Wednesday, December 31, 2008

So long 2008!

This is my last post of the year (and for a few days as I head out to ring in the New Year in style with jaunts to Rhode Island and Virginia).

As I started thinking about the year in review, I first thought that maybe 2008 wasn't such a great year, as my health has been an issue of late. But really, it seems such a small price to pay for all of the incredible blessings I've had this year. I got married, bought a house, traveled, made new friends and rekindled relationships with old ones - just to name a few. So RA be darned, I'm going to count 2008 as a great year. Here's hoping the joy continues in 2009!

Best wishes to all for a safe, healthy and happy New Year. See you next week!


Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Mmm.... Coffee....

Mr. ValleyWriter and I headed out this past Saturday to our one of our favorite Saturday morning breakfast haunts, only to find it closed! On the one hand, I was happy to see they were taking extra time around the holidays, hopefully to spend with family. On the other hand, I was sorely disappointed to miss out on their freshly made, warm doughnuts I'd been craving for a days.

We soldiered on to find another spot for a decent cup of coffee and a light breakfast. That's when I remembered the Shelburne Falls Coffee Roasters store on Union Street in Easthampton. (They actually have 4 locations in Western MA - Shelburne, Shelburne Falls, Northampton and Easthampton.) We'd been to the Shelburne Falls shop and enjoyed it, so we figured we'd give this shop a try.

The Easthampton shop reminded me a lot of the Shelburne Falls shop. Very rustic, yet artsy, with coffee beans and paraphernalia everywhere:

They have a wide variety of different coffees, blended coffee drinks, iced coffee drinks, tea and hot chocolate to choose from. That morning, they also had coffee cake, some muffins and croissants, as well as breakfast sandwiches. I ended up ordering a cafe vanilla (basically coffee topped with vanilla-flavored steamed milk) and a bagel with their homemade sun-dried tomato and jalapeno cream cheese. Mr. ValleyWriter went with their French Roast coffee and a bagel breakfast sandwich. The total came to $9.65, which is pretty comparable to the famous chain that starts with D, but a lot cheaper than the one that starts with S.

My coffee was very good - not too sweet or rich like some blended drinks can be. My bagel was a little overdone, but the cream cheese was excellent. It had just the right amount of jalapenos to give me a little kick, but not scorch my tongue. Mr. ValleyWriter enjoyed his coffee and breakfast sandwich, though he said it was a little strange that they'd only used egg whites in the breakfast sandwich. (I told him maybe they were trying to help him eat healthier, but then he pointed out that the sausage patty kind of canceled any healthy attempts out, so who knows!?)

All-in-all, I'd say Shelburne Falls Coffee Roasters is a good alternative for a quick bite and a great cup of coffee. But it still doesn't replace my favorite doughnut shop! (I promise to share the identity and review that shop the next time we visit and I have my camera with me.)

Monday, December 29, 2008

Chasing away the winter chill with yummy mac & cheese...

During the long, cold days of winter, I crave warm, comforting foods. But I don't always have a lot of time (or energy, thanks to my RA) to spend in the kitchen getting dinner ready. Enter the slow cooker. I love being able to throw in my ingredients, walk away for a few hours and come back to a fully cooked meal. Yesterday I tried making macaroni and cheese in the slow cooker for the first time and I was quite pleased with the results. The best part is - you don't even have to precook the macaroni - can't get much easier than that!

Creamy Slow Cooker Mac & Cheese
1 1/2 c. shredded sharp cheddar cheese
1 c. shredded monterey jack cheese
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 1/2 c. milk
1 12 oz. can evaporated milk
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
1 tsp. dry mustard
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
8 oz. macaroni noodles (uncooked)
1 14 oz. can diced tomatoes, optional

Combine 1 c. sharp cheddar and 1 c. monterey jack in a small bowl and set aside.
In a separate bowl, whisk together eggs, milk, evaporated milk, salt, salt, pepper and spices. Stir in uncooked noodles. Stir in the 2 c. of cheese you mixed together. If desired, gently fold in diced tomatoes.
Lightly grease the crock of your slow cooker with oil or cooking spray.
Pour in macaroni mixture.
Top with remaining 1/2 c. sharp cheddar cheese.
Cover and cook on low for 3-4 hours until macaroni is fully cooked and liquid is thick and creamy.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas!

Like many others, I'll be offline for the next few days enjoying the holiday with my family. Best wishes to all for a very happy, safe holiday!

Christmas Clipart

Monday, December 22, 2008

Cookie Blitz - Day #2

OK - I'm technically a day behind with this post, but I was so exhausted after yesterday (I think icing the 100th sugar cookie sent me over the edge), I just couldn't do it. But today I'm back to recount the remainder of the 2008 Cookie Blitz story.

On day #2, after shoveling the foot of snow we had from the last 2 storms off the deck, I set about finishing the last 2 kinds of cookies and icing the sugar cookies we made on day #1. First up was the baking. I made 3 batches (about 12 dozen) of my soft & chewy ginger cookies and 3 batches (about 14 dozen) of white chocolate chip Craisin® cookies.

Then I sat down to the monumental task of icing the sugar cookies. Fortunately, we had decorated some of the over 200 cookies with colored sugar before baking - so I didn't have to do all 200. And I lost the exact count of how many cookies I actually iced around the 100 mark (when I started to go cuckoo), but I'd say it was close to 110-120.

The icing I used tastes yummy and hardens nice and shiny. It starts with a simple syrup base, which you should make about an hour ahead so it has time to cool. Here's the recipe:

Sugar Cookie Icing
(Makes about 3 cups)

Simple syrup ingredients:
3/4 c. white sugar
3/4 c. water
1/8 tsp. cream of tartar
dash of salt

Icing ingredients:
7 1/2 c. confectioner's sugar
2/3 c. milk
2/3 c. simple syrup (the above recipe makes just over 2/3 c.)
2 tsp. vanilla (or almond) extract

To make the simple syrup, combine the white sugar, water, cream of tartar and salt in a medium saucepan. Heat over medium heat until it comes to a boil. Reduce to a simmer. Let simmer 10-15 minutes until the mixture reaches the soft ball stage (this means when you drop a bit of it into a glass of cold water, it forms a soft ball). Be careful not to overcook (if it cracks when you put it in the water - it's overcooked).

Remove from stove and let cool at least 1 hour. (You can make this ahead of time and store at room temperature in an air tight container for a few days.)

To make the icing, combine the confectioner's sugar and milk and whisk until smooth. Stir in the simple syrup and vanilla extract until well blended. (You can add more milk to thin the icing out or add more confectioner's sugar to thicken it up.)

You can use this plain as white icing or color it with food coloring. Here's a closeup of some iced cookies:
(Kudos go to Mr. valleywriter for his incredible colored sugar work on that candy cane!)
In the end, with our toffee and 3 kinds of cookies, we ended up with a very nice selection:

Happy Holidays to you all!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Cookie Blitz - Day #1

As I've mentioned in a couple of posts over the last few weeks, I've been planning a big Christmas Cookie Blitz - and the weekend has finally arrived! Today was the perfect day to stay inside and bake, what with a foot of snow on the ground and flakes still falling with no sign of stopping and all. In addition to 2 large batches of toffee, we also made over 200 sugar cookies (I tripled a recipe that said it would make 5 dozen and lost count somewhere after the 200th cookie - so needless to say, each batch makes more than 5 dozen!).

Here's what our dining room table looked like near the end of baking:

The recipe I used is great for cut-out cookies and holds up well to re-rolling the scraps. If you're in the mood to make these, be sure to plan ahead. The longer the dough chills, the easier it is to roll out without it sticking.

