about bliss

Thursday, December 25, 2008

happy christmas!

holiday greetings and chocolate visions!

Just a quick post today to wish everyone a Merry Christmas! Yesterday I made a Yule Log cake, a.k.a. Bûche de Noël, for the very first time. I followed a cake recipe in the Gourmet cookbook for a chocolate roulade--a souffle wonder! I then improvised a coffee flavored buttercream, infusing half and half with coarsely ground coffee beans, adding it to powdered sugar and butter. I then glazed the entire cake with a bittersweet ganache and fashioned mushrooms out of marshmallows. Though it's a little more square-ish than rounded, it's cute and promises chocolate deliciousness for my family!

Santa was kind to me, and I now have a digital camera! Look for improved photographs in the new year.

I hope the holiday--whether Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Solstice, or Festivus--finds you happy and healthy. Thank you for spending time with me on this little blog:)

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

let it snow + candy cane cookies

Luckily, I left Wisconsin on Saturday morning and made it to Michigan before the a) blizzard warning; b) lake effect snow advisory; and c) winter weather advisory. We're slowly building up to our 3rd foot of snow here in Western Michigan, as you can see from these photos taken from the toasty inside of my parents' home, looking out into the yard:

pines laden with snow remind me of a poem I wrote as a child when these trees were so much smaller

half of the fence is already buried, and the snow is as high as the porch

I want to trek through the woods and the pristine snow, walking into the eternal hush of the forest, but so far I've stayed inside where it's warm, reading poetry for my winter session class, baking cookies, visiting with my parents, cooking soups, and practicing yoga to help me overcome this nagging cold that keeps me feeling just less than 100%. I'm waiting for my brother to arrive tomorrow to share in some holiday hijinks, and adventures outdoors, which will invariably include a noisy and smelly but exhilarating ride on the snowmobile.

Today I made a batch of Chocolate Candy Cane Cookies, a delicious sandwich cookie from Bon Appetit.

Do you think they'll tempt Santa?

Tomorrow's baking extravaganza: Buche de Nöel

twd: real butterscotch pudding

a pale pudding, dressed up with chocolate chips

"It tastes good, but I'm not sure what it is," said my Dad, as he dipped his spoon back into the tea cup for another bite of the mystery dessert I foisted on him.

"That's going in the blog," I laughed, as I explained that this was no ordinary butterscotch pudding, but an upscale concoction that featured his favorite liquor, Crown Royal.

"It doesn't taste very butterscotchy, but it's good," he exclaimed. My Mom tasted one bite, not being a fan of butterscotch favored things and concurred.

I tasted a bite and was rather disappointed--the caramel flavor wasn't very deep, and the texture was marred by a slight curdling that never disappeared. Not having a food processor, I used a more traditional pudding preparation involving tempering the eggs and constant whisking. The eggs were lovely--no scrambling there--but the slight curdling remained nonetheless beyond the point where Dorie says it might first appear.

C'est la vie...

I made a few minor adjustments to the recipe, namely using skim milk and half and half instead of whole milk and heavy creamy. This could account for the textural issues. And, lacking real Scotch Whiskey, I turned to our neighbors to the North, and selected Crown Royal from my parents' liquor shelf for the finishing touch.

Thanks to Donna of Spatulas, Corkscrews, & Suitcases for choosing this recipe--check out the delectable pie she made using this pudding.

Monday, December 22, 2008

winter haiku

large flakes fall slowly
another inch, another foot
winter wonderland

Greetings from snowy Holland, Michigan, where blizzard warnings have now expired, yet piecy snow continues to fall...

Saturday morning I followed the contour of Lake Michigan, traveling from my home in Wisconsin to my parents' home in Holland, timing my journey between massive storms. I'm enjoying the laziness that comes at the end of the semester and the enforced hibernation of blizzard warnings outside and rhinovirus inside.

I'll be back tomorrow with my holiday retrospective AND the story of Dorie's butterscotch pudding, bound to be a favorite for my Dad!

Safe travels and happy holidays to you all!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

twd: buttery jam cookies

pink cookies! pink holiday!

If you can't already tell from reading my blog and just seeing the profusion of pink in my photos (my KA is pink:), I have a thing for pink. I always have. And so, when I added raspberry jam to my cookie dough and watched the soft mass turn a delightful shade of pink, I clapped my hands and dreamed of tea parties...

