Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Humble Cracker – December 30, 2012

We had a fabulous event to raise money for The Coalition for the Homeless last week.  It is my husband’s brain child and involves great local music and delicious local soups.  The soups all sold out in record time, but we were left with lots of condiments including bags of shredded cheese and oyster crackers.  I have to say that oyster crackers are not something I usually buy or think about, but here was my excuse to give them a try.  Since we were headed to a week hanging out with family, I first tried making them into a snack.  The Ranch Crackers were easy to make and even easier to toss out as a snack while opening presents and hanging out with family.

Ranch Oyster Crackers

¾ c. vegetable oil
1 pkg. Ranch dressing mix
¼ tsp. lemon pepper
½ tsp. dill weed
¼ tsp. garlic powder
12-16 oz. oyster crackers

Mix oil and other spices.  Toss in crackers to fully coat.  Place in oven for 15-20 minutes at 250 degrees.  They stay well for over a week in an air-tight container.

I also decided I'd like to try some other seasoning mixes.  First, I tried adding 2-3 T. sweet curry powder to the oil.  Then, I tried 3 T. Penzy's Country French Vinaigrette and 1/2 tsp. garlic powder with the oil for a third round.  The curry was not so good, but the Vinaigrette was great.

But, oyster crackers are also a great excuse to make a hearty soup and our snow covered neighborhood set just the right mood.  So, I went all out and got oysters at our local seafood market and made oyster stew.  This recipe is adapted from one Mark Williams shared at a cooking class he does at Yew Dell Gardens.  It is so rich and warm and yummy, I recommend you give it a try.

Heritage Oyster Stew

5 T. butter
1 pint oysters with their liquor, jarred or freshly shucked, about 2 dozen
1/4 cup flour
1 medium yellow or white onion, minced
1 1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup cream
Splash of hot sauce
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup parsley, minced

Strain the oyster juice through a fine-meshed sieve into a bowl to remove any grit, reserving the juices. Rinse the oysters well.  Melt the butter in a pot over medium heat. Add the flour and stir to make a roux.  Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook the mixture for a few minutes, stirring often. When the roux darkens, stir in the onions. Increase the heat to medium and cook for 2-3 minutes, stirring frequently.

Add the oyster juice and any juices the oysters have released. The flour in the roux will absorb the liquid and turn into a paste. Slowly add the milk and cream, stirring to incorporate as you pour them in. Add a healthy splash or two of hot sauce, to taste. Heat the soup to steamy, but below a simmer, over low heat for 15 minutes; do not boil.

Add the oysters and cook for another 2 minutes, or until the edges of the oysters just begin to curl.  Add salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Garnish with fresh chopped parsley and oyster crackers!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Christmas Gifts – December 23, 2012

All the canning I did through the year is really paying off.  We made lots of holiday baskets for our friends, co-workers and neighbors.  Each is filled with one of my canned goods as a gift of warmth and home.  We also included John’s famous chocolate toffee to bring sweetness in the coming year and spiced nuts or jam cakes to bring a little spice.  Finally, we included a lottery ticket to bring luck in 2013.  (For our out of state friends and relatives, we also added a mini bottle of bourbon to add a bit of Kentucky.)

We decided to make the jam cakes this year because not only are they traditional to Kentucky, but they have a great holiday spice flavor and they are a great way to use up both the applesauce I made earlier in the year and berry jam.  There are many recipes, some including caramel icing, but this one is really rich and yummy and can be made any type of jam.  Traditionally, you would make as a large cake, but I made mini bundts and loaves to share.

Jam Cakes

1 c. sugar
½ c. shortening
1 egg
1 ½ c. applesauce
1 c. berry jam (I used blueberry, but blackberry is the most traditional)
2 tsp. soda
2 c. flour
½ tsp. salt
2 tsp. cocoa
½ tsp. nutmeg
½ tsp. cloves
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 c. raisins
1 c. nuts (optional, but I used walnuts harvested from our property)

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.  Cream sugar and shortening.  Add egg and mix in.  Sift flour, salt, cocoa and spices together.  Add soda to applesauce and jam.  Mix well.  Combine the three mixtures in one large pan and mix well.  Add raisins and nuts.  Pour into greased pans.  Bake up to an hour for a large bundt or as little as 30 minutes for small bundts.

OK, we buy every item to make toffee, so there is no using what you have here unless you own a cow that provides you with lots of milk for butter.  But, everyone requests the toffee each year, so it’s always included in our gift bags.  It’s also really easy, so I suggest adding it to your gift bags as well.

