Monday, December 29, 2008

Merry Christmas to Me

This is me at Christmas, about to enjoy a whole pile of one of my favorite (and Oprah's favorite) desserts: Wicked Whoopies.

Ben and I went straight to the Isamax bakery to pick up a dozen. Unfortunately, they were closed early for Christmas Eve. Fortunately, my sister made it there before they closed and picked up all my favorites: strawberry, raspberry and cream, and peanut butter.

See all that raspberry goodness?

I'd like to take this opportunity to offer a formal word of thanks to my sister for her whoopie pie foresight. Whoopie pies, it would have been a blue Christmas without you.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Hot Potato (Latkes)

We had our first Christmas on Sunday with Ben's side of the family and, in honor of the first day of Chanukah, Peter lit the menorah and made beef brisket and potato latkes. After Peter mixed the latkes, I volunteered to fry. It was strangely satisfying to drop piles of shredded potato and onion into hot oil.

It was also satisfying to eat them. Crunchy on the outside, chewy on the inside. Yummy all around. I recommend a little sour cream on the side.

I'm not sure what recipe Peter used, but everyone's favorite home expert and jailbird Martha Stewart offered this take on latkes on her show yesterday, after taking a moment to emphasize that her family is Catholic, not Jewish.

We've had a great time with Sue and Peter and Gabe and Melissa, and we've been eating very well and often. Next up is our Nixon Christmas, with more fun and more family.

And more food. Oy vey.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A Chip Off the Old Bar

When it comes to Christmas baking, I usually stick to the faithful favorites, but this year I branched out a little with these ginger chocolate chip bars. Overall, I would rate them as an "ehh, okay."

Basically, they're a blondie brownie with ginger in the batter. I love ginger, but the flavor wasn't very pronounced, so I pretty much ended up with plain old blondies. No Christmas razzle dazzle there. And with holiday baked goods, I'm going for the razzle dazzle. I might try them again with lots more ginger.

I will say that the batter tasted much better than the final product. So if you like raw cookie dough and you're feeling brave about salmonella, this might be the recipe for you.

The food: Ginger chocolate chip bars
The verdict: Like I said: ehh, okay

Monday, December 22, 2008

How I Roll

I like rock and roll. I like a good honor roll. But my favorite roll, by far, is pumpkin. Especially at Christmas. This is the perfect Christmas dessert. Pumpkin sponge cake. Walnuts. And more cream cheesy goodness than you can shake a yule log at.

Plus the slices look cool. And it's fun to throw powdered sugar all over your dish towels.

A word to the wise: Let the cake cool nearly completely rolled up in the towel before you attempt to fill. Don't be impatient. And speaking of being patient, let it sit in the fridge overnight if you can.

Pumpkin Roll
  • 3/4 cup flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 2/3 cup pureed pumpkin
  • 1 cup chopped walnuts
  • 1 pkg. (8 oz.) cream cheese, softened
  • 1 cup powdered sugar
  • 6 tablespoons butter, softened
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • Powdered sugar (for towel and for dusting cake)
Preheat oven to 375F. Grease 15x10-inch jelly-roll pan and line with wax or parchment paper. Grease and flour paper.

Mix flour, baking powder, baking soda, pumpkin pie spice and salt. In a separate bowl, beat eggs and granulated sugar. Add pumpkin. Stir in flour mixture.

Spread in pan and sprinkle with nuts. Bake about 15 minutes.

While cake bakes, sprinkle a thin towel with about 1/3 cup of powdered sugar. (Use plenty – the cake sticks.) When cake is done, invert immediately onto towel. Peel off the paper and roll cake in towel. Cool completely (on a rack) before unrolling.

For the filling, beat cream cheese, 1 cup powered sugar, butter and vanilla. Unroll the cake, spread the filling and re-roll. Refrigerate for two to three hours (but best if refrigerated overnight). Dust with powdered sugar before serving.

The food: Pumpkin roll
The verdict: Santa requested it over cookies this year

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Taking 'Cues

Ben and I have become barbecue enthusiasts. The time-honored Southern tradition of roasting an entire pig over a wood fire has become very dear to the hearts of these two Yankees.

For those of you unfamiliar with barbecue, or for those readers who think of barbecue as an event held on the Fourth of July or similar occasions, let me point you to the wisdom of Rhett and Link, North Carolina's favorite musical comedy duo:

People not from the South think barbecue means cookout.
And that’s something they’re wrong about.
Barbecue’s not a verb.

Barbecue’s not a grill.
Barbecue is meat prepared in a very special way, which varies depending on where you are.

And when you're in Eastern North Carolina barbecue territory, like we are, barbecue is pork prepared with vinegar-based sauce. And that's it.

