Thursday, December 23, 2010

There's Still Time

There's still time to bake these adorable and tasty treats for Santa's visit tomorrow night. I made them with my niece and nephew yesterday to get us further into the Christmas spirit, if that's possible (or necessary) when you're hanging out with a 9 and 12 year-old.

Anyway, you could certainly make the batter from scratch but I just bought a tube of peanut butter cookie dough at the grocery store. It was easy and fast (operative word) to simply slice and shape our little reindeers. You basically just kind of smush in the sides of the cookie to create the elongated reindeer face. Then we baked them in the oven, following the cooking instructions provided, and pulled them out a minute or two early so we could get them properly adorned for the holidays. The red nose was an M&M and the eyes were mini chocolate chips. I loved the "antlers" made from chocolate covered pretzels. Aren't they just the cutest?

The last few cookies were antlerless, though, because my newphew ate a bunch while we were waiting for the cookies to bake. I'm sure Santa will understand. . . .

Wishing all y'all a sweet and merry Christmas!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Throwing a Show

Many years ago, I traveled to Scotland for the first time to attend a medical conference. There are exactly three memorable things from that trip.

The first is that Glasgow has the best dance clubs I've ever been to. The music scene is truly off the hook. It was the norm to stay out dancing with my partner in crime, Del, until 5 am every single night, get a few hours of sleep, and then head to the tradeshow booth looking like a zombie. It was worth it though to feel that amazing music pulsing through your veins as you boogied like there was no tomorrow next to all sorts of nice kilt-wearing locals (even though I had no clue what they were saying).

The second is when I learned a funny new phrase while listening to the radio. That's right, kids, this was before iPods were even invented (gasp!), so I had to turn on the hotel room radio for some listening pleasure. I found this one station out of London that played the same awesome music from the dance clubs, along with some funny DJs carrying on witty banter. They were interviewing a female guest and were having a big debate about when and why women throw a show. I kept listening and listening, trying to get my arms around what this "throwing a show" actually was. Then it dawned on me. . . . It's the UK slag for faking an orgasm!

I thought it was brilliant and have since stolen that terminology when referencing fancy meals that looked as if you slaved away in the kitchen for 48 hours when really it came together rather effortlessly in minutes. Perception is reality, right? I served up one of my "fake out" meals on Friday and wanted to share it with you because it's great for the holidays when you're short on time but want to serve something special. If you can boil water, you can make this. And people will moan in delight over it — but they will most certainly NOT be throwing a show.

You basically take a pork tenderloin and wrap it in pancetta (because bacon really does make everything taste better). While that's cooking in the oven, you make a beautiful sauce of sauteed mushrooms, onions and canned tomatoes cooked down with some Marsala wine and finished off with a bit of cream. It's delicious and satisfying, especially on a cold Winter's night. I just served this up with a very clean and quick side of linguini in a lemon-parlsey sauce which is the perfect acidic foil to the rich main course. So if you feel the pressure to put on an elaborate dinner. Don't. Just "throw a show" with this one. Trust me, you'll look like a culinary rock star, but without all the exhaustion, stress and burns.

Oh yeah, and the third thing is when I crawled into my hotel room two and a half hours before my 7:00 am flight. My taxi was coming in 30 minutes so I figured I would just stay up. I was packed, dressed and sitting on the edge of my bed with about 10 minutes to spare. I laid back — with both feet still planted on the ground — and woke up six hours later.

Pork Tenderloin with Pancetta and Mushroom Marsala Sauce
Slightly adapted from Urban Italian
[Note: This is a fantastic cookbook with delicious, no-fail recipes that can be made in a normal kitchen. A great gift for anyone who loves to cook or wants to try to.]

