Archive for December, 2009

Cookies, Cookies, Cookies

Monday, December 28th, 2009
dec 09 025

 The only way I could stop myself from baking cookies this year during the holidays was to leave the house.  If I was at home I was baking.  From Thanksgiving until Christmas if I had a spare 20 – 30 minutes I was thinking “hmm. I have time to make some dough” or “I can bake one more batch”.  This also counted starting a batch at 11:30 p.m. (more on that later)  You name it I baked it.  All our family favorites from “kissed” peanut butter cookies (photo above), molasses sugar cookies, snickerdoodle biscuits, sugar cookies, gingerbread cookies, chocolate sliced cookies – just to name a few.  I don’t ever need an excuse to bake cookies.  I have cookie cutters (about 100) for every occassion and no special day at all (think octopus, train, lighthouse,  football, etc).  But this year, I seemed particularly driven.  The funny part is that I discovered I was not alone…

This year more than ever when I got together with friends and family they all had similar cookie baking stories.  Whether they were making them for the school gingerbread decorating, the family potluck or gifts for the neighbors, everyone was baking.  Was this because it was so cold?  My aunt (who rarely bakes, and gave us a beautiful container full of homemade sweets)  thought so.  We really had our share of cold and rainy days in the Bay Area and yes, I prefer baking cookies with my kids in a warm house in the late afternoon, over bundling and braving the weather at the park, again.  Another reason could’ve been the economy.  People tend to bake and eat comfort foods more than in the past.  What is more comforting than homemade cookies with milk?  My final reason is because it’s thoughful and a gift of time.  There seems to be a return to homemade gifts.  All the magazines talked about “green” gifting and things to make from the heart.  This year not only did we make cookies to send to relatives, we also make cookie gifts for neighbors, friends and teachers.  Here are a few of the packaging ideas that we used or received that are inexpensive and also green and fun to do with kids especially (and can be remembered for any time of year):

flower pot – filled with baked good and tied with a ribbon.  Kids can even decorate the pot with paint, stickers, glitter.

glass  jars – Ball, cookie, canning, french – in all shapes and sizes.  I found them for as little as $3.99 at the Container Store

dish cloths/tea towels – cookies or breads wrapped in pretty fabric that can be reused for dish or hand drying

china plates and bowls – scour flea markets, estate sales and china outlets for single, one-of-a-kind plates for unique presentation

With all the baking, gifting and shipping of cookies, I actually got burned out on cookies mid-way between Hannukah and Christmas.  Even my kids were a bit tired of helping mom and asked “why are we making more cookies?”  However at this point I had already committed to bring cookies to a few events and a friends’ house for the kids to decorate.  Starting a batch of cookies at 11 p.m. after a long day and evening of holiday shopping, wrapping and merriment did not produce my best results.  See below.  I was impatient and put the butter in the microwave to soften.  I knew it had gone too soft, but used it anyways.  As you can see the cookies spread and the results were more plump than pretty – although still just as tasty.  I already had some gingerbread men as well as other sucessful cookies to bring, so I brought them for the kids to decorate anyways.  They didn’t care.  It’s amazing what some frosting, sprinkles and raisins can do to transform the “failed” cookie.  Here’s a tip when decorating cookies, or really anything with kids – use a muffin tin lined with muffin cups.  This works great to hold a variety of small objects, in this case sugars, sprinkles, raisins, currents, marshmallows, coconut, died fruit, and candy cane pieces.  It makes it easy for kids to share, there’s less waste and mess than diving into separate bowls and clean up is quick and easy. oops! too

 

oops! The plump cookies (before)

oops! The plump cookies (before)

 

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decorating tray

 

sugar and gingerbread after kids' decorated

plump cookies with gingerbread people after decorating

Since I was getting tired of cookies I wondered about others.  Think of the teachers, who while appreciative of homemade sweets probably get overwhelmed by sweets at the holidays.  I’ve always been meaning to make cookie dough mixes in jars and this year I tried it.  I liked the idea of short cutting the recipe and not shaping and baking more cookies.  I also liked the idea that the recipient could bake their cookies whenever they had a craving or wanted to share with others.  However I learned there is an art to creating the cookie mix and making it look presentable.  My first attempt, didn’t look as neat as my third.  Those pretty layers were tough to see.  I went online and found some tips that really helped.  The most important being :  flour and white sugar seeps down to other layers of ingredients, so layer those at the bottom and on top or between packed brown sugar.  Common sense, but easy to forget, again when you’re working late at night –  it’s easy to layer before thinking (and there’s no going back).

