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Saturday, December 29, 2012

One More Cookie--for the Holidays and Year Round


The festive Christmas season may seem to have closed out on December 25, but many of us forget that Christmas Day is only the first of the "twelve days of Christmas." If you had great plans for sharing gifts of homemade goodies but got behind in your efforts, this weekend still provides time to get some things made and shared within that 12 day timeline.

This could be the time to stir up some Chex mix variation to be shared in festively tied bags or in quart jars. You might decide to bake a batch of bread (yeast raised or quick bread style, either one) and give small loaves with a flavored butter. And then there is still the option of packaging up the rest of your Christmas cookies, maybe adding a new kind that you can stir up quickly. This holiday baking could be a lot more leisurely now that the gift buying and wrapping is done, and your efforts will keep the wonderful fragrances of home-baked goodies filling the house for another few days.



So here is a bonus recipe, one that is good year round, either plain or with all kinds of toppings that make them just a little special. (And, if you are in the habit of buying holiday-themed candies after the big days, you might be able to get some of these ingredients at budget-tightening prices.) 

Basic Chocolate Oatmeal Cookies, with Variations

1 c butter or margarine, softened
1 1/2 c sugar
1 egg
1 t vanilla
1/4 c  water 
1/3 cocoa
 1 1/4 c flour
1/2 t soda
3 c quick oatmeal (not instant)   

flat chocolate candies

1.  Cream the butter, sugar, egg, and vanilla together, until very light and fluffy.
2.  Add the cocoa and water and stir until well-blended.
3.  Sift the flour and soda together and  to the creamed mixture. Stir in the oatmeal.
4.  Drop by rounded spoonfuls onto a well-oiled baking sheet,  about an inch or two apart.
5.  Place a chocolate  candy on each cookie, pressing lightly to an
chor the candy.
6.  Bake at 350 degrees for about 9 to 10 minutes--do not overbake.

Variations:

Stir 3/4 c semisweet chocolate chips into the batter with the oatmeal. Omit the chocolate candies on top.
Substitute M&Ms, chocolate kisses, or other candies for the flat chocolates on top of the cookies.
Stir 1 c  finely apples into the batter with the oatmeal.
Substitute 1/2 c oil for 1/2 c of the butter. Reduce water to 2 T.

 

Italian Hot Beef Sandwiches for the Budget Conscious





All the predictions for 2013 include increasing food prices, so the "frugal" part of this blog is going to be getting a lot more emphasis. Unfortunately, beef prices have already started the climb upward and onward. Since our household eats very little beef, that has not impacted us very significantly, but for many of my friends, satisfying a taste for occasional beef dishes has become harder and harder.


One of the best ways to reduce the cost of meat (or any expensive ingredient for that matter) is to decrease the amount of it used per serving. A stir fry that includes beef (or chicken or shrimp or pork) can use only an ounce or two of the meat per serving, filling the plate with tons of vegetables and perhaps even a complementary legume or grain.

But maybe that is too little to satisfy the meat craving. Today I want to give you a beef-stretcher recipe that has been a mainstay for our family for years:  Italian hot beef sandwiches. The original recipe is one I developed in an effort to copy a popular sandwich served in the little town where I started college. (Unfortunately, my daughter visited Bill's recently and found the hot beef sandwiches still on the menu but now totally different from the recipe posted below.)

What makes these sandwiches really special is attention to detail. First, use the best quality hard rolls you can afford--or better yet, make your own homemade rolls. Second, have some garnishes that your family likes. Pepperoncini is the very real key for our family, but dill pickles are a good second best. Hot sauce is a nice touch for many, as are chopped onions. And keep the recipe frugal by not layering on the meat too heavily. Instead, increase the flavor of the final sandwich by spooning some of the juices on to the rolls prior to adding the meat. (That's the reason why you want to have a good hard roll base, to hold together with all that moisture.)

If you are really in a hurry, you could skip the sauteeing step and just put all the ingredients into the slow cooker right away, but the added flavor from the pre-cooking is well worth a few minutes. And check out the NOTE at the end of the recipe for another time-saver.

This filling is excellent the second (or third or fourth) day and can be frozen in serving size portions as well, and it is also easily doubled if your slow cooker is large enough. This can be especially helpful for packing lunches (where microwaves are available) or those nights when everyone has different schedules: Just keep the filling in the refrigerator with the rolls on the shelf. It takes less than a minute to assemble the sandwich and get it piping hot. 


