Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Not-so-secret Top Secret Amish Sugar Cookies

When the name of a cookie is so long, you know there's a story behind it.

First graders at my children's school had a heritage project before Christmas this year.  They needed to research a country their family was from, a holiday that country celebrated, and then create a poster, and present their research in a living museum. On their poster, a recipe needed to be included.

On my dad's side of the family, we have Amish roots (yes, I know this isn't a country, but it's interesting, especially in Texas!).  J choose to research the Amish and we scrambled to find a recipe. I goggled Amish cookies (because, we all know, My name is Melani, I have a baking problem and when given an option, I bake).  I found sugar cookies pop up several times.

These aren't your normal cookie cutter sugar cookies.  They aren't crispy like sand tarts, nor flat like cookie cutter cookies.  This are cake like and domed.  By themselves, they are relatively unimpressive, but top them with some white icing and sprinkles (or a raisin in the center like I remember my aunt making them.  I opted not to included the raisins because it reminds of breasts), they are something else.

For the winter party, we were asked to share Ethnic foods and this was ours.  A bit of stretch, I know, but the whole project was a bit of a stretch for us.  The cookies were a hit with kids--a mom who was there told me all the kids loved them and J also told me how everyone loved them.  He told them though that no one could have the recipe because it was a Top Secret Recipe.

I laughed, this was the first time I've ever made the recipe and it was published in a cookbook.  So, without further ado, here is your Christmas gift--a not-so-secret Top Secret Recipe.

This will yield 6 dozen cookies (or more) depending on how big you make the cookies.

Amish Sugar Cookies
from my mom

1 1/2 c white sugar
1 2/3 c brown sugar
1 1/8 c (18 T) butter, at room temperature
4 eggs
6 1/2 c flour
3 t baking powder
1 1/2 t baking soda
1 1 /2 t salt
1 1/2 c buttermilk
1 1/2 t vanilla

6 T butter, at room temperature
3 - 4 c confectioners sugar
1 t vanilla

For the cookies:  Cream together the sugars and butter until light and fluffy.  Add the eggs and mix thoroughly.  In a separate bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.  Add dry ingredients to the sugar/butter mixture in 3 additions, alternating with the buttermilk and vanilla (start and end with the dry ingredients).  Drop by teaspoonful (the kind you eat with, not the kind you measure with) onto a cookie sheet.  Bake in preheated 350 degrees oven for 12 - 14 minutes (depending on size).  You can check for doneness by inserting a toothpick in the center of one--the edges may be starting to brown just a hair.  Cool on a rack.

For the icing:  Cream together 2 c confectioners sugar and butter in a bowl (I use a handheld mixer). Add the vanilla.  Add the remaining confectioners sugar a bit of a time, adding water to help achieve desired consistency.  Taste periodically to find the desired sweetness (and how much confectioners sugar you need).  

Ice the cooled cookies and decorate with sprinkles, a raisin, or leave only iced.  Let icing harden, then store in an airtight container, separating layers with parchment or waxed paper.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Roasted Chicken with Clementines and Fennel

Lest I bombard you with only sweets recipes this month of December, I am including a chicken recipe.

I love this recipe for several reasons.  One, I love roasted fennel.  It is one of my favorite things.  Two, I  can marinade this while we're at swim practice and then just roast it when we get home and still eat a reasonable time.  Three, I love the clementines.  Four, well, that's all.  I don't love the chicken (except for the skin, which is wonderful here), but I don't love chicken in general.

The original version called for "fancy" alcohol.  I don't like to buy alcohol just for cooking, so I substituted wine.  If you want to stay true to the original recipe, use arak, ouzo or Pernod (I don't even know what two of those are…)

This will serve 4 - 6, depending on who your carnivores are.  We serve this over brown rice or couscous.  I have never bothered with the sauce because we've been too hungry and the amount of sauce already seemed too reduced to mess with, but I am sure it would tasty.

