Monday, December 31, 2012

Apple Cider Poached Pears at Midnight

A few weeks ago when it was my turn for dinner, all I could come up with for Friday night was sweet potatoes.  I'd been wanting to try hasselback potatoes, if I could manage to make all those thin cuts without slicing all the way through, and had an idea for an oat crumble topping to sprinkle over them.

And for dessert, pears poached in apple cider spiked with a cinnamon stick and some whole cloves.

Potatoes and pears aren't exactly a well-rounded dinner, but I was out of fresh ideas, so Jamie suggested Cornish game hens.  While I worked on the potatoes, he rubbed the hens with butter, herbs and spices, and after roasting, the skin was crisp and crackly with a nice salty crust.

After we finished dinner and picked out a movie to watch, I started the pears simmering, having no idea just how long it takes to poach a pear.  What I thought might take 30 minutes to an hour took over three hours, since they need to be simmered gently, low and slow.

Much later that evening, almost midnight, after their steamy apple cider bath, the pears were steeped with cinnamon, cloves and apple cider goodness.  A scoop of caramel ice cream on the side, with the apple cider syrup drizzled over it, made them even better.  All you need, is a little patience...


Cornish Game Hens
printable recipe
  • 4 Cornish Game Hens
  • 1 sweet yellow onion, cut into chunks
  • 8 cloves garlic
  • handful of sage leaves
  • 4 tablespoons butter, diced
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme

Preheat the oven to 350.

Stuff the onion, 1 garlic clove, and a few sage leaves inside each chicken.  Truss the chicken so the legs are tied together and the wings are snug against the body.  Dice the remaining 4 cloves garlic and stuff under the skin of the breast, along with the butter and a little more sage.  Season the chickens generously with salt and pepper, and sprinkle with the paprika and thyme.  A few lemon wedges inside the chickens and a sprinkling of something spicy, like cayenne, would be a nice touch, too.

Place on a wire rack set on a roasting pan.  Roast the chickens until an instant read thermometer reads 160F, which may take anywhere from an hour to an hour and a half, depending on the size of the chickens.

Yields 4 servings.

Recipe from Curly Girl Kitchen

Hasselback Sweet Potatoes with Oat Pecan Crumble
printable recipe

  • 4 small-medium sweet potatoes or 2 large
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 cup old fashioned oats
  • 1/4 cup chopped pecans
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cold

Preheat the oven to 350.  Peel the sweet potatoes.  With a sharp knife, very carefully slice 1/8 inch slices into the potatoes, stopping three-fourths of the way down so that the slices are held together by the uncut base of the potato.  Rub potatoes all over with the olive oil, in between the slits also.  Combine the sugar, cinnamon and salt, and rub the spice mixture all over the potatoes.  Wrap potatoes in foil.  Bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until tender when pierced with a fork.

Raise the temperature of the oven to 400.  Remove the foil from the potatoes and place on a baking sheet, cut side up.  In a bowl, combine the crumble topping ingredients with a pastry cutter or fork until coarse and crumbly.  Sprinkle over the potatoes.  Bake for about 10-15 minutes, until the topping is golden brown.

Yields 4 servings.

Recipe from Curly Girl Kitchen

Apple Cider Poached Pears
printable recipe
  • 4-5 cups apple cider
  • Juice of 1 orange
  • 5 whole cloves
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 4 whole firm pears
  • 2 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • Nutmeg for grating

In a medium saucepan, combine the apple cider, orange juice, cloves, cinnamon stick, brown sugar and salt.  Bring to a gentle simmer over medium low heat.

Peel the pears, leaving the stems attached.  Gently lower the pears into the simmering liquid.  Add more cider, if needed, so the pears are submerged.  Cover and simmer gently for 3-4 hours until the pears are tender, but not mushy.  When the pears are done, remove from the liquid with a slotted spoon, transfer to a plate and cover with foil to keep warm.

In a small bowl, whisk together the cornstarch and water to create a slurry; add to the saucepan.  Bring the cider mixture to a boil over medium heat and boil, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens to a syrupy consistency, 2-3 minutes.  Stir in the butter.

