Friday, December 19, 2014

The Chocolate Lovers On Your List

Another holiday favorite around this house are Brownie Bites. These little chunks of heaven are rich enough to bring groans of pleasure to the chocolate lovers on your holiday list but they aren't super sweet. And they are small, so even calorie-careful people like My Beloved's daughters can enjoy them without too much guilt. You make them in candy rather than muffin papers, so they are bite-sized. 

After the crab dinner we enjoyed before they headed off with their families to Palm Springs for Christmas, they each indulged in a Brownie Bite or two, and a couple of Melting Moments for good measure.

I found this recipe in a long-ago issue of Sunset Magazine. Knowing Sunset, you can probably still search for it on their website but I will share it here to save you the trouble. At one holiday dinner when I brought a plate of assorted cookies as my contribution, everyone there agreed that the Brownie Bites were the best things on the plate. 

And they are pretty easy to make, too. The hardest part is getting the rather gooey batter into the tiny cups but with a little practice you will perfect your technique for grabbing a spoonful, twirling it quickly like a glass artist keeping his gather straight, and dolloping it neatly into the cups. Topped with walnuts or pecans, or just served plain, I can pretty much guarantee those groans of pleasure.

Brownie Bites, thanks to Sunset Magazine

1/2 cup (1/4 lb) butter
4 ounces unsweetened chocolate
1-1/2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 large eggs
1 cup all-purpose flour
About 40 walnut or pecan halves
40 tiny candy or muffin cups (about 1-1/2" in diameter)

Melt butter and chocolate together over very low heat in a small pan. Scrape into the mixer bowl (or a larger bowl) and add the sugar and vanilla extract. Add eggs, beating well after each addition. Stir in the flour.

Spoon batter into paper-lined tiny 1-1/2 inch diameter) muffin cups, filling almost to the top (I find that the papers will stand on their own and you don't need tiny muffin pans. They will spread a little, but still stay the size of a bite or two). Place a nut half on top of the batter in each cup.

Bake in a 325F oven until the tops look dry and feel firm when lightly touched, about 20 minutes. If you have used a muffin tin, let them cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then transfer to racks to cool. Otherwise, you can just set the cookie sheet on a rack and let them cool. Serve warm or cool (I prefer cooled to room temp).

To store, let cool, then package airtight and hold at room temp up to four days. Makes about 40. I find that they freeze well, too.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Tradition

I love how recipes become traditions, simply by happy repetition. One woman finds a recipe,  serves it to kudos from her family, and she passes it down (usually) to her daughter, and the daughter repeats it, and so on until it has become something bonding and important and joyous.

That's what Melting Moment cookies are to me - a Christmas tradition that has come down through at least three generations now. They are simple and sweet; it wouldn't be Christmas without them. My first husband's mother, Elna, made these and gave her daughter and me the recipe, and now I am making them with my granddaughter, too. 

Last weekend, I prepared the cookie dough with the splendid KitchenAid mixer My Beloved's girls gave me a couple of Christmases ago (see how even that is becoming a part of the joy when I can haul out an appliance that has love written all over it?) and baked them in my new oven. I was initially concerned that they wouldn't turn out right, as you put them into a cold oven, then turn it on. I was worried that the roaring conflagration that Viking calls preheating would be too violent, but I needn't have worried - I put them into the lower part of the oven and they were perfect.

I took the cookie parts and the icing over to my granddaughter's house and we spent a pleasurable hour coloring the icing and then sticking the cookies together with a generous dollop of pink and green.

My granddaughter loved the whole thing. She loved donning a little apron. She enjoyed choosing just the right spoon and the perfect knife for mixing and spreading. She spread the icing and pressed the cookies together with care, not breaking a single one. That's not as easy as it sounds, as these aren't called Melting Moments for nothing - they are fragile and buttery and melt quite literally in your mouth. When they were finished, she placed each one with delicacy into the tin, arranging each one until she had the perfect ratio of pink to green and showing me a meticulous side to her nature that I had not hitherto suspected.