Classic Sugar Cookies
(Makes about 6-7 dozen)

1 1/2 c. salted butter, softened
2 c. white sugar
4 eggs
2 tsp. vanilla extract
5 c. flour
2 tsp. baking POWDER
1/2 tsp. salt
colored sugar, if desired

Cream butter and sugar together in a large mixing bowl. Add in eggs and vanilla extract. Beat until fully combined.
In a separate bowl, combine flour, baking powder and salt. Add to butter mixture and stir until thoroughly mixed. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 1/2 hours.
When ready to make cookies, preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line cookie sheets with parchment paper.
Flour your rolling surface and rolling pin lightly with flour. Take a large hunk of dough and roll it out until it's about 1/4" thick.
Cut out desired shapes with cookie cutters. (At this point, you can sprinkle cookies with colored sugar if you want. We did some with colored sugar and some plain. We'll be icing those plain ones tomorrow.)

Place cookie cut-outs on parchment-lined cookie sheets and bake 5-6 minutes.

Note: If you're planning to make more than 1 batch, I recommend making each batch of dough separately. I tried to make a double batch and discovered just how hard it is to stir 10 cups of flour into 3 cups of butter - yikes!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Spicy Shrimp & Sausage Jambalaya

Tonight's snow had me hankering for something hearty and warm for dinner. I had some shrimp and some kielbasa from Hatfield Beef, so I threw together a quick shrimp & sausage jambalaya.


1 pkg. whole grain Spanish rice mix
2 c. water
1 can (14 oz.) diced tomatoes with green chilies
1 medium green pepper, chopped
8 oz. kielbasa, cut into 1/2" slices
8 oz. raw shrimp, deveined and deshelled

Cook kielbasa and green pepper in a large saute pan over medium heat for about 5-7 minutes until kielbasa is browned. Remove from pan and set aside.
Pour the rice (not the seasoning mix) into the saute pan and saute for about 2 minutes. Add water, tomatoes and seasoning mix. Bring to a boil and reduce heat to low.
Simmer rice for 10 minutes. Add kielbasa, green peppers and shrimp, cover and cook an additional 10-15 minutes until shrimp are fully cooked and liquid is absorbed.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Spinach & Sun-Dried Tomato Stuffed Chicken Breast

I'm not sure if it's the barrage of holiday music on the radio, the TV ads featuring Santa or today's snow, but everything today is reminding me of Christmas. Even tonight's dinner, which is not at all a typical holiday meal, reminded me of it. I think it's the pretty red & green colors. I thought I'd share in case it helps put you in the holiday spirit!

Spinach & Sun-Dried Tomato Stuffed Chicken Breast
2 boneless skinless chicken breasts
1 c. cooked, chopped spinach
1/4 c. sun-dried tomatoes, roughly chopped
1/4 c. ricotta cheese
1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes
1/2 tsp. salt
additional salt & pepper
olive oil

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and spray casserole dish with oil or non-stick cooking spray.
Cut a pocket into each of the chicken breasts (basically cut through the center lengthwise, but leave 1 of the long sides uncut).
Mix spinach, sun-dried tomatoes, ricotta, red pepper flakes and 1/2 tsp. salt in a small bowl. Stuff 1/2 of mixture into each chicken breast.
Rub tops of chicken breasts with a small amount of olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Bake at 350 degrees for 35 minutes, or until chicken is fully cooked.

I served with a side of green beans for a healthy, nutritious dinner. Yum!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Holiday Sweet Potatoes for a Crowd

Yesterday my mom's side of the family started the holiday season with our annual Christmas party & Yankee Swap. It's always quite the production and has become so large, in fact, that we have to rent a hall to fit everyone. With 9 aunts and uncles (and their spouses) and 23 first cousins, plus who knows how many second cousins (I think it numbers somewhere in the 30s...), you can imagine it's quite the crowd to feed.

According to the all mighty keeper of the potluck sign-up sheet (aka my mom), my charge this year was to bring "a vegetable." However, squash, potatoes and green bean casserole were all already taken. So my task was to figure out another veggie I could bring and keep warm for a couple of hours in a slow cooker.

At first I thought carrots, but then I figured they'd get mushy sitting in the slow cooker for hours. And corn didn't really seem like a holiday vegetable. Mr. valleywriter suggested sweet potato pie, which I didn't quite think counted as a vegetable (can it be a veggie if it has a crust?).
But I ran with the basic idea and ended making a sweet potato casserole. This recipe nearly filled my 5 quart slow cooker, so unless you're feeding an Irish Catholic family like mine, you'll probably want to cut it at least in half (if not more).

Sweet Potato Casserole
about 5 lbs. sweet potatoes (these may be labeled "yams" at the grocery store, but in all likelihood, they're really sweet potatoes; real yams are rarely sold in the U.S.)
2/3 c. butter, melted
1/4 c. white sugar
1/4 c. brown sugar
4 eggs, beaten
1 c. milk

1 c. pecans, chopped
2/3 c. brown sugar
4 Tbsp. flour
3 Tbsp. butter, melted

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Scrub sweet potatoes, dry and prick each several times with a fork. Place on ungreased baking sheets and bake at 350 degrees for 45-50 minutes until potatoes give when you squeeze them. Let sweet potatoes cool until you can easily handle them. Peel and discard the skin.
Cut peeled sweet potatoes into chunks and mash. (If you want, you can do this the day before and refrigerate the cooked, mashed sweet potatoes until the next day.)

In a large mixing bowl, beat mashed sweet potatoes, 2/3 c. butter, 1/4 c. white sugar and 1/4 c. brown sugar until well mixed. Beat in eggs and milk. Transfer to slow cooker.

In a separate bowl, mix 2/3 c. brown sugar, flour and 3 Tbsp. butter. Toss in pecans and mix to coat. Sprinkle over sweet potato mixture.

Put the cover on your slow cooker and cook on high for 3-4 hours.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Stables - Best Pancakes in the Valley

The Stables in Hadley is well-known amongst college students and locals for a great down home breakfast at a good price. The little red house set back from the road across from the Whole Foods plaza in Hadley isn't much to look at, especially with the parking lot that has potholes the size of Toyota Corolla. But what the outside lacks in glitz, the employees and the food inside more than make up for.

First off, it's important to note that you need to plan your visit to The Stables with care. If you're going on a Saturday or Sunday and the colleges nearby (UMass Amherst, Amherst College & Hampshire College) are still in session, you'd better plan to be there by 8:30 or so, or be willing to wait in line. When you first walk inside, there's a long counter with probably 15 or so seats and then a small dining room to the left. The lines after 9am on the weekends often stretch the full length of the counter (with the counter seats all taken) and sometimes even out the door. The other thing to note is that The Stables is one of the few "cash only" holdouts in our ever increasingly plastic-friendly economy.

So now that you've visited the ATM and arrived before 8:30, you're ready to sit down and enjoy a bottomless cup of New England Coffee (always yummy!). The menu choices are extensive - from your basic eggs & toast to French toast and pancakes to interesting "scramble" concoctions with home fries, breakfast meats and cheese. Mr. valleywriter and I both like the "Farmer Brown," which comes with 2 eggs any style, 2 pieces of bacon, 2 sausage and 2 dinner-plate sized pancakes. It's a HUGE breakfast for about $6 - can't beat that!

