Sunday, December 30, 2007

mood: disappointed.

as much as i love being Big and Gay about the holidays, i think that next year, the boy and i will be taking a trip to the Caribbean. i'm tired of not living up to my family's expectations.

end rant.

but seriously. anyone want to join us in St Lucia next year? happy new year from someplace warm?

i really am being serious here.

Friday, December 28, 2007

some random pics from the last week

seen while standing in the security line at atlanta's hartsfield airport.

near-full moon over belvedere.

south tower of the golden gate bridge at sunset.

the christmas tree in the atrium at Neiman Marcus in San Francisco.

me putting the finishing touches on the chocolate buche de noel.

maryland-style crab cakes.

flying over the Rockies.
no, i'm not dead. prior to christmas, i worked. a LOT. and i had a lot of work-related issues. then i traveled to the west coast; and now i don't feel so hot due to trying very hard to not come down with a cold (i'm remedying this by taking heavy doses of nyquil and red wine).

i ate this in a little restaurant in sausalito called Fish, where one can sit back and watch the houseboat community with great envy.

dungeoness crab, baby. weird to think that in all the years of childhood i spent in california, i never had it before. it was pretty darn good.

i'll write about christmas eve dinner at a later date, but christmas day, i made duck a l'orange (something i've never made before, but in all honesty, wasnt' that hard to
make). i had asked my mom to pick up some chicken stock from the store...

and she brought this dude home.

that picture is strangely creepy to me!

so i dismissed it by drinking some local sparkling. because, on christmas day, one must imbibe with some local Napa goodstuff while cooking. at least, that was my motto.

i'll write more in the next few days. right now, it's a nyquil fog.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

my usual mass christmas gift

Years ago, my sister-in-law and I started making candy apples to give away as Christmas presents. It all started because we saw here and here that candy apples go for ridiculous amounts of money, and we thought, Hell we can do that.

Because it is totally doable, as long as you have refrigerator space (or the right weather - more on that below), counter space, and ample time on your hands.

When every Christmas season rolls around, I make my list of recipients, the Chosen Ones. Last year I overdid it to the extreme. I made around 30-something apples, and gave one to each of my coworkers and a bunch of other people who, in retrospect, didn't deserve one. And yes, I was a complete nut, and apparently had too much time on my hands. This year, the list is not nearly so long (and I have very little free time for extracurricular activities); most of the recipients are the boy's coworkers. This year, Mrs B decided to play along as well, and she has made her list of her Chosen Few who will receive an apple.

Making these isn't particularly hard, nor is it very expensive ... at least for me it's not because I tend to have a rather large chocolate and baking candy stash on hand and buy supplies throughout the year. In fact, the most expensive item for this grocery bill will be the apples. This year, I went to the Super H and walked around the produce section, scrutinizing all their apples. I decided to use the Fuji variety out of Washington, because they were the largest and prettiest I could find. next, I inspected each apple. you don't really want one with blemishes, although you'll be coating it so it doesnt really matter what color the skin of the apple is. but I do try to pick out the very best ones I can find. I picked each one up and checked it for bruising, for critter entry (e.g. worm holes), for smell. the boy was with me and ran off to do the rest of the produce shopping while I stood there picking out the Very Best apples I could find. don't be rushed doing this, either. this is really the main ingredient, after all, so you want to find the best ones. some years i've use Granny Smith's, and the combination of chocolate and tart green apple is really good - but the Fujis were calling to me this year.

next step is to wash your apples and take off any stickers they might have. I use Veggie Wash, because i've had the bottle for ages, but you could just as easily rub the outside of the apples with baking soda and water. This step is crucial, because caramel will not stick well at all if the apple still has its waxy coating. you really should wash all your fruit and veggies anyway.

while you're letting the apples air dry, you want to start on the caramel. you can do one of two things - make your own or buy those individually wrapped caramels from the candy aisle at the grocery. As much as I like making caramel, the store bought caramels have been my go-to for this project. I would prefer to make my own caramel, seeing as you control the ingredients, but sometimes I feel a bit odd making a large vat of caramelly napalm on the stove. {One day I was cooking barefoot and a drop, a mere drop of caramel fell and hit in between two of my toes. it was one of the worst pains i've ever felt. moral of the story? wear shoes when cooking}. The instructions on the side of the caramel bag says that one bag is enough to coat five apples. well, I don't know how much crack they smoke. I'm lucky if I can coat three apples out of one bag. Depending on the size of your apple and how thick a coating you put on will depend on how many bags of caramel you'll need. For the seventeen apples we made this year, we used six bags of caramel.