For the Pork:
1 - 1 1/2 lb pork tenderloin, silver skin removed
1/5 lb pancetta, sliced paper thin
1/2 tsp fresh thyme
1/2 tsp fresh ground black pepper
2 Tbsp olive oil
For the Sauce:
1 medium onion (about 1 cup), vertically sliced
1/2 lb mixed mushrooms (about 2 cups), sliced
1 Tbsp olive oil
1/2 cup Marsala wine
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 14 oz can of good quality peeled plum tomatoes, roughly chopped
1 Tbsp fresh thyme leaves
1/4 tsp each salt and pepper
1 Tbsp chopped parsley

To prepare the Pork:
Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Lay a row of pancetta rounds, overlapping 3 across, along the length of the cutting board (so it's like a bed of pancetta). Sprinkle pepper and thyme on top of the pancetta and then lay the tenderloin in the middle. Roll the pancetta slices around the loin, pressing the pancetta against the pork so that it's wrapped well -- like a Christmas package! If for some reason the pancetta won't stick to the pork, you can tie it with butcher's string.
Heat the olive oil in a large saute pan over high heat until it's smoking. Add the pancetta-wrapped tenderloin and cook, rotating and turning periodically, until the meat is browned on all sides, about 5 minutes.
Remove the meat to a roasting pan and place in the over on the middle rack. Roast the tenderloin 12-14 minutes for medium rare and about 15 minutes for medium. Remove from the oven and place on a rack or plate to rest for 10 minutes before slicing.
To prepare the Sauce:
Return the saute pan with the reserved pork cooking juices to the stove over medium heat. Add the onions and stir to coat. Allow the onions to caramelize a bit, about 2-3 minutes.
Add the mushrooms and turn the heat to high. Add the olive oil. The pan will still be fairly dry (mushrooms always soak up whatever's in the pan), and there will be caramelized bits on the bottom; those will help flavor the sauce, but you want the mushrooms to saute not burn. Allow the mushrooms and onions to caramelize a bit, about 2-3 minutes.
Add the Marsala wine and mix well. The wine may flame a bit if you're cooking on a gas stove, so be careful but the flame will subside in a few seconds. Continue cooking until the alcohol has almost evaporated and everything looks all glazy (about 30 seconds).
Add 1/3 cup of water, the heavy cream, tomatoes, thyme, salt and pepper and continue cooking until everything has combined and the sauce has reduced to a thick consistency, about 10 minutes more.
Remove the pan from the heat and add the parsley, mixing to combine.
To finish the dish:
Slice the pork into 1/2-inch-thick rounds and remove to serving platter.
Pour the sauce over the top. Sprinkle with a tad of sea salt and serve immediately.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A Sticky Situation

I'm trying to get a website up for my marketing company by the end of the year. I would've plugged my business just now if I had a website to direct you to. Trust me, the irony of being a marketing company for the past 4.5 years yet somehow not having a website to market your marketing company has not escaped me. Alas as the deadline draws near, I decided to make homemade peppermint marshmallows instead.


Seriously, I was asking myself that same question when I was elbow deep in quite possibly the stickiest substance on the planet. Clearly there are only two possible answers: (1) I was unknowingly hypnotized into thinking I was Martha Stewart or my friend Marina (which are easily interchangeable), or ( 2) I'm a total procrastinator. Since the first scenario is possible but not very probable, I guess it's time to call the kettle black. But really it isn't my fault. Procrastination runs in my family. My mom has it really bad and there is loads of evidence to prove my brother and I both carry her dawdling gene. Let's just say I don't think we ever got more than 2 hours sleep before a paper was due. I seriously almost stopped writing this post right now to download a song from iTunes that's been swimming around in my head, as if a mere 225 words has exhausted me and I need a break [read: procrastination from my procrastination!]. Everyone knows a trip to iTunes can easily result in 2 hours of your life disappearing. And I swear to the Higher Being that my mom just called me at midnight EST to tell me she was baking cookies for a party tomorrow. I told her I was writing about our family's procrastination problem. Without missing a beat she said, "It's not that I'm a procrastinator, Holley. I just have other things to do!" So in my case, I guess I had to make marshmallows instead of writing copy for a website to promote my business which pays my mortgage.

Anyway, let me just say it was an adventure. I think I had a slight fantasy of myself as this domestic goddess who would be genteelly whipping up something as ludicrous as marshmallows and looking ultra hot in a retro frilly apron. Instead I was sporting confectioners sugar literally from head to toe and was in a state of panic trying to ensure the marshmallow batter didn't eat my mixer. It was like a scene out of The Blob.

