December 28, 2014

Two great bites...for your New Year's toast

I hope this post finds you "busy" relaxing, savoring a nice long holiday break with your loved ones.  It feels like we've been feasting for days and weeks on end but we have to save room for one more very-important celebration:  New Years!  
Croque Monsieur Crostini
Even while I was deeply (and happily) entrenched in the whirlwind of Christmas cookie-making during the past few weeks, I'd been thinking about appetizers, party food, small-bites that would be perfect for that New Year's toast!  Well, the champagne is chilling in the fridge so let's talk about a couple of great bites to go along with it.

First, I have to spread the crostini love with this recipe for croque monsieur crostini from Marie at little kitchie.  I love visiting Marie's site for dinner inspiration and she has indeed inspired me in many ways; I have her to thank for encouraging me to make homemade pizza and when we tried weeknight bolognese, it quickly became a family favorite.  Recently, I saw this genius idea for croque monsieur crostini that I knew would be delicious and make a great party appetizer.
It's everything you love about a croque monsieur - that delectable French ham and cheese sandwich - in miniature form.  When we vacationed in Paris with the little guy a couple of years back, we would order a croque monsieur for him at lunch almost by default.  I had romantic notions of making them at home and eating them while sipping some sparkling Lorina lemonade alongside.  But you know what?  I never did make the sandwiches at home.  It always seemed just a bit too decadent, a little too finicky, when I thought about it.

But turning it into crostini, reducing the portion size significantly into small bites, takes that decadence level to an ideal indulgence for New Year's eve or any other gathering.  It's satisfying without being overly heavy.  I especially love the sharp crunch of the toasted baguette that you don't get with the traditional croque monsieur.  It's a must-try!
Bacon wrapped chicken bites
My other recent discovery is bacon wrapped chicken bites.  For those of us who eat meat, you know that anything wrapped in bacon or prosciutto is practically guaranteed to be good and this is a fine example.  This recipe comes from Mel's Kitchen Cafe, a site I started visiting recently (I can vouch for the pulled pork recipe if anyone is looking for one), and her testimonial for these chicken bites convinced me to make them right away.

These chicken bites are not only moist, they're also flavorful and zesty from herbs (dried oregano, thyme) and spices (chili powder) as well as some sweetness from brown sugar.  It's got the entire spectrum of salty, sweet, spicy, heat, and savory all rolled in one.  
I made these recently for dinner as a test drive.  For a cocktail party, I'd make the chicken pieces a bit smaller than I did here to leave room for all the other goodies you'll undoubtedly be nibbling on throughout the night.

Many thanks to the ladies from the sites I mentioned above for these great little bites!

* Have a safe and fun New Year's eve celebration!  May the New Year bring all the good things - including good health and good food - your heart desires!

December 20, 2014

Viennese sablés

Operation "Christmas Cookies" is winding down at my house.  We've been busy making and eating our fair share of cookies this month.  I now have a small stash of Italian tri-color cookieschewy chocolate gingerbread cookiessugar cookiesas well as these sablés I want to chat about today, stowed away in the freezer ready to be enjoyed on Christmas day.  I'm really looking forward to taking it easy and relaxing with my family over the holiday break...
On the one hand, I'm glad that the "must-do" baking's done and I can put away my cookie cutters for a little while.  On the flip side, I don't want to let go of December! It is such a magical month of gift-giving, treat-baking, and general merry-making (when else can you say "merry-making"!).  I so enjoy the indulgences and luxuries of this month, and seeing the confetti of powdered sugar, sprinkles, peppermint, and holiday spices popping up everywhere is such a treat!  Inspiration has been everywhere.