Unwrap each caramel and put it in a large saucepan. I've even used the slow cooker for this step, especially those years when i've made a lot of these. Add a couple of tablespoons of water and heat on low to medium low, while stirring and keeping an eye on it so as not to burn the bottom.

When all the caramels have melted, it's time to move on to the next step.

grab a couple of cookie sheets and line them in parchment; set aside. those little wooden sticks that come in the caramel bags? don't throw out, but save those for later. The apples are so big and will get so heavy, that the sticks will not hold them throughout the process. I use the sticks for decoration only, at the end. For now, take a fork and plunge it into the top of the apple. It helps if you have many forks. we used almost every fork we had in the house. then plunge the apple into the vat o' caramel, using a spoon to cover the areas which aren't getting dipped. Set the apple straight up on the cookie sheet and move on to the next one.

Normally, when I make these, it's about 40 degrees F outside. Last year, I kept my apples in the garage because it was fridge-like in temperature, perfect for storing apples temporarily, because before you move on to the next step, the caramel has to cool. The consistency of this caramel is between hard and soft, so it won't get totally rock-hard on your apple; but you also don't want it to be too soft and gooey. It has to stay put.

So we covered all of our apples on sunday, put them in my garage to wait for the next coating, which we planned on doing Monday night.


Monday afternoon, I got home from work and the house was hot. We're getting hit with unseasonably warm weather here in the ATL - and hitting record high temperatures. Insane. My first thought was to check on the apples, and oh my.

They still had some caramel on them, but the majority had melted and pooled around the base of each apple. I brought them into the kitchen and thought about what to do next.

Mrs B came over, and we brainstormed a bit. Neither one of us felt like making caramel or running to the store for caramels, so we washed our hands really well and carved off the caramel around the base of each apple to remelt. You will make a mess, you will get sticky, you can put food-safe gloves on if you want (but it's actually easier with bare hands). But this is fun, really. Think of it as fun! after remelting (and a lot of giggling), we took the forks out, drizzled the caramel over the apples and immediately put these into the fridge to cool. Problem solved.

While these were cooling, I fished around in the right hand side cabinet of my kitchen island to see what stuff i'd been stashing in there throughout the year, and came out with several bags of milk chocolate-peanut butter chips, Ghirardelli semi-sweet chips, and Heath bar toffee pieces. Gold! We mixed the milk chocolate-peanut butter chips with the semi-sweet chips, and put those to melt over a double-boiler.

Then, we ladled the chocolate onto the apples. I've dunked the apples into the chocolate before, so you can either do this; or put the chocolate into a squeeze bottle and channel your innner Jackson Pollock. the problem that I have with the squeeze bottles is that they tend to stop up all the time, and they're a pain in the ass to clean afterwards, so i'm always trying to figure out a new way to coat these suckers. We ladled the chocolate on each apple and spread it around the sides, and let it cool slightly before pressing Heath bar bits into the sides. Put the wooden sticks into the top of each apple, and then back into the fridge for another short slumber. And as you can see, i'm no real food snob. Country Crock (which, actually, i never use, it's the boy's), Publix brand egg nog, and a containter full of baked Pillsbury cinammon rolls sitting next to a baggie of haricots verts.

You can stop here if you'd like, or melt some white chocolate and with a fork (or squeeze bottle) produce some amazing looking modern art all over the apples (and your kitchen).

I package them up in treat bags from Michaels or Joann's, although if you're using the larger apple, you will have to find the Large Size treat bag, which can sometimes be hard to find. I couldnt find any this year at my usual haunts, so I paid a little extra for them at the Container Store (along with some absolutely gorgeous Christmas wrapping paper that my mom will adore). Tie a ribbon around the top, put a name tag on it if you want and give away. I would store these in the fridge (if you have room) or some other chilly area in your house until they're ready to give away to the mailman, your favorite coworker, your kid's teacher.