Italian Hot Beef Sandwiches

2 1/2 to 3 pound boneless beef roast--use whatever cut is cheapest; the long cooking here will tenderize whatever cut you use (and these cheaper roasts often have a lower proportion of fat, also an advantage for this recipe)
1 to 2 T canola oil
2 c chopped onion--1 large or 2 small to medium
1 T chopped jalapeno (optional)
6 cloves minced garlic, divided
1 1/2  t salt or to taste
1 t Italian seasoning
1 t dried oregano
1 t dried basil
1 to 2 c water to deglaze pan

hard rolls
sliced pepperoncini or good quality dill pickles

1.  Put the roast into a 3 1/2 quart slow cooker on low.
2.  Saute the onion, jalapeno, and half the garlic in the oil until the onions are translucent and starting to brown slightly. Use medium high heat and stir often.
3.  Stir in the salt and herbs and continue to cook for another minute or two. Turn the vegetable mixture into the slow cooker, spreading evenly over the meat.
4.  Put the water into the hot pan and scrape the drippings from the bottom. Pour this deglazed mixture over the meat and vegetables. Cover and cook on low heat 6 to 8 hours, until the meat is falling apart.
5. About  an hour before serving, add the remainder of the garlic and stir it down into the liquid. Using two forks, pull the meat into shreds. Alternatively, you can take the meat out of the slow cooker and chop into small pieces. Return the meat to the liquid, stir well and taste, adjusting for salt as desired.
6.  Continue to cook for another  hour or so, to allow the seasoning to reach into all the cut surfaces.
7.  To serve, split the rolls and spoon a teaspoon or so onto one side of the roll. Then add a tablespoon or so of the meat filling to each roll. Serve with pepperoncini or dill pickles.

NOTE:  I know there are no longer many stores with butchers available for custom cutting. However, if you do have this service available, have the roast cut in thin slices across the grain before you bring it home, and it will take much less time for the flavors to meld. You can also slice the uncooked meat yourself. This will be an easier task if you freeze the roast for an hour or two, until it is firm but not so solid that you are going to risk bodily harm by trying to cut a rock!

Friday, December 28, 2012

That Leftover Egg Nog


Eggnog is one of those seasonal foods that many of us enjoy in small doses. However, it often seems like there is still some left after a round of toasts and even several days of eggnog lattes. This year, I added to the amount that needed to be used up because I found a great deal on some very good eggnog the day after Christmas. Couldn't pass it up (99 cents for a full gallon?) but I definitely would need to find some additional uses for all of it.

Actually, there are many things that can be done with eggnog. Here are four ideas to get you started, including a recipe for some special bar cookies for this weekend's New Year's entertaining.

Skoal!

Eggnog French Toast

Simply substitute eggnog for the milk in your usual French toast recipe. (For us, the French toast "recipe" is approximately 3 eggs and 1/4 to 1/2 c milk beaten together, enough for 5 to 6 slices of bread. Cinnamon and/or vanilla may sometimes be added to taste)

Eggnog Bread Pudding
Substitute eggnog for about half (or all, if you really like eggnog!) the milk in your favorite bread pudding recipe. You should decrease the sugar (or other sweetener) in your recipe by quite a bit, and you may want to reduce the amount of any spices as well.

Eggnog Rice Pudding
Again, substitute eggnog for half, or more, of the milk in your favorite rice pudding recipe, adjusting sweetener and spices accordingly. This would be good with a mixture of dried fruit (papaya, cranberry, apple, and raisins for example) instead of raisins.

Eggnog Squash Bars

1/3 c butter
1/2 c sugar
1/4 c brown sugar, packed
1/4 c dark (not blackstrap) molasses
2 eggs
3 T eggnog
1 c pureed winter squash (may substitute canned pumpkin_
1 3/4 c flour
1 T ground ginger
1 1/2 t cinnamon
1 t soda

1.  Cream butter and sugars. Stir in molasses and eggs and continue to beat until light. 
2.  Add eggnog and squash  and blend well.
3.  Sift dry ingredients together and add to squash mixture. Stir just to blend evenly.
4.  Pour the batter on to a well-oiled 10 X 15 pan. The batter will be thick, so be sure you spread the batter  evenly.
5.  Bake at 350 degrees 15 to 20 minutes, until the batter springs back when touched lightly.  You can also test by inserting a toothpick near the center; if it comes out without batter sticking to it, it is done.
6.  Cool and frost while still in the pan. If desired, add colored sugars or sprinkles immediately after spreading with icing.

Eggnog Icing

1 T softened butter
2 c powdered sugar
3 to 4 T eggnog

1.  Beat the butter and gradually stir in a cup of the powdered sugar. Add about 2 T of the eggnog and stir well.
2.  Add the remaining powdered sugar and then gradually add enough eggnog to reach a good spreading consistency.




Fresh, Fruity Start for the New Year



Part of our family Christmas tradition is sharing a leisurely Christmas morning breakfast, with a set in stone menu:  scrambled eggs (grated cheese and salsa allowed as toppings if desired), yeast-raised coffeecake, and "Grandpa's Citrus Cup." I remember this fruit salad from my grandmother's holiday breakfasts decades ago, and my kids christened it with Grandpa's name because of the many Christmas Eves they spent helping their own grandfather peel the fruit and cut up the cherries for the mix. This is truly one of our family heritage recipes.


Christmas may be past for this year, but Grandpa's Citrus Cup is a recipe ideal for brunches throughout this winter season--and what better way to greet the New Year than with a healthy, bright dish like this that takes advantage of oranges and grapefruit at what is often their seasonal best prices.

The dish is simplicity itself, but the addition of maraschino cherries adds a special flourish that can make even a family breakfast seem above the ordinary. And don't forget, this is great for bumping up the Vitamin C levels of our diets in this flu and cold season too.