My favorite part of any breakfast at The Stables is the buttermilk pancakes. These pancakes are the best I've ever had. They're just a little crispy on the outside edges and soft and wonderful on the inside. I could eat them plain - no butter or syrup - but I usually do add the syrup because it's such a nice treat. The plain buttermilk pancakes are great, but you can also get them with blueberries, apples, chocolate chips and more. When I'm in the mood for dessert for breakfast, the chocolate chip pancakes are my go-to order.

But it's not just the food here that's "down home." The waitresses have all been around for years and it really feels like a family. They're sweet, caring and very friendly. While I know the restaurant business has its challenges and you don't always want to be there, these ladies make it seem like they're happy to be there. I truly believe that positive attitudes are pervasive, so breakfast at The Stables always leaves me in a good mood (and with a very full belly!).

Friday, December 12, 2008

Organica Deluxe = Eco-friendly Decadence!

When I walked in the door last night, Mr. valleywriter immediately asked me "Did you order some organic shoes?" I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about (do they even make organic shoes? wait, what am I saying? I'm sure someone has tapped that market...). Then he showed me a bright blue box about the size of a shoe box with the label "Organica Deluxe" and I remembered that FoodBuzz had offered to send me some organic cookies to review.

Mr. valleywriter was much more excited about the prospect of cookies than of shoes, so he tore into the box while I got dinner ready. After some shuffling around, he pulled out a pack of 2 cookies. At first I was a little disappointed with the company that they used such a huge box for 2 cookies. But then I saw a label inside the box that explained they ship in 1 box (that's recyclable) with lots of all-natural, biodegradable packing peanuts made from cornstarch in order to avoid doing the typical inner box/outer box that most other companies do. They also use a beautiful blue tissue paper packaging that's made from 75% post-consumer recycled materials.

OK - so they're forgiven for the big box. And they get kudos for the beautiful blue colors of the box & tissue - it almost made me feel like I was opening a gift from that other "little blue box" store. So on to the cookies. I received 2 Organica Ginger Cookies made with 100% organic ingredients (flour, egg, spices, etc.). These big beauties were topped with sugar and looked absolutely delectable:
But I've been fooled by delicious looking food before - the real test is the taste. And boy oh boy, these ginger cookies did not disappoint! They were soft and chewy and nicely spiced. They tasted like fresh homemade cookies and to Mr. valleywriter's delight, there wasn't a hint of that "health-food" taste to be found (you know the one!).

We quickly gobbled up the 2 cookies we were sent while dinner was cooking (ahh... the joys of being a grown-up - no one to yell at you about ruining your appetite before dinner). I was so impressed, I hopped online to see what else they sell at Organica Deluxe. I was impressed to see the wide range of products, from beautiful, organically-grown fresh roses to organic truffles and wines to artisan crafted platters and bowls. Right now they have free ground shipping (use the code FREESHIP at checkout) on a ton of products, making this site a great choice for eco-friendly holiday shopping.

And one last note, not only did FoodBuzz & Organica Deluxe end up sending Mr. valleywriter and I a neat little early holiday gift, they also inadvertently send one for the kitties, too. Turns out the all-natural packing peanuts are a great kitten toy:

And since they're all natural, I didn't even have to worry about Piper running around with one in her mouth, which is a nice change from usual things she tries to take off with (headphones, buttons, etc.).

So from the whole valleywriter family - thanks FoodBuzz & Organica Deluxe!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

I'm officially part of the Valley Blogosphere!

Adventures in the Pioneer Valley is now part of the Pioneer Valley Blogosphere as evidenced by its addition to Check it (and a bunch of other great Valley blogs) out here!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Flame-free S'mores

I have been craving s'mores for about a week now. I don't know why exactly, but I just couldn't get them out of my mind. Unfortunately, there will be no campfires in my future anytime soon (despite my predictions of summer weather on the way earlier today, I highly doubt we'll see any of that for at least 5-6 more months).

Never fear! I was a Girl Scout (I even got the Gold Award - the equivalent of Eagle Scout), and we know our s'mores, so I just came up with these flame-free s'mores. I used mini marshmallows and chocolate chips because I had some in the cupboard, but the typical large marshmallows and chocolate bars would work, too.

Flame-free S'mores (for 1)
1 full graham cracker
1 Tbsp. chocolate chips
8 mini marshmallows

Break the graham cracker in half into 2 squares. Put one half on a microwave-safe plate and top with chocolate chips:Microwave on high for about 30 seconds. (Chips won't look very melted, but they are - don't worry!) Top chips with marshmallows:

Microwave on high for another 5-10 seconds. (Watch carefully and if the marshmallows start to puff a lot, take it out.) Top with remaining graham cracker half and press down lightly until chocolate and marshmallows just starts to come out the sides:

Eat quickly before your husband comes in the kitchen to see what you're making... oh wait, maybe that was just me :-)

I have to say, while they are lacking that unique charred campfire flavor, these are still pretty darn good. For my next one (and yes, there will be a next one - probably as soon as I finish this post), I think I'll try spreading peanut butter on one side. Mmm... peanut butter, chocolate and marshmallows - how could you go wrong?!

3 Seasons in 5 Days - Up Next, Summer?

If you live in the Valley, you can attest to the craziness of the weather the last few days. On Saturday, it was fairly seasonal with temps in the mid- to high-30s, so that counts as fall-like (for New England, anyway). Sunday afternoon, the winds started whipping in, bringing in frigid air and snow squalls. Monday the high was only about 20 degrees and with the wind, it felt a lot colder (definitely winter-like). Yesterday morning was still cold and winter-like, we even had a dusting of snow in the morning. But by afternoon, some warm spring winds started moving in and the high got up to the low 50s. Today, it's a rainy spring day with temps in the mid-50s!

Since we have been following the pattern of the seasons, I'm convinced that summer is up next. My weather forecast for the Valley calls for clouds giving way to sun and the temps climbing into the mid-70s. Get out your bathing suits! It's July in Christmas! :-)

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Cookie Blitz Recipe #3 - Soft Ginger Cookies

I had planned to make gingersnaps as part of my holiday cookie blitz (along with the toffee & white chocolate cranberry cookies I've already tested out). However, after trying a couple of recipes, I decided to go with a softer ginger cookie. There edges have a little snappiness to them, but the insides are soft and chewy and wonderful. The test batch I made didn't last 12 hours in this house!

Ginger Cookies
(Makes about 3 dozen, depending on size)

For the cookies:
1/4 c. butter, softened
1/2 c. butter-flavored shortening (I use Crisco®, which has no trans fat)
1 c. white sugar
1 egg
1/4 c. dark, unsulphured molasses
2 c. flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1 Tbsp. ground ginger
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground cloves
1/2 tsp. salt

Sugar coating (for rolling cookies in before baking):
1/4 c. white sugar
1 Tbsp. cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line baking sheets with parchment paper. (If you don't have parchment paper, just use ungreased baking sheets.)

In a large bowl, beat butter and shortening. Beat in sugar until light and creamy. Add egg and molasses and beat until dough is a uniform color.

In a separate bowl, sift baking powder, ginger, cinnamon and cloves into flour. Add salt.

Add about 1/4 of the flour mixture into the butter mixture and stir (by hand) until thoroughly combined. Continue adding 1/4 of flour mixture at a time, thoroughly mixing with each addition until flour is fully incorporated. Dough will be very thick/heavy (you may need to incorporate the last of the flour with your hands):

Combine 1/4 c. white sugar and 1 Tbsp. ground cinnamon and pour onto a plate.