Because, really, these bite size morsels, ever so slightly sweet, and just this side of a biscuit or scone, are more suited to a tea party, with dainty treats and mismatched vintage tea cups, than to a last day of class party, as I discovered yesterday. My students and I managed to stay on schedule all semester and so our last day of class was open--no more stories to read, no more presentations to make. How to win over college students on the brink of finals? Food! Party! I brought the buttery jam cookies and some of last week's sugar cookies I had tucked away in the freezer, but they were no match for the store bought holiday cupcakes and the fruit torte billowy with whipped topping brought by my students.

Thanks to Heather of Randomosity and the Girl for choosing this week's recipe.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

honey vanilla fleur de sel caramels

the same holiday scene, with caramels, wrapped and unwrapped

This weekend, when I wasn't tidying up my home or grading papers or setting up my holiday decorations, I watched cooking shows on television, including one on PBS that showcased holiday treats, including handmade sea salt caramels. I've always wanted to try making caramels and other candies, and emboldened by the new baking frontiers I've encountered in TWD, I decided to find a candy thermometer and transform sugar into chewy caramel.

Living in a land distant from any *good* cooking shops, whether local or national chains, I hoped that TJ Maxx or Target in the next town would have a thermometer, and thankfully Target had one model for candy, though many models of meat thermometer, not particularly helpful for a baking and vegetarian!

I needed a block of time to devote to the candy making, and the weather gods, together with my University administration, provided me just what I needed today, in the form of 10 inches of snow and a snow day! Furthering my good luck was the fact that I'm in between essay assignments, so my only work related task was to read Jhumpa Lahiri's charming and devastating story "Sexy" for my American Lit class tomorrow.

And so it was that I gathered together my supplies and began the simple but time consuming process of caramel making. I used a recipe from Epicurious, and made a few small changes: half and half instead of heavy cream, honey instead of corn syrup, and a splash of vanilla for good measure. I also splurged for some really good butter--because the recipe is simple and the ingredients few, using the purest products you can find will greatly increase the final taste of the product. I've included my altered recipe below.

Caramels are simple to make, if you can resist the temptation to stir when the sugars are first beginning to caramelize, if you can judge a "light golden caramel" color accurately, and if you can patiently stir occasionally and watch the candy thermometer for however long it takes to creep up to 248 degrees, the firm ball stage. The recipe claims this last step should take 10-15 minutes, but it took a good 30-45 minutes for me. I had the heat on medium low to keep the mixture at a very gentle boil. I also think my stove--glass top electrical--might be slower that a more direct, controllable source of heat like gas.

No matter--I multi tasked, executing lunges and squats and calf raises in my small kitchen as I intermittently watched the thermometer and stirred the bubbling sugar. I needed to pre-emptively work off the extra calories I was bound to consume once the candies were finished.

Finally, the mixture reached the magical point of 248 degrees, and I poured them out into an 8 inch square pan lined with quick release foil (per Dorie's suggestion). After cooling for two hours, the caramels were ready for a final sprinkle of Fleur de sel. I ran my rolling pin over the top to press the salt crystals into the candy, cut them into small squares, and painstakingly wrapped them individually in squares of parchment paper. Voila!

After sampling one...or two...or three, I declare them delicious. These are the caramels for which master candy makers and gourmet food shops charge $15-20 per pound, and with a little effort and a bit of time, you can make 40+ candies for a fraction of the price.

Honey Vanilla Fleur de Sel Caramels
*adapted from Epicurious.com*

1 cup half and half, Organic Valley
5 TBS unsalted butter, Organic Valley unsalted European cultured
1 tsp. Fleur de sel, trader joe's
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/4 cup honey, Wisconsin Clover
1/4 cup water, filtered
1 tsp. vanilla
extra Fleur de sel for sprinkling

Line an 8 inch square pan with buttered parchment or quick release foil.

Boil cream, butter, and salt, then remove from the heat. This stabilizes the cream, and, I believe makes the caramels keep longer.

Boil sugar, honey, and water, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Keep boiling, but do not stir, until the mixture reaches a "light golden caramel" color.

Stir in cream mixture--be careful, because the entire mixture will bubble up Continue stirring occasionally until the temperature reaches 248 degrees. I added the vanilla somewhere in the middle of this process.

