Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Espresso Shortbread Cookies

 One of the most enjoyable activities I do during the holidays is making cookies.  What other time of the year do we have the excuse to make a ton of cookies.  It is a lovely hostess gift, the neighbors love them and you keep some dough tucked away in the freezer or frig to have fresh cookies when guests show up.  There is nothing like homemade treats during the holidays (or any other time of the year!)

One of the cookies I really like are a shortbread espresso cookie dipped in dark chocolate.  I love shortbread cookies and the combination of coffee, chocolate and vanilla is amazing to me.   This cookie goes quite well with champagne.  Champagne and dark chocolate have a natural affinity for each other.  This recipe is adapted from Chocolate-Dipped Espresso Shortbread from Fine Cooking:  Cookies, issue #23.  I added vanilla and feel the addition of vanilla really brings out the chocolate and espresso flavors in this cookie. 

These are tasty and super simple to make so lets get to it!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Chritmas Tree Visitor

You know how it is fun to find a pine cone or if you are really lucky a birds nest in your Christmas tree.  Maybe not, but I do.  We get a live tree every year and I love finding a pine cone or a birds nest left over from summer.  This year there was really going to be a surprise.

I noticed one of our cats sitting next to the tree.

Then I noticed he wasn't drinking the pine flavored water they so love.

He was looking up into and circling the tree.

He is one of the young ones.  The old ones and the lazier one were asleep.

My name is Guthrie and this is what I usually do.

Guthrie finally got my attention and it is amazing how long that took because he was noisy and in quite a focused panic.  I was afraid he was going to climb the tree and that was not on my agenda.  I really like putting the tree up only once.

Here is what I found in our tree.
He is ridiculously cute.  Back in the college days, we used to have rats that come in our house through the power lines and would pilfer through my purse for cheerios (I had kids when I was in college just in case you thought maybe I never grew out of my cheerio stage!) and killed our Gerbil for his food.  No love lost and they were not cute.  This guy is totally cute.  Cute can really work magic even if you are a rodent.  That poops in the basement.  And eats the bird seed. And makes a mess.
 He is actually sitting in the tree cleaning himself like he has not a care in the world.

How did this story end?  He finally came down from the tree and started sprinted through the house at amazing speeds.  Guthrie is definitely after him first and then the other three rose from their slumber and joined the chase.  They were in serious competition with my son (wearing leather gloves and who is not 10 years old, some might say he is a grown man with a soft spot for animals) who is now involved in the chase.  The cats all caught him at least once but my son won.  He put him in an old aquarium and fed him cheese (what else?) and parsnips.  He going to keep him for a couple of days and let him go in the woods where he belongs.  I am sure he knows the way back to our house but I don't have the heart to kill him or allow the cats to torture him to death.

To be honest, we have found a few mice lately.  They aren't the ugly little rat type mice nor are they voles.  Voles are no fun, they are stinky and weird and they fight back.  These are the cute little mice that have numerous children stories written about them like When You Give a Mouse a Cookie.  Now we have never had problems with mice or little varmints because we have cats.  That is usually enough to keep them away.  We live next to the woods and our neighbors without cats tell us stories.  We were always like "We'll never have mice".  We are eating out words this year.  We have mice and there doesn't seem to be an end to them.  They sure are brave little rascals.

That is the end of my mouse story but sadly not the end of the mice.  I am sure there are more to come!

Happy Holidays!


Friday, December 10, 2010

Homemade Maple Sugar

 I have a bottle of grade B and grade A dark amber maple syrups.  So what does that really mean?  Well, let's figure this out.

All maple syrup in the U.S. is graded into 4 groups:
  • Grade A - Light Amber has a delicate maple flavor and is made from the first sap run of the season
  • Grade A - Medium Amber has a mild maple flavor and is the most popular for table use
  • Grade A - Dark Amber has a full-bodied maple flavor and is used for table use and cooking
  • Grade B -  has a hearty, robust maple flavor and is darker than Grade A - Dark Amber and is primarily used in cooking (also considered commercial grade)
So which one should you buy?  Whatever you can find or are you picky about it?  It is all a matter of taste and what it is going to be used for.  All of the Grade As are good as a table syrup like on pancakes or oatmeal.  The Grade A - Dark Amber and Grade B are best for cooking, but the Grade B imparts the most intense maple flavor.  Vermont standards are a bit different than the U.S. standards because they boil their syrups longer for a thicker consistency.  Canadian standards are basically the same as the U.S. but are named differently.

               US Grade                             =                     Canadian Grade
               Grade A Light Amber                                       #1 Extra Light
               Grade A Medium Amber                                           #1 Light
               Grade A Dark Amber                                            #1 Medium
               Grade B                                                                    #2 Amber
               Grade B                                                                       #3 Dark

I never really understood the grades until I moved up east.  I mostly thought about it in the flavor of the syrup that I wanted for pancakes or waffles.  In PA I find maple syrups in farmers markets, local markets, art shows, local businesses and of course the grocery store just to name a few.  One thing I have a hard time finding is maple sugar and when I do it is very expensive.  From $10.00 to $20.00 a pound seems expensive to me and is only a little over 2 cups.  The process of turning maple syrup into sugar is heating or boiling the syrup to 290 to 300 degrees just to the hard crack stage.  Then stirring it in a specialized machine or heavy duty mixer which gets more of the moisture out and creates crystals.  It is then sifted and/or grated to a crystal form like sugar.  The process of making maple sugar has to be carefully done and since it is reduced by removing water it has a more concentrated flavor than syrup.  It is possible to do this at home but candy/sugar making can test your kitchen skills getting it right and mixing the sugar crystals in a home mixer may be the last task it takes on.
So why not make maple sugar the same way you would make brown sugar in a pinch.  It is not the same as true maple sugar but it sure is tasty.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Turkey Stock, or Chicken!

So the Thanksgiving smorgasbord is done.  The cooking, the eating, the cleaning. The tension and stress. Now what is left?  A turkey carcass.  This is really the only thing left over from our Thanksgiving meal.  We do not reinvent left overs into some other turkey recipe or fried dressing balls (although these guys sound worth a try!).  We have a least two more meals of exactly the same thing we ate on Thanksgiving.  Does this mean we are not adventurous?  No, absolutely not.  It means we know all this food that we look forward to for a whole year won't be here for another year so we make it last as long as possible.

The one thing about a turkey carcass is once you think it is done, it is not. If you take a closer look, you will find a lot of tasty morsels all along the back, around the breast and thigh areas.  Very nice, close to the bone, succulent meat.  I found it and I had to hide it. 

Now do you throw the carcass away?  Absolutely not, not yet anyway, I can feel a broth coming on.  At this point if you don't have time or are just downright sick of turkey, toss the carcass in a large freezer bag and the leftover meat in a smaller bag and freeze them until you are ready for them.  I would definitely use them within a month or two.  In my case, within a couple of days!
My kitchen chicken.

Broth it is the cornerstone of any soup.  A soup or chowder is even better with a flavorful, homemade broth.  In this case, I am using turkey bones but chicken bones work perfectly and has more of a delicate, lighter flavor than turkey.  In all honesty, I like chicken stock the best.  Let's get to making a robust, flavorful stock.

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