Place the pears on serving dishes and pour the warm syrup over each.  Garnish with freshly grated nutmeg and serve with ice cream.

Yields 4 servings.

Recipe from Curly Girl Kitchen

Saturday, December 29, 2012

A Trio of Appetizers...

Where’s the appetizer? Jamie will sometimes tease me on Friday nights when it’s my week to plan the menu.  We tend to eat dinner a little late on Fridays, sometimes because I’m baking and decorating a cake for an order, and every surface in the kitchen is covered with piping bags and tips, bowls of frosting, and cake scraps.  But sometimes it’s just that we’re tired, and need to relax a little after work.

So when dinner isn’t going to happen until 8:30 or 9:00 pm, then a little something to tide us over is always nice.  It might be as simple as a steamed artichoke with garlic aioli, or olives and cheese and crackers.

One night I made a savory galette with some pastry I had made and frozen a few weeks earlier.  First I caramelized onions and mushrooms in a skillet, then piled all that goodness on the pastry, followed by bits of prosciutto and goat cheese crumbles.  After it baked up all golden and beautiful, I sprinkled a little fresh basil on top.  With a glass of wine, it was a really nice start to the evening.

To fuel his love of appetizers, our first Valentine's together I gave Jamie a little recipe book of appetizers called Bite Size and we've had a lot of fun together trying different recipes from the book.

One of our favorites, that we've made at least 3 or 4 times are the "Chicory Bites".  We've never been able to find anything called chicory in our grocery store, so we use endive which is very similar, and the crisp vegetable leaves serve as little boats to hold a savory filling of blue cheese crumbles and chopped pecans, drizzled with a balsamic vinegar sauce and topped with fresh bean sprouts (when sprouts aren't available, we use sunflower greens).

I love how adaptable the recipe is - feta or goat cheese crumbles could be substituted for the blue cheese, walnuts for the pecans, cress or other snipped greens for the sprouts, etc...  Really, it can be made to suit anyone's taste.  These are a fresh and light little snack, that also happen to be free of carbs, if that's important to you.

I also photographed another that he recently made, Egg and Tapenade Toasts.  These pretty toasts are spread with a salty Kalamata olive tapenade, sliced tomatoes, boiled eggs and anchovies.  They were amazing and addictive, and I could have just eaten these for dinner.  If anchovies aren't your thing (although if you've never made homemade Caesar dressing with anchovies, you're missing out...), then a little smoked salmon would be nice, too.

The next day, I took some of the leftover toast and tapenade, tomatoes and eggs to work for a snack, and as I was dipping toast into that black paste, one of my coworkers asked me, "Is that caviar?"

Caviar?  Um, no, I'm not nearly that fancy...

Chicory Bites
printable recipe

  • 3 medium-sized heads chicory/endive
  • 4 ounces blue cheese, crumbled (or substitute feta or goat cheese)
  • 4 tablespoons chopped pecans
  • snipped cress, bean sprouts, sunflower greens, etc...
  • 3-4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 teaspoon granulated sugar
  • salt and pepper
Cut the base off the endive, separate the leaves, rinse and pat dry.  Select the best ones and set on a serving plate.

In a small bowl, toss together the cheese and pecans.  In a separate bowl, combine the oil, balsamic vinegar, mustard and sugar; season to taste with salt and pepper.  Drizzle a little bit of the dressing over the cheese/pecan mixture to moisten it.

Spoon the mixture into the leaves and top with the sprouts to garnish.  Drizzle each with a little more dressing, as much as you like.

Serve right away, or chill for up to an hour before serving.

Yields about 24.

