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Saturday, November 16, 2013

Hosting Thanksgiving

I am so excited for this Thanksgiving. For the first time ever, I am getting to host a large family dinner. As military folk, we're usually by ourselves far away from family. Sometimes we invite a few airmen or colleagues who are in the same boat over, but often it's just us. One year, when my husband and I were doing split duty for a time, I went to visit him and we had Thanksgiving dinner in a pub. Finally, we are close enough to one side of the family to be able to host the event. It's not a huge crowd; I expect it to round out at close to a dozen, but that's enough for me to have an enjoyable time hosting a dinner I don't normally have a chance to.

So, what am I serving? I am so glad you asked! (You did ask, didn't you?). As I sit here writing this, I am smoking my first turkey on the grill. I'm a huge fan of smoked salmon (which I plan on serving cold as an appetizer), but I've never tried to smoke poultry, let alone a bird big enough to serve twelve. I figured I'd better give it a test run, and that's what I'm doing today. I'll let you know how it works out. It's been out there for an hour and a half, and it already looks great. Fingers crossed!!

In addition to a turkey, I'll serve a small ham (just in case I blow the turkey, right!?!). Not everybody loves turkey and leftover ham is awesome, so why not? I have a counter top roaster oven to bake it in, so I'm not hurting for oven space.

Let's see... so that takes care of the meat. I'll be serving the traditional dressing. I like a bread cube stuffing with mushrooms and sage. And, of course, there will be mashed potatoes and gravy. I may even spike the potatoes with a little cream since it's a special occasion!

I'll be making my green bean casserole from scratch. No cans of mushroom soup here!

I also plan on making my fabulous and gorgeous spiced cranberry sauce, shown - here - with currents, and shown - at the top of this post - without. I love it both ways, but maybe just slightly better with. I know a lot of folks aren't cranberry sauce fans, but this version has certainly converted a person or two.

And what Thanksgiving meal would be complete without some form of home baked bread? These refrigerator dinner rolls fit the bill since they taste phenomenal. Additionally, they fit well with my "do as much in advance as possible" doctrine.

For a nice change of pace, I decided I would serve these mincemeat peaches as a side dish. They're sweet and sassy with all the spice of the holidays. Using canned (whether home canned or store bought) mincemeat makes them the fastest dish in the west.

I'm still thinking about maybe adding one more side dish... a vegetable, I think, but we'll see if it happens. I've been thinking about creamed pearl onions or maybe slices of pecan crusted acorn squash. Since we have plenty of food already planned, I'll play this last dish by ear.

What about dessert, you say? Well, of course, I can't forget about dessert. While I like to get really fancy for Christmas desserts (think buche de noel or cream puff swans), I'm more of a traditionalist for Thanksgiving. Pies it is! I plan on making a classic apple pie and will serve it with homemade vanilla ice cream. I do think, however, that I will make the pie with my newer, super flaky pie crust. I've even held back a few Cortland apples for making the pie extra tasty.

And, what Thanksgiving would be complete without pumpkin pie? Apple pie may be all American, but pumpkin pie is all Thanksgiving! I always make mine with pumpkin puree I've put up myself. I can't abide by canned pumpkin.

Lastly, I think I'll make a pecan tart. This is like a pecan pie, but not so... well, goopy. I love the flavors of pecan pie, but am always overwhelmed but how much filling there is compared to nuts. It's too heavy and sweet for my tastes. I've made it as a tart before. I just used a tart pan instead and only added half the amount of filling (but all of the nuts!!). I found the balance perfect. Nutty, sweet, and delicious. A perfect ending to a meal filled with family and fellowship.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Mincemeat Peaches

Behold! The most simple recipe ever! I am starting to get my menu in order for Thanksgiving and I thought I might include this recipe my mom used to make a lot when I was a kid. I haven't had it for years though, so I figured I'd better try a few today and make sure they are as good as I remember. Yup! They are. And they are a great, flavorful, and simple side dish to serve on a table of bounty... or on any day of the year.

