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Pecan Sandies

July 16, 2012

My wonderful grandfather (he of the excellent cherry pie and etouffee) is turning 95 today.   Such an occasion calls for an epic cake, but with the record-breaking heat waves we’ve been having lately, I didn’t think I could send anything resembling a cake through the U.S. mail.  Not that I could normally, but the heat is my excuse this time.

Pecan sandies seemed like the perfect cake substitute, not only because they are unlikely to melt but also because I have inherited my love of pecans from my grandfather.

I wanted to make pecan sandies just like his, because his are perfect.  Unfortunately, it turns out I don’t have his recipe or at least could not find it after a reasonable amount of searching time.  In order to maintain the surprise element of these cookies, I had to search for a new recipe.

After much poking around on the internet, I settled on using the Smitten Kitchen recipe as my base.  However, I wanted cookies with sizable pecan chunks in them, not just cookies flavored with ground pecans – delicious as those would be, they just weren’t what I was looking for.  I also wanted round cookies instead of square ones because, well, I did.  And when I put in chunks of pecans, rolling the dough into a log to slice into round cookies was next to impossible – the pecan chunks made it hard to roll the dough evenly without it cracking along pecan-created fault lines.  So, I improvised, and I rolled the dough into individual balls.  Then, after the first batch (that didn’t fall on the floor) came out very shortbready and delicious but not quite what I had in mind, I decided to roll the dough balls in sugar.  It worked like a charm – the sugar made the cookies soft and puffy.  I was one happy camper.

My only regret was not making a double batch so that I could keep some for myself without feeling guilty, but I was more than satisfied with the cookies I ate while taste testing.  Don’t laugh, taste testing is a critical part of baking.  ahem.

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Shortcuts to a Better Cherry Pie

July 13, 2012
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Cherry pie is one of those foods for me.  When I was in high school, I spent two weeks at my grandfather’s house while I was going to debate camp (yes, I did high school debate and became a lawyer.  I am a walking cliché).  Every night when I got home, he’d serve me a slice of cherry pie with Blue Bell vanilla ice cream in one of those bowls that have been around since before I was born and call forth scores of Christmas memories every time I see them.

My grandfather has made me many a cherry pie since then and over the years, I’ve picked up some of his tricks.  I’m told he learned some of them from my grandmother, but I don’t know that I ever had a slice of her cherry pie – as a child, I used to be so devoted to pecan pie that anything but was simply not going in my mouth.  But I’m always happy to have one more reason to feel connected to her while I’m performing everyday tasks, even if I don’t have my own memories of her doing whatever it is I’m doing.

The main, overarching lesson I’ve learned is that a great cherry pie does not need to be made from scratch, even though such pies are yummy.  There are lots of little things you can do to make a cherry pie delicious without going all out.  And with the heatwave we’re having, being in the kitchen for a shorter period of time is certainly appealing to me – and was probably appealing to my grandmother back in the days of non-air-conditioning (in Texas, no less).

For example, instead of using two cans of cherry pie filling, use one can of cherry pie filling and one can of tart cherries.  It’s amazing how much that one little change will take your pie from tasting like any old cherry pie to tasting a tad more complex and, more importantly for my purposes, less cloyingly sweet.  I used tart cherries canned in water,  but if you wanted something sweeter, you could also use tart cherries canned in their own syrup; I think it would still make for a more interesting pie.

If you’re making a deep dish pie or using a larger pie pan, you could also blend one can of cherries with two cans of filling, or even two cans of cherries with two cans of filling.  Any leftover cherries would make a tasty ice cream topping, so it’s not like a surplus of filling would be a problem.

Some of these tricks are from other sources, like an episode of Giada that I watched a couple of weeks ago.  She suggested using ground up tapioca pearls to thicken the pie.  I’ve read that trick before but never got around to trying it.  It works like a charm, and the best part is you don’t actually need to go buy tapioca flour; you can just grind up Minute Tapioca pearls, which I always have on hand because my roommate senior year of college made tapioca pudding on a regular basis.  And topped it with fresh strawberries.  Mmm.  Good times.

