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Pip, Pip … and all those sorts of disasters

Never, ever let it be said that your dear old Aunty cannot snatch disaster from the jaws of victory. Given enough distractions, 50-odd years of cooking muscle memory can go flying right out the window, taking the recipe with it, straight down into the toilet.

Exhibit A: This morning, before the DH and I left to go to a sort-or local museum (any museum that does not require suiting up for a 4 hour drive qualifies as ‘sort of local’ in my book) for a workshop, I wanted to make cookies. Not just any cookie, mind you, but the sort of cookie that I was able to find in literally every coffee shop, tea counter, railroad commissary, and museum cafe when we were in London, UK. Which was recently (did I forget to tell you that? Well, we WERE). These cookies are basically referred to as ‘chocolate caramel shortbreads’ and range from the blatantly ‘the only connection in these biscuits with real ingredients is in your head’ commercial sort, shrink-wrapped in cellophane, to something which might elicit noises found in that deli scene from “When Harry Met Sally.” So, once we returned, I was determined to recreate them simply so I could get my fix have the memory available.

And luckily, through the agency of Millionaire Shortbread Bars, I thought I’d happened on the recipe version of the ‘slam dunk.’

No such luck. Distracted by the time, a nasty cough, thoughts about the workshop, and snow outside the window, I completely lost it. The recipe for the shortbread part of this affair calls for 3/4 of a cup of butter. No great shakes, I thought at the time, that’s three sticks.

Woops. No wonder once I took the 9×9″ pan out of the oven, that it did not look like shortbread; it looked like shortbread soup. That’s when it hit me: 3/4 of a cup of butter is 1.5 sticks; not 3 – big trouble. But I was not in a mood to throw that in the trash and start again (I didn’t have time, either); I scooped it into a heat-proof bowl, added more sugar and almond flour (frankly, that is what I had at my hand; I could just as easily have used regular all-purpose flour, which is what I used the first time, so this shortbread is half flour/half almond flour). I mixed that up, said a little prayer to the kitchen gods and goddesses and pressed it into a 9×13″ pan and put it back into the 350 degree F. oven for another 20 minutes.

And…it came out like a champ. I thought I was home free.

Not so fast. The caramel layer calls for taking a can of sweetened condensed milk and heating it for 60-90 min. OR, if using the microwave, doing various calisthenics with the zapper.

In a large heat-proof bowl.

Not a large Pyrex(tm) measuring cup. Well, I thought it was large enough until some rather disturbing noises started coming from the microwave — it was boiling over. So, I hauled it out, transferred it to the biggest heat-proof bowl I’ve got and cleaned the rest of what had boiled over onto the glass microwave tray into the bowl too. No, we are NOT going to discuss the fact that someone had been heating up spaghetti sauce and had not cleaned up the tray afterward. I was a desperate woman and what’s a little tomato and basil in the cookies between friends, right? So, I went back to microwaving it, lowering the power and stopping it, stirring it and so on until it turned brown.

With the texture of tile cement, I might add. Tasted fantastic – but spreadable? Nyet. Addition of a little milk, dribs and drabs as we go to restore a bit of “liquification.” Plopped that into the pan of now-cooled shortbread and (not in the recipe, but I figure chopped walnuts cannot ruin anything) added a double handful of walnuts, chopped up pretty well. And it looked like this: Pretty darned good.

Again, I deluded myself into thinking I was ’rounding third’; all I had to do was make the chocolate layer, which called for a teeny bit of butter and chocolate chips. More cement. I added more butter – it looked better but still had all the appeal of chocolate cement. Out came the milk again. This was NOT the nice shiny layer that I was looking for. And time was getting short. So, frankly, I plopped the entire deal on top of the walnuts, pushed it around to cover with a wet rubber spatula and as the DH was honking the horn on the car outside, slid the pan into the fridge to wait for out return.

Final result? What you see in the top photo. The texture of the top layer is just like the ones in London – a bit resistant at first and then you hit the nuts and caramel. The shortbread is mmmmmm. From an appearance standpoint, I need to work on that chocolate layer to get it smooth and shiny (confections are NOT my strong suit – anyone have any ideas?), but other than that, I can recommend these heartily.

