making your own granola is the flexibility it provides. As long as you keep the proportions correct (in this case, about 11 cups of dry grains), your granola will turn out fine. If you like it a little more sweet or less so, adjust the honey accordingly. Can't have nuts? Change them out with something else. Like a granola with some serious crunch? Add some cracked wheat. Other possible ingredients include: flax seeds, sunflower seeds, cashews, pecans, or dried fruit (add fruit after granola is completely cooled - do note that the moisture in the dried fruit will cause your granola to stale faster). The sky's the limit!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Crystallized Pansies

It's that time of year! Spring is thinking about coming and those cool weather loving pansies are going crazy. I love taking advantage of this time of year by preserving some of these gorgeous blooms for use the rest of the year. Just be sure that you use flowers that have not been sprayed!

Crystallized flowers are great decorations for cakes and other baked goods. In fact, the only decoration I had on my wedding cake was these little guys. (see picture below). These things taste great (once you get past the whole eating flowers thing), but I would recommend not eating the green stem part... it tastes kind of grassy.

Typically, instructions for crystallizing pansies include dipping the flowers in egg whites and then sugar. All that gave me was funky, lumpy balls of sugar. Not what I was looking for. After some experimentation, I came up with an easy method of making perfect flowers. This method also negates any concerns regarding using raw egg whites.

Required Ingredients and Materials:
A food dehydrator (or sheet pan and very cool oven)
Parchment paper
Hand sprayer (be sure it is clean enough for food use)
Pansies (duh!)
Meringue powder (such as Wilton's)
Granulated sugar in a shaker

As you can see in the picture above, I cut the parchment to fix the dehydrator trays. The parchment helps to keep the pansies from sticking to the trays. They become very fragile when dried. They can still stick sometimes if you don't shake the liquid off the pansies enough, so I always make more than I need to account for breakage.

Mix the meringue powder with water in a roughly 1 to 4 ratio. Be sure it is mixed well so that you don't stop up your sprayer. Trim stems on pansies quite short (maybe a 1/4 inch) and then using stems to hold, spray completely with meringue water. Shake excess liquid off as vigorously as possible without ruining the flower. Then sprinkle all sides with granulated sugar. Lay face up on the tray. Continue until all flowers are done. Dehydrate on low until flowers are completely dry, usually at least 24 hours. Carefully peel off of parchment. Properly dried flowers will keep in an airtight container darn near indefinitely... though I'd recommend using them within 6-8 months.

Here's a photo of my wedding cake. While they still look nice, these were made using the ol' dip in egg white, dip in sugar technique. If you look closely, you'll notice the flowers are a bit lumpy.

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