Thursday, July 14, 2016

Blackberry-Strawberry Balsamic Jam

The debate as to whether title this post Blackberry-Strawberry Balsamic Jam or Christmas in July raged on in my mind for hours I assure you.  "I've been having a year", or polite speak for I'm completely over "everything" and can we please move on already.  I'm hoping it's a case of riding out the bad in order to truly appreciate the good.  The weather here goes from tolerable to "welcome to the eternal inferno" in a matter of seconds it seems and I've been struggling to find my get up and go (because it got up and went ages ago).  The fruit orchards that surround the area I live have little tolerance for my journey to "find" myself.  Don't worry though, that fruit got a heated surprise: a bubbling cauldron of sugar and aged balsamic vinegar, bwuahaha.  (Wow, I really need to get a life or a therapist, not sure which?)

Probably the therapist, since I picked a 106-degree day to spend perched in front of the stove stirring pots of jam.  I always start out thinking, oh a couple jars should do me and before I know it I have three cases of jam staring at me and a few days missing.  I added some jars of Peach, Nectarine, Satsuma Plum, Blackberry-White Pepper, and Strawberry to the line-up for good measure.  Then I got to thinking about it, I made way more than I need for the year so I guess it's time to pawn some of this bounty off on kindly folks.  Then I got to thinking well the weather did drop down to a pleasant 102; might as well fire up the oven and bake cookies to send to the kindly jam recipients.  Poof, I think we now have Christmas in July.  (Poof, internal memo to sign up for that brain transplant when they become available straight away because mine is on the fritz these days!)

Strawberry-Blackberry Balsamic Jam
1 pound strawberries, hulled and cut in half
1 pound blackberries
16 ounces sugar
3 ounces balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon low-sugar powdered pectin (optional)

Add the strawberries, blackberries, sugar, and vinegar to a 4-quart saucepan; bring to a boil on medium-high heat.  Add the pectin at this point if using.  Turn the heat down a little if it is boiling over or scorching.  Boil and stir the jam for 15 minutes if using pectin, for 20-25 if not using pectin.  I usually prefer a looser setting jam so I forgo it, but it's up to you.  Skim the top of the jam for any "jam scum" as I like to affectionately call it (whitish foam also works) before placing in jars if you want a cleaner finished product.

Sterilize (3) 8-ounce glass jars and bands.  Also have on hand (3) jar lid seals.  Place the hot jam into the clean jars; wipe rims with a clean towel, place lids and bands on and process in a hot water bath for 10 minutes.  The unopened jars will last for up to one year if stored in a cool dark place.  For more detailed processing instructions you may find this post helpful Apricot and Garam Masala Jam. It you plan on eating all the jam within a few weeks, you can skip hot water processing and store it in the fridge.

There is something quite therapeutic about rolling out cookie dough, I find it hard to even explain.  Recipe for the chocolate crinkles if you so desire, these never fail to bring smiles.

There is something even more therapeutic about scarfing down a Peanut Butter and Blackberry-Strawberry Balsamic Jam, Oatmeal Shortbread Sandwich that is even harder to explain.  Actually I don't think I can ever eat a PB&J on bread again and ever look at it the same way again.   Funny how life changes us, for the better I hope. 



Thursday, May 26, 2016

Pumpkin, Brown Butter, Pine Nut-Rosemary Brittle Cookies

"Sometimes you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find a real prince."  This saying fits perfectly with the journey these cookies went on before they landed here and were deemed worthy by the Queen to set before thou.  I baked these Soft Pumpkin Cookies with Brown Butter Buttercream and Pine Nut-Rosemary Brittle for Mother's Day gifts and to say they were received in royal fashion is an understatement.  I guess eating all those ugly frogs to get to a real prince was worth the treadmill time after all.

Proclamation from the Queen:  "Go forth loyal subjects and make your cookie calorie consumption for the weekend count."  Don't be like the Queen who will shove any old frog in her mouth for the benefit of her subjects.  (The shame is real.)

Soft Pumpkin Cookies with Brown Butter Buttercream and Pine Nut-Rosemary Brittle

1/2 cup unsalted butter
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature 
3 cups powdered sugar 
2-3 tablespoons heavy cream 
Pinch sea salt 

1.  Place 1/2 cup of the butter in a small pot and place on a burner on medium-low heat, let cook for 7-10 minutes until the butter is nice and browned. Place the pot in the fridge (or freezer) until the butter is firm again. 

