Oh my goodness, Christmas is here!

Oh how the month has flown. Christmas is upon us and I finally sat down to chronicle my food adventures.

Cookies for Santa

Do-It-Yourself Vanilla

I saw directions for homemade vanilla extract all over Pintrest.com this season for DIY gifts. But it was the post from, the host of The Splendid Table, that made the most sense to me. In my opinion, Lynne Rossetto Kasper is the voice of reason out there in the blogging and media world of food and cooking. Follow the web connection of The Splendid Table- Vanilla Extract to see the recipe and directions.

Vanilla Beans

vodka and bottles

split the vanilla beans

fermenting vanilla beans

24th Annual Hoyt Street Cookie Exchange

2013 Cookie Exchange group picture

quilted cookie plate

“Quilted” Sugar Cookies (aren’t they darling?)

Chocolate Pistachio Sables'

Chocolate-Pistachio Sablés from Bon Appétit  magazine December 2013

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Chocolate Almond Shortbread

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Sesame Street Cookies

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I don’t know what the name of these cookies but they were really tasty.

Patty’s Points:

1. The homemake vanilla extract takes at least 4 weeks to ferment. I started making mine before Thanksgiving. I have yet to try it out to see how it tastes. I gave it to true bakers who really were excited to receive it as gifts.

2. Vanilla beans and vodka are best to buy in bulk to keep the cost down. Costco was my main stop. I made 10 bottles of extract = 40 beans and 2 large (1500 ml) bottles of American vodka=$15.00 each. Each bean averaged about $1.20 which is a good deal. Think of it like a sourdough bread starter; you can replenish the vodka, add more beans and even use the beans for another recipe.

3. The cookie exchange was fabulous. Many people said the cookies were the best efforts in years. Of course, the talk of the party were Pat’s sugar cookies with the edible quilt square pattern atop. She ordered them online. I’ll have to corner her to find out where she got them.

4. I made Chocolate-Pistachio Sablés- from Bon Appétit  and Salted Caramel Chocolate Chip Bars. I had a theme of cookies with sea salt.

The Chocolate-Pistchio Sablés were great for a working person as myself. I made them a month ago and prepped them for the freezer. I thawed, sliced and baked them a day before the party. The sea salt is placed atop each cookie before baking. Next time I’ll make the rolled dough a little thicker for a bigger diameter cookie.

 I saw several Salted Caramel Bar cookie recipes online and quickly deduced how easy they were. Make your favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe and place half of the dough in a lightly buttered 8 x 11 baking pan. Melt 6 oz of caramel squares with 1-3 TBSP of milk or cream or purchase a 6 oz jar of caramel sauce. Melt the squares in the microwave 30 seconds at a time, stirring until smooth. Place the slightly cooled caramel atop the cookie dough and sprinkle with sea salt. Place the other half of the cookie dough atop the caramel and smooth with an oiled spatula. Sprinkle the top of the dough again with sea salt. Bake in a 350 degree oven for about 40-45 minutes, turning the pan halfway through for even baking. Let the dough rest because it will be very soft with the dough and caramel. Cut into two inch squares.

Happy Christmas and New Year to all my readers and fellow bloggers. Enjoy your time with family, friends, neighbors and colleagues.

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The never ending search

The planning for Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas and New Year has been going on for a month and a half now in the food and crafting blogs. This past week I saw posts on planning, cooking, decorating, and recovering from Thanksgiving. Luckily, I only had to make two side dishes to the Thanksgiving dinner I attended.

This great big world of the internet is kind of funny.  I am sure that you, like me, have been searching for new recipes and looking for old standards to make and share with our loved ones. Dinner, cookie swaps, afternoon teas, potlucks, parties, brunches and cocktail hours.

A new favorite website of mine is Pintrest; my daughter got me hooked on it. I’ve discovered that the pictures are sometimes better than the actual recipe. That is the beauty and the downfall of the internet and blogging.

I recently read a blog post on Blogher.com about Martha Stewart’s comment where she was uncomplimentary to amateur internet food bloggers.  I like Martha Stewart, especially when she was new in the business and was more involved her television show and magazine. She’s been to jail, she’s been humbled, she knitted sweaters; she’s been there and did that. Her humble beginnings are now a big conglomerate. Her brand also has a professional blog , Martha Stewart “Up Close and Personal.”