So I'm glad we still have time to talk Christmas cookies one more time before we go hunker down with our families, and eat said cookies.  I decided to try Dorie Greenspan's recipe for Viennese sablés from her latest book (aka, early Christmas present for moi).  Sablés are your French shortbread or butter cookies - "sablé" for "sand", signaling their signature sandy, crumbly texture.  They are crisp at first bite but have a melt-in-your-mouth tender texture within that make them special. You taste buttery sweetness with a hint of salt and vanilla in the background. There's no better time to make and savor classic cookies like these than during the holidays.
Earlier this year, I made chocolate chip shortbread cookies (another Dorie recipe, incidentally) and was blown away by the lovely, flaky yet meltingly-tender, texture created by using confectioners' sugar in the dough.  I daydream about those cookies sometimes. Well, these are very similar, and they taste like the Danish butter cookies that many of us know and love.  Those cookies have a special place in my heart and this homemade version brings back memories of eating them as a child.  The homemade rendition is a tad less sweet, which isn't a bad thing.  And in my case, they're not nearly as nicely shaped as the ones that came out of the blue tin but the holidays are a forgiving time.
So I grabbed my pastry bag and star-tip, and took at stab at piping these cookies.  I tried some "W"s, the classic shape representing "Wittamer", the pastry shop in Brussels where these cookies originated, as well as a few other simple shapes. Knowing my own limited skills, I mainly made little sablé fingers.  And I stuck with the recipe, resisting the urge to add vanilla seeds or citrus zest.  But since it is Christmas, I felt the need for a little embellishmentso I dipped some of my cookies in white chocolate as well as a few in dark chocolate.
Honestly, these cookies are probably best enjoyed just as they are, no embellishments necessary when it comes to taste.  We can attest that they go very well with a cup of hot cocoa.

December 16, 2014

Chocolate gingerbread loaf cake

About a year ago, I stumbled upon this recipe for chocolate gingerbread that I quickly added to my 'to-bake' list for the holidays.  Some recipes/ideas stick with you and you remember them even if you don't jump into the kitchen right away to make it happen.
This loaf cake appealed to me so much because it reminds me of these chewy chocolate gingerbread cookies, which I make every December and might just be my favorite holiday cookie.  They are a must-try even for those who aren't normally huge fans of bold spices.  At Christmastime, I can't seem to get enough of holiday spices and the combination with chocolate makes it all the more familiar and delicious.

So as we've already devoured most of our annual batch of gingerbread chocolate cookies (with a few stashed away in the freezer for Christmas day, along with other cookies I "collect" throughout the month), it was time to make the loaf version.
To more closely mirror those cookies I love dearly, I added freshly grated ginger to this chocolate gingerbread loaf (instead of using crystallized ginger chips).  I wanted maximum ginger flavor and I personally love how fresh ginger melds into everything throughout.  I added a pinch of cloves to round out the usual medley of spices and to try something new, I substituted some of the all-purpose flour with spelt.  You certainly don't need to do that but in my (albeit, limited) experience baking with spelt, the mildness of the flour is relatively similar to all-purpose flour and I think the hearty flavors of this loaf stand up well with it.  I substituted just about a quarter of the regular flour with spelt and bottom-line, you can't tell any difference.
Feeling confident, I doubled the recipe and made one regular-size loaf for my family plus 2 smaller loaves for gifting.  Luckily, my confidence paid off.  The loaves turned out as flavorful and moist as I expected.  I love the classic flavors of gingerbread interspersed with the studs of dark chocolate, all wrapped up in a soft, moist, cake-like package.  It is most definitely very similar to those cookies we adore (this loaf being a little less sweet and a bit less rich if you want to compare) and now we can further enjoy those flavors in a different way.

I have a strong feeling I'll be making this one again next Christmas and others to come.

