Monthly Archives: December 2014

Reflections on Christmas Present

While the magical glow of Christmas is still in the air, the knowledge that the holiday season is slowly winding down and a new year is on the horizon is creeping into my mind. This is a time of reflection. It’s more than what worked and what may have seen its last Christmas appearance though that will be given some thought. It’s the deeper emotional experience of the holiday season. This was a year that just by the nature of the changes that life has given us was cause for a deeper feeling of joy and gratitude.

DIGITAL CAMERAIt was a year of family getting bigger and home getting smaller.Scan_Pic0061 Job descriptions changed along with our address. While many changes were joyous, others were startling, causing major adjustment to thought and life style. As my mother always said, “Everything happens for the best” and in Mama D’s Kitchen and life that has proven true. I’m grateful for every change because it brought new insight into what really matters. Love and family are the most important things. What ever needs to be done to enhance that is one’s life path.

This year the holidays seemed to get here at warp speed. The baking happened, but at such a rapid pace that picture-taking became an afterthought. One newcomer (or I should say two) was added because it could be made in 10 minutes or so. It yielded a generous amount of goodness that was welcomed far and wide. “Bark” is a  decadent confection that features virtually anything mixed into melted chocolate. The mixture chills for an hour or so and is then broken into pieces. My maiden voyage included two versions taken from Kraft Recipes. One featured white chocolate with dried fruits and pistachio nuts that lived up to its name, Jewel. The other blended white and semisweet chocolate with pretzels and peanuts creating a sweet and salty treat. Check out these recipes and get your own inspiration This was so easy and yummy that I see many more variations in my future.DIGITAL CAMERAWhile I don’t have many pictures of the cookies I made, I do have a Holiday recipe that I came up with that is worth sharing. It uses the flavors of the season and pairs beautifully with the heartier holiday fare that comes along at this time of year. Sweet Potato and Butternut Squash are joined by Cheddar Cranberry Cheese. This cheese is a seasonal item at both Trader Joe’s and Aldi. It may be carried at some Delis as well. It was wonderful on the Christmas Eve cheese tray and was fabulous in this gratin.

DIGITAL CAMERASo, these three stars were joined by red onions, rosemary, and thyme.DIGITAL CAMERA

The onions were sautéed in butter and as a last-minute thought some dried cranberries came along for the ride. The herbs went in and everything took a “milk bath” as the sauce came together. I used a combination of 2% milk and fat-free half and half, but  cream would be wonderfully naughty.DIGITAL CAMERAI added plenty of grated cheeseDIGITAL CAMERAand when everything was beautifully co-mingling I poured it over the squash and sweets.DIGITAL CAMERAIt baked in the oven under a foil cover for about 35 minutes or so. Then a final layer of cheese was added.DIGITAL CAMERAA few more minutes in the oven and  the gratin transformed into golden brown deliciousness.DIGITAL CAMERA

This would be a wonderful side dish for any Fall or Winter holiday meal. It could even be a wonderful main dish for two on a cold Winter’s night… and it was.

Sweet Potato and Butternut Squash Gratin
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The perfect holiday side dish that can also be a vegetarian main dish.
Servings
4
Servings
4
Sweet Potato and Butternut Squash Gratin
Print Recipe
The perfect holiday side dish that can also be a vegetarian main dish.
Servings
4
Servings
4
Ingredients
Servings:
Instructions
  1. Slice the squash and sweet potatoes in similar sized slices. Layer in a Gratin dish that has been coated with cooking spray. Set aside.
  2. In a medium fry pan melt the butter over medium heat. Add the sliced onions and cook stirring occasionally until the onions soften and just begin to brown.
  3. Add the dried cranberries and the herb leaves and cook for 2 - 3 minutes. Stir in the Wondra flour and continue stirring and cooking for another 2 minutes. Do not let the roux brown.
  4. Stir the milk in slowly and continue to stir until it is smoothly incorporated. Continue cooking, stirring frequently until the sauce has thickened. Remove from the heat.
  5. Immediately add 3/4 cup of the grated cheese and stir until the cheese melts and the sauce is smooth. Pour over the squash and potatoes, spreading to evenly cover the top.
  6. Cover with foil and bake in a pre-heated 350 degree oven for 35 minutes or so. Check that the potatoes and squash are tender.
  7. Sprinkle the remaining cheese evenly over the top and return to the oven uncovered. Bake another 10 minutes or so. The top should be golden brown and the sauce should be bubbling.
  8. Remove from the oven and allow to rest for at least 5 minutes before serving.
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The holiday season is slowly winding down. I’m always a little sad to see it end. This year I’m planning on keeping the warm feelings and abiding love in my heart for as long as I can. Christmas is after all, a state of mind. I hope your hearts stay filled with the Christmas spirit, too.