I'm going to share this cherished recipe here in hopes that it will start a new tradition in your house that will bring you holiday joy, too.

Melting Moment Cookies, thanks to Elna Trenholme

Cookie dough

1 cup butter at room temperature
2 Tablespoons powdered sugar
2 cups flour

Cream butter and sugar together. Mix flour in with a spoon (I used my mixer). Drop by 1/2 teaspoon onto cookie sheet, close together. Put into a cold oven. Turn on the oven to 300F and bake for 30 minutes. 

Icing

2 Tablespoons butter at room temperature
1 cup powdered (confectioner's) sugar
1 Tablespoon milk 
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract (add last)
Food coloring

Beat ingredients together with a mixer, adding the vanilla at the end. Divide the icing into two small containers and color with food coloring. I have tried the yellow and the blue but, honestly, the pink and green are the most appetizing colors.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Messing With The Classics

Here in California, we have a very nice little fish called a petrale sole. He's a flat fish, like the tiny sand dabs and the giant halibut, so he's white-fleshed and very mild. When he's fresh, there's no better fish on earth, so when I saw some at the local Astronomico's supermarket (just kidding), I wanted to do a fish dish celebrating our local star.

My dog-eared and spattered copy of Sunset magazine's, "Cooking for Two" cookbook has yielded many a delicious recipe over the years. I was sorry to read that the parent company, Time, Inc. has sold their test-and-demonstration campus in Menlo Park to the rich cat developers, but I am hopeful that the magazine will continue to produce a monthly pleasure and that the cookbooks will keep coming out.

The recipe for Sole Florentine is one I had never made before, but it seemed pretty simple, so I went for it. Being me, I had to tinker a bit with it, even though it's a classic, but it still turned out very well. I used Swiss chard instead of spinach, simplified the poaching step, and substituted the sharp cheddar cheese I had on hand for the Parmesan cheese the recipe suggested. It was still a lovely dish that My Beloved and I inhaled - I don't think it was on the plates for more than five minutes!

California and Sunset magazine just seem to go together. Even when I didn't live in California, I subscribed to the magazine for all the good recipes and craft ideas inside. I hope it never changes - that would truly be messing with a classic.

Sole Florentine, adapted from Sunset Magazine 

4 sole fillets, 3/4-1 pound
1 bottle (8oz) clam juice
1 bunch rainbow Swiss chard
4 Tablespoons grated Cheddar cheese
2 Tablespoons butter
2 Tablespoons flour
2/3 cup milk
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon dry mustard
1 Tablespoon each lemon juice and instant minced onion (I left out the onion since I didn't have any - and I'd have used minced shallot in any case, softened in the butter before thickening the sauce)

Preheat the oven to 425 degree F oven.

Wash the Swiss chard and sauté it with the water still clinging to the leaves until limp in a wide skillet. Butter a ovenproof gratin dish large enough to accept the fillets in a single layer. Distribute the Swiss chard in the bottom and sprinkle with 2 Tablespoons of the cheese. Set aside.

Bring the clam juice to a boil in a wide pan. Lay the fillets into the clam juice and gently poach for about 3 minutes. Lift out the fillets and lay them over the Swiss chard. In a separate sauté pan, melt the butter and add the flour, cooking and stirring until bubbly, then cook for a minute or two longer. Add the milk and the clam juice a bit at a time, stirring to make a smooth sauce. Add the nutmeg, lemon juice, and dry mustard, and stir to blend.

Pour the sauce over the fillets and sprinkle with the rest of the cheese. Slide the dish into the oven and bake, uncovered, for about 15 minutes, until bubbly and lightly browned.


Friday, December 12, 2014

Soupsville

I got so excited about my turkey stuffing soup that when it was time to roast the weekly chicken around here, I stuffed it, too, and knew I would add that to the soup I made from the chicken bones. After living with me all these years, My Beloved understands that he is never to discard poultry bones of any kind - I always want to make them into broth, if not immediately into soup.

This chicken was on the fast track to Soupsville. It has been rainy here and a little chilly, although we can hardly complain since we need the water desperately and what we call chilly people in the Midwest call a welcome thaw at this time of year. It's good soup weather, in any case.