Recipe from Bite Size

Egg and Tapenade Toasts
printable recipe

  • 1/2 cup pitted black olives (Kalamata)
  • 6 anchovies in olive oil, drained
  • 2 tablespoons capers, rinsed
  • 2 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
  • 4-5 tablespoons olive oil
  • freshly cracked black pepper
  • 1 small French baguette
  • 4 Roma tomatoes, thinly sliced
  • 4 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and sliced
  • 4 anchovies in olive oil, drained and halved lengthwise (or substitute smoked salmon)
  • 8 pitted black olives (Kalamata), halved
To make the tapenade, combine all ingredients except the oil and pepper in a food processor; process for about 20 seconds, until smooth.  Scrape the bowl and with the processor running, slowly add the oil through the feeder tube, until you have a smooth paste.  Season with pepper and set aside.  (This is very salty on its own and needs no extra salt.)

Preheat the broiler to medium.  Cut off the crusty ends of the bread, and slice the loaf into 8 slices, 1/4 inch thick (or more than 8 slices, for a bigger loaf).  Place on a baking sheet and toast both sides until light golden brown.  Cool.

Spread each toast with a small spoonful of the tapenade.  Top with the tomato slices and the hard-boiled egg slices.  Arrange the anchovies and olive halves on top.  Serve right away.

Yields 8 or more.

Recipe from Bite Size

Caramelized Onion, Prosciutto and Goat Cheese Galette
printable recipe

  • 1 pie crust
  • 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 sweet yellow onion, thinly sliced
  • 4 crimini or baby bella mushrooms, sliced
  • 4 ounces goat cheese
  • 4 slices prosciutto, chopped
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 egg
  • 1 teaspoon water
  • 2 tablespoons fresh basil, chopped

Prepare the pie crust by rolling out into a circle about 12 inches in diameter.  Place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.  Sprinkle the pie crust with the flour.  Cover with plastic so it doesn’t dry out and place in the refrigerator until ready to use.

In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat.  Add the onions and mushrooms, and season with salt and pepper.  Cook, stirring occasionally, until a deep golden, caramelized color, about 30 minutes; reduce the heat to medium low if they look like they may burn before caramelizing.

Set onions and mushrooms aside to cool for 10 minutes and take the pie crust out of the fridge to let it warm up a little on the counter so it’s easier to work with.  Preheat the oven to 400.

Spoon the onions and mushrooms over the pie crust, leaving a 2-3 inch border of crust all the way around.  Sprinkle with the goat cheese and the prosciutto.  Fold the edges of the dough up, overlapping the dough to create a rustic border around the filling.  In a small bowl, whisk together the egg and water; brush over the edges of the dough and under the folds with a pastry brush.

Bake for 30-35 minutes, until golden brown.  After taking the galette out of the oven, sprinkle with the chopped basil.  Cool for 10 minutes, then cut into wedges and serve.

Yields 6-8 servings.

Recipe from Curly Girl Kitchen

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Our Christmas, Beef Wellington, and Dark Chocolate Cherry Trifle with Grand Marnier...

A few inches of fresh snow dusted Colorado on Christmas Eve, giving us a white Christmas the next morning.  It was a peaceful and beautiful day.

For our Christmas Eve dinner, Jamie and I made Beef Wellington (recipe by Tyler Florence) with herbed fingerling potatoes.  The tenderloin beef was succulent and buttery, although I'm not sure I'm sold on the idea of the prosciutto and puff pastry wrapped around it.  I think I prefer a more simple preparation, like a nice sear on the steak giving it a fantastic crust.  Jamie also made pork and lamb-stuffed Cabbage Rolls, called Holupki, a Polish dish his grandma used to make every Christmas.  They were rich from the lamb but light-tasting from a touch of vinegar.

There were a few not-so-peaceful moments where I was afraid our kitchen was going to burn down - while Jamie was making the sauce for the beef wellington, he poured half a cup of bourbon into a pan, said "stand back" to unsuspecting me, and proceeded to light it on fire!  This trick may not be that hazardous in a professional kitchen, but our stove sits just inches beneath the microwave and a few upper cabinets, and the flames shot up 3 feet high, instantly setting off the smoke detector.  It all happened so fast that I didn't have time to take a picture - I was too worried about our kitchen going up in flames - but the sauce did taste fantastic.