Pour a cuppa!!

Last-minute dinner

Sometimes, everything in the day just conspires to prevent you from being super organized and you come home at 5 p.m. to nothing taken out for dinner. This is one of those lessons in having things on the shelf. Not that I would promote this on an ongoing basis, but sometimes, you want something fast and good. This is as fast and good as I’ve got:

Cannellini and Pasta

What you will need from off the shelf:
Pasta such as penne
1 can of cannellini beans
2 cans of diced tomatoes (or home canned, if you’ve got them)
1 big onion, diced
1 can of mushrooms (or fresh, sliced up, if you’ve got them)
Optional: a can of artichoke hearts, rinsed and soaked in cold water, squeezed out and cut in half.

Cook your pasta according to directions, to al dente.
In a large pan (frying or dutch oven), sautee the onion and muchrooms, add the cannellini beans and diced tomatoes and cook up.
Add the pasta and warm through, and add the artichokes and warm through.

Now, if you are scrounging around in the fridge and have something like escarole, chard, or spinach, you can chop that up and throw that into the pan toward the end to cook through and that is a very nice addition. OR, you can serve this with salad.

Very quick, tasty, and vegetarian.
Bon Appetit!

Live blogging a snowstorm

With the best will in the world, there is not much Aunt Toby can do this morning about the weather in the eastern US. I’m frankly hunkered down in a motel room near an airport, lighting candles and hoping for a break in the weather in time for the DH and I to take a plane to London to make the acquaintance of the newest member of the fam. It is uniformly horrific everywhere and I have every belief that our flight will get cancelled again.

Such is the way with climate change and travel.

So, since I have absolutely no tools at my disposal (no can opener, no shovel, no gas grill, nuthin’) to do anything for readers today, I do have access (obviously) to the archives of KCE and I’ve pulled out a couple of hopefully useful and perhaps even a bit entertaining posts which might help someone out there over the next couple of days.

Take care of yourselves out there.
Cooking on an outdoor grill: cooking on the grill in the snow

General Prep and Operations: What to do

Oh yeah – dress warm, ok?

Everything you NEVER wanted to know about ‘magic cookie bars’

When I started thinking about this post, all I figured on discussing was the fact that the socalled ‘magic cookie bar’, which is almost a staple at school and church bake sales and Christmas cookie swaps, is actually an item which is not set in stone because the thing that makes the bar cookie ‘magic’ is the final addition of a product known as ‘sweetened condensed milk.” Once I started looking around for different versions, it was startling to me how much creativity has been thrown at this item, which frankly, I did not discover until well into adulthood. We certainly did not have them when I was a child – the addition of chocolate chips to oatmeal cookies was about as thrilling as it got at our house. (more…)

Bits and Pieces

Sigh.
It’s been one of those weeks (and weekends), my little wombats. So you get odds and ends, bits and pieces, random thoughts, and whatever I’ve cleaned out of the fridge. Lucky you.

If you are from the Southern Hemisphere, them please forgive the following statement which is on the one hand, one of those obvious items but for you folks, it’s rather cruel since you are basically burning up and have dead bats falling out of the skies and kangaroos dropping from heat prostration. My condolences.

But for those in North America, I can safely say, without fear of contradiction, that it has been cold. Brass monkey cold. And here at Chez Siberia, it has been ten days of energy discoveries the likes of which I am sorry to say, have taken us by surprise. The house was not only cold, it was ‘crouching over the oil heater and choosing which side to cook first’ sort of cold.

For those of you who have followed us since we got started here, you’re probably asking yourselves, “Wait a moment there, Aunty — you folks gutted the house and put in massive amounts of insulation in the walls and replaced all the windows and doors and shouted “Halleluiah”. How could you be cold?

This, my little cupcakes, is a reasonable question. And rather timely and a reminder to us all. You will see up at the top a not very artistic picture of one of the ducts which goes from our old fuel oil furnace in the basement to some particular part of the house (probably the livingroom but that is not important here). As you can also see, it is NOT insulated (you can get special batts to wrap ductwork so that you are not spewing (my word for the day) heat into places where you are not. We’d always planned to do this (cue violins) but never got around to doing it in the front basement (versus the back basement which could be rented out as a meat locker even under the best of circumstances, and which we did insulate – not only the ductwork but also underneath the floor joists under the dining area (known in the house as ‘Fairbanks, South’).