Shape cookie dough into 1" balls and roll through cinnamon-sugar to coat. Place coated balls of dough 2" apart on parchment-lined baking sheets and bake at 350 degrees for 10 minutes or until tops are puffed up a little and have started to crack.

One last note: I know some people are opposed to using shortening, but that's what helps give these cookies their soft, chewy texture. As noted above, if trans fats are your concern, Crisco® brand is trans fat-free (at least the butter flavor). If you substitute all butter, the cookies should still turn out fine, they'll just spread out a little more and be a bit crisper.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Dijon Marsala Pork Tenderloin

I used to think that I wasn't a big fan of pork. Growing up, I really only ever had it as pork chops cooked within an inch of their lives (sorry Mom!). But recently I decided to give pork another try when my local store had an incredible sale on pork tenderloin (less than $2 a pound!). The first time I made it, I baked it with sauerkraut and it was very moist, tender & yummy. So I went back to the store and stocked up and have been trying out different recipes since.

I combined the flavors I've discovered I like from those recipes to make this Dijon Marsala recipe. You have to start this recipe the night before by putting the pork in a marinade, so plan ahead. There's a few steps, but it's worth it. We had it tonight with some rice pilaf and mixed veggies. Delish!

Dijon Marsala Pork Tenderloin


Approx. 1 lb. pork tenderloin (the packages at the store usually have 2 tenderloins in them; I use just 1 for the 2 of us)
2 Tbsp. olive oil

1/3 c. soy sauce
1/3 c. Marsala wine
2 Tbsp. brown sugar

Dijon Marsala Sauce:
1 Tbsp. butter
1/2 c. fat-free half and half
1/2 c. Marsala wine
2 Tbsp. Dijon mustard


Combine the soy sauce, 1/3 c. Marsala wine and brown sugar. Pour over pork tenderloin and refrigerate for at least 8 hours and up to 24. (I usually do it the night before, so it works out to about 18-20 hours.)

When ready to make dinner, take the tenderloin out of the refrigerator and let it rest at room temperature for about 10 minutes. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Use 1 Tbsp. olive oil to coat a 9"x13" casserole dish.

In a saute pan, heat the remaining 1 Tbsp. olive oil over medium-high heat. Place tenderloin into pan and quickly sear all sides just until the outside is gently browned (about 30 seconds per side). Put tenderloin into oiled casserole dish and save the pan you browned it in for later (for the sauce).

Bake the tenderloin at 350 for about 35-40 minutes, until internal temperature is 160 degrees (it will still be a little pink in the center, but that's OK!). About 25-30 minutes into the bake time, you'll want to start the sauce. Take your browning pan (drippings and all!), add 1 Tbsp. butter and melt over medium heat. Then add half-and-half, Marsala wine and Dijon mustard. Stir or whisk until well combined. Let the sauce come to a gentle simmer and continue cooking until the liquid is reduced by half.

When the tenderloin is finished baking, let it rest for 5-10 minutes before cutting into 1/2" slices. Then plate and drizzle Dijon Marsala sauce over the pork slices before serving.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Yankee Candle Village - Much More Than Candles!

Yankee Candle has become world-famous for its array of amazingly scented candles. But once upon a time, there were no Yankee Candle stores at the mall or next to the local Pier 1. There was only 1 place to get them - at the source in South Deerfield, MA. I remember my mom and aunts making a big event of their trips to Yankee back in those days. Sometimes they'd even take us kids around Christmastime so we could see Santa. Today, the flagship store continues to be more than just a store; it's a destination, especially at the holidays.

I visited tonight to take some pictures of the amazing lights and decorations they have up for the holiday season:

Even if you don't want to buy a thing, this Yankee Candle store is worth a visit. I walked through tonight just to look at all the candles, cookware, specialty foods, home decor and Christmas ornaments they had. I also saw Santa with happy children on his lap, people making their own candles in the new Wax Works section and children making their own stuffed animals in the Paws-n-Claws workshop. I didn't buy a thing and I still enjoyed a good hour just walking around.
This is a definite must-visit Pioneer Valley attraction - even if you just drive by some night to see the lights. Take exit 24 off I-91 and go north on Routes 5 & 10 - you can't miss it and you won't regret it!

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Drinks & Apps at the Blue Heron

Last night I went out with some co-workers for drinks and appetizers at the Blue Heron Restaurant in Sunderland. I'd never been to The Blue Heron before, but I'd heard many reviews about how incredible it was - the ultimate fine dining experience, in many people's opinions. Mr. valleywriter and I always intend to go sometime, but it's a little out of the way for us, so we just never seem to think of it.

Last night when I walked in, I was immediately impressed with the atmosphere. The walls were painted in warm, rich colors and the lighting was soft and intimate. The bar sits immediately at the top of the stairs, with the main dining room to the right and a smaller dining area to the left of the bar. We had a table in that smaller bar area, right in front of a cozy, warm fireplace.

We ordered drinks first, but since I'm on methotrexate for my RA (and therefore limited to about 1 drink every other week), I had to stick to the non-alcoholic options, which is always less fun. I was surprised to see, however, that they did actually list some non-alcoholic options on their cocktail menu. (My experience in the last 2 months since I've basically become a non-drinker is that bars and restaurants rarely seem to list non-alcoholic options, so you just kind of have to throw something out there and hope they have it.)

There were about 4 different "mocktails" to choose from and I went with the cranberry cooler, which was a mix of cranberry and lemon juices and sparkling water. I'm not sure exactly what I was expecting, but it turned out to taste kind of like watered down cranberry juice. Oh well - lesson learned for next time!

Once the rest of our group got there, the appetizer ordering began. Throughout the evening, the group sampled the Artisinal cheese plate, the mezze plate with flat bread, hummus and some pickled salads, an order of homemade french fries with truffle-infused mayonnaise, the pan-seared sea scallops with applewood bacon and the salad of the day, which was a bed of organic greens topped with beets and grapefruit.

I had thought we were just going out for drinks and wasn't particularly hungry, but I did have a few bites from the cheese and mezze plates, along with a bite of a pan-seared sea scallop, a dish the Blue Heron is well-known for (the recipe won them a feature in Bon Appetit®). Everything I tried was very good—attractively plated, well seasoned and downright tasty. The scallops were prepared perfectly, not a hint of sand or rubberiness (my biggest concern about trying scallop dishes) to be found.

My only complaint of the evening was the pushiness of our server. For fine dining, I expect the type of service that's more "waiting in the wings" than "in your face." I felt the server visited our table too often, interrupting conversations repeatedly and pushing more food and drinks on us when clearly no one was interested. I felt the server also pushed us to order larger quantities of food that we needed. For example, when a few people wanted to share an order of the fries with truffle mayonnaise, the server said 1 plate would never be enough. They persisted and when the order came out, it was huge! I would guess there was probably a good 4 cups worth of fries on the plate.

I never condemn a restaurant or a server based on just 1 experience (unless it's a catastrophic experience), so the Blue Heron would definitely be on my list of places to try again. I think it would be well-suited for a special, romantic occasion like our anniversary or Valentine's Day or just a really special date. One caveat is that you have to be ready and willing to spend some coin here. With a couple of rounds of drinks for 8 people and 8 appetizers, the bill came to over $250; and when I glanced at the entree menu, it looked like most options were in the high-teens to low-twenties. Nonetheless, the attention to detail in the atmosphere, plate presentation and food preparation even in just the appetizers makes me think a meal here would truly be special.