December 11, 2014

Chocolate-chestnut torte

Here I go with another chestnut recipe!  For a while, I'd been thinking that I don't cook or bake nearly enough with chestnuts considering how much I love them. There aren't all that many recipes out there since chestnuts aren't very prevalent or popular in America.  But I've been finding ways to increase the chestnut-love in my kitchen, and this time, it's with an easy chocolate-chestnut torte.
This is essentially a flourless chocolate-chestnut cake.  To simplify it - instead of folding only chocolate into whipped egg whites for a chocolate torte, this one is made with a combination of chocolate and chestnut puree.  I actually came to make this Alice Medrich recipe in a roundabout way.  
Earlier this year, my husband and I had a dinner date in our old neighborhood in Brooklyn.  Across the street from the restaurant, we noticed a small Italian grocery store that hadn't been there when we lived in the area.  Moments later, we were inside and finding a wonderful eclectic mix of European specialty foods and ingredients. What did I spy but some of my favorite chocolates as well as chestnut cream!  I quickly grabbed tins and jars left and right.  It was only when I came home that I realized I not only bought chestnut cream but also chestnut puree, something I'd never used before.  So it was time to look for a good recipe for my accidental purchase.
Turns out, chestnut puree is just as the name suggests; it's pureed chestnuts with water as the only other ingredient.  It is not the sweetened kind of cream I use often for cakes and fillings.   For this torte, you can use chestnut puree like I did or mash up some steamed, boiled, or roasted chestnuts.  Clearly, using canned chestnut puree is a big shortcut but you can also find prepared vacuum-packed or jarred chestnuts at the supermarket right now to use for this recipe.  
This is a super moist, surprisingly light-tasting, chocolate-chestnut torte.  You might be wondering how much of the chestnuts come through.  Well, if you ask my sister, she'll tell you the chestnut flavor is mild (partly because I suspect she'd prefer a pure-chestnut cake). On the other hand, my husband will insist the chestnut flavor is very strong and noticeable. My opinion lies somewhere in the middle.  When I taste it, I clearly note that gentle sweetness from the chestnuts but yet, it's clearly still very much a classic chocolate torte.  I actually love how the chestnut melds with the chocolate and softens the chocolate in a way.  And plus, a teeny hint of liquor (I used brandy) in the background makes it very nice, too.

December 7, 2014

Playing with my sugar cookies

Every Christmas I like to make sugar cookies.  It's just one of those classic treats that's a must-have at Christmas, particularly if you have children.  I don't make roll-out cookies that often during the year but come December, it's time to dig out the star, tree, gingerbread man, and assorted holiday cookie cutters.  And like my husband likes to say (and I agree), sugar cookies may not be something you crave but once you eat one, you're reminded of how simply delicious they are.  I love making room to revisit them every Christmas.
I wasn't planning on posting about my sugar cookie-making adventure but I did a couple of fun new things that I wanted to share! 

Breaking a little from routine, I tried something very simple that might change the game as far as sugar cookie-decorating goes for me.  Typically, I decorate my sugar cookies with sprinkles or sanding sugar.  On occasion, I'll use royal icing (more on that later).  But last year, I read an article from Alice Medrich that suggested a genius idea that's totally up my alley: use straight up chocolate to decorate your cookies!
Decorate your holiday cookies with chocolate!  Needless to say, it's delicious!
Hello, I'm a chocoholic - why hadn't I thought of that!  I didn't get a chance to test out this idea last Christmas but I did it with this year's batch of sugar cookies.  Oh boy - it's easy, it's delicious, and it's something I'll be doing from now on!  
I used dark chocolate but you could certainly try white chocolate if you prefer.  I simply melted a bit of chocolate in the microwave, put it into a plastic sandwich bag, nipped a small corner, and went at it.  It was surprisingly easy to handle and frankly, melting some chocolate is a lot easier than making royal icing.  And if you (or your kids) like to go crazy with decorating and tend to pile on the icing, your cookies are still sure to taste delicious because you're loading them up with pure chocolate.  It's a genius little idea and I hope you give it a try!  This is my public service announcement for the holiday season.  : ) 

Having a little more fun with my cookies...I also took an idea I saw just a few days ago from Sweet Paul magazine's instagram feed for 3-D Christmas tree sugar cookies. Using my usual sugar cookie dough - the same recipe I've been using for years - I simply took a plain round cookie cutter to cut a round that serves as the base for the tree.  Then use a paring knife and cut a rectangle or slot in the middle of the round (before baking) to make a place for the tree to "stand" in.  
How fun is that!  I love finding simple ideas that don't take much extra effort but allow you to put a fun new spin on an old routine.  It's a neat little trick to wow the kids and it's fun to plop one of these in the middle of your cookie platter.  
I had fun playing with my batch of sugar cookie dough this year.  If you are planning to roll and cut cookies this holiday season, maybe you'll try one of these little fun twists.