I started The Fearless Cooking Club and this blog out of admiration for Julia Child. Julia had humble beginnings and was a pioneer in cooking and television. She wasn’t afraid to make mistakes. She lives on with her quotes, philosophy and recipes on PBS.com. The blogging world is a combination of Martha and Julia. There are big blogs and small blogs; there are blog businesses and blog amateurs. I am an amateur with a small blog. There are other small bloggers out there like me.

I’m a self-taught cook and blogger, I’ve learned a few things about recipes. So in the spirit of this blog and the holiday season here are my points on the never ending search for the great recipe.

Patty’s Points:

1. When reading a recipe, look at the ingredients first. I blogged about this back in 2011. I was philosophical back then.

Do you like the ingredients? Are they in your pantry? Will it take time out of your day to get them? Is the ingredient necessary to the recipe? or could a substitution be made?

I make substitutions all the time. I regularly substitute chard for kale. I am still harvesting chard from my garden. To buy kale specifically for a recipe would be wasteful. It is an equal substitute.  Sometimes substitutions just don’t work, like putting Stevia or Splenda to replace sugar in a baking recipe. I tried this with a blueberry pie recipe last year. I’m not sure it tasted very good. It definitely would not work with taking candy to a hard crack like this Pumpkin Brittle.

pumpkin brittle

2. Read the directions. Do they make sense? Are they easy to follow? How much time will it take? Will you need to refrigerate the ingredients over night?

smores picture

homemade marshamallows

I have never made homemade marshmallows –  yet.directions

When I first started cooking and baking I threw everything into a bowl or pot and that was it! Very little technique was involved. I read a hand written recipe that had the ingredients on the card and at the bottom the directions were ‘Cook for 1 1/2 hours.’  If you don’t have any cooking knowledge or memory of how it is made it would be difficult to follow. Many loved recipes my mother wrote on stationery from my dad’s business. I’ll never throw them out because they are priceless piece of my family history. But, I’ll have to draw on my cooking knowledge or memory to make it.

Cooking and baking is about technique. The directions help develop technique and skill. I’ve been reading about how to make croissants off and on for several months. There is a lot of technique to making croissants and some day I may tackle it. In the meantime, I am still reading about it, getting up the courage to make a mess in the kitchen. Croissants take at least two days to accomplish. It wouldn’t be a good idea to start making it then go out of town next week.

3. Have you made a recipe similar to this one before? From your past experience, is there an easier way to make the recipe than the directions?

I made a turkey meatball soup today. I had all but one of the ingredients on hand but it was easy for my husband to pick up while doing errands. It took a day of preparation before I made the soup. I had to thaw the ground turkey overnight and there were a lot of ingredients that needed chopping. I chopped all the ingredients and placed them in a container to refrigerate overnight.

The next morning I was putting the recipe parts together. The meatball recipe looked bland; the cooking technique looked like it might be mushy.  So I referred to two of my basic, stand-by cookbooks. One cookbook  mentioned that if making the meatball with poultry you should refrigerate the balls for one hour before cooking or they would fall apart. The other cookbook advised to put the meatballs in mini muffin tins to keep them firm and round.  Also, one of the ingredients was 1/2 cups brown rice. Was is cooked or un-cooked rice? I couldn’t tell, so I relied on my instincts of making a similar meatball recipe. Everyone has their own way of doing things, but it needs to translate to my kitchen.

meatballs

meatball soup

4. My kitchen, maybe like yours, is the dumping ground for purses, grocery bags, kitchen equipment etc. Sometimes I am spinning around my kitchen looking for the olive oil bottle and still can’t find it because of the clutter.

piles in the kitchen

kitchen clutter

dirty dishes

Before making the recipe: a) clean the kitchen, b) do the dishes, and/or c) clear the clutter. I think in the directions it should say have those as the #1 on the list. You run the risk of starting a fire or dumping ingredients all over. I accidentally dumped cake batter onto my Brighton purse once. That was crazy. Everytime I carry that purse I think of that day! Don’t you wish you would see Ree Drummond or Lidia Bastianach show how they clean the kitchen before and after making their signature dishes?

Good luck out there navigating the internet. Five weeks of the holidays are yet to come. And don’t forget, Valentine’s Day is just around the corner!

