Thursday, November 29, 2007

Still no formal Daring Bakers post, but...

I feel really guilty that I haven't posted yet. They'll probably kick me out for being a slacker. I will say this, I had a turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce sandwich on my "tender potato bread" for lunch and it was pretty awesome. The thing is, my "tender potato bread" isn't so tender because I ran out of all purpose flour and had to use whole wheat for all of the kneading. I also didn't read the recipe carefully enough and so I didn't let it rise in the pans before baking! I'm going to do the next challenge earlier in the month for sure!

In the meantime, check the blogroll for others experiences:

The Daring Bakers Blogroll

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Daring Bakers November Challenge Coming Soon!

I haven't had a chance to post about my November Daring Bakers experience yet since work has gotten busy, but I'll post about it very soon. This month wasn't as successful as last month due to poor planning and being tired after hosting Thanksgiving.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Thanksgiving Centerpieces

Most of what I know about hosting a family gathering or party I learned from my mom, who learned from my grandmother. Sure, there are tips and tricks from Martha Stewart, Better Homes and Gardens, Real Simple, and more recently the blogs I read thrown in, but the way I learn best (as most of us do) is through experience. In addition to cooking, my mother taught me how to arrange flowers. Now, I'm not nearly as good at is as she is, but I've found I'm pretty good at taking $25 of flowers from the supermarket and making it look like much, much more.

So, on Tuesday I went to Stop and Shop and picked up a bunch of bunches of their "3 for $12" flowers. The selection of flowers in fall colors was largely limited to mums which aren't a favorite of mine, but they do say "fall". I bought 1 bunch of big orange mums, i bunch of little yellow button mums, and some medium-sized red mums. In addition, I picked up a bunch of red hypericum berries, some yellow alstromeria (Peruvian lillies), and a bunch of yellow carnations (one of my absolute least favorite flowers). I also bought 2 blocks of oasis floral foam. The grand total of my purchase: $29.00. The flowers don't look very impressive when popped into a vase for storage (I cut the ends off each one and places them in a vase with floral preservative). But they will look good in the finished arrangements.The key to many flower arrangements is having lots of greens. The greens you find at the supermarket are extremely disappointing, and even at a florist they can be pretty disappointing, but I have a secret place to get greens--my backyard! Even in November there are still lots of green leaves--and not just pines! I took my pruners and went for a walk around the yard where I cut leafy branches off of my rhododendron, azalea, forsythia, and euonymous. I also cut some bare branches off of other bushes, some budding branches from the dogwood tree, a bunch of the spiky leaves from my summer container gardens, and a ton of vinca leaves that grows under my dogwood tree. Armed with the greens, I was ready to start my flower arrangements.

The first step is to soak the floral foam in a big pot of water so it's fully saturated. Then, select containers. I selected a white footed salad bowl from Williams Sonoma that my sister-in-law had given to me. It's pretty low, and it's elliptical shape is great for a centerpiece. I wasn't sure what to use for the 2nd container, but I decided on a basket that my friend Wendy had packaged my shower gift in. I found a bowl that fit into the basket just perfectly so it could hold water. Once the floral foam was saturated, I cut it to fit into the bowl and basket. I kept most of it in 2 big blocks, but cut a little off the ends and wedged it into the empty spots in my bowls.

Now comes the trick, cover the entire block of foam with greens before you place any flowers. I started by putting rhododendron leaves all around the edge.Then I added in some azalea, also near the edges, and filled most of the top with vinca. I added some other leaves here and there for interest and color (the azalea was a pretty reddish color while the forsythia was a chartreuse green).Once the whole block of foam was covered with greens, I added my biggest flowers to anchor the arrangement. I put 3 big mums in an arch across the top of the white bowl, and a big mum on either side of the basket. Next I filled in with all of the other flowers, cutting then to length as I went and re-cutting them if they ended up being too tall. I tried to use half of the flowers in each arrangement.
Once all of the flowers were in, I went back and filled any gaps with remaining leaves. As the final touch, I added some spiky branches and grasses.

Here are the 2 final products:
And here they are on the Thanksgiving tables:I was pretty impressed with my centerpieces. They weren't professional, but I think they look pretty good, especially for the grand total of $29.00 that I spent!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Gravy, Stock, and a Science Lesson

So, now that I've covered the turkey and the stuffing, it's time to get into the gravy. My husband says his family is more of a cranberry sauce family, but my family is all about gravy! Gravy can be messy to make, and it has to be done on the stove top after the turkey comes out of the oven, so I decided to make mine in advance. I made it on Sunday and pulled it out of the freezer this morning to thaw for tomorrow. Here's the approximate recipe. Again, like with stuffing you don't need to be too precise.