In addition to the leftover stuffing, I added some wild rice to this soup, too, for that chewy, nutty flavor. And some fresh veggies at the last few minutes, so they were bright and colorful and lent another texture.

I won't go into how to make chicken stock from bones - the interwebs are filled with easy recipes and you'll find one you like best - but I will urge you always to do this when you have finished your chicken. If nothing else, you'll have that as a base for future meals or to take to friends when you hear they have caught a miserable cold.

Next stop, Soupsville.


Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Kneeling Pads

Not perhaps the very best pancakes ever - these were what in my family we call "kneeling pads" and we tend to prefer thin pancakes. Also, they were served with that fake maple goo that passes for syrup these days (except in my house). They were not warm enough to melt the butter and the poor little sausage wasn't even browned, just heated.

But, it really doesn't matter when you're having "Breakfast with Santa" in the company of your grandchildren and they are thrilled to bits. 

Santa's beard didn't fool anyone (they should recruit My Beloved - he has the real thing and it's the correct color, too!) and the grands were a little shy of him in his shiny red suit, but he was good natured and they did whisper their wish list to him. Mia wants a "pocket trumpet," which she carefully explained to me is a trumpet just about "so big" (holding her hands about four inches apart) that fits into your pocket. Hmmm, don't know where to get one of those, do you?

Owen whispered so quietly that we couldn't hear his wish. I hope his parents can wangle it out of him later. 

In the meantime, this is one of those little memories that will give me a smile each time I recall it through the holidays. Kneeling pads notwithstanding.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Stuffing Soup!

I made what I consider two momentous discoveries this past Thanksgiving. Stuffing soup. Adding the leftover stuffing to the turkey soup you make from those turkey bones does wonders for the soup!  It thickens just a little. It volunteers the turkey juices that made the stuffing moist back to the soup in extra flavor. And it gives you that good housewifey feeling of using every scrap of what you paid your hard-earned money for.

The other thing that's a "must," which perhaps you already knew, is to save that lovely brown juice that spreads onto your platter as you carve the turkey. It's so rich that it will jell in the fridge. Then, you can skim off as much fat as you want and still keep the rich flavor that will add so much to your soup.

If you have had too much turkey by the time the bones are uncovered, you can freeze the bones, or make the soup and freeze that. Either way, you've got a treat just waiting in the freezer for that February day when you think, "Man, I could use some soup today!"

You do make soup from your turkey bones, don't you?  If not, well, next year you simply must.

That is all.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

A Brighter Note

After we dropped off my saddle with Sarah, the director of the James S. Brady Therpeutic Riding program, it was time for a little lunch. We needed something a little lighter to do. So, My Beloved drove us out of Golden Gate park, past the huge windmill, and out along the Great Beach. The sky had cleared from the earlier rain and the beach was beautiful, long and golden with people scattered along its length enjoying the freshly washed air.

He had never eaten at the Beach Chalet across the Great Highway from the beach, even though he and it have been in San Francisco for many years. I was interested to try it, too, so we found a parking space nearby and climbed the stairs to the restaurant on the second level.  We scored a great table right next to the window with an unobstructed view of the beach.

I had a bowl of butternut squash soup and a crab cake appetizer. The soup was warming and spiced with fall flavors, and topped with a squiggle of creme fraiche. The crab cake was made with local Dungeness crab, a little spicy with a crisp, crackling crust and a generous puddle of charred scallion aioli. The accompanying slaw was made with radicchio, cucumbers, and yellow peppers in a tangy, vinegary dressing that complemented the rich crab very well.

My Beloved's steak and frites were cooked exactly to his order and the fries were crisp and hot. I sneaked a few of those fries. He carved his way through a very rare steak while we admired the peace of the beach outside and the bustle of happy eaters and good service inside. 