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Garden Variety

The produce from our garden has been busting out all over.chard in the basketI love Swiss Chard and it grows so easily in our garden. Within a week after trimming out 1/3 of this bed, it grew right back.

Swiss ChardI had to search for recipes that would be a challenge for me other than sautéing chard in olive oil and shallots.

I furrowed out a Bon Appétit  magazine from May 1999 profiling Provence, France. It was a Special Collector’s Edition. The main article profiled 20 essential ingredients of the region: fresh produce, herbs, dairy, meats, seafood and breads.

Bon Appetite May 1999In France, Swiss Chard is called blette. It has white or red stem varieties. The leaves need to be trimmed away from the stems before using in a recipe.

I have never made gnocchi before so I chose the recipe Swiss Chard Gnocchi (Gnocchi aux blettes) to prepare. On top of this, I have never even eaten gnocchi before!

Swiss Chard Gnocchi (Gnocchi aux blettes)  8 servings

1 pound russet potatoes (about 2 large)

1 tsp salt

1/2 tsp ground black pepper

1 1/4 pounds Swiss Chard, stems and ribs trimmed

1 large egg

1 TBSP olive oil

1 3/4 C all-purpose flour

1 stick butter (1/2 Cup)

4 C homemade or purchase tomato-herb sauce

Freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Steam or boil potatoes, about 50 minutes until tender. Cool potatoes, slightly then peel . Mash potatoes in large bowel until smooth, add the salt and pepper.

Steam or boil the Swiss chard until wilted, about 3 minutes. Once it has wilted, drain, until cool and then squeeze out as much water from the chard as you can. Finely, chop the chard by hand or with the food processor.

Mix the chard in the mashed potato mixture add egg and oil. Gradually add the flour until combined, forming a slightly sticky dough.

sticky dough

Dust a board with flour, I used pastry fabric. Working in batches and with floured hands, roll 1/4 cup of dough and form a 12 inch long rope. Cut the rope into one inch pieces.

rolling and cutting the rope

Roll each piece between palms forming a ball. Using a whisk, roll each ball down the length of the wires to make a ribbed impression.

ribbed impressions

Transfer gnocchi to a baking sheet with parchment paper to rest.

gnocchi on baking sheet

Place the gnocchi, in batches of 10-12 in a large pot of boiling salt water cooking for 6 minutes, until the gnocchi rises to the surface of the boiling water and are tender.

boiling gnocchi

Using a slotted spoon transfer the gnocchi to a large bowl.

Gnocchi cooked

Melt butter in large heavy skillet over med-high heat. Add the gnocchi and sauté until coated with butter and cooked through for about 3 minutes.

Serve the gnocchi atop hot marinara red sauce or white sauce and sprinkle with parmesan cheese.

red sauce

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1. The gnocchi can be frozen up to 1-2 months in the freezer after boiled. When ready to serve, thaw, then cook with butter in a sauce pan before serving.

2. I used all-purpose vinyl gloves to mix and roll the dough. It was way to sticky not to!

3.  I enjoyed the white sauce better than the red sauce with the gnocchi.  The white sauce gave it a richer taste. If using a red sauce, it would be best to pick a light one, nothing heavy. Of course the shaved parmesan atop made the flavors pop.

4. Okay, I have to say it. The green-ness of the gnocchi was visually off-putting. It reminded me and my daughter of insect larvae.

5. When produce comes out of the garden I have to wash it two to three times. Dirt and bugs hang onto the leaves pretty easily.

Sorry if talking about bugs grossed you out.

Enjoy your meal – Bon appétit!

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ExperimenTea-ing

I have revved up my tea and herbal infusion intake over the past year. Here is a sampling of types I tried.

tea 1

Celestial Seasonings Herbal Infusions

tea 3

Organic

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Potpourri

For Christmas I received this super Cordless Programmable Kettle by Cuisinart. This appliance has kicked my tea consumption into high gear.