I'll spare you details on the Eastern-style/Western-style drama, only saying that most folks around here like Eastern-style and Ben and I are with them on that.

Our favorite barbecue spot in Bill's in Wilson. There are a lot of good things about Bill's. First -- and most important -- the food is excellent. Second, there's a lot of it. Third, it's pretty cheap. Fourth, the ambiance and decor are such that you don't feel bad if you drop a little of your barbecue on the table. Or the floor.

I usually go for the barbecue (pork -- but that goes without saying in the Tar Heel State), chicken and dumplings, hush puppies, sweet potatoes and biscuits. And peach cobbler. The photo at the top is my most recent Bill's meal.
Notice the half-eaten biscuit. That's where I started.

Ben skips the dessert and does double barbecue and biscuits. He's also a sweet potato fan, likes the fried chicken and hush puppies, and has been known to try fatback but reports it isn't his favorite menu item.

I think this picture of Ben really captures our barbecue experience. See how he's savoring the moment? Or just happened to blink as I took the picture?

If you're in the neighborhood, stop in at Bill's. Tell them we sent you. But I'd recommend skipping the fatback.

Monday, December 15, 2008

A Kale Tale

See this leafy green stuff? It's kale.

If you've never had it, here's how I'd describe it: a really, really tough version of parsley. It doesn't wilt. It takes a lot of effort to chew. Did I mention it was tough?

I don't have much use for kale. In fact, I have only one recipe I use it in: a sausage and potato soup. (If you're still interested in trying it after you read this -- and really, you should, because it's a good soup -- the recipe is at the end.)

The soup calls for two cups of kale. The thing is, you can't buy kale by the cupful. You buy it by the bunch. And there's a lot more than two cups of kale in a bunch.

Back when my sister Allie and I had our apartment in Farmington, I made this soup one time. I used my two cups of kale. I thought about throwing out the extra. But then I didn't.

This apartment was the first place I'd lived that had a garbage disposal. It was an impressive machine and I was a little fascinated with it. I thought it would be fun to feed it the kale.

And it was -- at least for stalks one through six. They spun and spun while the blades ground away, eventually sucking in leafy tops. Stalk seven, though is what gummed up the works. I was faced with an ugly kale clog.

I tried running the garbage disposal longer. Nothing. I tried four different grades of drain cleaner. No dice. I tried a snake-like gadget that was supposed to clear any blocked pipe. All it did was bring up a few good size chunks of kale, unharmed, except for the color bleaching that occurred as a result of the three gallons of Draino I used.

Ben finally showed up to help and suggested lye. Citing my aversion to corrosive alkalines in the kitchen, I said no. Then he suggested a plunger. I have an aversion to plungers in the kitchen, too, but it was better than lye and I was desperate for an operational sink at this point.

At first, even the plunger was helpless against the kale blockage. Eventually, however, Ben was able to clear the clog. I was giddy. My sink was kale-free. I'm sure my landlord would have been appreciative, too, had he been aware of the situation.

Thanks to this experience, Ben asks me whenever I make this soup not to put the kale down the garbage disposal. Let me caution you in the same way. Toss it, give it to the dog, put it in a vase and pretend it's a bouquet -- but do not try to grind it up in the InSinkErator.

Trust me on this one.

Sausage Kale Soup
  • 1/2 lb. hot Italian sausage
  • 3 to 4 cups chicken broth
  • 3 to 4 cups milk
  • 1 small onion, minced
  • 1/4 cup bacon, crumbled
  • Dash salt
  • Dash crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1 large russet potato, scrubbed, with peel
  • 2 cups kale, chopped
Grill or sauté sausage until cooked. Slice into 1/4-inch slices.

Combine broth, milk, onion, bacon, salt and pepper flakes in a large stock pot. Cook at medium high heat for about 10 minutes.

Quarter the potato lengthwise, then slice. Add to pot. Bring soup to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, for about 30 minutes.

Add sausage to soup. Simmer for an hour.

Add kale. Simmer for 15 minutes.

Makes four servings.

The food: Kale
The verdict: Great in soups. Not great in drains.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Sir, Mix a Lot?

I don't use mixes that often, but inevitably, whenever I cheat and bake something from a mix, someone wants the recipe. Basic recipe: Go to Harris Teeter. Add eggs and oil.

I've decided there is no need to apologize for using a mix -- some of them are really excellent. Betty Crocker's Double Chocolate Chunk cookie mix, for instance, makes the best cookies I've ever had.

I'm also throwing my official blog endorsement behind Country Gourmet scone mixes. My two favorites are cranberry orange and blueberry oat. Just add water. Not too sweet, not too dry. Very sconey.

The food: Double Chocolate Chunk cookie mix and Country Gourmet scone mixes
The verdict: The best thing that ever happened to an egg and two tablespoons of water