Roasted Chicken with Clementines and Fennel
adapted from Jerusalem by Ottolenghi

6 1/2 T dry white wine (or chicken broth or water)
4 T olive oil
3 T freshly squeezed orange juice
3 T freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 T coarse grain mustard
3 T brown sugar
2 (or feel free to use more!!) medium fennel bulbs, cut in half lengthwise and then quartered (8 pieces from each bulb)
1 lg chicken, cut into 8 pieces (I cut each breast into 2 pieces and save the backbone/wings for stock)
4 clementines, unpeeled and cut horizontally into 1/4" slices
1 T thyme leaves
1 T fennel seeds, lightly crushed (with a back of a knife or mortal and pestle)

In a large mixing bowl, combine white wine, olive oil, orange juice, lemon juice, mustard, and brown sugar along with 1 T salt and 1 1/2 t black pepper.  Whisk well.

Add fennel wedges, slice clementines, thyme, fennel seeds and chicken to the olive oil mixture.  Coat the solids with the liquid and cover tightly.  Marinate in the refrigerator for a 2 hours to overnight.

Preheat the oven to 475.  Transfer the marinated chicken, fennel, and clementines to a half sheet pan (cookie sheet) in a single layer and pour marinade over top.  Roast in oven for 35 - 45 minutes or until chicken is dark brown and cooked through.

To serve, transfer clementines (yes, the peel is edible, and quite wonderful), fennel wedges, and chicken to a platter.  Garnish with parsley if desired.  Serve with rice or couscous.

Optional sauce:  Before serving, remove chicken from the baking pan.  Pour the remaining roasted marinade into a small pot and bring to a boil over medium high heat.  Simmer until the sauce is reduced to 1/3 c.  Pour over the chicken.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Dark Chocolate Pecan Sea Salted Toffee aka I Do Like Toffee! Toffee

"I can make the toffee," I told my neighbor when we discussed what we were going to make for our book club meeting we were co-hosting.  I make tortes, soufflĂ©s, and Italian bread from scratch so what was toffee?  Little did I know.

The month we hosted book club, we read Bread and Wine by Shauna Niequist.  When she described making toffee I thought it would be so easy.  What is there to it?  It's just like caramel sauce but hardened.

Wrong and wrong again.  After my first total toffee fail, I remembered Jen Hatmaker blogging about repeated toffee fails and how she could never figure out what in the world she was doing wrong.  Just expect to fail your first time, ok?  Low expectations folks, low expectations.

What I learned:

Shauna Niequist's recipe made it look way too easy and I needed to look elsewhere, say the Pioneer Woman with her step by step instructions with pictures!!

Start with melted butter, don't melt the butter with sugar, I'm convinced that's where my problem lay (because it was a problem from the get go).

Stir constantly.  Usually when recipes say stir constantly, I ignore them.  Don't ignore this instruction.  Stir constantly.

If this recipe doesn't work, goggle toffee mistakes and expect everyone to give you conflicting advice.  Then find a food blog that you generally have good success with and try their instructions.  It's just sugar and water and butter folks, it's not like you're throwing out chocolate or a tasty fruit or vegetable.

It's ok to mess up and try again.

Here's the version I came up with--a lot of the Pioneer Woman's and a little bit of Shauna Niequist's.

from The Pioneer Woman and Shauna Niequist

1 c (16 T or 2 sticks or 8 oz) butter, melted
2 c  (or 8 oz) sugar
1/2 t salt
3 T water
1/2 t vanilla (optional)

1 c good quality dark chocolate chips or chunks
1/2 c or so chopped pecans (you can use more or less depending on your whim)
1 t good quality coarse sea salt--fleur de sal or a fancy salt

In a saucepan (I use my stainless one--not my cast iron one because it heats up faster), combine melted butter, water, salt, and sugar.  Bring to a boil, stirring constantly.  Cook over medium-high heat (a 6 or  7 on my stove), stirring gently the whole time.  Using a candy thermometer, bring the sugar mixture to 298 degrees faranheit or until it is a deep amber color.  (I like candy thermometers.  If your mixture doesn't seem to be reaching 298, turn up the heat a bit).  Be very careful not to let any of the melted sugar get on your skin.  I have a scar to show what it can do to you on my wrist.

Remove from the heat and pour onto a rimmed baking sheet (cookie sheet) lined either with parchment paper or a silpat.  Let cool until solid to the touch.