Grandpa Stirmel's Citrus Cup

grapefruit
oranges--juice oranges are preferred, but navel oranges are fine too
maraschino cherries and juice
sugar (optional, to taste)

Allow about 1 grapefruit and 2 oranges for each 2 to 4 servings. Use as many cherries as your budget and tastes prefer.

1.  Cut the grapefruits in half and cut around each section to loosen the fruit. Squeeze this fruit into a bowl. Using a juicer, squeeze out remaining juice from the grapefruit shell.  Remove any seeds before adding the juice to the grapefruit pieces.
2.  Peel the oranges, removing as much of the white pith as possible. Pull the sections apart and then cut each into about two to three pieces. (For small to medium oranges, you can keep two to three orange pieces together before cutting.) If using juice oranges, remove any seeds. Add to the grapefruit.
3.  Cut each cherry into four to six pieces and add to the fruit. Pour some of the juices from the cherries into the fruit mix as well. (This is a great use for the cherry juice left in the jar after using cherries for other purposes.) In our family, there are never too many cherries!!
4.  Stir the fruits and taste, adding a bit of sugar if necessary. I sometimes add a few teaspoons of water if the mix is not very juicy--something that can happen if you use navel oranges instead of juice oranges.


Serve immediately or chill for several hours or overnight.

Variation:
If  you have family members who cannot eat grapefruit because of drug interactions, it will be nice to make a dish of just oranges cut up, with some cherries cut into them too.


We usually make a huge batch (about 1 to 2 grapefruit and 4 to 5 oranges per person) because this is a great thing to keep in the refrigerator as a healthy snack alternative to all those sweets surrounding us over the holidays.

Frugal:  Make this when oranges and grapefruit are at their best prices.  If your budget is really tight, make the servings slightly smaller and put in your prettiest small dishes.

Fast:  Peeling and cutting the fruit is not difficult and is something that kids can get involved in at a relatively young age.

Fun:  This is a great dish to prepare with kids because of the flexibility; add a little more or less grapefruit or oranges to taste--no need to measure carefully. The results are impressive too, so the kids (or you!) will get lots of oohs and ahs with little effort.








Monday, December 24, 2012

Date Balls--A Great Last Minute Sweet



Still looking for one more sweet to add to a cookie tray or share with neighbors? Here is a quick no bake cookie we've had as part of our Christmas baking for years. Enjoy!

No Bake Date Balls

1/2 c butter
3/4 to 1 c sugar
2 eggs
1 1/2 c chopped dates (about 6 to 8 ounces)
1/2 c flour
1 t vanilla
3 1/2 to 4 c crisp rice cereal (Rice Krispies or similar)
1 c chopped nuts (optional)

1.  Place the butter in a large, heavy saucepan. Melt over medium heat. Remove from heat and stir in the sugar, eggs, dates and flour. Return to burner and continue cooking, stirring often (these stick very easily!) for about 5 minutes, until the mixture just comes to a bubbling boil.

2.  Remove from heat and stir in the vanilla and then the cereal and nuts. Start with two cups of cereal and the nuts and then add more cereal, a cup or so at a time, until the mixture is barely sticky to the touch but still holding together.


3.  Allow to cool until comfortable to handle. Shape into small balls and roll in powdered sugar. (The best way to do this is to put half a cup or so of powdered sugar in a quart or gallon size plastic bag and shake three to four of the balls at a time.)

Depending on the size you make these, the recipe will make 4 to 6 dozen balls.

A few hints:

These are relatively fast to make, though starting with chopped dates instead of cutting up whole daates will cut prep time by quite a bit. That said,  I almost always use the whole dates. They are most often cheaper (and more available) and usually are more moist than the pre-chopped dates. It is easiest to use a pair of scissors rather than a knife to cut the dates.

These can prepared through steps 1 and 2 and then the batter can be allowed to cool for an hour or two, if that fits your schedule, before forming into balls. Just don't wait too long and definitely don't refrigerate--they will be VERY hard (impossible) to form into reasonable balls if you do chill them.
Personal experience: One year I made these late in the evening and tucked them into the refrigerator. In the morning, I realized I had a mass that wasn't going to roll into balls. I ended up allowing the mixture to warm just enough to be slightly malleable. Then I pressed it firmly into a well-buttered pan (if I remember, it fit in a 9 X 12 pan) and then cut into squares. Because I was already behind time, I only sprinkled the top with powdered sugar, but the squares could have been rolled in powdered sugar just as with balls. In fact, that might be a quicker (if not so traditional) way to get these finished--and it could provide a different shape for the cookie tray already full of powdered sugar covered balls of other kinds of cookies.


And...if you get to the stage of shaping the balls but can't get the powdered sugar stage done, the cookies can be left unpowdered for some time before taking this final step.

Have you noticed that cookie baking here gets to be a little crazy with timing? An important key to all of the fun of Christmas cookies is to stay flexible!



Cranberry Banana Bread


As last minute home-baked hostess gifts or a contribution to a holiday potluck, quick breads are a great thing to have in your kitchen repertoire. The one featured today upgrades the old familiar banana bread with the bright colors of cranberries. This recipe makes one full sized loaf or four small, "gift-sized" loaves and should be easily doubled. If your bananas threaten to over-ripen before you can get to them, mash them and freeze in cup-sized portions. Cranberries can also be frozen if purchased when they are at their seasonal price lows, so you could have all the ingredients for this recipe at your fingertips at any time. I've included methods for making this both with a processor and the old-fashioned mixing bowl way.