But I did it! I wish I had more pictures to document my kooky accomplishment, but at a certain point both hands got covered in marshmallowy goop and were unable to grab the camera anymore. Honestly, it would be great to have an extra set of hands for this project, just to disconnect the beaters from the mixer and scrape the bowl clean when pouring the mixture into the pan (which I can tell you is a losing battle).

The first trial went well, but was certainly a learning experience. I liken it to the first few pancakes you pour on the griddle. They're going in trash as a sacrifice for the subsequent near flawless batches. I learned you really can't have too much confectioners sugar on the scene and wet hands help repel the unmerciful viscous matter. I also learned that peppermint extract is astonishingly strong. I mean one minuscule drop far exceeds the efficacy of any breath mint on the market so I'm thinking about carrying a small bottle in my purse from now on. Seriously, it's like a bottle of Binaca exploded in your mouth.

I got bold after the first batch and signed up for a second. Maybe I was just furthering my procrastination as these pillowy treats do need to sit for eight hours to "dry." As predicted, they were much better. I mean they probably tasted the same — well, that actually may not be true because I realized later I forgot to add salt to the first batch — but they certainly looked better. Although potent with peppermint, I do think they'd be the perfect perk for your mug of hot cocoa. And don't they make adorable gifts for my clients?

I guess now it's time to get back to copywriting for my website. Let me just first download that cool song I heard today from iTunes. . . .

Homemade Peppermint Marshmallows
By Paula Deen

1 cup confectioners sugar, plus extra
2 1/2 Tbsp unflavored gelatin (3 envelopes)
1 cup cold water, divided
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 cup light corn syrup
1/4 tsp salt
1 Tbsp peppermint extract (the original recipe calls for 1 1/2 Tbsp but that just seems beyond excessive)

1. Generously sprinkle enough confectioners sugar to coat well one 12x8-in glass baking dish (about 1/2 cup). In medium bowl, combine gelatin and 1/2 cup cold water. Allow to stand for 10 minutes to soften.
2. In a small, heavy saucepan over low heat, combine granulated sugar, corn syrup, remaining 1/2 cup water, and salt. Stir until sugar dissolves. Use a wet pastry brush to wash down the sides of pan as needed to prevent sugar crystals. Increase heat to high; attach a candy thermometer to saucepan. Cook the syrup without stirring until temperature reaches 244 degrees (firm ball stage). Immediately remove pan from heat.
3. Pour hot syrup into medium bowl with softened gelatin, beating slowly at low speed with a mixer until fluffy. [The recipe calls for the use of a standing mixer with a whisk attachment, but I just used my trusty electric hand-held mixer with the regular beaters and it was adequate.] Increase speed to high and beat until mixture triples in volume. This should take about 15 minutes. The mixture will be very thick and white. Add peppermint extract, beating to blend. Pour mixture into prepared pan. Sprinkle additional confectioners sugar over the to and press into marshmallow mixture with wet hands. Sprinkle again with confectioners sugar.
4. Let stand uncovered at least 8 hours. Run knife around the edges of the pan until it starts to lift away from the sides. Add confectioners sugar as needed. Turn out onto a cutting board and cut marshmallows into squares using a dry, hot knife. Dust with confectioners sugar to take away any stickiness. Yields: approximately 3 dozen marshmallows.

Friday, December 10, 2010

A Fresh Coat of Paint

It's the most wonderful time of the year. . . .

That song has been swimming around in my head since early this morning when I played hooky from work and baked cookies. That's right, in addition to December being an awesome month, it's also the cookie time of year.

While I'd never call myself a baker, I'm happy to wear that hat when the holidays roll around. I'm sure it's because I remember fondly decorating Christmas cookies with my mom and brother when we were little (and not so little). As a massive Dallas Cowboys fan, my brother gravitated to the star-shaped sugar cookies and was a little heavy handed on the silver sprinkles, if I do say so.