Mocha Chocolate Chip Cookie Mix

Mocha Chocolate Chip Cookie Mix

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O’ Hannukah with Latke Recipe

Tuesday, December 15th, 2009
Our Impromptu "Lights"

Our Impromptu "Lights"

So it’s a bit confusing around my house with all the holiday festivities and celebrations.  Anytime you have a 3 and 6 year old there’s bound to be questions and comedy.  There’s been lots of talk and queries about God, Santa, Hannukah, presents, the North Pole, etc.  Everything from “Why don’t all kids get presents since Santa can make as many toys as he wants and gives them for free?”  (good point) to “We’re Jewish right?.  You make latkes and we go to a party and play dreidle”.  (that’s true, but…)

Like many I like to use food as a way of celebrating and teaching different holidays, cultures, and history.  There’s always a story and a food for most of life’s tradition, beliefs and gatherings.  However now my son thinks our family is all religions, cultures and ancestry because I cook it all.  Not necessarily a bad thing, but he (and I) needs some guidance.  I ordered a book (not a cookbook) entitled One World, Many Religions by Mary Osbourne to hopefully give me some more educated answers about religions, faith, and beliefs around the globe.  I need something more than the simple story about the oil lasting for 8 days and now here’s a latke. 

Thankfully other children in my son’s school and circle of friends are noticing different ways family’s celebrate too.  I hear them ask “Why don’t we have a Menorah/Christmas Tree?”  So we’ve been able to share in some friends’ candle lighting and dreidle games (and note our impromptu “lights” above) and also have ornaments for those to put on our tree that don’t have one at their home. 

Here’s the latke recipe that launched a thousand questions. 

Potato Latkes

(from Petit Appetit: Eat, Drink and Be Merry)

Wanting to reduce the amount of oil and frying in traditional latkes, I developed a version that’s finished in the oven to give extra crispness without extra fat and grease. These are great accompanied by applesauce and sour cream.

 Makes 12 servings

 

1½ pounds (about 2) organic russet potatoes, scrubbed and shredded (4 cups)

1 medium yellow onion, shredded (½ cup)

2 medium shallots, minced (1 tablespoon)

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 large cage-free organic egg

2 (6-inch-squares) whole wheat matzo, broken into pieces

Freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

 

Toss potatoes, onion, shallots, and salt together in a medium bowl. Transfer to a sieve set over a large bowl and let drain for about 15 minutes. Squeeze potato mixture by handfuls over a glass bowl to release excess moisture (some moisture should remain) and put potato mixture in a separate bowl. Potato liquid will have a pasty-white sediment (starch) in the bottom of the glass bowl that you can see. Carefully pour off and discard top liquid and add starchy portion to the potato mixture. Stir in egg.

Put matzo pieces into a food processor (or see below) and process to coarse crumbs. Sprinkle crumbs and pepper over potato mixture and toss to combine. Cover and refrigerate until matzo is softened, 15 to 20 minutes.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Coat a baking sheet with oil.

Heat olive oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Stir the potato mixture. Using a ¼-cup measuring cup, scoop potato mixture and add to pan without crowding. Press with a spatula to flatten to about a 3-inch cake. Cook until crispy and golden, about 2 to 3 minutes per side. Transfer the latkes to prepared baking sheet. Continue cooking, using additional oil to prevent sticking, if needed. Once all are cooked and on baking sheet, transfer to the oven and bake until heated through, about 10 minutes.

 

Kid’s Help vs. Processor. Instead of using the processor to make matzo crumbs, put matzo in a plastic bag and have kids roll with a rolling pin to break and crumble. Of course the project takes longer, but is more fun.

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O’ Christmas Tree with Apple Crisps Recipe

Tuesday, December 8th, 2009
measuring a sapling

measuring a sapling

We talked about a tree quite a bit this year…a big tree, a living tree, just a kids’ tree?  I was thinking a big living tree that we could have outside with lights and be able to plant in the yard and watch it grow year after year.  My daughter, being 3 doesn’t remember much about the previous years of trees (or the holidays for that matter) so she thought planting a tree sounded good.  However when my son realized this would be no ornaments on the big tree he was dissappointed.  He really enjoys unwrapping the ornaments every year.  And I must admit, I would miss this ritual too. 

We do not have a stylized or as I say “Pottery Barn” tree.  A few years ago I was taken back by friends who had an amazing tree of all silver matching ornaments.  It was beautiful, but there was no story or history.  Ours would not be in a magazine or catalog.  By this I mean our ornaments are a hodgepodge.  When I was little my mom always put individual little trees in my sister and my bedrooms.  Each year we would carefully select a new ornament and add it to our collection.  The collection is quite eclectic (although I chose many mini wooden angels) and international (ornaments made from all over the world vs. today’s all made in China).  These ornaments now hang on the big family tree, as well as some of them were handed down to my kids for their own trees.  Hoping they too will enjoy collecting.  This makes some of the ornaments 30 – 40 plus years old.  There are even a few my grandmother beaded from the 1950’s.