Monday, December 1, 2008

More Cookie Blitz Testing! This Time: White Chocolate Chip Craisin® Cookies

Christmas is just over 3 weeks away - so I really better figure out what I'm making for my cookie blitz. My plan right now is to make toffee, sugar cookies, gingersnaps and white chocolate chip cranberry cookies. But, before 2 weeks ago, I'd only ever made the sugar cookies. So, I figured I should test out the other cookies before I make big batches. The latest trial was:

White Chocolate Chip Craisin® Cookies
(Makes 2 dozen)

1 stick (1/2 c.) butter, softened
1/2 c. packed light brown sugar
1/2 c. white sugar
1 egg
3/4 Tbsp. brandy
3/4 Tbsp. vanilla extract
1 1/2 c. flour
1/2 tsp. baking soda
3/4 c. white chocolate chips
1 c. Craisins®

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line baking sheets with parchment paper.
In a large mixing bowl, cream together butter, brown sugar and white sugar until smooth. Add egg, brandy and vanilla extract. Beat well.
In a separate bowl, sift together flour and baking soda.
Add the flour and baking soda to the creamed sugar mixture. Beat on low to medium speed until fully mixed.
Stir in white chocolate chips and Craisins®.

Drop dough by tablespoon fulls onto parchment-lined baking sheets. Bake 9-10 minutes until cookies are set but still a little doughy-looking in the middle. (Don't let them get too brown or they'll end up being really hard).

I thought these were pretty good, but maybe a little too sweet. I brought most of them to work and they seemed to go over well, but I think I might still try reducing the sugar to 1/3 c. light brown and 1/3 c. white next time.

Though, on second thought, these were pretty good with a bowl of vanilla ice cream, so maybe all I need is a glass of milk. Hmm.... think I'll have to go taste test some more! :-)

Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Valley's First Snow of the Season!

With 21 days to go until the official start to winter, we had our first snow that stuck to the ground:

We also had sleet & freezing rain - all within a matter of a couple of hours (gotta live New England!). Fortunately, we managed to get up some holiday decorations before the weather started. I braved the rain/sleet/snow tonight to grab some pics:

(I know I need to work on the lighting on the little trees in front, but I think I'll wait for a day when it's not precipitating.... hopefully we'll get one of those before Christmas!)

Turkey Leftovers Day 4 - Turkey Tetrazzini

I think today may be the last day Mr. valleywriter will put up with turkey leftovers. I could eat turkey for another week (and I may be eating it for lunches at work this week), but Mr. valleywriter is starting to say "turkey - again?!?!" I tried to shake things up for lunch today by turning some of our leftovers into a quick turkey tetrazzini. I used corn and carrots we had left from Turkey Day, but you can use whatever veggies you like (peas would be good) or no veggies at all. I think the flavors here are different enough that you don't feel like you're eating Thanksgiving leftovers. Enjoy!

Turkey Tetrazzini

8 oz. (1/2 a box) whole wheat spaghetti
2 Tbsp. butter
1/4 c. flour
1 1/2 c. turkey stock (you can also use canned broth)
1/2 c. fat-free half and half
1/2 c. milk
1 c. shredded Parmesan cheese
1/2 c. corn, cooked
1/2 c. sliced carrots, cooked
2 c. cooked turkey, cubed

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a medium casserole dish.
Cook pasta according to package directions for al dente pasta. (I like Barilla whole wheat spaghetti, which takes about 6 minutes to cook.) Drain and add to to casserole dish.
In a medium saucepan, melt butter over medium-low heat. Add flour and whisk together well so there are no lumps. Slowly pour in turkey stock, whisking constantly. Once flour and butter are completely dissolved in stock, pour in half and half and milk. Cook until sauce comes to a boil, whisking constantly. Add in 3/4 c. Parmesan cheese and remove from heat. (Taste the sauce at this point to make sure it's salted to your taste. If you use low sodium stock/broth, it may be bland. Add salt & pepper if desired.)
Pour sauce over spaghetti. Stir in corn, carrots and turkey until well mixed. Sprinkle top with remaining 1/4 c. Parmesan cheese.
Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes or until sauce is bubbly and cheese is browned.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Basic Turkey Stock for Stock Virgins

Everyone knows that you can use your Thanksgiving turkey carcass to make turkey stock or turkey soup, but how many of you actually do it? I know that before a couple of years ago, I was too intimidated by the thought of it to actually try it. But once I finally did, I was amazed at how simple it was. Again, it's one of those things where the fear of the unknown is worse than the unknown itself. I promise stock virgins - this is easy and so worth it!

First, as you finish up your turkey, hang onto whatever you have left of the carcass - even if it's just the leg and wing bones. When you have a couple of hours where you'll be at home, give this a shot. (If you don't have time this weekend, just throw the bones in the freezer for now and defrost them when you're ready.) The measurements here are approximates and are what I used for the carcass of a 17 pound turkey. You'll want to adjust to your taste and to the size of your carcass.

Basic Turkey Stock

1 turkey carcass
2 Tbsp. chives (you can use a cut up onion, but Mr. valleywriter doesn't do onions, so I use chives)
1 Tbsp. salt
1 Tbsp. pepper
2 cloves garlic
5 bay leaves
4-5 carrots, roughly cut
4-5 celery stalks, roughly cut
cold water

Place the turkey carcass in a large pot. (If you're like me and don't have a pot big enough for a giant turkey carcass, you can cut the carcass up into pieces to make it fit.)

Pour enough water into the pot to cover the carcass (if a couple of bones stick out - no biggie).

Add seasonings and vegetables and bring to a gentle boil. Reduce heat so stock just simmers. For the first 30-45 minutes, check the pot every 10-15 minutes and skim off any white foam that collects at the top:
Let the stock boil for another 4 hours or so, adding water as needed to keep bones covered. When the time is up, carefully do a taste test (cool a spoonful first!). If it smells and tastes like stock, it's done. If it's too weak, stop adding water and keep the stock simmering to help condense the flavors.

When done simmering, pull the big pieces of bone out of the pot. Pour the remaining contents through a strainer into a large bowl that will fit in your fridge. For a very clear broth, line your strainer with cheesecloth to catch any herbs or small bits of meat. I like the herbs, so I leave them in:

Allow the stock to cool for about 15-20 minutes before putting in the fridge. Refrigerating the stock overnight will allow the fat to rise to the top and solidify, so you can easily spoon it off. Then you can either keep the broth in the fridge and use it within a couple of days, or you can freeze it for up to 2 months.

You're not done yet, though! Simmering the carcass for hours will pull off any leftover bits of meat and they'll get caught in your strainer. You can pick these pieces out and save them for soup. (I don't recommend using them for anything other than soup because of the texture they take on - good for soup, not for much else.)

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Our First Thanksgiving - 1 Bandaid, 1 Bloody Nose, But It's Still All Good!

As I mentioned in my last blog, this was our first year hosting Thanksgiving. The first blunder was buying a self-basting turkey when I had planned to brine the turkey. Oops. No worries - at least I figured it out before I went to brine the turkey. No harm, no salty fowl :-)

Today started off great. We slept in until 8 (yes, that's sleeping in) and took our time getting ready. The turkey came out of the fridge and was fully defrosted - yay! We got the turkey, stuffing and dough for the homemade rolls all started on time. We even got to enjoy a few minutes of the Macy's parade.

Then we decided to start peeling potatoes.... which ended in a bloody nose for Mr. valleywriter and a bandaid for me. Sounds like a good story, eh? Sorry to disappoint. No - we didn't have a brawl over potatoes. It's been dry in the house lately - hence Mr. valleywriter's effusive mucous membranes. And I just got careless with the knife after Mr. valleywriter left me alone with the potatoes.