Anyway, since my family is now 3,000 miles away, I think I enjoy baking cookies during the holidays as some type of culinary bridge to help decrease the distance. Even though I love classics, I think I really love updated classics. You know, a little somethin' somethin' for my traditional cookie. I found it in a recent recipe for the beloved sugar cookie — but adorned with candied ginger and orange zest. It's what a sugar cookie would look like if it was dressed up for a fancy night out on the town.

Whereas my mom was an icing expert, it just seems too complicated to me. OK, that sounds dumb because icing has got to be one of the easiest things to make — ever. I think my real issue is that I'm just not a fan of icing, so it seems like such a bother. I'd rather forego all the confectioners sugar and food coloring and invest my energy in the foundation of the cookie. Therefore, no Plain Jane sugar cookie would cut it, and this recipe seemed like it could definitely stand on its own.

These beauties are, well, beautiful. I was quickly charmed by their lovely pale gold color studded with tiny bits of crystalized ginger that almost look like stained glass and freckles of vibrant orange zest. It's your favorite sugar cookie but with a fresh coat of paint.

You definitely take note of these cookies. And you definitely can't stop eating them. Maybe it's the ginger that hooks you. . . or the delicate buttery base . . . or perhaps the perfectly crumbly texture that melts in your mouth.

I feel no need to solve that mystery, only to enjoy them and this truly magical time of year.

Wishing y'all the happiest of holidays!

Ginger-Studded Sugar Cookies
from Food and Wine

2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
2 cups all-purpose flour
Pinch of salt
1 cup confectioners sugar
1/4 cup plus 2 Tbsp crystallized ginger
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp orange zest, finely grated

1. With an electric mixer, beat butter with the flour and salt at low speed until smooth. Add the confectioners sugar, ginger, vanilla, and orange zest and beat at low speed until smooth. Divid the dough in half and form two logs. Wrap dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm, at least 1 hour.
2. Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees and line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Working in batches if necessary, slice 1/4 inch thick rounds from the dough logs and arrange on cookie sheets 1 inch apart. Bake until lightly golden, approximately 14 minutes. Transfer to a rack to cool.
Yields: 3 dozen cookies.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Italian Grits

I'm a grits girl. What blows my mind is people who aren't. If you haven't tried it, let me start out by saying it is not cream of wheat, even though that's how non-grit eaters often associate it. That's about as annoying as asking for a Dr. Pepper at a restaurant and the server responding with, "We don't have that but I can bring you a root beer." Those two things are about as similar as milk and OJ. Anyway, I often get a kick out of non-Southerns staring at the white blob on their virginal plate or bowl, pushing it around and looking at the veterans in search of clues on what to do with it. While some add sugar [Sacrilege!], I believe a little salt and pepper and a pad of butter is nothing shy of perfection.

Grits are made from ground dried hominy, the puffed up corn kernels resulting from ears of corn soaked in lye to remove the husks. While I recognize that lye is poisonous and corrosive, all I'm saying it try it before you knock it. After all, it's not like I'm asking people to throw back some souse. And eating it at a hotel breakfast buffet in Detroit doesn't count.

The irony to me is that people go ga-ga for polenta, which is basically corn grits. That makes polenta a definite kissing cousin of grits. And if you've never had grits, you probably don't know what a kissing cousin is. That's what we call distant relatives we know well enough to greet with a kiss. They're totally in the same family and are equally as versatile and delicious.

I figured if I could ease some more people into the polenta realm they'd be nice and warmed up to try grits in the near future. So while I'll save my grits recipe post for another time, I wanted to give you two recent polenta dishes that would be awesome comfort food during Winter and also are easy enough to whip up over the holidays when you want to impress people without having to spend two days in the kitchen. Just think of polenta as your Rice Krispie treats in your back pocket, which has to be one of the easiest and most beloved desserts out there. You can basically sit in the kitchen reading US Weekly and drinking a glass of wine while your polenta is practically making its delicious self. And no one has to know!