Cranberry Banana Bread

2 large or 3 medium very ripe bananas (about 1 cup)
1/3 c oil
3/4 c sugar
1 egg
1 t vanilla
1 1/2 c flour
1 t soda
1 t cinnamon
1/2 t nutmeg
1/4 t cloves
1 c cranberries--fresh or frozen--about half a 12 oz bag
1/2 c chopped walnuts (optional)

Processor method

1.  Chop the cranberries coarsely in the processor and then return them to the measuring cup.
2.  Put the bananas in the processor and process until they are well pureed.
3.  Add the sugar, oil, egg, vanilla, and chopped cranberries to the processor bowl. Blend just until smooth.
4.  Add the flour, soda, and spices. Pulse lightly until just mixed.
5.  Add the cranberries and walnuts and pulse just once or twice, until the berries are blended evenily into the mix.
6.  Pour the batter into well-oiled pans--four individual loaves or one 4 1/2 X 8 1/2 inch loaf.
7.  Bake at 350 degrees for about 15 to 20 minutes for the small loaves, an hour or so for the large loaf. The loaves are done when a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
8.  Allow the loaves to cool in the pans about 5 minutes. Then turn out on to a rack and cool completely before wrapping.

Mixing bowl method

1.  Cream the sugar, oil, egg, and vanilla until light.
2.  Mash the bananas (just mash them right in the measuring cup) and add to the creamed mixture. Stir until well mixed.
3.  Sift the dry ingredients together and add to the banana mixture. Stir well.
4.  Cut the cranberries in slices (the "prettier" approach) or chop coarsely. Stir into the batter along with the chopped nuts.
5.  When the batter is well mixed, pour into the pans, proceeding as with the processor method from step 6 forward.







Pfefferneuse aka Pepper Nuts




Tradition, tradition.

When I was a child, my mother always included lots of cookie baking as part of our Christmas traditions. While we often tried new recipes for the festive cookie trays we shared with family and friends, there were two constants. First there were the "cut out" cookies, rolled, cut into Christmas-y shapes and imaginatively decorated. But always, always too, there were the powdered sugar coated "pepper nuts," made from a family friend's  very old pfefferneuse recipe. These were the first cookies made each season, so there would be time for them to season and mellow before serving.

Move forward a generation. My children and I made dozens and dozens of cookies each Christmas--and this is not an exaggeration. In fact, one year we actually reached a goal of 100 dozen; most years though, we were more in the range of 50 dozen or so. While that may sound like a lot, please understand that these were mostly the kinds of cookies that are small, just the right size for a tasting party. And the pfefferneuse recipe we used helped up the total, since we usually were able to get 10 to 11 dozen out of each batch. (The year of the 100 dozen cookies did include a double batch.) Our tradition included stirring up a batch of these on the day after Thanksgiving, the fragrance of the baking cookies ushering in the whiff of Christmas even if there was not yet the evergreen smell of a tree.


Along with the original recipe, I am including my current iteration. I have halved it to a more reasonable sized batch and have substituted half oil for the fat. As we usually have done, I increased the spiciness just a bit too. From the beginning, we have never used citron even though it was included in Ruthie Stewart's original recipe. Long ago I also stopped adding nuts, partly out of economy and because the cookies tasted better to us without them. I don't feel too bad about altering "tradition," since a brief internet search for "pfefferneuse" will reveal almost endless varieties of cookies bearing this same name. About the only thing they all have in common is the inclusion of black pepper in the cookie dough--and that is a really important thing not to omit. (Oh, and the baking sheets on which these were baked--they were my grandmother's, and I love to bring them out especially for these traditional baking times.)


Pepper Nuts for Today

1/2 c brown sugar
1/2 c dark molasses
1/2 c canola oil
1 egg
1 1/2 T cider or wine vinegar
1 1/2 T water
1/4 t anise oil OR 1/2 t anise flavoring
2 1/2 c flour
1 t soda
1/2 t allspice
1/4 t ground cloves
1/4 t cardamom
1 t cinnamon
1/2 t ground black pepper 
1/4 t nutmeg
powdered sugar for coating

1.  Combine the first seven ingredients. Beat until well blended.
2.  Sift together the flour, soda, and spices. Gradually add to the beaten liquid ingredients and stir until very well blended.
3.  Cover the bowl and chill the dough for several hours or overnight.
4.  Roll the dough into small (about 1 inch diameter) balls. If necessary, dust your hands (and the dough) with a little flour if the dough sticks to your hands as you make the cookies. Place about an inch or two apart on cookie sheets.

5.  Bake at 350 degrees about 12 to 14 minutes, depending on the size of the cookies you make.
6.  Cool on racks.
7.  Place a cup or so of powdered sugar in a small plastic bag. Put three to four of the cookies into the bag and shake to coat them well. Shake off loose powdered sugar and return the coated cookies to racks. If desired, you can coat the cookies while still warm and then a second time after they have cooled. Makes about 5 to 6 dozen cookies.