Turkey Gravy

Pan drippings from a turkey cooked on the bottom of the pan (not on a rack)
flour--about 3 tablespoons
chicken or turkey stock--about 2 cups
water--about a cup or so
sea salt and freshly ground pepper
skin from the turkey you just cooked
herbs and bacon from under the skin of the turkey you just cooked

Start by putting the roasting pan containing the drippings on the stove over low heat. Skim off some of the fat so you have maybe 3 tablespoons left (no need to be precise). Add flour a tablespoon at a time as if you were making a roux (which is what you're doing, only with turkey fat instead of butter). Stir the turkey fat, browned bits from the bottom of the an, and flour together until smooth. Turn the heat to medium and add the chicken stock. Stir until smooth and there are no lumps of flour/roux. Add some water to thin it out a little. Add some skin from the turkey for more flavor (remember the turkey skin was covered with bacon grease and salt and pepper). Scrape the herbs and diced bacon off of the turkey and add that too. Simmer until very fragrant and of a good gravy consistency. If it gets too thick, add some water. Strain the gravy through a sieve into a container or gravy boat. Enjoy!!!

Gravy is one of the major reasons people gain an average of 7 pounds between Thanksgiving and New Years!!!

After I made the gravy on Sunday, D and I sat down to a great lunch of turkey, corn muffin stuffin', gravy, and cranberry sauce. He came in from raking the leaves and was really happy to have a hot home cooked meal--a great pre-cursor to Thanksgiving dinner!

Oh, but I wasn't done yet. After making the turkey breast, stuffing, and gravy, there was still more to do! I had a beautiful turkey carcass just screaming to be made into stock. In my opinion, the slow cooker was invented for making stock! I picked all of the bits of meat off of the turkey and put them into a bowl in the fridge for later. Then, I broke the carcass apart and loaded the whole thing into the slow cooker along with a very coarsely chopped onion, about 1/2 a heart of celery (including leaves), the 10 or so baby carrots I had in the fridge, 2 cloves of garlic I peeled but didn't use for the turkey, and enough water to cover the whole thing. Then I set the slow cooker on low for the next 12 hours (and had it automatically switch to "keep warm" at 4am until 8 when I got up). Then, in the morning, I strained it all into a tupperware container. When I strain it, I like to pull out the veggies first and use the back of a spoon to smush them through the sieve. Then I pour the rest of the liquid through and strain out all of the bones.

Today I'm working from home, so for lunch I pulled out the turkey stock and leftover turkey bits for some soup. I used a spoon to remove the layer of fat from the top of the broth. Then I spooned the broth into a bowl. Well, more accurately I spooned the "turkey jell-o" into my bowl. I know that gelatin comes from animal bones and so this wasn't that surprising, but it was funny to see.

Turkey "Jell-o" with turkey on top (after I microwaved it, it turned into delicious trukey soup!)

Since I'm home, I just pulled out one of my favorite books about cooking "On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen" by Harold McGee to find out more about the gelatinization process. Here's what he says:

"Collagen is the major structural component of the simplest of many-celled animals, the sponges, and accounts for some 30% of the protein in the human body. It is found in the skin and tendons as well as in between muscle cells and muscles, and it is a large part of the matrix in young bones that is later filled with hard minerals. The name comes from the Greek for "glue producing," referring to the fact that when it is heated in water, insoluble collagen is transformed into gelatin, a soluble, gummy solution that can be used for glue as well as a thickener for soups and desserts."

Pretty cool stuff. If you don't have this book and you like to cook (or like science and eating), I highly recommend buying it or getting it out of the local library. It was recommended to me by Rich Herzfeld of Chef's Table in Westport, CT. I took my very first "real" cooking class from him and learned a tremendous amount (including adding brown sugar to food that is too spicy, making large amounts of roux and freezing it in small portions, and wilting cabbage leaves by sticking them in the freezer).