Here's how to do it: spray a baking dish with oil and preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. The good news is that since you are really just heating these things through, you have some flexibility on the oven temperature. This is a good thing if your Thanksgiving oven is already scheduled to the max. Open a can of peach halves (I prefer them in heavy syrup for this application) and lay them cut side up in the baking dish. Scoop a spoonful of mincemeat into the center. I used a #40 disher to get the filling in perfectly shaped mounds. Then... and this is the hard part... put them in the oven. That's it! Bake them until they are hot and slightly bubbly, about 25 minutes. They cool fairly quickly, but - fortunately - they taste good hot or at room temperature.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013


'Tis the season... for applesauce! Actually, it's almost past, but in most places you can still get apples for a pretty good price right now. Depending on where you live, you may still be able to go and pick your own in a nearby orchard. (My favorite site for finding pick your own farms is this one here.)

I love homemade applesauce. However, I am an applesauce snob, for sure. While you can make decent applesauce out of almost any variety of apples, there are a few apples that excel in this department. While everyone has slightly different taste and texture preferences when it comes to applesauce, I am all about Cortland apple applesauce. I first came across this apple in 2006 when we lived outside Dayton, Ohio. Once I tasted Cortland applesauce, there was no going back. It has the perfect balance of tart and sweet. The finished texture is everything I want in an applesauce: it breaks down nicely but doesn't end up mealy. It makes life easy because I don't need to run it through a food mill (although you certainly can, if you prefer that texture). They are a beautiful apple. Red with green streaks and green at the stem end or on the shoulders (watch out, if the green is too extensive, then the apples are not fully ripe). The flesh inside is quite white and is slow to brown. While they are not a super crisp apple, they are still wonderful for eating out of hand. I love them. Unfortunately, until recently, it'd been a few years since I'd come across Cortland apples.

A couple of months ago, we went on a short vacation to Door County, Wisconsin. Low and behold, I came across a bag of Cortlands in one of the farm stands there. They were a little pricey, so I only bought a half-peck bag. Unfortunately, that batch of applesauce was small enough that I polished it off in only a few days. I started looking for more. I was so excited when I found a half bushel at the last farmers' market of the season... and for a decent price too! I polished off half of that batch of applesauce in a few days before I managed to finally put some in the freezer. I was a little despondent because I knew that wouldn't last me long (and my boy, who loves the stuff, has started to put away his fair share). Wouldn't you know that the very next time I went to the grocery store, they had Michigan apples, including Cortlands, on sale for 59 cents a pound? I now have fulfilled my applesauce destiny for the year!

In the last eight years, I have processed a LOT of apples. Bushels and bushels and bushels of apples. The method of preparing apples that I will share here is, in my opinion, by far the most efficient way out there. The other day I processed a peck and a half (about 15 pounds) of apples about 45 minutes. Here's how I do it. You need a paring knife, a vegetable peeler, and a melon baller.

Step One: Cut all of the apples in half. This method is an assembly line method. As the years went by, I found I used up a lot of time picking up and setting down my tools. I discovered it was much more efficient to do each step to every apple before moving on. You do not need to worry about excessive browning if you are doing a bushel or less, especially if you are using Cortlands.

Step 2: Core the apples with a melon baller.

Step 3: Notch out the stem and blossom end with a paring knife. It is important to do the coring before the notching in order to save time. Since the melon baller is only so large, you can easily cut out any core or stem bits you might have missed in step 2.

Step 4: Peel with a vegetable peeler. You can use a paring knife. but I find two problems with that. First, I end up with a lot more of the apple on the peel and I like to maximize my efforts. Second, I find my hand cramps a lot less using the vegetable peeler when I'm doing a large batch.

Step 5: Cut the halves into wedges and put them into a heavy duty pan. Obviously the size of the pan needed will depend on how many apples you are cooking.

Now that the hard part is done, you can while the afternoon away to applesauce nirvana! Add a small amount of water to your pot (I use about 1/4 cup water per peck of apples). Place the lid on the pot and place over medium heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the apples have broken down. They should break apart as you stir. When the apples are close to being completely broken down, add your sugar. There is no recipe here because every batch of apples have a different sugar content. For a peck, I usually start with a half cup of sugar. Stir it in and then taste. Add more as necessary until it is right for your tastes. I like to add cinnamon as well. Again, it's all personal preference, so simply add a small amount at a time and keep tasting. Continue cooking until the applesauce is the texture you want. I think I usually cook my applesauce for between one and two hours. Cool and refrigerate or freeze... or can!