These cookies may be stored for weeks if tightly covered.


 Heritage Pfefferneuse

1 c brown sugar
1 c shortening
2 eggs
3 T vinegar
3 T hot water
4 1/2 to 5 c flour
2 t soda
1/2 t nutmeg
1/2 t allspice
1/2 t cloves
1/4 t cardamom
1 t cinnamon
1/2 t anise oil
1/4 t pepper
1 c nuts or citron

Mix molasses, vinegar, and hot water and add to creamed sugar, shortening, and eggs. Add sifted flour and dry ingredients. Roll in balls and bake at 375 degrees. Roll in powdered sugar. Best if made a few days before serving.

Makes about 11 dozen.    





Thursday, December 20, 2012

Pita Bread--Homemade and Wonderful


Homemade pitas are wonderful things to have in your repertoire. They are a good introduction to yeast breads, don't take much work time, and are good for everything from accompanying hummus to making healthy sandwiches that don't fall apart when you add lots of veggies. Oh, and the ones you make can be eaten warm out of the oven (an incredible treat!) and won't have any preservatives that you might prefer to avoid.

Back in the 70s, pitas were pretty much a novelty food in most parts of the country, so when I saw a recipe for them in an Arizona paper, I knew I had to try it. A few tweaks later and I had a recipe and a method that has stood the test of time. These are good any time of the year, but I especially like them in the cold winter months, as they are a great soup accompaniment--and it's nice having the oven keeping the kitchen extra toasty too.

Probably the biggest drawback with pitas is that they do require a bit of space for the approximately two hours of rising time. You could reduce the recipe included below to cut down on this problem, or you could find some flexible spaces to spread the fat little pockets as they puff up and then have them ready in the freezer for a lot of meals. I have included some hints that may give you some ideas for your own solutions to the space concern.


Pita Bread

2 pkg dry yeast (about 1 2/3 T)
2 t sugar
1 to 2 T oil
2 1/2 c warm water
1 1/2 T salt (yes, that IS tablespoons, not teaspoons!)
about 6 c flour, preferably bread flour if available (if desired, use 2 cups whole wheat flour and 4 cups bread flour)
more flour for the work surface

1.  Combine all but the flour in a large bowl.
2.  Gradually stir in the flour, beating well. The dough will be sticky.
3.  Turn the ball of dough onto a very well floured board or counter. Knead until smooth and elastic, perhaps 5 minutes or so.
3A.  If desired, you can put the dough back into the bowl and cover it, allowing it to raise for about an hour. Punch down before going to the next step. I have found that this extra rise is not necessary, but it is nice to know that you can put the dough aside for awhile if you aren't quite ready to shape it at this point.

4.  Divide dough into four even parts and then cut each into 4 to 6 pieces, depending on the size of pitas you wish to make.

(See below for suggestions on ways to assure even sizing.)

5.  Shape each piece into a small ball and then flatten with a rolling pin to about 1/4 inch thick.



Place the flattened dough balls on a well floured cloth or other floured surface and cover with a cloth.

6.  Allow the balls to raise about 1 1/2 to 2 hours, until they are very light and somewhat puffy.
Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

7.  Gently lift each pita onto an ungreased pan, turning each one upside down. These will puff but not raise further, so they can be almost touching on the pan.
8.  Bake the pitas about 5 minutes, until they are puffy and just beginning to brown. Remove from oven and cover with a cloth until completely cooled. Store tightly covered, preferably in a heavy plastic bag.

Storing and Freezing
As with all homemade breads, these do not have preservatives, so they do not maintain their freshness as long as those you buy in the stores. They can be refreshed by heating a few seconds in the microwave. They also freeze well for a few weeks to a few months.

To freeze, place the pitas in a heavy plastic bag, removing as much air as possible. To keep them from sticking to each other, you may want to put a piece of waxed paper between each one. I like to double bag breads like this, to be sure they do not dry out. To thaw, do not open the bags. Remove from the freezer and allow to sit at room temperature for a few minutes (or longer if you are thawing a large number all at once).

Pita Hints
  • For step 4:  Roll each quarter of the dough into a fat rope. This usually works well to cut the pieces evenly. I use a pair of kitchen scissors for all this cutting. If you find it difficult to get each pita as evenly sized as you would like, you can weigh each quarter and then figure out how much each individual ball of dough should weigh. (Yes, I have done this in the past!)
  • If you have troubles with the dough springing back instead of making nice flat discs in step 5, cut all the balls and then let them sit a few minutes before flattening them.
  • I have never had lots of counter space in my kitchen, so I have found that a card table set up next to my kitchen table provides just the right amount of room for the pitas to raise. Since they don't really expand outward, just up, they can be placed almost touching, another space saving help. 
  • I have a twin size sheet that I have made  a part of my kitchen linens. I spread this sheet on the counter or a card table (because it gives me more space for spreading out the rising pitas) and sprinkle a very small amount of flour over half the surface. This is where I place the pitas as they are formed. When they are all on the sheet, I bring the edges up and over the dough balls to cover them while they are raising. If you don't use a sheet or other cloth, be sure the surface where the pitas will be raising is very well floured. If you don't do so, the discs may stick to the surface when you try to lift them onto the pans, often resulting in pitas that do not puff.
  • When the pitas come out of the oven, I place them back on the sheet and immediately cover them again. This helps keep the steam in the pitas, ensuring that they will puff up.
  • What happens if some (all) of your pitas don't puff and make pockets? You now have flatbreads, something you intended all along, right?  :)  
  • If you do have problems with most of your pitas not puffing, some of the things you might want to change:
    You might be rolling the pitas too thinly. A quarter inch is just about right.
  • Your success will be improved if you use bread flour. Though I don't know the full "scientific" reasons, I believe the higher gluten content provides more of a structure for the dough to separate into the desired pocket formation.
  • Be sure you are flipping the pitas as you put them on the pan. Even though you have covered them with a cloth, the top will have developed a slightly dried "crust" that will hold in the steam as these bake. Putting the less dried surface against the pan is likely to cause that surface to stick to the pan and allow steam to escape. (Please note: this is my own personal observation, with no scientific verification, but I stand behind my position!)
  • As noted above, if the pitas stick as you lift them off the surface where they were raising, they also are far more likely to turn out "flat" instead of with a pocket