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Scarborough Fair Stuffing and Corn Muffin Stuffin'

In addition to cooking a turkey breast on Sunday, I also made my stuffing. My family has always been a white bread and Bell's Seasoning stuffing family and while I mostly wanted to stick to tradition, I also wanted to do something a little different. Last week I happened upon the blog "The Pioneer Woman Cooks!," where Ree had posted beautiful step-by-step instructions for her corn bread stuffing. She made it look so incredibly good (and her commentary is great) that I just had to try it!

I made some modifications to her recipe including making my corn bread using a mix (horrors---I never used bread or brownie mixes until I discovered the ones at Trader Joe's), and using vegetable broth instead of chicken (I'm serving 2 vegetarians and 2 non-poultry eaters on Thursday). Also, I tend not to really measure anything--just eyeball it. This is stuffing after all--it doesn't need to be precise. Another modification I made came from a phone call with my mom while I was busy cooking on Sunday. We were talking about Thanksgiving and she mentioned that she had been watching the Food Network all week for new Thanksgiving ideas. One that she particularly liked was from Rachel Ray who made individual stuffing portions using muffin tins. I thought this was a fun idea, and so I did this with my cornbread stuffing--hence I named it Corn Muffin Stuffin'.

Here's the ingredient list for the stuffings I made (this makes LOTS of stuffing--a baking dish full of regular bread stuffing and 16 corn muffin stuffin's).

2 loaves of Pane Rustica (chewy crusty white bread from Trader Joe's)
1 8" square pan of baked corn bread (I used Trader Joe's mix)
1 large (softball sized) yellow onion
1 1/2 celery hearts
3/4 cup salted butter
3 cups vegetable broth (or use chicken if you don't have a dad who is allergic to it)
Fresh parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme chopped (that's the Scarborough Fair part)
(I used about 1/4 cup parsley, 2 teaspoons thyme, a tablespoon or so of sage, and 2 teaspoons or so of rosemary--no need to be precise)
sea salt
freshly ground pepper

You can follow Ree's instructions with pictures here, or follow my instructions below which aren't as decorative.

Cut bread and cornbread into approx. 1"x 1" pieces and spread out on rimmed baking sheets. Bake at 200 degrees for about 1/2 hour--until it's dry (but not hard). Transfer about 3/4 of the white bread to a large bowl. Transfer 1/4 of the white bread and all of the corn bread to a second bowl. In a large skillet, melt butter. Add to it diced onion and diced celery. Let the onion and celery cook in the butter, stirring occasionally, until they are translucent and the bits stirred up from the bottom are starting to turn brown. Add stock. Simmer until hot. Add the herbs, plus salt and pepper to taste. Ladle 1/2 of the mixture over the bowl of white bread. Toss to coat. Pour into a buttered baking dish. And set aside. Ladle/pour the other half of the mixture over the white/cornbread mix. Toss to coat, and spoon into buttered muffin tins. Press the stuffing in (not too hard, you want it to stay in there, but you don't want it as hard as a rock), and mound a little on top so it looks like a muffin.

At this point, I covered the baking dish and the muffin tins in aluminum foil and stuck them in the freezer to bake and serve on Thursday. Of course, I had plenty and so I cooked some in a 350 oven for about 20-30 minutes and D and I ate it for lunch along with turkey and gravy. D loved the stuffing, as did I! Hope you do too!

Monday, November 19, 2007

Cats in Sweaters!

One of my very favorite bloggers Crazy Aunt Purl just posted a Flickr set from her cat sweater contest. Mercury is featured on the first page (but she's not wearing a sweater). These pictures are so funny!

Thanksgiving Prep--Turkey recipe

D and I are hosting thanksgiving for the first time this year. We will have 12 people in total including 2 90-year old women named Ruth and 2 dads who don't eat poultry! It will be the first time both of our families have been together since our wedding 6 months ago (6 months today!! Happy Anniversary D!). Luckily, D and I both have family members who like to cook so we've divvied up most of the meal for others to bring, and I decided to get as much as I could of my part of the meal done in advance. So that meant the liquor store and Trader Joe's on Saturday and cooking on Sunday!

I happened to be home sick last Wednesday with a killer cold (now on antibiotics for a sinus infection) and I watched Martha. Emeril was on and they made a turkey breast that looked so delicious! I used that recipe yesterday to cook a turkey breast so that I could make my Thanksgiving gravy in advance. I'm going to use the same recipe on Thursday when I cook my actual turkey. Here's the basic recipe as I followed it (and you can click here for the original on Martha's site).