 

Holiday Baking 2014…The Adventure Begins

Last Christmas I gave baking my heart (there’s always a Christmas song that gets stuck in your head whether you like it or not).  I was newly unemployed and had recently launched a cooking blog. I had all the time in the world and a large kitchen that could stay in baking mode indefinitely. I baked and cooked constantly and wrote about it almost every day. It was joyous and magical.

This Christmas I’m beginning another new chapter.  I’ve downsized my life and that includes smaller everything including my kitchen. A part-time job that eats away at my time in the peculiar way only a split shift can, makes long sessions in the kitchen a weekend luxury. In spite of all that, Mama D’s Kitchen is still very much alive and it’s filled with more love than ever.

Having less time and space means that organization is critical. I spent several weeks planning this year’s goodies.Things that made the cut met several requirements. They had to be uniquely yummy, and they had to be easy to make. I browsed magazines and web sites as well as my own treasure trove of recipes and finally came up with my cast of characters. I made lists of ingredients and shopped carefully to assure that all the ingredients were on hand (except for the half & half and red sugar that I forgot twice). The pantry is packed with nuts, white chocolate, and dried fruits as well as the necessary flour and sugar.

This year’s baking includes some old favorites that are required and quite a few new items that are competing for places in the favorites lineup. Some of the new recipes use a “short-cut” of one kind or another. Often it is something that comes from a package. There is no shame in using a package mix if the result is delicious and the package ingredients don’t offend one’s health sensibilities completely. Remember too, we are not making something to be the main meal..only a small sweet to be enjoyed as a treat.

I found the recipe for Mocha Crinkles in a Kraft magazine. Devil’s food cake mix joins semisweet chocolate and instant coffee to make a cookie with deep dark chocolate and coffee richness.DIGITAL CAMERA The only challenge presented was melting the chocolate. Not only do I not have a microwave, I no longer have a double boiler. I found a perfect substitute using a dutch oven and a metal mixing bowl.DIGITAL CAMERA The plus here was that ingredients were already in the mixing bowl so it was one less bowl to wash.

These cookies have a wonderful deep chocolate flavor that the coffee enhances. The coffee flavor is subtle but the aroma is right there. Next time I think I’ll use espresso powder for a little more coffee punch.

As long as I can remember, I’ve made biscotti at Christmas. I’ve made many different kinds from chocolate to pistachio and cranberry. I always come back to my tried and true Almond and Anise.DIGITAL CAMERA These are the cookies I grew up loving and that love has only grown stronger through the years. While the licorice-y sweetness of the anise seed is an acquired taste for many, it is a flavor profile that literally screams for coffee or some red wine to me. This recipe creates a cookie that is tender yet crisp. I make them in a size that as my mother used to say looks pretty on a cookie tray. The recipe makes a batch that is large enough to fill several cookie trays and still have enough to give away.

Anise Almond Biscotti
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My favorite biscotti recipe! Hope you'll love it, too.
Servings
8 dozen
Servings
8 dozen
Anise Almond Biscotti
Print Recipe
My favorite biscotti recipe! Hope you'll love it, too.
Servings
8 dozen
Servings
8 dozen
Ingredients
Servings: dozen
Instructions
  1. Beat butter and sugar until well incorporated using an electric mixer. Add the eggs and beat until light and fluffy. Add the flavorings and the anise seeds and mix until well combined. Add the almonds and mix until combined. This is easier than adding the almonds after the flour.
  2. Whisk flour baking powder and salt together to aerate and blend. Slowly mix flour mixture into the wet mixture. You will have to add the last flour and mix by hand. Gather dough together and turn onto a lightly floured board, pat into a flat round.
  3. Divide the dough into six equal pieces. Pat and roll each piece into a log 12 - 14 inches long. Flatten the log to 1/2 inch thick and 2 inches wide. At this point they are ready to bake. If you want you to bake them later, wrap each log in plastic wrap and store in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. Let logs come to room temperature before you bake them.
  4. When you are ready to bake, heat the oven to 350 degrees. Place no more than 2 logs on each greased or parchment lined baking sheet. Bake one sheet at a time for 15 - 20 minutes.Remove from oven let cool several minutes until easily handled. Carefully move each log to a cutting board. Using a serrated knife, cut logs crosswise into 3/4 inch slices.
  5. Lay cut side down back on the baking sheet. Return to oven and bake 15 - 20 minutes more, turning the cookies after after 8 - 10 minutes to toast other side.
  6. Place the cookies on a rack to cool. Store airtight. These will keep for about a week. They can be frozen for a month or so.
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As the “Big Day” draws closer, my kitchen is filling with love and goodies. I hope you are finding more than enough love and a good amount of goodies in your own kitchen.