Now, here is another, also unartistic shot. which, other than the foam insulation around one of the copper waterlines, shows the underneath of the subfloor for our first floor.

Also, uninsulated and also something we had always planned to insulate.

Now, when we first got all the work done on the house, it made a HUGE difference in warmth and comfort upstairs. It really did. Why is it that now, the first floor feels like a garret? Besides the horrific cold weather we had?

One thing changed, and it was one thing that we did not take into account when we did it.

We stopped using the furnace in the basement (ahhhhhhh). We installed a wood pellet burner in the fireplace in the livingroom. We love it and it puts out tremendous amounts of heat (it also dries out the air in the house like fury so we have to run a humidifier as well but that’s another deal entirely). But, it’s obvious that what happened was that when we ran the furnace in the basement, that was heating the basement and that was heating up the subfloor and regular floor on the first floor, making the first floor much more comfortable. I never thought about that issue.

So now, with no furnace going in the basement, it’s extremely cold down there (I measured it this morning and it’s 45 degrees F. What it was during the “Polar Vortex” when the wind chill factors here were minus 35 degrees F, I don’t know and don’t want to know), so the subfloors are cold, which makes the floors upstairs cold, which makes the house chilly and uncomfortable.

Lesson learned. Next big project: Insulate the subfloors in the basement. Since we have a certain amount of humidity issues down there, we will be using foam insulation and for the moment adding wool sweaters for everyone.

Odd bit number two (and a more pleasant one): Another bit of comfort food. Here’s a dessert I have not made in a very long time but which is just lovely. It can be eaten as/is or dressed up with a bit of whipped cream, vanilla ice cream. It has the added benefit that if you are cooking with little ones, they are amazed that you just dump everything in the baking dish, throw it into the oven and voila.

Denver Chocolate Pudding

You’ll need: Some sort of 2 quart, deep baking dish. I use a Corningware(tm) casserole.

Ingredients:
Sift together:
3/4 c. white sugar
1 c. all purpose flour
2 tsp. baking powder
3 T. baking cocoa

Melt: 2 T. butter and throw that into the sifted ingredients along with 1/2 c. of milk and 1 tsp. of vanilla and mix up with a fork.

Spoon into a greased baking dish. Then throw on top:
1/2 c. brown sugar
1/2 c. white sugar
4 T. baking cocoa
1.5 c. cold water (or, if you want to live on the wild side and have it around ‘at hand’ (as my Mum used to say), use cold coffee instead)

Bake, uncovered in a 350 degree F. oven for 40-50 min. The signal that it is done (you don’t want to overdo this) is in the picture above – you will start to see the chocolate sauce stuff coming through the crusty top of the cake.

Serve by spooning up the cake at the top and cover with the chocolate sauce that will be underneath.

Enjoy.

Sometimes you just want a plain cookie

Having come through the Holiday Season(tm) here at Chez Siberia (where, for the last couple of weeks, thanks to Polar Vortex – now there’s a name that needs to be registered – it’s been more Siberian than we’ve had in a very long time) mostly intact, I received a request from the DH for ‘a plain cookie’.

No chocolate chips, no oatmeal, no raisins or other dried fruit. No weird layers of unidentifiable stuff. No frosting. No peanut butter.

Now, that’s a challenge for sure. Your dear Aunty was left feeling that all I had to work with was shortening and sugar and not much else. Shortbread, perhaps?

Well, no. I got the DH to admit that he wouldn’t mind the inclusion of coconut but he did NOT want coconut macaroons.

Well, scrabbling around the seemingly hundreds of cooking and baking books that I have laying around here, I came across.. well, actually I came across nothing. No such thing as a plain, ordinary cookie that just so happened to have coconut thrown into it. So, I modified a different cookie recipe I have and frankly, they turned out rather nicely and were gobbled up by anyone within reaching distance.