Cuisinart tea pot

  • Six pre-set temperatures
  • 30-minute keep warm option
  • Memory-holds settings when removed from a swivel base

teapot 2

The readings are in Fahrenheit, heating your water for tea to the perfect temperature:

160 = Delicate tea

175 = Green tea

185 = White tea

190 = Oolong tea

200 = French Press

Boil = Black tea

This tea bag squeezer helps get every last bit of your steeped tea or herbs from the tea bag.

tea bag squeezer

I purchased this “squeezer” at the Celestial Seasonings Tea Shop. Great, inexpensive buy.

tea bag squeezer 2

Bagged teas are readily available almost everywhere with many brands and flavors to pick from. Because of the popularity, the tea aisle at my grocery store is completely separate from the coffee aisle. I used to pick the same teas and herbal infusions every time I went. It was easy and didn’t take much thought. Now I spend a lot of time there perusing the brands.

I have discovered that I like certain brands. I’m preferential to Celestial Seasonings. I think their Master Tea taster has excellent taste buds. I also like Stash, Bigelow and Twinings brands. I continue to check out different brands.  I am now drinking Organic Zhena’s Gypsy Tea Coconut Chai black tea. It has a lovely flavor with steamed milk.

Every morning I have one cup of black tea steeped in hot water and almond milk and one cup of green tea with lemon. I split one Stevia sweetener packet between the cups. I never used to drink green tea because it tasted bitter, adding the lemon juice helped.

Midday, I have a cup of decaffeinated Earl Grey with almond milk. After dinner I have an herbal infusion that is calming or will help me sleep. I’m drinking about 4-5 cups per day!

Patty’s Points:

1. I have so much to learn. I have barely scratched the surface of tea. There are a growing number of tea blogs out there in WordPress-Land.  People are cuddling with tea cups and tea pots, writing poetry about tea, steeping leaves of all kinds in hot water, and hanging out in tea houses.

2. So far I haven’t much cared for the taste of roobios, it tastes like licorice. I’ll have to give it another try someday. I’ve tried oolong tea once and thought it was good.

3. I love my hot water kettle and the temperature settings. It was a pricey little kettle, but I got it discounted at a department store. There are lesser priced kettles out there for around $20.00 or more; but they have only one temperature = boil.

4. Tension Tamer by Celestial Seasonings has catnip in it. Yes, catnip tea.  It helps with headaches and is detoxifying. My husband drank it and felt sleepy immediately.

5. I follow a blog called Scrubs Nurse.  She has a recent posting on the health benefits of tea that is worth reading.

6. Tea is becoming more popular in the U.S.  You know tea is becoming mainstream when you see more varieties than Lipton at a truck stop next to the coffee. Tea has been around for thousands of years and is universal. I guess us Yankees are just catching on.

Right now I have 17 boxes of tea in my cupboards. My husband wonders why I need that many and continue to bring new varieties home. I like choices.

Loose tea and tea pots are my next adventure. In the meantime, happy sipping and tasting!

tea at Brown Palace

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Kitchen essentials field trip

One thing I have learned since “becoming fearless” in the kitchen is that the equipment and supplies you use makes a big difference in the outcome of your cooking.

I’m a no-nonsense type of person who likes organization so I’m drawn to kitchen tools and products that are multi-purpose. Also having something that is easy to store is a plus since I have a small kitchen. Every purchase is calculated.

The Fearless Cooking Club took a field trip to the Standard Restaurant Supply Store. There are two located in our area. It was an adventure.

Standard Restaurant Supply

rows and rows

Rows and rows of products. This aisle was all on glassware and barware.

B-52 Flavoring?

There was one side of the aisle devoted to 50 types of non-alcoholic syrups, regular and sugar-free .

Fiesta ware look alike

Several rows of serving plates, cups and platters. These are Fiestaware look a-likes.

Take home buys

Our purchases: the cheapest item was bamboo skewers,toothpicks with American flags, and a plastic squeeze bottle $0.59 each. The most expensive item $7.49 for a glass syrup server. The different flavored syrups were $5.49 each for a large bottle. Other purchases were foil mini cupcake liners (gold and silver), racks for candy making, different sizes of cookie sheets, and a pastry cloth and plastic pastry boards. Gabe, our pie man, mentioned that both of these were good substitute for rolling out pastry if you didn’t have a marble board.

Patty’s Points:

1. B-52 syrup is named for the famous bar drink made from Kahlúa liqueur, Irish Cream and Grand Marnier. This non-alcoholic syrup is a combination of coffee, Irish Cream and a hint of orange flavor. They also had a carrot cake flavored syrup. Who knew these flavors existed and how fun to see so many choices in one place!

