Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas from everyone here in the ValleyWriter household... even the girls:

Hope you have a safe & happy holiday!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Christmas Cookie Extravaganza 2009

Last year, I did my 2-day cookie blitz the weekend before Christmas. This year, I made just as many cookies, but was smart enough to spread it out a little over the last week. I'm really happy I chose to do that because this year, I'm not exhausted and sick of cookies at the end of it all like I was last year. The downside is that since I spent every night last week making a batch of cookies or truffles, I didn't have time to post along the way. So now you get one big cookie extravaganza post. (Hmmm... maybe that doesn't sound like such a bad thing after all... I mean, can you ever have too many cookies? I think not!)

For your viewing pleasure, we'll start with a snapshot of the cookie plate I made for dear Mr. ValleyWriter and his office mates:

Starting at the top left, we have my tried-and-true, classic sugar cookies. Some are decorated with simple colored sugar and others have my sugar cookie icing, which dries shiny and beautiful.

To the right of those are white chocolate chip Craisin® cookies, which I think are a nice change of pace from a traditional chocolate chip cookie. The dried cranberries just add a special little touch for me. I don't know what it is, but they really say "Christmas cookie" to me.

Underneath those, we have my take on a Linzer cookie. Linzer cookies normally have ground almonds added to the dough, but we're not big on nuts in sweets around the ValleyWriter household, so I just made them using sugar cookie dough. I cut out a bunch of big stars, then cut smaller stars out of the middle of half of them. I spread a little triple berry jam on the full stars, baked both pieces for 5 minutes. While still hot, I sprinkled the stars with cut-outs with confectioner's sugar, then put them on top of the jam-filled pieces. (The hot jam acts like a glue.) Ta da! Faux Linzer cookies!

Next on the bottom left, we have gingersnaps. These are based on the same recipe I used to make the soft and chewy ginger cookies last year, except I used all butter (no shortening) for these, which creates a crispy cookie that "snaps" when you bite into it. These are nice and spicy, just like a gingersnap should be. But just as a personal preference, next year I think I'll go back to the chewy ones. I feel like I can get a gingersnap anywhere, but the chewy ones are kind of special. (If anyone knows how to make chewy cookies without using shortening - let me know!).

And last, but certainly not least, my new addition to the roundup in the center of the tray - homemade truffles!

These are really simple to make, though they are time consuming. Here's the recipe I came up with after some trial and error:
Dark Chocolate Truffles

1 lb. dark chocolate (I used 72% dark chocolate from Trader Joe's)
4 oz. cream cheese
4 oz. marshmallow cream
2-3 Tbsp. Grand Marnier, Frangelico or other liqueur (optional)

Toppings: cocoa powder, powdered sugar, crushed pecans, white chocolate, red & green chocolate candy melts

Cut chocolate into chunks. Add to the top pot of a double boiler. Heat over medium heat, stirring frequently until melted. Turn the burner off and add cream cheese to the chocolate mixture. Whisk in briskly. Then stir in marshmallow cream until well mixed and smooth. Stir in liqueur last (if desired).
Spread this mixture (ganache) in a shallow pan (I used a 9 x 13 casserole dish) and refrigerate 1 hour to help harden.
Remove from refrigerator and scoop out about a teaspoon at a time (depending on how big you want your truffles), rolling the ganache into balls between your palms.
At this point, you can either roll the truffles in cocoa, powdered sugar or nuts, or save them for later to cover in chocolate. If you are using the cocoa, sugar or nuts - roll them right away while the ganache is still a little soft from the heat of your hands. This will help the topping stick.

Once rolled, you can pop the truffles back into the fridge for a few days or even a week before you finish decorating/eating them.

For the truffles that I wanted to coat in chocolate, I put them back in the refrigerator for another night and let them sit at room temperature for about 2 hours before I was ready to coat them.
Then I melted the white chocolate in the microwave, per the package instructions.
One by one, I put the truffles on a spoon, dunked it into the bowl of chocolate and a carefully tipped them off the spoon onto waxed paper.
I swirled the spoon up and over the top, which gave the truffles a cool little curly cue on the top.
On the ones that didn't turn out so cute on top, I used the colored candy melts to make designs or squiggles on top. My creative outlet ;-)

Next year, I'll have to change up the cookies some, just for variety. But you can bet the sugar cookies will make a comeback. Because really, have you celebrated the holidays yet if you haven't had a sugar cookie? No. So go eat one!

Monday, December 14, 2009

I made bagels!

As you can tell from the title, I'm pretty proud of myself for this one. That's right - I made homemade bagels - and they turned out pretty darn good!

A little crunchy on the outside, but soft and chewy on the inside. And aside from taking a while due to having to let the dough rise a few times, they were surprisingly simple.

I generally followed this Boiled Bagels recipe. I used all the same amounts of things and followed the same order of steps, but instead of using the "let rise" times listed (15 minutes in step 2 and 20 minutes in step 3), I let the dough rise until it was doubled in size. Since it's winter and we have stone (i.e. cold) counter tops, this took about an hour each time. Obviously if you did this in the summer, it might not take as long.

But even with the waiting time, it is sooo worth it! And the bagels store well, too. We stuck them in an airtight container and found they were just as good 4 days later. The only comment Mr. ValleyWriter had was that I should've made fewer bagels so each bagel was bigger ("New York style," according to Mr. ValleyWriter). Personally, I don't like a ginormous bagel, but if you do - considering making 8 bagels instead of the 12 the recipe calls for.

I'm planning on making another batch this weekend with cinnamon and raisin. Can't wait!