Plain cookies with coconut

Ingredients:
1 stick of butter (unsalted)
1/2 cup of veg. shortening
1 cup of white sugar
1/2 cup of dark brown sugar (because that’s all I’ve got and frankly it has such a strong flavor that I can’t use it by itself; if you, on the other hand, have light brown sugar, then use 1/5 cups of light brown sugar)
2 eggs
1 tsp of almond flavoring (if you only have vanilla, then use 3 tsp. of vanilla. Almond flavoring is very strong)
3 cups of flour (now, I did it with 2 cups of flour and 1 cup of almond flour, again because I have it around)
2 tsp. of baking powder
1 cup of dried coconut (flaked would work well also)
a little liquid of some sort (I used some juice I had in the fridge but anything will do)

Mix everything up together and put, by spoonfuls on a greased cookie sheet. Press down with a fork dipped in water.
Bake at 375 degrees F. for 6-8 min. You want the edges to be brown.

Notes:
The almond flour gave these a rather sandy texture which people seemed to like; if you are using just regular ‘all purpose’ flour, you probably won’t get that effect; you may even need to throw in a little extra flour to make sure they are not too wet when you spoon them onto the baking pans. This recipe made, for me (because I make BIG cookies) slightly more than 3 doz. If you use a smaller spoon or are more delicate with your baking pan applications than I am, then you could probably get 1-2 doz. more. They are crispy when they come out. The coconut makes them a bit chewy.

Enjoy.

More from left-over liquor-land: Orange Extract

At this time of the year, you might find yourself with a box of oranges as a gift (or, as part of a fund-raiser). Now, you can certainly eat them and toss the orange rinds. No one would fault you for that (although there are a lot of things you can do with orange rinds including making your own citrus cleansers and furniture polishes), but here is another way to use them that can actually provide you with a holiday gift later on: Making orange extract.

So, what, precisely are we extracting when we make this stuff?

Well, 95% of the oils in an orange peel is made up of a substance called d-limonene, which is a relatively stable hydrocarbon that gives off that characteristic ‘Oh, someone is opening an orange” smell. It has found widespread use in the chemical industry as an ingredient for cleansers and degreasers. It is also the ingredient that makes orange extract add that characteristic smell and taste to baked goods and other products.

Like the vanilla extract recipe,vanilla extract this is simplicity itself. As a matter of fact, it is even easier.

First, you are going to want to use oranges which have really thick skins. Those will have the most ‘orange oil’ in them and are the easiest to peel in terms of getting the orange stuff off (it’s either that or a grater; I think using a vegetable peeler is easier)without having any of the white pithy stuff that is underneath it. You don’t want any of that in your extract mix because it will make it bitter. Second, you want to give the oranges a really good scrubbing. If you have the blessing of having organic oranges available to you – fantastic, you’ll just want to make sure they are scrubbed up well. For anything else (which means everything else), put a couple of drops of dish washing detergent in the water, scrub the oranges well, and rinse, rinse, rinse.

Here is the basic mix: You will need vodka or white rum. Again, get the cheapest stuff you can find. One big bottle is a liter, which is approximately 34 ounces (which works out to 4 cups and two left over ounces in a bottle).

For every quart Mason(tm) jar:
Peel of 7 oranges
3 cups of white rum or vodka

The jar, once you put everything into it, should look like this: Seal up the jar with a screw top or a piece of plastic topped by a canning jar lid and ring. Shake up the jar and put it away in a cool dark place for several weeks, taking it out to shake it every couple of days. You can use it as is, or strain out the liquid into another bottle with a cork or screw top and use it in any recipe that you’d use orange extract, including baked goods or in items such as cocktails.

Bon Appetit!!