If you want to can the applesauce, you can process it in a water bath canner. If you have never canned before, you can check out my Canning 101 post for instructions. Applesauce should have a half-inch head space and be processed 20 minutes for both pints and quarts. Please note that when canning applesauce, I strongly recommend leaving the jars in the canner for 5 minutes with the heat off after the processing time is done, as they can ooze horribly if you yank them right out of the hot water. Lastly, when canning applesauce, I always add extra water to the mixture before putting it in the jars. I find that the applesauce thickens during canning as moisture is lost during the pressurizing process and I find it unappealing.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Ginger Jellies

As we rapidly approach the holiday season, I am already getting excited about the various goodies I can make to give as gifts to my loved ones. In the last few years, lemon, lime, and orange jelly candies have been staples of my gift giving repertoire. The candies are really tasty, pretty darn quick to make, and folks are always so pleasantly surprised to receive them. Lately, though, I've been trying to think if there was a way to freshen up the idea. My mom, who is an ardent ginger fan, inspired this version. They have such a wonderful flavor, and I've been eating them up very quickly as I've made my test batches. If you like ginger, you'll love these!

The basic process for making them is just like I posted previously when making lemon jellies. You just have one brief extra step because instead of juicing a fruit, you need to steep some flavor. In this case, stronger is better, so don't skimp on the amount of ginger you use. These candies have enough sugar in them to counteract the one-two punch the ginger can sometimes give when it's too strong.

It takes almost half a pound of ginger to get this juice potent enough, so buy plenty! Either cut or scrape the skin off the outside of the ginger and then cut it into thin slices and then cut those slices into small sticks. I cut up one and a half cups of small ginger sticks.

Then you add one and a half cups of water. Pour into a small sauce pan and heat over medium heat just until it comes to a simmer. Turn the heat off and let sit for an hour, stirring periodically. Strain the juice from the ginger first through a fine mesh strainer and then through coffee filters (or similar). You need one cup of ginger juice for this recipe. Surprisingly, the color of these jellies is beautiful without any added coloring. They end up a soft golden color - understated but beautiful.

Ginger Jellies
Yield: 3-4 dozen candies

1 cup ginger juice
   (made from 1 1/2 cups finely cut ginger and 1 1/2 cups water)
3 TBS unflavored gelatin
pinch citric acid powder (~1/16 tsp) optional
2 cups sugar
1/2 cup water
1-2 cups sanding sugar

Prepare the ginger by cutting or scraping off the skin. Slice thinly and then cut into small sticks. Place the ginger in a small saucepan with 1 1/2 cups of water and bring to a simmer. Remove from the heat and let steep for one hour, stirring occasionally. Strain through a fine mesh strainer and then through a coffee filter. Measure out one cup of the now cooled juice.

Mix together the ginger juice and the unflavored gelatin. Stir and let sit while the sugar heats on the stove. If desired, add the citric acid and stir to mix. Prepare a 4x13 pan or similar dimensions by spraying with oil and then line with parchment. Spray the parchment with oil as well. Set aside.

Pour the sugar into a sauce pan, add the water, and gently stir. Stir over medium-high heat until the sugar has dissolved. Stop stirring and place a candy thermometer in the pan. Continue heating without stirring until the mixture reaches 255 degrees. Pour the gelatin mixture into the hot sugar mixture, stirring completely. Pour into the prepared pan. Let sit at room temperature for at least four hours.

Pour one cup of sanding (or regular granulated sugar) on a sheet pan. Turn out the candy onto the sugar. Spray and pizza cutter with oil and cut the candy into strips and then square pieces. Toss in the sugar to coat all sides. Let the candy sit out at room temperature for two days, turning frequently.

For more details on making this candy, view the post on making lemon jellies.

NOTE: The citric acid is completely optional in this candy, but can help to keep the candy from becoming cloyingly sweet if you do not make a strong enough ginger juice.
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