And for dessert, I made a rich, moist and dark Chocolate Cherry Trifle, soaked in Grand Marnier.  The homemade chocolate cake was so dark it was almost black, and the finished trifle tasted so luxurious with the chocolate, Grand Marnier, sweet cherries and cool whipped cream.

That night, I set out milk and cookies - chocolate chip pecan shortbread - for Santa, and the next morning I was happy to see that he'd sampled them.  That Christmas morning we slept in late before opening presents, making Cinnamon Rolls with a Salted Caramel frosting, and then spending the afternoon watching our favorite Christmas movies.

Christmas is my favorite holiday, and it always makes me a little sad when it's over, but I know I have next year to look forward to...

I hope you all had a beautiful, peaceful and happy holiday.

Dark Chocolate Cherry Trifle with Grand Marnier
printable recipe

  • Dark Chocolate Cake, cooled (recipe below)
  • 1/4 cup Grand Marnier (orange liqueur)
  • 1/2 cup dark chocolate, finely chopped (or mini chocolate chips)
  • Cherry Filling, cooled (recipe below)
  • 1 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream
  • 3 tablespoons powdered sugar

Note:  For an alcohol-free version, toss the cake with coffee or a flavored syrup instead of the Grand Marnier.

Set out a large glass trifle bowl.

In a large bowl, crumble the chocolate cake with a fork, then drizzle with the Grand Marnier.  Toss with the fork to moisten evenly.  Set aside.

Whip the whipping cream with the powdered sugar until medium peaks form.

Spoon 1/3 of the chocolate cake into the bottom of the trifle bowl.  Sprinkle with 1/2 of the chopped chocolate.  Top with 1/2 of the cherry filling.  Top with 1/3 of the whipped cream.  Repeat.  Spoon the rest of the chocolate cake on top, then the rest of the whipped cream.  Garnish with a few cake crumbs, chocolate curls or chopped chocolate.

Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Dark Chocolate Cake
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 3/4 cups granulated sugar
  • 3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder, "Special Dark" cocoa
  • 1 tablespoon espresso powder
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 eggs, room temperature
  • 1 cup milk, room temperature
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla
  • 1 cup boiling water

Preheat the oven to 350.  Spray a 9x13 pan with non-stick spray.  Set aside.

In the bowl of your electric mixer, combine the flour, sugar, cocoa, espresso powder, baking soda, baking powder and salt.  Add the eggs, milk, oil and vanilla.  Mix on low speed for 30 seconds to combine then beat for three minutes on medium speed.  Scrape the bowl down and gently stir in the boiling water - the batter will be very thin.

Pour batter into the pan and bake for 28-33 minutes, or until the center of each cake springs back when gently touched.  Set the pan on a wire rack, cover with a clean kitchen towel and cool completely.

Cherry Filling
  • 2 pounds frozen sweet black cherries
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 4 tablespoons corn starch
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 4 tablespoons water
  • 3 tablespoons Grand Marnier (optional)

In a large saucepan, combine the cherries, sugar, corn starch, salt and water.  Simmer over medium low heat to dissolve the sugar and thaw the cherries.  When the mixture is juicy, increase heat to medium.  Bring to a boil, stirring constantly, and boil for 1-2 minutes until thick like pie filling.  Remove from the heat and stir in the Grand Marnier.

Cool completely before assembling the trifle.

Recipe from Curly Girl Kitchen

Monday, December 24, 2012

Gingerbread Cake Christmas Tree Centerpiece

Year after year, a gingerbread kit sat in my parents’ garage with all the Christmas ornaments and glittery garlands and other decorations, just waiting to be made.  That particular kit was for Santa’s sleigh and reindeer, and I was just dying to make it.

Every year, I’d ask my mom if we could make it, hoping she’d say yes, but it seemed there  was always a reason not to – it would be too messy, too time-consuming, too… something.  I was so disappointed.

Come to think of it, I’m not sure why I would have needed supervision to make it, since by that time I was at least 13 years old, and already able to cook and bake without any help.  And the gingerbread pieces in the kit were already baked, only needing to be assembled with the royal icing provided in the kit and then decorated.  I really don’t remember if we ever made it one year, or if it just got thrown away after collecting dust for so long.