Theme and Variations on a Brownie

Some folks like their brownies chewy. Some folks like their brownies fudgy. Some people like them cakey and others claim that if they’re cakey then they are not brownies. Then there is the PN crowd (pro-nuts) and the other sort of people. Brownies bring out loyalties. Now, I’m PN and fairly AC (anti-cakey), but one thing is for sure – my mouth never met a brownie that it did not like. (more…)

Go Straight to January

As is my wont, your Aunty is going to completely skip over the rest of the holiday season and land squarely on January 1, 2014 . Feet first. I figure that you have the rest of this month firmly set up with open houses, family breakfasts, brunches and dinners, right up to 11:59 p.m. on December 31st and are ready to sink into oblivion and hope to wake up sometime on January 1st to toddle around the house in your jammies and bunny slippers, nursing headaches, nausea and a very large mug of tea (or perhaps something stronger).
You are going to want to treat your tummy with tenderness. In the US, the digestive assault began in late November (end of October if you count Hallowe’en) with fats, sugar, alcohol, grain-based carbs and meat, meat, meat right up through and including New Year’s Eve. If your colon has not already started howling, it’s not for lack of trying. At the moment, mine is behaving like that section of the Gulf which is being coyly referred to as ‘a dead zone.’ Blech. (more…)

Last Minute Holiday Meal: Ayyyyyyy!

Wednesday morning. Your old Aunty was sent an IM this morning (and for anyone outside these here Semi-United States today is the day before what is probably the biggest non-religious family get togethers in the country) from a friend. In a complete panic. He’d just been informed by his partner that they were expected to transport a complete (other than a turkey) Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow to his parents’ home, which is several hours away.

If you face something like this, I’m going to give you the same exact advice that I gave to him:
Don’t sweat the small stuff. You only have so much time between today and tomorrow morning and some of that is sleep time. If you are the sort of person who does NOT ‘go with the flow’ then you have to think through the following:

What makes me the most stressed out?
What can I make either with an axe in my head or half-asleep?
How do I use what time I have to best advantage?

For most of us, it’s the turkey that makes us the most stressed out and he didn’t have to do that, so Job One is done.

For the ‘asleep at the switch’ cooking, I’d choose mashed potatoes and broccoli. Those are two items that you can do some prep today and then finish them up on-site: Cut up the potatoes, put them into cold water in the fridge and cook them ‘on site’ tomorrow. Or, if you feel you have the time, I’d make the mashed potatoes today, refrigerate them, put them into a covered bowl and reheat in the oven tomorrow. If you are feeling fancy when you get ‘on site’ you can always bring along some grated cheddar cheese in a plastic bag and mix the cheese into the potatoes, put big plops on a greased baking pan and bake at 350 degrees F. for as long as it takes for the potatoes to cook through and the cheese to melt. The broccoli, I’d chop up, put into a plastic bag and then steam at the last moment just before everything goes out on the table.

For the ‘best use of time’ item, I’d put my time (given that I don’t need to do a turkey) into the dessert; because in the end, that is what people remember. If pie crust is NOT your strong suit, you might want to try one of the recipes out there for apple cake (you’ll need eggs, so check the fridge now; some of the recipes call for a spring form pan, so check for that). Here is one that is really pie: apple cake that is really pie
Here is one that is really cake: apple cake

Something else that I’d put my time into is the cranberry sauce – just opening up a can is boring and that stuff is filled with high fructose corn syrup. If you have frozen or fresh blueberries available to you, here is my take on low sugar cranberry sauce which is extremely tasty and though it’s a surprising color, everyone likes it a LOT. blue-cran sauce

Anything else, like stuffing or rolls or anything like that, I’d jettison like so much excess baggage. You’ve already got mashed potatoes; if you feel the crushing need for rolls or bread, you can run through your local store bakery and pick some up.

What else? Well, I think a nice floral arrangement covers a multitude of sins; something long and low works best and looks different and you can call that in and perhaps get it made in enough time tonight to pick it up on your swing through the store for the aforementioned rolls or whipped cream for the apple cake or a side trip to the florist – just call right away to make sure of operating hours today. Just in case the person you are doing this for does NOT have have linens or placemats (and you do), then whip those out right now and take a look. If they need washing and drying, throw those in now and take care of that. While you are doing other things, you can press them (or pat them down to dry as neatly as possible). If you do NOT own linens or place mats, I have two words for you for later: estate sales. And you deserve a nice table cloth and napkins, anyway, or good placemats and some nifty fabric napkins.

And at that point, just have a Zen moment, with or without a glass of wine. Because Thanksgiving is supposed to be about being with friends and family, right?

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