 Chocolate Toffee

2 sticks butter
1 c. sugar
1 c. slivered almonds (you can leave this out for those with nut allergies)
1 T. light corn syrup
1 T. water
1 11.5 oz. bag milk chocolate chips (you can use semi sweet if you prefer)

Add all ingredients except chocolate in a heavy pan on stove and heat (stirring constantly) for approximately 8 minutes.  OK, this is the only difficult part of this recipe, but after you make it a couple times you’ll get your own feel for it.  The toffee when ready will take on a color about the shade of brown sugar; you’ll start to smell a change and see a bit of smoke.  Quickly pour this onto a cookie sheet already on your counter and spread evenly.  Pour the chocolate chips on top and let sit for a minute.  Now, spread the chocolate on top of the toffee and place in the fridge for an hour.  Break and eat.  

Happy Holidays All!

Friday, December 7, 2012

Apple Cider, Yum - December 7, 2012

During the Thanksgiving Holiday we took advantage of the opportunity to buy local apple cider for sale in all the markets.  We drank some cold and some hot, but the rest I used for cooking.  I actually made two recipes with the cider, but one was much more successful than the other.

I am sure you have all heard the excitement surrounding the Smitten Kitchen and her new cookbook.  I heard her interviewed on Diane Rehm and was surprised to hear her say that her favorite recipe in the new book and on her blog was apple cider caramels.  It sounded like a great idea, so I gave it a try.  I was surprised that even though I didn’t have a candy thermometer on vacation, the caramels were the perfect consistency especially as they sat or if they were kept in the fridge.  There was just one problem.  The recipe had way too much salt for me.  So here is that recipe with less salt and I hope it works for you:

Apple Cider Caramels
4 c. apple cider
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. sea salt
8 T. unsalted butter, cut into chunks
1 c. sugar
1/2 c. packed light brown sugar
1/3 c. heavy cream
Vegetable oil for the knife

Boil the apple cider in a 4-quart saucepan over high heat until it is reduced to a dark, thick syrup, between 1/3 and 1/2 cup in volume. This takes about 35 to 40 minutes. Stir occasionally.
Meanwhile, get your other ingredients in order:  Line the bottom and sides of an 8-inch straight-sided square metal baking pan with 2 long sheets of crisscrossed parchment. Set it aside. Stir the cinnamon and salt together in a small dish.

Once you are finished reducing the apple cider, remove it from the heat and stir in the butter, sugars, and heavy cream. Return the pot to medium-high heat with a candy thermometer attached to the side, and let it boil until the thermometer reads 252 degrees, or about 5 minutes. Keep a close eye on it.

Immediately remove caramel from heat, add the cinnamon-salt mixture, and give the caramel several stirs to distribute it evenly. Pour caramel into the prepared pan. Let it sit until cool and firm—about 2 hours, though it goes faster in the fridge. Once caramel is firm, use your parchment paper sling to transfer the block to a cutting board. Use a well- oiled knife, oiling it after each cut, to cut the caramel into 1-by-1-inch squares. Wrap each one in a 4-inch square of waxed paper, twisting the sides to close. Caramels will be somewhat on the soft side at room temperature, and chewy/firm from the fridge.

I had much more success with pumpkin butter.  I bought a cute little pumpkin left at the market after everyone was finished buying their pie pumpkins.  It, the cider and a blender were the keys to a great breakfast spread that our family shared all through the Thanksgiving holidays on English muffins and biscuits.  It would also make a great a holiday gift, but I don’t think it will can due to the fat content, so you need to make about a week ahead and tell the givee that it should be kept in the fridge and used soon.

Pumpkin Butter - 3.5 cups

4 – 4 1/2 cups fresh pumpkin puree (made from small sugar pumpkin)
1/4 c. sweet apple cider
1 c. brown sugar
3-4 tbsp pure maple syrup, to taste
1 T. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
1 tsp. fresh lemon juice
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
Pinch of fine grain sea salt

Peel and cut pumpkin in 1 inch cubes.  Save seeds to roast and boil pumpkin until soft. Cool and add pumpkin flesh to a blender. Add cider and blend until smooth, stopping to push down the pumpkin when necessary.  Add the brown sugar, maple syrup, cinnamon and nutmeg.  Process again until super smooth and no clumps remain.

Spoon mixture into a medium-sized pot. Cover with lid and prop lid ajar with a wooden spoon. Over medium-high heat, bring mixture to a low boil. Reduce heat to low-medium and cook for about 10 minutes, or until it’s as thick as you want it.  Remove from heat and stir in vanilla.

Cool completely, stir in lemon juice and a pinch of salt, and then store in a sealed jar in the fridge.  It should keep for 2-4 weeks.