The tapioca trick works like a charm – I’ve never been able to cut a pie so easily or had a cherry pie not be at least a little runny.  I do want to point out that if you’re using ground up tapioca pearls, you should probably make a standard, double-crusted pie rather than a lattice pie or something like it.  I found that the ground-up pearls at the very top made a strange, tough film, which did not happen in the other parts of the pie filling.  I don’t think that would happen (or matter if it did) with a pure double-crusted pie.  However, if you’ve landed on this blog because you’ve had the same problem, here’s what I did to mostly solve the problem.  While the pie was still relatively warm from the oven, I used a fork and poked it down in the holes in the lattice, and this pushed most of the strange skin into the rest of the filling, which kind of melted it a bit (I assume, since I never noticed it while eating slices of the pie) and also ensured that the top of the pie had a more attractive appearance.

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Creamed Onions (Alfredo Style)

July 11, 2012
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On the one year anniversary of my first date with my husband, I made Deb’s creamed onions with chives and bacon, and fully intended to tell you more about it after first mentioning it.  Of course I failed to do so.  And this still is not that recipe.  Just use Deb’s recipe, enjoy, and be happy.

However, on the Fourth of July, I made an alfredo version of those creamed onions, and they were also delicious.  We reserved most of the onions for leftovers, to be reheated with a little extra cream.  But that was just because I made them at a strange time of day, with the intention of eating them another time.  We still sampled the onions and made happy, my-tummy-is-full-of-deliciousness noises, and I think we both wished it had been dinner time so we could just eat the rest of them right then and there.  After all, cheese and cream and onions and nutmeg makes both of us happy.

I keep searching in vain for frozen, peeled pearl onions, which would make this dish three times as easy to make.  My grocery store doesn’t appear to carry them, but if yours does, please try that.  I imagine they would be just as delicious, and you would not have to peel all of the onions one by one, which is a worthwhile process but a time-consuming one.

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Tomatillo Salsa (Salsa Verde)

July 9, 2012
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I wanted to love this salsa, but I only liked it.  I think the problem is that I was trying to duplicate something that’s not actually standard salsa verde.  It’s a green salsa they serve at a place in Connecticut, where Em, our friend Sarah, and I used to sit and bug the waiters by asking “More chips, please!” every five to ten minutes.  When I’m up there this month, I intend to insist on the recipe.  Or, if I don’t feel that bold, I’ll just study the flavors and try to reverse engineer it.

If I didn’t have that salsa in mind, I think I would have been perfectly happy with this salsa.  Next time, I am going to try just boiling the tomatillos (as in this recipe), or maybe slow-roasting them, just to see how that affects the flavor.  I’m also going to wait to make it again until the grocery store has jalapenos stocked, because picking random peppers with which I am unfamiliar resulted in a far spicier salsa than I intended.  On the plus side, it cleared out my sinuses better than the over-the-counter medicine I was taking when I made it.

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Summer’s Best: Fresh Tomato Sauce

July 6, 2012
Tomato, to-mah-toe, let's call the whole thing off . . .

These tomatoes are naked!

We made this tomato sauce before this blog was even born, back when we just sent each other recipes all the time and went “oooh, let’s make that one.  And a scone, to save for later.”

This sauce freezes beautifully – I think I froze my portions in ice cube trays and took out a cube or two at a time.   In the middle of December, it tasted like summer in my apartment, which was no small feat in Connecticut.  Of course, it didn’t taste like this summer, the summer of brutal heat and derecho-caused electricity problems (we survived mostly unscathed).