This year we decided to go to a sustainable Christmas tree farm in Petaluma and cut our own.  My husband grew up in the mountains where you’d always cut your own (no lot or farm needed).  However we’d always gone to the local school or tree lot.  I like the idea of cutting one tree and knowing another will be planted.  I’m also hoping it’s going to last and not turn brown too quickly.

Our family had a great time on our tree outing …hiding in the trees, measuring up the perfect tree, seeing farm animals, visiting Santa, collecting “tree cookies”, using a saw, etc…  I must admit though I had to remind myself that more trees would be planted.  I heard a dad comically yell “Timber” at the top of his lungs and thought of the truffala trees.  If you have little ones you know about the Dr. Suess book entitled “The Lorax“.  When seeing the stumps of the pine trees, I kept thinking of the poor Truffala trees which were hacked down to make thneeds (which of course nobody needs).  But I kept telling myself this was different.  True, no one needs a Christmas tree.  But they bring great joy and memories to children and adults alike.  Plus these would be recycled (make into mulch) and new seeds planted in their place.

Truffala Stump Reminders

Truffala Stump RemindersThe Lorax

We got the tree home, after many miles of hoping the tree rope was tied well enough to the top of the car.  We made hot apple cider and snacked on apple chips (see recipe below) and carefully unwrapped the ornaments one at a time and told the history of each ornament.  It was all going so well, until I realized my 3 year old was unwrapping (aka ripping and destroying) a paper Santa head ornament.  It’s hard to explain to a child that the ornament was wrapped in paper, but also made of paper (35 year old paper) and shouldn’t have been unwrapped.  So there’s one less in the collection.  

cider

Simply Heat: apple juice, orange wedges, cinnamon stick, and clove

apple chips ready for the oven

apple chips ready for the oven

Apple Crisps

(page 47 from Petit Appetit: Eat, Drink and Be Merry)

An alternative to boring potato chips, this simple treat satisfies a child’s need for crunch. Using a mandoline provides convenience and accurate cuts for even baking. However a careful, steady knife works as well. The apples crisp in the low heat, which dries out the moisture. Once in the oven these need no attention (just remember to turn off the oven overnight), until it’s time to pack them (or eat them) in the morning.

 

Makes about 48 apple crisps; 4 (12-chip) servings

 

2 tablespoons evaporated cane juice

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

2 large organic apples such as Fuji or Braeburn

 

Preheat oven to 200 degrees F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside.

Stir together evaporated cane juice, cinnamon, and nutmeg in a small bowl.

Using a mandoline or a steady hand and a knife, cut the apple vertically in to 1/8-inch-thick rounds. You do not need to core or peel the apple. The seeds will fall out or can easily be removed from apple slices after cutting.

 

Place apple slices on prepared baking sheets in a single layer and sprinkle with cinnamon mixture. Bake in the middle of the oven for 1½ hours. Rotate pans and cook for 1 hour more. Turn off heat and leave in the oven overnight if apples are not dry and crisp. Loosen chips with a spatula to remove from parchment paper.

 

Kids Korner

Shake it Up! The easiest way to lightly and evenly sprinkle sugars and spices is to transfer to a spice shaker. Having a specially marked shaker for cinnamon and sugar saves time when making other snacks such as cinnamon toast or spicing up plain yogurt. This is also a “neat” way to get children to help with decorating and flavoring tasks.

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The Mystery of the Dissappearing Kale…

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2009

Someone’s been eating our kale…and it’s just about gone.  We have a container garden on our deck.  I’ve been amazed by how much we’ve been able to eat and enjoy from this experiment – lettuce, strawberries, tomatoes, peas, beans, herbs, etc…  Once the peas were done, we planted some kale and chard starts.  It was all growing well, about 6 – 8 weeks in, until we noticed the leaves of the kale dissappearing.  Take a look…

eaten kale

The reason we have the plants on our deck is because of our deer friends and other critters that live around the house.  My daughter found a colorful caterpiller on the radishes one day and said “He (the caterpiller) can have the tops and we can have the bottoms.  We need to share”.  This was a very nice sentiment and acceptable because there was only critter.  Of course the garden is organic (no spraying or funny stuff) so I suppose anyone is welcome.

the investigator

But the kale was different.  And why is this creature just have a taste for kale?  What’s wrong with the beans and chard?  My son went out and examined more closely and found the culprits.  Many of them.  Over 40!  They are cute little looping caterpillars that blend right in to the kale leaves.  My son was so proud and just kept pulling more and more off the plant.  We decided on a relocation program to the park below our house.  My son assured me it would take them a year to get back up to our house.  We’ll see… 

the culprits

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