Thursday, December 31, 2009

Wedding Cupcakes Pre-Trial

The lovely Miss Amanda from Is This Thing On? will be making the cupcakes for our wedding and kindly stopped by on Christmas Eve Eve to give us a tasting of some of the flavors we'd proposed. And seriously? Did you get a look at that perfect frosting job? Awesome.

We're getting married in the fall, so we wanted to get fall flavors that are nostalgic, seasonal and unique and most of all, reflective of us. Sean's favorite dessert of all time is apple pie and I love anything with Bailey's, so here's where we landed, left to right:
  • Apple cupcakes with homemade vanilla buttercream icing (which will have a caramel drizzle on the day of the wedding).
  • Pumpkin swirl cupcakes
  • Chocolate Guiness cupcakes with Baileys icing
We had a ceremonial tasting and here were our thoughts ("our" including me, Ashleigh, Amanda, Sean and his family):
  • Apple was moist perfection. Seriously. The vanilla buttercream was perfect and I can't wait to try it with caramel drizzle.
  • Pumpkin spice was okay. Sean and his dad loved it; Amanda was on the fence; I thought it was a little more like a muffin than a cupcake.
  • Guiness with Baileys was a revelation. Seriously. The Guiness really only added a layer of flavor to the chocolate and the Baileys was, as always, fabulous. I've had so much Irish Cream lately that I'm almost tired of it ... nah.
We're still open to creative cupcake ideas. I suggested maybe a champagne cupcake; do you have any ideas?

ENTER TO WIN COOKWARE approached me about giving away any item on their site worth up to $30. To enter, go to this entry and leave a comment about your cooking-related New Year's Resolution.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Saltine Toffee Cookies

My dear friends Ryan and Mark introduced me to this fabulous dessert cobbled together out of pantry staples: Saltine Toffee Cookies.

Start by melting brown sugar and butter until it becomes a thick, bubbling mess.

Ryan did all the work; I just photographed.

See? Thick, bubbly mess.

Then you line a pan with foil sprayed with cooking spray and place saltine crackers side by side. Pour the toffee over the crackers and spread evenly, then put in the oven to bake.

Once the toffee has set, pour chocolate chips on top and spread as they melt (which by the way, is really, really fun).

Sprinkle with nuts if you so choose, then put the entire pan in the freezer until the chocolate hardens. Then it's ready to enjoy!

The final effect is this magical combination of salt and chocolate, chewy and hard; it has a really fabulous texture. Can you believe how easy that is? And inventive? Seriously, try it.

ENTER TO WIN COOKWARE approached me about giving away any item on their site worth up to $30. To enter, go to this entry and leave a comment about your cooking-related New Year's Resolution.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Classic Bread Pudding

After Miss Margaret and I conquered the fig and cheese tart, we moved onto dessert: classic bread pudding. I'm pretty sure we used a Joy of Cooking recipe, similar to this one.

Miss Margaret had about 4,000 pieces of French bread left in the fridge, so we set to work cubing it and had enough for two bread puddings.

I won't lie; being a picky eater, mushy bread ranks very high on my list of fears. And Bread Pudding....well, it's all in the name. But I've had some good bread puddings in my past, so I was willing to give this a shot.

We scalded milk and butter, then poured it over the bread cubes, along with sugar, vanilla, cooking sherry and raisins. Finally, we topped with slices of lemon.

Um....this picture scares me a lot. MUSHY.

But once it had baked, the bread pudding was quite lovely (the Delft-style container doesn't hurt!).

Quite lovely, no? It tasted a little sour, which Sean and I didn't much care for, so I would add a lot more sugar and maybe use bourbon. Bread pudding is great with a Bourbon sauce, as well.

ENTER TO WIN COOKWARE approached me about giving away any item on their site worth up to $30. To enter, go to this entry and leave a comment about your cooking-related New Year's Resolution.

Holiday Decor Sales

If you love a good deal and you've got money burning in your wallet, now's a great time to stock up on holiday stuff at more than half-off prices. Here's a round-up of some of the best around the department store web sites:

Felt Cupcake ornament, $4 at Paper Source.

Pirate ship ornament, $8 at Anthropologie.

12 days of Christmas ornaments, $20 at Crate and Barrel.

Holiday Ornament Napkin rings/place settings, $5 for a set of four, Crate and Barrel.
Cheers stocking, $12.95 at Crate and Barrel.

Felt Trees, $3 to $5 at CB2.