Bacon and Herb Roasted Turkey Breast

5.67 lb fresh hotel style turkey breast (bone-in)
5 strips of bacon
3 Tbsp butter
1 Tbsp chopped fresh sage
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 tsp chopped fresh rosemary
1 tsp chopped fresh thyme
1 tsp chopped fresh oregano (I used some regular oregano and some Greek)
2 Tbsp sea salt
1 tsp fresh ground pepper

Preheat oven to 375. Rinse turkey breast and pat dry. Cook bacon in a skillet and reserve the grease. Soften the butter and add crumbled bacon, garlic, herbs, 1 tsp of the salt, and the pepper. Cream butter mixture to make a paste. Loosen the skin of the turkey with your hands and rub the meat with the butter mixture--make sure there is butter mixture between the skin and the meat all over the breast of the bird. Sprinkle salt and pepper inside the carcass. Baste the outside of the skin with the reserved bacon grease, and then generously cover with the remaining salt. Place the turkey, breast side up, in a roasting pan. If you want to make gravy, do not use a rack in the pan. Cook in a 375 over for about 1 hour 20 minutes until a thermometer reads 165 degrees (note: on my breast the timer didn't pop up when it reached 165. I think if I had cooked it until the timer popped up it would have been dry). Remove the bird from the oven and move to a platter or cutting board. Cover with foil and let rest for 20 minutes or so before slicing.

The skin on this turkey was unbelievably good--crispy and salty! I had to eat some right away! I'll post later today on the rest of the prep I did on Sunday. Stay tuned for recipes for gravy and stuffing!
Here's a picture of all of the fresh herbs I used for the turkey and stuffing. The the pots of herbs on my deck are still going strong despite heavy frost. I plan to use up just about all of the herbs on Thursday. One good trick for fresh herbs that I learned somewhere is to rinse them in cold water and then spin them in the salad spinner!
Oh, and it wouldn't be me if there wasn't a little mishap involved in this cooking. Sunday's casualty was a scorched oven mitt. I moved the skillet with the bacon in it off of the burner, but forgot to turn the burner off. I was chopping herbs and grooving along to James Taylor singing Shower the People (from his new album, played on Sunday Morning Over Easy, my favorite radio show), when suddenly I smelled something dreadful. Burning polyester smells awful, but I was so stuffed up that I didn't smell it until it was really smoking! Good thing it was a nice day (though 40 degrees) so I could open all of the windows!

Finally Organizing!

On Thursday I went back to the Crate and Barrel Outlet and picked up my book shelf. As it turns out, my back seat does fold down--I just didn't know it. I've had my 2001 Honda Accord for 4 years (I believe in pre-owned, especially because I tend to "bump into things"), but assumed that it was like my old car and only had a pass-through. So, in any case, I picked up the book shelf and brought it home.

D and I assembled the shelf and I started arranging my stuff on it. By the end of Thursday night, it looked like this:

Then, on Saturday morning after taking the cat to the vet for her vaccinations, I added a few more things to the shelf and labeled the boxes. It's very handy having boxes that are actually labeled--it means you know what's in them without having to open them (novel concept, isn't it?)

In all of this organizing, I found a bag of refrigerator magnets from my old apartment, so I stuck them all to the ugly filing cabinet, because, why not?! This corner of the room still doesn't look great, but it's better than this. While D was out buying a snowblower (we had our first flakes this morning), I pulled out the trusty drill/screwdriver and installed a shoebag in the closet to hold our hats, gloves, and scarves. Much better than the cardboard box!
And, I found some old plant hooks in my toolbox (leftover from 4 or 5 apartments ago) and hung them on the window. you'll notice they are upside down--this is on purpose because the hangers wouldn't stay on if they were upside right. Incidentally, the spider plants are descended from a plant my friend Wendy had in her very first apartment in Cambridge 10 years ago. I love plants with a story!
So, that's where I ended up at the end of the weekend as far as the organizing. Not bad. It definitely looks better than before. Oh, and while D was buying a snowblower at Harvard Outdoor Power and I was organizing, Mercury was enjoying the propane fireplace. She loves it (we all do in fact).

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

17 Day Organizational Challenge

I only have 17 more days for the Organizational Challenge from, and I need all the time I can get because I haven't started yet. I've thought about it, but haven't had a chunk of time to actually start. Today I thought I had made a move in that direction, but I was thwarted by the limitations of my car.