Anyway, I made it again and, this time, I cheated and used my immersion blender to make it extra smooth.  Honestly, I like very smooth tomato sauce, so I figured it was worth it, but if you’re a purist, you won’t want to go that route.  I don’t know for sure, but it’s a distinct possibility that Em’s a purist on this one.  The fact that I can’t remember for sure is reason number 8,672 that I’m overjoyed I get to go up to Connecticut and cook with Em later this month!

Finally, a note on the color – you’ll only get perfect red tomato sauce if you start with perfect, bright red tomatoes.  But not all ripe, tasty tomatoes are as red as the apple the evil queen gave Snow White.  If your sauce is more orange than red, it will still be delicious.

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Fourth of July White Chocolate Bark

July 2, 2012

I have a confession to make.  I’ve started becoming a Pinterest person.  At first, I thought you could only keep track of all that stuff if you were on it all the time, because things get posted so quickly, and that doesn’t mesh well with the billable hour.  But then I realized that things get reposted and reposted and reposted, so if you go on it once every day or two, you’re bound to catch at least the most popular stuff.

Anyway, I saw this recipe for Fourth of July white chocolate bark on Pinterest and knew I had to try it and take my own spin on it.  You know I love holiday bark.  It’s got white chocolate, which means my husband will love it – he likes white chocolate, I like dark chocolate, he likes pasta, I like rice (okay, I like pasta too), I like black beans, he likes – huh, I don’t know what the opposite of black beans would be, but I bet he likes it.

You start with a base of melted white chocolate, and then you can use any red, white, and blue stuff you have on hand to accent this bark.  Whatever suits you and/or your loved ones’ tastes.

For example, I switched out the plain M&Ms for peanut butter M&Ms, because those are my husband’s favorite.  And, after being together for two and a half years and married for almost one, I’m starting to like them a lot too.  (Peanut M&Ms still take the cake, in my book).

I also threw in some candy-coated sunflower seeds, which I found at the candy store in the mall near us.  And I used some of the red, white, and blue non-pareils and star sprinkles that I bought last year.  I always like proving that something I bought for one holiday or color scheme will indeed get used again.

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Coconut Cream Pie With Brandy-Infused Whipped Cream Topping

June 29, 2012
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After our dinner guests left on Saturday, we watched some TV special about the White House on one of the History Channel’s extra channels.  The special featured a White House pastry chef who had worked in the White House for I don’t know how long, but it was a few decades.  He was quite a character, and we loved every minute that he was on screen, but my favorite part was when he talked about the healing power of pastry.  He knew when various presidents and First Family members were feeling particularly blue based on their food choices, and he relished the opportunity to provide some small comfort.  When the Lewinsky scandal was at its height, he said he made lots of mocha cakes for Hillary Clinton because they were her favorite.

Although I don’t exactly have the kinds of problems that face world leaders or their spouses – thank heavens – I had a pretty rough week at work, culminating in such a late Friday night at the office that the office cleaning staff knocked on my door and asked if they could take my trash because they had to leave.  Luckily, I made this pie on Saturday, and it was a soothing experience both to make the pie – because cooking is therapeutic for me – and to eat it.  In fact, I ate it for breakfast on Sunday.

I don’t like to toot my own horn or anything, but this is one of the best things I’ve ever made.  I don’t think that’s tooting my own horn, actually, because for the most part, I just followed the recipe.  If I hadn’t been a Maida Heatter devotee before this, I would be one now.  Not only do her recipes produce reliably delicious results, but she situates all of her recipes in some sort of context, be it the backyard parties of Floridians or the weddings in Georgia.  It makes me feel like I’m cooking a family recipe that just happens to be from another family, kind of like when I cook Em’s family recipes.  Her cookbooks are so much fun to read that I sometimes forget I’m reading a cookbook, which can be dangerous for my productivity when I’m “just dusting the cookbook shelf, I swear.”