After that little hiccup, we got back on track. I finished up the cooking and after Mr. valleywriter slowed the dam his nose had become, he set this beautiful table:

By the time Mr. valleywriter's parents showed up, we had the brie en croute ready to roll. The turkey came out when we expected it to. And we managed to get everything on the table nice and hot. The turkey was very moist - thank goodness! Dry turkey was my biggest fear, but I guess it was unfounded.

Here's what I learned from my first Thanksgiving dinner:
1. Pay attention to what kind of turkey you're buying if you want to brine it. Don't get a "natural basting" one.
2. Roasting breast-side down is great for keeping the breast meat moist, but if you want the skin to stay intact, be sure to oil the bird and/or the roaster rack.
3. Puff pastry doesn't brown as well when you have other things in the oven. (Note to self: Next year, if you do brie en croute while the turkey's still cooking, bump the oven up to 400 degrees first.)
4. 5 pounds of potatoes is WAY TOO MUCH for 4 people - even if you like leftovers.
5. Do whatever you can ahead of time. It makes the day-of so much more relaxing.

So - bet you're wondering why there are no pictures of my glorious Thanksgiving feast. Honestly, this Thanksgiving wasn't as much about the food for me. I was enjoying a relaxing afternoon, good company and good conversation so much, I didn't want to interrupt it with the camera. I wanted to focus on my family and on giving thanks for all of the amazing blessings in my life.

I was blessed this year to marry the man of my dreams in the wedding of my dreams - an intimate, barefoot, sunset wedding on the beach. I was blessed to buy my first home in the amazing community that is the Pioneer Valley. I am continually blessed to be surrounded by loving, supportive friends and family. I was blessed to know an amazing woman, the original owner of the dishes seen above, who taught me what true grace is and showed me how to persevere through whatever life gives you, all while she was battling terminal cancer. I am blessed not to have to worry where my next meal will come from or how I'm going to pay the bills. The list goes on, but you get the idea. I give thanks every day for what I have, but today in particular I give great thanks.

Happy Thanksgiving

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Prepping for Thanksgiving

I'm hosting Thanksgiving this year for the first time. Fortunately it's a small gathering - just my husband's parents and us. But I have to admit, I'm still a little nervous. Sure, I've helped out with Thanksgiving dinners in the past, but my experience is limited pretty much to the last minute dash to make the gravy, finish the potatoes and other side dishes and carve the turkey, all the while trying to get it onto the table while it's still hot. This flurry of anxious activity is the one thing I'm hoping to minimize.

So, I'm trying to make as much as I can ahead of time. Yesterday I baked a couple of loaves of bread that I'll use for the stuffing (or dressing, since I won't be putting it in the bird). Today I made my cranberry sauce so it has time to set and my pie crust so it has time to chill in preparation for making pumpkin pie tomorrow. Here are my recipes:

Citrus Cranberry Sauce

1 12-ounce bag cranberries
1 cup sugar
3/4 cup orange juice
1/4 cup Cointreau

Combine sugar, orange juice and Cointreau in a medium saucepan. Bring to a gentle simmer and add cranberries. Cover and simmer for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally to make sure it doesn't boil over. Mash berries until sauce reaches desired consistency. Chill at least 4 hours before serving. (You can make this up to a week ahead.)

Flaky Pie Crust
(Makes 2 crusts)

2 1/2 cups flour
2 sticks butter, cut into 1/2" cubes
1 tsp. salt
1 1/2 tsp. sugar
up to 1/2 cup cold water

Put butter in freezer for 15 minutes to thoroughly chill.
In a food processor, combine flour, chilled butter cubes, salt and sugar. Pulse 10-15 times until mixture is crumbly.
Add water 1 Tbsp. at a time, pulsing until the dough begins to clump.
Test the dough by pinching it - when it holds together, it's done.
Pour the crumbly dough out into a big bowl or onto a cutting board. Shape into 2 evenly sized discs. Cover in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least an hour and up to a day ahead (or freeze for up to 2 months).

When you're ready to make your pie, take the dough out of the refrigerator and let sit for 5-10 minutes. Lightly flour your rolling surface and sprinkle flour on top of the disc of dough. Roll out until the dough is about 1/8" thick and fully covers your pie plate.

So, I know I make it seem like I am the master of planning and all things are going according to plan. But in truth, I do have a "Thanksgiving oops" confession to make. Part of my master plan was to roast a succulent, beautifully brined turkey. I took my turkey out of the freezer on Friday night so it would be defrosted in time to put it in the brine tomorrow.

Everything was going swimmingly until I checked the turkey this morning to see how it was coming along and noticed a little logo on the top of the package that said "naturally basting." Not exactly sure of what that meant, I continued reading and noticed fine print at the bottom of the package that the turkey contained up to 8% added moisture. In other words, it was effectively pre-brined.

My mad dash search of the Internet determined that brining any further could make it too salty or turn the meat to mush. I half considered rushing out to the store to get a fresh, non-basting turkey, but decided that a) I really didn't need 2 turkeys and b) I really don't want to brave the grocery store - especially the turkey section - 2 days before Thanksgiving.

Hopefully this will be my biggest blunder in preparing the Thanksgiving feast. But I have a feeling there might be more misadventures in the next few days... stay tuned!

Monday, November 24, 2008

Pumpkin Spice Bread

Here's a wonderful recipe to get you in the Thanksgiving spirit. It's almost like pumpkin pie in bread form. The smell of spices will fill your kitchen as its baking (or at least it did mine this afternoon). If we manage not to gobble it all up by then, I think I'll use it for French toast on Thanksgiving morning, too.

Pumpkin Spice Bread

1 1/4 cups white sugar
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 eggs
1/3 cup water
1 cup pumpkin puree
1 Tbsp. fresh ginger, grated
1 3/4 cups flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. ground cloves
1/2 tsp. ground allspice
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Combine sugar, oil and eggs in a mixing bowl. Beat until creamy and lemon-colored. Add water and beat. Mix ginger with pumpkin puree and add to bowl with sugar mixture. Mix well.

In a separate bowl, combine flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt and spices. Add to wet ingredients and mix just until blended. (The batter will be thinner than most quick breads - more like a cake batter.)

Pour batter into greased loaf pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour 10 minutes, or until toothpick inserted into center comes out clean.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Bashista Orchards & Cider Mill

It has been unseasonably (and bitterly) cold for the last week or so here in the Pioneer Valley. The high yesterday might have been 30 degrees - in the sun. And with the windchill, it feels even colder - more like 20. So we're looking for any and all ways to stay warm. Today that amounted to a drive in Mr. valleywriter's car that has heated seats (or "butt warmers" as I like to call them) out to Bashista Orchards & Cider Mill in Southampton for some local apple cider and freshly made cider doughnuts.

Bashista Orchards & Cider Mill is located on East Street in Southampton. Bashista's grows its own apples, peaches, pears, plums and cherries. A large white barn houses the farm stand, which sells not only the fruits from the orchards, but also seasonal vegetables, jellies, pies, salad dressings, honey and more.

In the fall, Bahsista's also makes and sells its own apple cider and cider doughnuts. If you don't know what a cider doughnut is, I seriously feel for you. Come September, they are a New England institution. These wonderful little brown circles of goodness are brown and crispy on the outside and soft and cakey on the inside. They're made with apple cider (hence the name), so they have a slight hint of apple flavor and are perfect for munching on while sipping a cup of warm milled cider.