2.  Mix and bake cookie dough while the butter is firming up. 

3/4 cup (12 tablespoons) unsalted butter, room temperature 
2/3 cup granulated sugar 
2/3 cup light brown sugar, packed 
1/2 cup pumpkin puree 
2 eggs 
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour 
1 teaspoon baking soda 
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon 
1/2 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice 
1/2 teaspoon salt 
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract 

1.  Heat oven to 375 degrees F. 

2.  Combine in a large mixing bowl butter, granulated sugar, and brown sugar, mix on low speed until well incorporated. Add pumpkin puree, eggs, flour, baking soda, cinnamon, pumpkin pie spice, salt, and vanilla. Stir well until combined. (If you have a whole can of puree you can freeze the remainder or use it in pancakes or waffles.) 

3.  Scoop heaping tablespoon sized balls of dough onto baking sheets that are prepared with parchment or silicone mats. Place balls a few inches apart, about 12 per sheet. Should get about 48 cookies from the dough. (A cookie scoop works really well for a soft dough like this one.)

4.  Bake one tray of cookies on the middle rack of the oven for 8-10 minutes, repeat for rest of trays. The cookie will just barely spring back when ready. Place cookies on cooling rack to completely cool, or just lift off the whole sheet of parchment and leave it on the counter to cool.

5.  Remove browned butter from fridge and add to the bowl of a mixer along with the additional 4 tablespoons of room temperature butter and start beating with a whisk attachment on low speed. Once softened add the powder sugar a little bit a time, starting and stopping the mixer to fully incorporate. Add the salt and cream and mix until the frosting is nice and fluffy. Add the frosting to a disposable piping bag with the tip snipped off and pipe on top of the cooled cookies. 

Pine Nut-Rosemary Brittle: 
1/4 cup light corn syrup 
1/2 cup granulated sugar 
1/4 cup water 
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened 
2.25 ounces (about 1/2 cup) pine nuts, toasted 
Pinch of flake sea salt 
1/2 teaspoon fresh rosemary, finely minced 

1.  In a small skillet toast pine nuts on medium-low heat until slightly golden. Remove from heat and let cool. 

2.  In a small pot add the corn syrup, water, and granulated sugar. Bring to a boil on medium-high heat and let cook until a candy thermometer reaches 300 degrees or until it turns light amber in color. Whisk in butter and fold in nuts, salt, and rosemary. Pour mixture onto a baking sheet lined with a silicone mat or parchment and smooth to a thin layer with a silicone spatula. Once cool, break or cut into small pieces and place on top of the frosted cookies.

Go forth, enjoy your weekend, hang out in the company of some real princes for a change, you deserve it.  

The Queen!

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Southwest road trip - it's not Italy, but....

One of the things I’ve been focusing on this year is flexibility. Adapting faster and letting worries fall away quicker. I’m nowhere near mastering any of these things, but I feel like I’ve at least taken strides. Last year I knew that our 25th wedding anniversary was fast approaching and I knew exactly how I wanted to celebrate it.

Sometimes though our plans and our budgets don't exist on the same plane.  A decision was made that just hanging out surrounded by nature and our two favorite four-legged friends would make us the happiest.  We rented an RV from a local rental place and headed out of California, drove through Nevada and headed for Utah and Arizona.  We spent 10 days driving and hiking sun up to sunset at Zion, Bryce, Grand Canyon, Arches, and Canyonlands Needles & Island in the Sky.  Imagine our delight when we pulled up to the gate at Zion and they told us that all the National Parks were free for the week in celebration of their 100th anniversary.  (I believe it is the equivalent of winning the money challenged folks lottery!  Yes!!)

Things have changed so fast and in so many ways around here in the last year, one of those changes has been the demand on my time.  I still scratch my head at the thought that soon we can call ourselves empty nesters.  Our youngest decided at the end of last year that she was ready to take on the world.   I’m still not sure if the world is ready for her, but I’m working on reconciling that one. Our oldest still lives here a few hours a week when she isn’t working or with her boyfriend.  So it’s just the two of us most of the time.  And yet we hadn’t really embraced our new status nor made any plans for filling the next 25 years. Just thinking that far in advance puts me into a cold sweat.