  • If you have accessibility to outside, take the cloth you used for the pitas and shake it out before putting it in the laundry--kind of like our grandmothers used to shake the dust out of their throw rugs!
     




Monday, December 17, 2012

Rolled Cookie Basics



For many of us, this is the only time of year that we get out the cookie cutters, rolling pins, and often tattered and stained recipe cards from Grandma, ready to tackle the great American rolled cookie tradition.

And for many of us, this ends up meaning a mess in the kitchen, shapes that seem almost impossible to get right, and ultimately sometimes tough and not very tasty cookies. To help avoid some of these problems, here are some helpful hints you might want to try.

Recipes

When you find a recipe that works, KEEP IT! If you do a search, you will find millions upon millions of variations. Some will work well for you; some will be total frustrations.

My cake mix cookie dough recipe (Cake Mix Cookies) is one very easy recipe. It is also acceptable (though not always the most inexpensive way to go) to buy cookie dough for rolling out.

Be aware that butter, margarine, and solid shortening may each require slightly different amounts of flour. If you substitute one for the other, don't be surprised if you need to add a bit more or less flour. When in doubt, start with slightly less flour than called for and then gradually add more until the dough is no longer sticky but also is not too dry. (If you do reach a point where the dough is crumbly and won't form a ball, add a few drops of water at a time, using your hands to mix it in.)

Unless the recipe calls for it, don't melt the fat that you will be using. To do so may mean that you will end up adding more flour than is really desirable. Having the fat at a soft, room temperature stage will make mixing much easier however. 

Don't over-mix your dough. This isn't bread dough, so kneading isn't what you want to do!

Preparation

Almost all rolled cookies will be easier to roll if the dough is chilled for several hours or overnight. It should be wrapped in waxed paper or plastic wrap or stored in a tightly covered bowl to avoid having it dry out. If you make the dough ahead and freeze it (an option with almost all of these recipes), bring it to refrigerator temperature for ease in rolling.

Sift together a mixture of flour and powdered sugar (about 1 or 2 parts flour to each part of powdered sugar). Use this to spread lightly on the area where you will be rolling your cookies. (Some people suggest using some baking cocoa powder added to the flour and powdered sugar for chocolate cookies, to mask the whitish coating flour can leave.) You may need to add more of this mixture as you continue to roll out more cookies.

Rolling and cutting

Roll small amounts of dough at a time. For most recipes, you should divide the dough in two to three parts, shape each lightly into a ball, and place the unused dough balls back in the refrigerator.  To keep the thickness as even as possible, roll lightly in one direction at a time, lifting the rolling pin at the end of each stroke to avoid having the edges end up thinner than the rest.

In general, the thicker the dough, the softer the cookie; the thinner the dough, the crispier the cookies are likely to be. Some recipes will specify the preferred thickness, but, to be honest, it may be very difficult to measure whether your dough is a quarter or an eighth of an inch thick. The key, really, is to make sure that all the cookies on an individual cookie sheet are all as close to the same thickness as possible. Sometimes running your hand lightly over the dough will help you to feel spots that are thicker or thinner than others.



Always try to cut your cookies with a minimal amount of space between them. You will want to re-roll the scraps and make more cookies, but the fewer times you re-roll, the less added flour will be incorporated. Too much and those later cookies may become tough and less flavorful.


Use the thinnest spatula you have to lift off cookies that may stick to the board. If you do encounter a lot of sticking, add more of the flour and powdered sugar mix in those areas.

Check your recipe to see if the cookie sheets should be oiled first. If in doubt, use a little oil or cooking spray--you don't want to make perfect cookies only to have them break because they stick to the sheet when you try to take them off. 

Place the cookies on the tray with space to spread. Not sure how much this recipe will "grow" while cooking? Bake a couple of "test cookies" to see how much they spread, and then space the rest of the cookies on sheets as far apart as necessary.

The more basic the shape, the easier the process will be. Again, be aware that many recipes will spread enough that the original shape may be less distinct after baking.



Re-rolling scraps

When you have cut as many cookies as possible out of your dough, gather the scraps and lightly shake off as much excess flour as possible. Place the scraps in a small container and refrigerate while rolling the next batch of dough.