After lunch, we browsed leisurely through the little museum exhibits on the lower floor and enjoyed the frescoes, the richly carved bannister, and the mosaics, all thanks to the WPA in the 1930s. They have a nice little gift shop there, too, and an outdoor restaurant that features local ales and beers that we will save for another day. It was time to head home for a nap after a busy morning of good deeds and good food.

Monday, December 1, 2014

A Farewell



When I was a child of about eight, I fell in love with horses. I pestered my parents for a pony, then a horse, for years, until they sent me for the summer to Michigan to ride horses with their dear friends the Davenports. It was pure, horse-scented bliss, but it was brief. Our Navy life did not lend itself to owning horses because we moved every two years or so.

Thirty-five years later, after half a lifetime of yearning, I bought my own horse, a beautiful half-Arab mare called Mira. She was gentle, responsive, and a huge joy in my life. We rode together in the fields of western New York state, taking my dog Chica along for the fun - ever since I was a kid watching Roy Rogers with his horse Trigger and his dog Bullet, that had been my dream. She was, literally, a dream come true. That's Mira in the first picture.

When I moved to California after my divorce, I decided to leave Mira in New York. She was of retirement age by then and was happily integrated into the small herd of horses where I kept her, so I just continued to pay her barn bills rather than move her across country to start again. Three years later, when My Beloved and I got married, my friends in New York braided her mane with flowers in honor of the wedding and sent me this photo of her, the last I have. She aged gently there and, finally, was buried on the property where she spent her peaceful retirement.

I brought my beautiful, second-hand, Passier saddle with me, thinking I might ride a different horse here, but I never did. I rode a couple of others but it just wasn't as satisfying as my Mira had been so the saddle went into the garage to be pulled out every six months or so to be cleaned and oiled, then zipped back into its protective cover to wait for another six months to pass. 

Finally, when we cleaned out the garage, which had been the staging area for the kitchen renovation, I decided it was time to move the saddle along. I couldn't bear to sell it - it just had too many happy memories attached to it - so when I heard about the James Brady Therapeutic Riding program, it seemed the exactly right place for my saddle to go. I met Sarah, the director of the local program, one day at Tal-y-Tara, the tea shop her family runs. So, a few months later, when the renovation was finished, we made contact and I brought my saddle and other assorted horse stuff to Golden Gate Park's Bercut Equitation Field.


Sarah's horses are small, shaggy, sturdy mounts, endlessly patient with the children who ride in the program. Daisy and Olaf take carrots from young hands so carefully that parents have no fears. The children love them so much that even after their turn is over, they sometimes follow the horses around on foot. Daisy is the mare with the fetching dark forelock; she looks like the horse version of a punk rocker with her bi-colored mane. Olaf has a more flaxen mane.

As Sarah gets access to larger horses, she plans to begin therapeutic riding for older children and for wounded warriors. She is looking for someone with full-sized horses to trailer them to the park for use in the program, so if you know anyone who has good, calm horses and is willing to give some time to the program, you can contact Sarah through the Brady website.

Even though I know my saddle will go to a good cause, I was still a little sad as we drove away, knowing that my riding days are over. While I still owned the saddle, there was always the chance that another Mira would come into my life. Now, I'm pretty sure she won't. It is hard for me to say farewell to that part of my life, so My Beloved put his arm around me as we walked away.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Tea For Two

In this week when we are all thinking about what we are thankful for, my cousin Jan is right at the top of my list of good things I am grateful for. I didn't know her well as a child because our two Navy families kept us moving, for the most part, in different spheres, but when she retired and settled just forty minutes north, we became great pals.

We share a family bond but also a love of thrift shops, animals, books, and word games, to name just a few. So, when Jan invited me to drive up to use her coupon for afternoon tea at a tea shop in Santa Rosa, I couldn't wait. By the way, we also share a love of eating.

The Tudor Rose Tea Room is charming. From the front "gate," painted white with flowers growing up the trellis, to the mismatched flowery china, to the gracious English lady who owns it, to the server in long, black dress and crisp white apron, the Tudor Rose whisks you back to Merrie Olde Englande. There are sofas by the fire and charming tables scattered through the room. There are hats hanging on the walls which one may borrow if one feels the urge to dress up for tea. Next time, I may have to wear a pair of perfectly white gloves.