(At least I'm pretty sure these two will never move out since we've made them way too comfortable.  Although Ted is still a little peeved at us for bringing him and his brother to a Doggy Dude Ranch some of the days we hiked.)

I knew while snapping away with my camera that pictures could never do justice to what I was experiencing. The past was all around me, I spent the days not only hiking to see what was around every bend, but daydreaming about all of those who had come before me.  I’ve heard people describe being in the parks as a transcendent experience and it’s true.  I felt it and I also feel that I didn’t have nearly enough time in them. The parks we visited provided such a wonderful sense of solitude, there were so many quiet moments where I found myself completely lost, and I absolutely loved it.  

We would have to put hiking Zion National Park as one of our top favorites of all time, the landscape variation was incredible, there were so many different ways to view the elevations.  We hiked bottom of the canyon, middle canyon, and some upper fall areas, but unfortunately couldn't hike the narrows because of flash flood warnings.  My first impression was disbelief at just how much color and foliage was on display, not to mention the impressive canyon walls.

It was such a joy to be able to hike right underneath the falls and feel the spray kissing your face.

Bryce National Park was another favorite hike.  The night we arrived there were snowflakes falling on the ground, glad we had extra jackets with us.  We took a shuttle to the upper rim and hiked about half way down and then went on a trail leading us to the canyon floor.  It was a nice gradual downhill, but about half way back up I thought I was going to lose Hot Dog Dude.  I told him no way I was towing him back up.  

The Grand Canyon, I think the name pretty much says it all.  We arrived there our first evening at sunset and walked a little bit of the rim trail, it was eerily quite and sublime.  We went back the next day hoping to take a trail down into the canyon, but since I tried to kill Hot Dog Dude the day before (his words, not mine) we settled on rim trails.  I loved our rim trail hike, but the crowds during the day were big, the shuttle buses were packed, and slow was an understatement.  It took us an hour and a half to get back to where we parked at days end.  I felt we could have walked faster and probably would have had we not already covered many miles for the day.

We drove to Sedona the next day after leaving the Grand Canyon and were so disappointed when we found the trail parking lots full and the downtown overtaken by tour buses.  We couldn't find a spot to park anywhere. We wanted to at least enjoy a nice lunch in Sedona, but had to settle for a sandwich while plotting where to go next.  Sedona while beautiful was too Disneyland for our taste.  That is when I told Hot Dog Dude, "We messed up, I want to see more of Utah, and can we go back"?  He replied, "Let's go"!  We hit the road and drove hundreds more miles without stopping.  Way to kill the day, but live and learn.

We spent the night in a small town called Monticello, got an early morning start and headed to Canyonlands Needles where the cutest welcoming committee greeted us.  My best advice to you for being in such remote locations with spotty cell and internet service is that a road atlas is your best friend, it saved us from the "we need directions argument" many times.  

Driving into Canyonlands was not only beautiful, but watching the rock climbers scale the buttes was awe-inspiring.  We enjoyed hiking the mostly primitive trails to see some pueblo ruins, and even petroglyphs.  

We also stayed in the town of Moab, which has great access to Canyonlands and Arches.  It's four-wheel country up there and so much of the canyons can only be reached by off-road vehicles.  We spent most of our time on foot, but next time plan to rent an off-road vehicle in town so we can see more of the canyons.  There is something about finding a little bright spot in a desert landscape that is so enjoyable.  

Arches National Park

Arches National Park was another of our top favorites, the park while busy was so spread out and when out on trails we definitely got the sense of being the only ones out there.  Doesn't the photo below look like two turtles smooching?  Must have been the romantic sunset we were experiencing.  

Museums, pizza, wine, and gelato in Italy are still on my one-day list.  Soothing my soul in nature for 10 unscheduled days of peace, beauty and relaxation are crossed off my bucket list, at least for the moment.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Birthday Chocolate Chip Cookies

I had a chance to take my sister-in-law out for dinner and help her celebrate her birthday this weekend. It was so much fun going out, wandering about the city, and just having a small little celebration. I love celebrating as much as the next person, but it usually involves days upon days of prep work, cleaning, shopping, decorating, and more clean up. We have already had several events here this year and helped celebrate some monumental occasions.