One Christmas when I was in China, the university where I was teaching hosted a party, and my friend Jessica and I decided we would make a gingerbread house.  Of course, we had no access to any pre-made kits, and no knowledge or means of making homemade gingerbread, so we made do with what we had.  We bought bags of some kind of wafer cookies to use for the frame of the house, held together by peanut butter and frosting, and then decorated with whatever assorted candy we could find.  In the end, it was pretty cute, even though it wasn’t a true gingerbread house.  The night of the party was a freezing cold, terribly windy night – the wind coming off the sea from the harbor was intense and bone-chilling – and we barely managed to carry our cookie and candy creation from the apartment up to the school in one piece.

For our first Christmas together a few years ago, Jamie and I started our own tradition of making a gingerbread house from whatever little kits were available at the grocery store.  One of these years, I’m going to have to get creative and make/design my own, but I haven’t been brave enough for that yet.

This year, for a different spin on a gingerbread house, I thought I would make a tree instead out of layers of cake.  The cake could be any flavor, depending on what color you want it to be, but I used a spice cake mix.  It’s easily baked in a cookie sheet (one with sides) so that there’s more surface and a thinner layer to work with.  Using a small star cookie cutter I have for reference, I drew and cut out 6 stars, each one larger than the next.  I lay my paper star patterns on the cake, secured them with straight pins, and carefully cut each star with a sharp, non-serrated knife.  After removing the excess cake, the stars are simply stacked, to create a tree, secured by a wooden skewer down the center to keep the whole thing from toppling over while you decorate it.

The most fun part, of course, is the decorating.  I drizzled the whole thing with a basic royal icing, and before it set, garnished it with green, red and white M&Ms for “lights”.  Earlier that day I had decorated Christmas cookies to look like presents, and I placed those at the base of the tree, then topped it with two angel cookies, secured with more royal icing.  A little coconut sprinkled around the base and a generous dusting of powdered sugar “snow” all over gave it the wintery finish it needed.  Isn’t it pretty?

Although I didn’t go too crazy with the candy decorations, the possibilities for how this tree could be decorated are endless.  The tree is pretty dry within about 24 hours, and makes a beautiful and festive centerpiece for the table.  Of course it’s edible, but after it dries, I don’t really think you’d want to eat it anyway.

This is a Christmas tradition that I love, and one I hope to keep every year.

Merry Christmas!!

"Gingerbread" Cake Christmas Tree Centerpiece
(downloadable star templates for the cake are attached in the printable recipe)

  • 1 spice cake mix (plus oil, eggs and water called for on box)
  • wooden skewer
  • royal icing
  • assorted candy and cookies to decorate
  • shredded coconut and powdered sugar for snow
Mix up the cake mix according to the instructions on the box.  Pour into a greased baking sheet with sides (my baking sheets measure 10 1/2 x 16 12 with 1-inch high sides, so you will need to use one at least this big in order to have enough surface to cut all the stars; you could use a slightly bigger one, but not too much bigger) and bake at 350 until a toothpick comes out clean.  Cool.

Cut out the star templates and lay them out on the cake as demonstrated.  Secure with straight pins if needed.  Use a sharp, non-serrated knife to carefully cut along the outline of each star.

Starting with Star #1, carefully remove the excess cake from around the star, then use a wide spatula to pick up the star and place it on a cake board or cake pedestal.  Repeat with the remaining stars, stacking them largest to smallest (1-6).  Place the wooden skewer straight down the center of the cakes (to keep it from toppling while you decorate it) and trim the end of the skewer with wire cutters.

Drizzle the cake with royal icing, and decorate with candy and cookies before the icing sets.  The presents around the bottom are cookies that I decorated, as well as the angels at the top, which are held in place with royal icing.

Sprinkle coconut around the base of the cake and then generously dust everything with powdered sugar.  Set aside to dry - the icing and cake will become dry and hard within about 24 hours.

Recipe and Design by Curly Girl Kitchen