I think Homer Simpson's "Mmmm... doughnuts...." saying may have come from the experience of smelling fresh cider doughnuts hot out of the pan. At least, that's how I felt the minute I stepped into Bashista's. We followed our noses to the back counter, where we found an array of freshly made doughnuts. Bashista's has the two main types of cider doughnuts - plain and sugar coated - as well as some new-to-us varieties like "apple crisp" and "pumpkin." We picked out a small pack of the traditional sugar and a small pack of pumpkin, along with a quart of apple cider, and headed back home to enjoy.

We mulled the cider by letting it simmer in a saucepan with a packet of mulling spices for about 20 minutes. We sat down and dug in (after Mr. valleywriter set up this beautiful shot for you):
The doughnuts tasted just as wonderful as they had smelled in the shop. The pumpkin variety had just the slight hint of pumpkin, certainly not overpowering. They were a nice change of pace, but I have to admit the traditional sugar doughnuts still have a special place in my heart and always will.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Bachelorette Vegetarian Lasagna

Mr. valleywriter is away on business for a few days, so I'm living the single life again. Back in my bachelorette days, dinner was usually an after thought - I'd pull together something from the odds and ends in my cabinets & fridge and call it dinner (saltines and a can of green beans - why not?!). These days, I normally plan a full 7 dinners once a week and make sure they're well rounded with veggies, starch & protein. But Mr. valleywriter left town on grocery shopping night and going to the store seemed like a lot of effort for 1 person, so I figured I'd play the single gal and scrounge the depths of my fridge for something edible.

Turns out my fridge is stocked a lot better than it was back in my bachelorette days. I found a green pepper, a red pepper, carrots, an open container of ricotta cheese and some parmesan & mozzarella cheese. I opened up the cabinet and lo-and-behold, there sat 1/2 a box of lasagna noodles and a jar of spaghetti sauce. Can you say vegetarian lasagna?! Sweet!

I didn't actually measure anything, so these are guesstimates, but here's what I'd say I used:
1/2 cup fat-free ricotta cheese
1/4 cup grated parmesan
1 cup shredded mozzarella
9 lasagna noodles
1 jar pasta sauce
1 medium red pepper, diced
1 medium green pepper, diced
3/4 cup carrots, chopped

I combined the sauce & veggies in a saucepan and let them simmer while the water was boiling for the lasagna noodles. I mixed together the ricotta, parmesan and 1/2 cup of the mozzarella and added a tablespoon of milk to help it stick together (no eggs!). I cooked the lasagna noodles for 12 minutes while the oven was preheating to 350 degrees.

After the noodles were cooked & drained, I put 3 of them in the bottom of a small casserole dish, spread 1/2 of the ricotta mixture over the noodles and topped that with 1/3 of the sauce. I repeated another layer of noodles, ricotta & sauce, topped with a final layer of just noodles & sauce. Then I sprinkled on the remaining 1/2 cup of mozzarella.

I baked it for 40 minutes until the cheese was nice and bubbly.

It came out delicious! And it made enough to feed me for the rest of the time Mr. valleywriter is away. I wish cooking were this easy all the time!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Thanks for making me an official foodie, FoodBuzz!

I recently joined FoodBuzz, which is an online community of food lovers sharing recipes, restaurant reviews, cooking tips, etc. Shortly after I joined, I was asked if I wanted to become a featured publisher, since I post so much about food on my blog. I figured why not - if nothing else, it could help boost traffic to my site. (Knowing someone out there is reading is good motivation to continue, even on days where you just feel like sacking out on the couch after work - ah hem, I digress...)

So I signed up, put the pretty FoodBuzz banner on my page and went on my merry way not giving my featured publisher status much more thought. But today I received a lovely surprise in the mail - a package from FoodBuzz. I opened it up and found this box inside:

Moo minicards, huh? Sounds interesting.... I opened up the box and what did I find inside? The cutest little mini business cards with my name & blog address on one side and neat pictures of food on the other.

That's right - I have foodie business cards! Too cool! I don't know how to explain it, but something about people with business cards impresses me. I don't even have a business card for my "real job," which is always embarrassing to say when someone asks me for one. Guess now I'll just give them one of these! Thanks FoodBuzz!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Baking makes winter a little more bearable (but only a little)

Yes, I know we have over a month to go before the official start of winter, but I saw snowflakes today, which means winter in my book. Some celebrate the coming of the snow. I am not one of those people. Sure, the first snowfall is pretty, but when you know there's 4 more months of it to come, it starts looking a little less pretty real quick!

Fortunately, there are plenty of wonderful recipes to keep me through the winter. Not only does baking help me relieve stress, the warm of the oven helps warm up the house and the warmth of fresh baked goods helps warm up my belly - a triple win situation!

Tonight's recipe - pumpkin chocolate chip cookies. These are soft, bready cookies - great for eating with a cup of warm cocoa or tea. I have even been known to eat them for breakfast (they have pumpkin; that makes them healthy, right?!). Enjoy!

Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Cookies

2 1/2 cups flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1 1/2 tsp. pumpkin pie spice
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 cup butter, softenened
1 cup white sugar
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1 cup pumpkin puree
1 egg
2 tsp. vanilla
1 1/2 cups chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, pumpkin pie spice and salt.

In a separate bowl, cream butter and sugars. Add pumpkin, egg and vanilla and beat until creamy.

Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients and mix well. Stir in chocolate chips.

Drop dough onto greased cookie sheets, using about 1 1/2 tablespoons of dough per cookie.

Bake at 350 degrees for 12-15 minutes until cookies are fully set in the center.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Preparing for the Holidays - Testing out toffee

Thanksgiving is less than 2 weeks away and it's a little later than usual this year, which means the holidays will be here before we know it. This year I'm hoping to cut back on my holiday shopping a little, but my alternative plans need their own prep work.

Growing up, my family always did a huge baking weekend before the holidays. We'd make hundreds of dozens of cookies, fudge and peanut butter balls. And then we'd give plates away to nearly everyone we knew - my parents' coworkers, neighbors, the postman - even the newspaper delivery person. It was a great tradition in that it got the whole family into the kitchen, working together, talking, laughing and really getting into the holiday spirit. Obviously I have fond memories of this tradition, so this year, I've decided to do my own "cookie blitz" and give away goodie bags to neighbors, party hostesses, etc. instead of the standard (and tired) bottle of wine or other trinket.

One of the things I wanted to try was making my own toffee. I found a good basic recipe online at, but then realized it called for a candy thermometer and chocolate chips, neither of which I had on hand or wanted to go out for.

At this point I was craving toffee, so I decided to throw caution to the wind and make a small batch adapted to suit the ingredients I had on hand and my lack of a candy thermometer. It could have been a total disaster and waste of ingredients, but I was actually so happy with how it turned out that I think this is the recipe I'm going to stick with for the holidays. Yay for throwing caution to the wind for once!
Here's how I did it:

1/2 cup butter (NOT margarine)
1/2 cup white sugar
1/8 tsp. salt

3/4 cup chopped pieces of Trader Joe's 72% dark chocolate
10 almonds, chopped

Line an 8x8 pan with parchment paper.

Combine butter, sugar and salt in a saucepan over medium heat. Stir constantly until butter is completely melted. Bring the mixture to a gentle boil. Stir about every 30 seconds or so until the mixture is a dark caramel color (like maple syrup). Drop a small amount of the mixture into a glass of cold water. If it hardens instantly and is crunchy to the bite - the toffee is ready. (If you have a candy thermometer, the original recipe this is adapted from says to cook it until it's 285 degrees.)