Oh Ted, the ever shameless party animal.

We kicked off January right helping my mom celebrate 72 years with 72 mini cupcake trifles. 

I'd explain how to make these little masterpieces but after delving into three different cake batters, three fillings, and three different buttercreams, I just figure I lost you after three different cake batters.  I won't dare scare you with the amount of dish washing required.

February rolled around and so did the decade ticker for my sister.  Hey, it's not everyday your younger sister turns 40 and you stay 39. It's a complicated algorithm I'm working on the patent for at the moment. 

March stormed in and it was birthday after birthday including helping "Beer" and "Old Spice" (my brother-in-law and dad) whoop it up in grand style. By-the-way, "Beer" said his beer cupcakes were the best cupcakes ever and demands I make them again soon for him, so when that happens I will write down the recipe so I can actually share it.

Today I was supposed to be on vacation (which has been rescheduled for the third time already) but instead I'm in my office working.  Just sitting here daydreaming about when I'll get to take off and lace up my hiking boots up and about why I didn't hold back some of those cookies for myself. Good thing there is still plenty of time left this month to fix both. 

Birthday Chocolate Chip Cookies with Pretzels and Peanuts
1 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 cup bread flour
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon Kosher salt
10 tablespoons butter (1 stick + 2 tablespoons) unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 cup roasted and salted peanut halves
3/4 cup sourdough pretzels, crushed into pieces

1. Sift flours, baking soda, baking powder and salt into a bowl. Set aside.

2. Using a mixer fitted with paddle attachment, cream butter and sugars together until very light, about 2-3 minutes. Add egg and mix well. Stir in the vanilla.  Turn mixer off and add dry ingredients and mix until just combined, 5 to 10 seconds. Fold in chocolate chips, peanuts, and pretzel bits. 

3. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a nonstick baking mat and scoop 1 1/4-ounce mounds (small golf-ball size) of dough onto baking sheet a couple inches apart (about 12 per sheet). Bake 13-15 minutes until golden brown but still soft. Transfer cookies to a wire rack to finish cooling. Repeat with remaining dough.

Yield: 25-30 3-inch cookies



Monday, March 28, 2016

Pineapple, Coconut, Lemon Bars

I knew it was an eventful week and that I've had a ton on my mind, but when I found myself curled up in a little ball under the blankets at 2 o'clock this afternoon I had to accept the fact I was indeed wore out.  I think work, prepping for Easter, getting ready for vacation, and too much stress in general finally got the better of me.  We had a lovely Easter and I hope all my guests enjoyed themselves, but each year it seems to get harder and harder to do what I've done in the previous years.  

There were goodies galore and savories to spare.  If I must come clean here you should know the dessert menu always gets written first and the savories are just an afterthought.  I felt a Lemon-Blueberry Flan Bundt Cake was in order, and that Brownie-Chocolate Mousse Trifles couldn't hurt, it wouldn't be the same without Carrot Cake Cupcakes with Cream Cheese Buttercream.  The little ones would probably love some chocolate dipped Krispie Treats covered in sprinkles.  Hopefully you are beginning to sense my affliction here.  Only when I've fully engrossed myself in pounds of butter, bars of chocolate, and bags of sugar do I start to ponder that people may actually want some food to go with their dessert.  Folks tend to show up over here like starved animals and expect the full spectrum, you know real people food like ham, quiche, lasagna, stuffed chicken breasts, salads, etc. and I usually oblige.

I used my meditation session this afternoon to contemplate the fact that I may indeed need to make some contingency plans for the years to come.  Why can't I just be one of those folks who grabs the boxed ham dinner at the supermarket and goes on her merry little way?  Why not, indeed?

On to some much lighter and lovelier happenings; my sweet friend Becky of Baking and Cooking a tale of two loves celebrated a birthday last week and after us discussing some great uses for freeze dried fruit, I thought I'd hook her up with some packs of the stuff and some of these Pineapple, Coconut, Lemon Bars to go with.  I found a lovely recipe over on Averie Cooks and adapted it to highlight the dried fruit I've been eating by the shovel full these days.