Pour the mixture into the pan, cool two hours, sprinkle with Fleur de sel, cut into squares, and wrap. Enjoy making people smile with pleasure and deliciousness:)

a poor quality photo from inside my house, looking out at my deck, covered with snow!

twd: grandma's all-occasion sugar cookies

holiday scene, complete with cookies

Some years the holiday spirit is strong, while others it seems to sputter. Since the holiday season and the end of the academic semester coincide, I'm often caught in a frenzy of paper grading and gift making and traveling that leaves me exhausted by the time Christmas Eve rolls around. This year, however, I'm managing the stress better thus far, and the generous, loving spirit burns strong. The early December snow has created a Winter Wonderland, and I long for two weeks to spend with family and friends enjoying leisurely days and treks in a world of white.

This morning I'm home instead of at work because of a snow day--a blessed event for all students and faculty who need just a smidge more time at the end of the semester to catch up on that paper writing and grading. As for me, I'm in between essay grading, and so I'm baking and blogging and watching Martha Stewart. As luck would have it, it's cookie week!

This week's TWD recipe, Grandma's All-Occasion Sugar Cookies, was selected by Ulrike of Küchenlatein, a delightful blog to test my undergraduate German minor (she also offers an English translation). I've baked Dorie's sugar cookies before, and I have to say that they're delicious! My great-grandma, Cookie Grandma, always made a brown sugar cookie, but it wasn't a roll out dough, therefore we don't have a sacred family sugar cookie recipe. I feel no qualms about declaring my unequivocal love for Dorie's version.

Dorie's dough is buttery and easy to manage. Like any roll out cookie, this one needs constant cooling. I rolled the cold dough out into a thin sheet, and popped it in the freezer for about 10 minutes. I then cut out the cookies and then popped it bake in the freezer before placing the sheet in the oven. The cold temperature should help the cookies hold their shape.

I made tiny trees, snowflakes, and hearts, because the holidays are all about love.

As the snow continues to swirl outside, and the world is awash in white, my mind is clear, and my heart is open, ready to share the abundance of the holiday season.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

twd: linzer sables

hearts and trees

Here in my corner of the world, we have six inches of fluffy new snow draping everything, and all I want to do is cozy up with a deliciously long novel, an endless pot of tea, and a stack of cookies. Alas, this is also the busiest time of the semester in my little academic world. Students are melting down as they race to finish research papers, read the last novel, and beg for extra credit once they realize their dire grade situation. My colleagues and I are also buffeted by stress--all those papers to grade, all those agonizing final grade decisions, coupled with holiday parties and events, and, for me, looming travel plans.

This morning I'm looking out my east facing windows at a world of white snow, pale blue sky with a band of yellow as the sun rises, and in the far distance, a sliver of Lake Michigan that looks frozen in motion. Joni Mitchell's "River" is playing (thanks to Shari of Whisk: a Food Blog for quoting from my favorite holiday song). My coffee is hot and strong, I have 2 hours before I teach my first class, and I have finally finished baking my Linzer Sables. At the moment I'm content.

The Linzer Sables, chosen by Dennis at Living the Life, were simple to bake, despite their fancy and fussy appearance. The greatest difficulty I had was lifting the cut cookies to the pan without breaking them--the little christmas tree cut-out left some thin borders in places, and made them a bit more fragile. The house still smells nutty and warm this morning after my late night baking session. The hazelnut with nutella filling is wonderful--the nutella adds a touch of sweetness, ramps up the hazelnut flavor, and the chocolate is essential. These cookies would be just the right touch of sweetness after a meal, and are just the right pick-me-up in the middle of a paper grading session.

And now I'm inspired to begin the holiday baking, turning to old family favorites like buttery thumbprint cookies and English toffee, as well as my new classics like chocolate peppermint sandwich cookies (the ne plus ultra of sandwich cookies, from Bon Appetit magazine, December 2005). I'd love to make either a gingerbread house or a buche de Noel, a grand, intricate pastry wonder.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

the cookie dough is in the freezer...

...and will be baked tomorrow, once I a) catch up from being gone for the long Thanksgiving holiday; b) catch up grading student essays; and c) finally have time to devote to these gorgeous cookies, hazelnut and nutella linzer sables.

Thanks to Laurie for giving the TWD bakers a little freedom this month with baking and posting...