Pomegranate Berry Wreath, $34 to $64 at Restoration Hardware.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Fig and Stilton Tart

On Christmas Eve, my fiance and I traveled up to his family's home in Alexandria, Va., where I tied on an apron to cook with my future mother-in-law.

Miss Margaret is quite the gourmet cook, but even she had never tackled puff pastry and invited me to join her in recreating the New York Times' Fig and Stilton Cheese Tart for our Christmas Eve feast.

We started out by cutting onions in long slices, shaped sort of like parentheses, and I plucked sprigs of rosemary.

I also crumbled a wedge of Stilton blue cheese -- very, very creamy.

Meanwhile, the onions slowly caramelized in butter and sugar for 30 minutes, before I added sherry vinegar to pull up the brown bits. *We would have used more sherry vinegar than the recipe calls for.

Miss Margaret has a bountiful fig tree outside that yields so many green figs, she gives them away to restaurants. They were very ripe and had been frozen, so they were practically oozing. She sliced the figs in half while I was crumbling the cheese.

Once the onions were finished, we placed them in bowls with an egg mixture, then, using a fork, placed the onions in the center of a sheet of thawed puff pastry, leaving an inch to create a border.

Seriously. How gasp-worthy beautiful is that tart? Gotta love natural light, something my apartment has never seen.

Then we both brushed the remaining egg mixture along the sides of the pastry.

The most fun part: pinching the corner up around the center.

Finally, we popped them into the oven to bake. Fair warning: the egg will spill a little, so we had to do a little clean-up after that, but Miss Margaret said it would be just fine.

Ta-Da! And I helped!

In all seriousness, the tart was a masterpiece in terms of loveliness. It was maybe the most gorgeous, magazine-worthy item I've made.

Flavor-wise? Well...that's a bit of a different story. The recipe said it could be served fresh out of the oven or at room temperature, so we put some plastic wrap over it and left it out for half the day, then tried it as an appetizer. Room temperature was not so great; it definitely needs to be at least warm.

Also, we would have added some salt or more Stilton to counteract the sweetness of the ripe figs; the flavor of the cheese got a little lost. The consistency of the puff pastry was great, however, and the onions tasted just right. Contest

Well, my lovely readers, have I got a holiday treat for you! The fine folks at Cookware contacted me about doing a giveaway to my readers.

I've never done a giveaway before, but I figured we could try it out and it might be nice to scoop up something you might not have received for Christmas. Here's the deal:

The Prize: You can choose ANYTHING on the site up to $30 as your prize, including the mixing bowls from Paula Deen Cookware shown above. The site has plenty of kitchen necessities under $30, from knife sets to tea kettles to cookbooks.

The Rules: You have one week to leave a comment on this post telling me your cooking- or eating-related New Year's resolution. My personal resolution is to cook a little healthier in preparation for my wedding, but I'd love to hear yours.

Over the weekend, I'll review the resolutions and announce the winner on Monday. Be clever and creative! At that point, I will ask the winner to e-mail me and we'll negotiate the particulars of getting your prize to your doorstep.

Fine print: Unfortunately, the contest is open only to my readers in the U.S. and Canada (sorry faithful fans in Kazakhstan!). Also, I think it's important for you to know I am receiving nothing from Think of me as a conduit to your happier cooking experiences!

I'll be linking back to this post throughout the weekend for easy commenting. Please only leave one comment and I can't wait to read your resolutions!

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Sunday Best v.7

An awesome New Year's Eve picture at a Flaming Lips concert, found on Flickr.
  • In high school, I discovered The Runaways, the girl supergroup of the '70s and although I'm not a fan of Kristen Stewart, I think she makes a terrific Joan Jett.
  • Want this French Toast RIGHT NOW.
  • The Swan Lake of wedding dresses, made by the bride and her mother
  • Remember the photobooth stars used to crowd into on TRL? All the pictures are stored here.
  • If you ever need the most epic distraction ever, go to Sporcle, which has timed quizzes about every manner of trivia you can imagine. My friends and I literally spent like, 4 to 5 hours huddle around a computer doing this on Saturday.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Red Lobster Cheddar Biscuits

What you see here are the beginnings of something wonderful: Red Lobster Cheddar Biscuits!!!.

(*except it didn't quite work out that way.)

Like everybody who ever set foot in a Red Lobster, I live for the Cheddar Bay biscuits and it's one of the five things Sean will eat that contains cheese. So I promised for Christmas, I would make some. I found that Food Network recipe and figured, Hey, they're reputable. Let's go for it.