Pineapple, Coconut, Lemon Bars
½ cup unsalted butter, (1 stick) – cut into 1-inch pieces
1-cup all-purpose flour
½ cup granulated sugar
½ teaspoon kosher salt
1 large egg
½ cup granulated sugar
1/3-cup sour cream
2 ounces fresh lemon juice (Meyer lemons preferably) (2 juicy lemons should do)
Zest from 1 lemon
1 ½ teaspoons pure vanilla extract
¼ cup all-purpose flour
Also need:
6 ounces dried baby pineapple, cut in ½-inch sized pieces
2 ounces roasted coconut chips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Line an 8-inch x 8-inch baking pan with aluminum foil and spray with cooking spray.  Set aside.

In the bowl of a food processor add ½ cup butter, 1-cup flour, ½ cup sugar, and ½ teaspoon salt and pulse to combine until the mixture is the size of large crumbs.  Or you can use a bowl and two knives cutting the butter to achieve the same result.  Reserve ¾ cup of the crumbs and put the rest in the baking pan and pat down.  Bake crust 10 minutes.

Combine in mixing bowl 1 egg, ½ cup sugar, 1/3-cup sour cream, lemon juice, zest, vanilla, and flour.  Mix well to combine. 

On top of cooked crust layer the dried pineapple and coconut.  Pour the filling over the top and evenly spread rest of crumbs over the top.

Return to oven and bake 35 minutes longer.  Let cool completely before removing from pan and cutting.

I'm not sure which I enjoyed more the nap or these bars, but I think it's a very close competition.



Thursday, March 17, 2016

Skillet Chicken Dinner with Artichokes and Sun-Dried Tomatoes

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day!  Today is your lucky day if you are feeling Irish, by chance sporting a green ensemble, or partook in one too many green beers and can’t muster the energy to think up an easy and fast dinner this evening.  It’s been quite the busy week and despite wanting to represent for the Irish and fix a corned beef with cabbage it’s just not happening around here.

I was working in my office yesterday when I received a phone call from HDD, “Tomorrow is Saint Patrick’s Day, right”?  Me:  “Yes, and your point is”. (Spoken with my eyes rolled back in my head.)  HDD:  “Are we having corned beef”?  Me:  “Hell no, it’s gross and you can’t have it anyways”.  (I thrive on my role as Joan Crawford in Mommy Dearest, what can I say.)  HDD:  (Long sigh.)  Fine. Click. 

HDD found out he has gout a few years ago and when he eats certain proteins he gets a flare up and besides the limping around and complaining; I’m the one who really suffers.   So I’ve taken it upon myself to put some reforms into place and put us on a mostly vegetarian diet, with the exception of a little chicken or fish.  HDD has mostly gone along with the plan, but I sense he is headed towards a major breakdown soon.  All he does is drone on and on saying things like, remember how good barbecued steak is, or I could really go for some prime rib tonight.  Dream on Hot Dog Dude; dream on. 

There is an upside to HDD’s gout though; I’ve lost so much weight my mother has made it her business to tell me I’m getting too thin (like there is such a thing).  Also it’s keeping HDD on his toes because I told him if I do make steak he will never know if it’s because I’m pissed or just being nice.   

Chicken, Artichoke, Grains, and Sun-Dried Tomato Skillet
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1-tablespoon butter
1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
1-pound chicken breast tenders, boneless and skinless
Freshly ground black pepper
1-12 ounce jar marinated artichoke hearts, drained (discard liquid)
¾ cup shredded carrots
¼ cup sun-dried tomato strips, packed in olive oil
1 ¼ cups mixed grains (I used a mix from Trader Joe’s with couscous, quinoa, orzo, and baby garbanzo beans)
3 cups veggie stock

Add olive oil and butter to a 12-inch skillet and heat on medium-high heat. Once butter is melted add onion and let cook for 4-5 minutes until starting to get translucent.

Add the chicken pieces, salt, and pepper and cook chicken on one side for 3-4 minutes, flip and cook another 3 minutes. 

Spread the artichoke hearts, carrots, sun-dried tomatoes, and grains evenly over the chicken. Slowly pour the stock over the whole pan and bring to a boil.

Cover the pan with a lid; turn the heat down to medium and cook for 25 minutes.

Serves 4.

Happy Saint Patrick's Day!  I only wish I had a piece of this Irish Car Bomb Cake from Miss Katty to wash down my dinner tonight.