Once the toffee is ready, pour it into the parchment-lined 8x8 pan. Sprinkle chopped up dark chocolate over the top and let sit 2 minutes to soften. Gently spread the melting chocolate over the toffee with a silicone spatula. (It will continue to melt as you spread it - so keep spreading - you'll get there!)

Here's where it gets a little odd. I like nuts & sweets together; Mr. valleywriter does not. So I took the chopped almonds and sprinkled them over just half of the pan of toffee and left the other half nut-free for the hubby. If you want to make a full batch of nut-topped toffee, double the amount of almonds.

Refrigerate toffee until fully cooled. Peel off parchment paper from the bottom and break toffee into pieces to serve.

Here's how my 1/2 nut (in the front), 1/2 nut-free (in the back) batch turned out:

Both were good, so I'll probably do a batch of each during the cookie blitz. Now I just have to figure out what else to make. Help me get some ideas by telling me what your favorite kind of Christmas cookie is. (And thanks in advance if you do!)

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Judie's Restaurant - An Amherst Classic

If you live in the Pioneer Valley, you've probably heard of Judie's. It's an incredibly popular little restaurant in the heart of downtown Amherst serving warm, comforting, delicious and often innovative dishes. Judie's is especially well known for the HUGE popovers, as well as the delicious freshly made poppy seed dressing that accompanies most salads.

The decor at Judie's is part of what appeals to me about the restaurant. The walls are covered with beautiful art from a local artist, Donna Estabrooks.

Estabrooks' art is bright, colorful and inspiring and, in my opinion, brings a special warmth to Judie's.

Also somewhat unique to Judie's is that you'll often see Judie herself serving customers at the bar, checking tables or even offering suggestions to customers who seem stuck on making a choice from the menu.

In the last couple of years, Judie's has seen some big changes. They took over the space that was next door to them and expanded, adding a new seating area with a fireplace and beautiful handpainted tables, as well as an ample skylit bar.

The menu, however, has stayed pretty much the same, though there are always new specials to choose from. Today, Mr. valleywriter and I were both in the mood for popovers, so we each ordered one of the popover meals. Mr. valleywriter had the gumbo popover with chicken, chorizo and shrimp (sorry - no picture!) and I had the basil pesto chicken popover with spinach, mushrooms, zuchinni, peas and pasta shells in a pesto romano sauce:

As you can see, when I said the popovers were huge - I meant it! They're served warm with a side of apple butter and are always deliciously crispy on the outside and soft and chewy on the inside. This was the first time I'd had the basil pesto chicken popover and, as with all of my Judie's experiences, it did not disappoint. The pesto romano sauce was surprising light and refreshing. The zucchini, peas and mushrooms were all perfectly tender-crisp and the pasta was just right - nicely firm to the bite.

Mr. valleywriter's gumbo was also very good. It was well spiced, not too hot, just a little kick to let you know the heat is there. The chicken, chorizo and shrimp were all cooked just right - not at all rubbery or tough like some gumbos can get when they sit too long in the kitchen.

With the giant popovers and generous bowls of gumbo and basil chicken pesto, Mr. valleywriter and I were far too full to indulge in dessert today. But in good conscience, I can't *not* tell you about the incredible bananas foster we usually enjoy at Judie's. It's definitely a dessert for sharing. You get a big glass sundae dish filled with creamy, rich vanilla ice cream, sliced bananas and gooey foster sauce (butter, brown sugar, rum and spices), all topped with whipped cream and served with straws to make sure you get every last drop of gooey goodness from the bottom of the dish. To die for!

Every time we go to Judie's, we say we need to buy a popover pan so we can learn to make our own at home (Judie sells a cookbook with many of her recipes in it - including the popover recipe). But several years later, we still don't have a popover pan... I think maybe that's our subconsciences' way of ensuring we still have an excuse to visit Judie's and indulge :-)

Friday, November 14, 2008

A New Way to Find Restaurants in the Pioneer Valley

I heard an ad for a Web site on the radio this morning that claimed to be a one-stop site for finding restaurants in the Pioneer Valley, so I decided to check it out. It sounded like the ad kept saying the URL was "Whatchya in the mood for," but it turns out there are lots of different ways people spell "whatchya," so it took a little hunting...

Eventually I found it at (Personally, I think it's wrong to drop the "y" from "ya," but that's just one gal's opinion!) True to the advertising, the site is local to the Pioneer Valley and surrounding areas, including Enfield, CT and the Berkshires.

It has a great search function where you can put type in a town that you're looking for restaurant in or even a zip code and radius you're willing to travel. What I liked the most is that you can narrow your results by options like meal type (breakfast, dinner, etc.), cuisine (Chinese, fine dining, bar food, take out, etc.) and entertainment options (sports bar, DJ, dancing, etc.). When you get your list of search results, the restaurant name, address, phone number, a link to Google maps and a link the restaurant's Web site (if they have one).

The one thing that would make this site better is a place for restaurant reviews. Then it truly would be one-stop-shopping for Valley restaurants. But instead, you'll just have to come back to my blog to see if I've been there and reviewed it :-)

Looking for a review now? Check out:
Bueno Y Sano in Northampton
The Lone Wolf in Amherst
Ralphine's Cafe & Deli, The Silver Spoon or Nini's in Easthampton
Frigo's or Onyx Fusion in Springfield

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Fantastic Fridge Finds = Bread Pudding!

I have a confession to make. I'm frugal (Mr. valleywriter calls it "cheap"). I like saving money and getting things on sale. This often leads to me buying more food than we can use in a week or in much larger packages than 2 people can finish - so a lot goes into the freezer or has to be used creatively. With Thanksgiving on the way, I knew I needed to clear some room out of both the fridge and the freezer, so I went hunting for treasures tonight.

I found some leftover hot dog and hamburger rolls, some craisins, a half-eaten pint of vanilla ice cream in danger of getting frost bite if it hung around much longer and some vanilla soy milk that was on day 9 of it's 10-day shelf life. What can you do with frozen rolls, craisins, ice cream & soy milk? Well, add a few other things in and you can make a fantastic bread pudding!

Cranberry Chocolate Bread Pudding

1/4 cup craisins
3 Tbsp. brandy
1 1/2 c. light vanilla soy milk
1/4 c. sugar
1 egg
1 egg yolk
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 1/2 c. white bread, cubed (this is what 2 hot dog rolls and 1 hamburger roll works out to)
2 1/2 oz. dark chocolate, chopped

In a small bowl, combine craisins and brandy and set aside to let craisins plump.

In a saucepan, combine soy milk and sugar. Stir over medium heat until sugar dissolves.

In a small mixing bowl, whisk together egg and egg yolk until creamy. Slowly stir in hot soy milk & sugar mixture, whisking constantly. Whisk in vanilla extract. Add bread cubes and toss together. Let sit for 15 minutes.

While that's sitting, start preheating your oven to 350 degrees. Grease 4 6-ounce custard cups and place them in a 9x13 baking dish. Start boiling a kettle of water.

Once the 15 minutes are up, mix the craisins & brandy into the bread mixture. Pour into custard cups. Sprinkle each cup with 1/4 of the chopped up chocolate and use a knife to carefully push some of the chocolate into the custard.

Put the baking dish (with the custard cups) in the oven. Fill the baking dish with boiling water until water comes about 1/2 way up the sides of the custard cups.

Bake for 35 minutes. Serve warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

This recipe was delicious and even my husband didn't suspect there was soy milk in it! (He has an aversion to such things.)