Mama D

Memories of Christmas Baking and Chex & Chocolate

One of the best parts of the holiday season for me is baking. When I was young, I remember baking with my mother. It was my favorite thing to do with her and while she baked throughout the year, she pulled out all the stops at Christmas. She would bake dozens of cookies that would be stored in colorful tins until it was their turn to grace our holiday table.

My mother would put all three leaves in the table, cover it with a damask Christmas tablecloth that she covered with a thin plastic sheet. This was deemed necessary as the table would remain open and set for at least two weeks. It was always ready when friends and family dropped in, which seemed to be almost daily. They would graze the table as they chatted and shared the spirit of the season. One of the jobs I loved was covering the remaining treats on the table with paper napkins. This was the standard way of preserving “leftovers.” Truthfully, by the end of the day there weren’t that many “leftovers” to cover and I was always assured of a bedtime snack.

Times have changed. My baked treasures stay secure in tins and sealed bags until the time they make their appearance on a cookie tray to share with friends and family. No matter how they are stored, they are a symbol of the love and spirit of giving that the Christmas season is all about.

I’ve begun my holiday baking in my new small kitchen. I’m getting very comfortable in it and I have embraced the notion that recipes can be made one at a time and that it is very efficient to clean up from one adventure before starting another. My most recent adventure was a sweet and subtly salty snack mix that has been a staple for 25 years. It’s called Chex & Chocolate and it is addictivley tasty and worth the prep time.

DIGITAL CAMERAI like to use a combination of cereals that always includes Crispix. Until its demise, I used Multi- Bran Chex which gave a small whisper of healthy. I now use Wheat Chex and if  I’m feeling particularly randy another unsweetened Chex cereal. This year Rice Chex joined in the celebration.

DIGITAL CAMERACoconut and peanuts combine with the cereal in a very large bowl. No matter the size of the bowl, there are always a few morsels that try to escape.DIGITAL CAMERA Butter, brown sugar, and corn syrup cook into a beautiful toffee that is poured over the cereal and nuts. DIGITAL CAMERAThe trays of yumminess are popped in a slow oven where over the course of the next hour they will magically bond and blend into a golden crunchy delight.DIGITAL CAMERA Once cooled and gently separated, they are embellished with red and green M & M’s. The result is now somewhere in the neighborhood of 14 cups of delicious. More than enough to share, it makes a wonderful gift.DIGITAL CAMERA

Chex and Chocolate
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Servings
14 Cups
Servings
14 Cups
Chex and Chocolate
Print Recipe
Servings
14 Cups
Servings
14 Cups
Ingredients
Servings: Cups
Instructions
  1. Preheat the oven to 250 degrees. Combine the cereals, coconut and peanuts in a large bowl.
  2. Line 2 large rimmed baking sheets with foil. Lightly coat the foil with cooking spray. Set aside.
  3. In a medium saucepan over medium heat combine the butter, brown sugar, and corn syrup. Heat to boiling stirring constantly.Without stirring, boil for 5 minutes.
  4. Remove from the heat. Stir in baking soda and vanilla. Continue to stir until the mixture becomes fluffy and light. Pour the mixture over the cereal and stir gently to coat evenly.
  5. Divide the mixture between the 2 prepared baking sheets, spreading out evenly.
  6. Place in oven and bake for 1 hour. Stir and switch the baking sheet positions every 15 minutes.
  7. Remove from the oven and allow to cool. Stir every 10 minutes and gently break apart any large clumps.
  8. When mixture is completely cool, stir in the M & M's. Store in airtight containers.
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It keeps well in sealed containers ( do not leave this out on the table covered with a napkin). Be careful of the container you choose. When my sons were young, I used plastic cereal containers  that at any other time of the year would actually hold breakfast cereal. I stopped doing that after I came down to the dining room one morning to find that the boys and their sleep-over friends had poured milk over large bowls of the mix and were eating it with spoons. I made “Cool Mom” points for having M & M’s in the cereal, but lost some “Street Cred” with moms who had to deal with bouncing boys on a sugar high. It would, however make an awesome breakfast cereal…just saying.

Christmas is about love and sharing. This recipe is made for that. More than enough to share with those you hold dear at Christmas and all year-long.

 

 

Reflections on Thanksgiving

The Thanksgiving weekend has come to a close. Looking back on it, I have to say that it has been one of the happiest I can remember. The days were filled with family, food, shopping, and most of all love. Love, you know, makes everything better. You can see it and you can definitely feel it. The holidays are resplendent in love. I’ve had five days to bask in the sunshine of love and I must say that glow does wonders for me inside and out.