The first recipe is polenta served with a mushroom and sausage ragu. In this scenario, polenta is a great alternative to pasta. For the same amount of time and effort, polenta makes things interesting and again has that super comfort food vibe we all love when the temps start dipping down and you want to be plopped in front of a fire. Polenta IS your toasty fire of comfort.

The second recipe is for a polenta cake. True, I've never heard of a grits cake but that won't stop me from advocating this incarnation of ground up corn. Think orange-scented pound cake but not as dense and with a wonderful texture. It's a homey, countrified cake you can eat in flannel and jeans, not something you feel the need to put on white gloves and sip tea out of fine bone china. And you know I'm not about fussy desserts that require a lot of fuss in the kitchen, so this can definitely be on your short list of "go-to" recipes when you need dessert in a pinch.

I happened to still be able to find fresh berries and stone fruit when I served this, but you could easily stew some frozen berries with a little sugar and lemon peel as a lovely compote. Of course it doesn't suffer from a scoop of vanilla ice cream either. And if you happen to find yourself eating the polenta cake for breakfast the next day, again no one has to know!

Mushroom and Sausage Ragu with Polenta

1 1/2 Tbsp olive oil, divided
8 oz hot Italian sausage
1/2 cup chopped onion
1 lb cremini mushrooms, sliced
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1/4 tsp kosher salt, divided
1 (14.5 oz) can no-salt added diced tomatoes, undrained
2 1/2 cups, fat-free, lower sodium chicken broth
1 1/2 cups water
1 cup uncooked dry polenta
4 oz lower fat cream cheese
1 Tbsp butter

Heat skillet over medium-high heat. Add 1 1/2 tsp oil to the pan; swirl to coat. Remove casings from sausage and add sausage to pan; saute 3 minutes or until browned, stirring to crumble. Remove sausage from pan.
Add 1 Tbsp oil to pan and swirl to coat. Add onions, sauteing for 3 minutes and stirring occasionally. Add mushrooms, sauteing for 4 minutes and stirring occasionally. Add garlic and saute for 1 minutes. Stir in sausage, 1/8 tsp salt and can of tomatoes; bring to a simmer. Reduce heat to medium and simmer gently for 15 minutes.
Bring broth and 1 1/2 cups water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Add polenta, stirring well. Reduce heat to medium and simmer 20 minutes or until thick, stirring occasionally. Add more stock if the polenta gets too dry. Stir in remaining 1/8 tsp salt, cream cheese and butter. Serve with sausage mixture. Yields: 4 servings.

Orange Polenta Cake with Vanilla-Scented Blackberries and Nectarines

1 1/4 cups all purpose flour
3/4 cup medium-fine polenta or organic cornmeal
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 cup plus 2 Tbsp sugar
2 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature
2 tsp packed finely grated orange peel
4 large eggs, room temperature
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 cup whole-milk plain yogurt
4 large nectarines (or plums), halved, pitted and cut into 1/3-inch wedges
2 cups blackberries
6 Tbsp sugar
1/2 vanilla bean, split lengthwise

Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Butter 9x5x3-in metal loaf pan. Dust with flour and tap out excess. Whisk 1 1/4 cup flour, polenta, baking powder and salt in medium bowl. Using electric mixer, beat sugar, butter and orange peel in large bowl until fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating well after each one. Beat in vanilla extract and add flour mixture in 3 additions alternately with yogurt in 2 additions. Beat just until blended after each addition. Spread batter evenly in pan and bake until golden and tester inserted into center comes out clean, 50-55 minutes. Transfer to rack; cool in pan 15 minutes. Run knife around cake edges to loosen. Invert cake on rack then invert again on rack (top side up). Cool completely. Combine fruit and sugar in medium bowl. Scrape in seeds from vanilla beach and add to fruit in bowl. Toss to coat and let stand at room temperature until juices form, tossing occasionally, about an hour. To serve, cut cake crosswise into 1/2 inch thick slices and serve with vanilla ice cream and fruit.
Note: Cake can be made 1 day ahead. Wrap in plastic wrap and store at room temperature. Fruit can be made up to 3 hours ahead. Cover and chill.