2. This is a store that anyone can shop at but it is directed toward restaurant owners. They had furniture, cleaning products, industrial stoves, refrigerators, freezers, popcorn makers, paper products, silverware, professional knife-ware, and on and on.

3. You have to carefully look at the prices. Some items are quite cheap and then right next to it a similar item is two to three times the price. What is the difference? Maybe the detail on the glass is more detailed, then it is more expensive.

The sale racks were quite good. We got a pack of 12 dish towels for $6.59, marked down from $12.00. That makes the towels $0.50 a piece. The Fiestaware look a-likes were of good quality and inexpensive. It depends on what you want and what you want to spend.

4. Appliances are not routinely discounted for the public. I saw a mandolin for shaving veggies that caught my eye, $79.00. I would have to do some price comparisons at like Macy’s, Kohl’s or Bed, Bath and Beyond. Those stores routinely have coupons for 15%-30% discounts that I might get a better deal.

If you are a restaurant owner with an account you can get a price that is comparable to other supply stores. They also have on-site vendors who can customize your kitchen. That is if you want a commercial type kitchen. The manager said it could cost $10,000 to $350,000 to set up a kitchen, depending on what you are cooking and where you are located.

5. I spent $33.00. I’m not ready for the commercial kitchen yet.

Tea is Hot

teacup

The January issue of Bon Appetite cited tea as one of the top 25 food trends for 2013. How cool is that?  If you watch Downton Abbey, you know that sitting down to tea is part of life for the residents upstairs and downstairs. A refined drink for all social classes.

Several Fearless Cooking Club (FCC) members have been on some tea adventures the past few months.We started out with a day trip to Boulder at Celestial Seasonings.

Sleepytime tea bears

We donned our hair nets and went through the production rooms for the free tour.  We learned about black, green and white teas and many herbs and spices that are hand-picked from all over the world. They have a chief taster who has been in the job since the start of the company.

The Mint Room is quite the experience. Our tour guide directed us in and closed the door. Sinuses opened immediately, eyes watered, slight throat burn. You can mark your survival with a postcard or cup in the gift shop.

I survived the mint room

Following our tea tasting and scooping up great deals from the gift shop, we headed to downtown Boulder for lunch at the Dushanbe Tea House. The house is a gift to Boulder from the country of Tajikistan. Dushanbe is the capital and Sister City to Boulder. We had a lovely lunch along with three different pots of loose tea.

Dushanbe Tea House

Tree of Life panel by ceramic artist Victor Zabolotnikov.
outer panel

Then I hosted a pajama tea party on the Season 3 Finale of Downton Abbey. It was a tea potluck as we munched on scones, breads and desserts to enjoy with our tea. Don’t you just love the tiara?

Slumber Tea Party

The last adventure was high tea at the Brown Palace Hotel. My daughter and her three girlfriends came home for Spring Break. They got gussied up in hats, pashminas and furs to fully enjoy a proper English tea.

Spring Break Quartet

The scones, sandwiches and desserts were sumptuous.

plates of sandwiches

Tea makes one feel civilized and refined. Oh, to take a break and enjoy the moment.

Patty’s Points of learning on the Tea Tasting Trail:

1. The origin of tea dates back to 2737 BC by Shen Nung Emperor of China. A leaf fell into a cup and it brought a pleasing and therapeutic flavor to water.

2. Sleepy Time tea is Celestial Seasonings most popular tea and it really isn’t tea. It’s an herbal infusion. That is also why it is caffeine-free.

3. Many pieces of the Dushanbe Tea House were assembled in Tajikistan and shipped to the US; the Teahouse was built by hand.

4.  According to Afternoon Tea the drinking of tea not only became a social event for the upper classes, it altered the time and manner in which they took tea. Afternoon Tea became the bridge between meals because many wouldn’t eat their evening meal until maybe 8pm. As such, Afternoon Tea became a ‘mini meal’ in itself. High tea is taken at a table; afternoon tea is taken at a low comfortable chair or sofa. The upper classes developed their own variation of high tea as a meal that could be eaten when their servants were away or not available, as it was so easy to prepare.

I will be posting again on tea….I am still sipping and sampling.

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