I did make one or two tweaks just for fun.   My main tweak was adding a splash of brandy to the whipped cream topping because my grandfather has taught me the fundamental truth that any baked good tastes better with a splash of brandy (or bourbon).  I’ve never regretted adding it.  Anything that might otherwise be just absurdly sweet tastes a tad more complex with the addition of brandy.  And anything that’s just perfect as it is tastes even more perfect if you add some brandy, but that’s just my opinion and I am biased toward what my own taste buds prefer.  The brandy is certainly optional, as is the vodka in the crust (which does not affect taste but makes the crust a little bit flakier).

You could also make the pie much more easily with a Pillsbury or other premade crust, but a homemade crust says, “I use my time in a perhaps frivolous but definitely tasty manner” better than anything.

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Cucumber and Cheese Bites – A Fast & Easy Appetizer in Less Than Ten Minutes

June 27, 2012

We had some people over for dinner on Saturday, and I wanted to serve a few easy appetizers to keep them sated while my husband and I finished the main course.

Boursin cheese was on sale, so I thought I’d try these little cucumber bites filled with a Boursin-based filling.  However, recognizing that Boursin is rarely on sale at my grocery store and is not budget-friendly when it’s not on sale, I also tried making a filling with the more budget-friendly and more frequently on-sale Laughing Cow blue cheese.  It worked very well, and I think you could use any Laughing Cow or similar flavored cheese that you like.  The one down side of Laughing Cow cheese is that you have to unwrap each individual wedge, but that doesn’t take all that much time.

My favorite thing about this recipe, besides the fact that it has cheese, is that it takes very little time and yet looks like something you’d eat at a catered party.  The cuteness to prep time ratio is very high.  Always a plus.

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Eggplant Caviar (aka Yummy Eggplant Dip)

June 25, 2012

Sometimes the tastiest dishes are incredibly simple.  They start with one key ingredient, and the few things you add serve only to highlight the deliciousness of that ingredient.

This is one of those dishes.  If it weren’t, that would be one heck of a mean-spirited, tease of an intro.

This dip doesn’t taste like anything else you might make for a party.  It doesn’t taste like a creamy bean or cheese dip.  It doesn’t taste like hummus.  It certainly doesn’t taste anything like salsa.  It tastes like eggplant, obviously, but what struck me about it was that it tasted so fresh – a “vegetable dip” that tastes like vegetables, but in a good, crowd-pleasing way.  As delicious as it was in December, I can’t wait to try it on a hot summer day when I need some refreshment.

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A Seersucker Wedding and Bowtie Sugar Cookies

June 21, 2012
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This weekend, we went to the beautiful, Southern-style wedding of one of my husband’s closest friends, who’s basically one of those truly good guys that you’re grateful your husband is friends with and never mind your husband hanging out with (in fact, I wish we all lived closer to each other).  My husband and I are lucky in that we both really like each other’s friends – this makes that whole being married and going to events together thing significantly easier.

The groom is a big bowtie fan, and I’d actually meant to make him bowtie cookies for his birthday last fall, but work got away from me, so I figured that I’d make up for it by sending my husband down to the bachelor party with a box full of bowtie cookies.  There’s something extra fun to me about finding a cookie cutter that suits a person’s personality – probably because one year, I think for Christmas, my mom got us all cookie cutters that matched our personality.  Mine was a foot, because I *hate* shoes and walk around barefoot as much as possible when home.

These were very fun to decorate, after I figured out how to make the frosting for some of the cookies turn navy, anyway.  I took art for four years in high school, you’d think I’d know how to make different colors, but sometimes I get lawyer-brain and forget things.

One thing I realized early on in the baking process was that bowties are fragile.  Well, bowtie cookies are fragile, all because of that narrow point in the middle.  In order to curb the cookie breakage I was experiencing, I started rolling the cookies much thicker than I usually roll cookies.  That mostly solved the problem.

I made some of the bowtie cookies seersucker because the groom and all of the groomsmen were wearing seersuckers.  (I love how my husband looks in a seersucker suit, so I was excited when I found this out.)

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