Monday, December 7, 2009

Cooking with the Queen

Last fall, I spun you, my fine readers, a tale of how I met a beautiful queen and her handsome Italian price. If you missed it, you can check it out here. At the end of our visit last year, we told Jenn (the Leftover Queen) that she and her husband (Roberto) were more than welcome to stay with us the next time they came up to the Valley.

As luck would have it, they took us up on our offer during their last annual fall trip, just a few weeks ago. They also brought their cute little pooch Pepino, who was an absolute joy! (And has me dying for a doggie now!) I gave you a hint about our visitors a few weeks ago when I posted a pic of the little guy:

In addition to enjoy a nice Tapas-style dinner out, as I posted before, we also had a couple of really wonderful dinners in. It was a lot of fun to cook with another foodie and just come up with things on the fly - no recipes need apply.

We started out the first day by picking up my last CSA share. We got a bunch of root vegetables - sweet potatoes, turnips, beets - and we picked some fresh fresh thyme, rosemary and sage. Then we headed home to create. For that first night, I had picked up a duck for us to enjoy. I had never cooked duck - and it turns out Jenn had never cooked a full one either - but we decided to go ahead and wing it. After brainstorming some ideas, we decided to cook the duck like a beer can chicken, believe it or not!

I had Mr. ValleyWriter pick up some local beer on his way home and we enjoyed a little tasting of each so we could decide on which to use for the duck. We ended up going with a raspberry hefenweizen, which had a nice fruity finish we thought would work wonderfully with the duck. So then we set about scoring the skin (to let the fat drain out), buttering and seasoning her (to get the skin crispy), and then standing her up.
(A special shout out to Roberto & Jenn for these great photos!)

We also cut up those fresh veggies and roasted them in some olive oil and the freshly picked herbs. Despite a brief bout of concern brought on by the smoke alarms (due to the high fat content of duck), the results were phenomenal! It roasted away at 425 for about 2 hours and came out a beautiful mahogany color. When it was done, Roberto was game enough to put on my apron (which I won from one of Jenn's great giveaways on The Foodie Blogroll) and cut it up for us!

(Isn't he cute?!)

I thought roasting the duck this way was quite ingenious - and it came out flavorful and moist. We enjoyed a yummy fall meal that night, for sure! Best of all, I'm no longer intimidated by roasting a duck. (Though I have learned that I should open the windows at the start of cooking...)

The next night, Jenn planned a dinner of pork tenderloin, wild rice and carrots for us. All 4 of us helped out with the prep that night. The boys cleaned and cut carrots, I seared the pork (which Jenn had marinated in a delicious apple cider mixture) and Jenn made the wild rice using a risotto method.

We sat down to another amazing meal - made all the more special by great company!

(Ha! You didn't really think you were going to get to see Mr. ValleyWriter's face, now did you? No, no - it's not the series finale yet. Remember, Mr. ValleyWriter is kind of like Mr. Big on Sex in the City. His true identity is a secret. Is he a celebrity? Is he in witness protection? Hmm.... Intriguing, no?)

We had a great time cooking and chatting with Jenn and Roberto and can't wait to do it again soon. It's still amazing to think about how we randomly met on our respective honeymoons, turned out to have so much in common - and now feel like comfortable old friends. All 4 of us (not just the girls!) can just sit and talk about whatever for hours. Mr. ValleyWriter & I just really enjoy their company. Lucky for us, they're moving back to New England in the spring! Hopefully the next "Queen & me" post will be of us cooking in their new house in Vermont. You'll just have to stay tuned!

For now - please head on over to The Leftover Queen to see her account of our visit!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Review: Tabasco™ Spicy Tequila

Fresh, new FTC disclaimer!!!! * I received free product samples of Tabasco™ Spicy Tequila in exchange for this review. *

Now, on to the show:

When I received an email about trying a new Tabasco™ Spicy Tequila, I honestly thought they were talking about a new type of hot sauce infused with tequila. It sounded neat to me, so I said sure, I'd review it.

When I received my samples in the mail a couple of weeks later, I was a little surprised to find actual tequila inside!

Yup - they've come up with a new hot sauce/tequila combo. It took me a few days to process this. You see, I'm not really a tequila person. There's a story behind that (there always is), but we'll just leave it at that. This is a family blog, after all.

So, I decided to put my preconceived notions to the side and go ahead and give the Tabasco™ Spicy Tequila a try. I perused their official recipes and found 2 that caught my eye.

First up - the Bloody Maria (aka a bloody mary). With the spices already inside the tequila, this recipe couldn't be much simpler - tequila, tomato juice, lemon, celery seed. Throw in a stalk of celery and you've got a pretty snazzy looking drink:

When I brought the glass to my mouth, I immediately caught a whiff of the classic Tabasco spice that this tequila is named for. As far as taste, it was spicy, but the tequila definitely came through. And for me, there was just too much tequila. I guess I'm one of those people who wants to drink and not realize I'm drinking. Maybe if I remade this with twice as much tomato juice to tequila it might work for me. I did like the spicy start, just not the tequila finish.

So, I moved on to the next drink - the Tabasco™ Tail. Again, this is a super simple recipe - ginger ale and tequila. Having learned from my first experiment, I used just 1 oz. of tequila to about 4 oz. of ginger ale. Again, I got that great whiff of spice when I first took a sip, felt a little heat on my tongue and then had a nice, clean gingery finish. Perfect! It was like ginger ale with a special kick (not ginger ale loaded up with tequila). I really like this combo as a nice sipping drink.

The bottom line? If you like tequila - give this a try for a spicy change of pace. If you're not big on tequila, you might give it a try for a little extra kick in your drink, but go easy on how much you use. Just a splash will do!