In a double boiler, melt the chocolate chips.  Pour it over the toffee and top immediately top with pecans and sea salt.  Let cool until solid and rather hard.  Break into irregular pieces and serve.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

My Favorite Gingerbread Cookies

This recipe is a source of contention in my house.  I think this is the perfect recipe.  Curtis does not.

See, the problem is, I don't love gingerbread.  The molasses is too strong, as is the ginger.  I like a milder gingerbread then, so I can ignore the strong flavors.  Curtis loves all things ginger…ginger snaps, ginger bread…ginger ale…He also loves molasses.  Thus, he doesn't like this recipe, for the exact reasons I love it.  So every Christmas, we have gingerbread cookie wars.  There's often a lot of gingerbread cookies in our house, because we both want to make *our* recipe.  I refuse to make Curtis's recipe, because I won't eat them, and vice versa.

Makes 5 - 6 dozen depending on the thickness and shape of your cookies

Mel's Favorite Gingerbread Cookies
from In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite by Melissa Clark

4 c flour
1/4 c finely ground almonds or hazelnuts (I like almonds)
1 T ground ginger
1 1/4 t ground cinnamon
1 t baking soda
3/4 t salt
1/2 t nutmeg (freshly grated is best)
1/4 t ground cloves
1/4 t ground black pepper
1/4 t ground cardamom
1 c butter, at room temperature
1 c dark brown sugar
2/3 c molasses
1 large egg
2 t vanilla
3/4 t freshly grated orange zest
1 t finely grated fresh ginger (ginger root)

Combine flour, ground nuts, ground ginger, cinnamon, baking soda, salt, nutmeg, cloves, pepper, and cardamom in a medium bowl.

In a separate bowl, cream the butter and sugar together, using an electric mixture.  Add the molasses, egg, vanilla, orange zest, and fresh ginger.  Mix well, until thoroughly combined, about 2 minutes.  Add the flour mixture and mix until combined.

Divide the dough in four discs.  Wrap in plastic wrap and chill in refrigerator for 1 hour to 3 days (or you can freeze if you want to save it for longer).

Place on disc on a lightly floured surface and roll out a scant 1/4" thick.  Cut out the desired shapes using cookie cutters, dipping the cutters in flour as needed to prevent sticking.  Transfer to baking sheets lined with parchment paper (or a silpat or just well greased).  Repeat with remaining discs, rerolling scraps as needed.  Bake in a preheated 350 degrees oven for 15 minutes or until the cookies are firm and the edges are golden.  Decorate as much or little as desired.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Palestinian Meatball Soup

I went looking for this recipe thinking of an light Italian broth, tiny meatball, and vegetable type of soup.

This soup does not fit that description at all, what so ever.

This soup is a hearty, warm-your-healthy-bones soup (in other words, not a sick and I want to feel better soup).  This soup is the I spent an hour outside building a snow man with my kids and am freezing kind of soup.  Or, since here in our part of Texas we can't build many snowmen, it is the strong north wind, we're a bunch of wimps, it's 35 degrees out of type of soup.

This soup contains a spice mixture called baharat.  To make the baharat, you need a spice grinder (or mortal and pestle, which I can never figure out how to operate correctly).   The spices in baharat are pretty easy to find, especially if you can buy them bulk somewhere.  The recipe for baharat makes enough for three recipes of this meatball soup.  Make it all at once and set aside (in a tightly sealed container) and save it for next time.

The original recipe calls for freekeh, an ancient Middle Eastern grain.  The first time I made this recipe, I thought I had freekeh, but it turned out to be farro, so I used that instead.  The second time, I searched two stores (including Whole Foods) for freekeh and couldn't find it so I used the red wheat berries I had at home instead.  Both substitutions worked great.  Bulgur is also suggested by the original recipe authors.  Maybe one of these time I will visit a few more stores to attempt to find freekeh.  For now, I am happy with my substitutions, both of which were easy for me to find at Whole Foods.

We all like this soup, especially the meatballs.

This will serve 6 - 8 depending on the size of your eaters.

Palestinian Meatball Soup
adapted from Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi

Baharat Mixture:
1 t black peppercorns
1 t coriander seeds
1 small cinnamon stick, coarsely chopped
1/2 t whole cloves
1/2 t ground allspice
2 t cumin seeds
1 t cardamom pods
1/2 t whole nutmeg, grated

To make baharat:  place all the spices in a spice grinder and grind until a fine powder is formed.  It will keep for 8 weeks in an airtight container.