I went to the Crate and Barrel Outlet at lunch and picked out a book shelf with adjustable shelves that I thought would be perfect for my office/craft room. Perfect for holding books and supplies...and I found cute fabric covered boxes to go with! unfortunately the bookcase didn't fit in my car. Hoping I can pick it up tomorrow--not sure how just yet!

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Pay It Forward (Blog Style)

I've just read on The Knit Girl about a blog challenge (okay, not really a challenge, more like a game) of Paying It Forward. Here's how it works:

"I will send a handmade gift to the first 3 people who leave a comment on my blog requesting to join this PIF exchange. I don’t know what that gift will be yet and you may not receive it tomorrow or next week, but you will receive it within 365 days, which is my promise! The only thing you have to do in return is pay it forward by making the same promise on your blog."

So, leave me a comment if you'd like me to Pay It Forward. I will try my very best to send you something before Christmas.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Fall Swap!

I recently completed my first blog swap! I've recently rediscovered just how much I enjoy crafting and the Fall Swap was a great way to really get back into the swing of things. I was paired with a woman from Maine who sent me this:A quilted scarf, a knitting needle case embroidered with little knots to match the ribbon, and some cat grass for Mercury. The scarf is adorable and it's been the perfect weather for wearing it--cool and dry. I really like how it looks with my old jean jacket. I'll have to take a picture of me wearing it. The knitting needle case is so cute and a great place to stash my needles (especially the long ones that don't fit in the pencil box I currently use to hold my needles). I think I will make some little tags with needle sizes on them that I can pin to the pockets in the needle case. I'm thinking of stamping the numbers onto little pieces of ribbon and attaching them with tiny brass safety pins so I don't ruin the overall look of the needle case (and I can switch them around).

So, what did Jess get in return for this awesome swap package?
I made a knitted bunny for her son--I used the same pattern from Knitting Daily that I used for the knitty kitties, but I used a super soft yarn called Bernat Bamboo. This yarn is incredibly soft, but it had a tendency to fall apart a little as I was knitting because the fibers aren't very long. The other thing is that I didn't do a gauge swatch and so my gauge was a little loose and so you can see the stuffing through the knitting. I should have used smaller needles. Live and learn I guess. Still, I think it came out really cute.
I also made some notecards from my photographs of flowers and other things in nature (many of the photos are on this blog). The photo of the apples was taken last fall in Western Mass when we went apple picking with D's sisters, bro-in-laws, and nephews. I really like this photo. I mounted all of the photos when I was at the newcomers scarpbooking night a few weeks ago.
In addition to these, I sent Jess some honey I bought at Idylwilde Farms and a flour sack dish towel that I stamped using a carved wooden block I bought in Coolidge Corner. When I was doing the dish towel, I also did some onesies that came out really cute (I just gave one to my friend Chelsea's daughter on Monday). These block printing things came out so well that I went back to Brookline and bought 2 more stamps. I've also found an online source for buying onesies, etc. in bulk, so I may just start an Etsy store one of these days!

Monday, November 5, 2007

Weekend by the Numbers

1 monarda (bee balm) "jacob cline" planted
1 rose carefree wonder planted
1 rose knock out planted
1 honeysuckle harlequin
2 rose double knock out planted
2 lantana patriot classic passion transplanted as houseplants
3 monarda (bee balm) "raspberry wine" planted
3 nepeta walker's low (catmint) planted
4 devil's ivy (pothos) transplanted
15 narcissus geranium (daffodil) bulbs planted
59 tulip bulbs planted
90 years celebrated for my grandmother's birthday

Giving credit where credit is due

My mom sent me an email today--a forward with pictures and comments on a 1977 JC Penney catalog. It was priceless...I was giggling and laughing so much that the tears were running down my face. I mean, IT WAS THAT GOOD!

So, I Googled it and found the original blog entry. It's from this blog. Click here to read it and make sure you have Kleenex near by to wipe away the tears of sheer, ridiculous, laughing joy!

Thursday, November 1, 2007

30- Day organization Challenge!

Now here's a blog activity that my husband can really get behind...this time, instead of sending stuff to strangers, baking pink stuff, or creating a dessert with more eggs than we usually eat in a year, I'm going to be tackling a problem I've needed to do for 5 months! I'm going to organize my office/craft room. Check out the before pictures--yes, this is really how bad it is.In my defense, we moved into the house in June and have been concentrating on the yard thus far; however, I really need to get this room in ship shape so i can use it for it's intended purpose instead of as a storage or junk room!