Family was at the center of the weekend. Thanksgiving dinner was a delightfully blended affair that was centered on the newest addition. We all gathered at Jakob’s house to share a dinner that everyone contributed to. Turkey and Ham were the stars each prepared by a grandma. The sides were everything that tradition demands and then some. Mashed Potatoes and Green Bean Casserole shared the table with Italian Green Bean Salad and Sour Dough and Artichoke Stuffing.

Yes, Mama D (aka Nonna) brought the California inspired stuffing that had more than a little Italian influence. The recipe actually was born during our time in California. Loosely based on recipes from Sunset Magazine and Weight Watchers it has developed over the years to become the family stuffing of choice.

Starting with toasted sour dough bread cubes,DIGITAL CAMERA it became  a Cali-Itali creation with the addition of Italian sausage, artichokes, spinach and more than a little onion and garlic.DIGITAL CAMERA

Everything came together in a health conscious manner (turkey sausage, low sodium chicken, etc). until it donned its gay holiday apparel of some grated Asiago Cheese

DIGITAL CAMERA before being bathed in olive oil and butter.DIGITAL CAMERAThe stuffing (I should call it dressing as it never saw the inside of the bird) was a huge success; gone before a photo of the finished dish could be taken. Trust me, it looked beautiful and tasted amazing.

Mama D's Cali-Itali Stuffing
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Use this for your holiday dinner. Make it your own by adjusting the flavors to your family's taste.
Servings
12
Servings
12
Mama D's Cali-Itali Stuffing
Print Recipe
Use this for your holiday dinner. Make it your own by adjusting the flavors to your family's taste.
Servings
12
Servings
12
Ingredients
Servings:
Instructions
  1. Heat a large skillet over medium high heat. Crumble the sausage into the pan and cook until it is well browned. Turn and break apart as needed.
  2. Remove the sausage from the pan and drain on a paper towel. Pour off most of the drippings. Add 3 tablespoons of olive oil to the pan and add the onions and garlic. Saute stirring frequently until the onion is golden and the garlic is fragrant, 5-7 minutes.
  3. Add the artichokes and spinach to the pan and continue to cook for another 3 - 5 minutes. The artichokes should have a little color and the spinach should be wilted.
  4. In a large bowl, combine the toasted bread cubes, sausage, and the vegetables from the pan (include all the drippings, too). Toss to combine.
  5. Add the seasonings that you are using along with the cheese and toss again to combine.
  6. Pour in the eggs and blend well. Add the chicken stock. Use enough so that the stuffing is very moist, but not mushy. Taste and make any necessary adjustments to the seasonings. Add a little salt if you think it needs it.
  7. Grease a large rectangular baking dish. Add the stuffing and smooth out evenly. Do not pack it down. Cover with foil and bake in a pre-heated 350 degree oven for 35 - 40 minutes.
  8. Combine the remaining olive oil and the melted butter. Remove the stuffing from the oven. Take off the foil and drizzle the butter/olive oil mixture over the top. Return to the oven for another 15 - 20 minutes until the top of the stuffing is golden brown.
  9. Remove from the oven and allow to rest for 10 minutes before serving.
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For the first time I was in a position to begin Christmas shopping early (this IS very early for me). I was also in the pleasant position of being on the paying side of the cash register and that did change my perspective. Visits to the nearby mini mall and lovely downtown Geneva gave me what feels like an early jump on the whole shopping experience. Not a single long line at the mall, and the knowledge that I was supporting small businesses in Geneva while finding some unique little gifts began to fill me with Holiday spirit.

That holiday spirit reached its peak when I got to spend some quality time with my grandsons.We just bought a futon for the second bedroom and I invited Dylan over to take it for its maiden voyage. All that was just an excuse to have lots of time with him. We ( I should say Dylan), baked Peanut Butter Blossoms with a little good- natured hassling from Grampa. In spite of it all, they were perfect.DIGITAL CAMERAA walk around the grounds of our apartment complex became an adventure of sorts. I got us on the wrong path in the woods, but thanks to Dylan’s kindness and keen eye we made it out in one piece and eventually got back home. He’s become such a fine young man and I’m so proud of him.

Jakob brought his parents over for dinner on Saturday. Again, this was just my way of getting more time with my new Grand Boy. While the Lychee Bellini and Three Treasure Fried Rice were delicious, they couldn’t hold a candle to the delicious sweetness of holding Jakob and marveling at his wide-eyed wonder at our new home. I know the lights and the glow of the flickering candles had something to do with that wonderment, but it didn’t diminish the joy I felt.

December is here and the path to Christmas is always shorter than I imagine. Thanksgiving has given me a glimpse into the real gifts to come. The decorations will start appearing today and the baking will start soon. All of that is just the trappings of a time filled with love. I plan to relish the journey to Christmas and treasure the time spent with my family. I hope your holiday journey is filled with the same kind of joy.