When you have finished rolling out all the balls of dough, gather the scraps and gently mold into a ball. Roll again and cut. You can continue to re-roll the scraps until you have almost nothing left. (Challenge yourself to find the cutters that will best fit into the small amounts of remaining dough.) The last little piece can either be eaten (think cookie dough ice cream!) or shaped into a small round shape the same thickness as the other cookies. When that last pan is baked, that little "leftover" circle is a wonderful excuse to do a "taste test"!

Baking and cooling

Unless you are making a test cookie as noted above, I recommend that you roll out and make enough cookies to fill all your available cookie sheets before even turning the oven on. This saves on the cost of having the oven heating while nothing is in it and makes the overall process much more streamlined.

Almost all cookies will take only minutes to bake, and the amount of time needed will be greatly affected by the thickness of the cookies, the kind of pan used, and even the size of each individual cookie. You should plan on checking a minute or two before the earliest recommended time for your first pan or two.

In general, cookies should be taken off the cookie sheets and put on racks to cool almost immediately after removing from the oven. A few very tender varieties might need to be left on the pans for a minute or two--the directions should tell you that. If you wait too long to remove the cookies, you may have more troubles with the cookies sticking.

Until the cookies are thoroughly cool, do not try to stack them or overlap in any way.

When the cookies have been completely cooled, store them as directed in the recipe. If the recipe doesn't tell you what is the best approach, assume they should be kept tightly covered.

Try to avoid stacking cookies of the same shape directly on top of each other--instead, stagger the stacking, as they are less likely to stick to each other when you do this. If you have soft cookies, it will be a good idea to put waxed paper between each layer.

Decorating the cookies

If a simple sugared topping is desired, you can sprinkle the cookies with the decorative sugar of your choice before baking. If you wait until after baking, you may need to brush the cookies lightly with a tiny amount of water or milk, to make sure the sugar adheres to the cookies.

If you choose to frost the cookies, an icing that has less butter or cream cheese than a typical cake frosting will result in a better topping, one that will become, and stay, firm.

After frosting the cookies, allow to sit for an hour or so to thoroughly dry.  The cookies should generally be stored in single layers. If space limitations mean you have to stack them, place waxed paper between layers.



Special notes for making cookies with children

 If this is going to be a project to do with kids, do allow for creativity. Make a large batch of powdered sugar frosting and then put small amounts in separate bowls. Add food coloring of your choice to each. Gather toppings like colored sugars and sprinkles, red hot candies, chocolate chips, etc. Provide lots of craft sticks for spreading, one per color per kid. Give each child a baking sheet or tray with sides so that sprinkles are corraled more easily. Then, it is creativity time.


One extra hint: You probably will want to set some ground rules at the beginning, such as, only one or two chocolate chips or similar toppings per cookie, no overly thick frosting, etc. As you can see from these three recently decorated cookies, kids love thick frosting and bright and imaginative color schemes.

These may not be the cookies you take to that special office buffet, but they are great gifts for fond relatives--or for the family's own holiday desserts.


Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Potato (Plus) Pancakes...aka Latkes



Our family enjoyed potato pancakes for many years before I discovered that they were also called latkes. This time of the year, when many families will be making latkes as part of their holiday festivities, seemed like a good time to bring out my favorite method for making potato pancakes.

Maybe I should put "potato" in quotes, since I long ago started adding in carrots or zucchini or squash to the mix, sometimes even some chopped spinach for color as well. It goes without saying, of course, that there has always been plenty of onion in my version, and bell peppers whenever available. These additions add both nutrition and flavor. Along with the dry milk powder and eggs in my basic recipe, this is a main dish that provides just about every food group. Finally, I use as little oil as possible. This is another advantage of a well-seasoned cast iron skillet, but you could use a non-stick pan too--you just won't get quite the golden crispness of cast iron since you won't be able to heat the pan quite as high.

This week, The New York Times has had a series of recipes for variations similar to mine, with  vegetables as varied as carrots, purple cabbage, sweet potatoes, and broccoli stems. The main article can be found at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/10/health/spicy-carrot-and-spinach-latkes.html?ref=health. Makes me feel validated when a latke "expert" is making these kinds of substitutions!


Though we often enjoyed potato pancakes as a special weekend breakfast, they are also good for a quick, light supper. If made with seasonal vegetables (and potatoes, onions, and carrots are pretty much year round staples), you'll have a budget friendly main dish that supplies both vegetables and protein to the meal. The variation using leftover mashed potatoes will result in quite a different consistency but the flavor is good, and these can stretch the budget even further.


A hand grater is the only tool you need to make potato pancakes, but I have always liked the ease of grating and chopping the vegetables in a processor. I have recently been blessed with a new processor* and haven't yet adjusted to the larger feeding chute size.  As a result, as you can see in this picture, some of the vegetables are not quite what I would normally call "shredded." They could have been hand cut further, but I decided to leave them as is. The result may not have been quite picture-perfect, but the flavor was fine.