December 4, 2014

Cheddar cheese coins

As we all know, it's almost all about the cookies and sweets during the holiday season. I love seeing big cookie platters brimming with cookies of all kinds, shapes, sizes, and colors.  That said, I do like to venture away from the sugar jar on occasion and make at least one savory treat to share with friends and neighbors and to have as a nibble for our holiday gathering.  Usually, it involves nuts in some form.  This year, I thought I'd try a batch of cheddar cheese coins.
I used a recipe from America's Test Kitchen that I've been meaning to try for a couple of holidays seasons now.  Sometimes it just takes years to get to something!  As with any cheese crackers made with a handful of ingredients, it's all about the cheese.  I picked an organic grass-fed sharp cheddar that I really liked.  
I substituted a-third of the all-purpose flour with white whole wheat flour (with all the cheese and butter, who's going to notice!) and while there's some room for customization in terms of spices you can add, I stuck with paprika and cayenne for my first go-round since I often reach for that combination when I'm cooking.  Those spices helped give my cheese coins a golden color despite using white cheddar.
I have seen many cheese crackers made on TV and heard many testimonials about how easy they are to prepare.  It's true...but working with dough (as in pie, biscuit type doughs) is something I struggle with.  How do you get to the point of feeling the dough and just knowing when it's right?  I wish I had those instincts.  And I need a lot more practice!  If I ever take another cooking class, I should pick one for working with that type of dough.

So in the case of making this particular dough, the method is simple - pulse, pulse...combine.  After all the ingredients have been pulsed together in a food processor, you remove it to a bowl, add water, and pull the dough together with your hands.  I was afraid I over-handled the dough and I certainly had some air pockets in my logs but I was happy to see the cracker rounds bake up neatly.  They were crisp on the outside and obviously buttery and very cheesy.  Good cheese can mask imperfections.  
Looking at these, my husband and I kept thinking hash cheesy hash browns, which might sound odd but isn't such a bad thing at all.  One of the best things about recipes like this is the make-ahead factor.  The logs can be made a couple of days ahead and kept in the refrigerator, or frozen for a month.  That's a good thing since cheese crackers/coins like these are best fresh, eaten the day they're made.

December 1, 2014

Chocolate-orange crinkles

Happy December!  It's officially the season of unabashed cookie-baking and eating! I'm convinced that's at least part of the reason why this is the best time of year. 
Classic Christmas Crinkles - this one with an orange twist
I have plenty of family-favorite treats to make so I have to get busy!  I'm sure it's the same way for you.  I always wish there was more time and space to try more recipes but I can realistically only squeeze in a couple of new experiments during this busy month.  So I'm starting off with a Christmas cookie classic - crinkles (or crackles) - and this year I'm favoring them with an orange twist.  It's my way of having a familiar favorite in a slightly different way.  

I usually make a batch of these snowy cookies every holiday season.  Pure dark chocolate works perfectly well but these cookies also allow room for your own accents - I like adding almond extract and the Nutella version was a hit last year.  You could give your crinkles a peppermint flavor, which is always nice this time of year, or add depth with spices.  This year, I went with orange since that classic chocolate-orange combination never gets old for me.  I used Theo's Orange Dark Chocolate bar (a favorite of mine to munch on), along with some plain dark chocolate and fresh orange zest, for these cookies.    
Like I said, chocolate with orange never gets old.  I loved biting into this year's crinkles and tasting that flavor combination.  These cookies are so moist and soft inside.  They're fudgy and brownie-like, with a little crunch and extra sweetness on the outside from the sugar.  Instead of being overly sweet all in, you get a deep, dark chocolate (and orange) flavor thanks not only to the actual chocolate but also from cocoa powder as well as the use of brown sugar rather than granulated in the cookie dough.
It's no wonder crinkles are so popular.  They're not just fun to look at but a real holiday treat - whether you keep them plain or flavor them with a little something extra like I have here.
And given how much snow we've had in the last few winters, I'd be more than happy to simply appreciate the idea of snow through cookies.  These definitely make me think of winter, snow, and Christmas - plus, they definitely put me in the holiday spirit.


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