The menu features several kinds of black, red, and green teas, and all sorts of delectable things to eat, as well. Jan had Earl Grey and I chose Irish Breakfast, served with sugar and milk in a pitcher decorated with roses. We shared a tiered plate of finger sandwiches and a scone apiece for dessert. Everything is made and baked fresh on the premises. The sandwiches were fun and filling but, people, I really need to rave about the scones!  The Tudor Rose serves the best scone I have ever tasted, bar none!  

Now, you have heard me wax lyrical about the scones at Tal-y-Tara - and they really are exceptionally good, light and delicious - but at the Tudor Rose, the scones are even lighter and they have added an elusive spice to the batter that I can't identify, but I suspect it should be a controlled substance, as it is seriously addictive. I don't think it's cinnamon - maybe allspice?  Anyway, it's a wonderful addition to a cranberry-orange scone. They were so good, we bought two extra to take home to My Beloved and they were just as good the next day, gently warmed and slathered with the clotted cream they serve at Tudor Rose.

As I drove home, full of tea and good will, with my extra scones tucked safely into the backseat, I reflected on all the fun Jan and I and My Beloved have shared over the years, feeling very fortunate indeed. 

Happy Thanksgiving to you all. 




Monday, November 24, 2014

Lessons From A Friend

My friend Carla showed up on our doorstep yesterday with a heavy head cold, a nasal twang to her normally clear voice, and a brown paper bag of persimmons. Her daughter's tree is loaded with fruit this year and Carla is helping her daughter recover from a replaced ACL by caring for her two lively young children, ages roughly 7 and 4. You can tell just from that description that Carla is an angel.

But she's also a community organizer, the first in our neighborhood to see the need for Neighborhood Watch and to get the ball rolling. She also spearheaded the training of block captains to be volunteer coordinators in case of a big earthquake. 

Carla taught biology to high schools students and swimming to beginners of all ages; Carla is Capable, with a capital C. 

She's also as pretty as a picture, delightfully scatterbrained, and an animal lover from 'way back. We swam together in the RPM group (Richmond Plunge Masters) for a couple of years until a shoulder injury got her out of the pool, but she continues to enjoy kayaking and walking her two big dogs for exercise.

How did I get to the ripe old age of 67 without ever tasting a persimmon? Another of life's little mysteries, I guess. Anyway, I had first tried them at 4 to 9, our delightful local wine bar/restaurant in a killer appetizer that My Beloved and I shared, a combination of persimmons, prosciutto, and very mild goat cheese. So, when Carla gave me that bag of fruit, handing it over gingerly and trying not to transfer any cold germs along with it, I was delighted.

I immediately went to epicurious.com to scan the recipes, thinking that I'd make persimmon bread, but my eye fell on a recipe for lamb chops with fresh persimmon chutney and stopped right there.

What you see in the photo above is the chutney. My Beloved and I would call it a salsa rather than chutney, the term chutney to us meaning something cooked and sweet and somewhat heavy. This topping was a delightfully light mix of persimmons, sweet onion (I used red onion), jalapeño pepper, grated ginger, and lime juice, as pretty and festive as confetti at New Year's and full of well-matched and balanced flavors.

Making it was as easy as finely chopping the onion, persimmons, and jalapeño, and mixing them in a bowl with the ginger and lime juice. It was deeply savory and sweet with a mild gingery bite, a hum of heat from the jalapeño, and a refreshing zing from the lime juice. (I, being a spice wimp, used half as much jalapeño as the recipe called for, but next time I'd go for broke with the whole pepper). It complemented our lamb beautifully, and I will save the leftovers to try with pork, as I'm sure it would be marvelous with that, too. Or even chicken.

Next time a friend gifts you with persimmons, or you see nice ones in the store, grab 'em and go! At this time of year, when citrus is only just beginning locally and apples are the only other fruit, persimmons are a treat to be relished. 

Turns out, you can learn something important and new even at my advanced age. Thank you, Carla!