As with just about any vegetable recipe, the amounts can vary a great deal. What, after all, is a medium potato? And if I say about 1 1/4 cups of shredded potato and you end up with 1 1/2 cups, should you discard the extra amount? Or do I need to prep another potato if I end up with just under a cup of shreds? (NO is the correct answer to both situations!) I also have a predilection for lots of onion flavor, so my medium onion may well be quite a bit larger than the size you would favor, and that's okay too. And if you don't have squash, use some carrot instead, or sweet potato (which, be aware, will darken quickly after shredding, so cut these up just before stirring everything together).

Here is my "basic" recipe, as prepared today with potatoes and butternut squash, with some suggestions for variations following. Also included are a few "helpful hints" to make your first tries more successful. This amount should serve two to four, depending on whether for breakfast or dinner, whether as the main dish or as a side...and you can easily double--or even triple--the recipe.


*I still love my decades-old processor, but the bowl handle is almost completely broken off. Once that goes, all the safety features will keep me from using it again, and there is no place where I can find a replacement. So even as I baby it along, I have been shopping for a replacement. Thanks to a five hour pre-holiday special, I found a great deal on a replacement and thus, for at least for awhile, have the pleasure of having two processors to work with. I am blessed!


Potato (Plus...) Pancakes

1 medium potato, scrubbed but not  peeled (after shredding, about 1 1/2 cups)
about the same amount of butternut squash--peeled
1 medium onion (3/4 to 1 c onion)
3 eggs
1 c fine bread crumbs
1/2 t seasoning salt
1/2 t garlic powder
1/4 t cayenne pepper (optional)
1/3 c nonfat dry milk powder
canola oil 

1.  If using a processor, cut the vegetables into chunks and feed through the shredder disk. If using a hand grater, use the part that will produce a relatively coarse shred. (It may be easier to just chop the onions if you are not using a processor._
2.  Turn the vegetables into a bowl and add the remaining ingredients. Mix well. If the mixture is very dry, add one more egg. Allow to sit for a few minutes for the bread crumbs to absorb some of the vegetable juices.
3.  Put enough oil in a heavy skillet (preferably cast iron!) to make a thin film. Heat over medium-high to high heat until the oil just begins to shimmer.
4.  Put tablespoons of the batter into the hot oil, smoothing to about a half inch with the back of a spoon. Cook until the bottom is well-browned. Turn, press lightly with the turner, and continue cooking until the second side is golden. Allow to drain briefly on a paper towel lined plate before serving.  Since you will need to cook these in batches, you can cover the first ones with another paper towel and keep warm in a very low heat oven, or rewarm for a few seconds in the microwave.
5.  Continue making the rest of the pancakes, adding a bit of oil as necessary for later batches.

While the traditional latke toppings are applesauce and/or sour cream, our family often tops these with ketchup. Don't scoff--haven't you ever eaten ketchup on French fries?!?

Variations:

Substitute 2 T flour and 1/3 c yellow corn meal for the bread crumbs

Vegetable changes:
  • Use more or less onion, based on your own preferences
  • Use a clove or two of fresh garlic, minced, instead of the garlic powder
  • Add up to two cups of well-drained, chopped spinach or kale
  • Substitute sweet potatoes or carrots for the squash
  • Substitute grated zucchini or yellow summer squash for the butternut squash
  • Include up to a cup of finely grated cabbage or broccoli stems with the other vegetables
  • Add a few tablespoons of chopped parsley or cilantro
  • Add chopped bell pepper (or even jalapeno, if you'd like to warm this recipe up)
  • Add your own favorite herbs--basil, oregano, and Italian seasoning are all good
Leftover uses:
These variations will result in a less crisp product, but these can be very flavorful too. Substitute 1 1/2 to 2 c mashed potatoes for the grated potatoes OR substitute roasted squash, sweet potatoes or carrots for the squash in this recipe. (I would not recommend having both the potatoes and yellow vegetables pre-cooked.) You may need one more egg and possibly a few more bread crumbs if the mixture is too soft.  If the leftovers were already seasoned, don't add any seasoning salt.

Helpful Hints:

Don't turn the pancakes too quickly. If you do, they are much more likely to fall apart and/or stick to the pan. Use your turner to lift a corner of one to check on done-ness if you are not sure.

Don't make the pancakes too large. They will be hard to turn and may also be hard to get cooked through before the outside edges have gotten too brown. In the same way, be sure you flatten the pancakes so that the centers are not too thick.

As you continue to cook more batches, you may need to add a bit more oil to the pan. Add only a small amount each time and allow a short time for the oil to heat back to full level. If the oil is not hot enough, the pancakes will absorb a lot more of it, leaving them far more oily than desirable.

If in doubt, add too little salt. You can always add more at the table but once in the mix, it can't be taken out! (Actually, this should be pretty standard practice in the kitchen!)

Don't peel the potatoes--not necessary at all! In addition, this method does not involve draining and/or squeezing the potatoes to get out any moisture. Just don't soak the potatoes at all before grating them.  If you do find that, after a few minutes of standing, the batter begins to have a bit of liquid separating at the bottom of the bowl, add another tablespoon or so of bread crumbs (or corn meal) and then stir well. As you are putting the spoons of batter into the pan, continue to stir the liquid in. You should still end up with crisp pancakes, and a whole lot less work.