1 lb ground beef
1 sm onion, finely diced
2 T flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
1/2 t ground allspice
1/4 t ground cinnamon
3 T flour
2 T olive oil

2 T olive oil
1 lg onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 carrots, peeled if desired and cut into 3/8"cubes
2 celery stalks, cut into 3/8" cubes
1 (14-oz) can diced tomatoes (with their juice)
2 T tomato paste
1 T baharat mixture (see above)
1 T ground coriander
1 cinnamon stick
1 T superfine sugar
1 c cracked freekeh, farro, or wheat berries (red or white)
2 c beef stock
2 c chicken stock
3 1/4 c hot water

chopped cilantro
lemon wedges

To make the meatballs, combine ground beef, onion, parsley, allspice, cinnamon, 1/4 t pepper, and 1/2 t salt.  Mix well with your hands and form into 24- 30 meatballs (or more or less depending on how big  you like your meatballs).  Heat the oil in a dutch oven or soup pot and fry the meatballs over medium heat until golden brown on all sides and cooked through.  Remove from pot and set aside.

In the same pot, add a little olive oil if the pot looks dry.  Add the onion and garlic and sautĂ© for 5 minutes, scraping the browned meatball bits from the bottom of the pan.  Stir in the carrots and celery and cook for 2 minutes.  Add the diced tomatoes, tomato paste, baharat mixture, coriander, cinnamon stick, sugar, 2 t salt, 1/2 t pepper, and cook for another minute, stirring frequently.  Stir in the grain (freekeh, farro, wheat berries, etc) and cook for 2 - 3 minutes.  Add the beef and chicken stocks, hot water, and meatballs.  Bring to boil, cover, lower the heat, and simmer for 20 - 45 minutes (cooking time depends on the type of grain you are using), stirring occasionally, until the grain is tender.  Taste and adjust seasoning.

Serve sprinkled with chopped cilantro (don't skip this step.  This dish needs the cilantro) and with lemon wedges on the side (you can step this if you want).

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Camping Pancakes

Part of the fun of camping for me is finding camping type of recipes that also taste good.  Yes, I could get a box of pancake mix and just add water, but I would rather eat food that is slightly better for me while I am camping (and that tastes better too).

My first pancake recipe, I liked just fine, but M wouldn't eat them.  This is also a problem.  When we're camping I want a meal that everyone will like because they're not many backup options (besides apple cake, toasted over a fire).  Our go to at home pancake isn't an option either--that one involves soaking oatmeal in milk and beating egg whites until stiff.  Not happening while camping, I can assure you.  

This recipe is the perfect recipe for camping pancakes.  The dry ingredients can be prepared ahead of time.  I pre measure the yogurt and take 4 eggs.  Shazam.  We have pancakes.  The yogurt makes me feel a little better about the all white flour, as does the lack of oil.  

The best part?  We all really like these, they are only slightly more complicated than the just add water box mix and they perfect made in the open air.

This makes enough for the 5 of us.  Occasionally we have leftovers (depending on how much apple cake and bacon we have also eaten).

Aunt Edna's Yogurt Pancakes
adapted slightly from Smitten Kitchen who got it from the Pioneer Woman

1 c minus 2 T flour
2 T sugar
2 t baking soda
1 t salt

2 c plain yogurt (not Greek--you need the extra moisture)
4 large eggs
1 t vanilla (optional--I use this at home, not while camping)

If camping:  Combine the flour, sugar, baking soda, and salt in a large container with a lid.  Pack in dry food box until it is time to eat.  When ready, add the yogurt to the container of dry ingredients, stirring gently to just combine (it's ok for it to be lumpy).  Add the eggs and gently stir them in, being careful not to over mix.

Cook on black skillet on camp stove or over a fire if you are really ambitious and confident of your fire building/cooking skills.

At home version:  Combine flour, sugar, baking soda, and salt in a large bowl. Add the yogurt and stir gently.  In a separate bowl whisk together the eggs and vanilla.  Add to yogurt/flour mixture and stir until just combined, being careful again not to over mix.

Cook on hot griddle.