Note: I do not own a food processor. I should, yes, but I'm trying to wait to see if I get one when I register. In the meantime, I make magic happen with my trusty $30 blender and my trusty 20-year-old hand mixer.

So anyways. You blend flour, baking powder and salt and then add shortening. Pulse for a bit. That wasn't working for me in the stupid blender, so I switched to hand mixing.

Cut four tablespoons of cold butter into 1/2-inch pieces and blend until they roll into pea-size balls.

At which point, you add 1 and a 1/4 cups of cheddar cheese. Seriously...with the exception of the mixing delay, this was the easiest thing ever. Which is shocking considering the biscuits are literally the only reason I go to Red Lobster. Never again, Sean.

Add milk and mix until it forms "a shaggy dough" according to the recipe.

Dump onto a clean surface and gently knead. I read on both Red Lobster and Food Network's web sites that overkneading the bread could equal disasters, so I was very careful about this step.

And pop in to bake for about 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, I melted butter and garlic, then added parsley.

Finally, I brushed the garlic mixture on the biscuits.

So how did it all turn out? Well, we each took a bite and both said, "It needs more salt."
My first thought was that the recipe needed garlic powder; I double-checked, but no, Food Network says I should use real garlic.

And this is where I go to bat for, once in a blue moon, using the crap version of something. I'm sure an actual garlic clove gives a more authentically garlicky, subtle flavor but with this, I wanted that salty, powdery explosion of flavor.

Other recipes I found also suggested using Bisquick mix...I'm not sure how much of a difference that would make. The consistency of those biscuits was pert near perfect (in my Appalachian speak, "pert near" is pretty close), so I don't feel particularly motivated to change that part of the recipe. But garlic powder? I'm totally on board.

Any other clues for what might have been missing? Suggestions for ways to improve are always welcome.

Wino Champagne Party

My wine club finished up the year with a champagne holiday party, which was super fun. We tried many champagnes, some that tasted like dirty socks and eggs and some that tasted divine. I wish I could say I kept meticulous notes but I didn't, so I can just tell you what I vaguely remember. We had:

  • Sofia Blanc de Blancs: Created by Francis Ford Coppola's winery for his daughter Sofia's wedding. I enjoy Sofia, especially in a discreet can, but Lauren thought it tasted like dirty socks. I'd still love to try the Rose.
  • It looks like that says Cruse, but I can't find mention of it on the internets. Help, friends?
  • Korbel Sweet Rose: A lovely wine, very sweet and fruity. But I won't lie. Sparkling rose is sparkling rose when you're on your fifth or sixth tasting.
  • Sant'Orsola Asti: Everyone's favorite, but no surprise — it's asti!
  • Cook's Brut Champagne: A medium-dry champagne; always good and thankfully inexpensive.
  • Um...this one had a reindeer on it? Help?
  • Freixenet Cordon Negro Bruit: Its web site says it has notes of citrus; I don't remember much about it.
  • Korbel Brut Rose: Similar to the other one, but a little dryer and still fruity. I like anything pink and this was our pink, so I am biased.
  • Cook's Extra Dry Brut: I don't know if I remember this one, but its site says it is "yeasty." lol.
  • Andre Extra Dry: Scoff if you want, but I think the reason Andre is both cheap and easy to get is because it is mild, sweet and delicious. Make it rain, ya'll.
  • Perrier-Jouet: A perfect example of how my palate is still not developed. Erica splurged and bought us this gorgeous bottle of one of the finest champagnes in the world, and I said, "Hm...this reminds me of eggs." What can I say? I like 'em sweet.
Strawberry slices make everything better.

Erica taught us all, including Ashleigh up here, how to sword a bottle. In other words, we learned how to take a sword or a kitchen knife and open a champagne bottle. Here's a video to teach you how to do it.

What you need to do:
1. Use a bottle with a natural cork.
2. Remove foil and cage.
3. Find the seam in the glass.
4. Pointing the bottle downward, run the dull side of a blade (sword or chef's knife) along the seam and slice toward the bottle top. It's really that easy.
5. Turn the bottle back upward to let the foam drip and check for pieces of glass. If done properly, you should have a clean cut.

Check my anxiety!


But if you like to do it old-school, Erica has a handy tip: wrap the bottle with a dish towel and simply twist the cork off. No messy pops involved!


Look! Sean even came to wine club! And dressed up!

Good girl shot.

Silly girl shot!

Panning shot!

It was a wonderful way to kick off the holiday week and I'm super excited to show off my champagne knowledge on New Year's. I really want to try Veuve-Clicquot. What can I say? I'm a sucker for packaging.