In years past, i've used Granny Smiths and rolled them in chopped peanuts and chopped M & Ms. it would also be nice to use a coconut white chocolate (Lindt makes some) and then roll in toasted coconut. Basically, your options are limitless here. these are fun to make, and people love to get them (well, except for my director last year, who probably threw it away). And there is absolutely no point in plopping down 22 bucks from Williams-Sonoma, unless you want it to be "perfect" looking. In the case of these apples, it's not a bad thing if they look totally whacked out, imperfect, and built up in candy.

Next year, Mrs B and I are going to buy inexpensive forks (or find them at yard sales) and just keep the forks in the apples when we give them away. There is something very satisfying-looking about that top picture, with the forks jutting out of the top of the apples (with laundry in the background). I'm just not willing to give up my good flatware this year.

Monday, December 10, 2007

the season of giving

When I was a wee little kid barely able to walk, my parents used to pile us three kids into the car and head over to a Christmas tree farm right outside of Novato, California. We'd walk around and inspect every tree, choose one, and watch my dad cut it down. and when we got bored with watching my dad, we'd go pet the sheep behind the fence (they had a petting zoo area). I remember one year when I insisted that we get this one particular tree; to me it seemed 20 feet tall, and it probably was, because pictures from that year's Christmas show a tree with the top cropped down about a foot so as not to hit the ceiling.

That farm is no longer there, and i'm sure by now new condos have been built over that ridiculously expensive land. About ten years ago, my dad and my sister's kids went searching all over Marin and Sonoma counties looking for tree farms, and finally found one in Petaluma, but Dad doesn't think that farm is there anymore either.

Whenever Christmas rolls around, I talk the boy's ear off about the Christmas tree farm of my youth. This past Friday night, the boy looked up from his computer and said, "I've a surprise for you!" and I blurted out, "Did you find a Christmas tree farm?". His face fell. "How did you know?"

When you've been with someone long enough, you start to read each other's minds. I just knew what he was talking about. and I was totally thrilled.

On saturday, we headed out bright and early with cash in hand to Bottoms Christmas Tree Farm in Cumming, GA (no snickering!). And memories from my youth were revived. We picked out the best tree and promptly named him Frank (we have a habit of naming our trees. Last year, it was Bing. Previous to that, there was Elvis). And I had the best time, walking around trying to find a good tree. My boy, he's good. He'd never been to a Christmas tree farm before, but the act of bringing his wife to one and watching her jump up and down for joy made him happy.

So from now on, we're getting all our future trees from the Bottoms farm, and I hope they stick around for a good long time.

While there, I picked up some pickled beets and squash rings for Charles' Christmas box. Charles will get the biggest kick out of it, especially because the labels say "Bottoms Christmas Tree Farm".

We had a little bit of trouble on the way back home, though. We had to get on 400 South and drive about a half hour, going 45 mph in the far right lane, because even though we'd secured Frank pretty well to the roof of the car, he was slipping a bit and I was positive that he'd go flying off and hit a car. I was making the boy crazy by staring through the sun roof at Frank and gasping every time Frank slipped. Then the boy noticed a mini van driving in the left lane next to us, a little bit behind, and going the same speed. The mini van followed us to our exit then moved on at normal speed. And we thought, How nice! this kind lady saw that we were freaking out (okay, I was the one freaking out) about the tree, and that we were driving really slowly, so she kept an eye on us the whole way. The whole time we had people flying by going 90 mph, and she stayed with us to ensure we got to our destination with no issues. And that small, insignificant act revived my hope in the humanity. I just don't get humans, especially these past few days with all these nutters running amok shooting people, ruining all kinds of lives. That one tiny act of kindness made a world of difference for me.

Frank is mostly decorated, complete with nativity scene and homemade star on the tippy top. The last thing I want to do (if i have the time) is to make my usual cookie ornaments. Normally, I make gingerbread ornaments, but the recipe is quite involved; so I was happy to see Dorie Greenspan's roll-out cookie recipe last week. I have a whole bunch of cookie cutters, stars, gingerbread men, dogs, and camels (I found a lot of these at yard sales) and in years past all kinds of shapes of cookies have gone up on the tree. I'm just kind of running out of free time these days, though, so i'm not 100% sure this will take place this year.

There's always next year.

UPDATE: I saw this and think it is a very clever way to hang cookie ornaments. i may have to try this out, as i'm always struggling with the size of the hole in the head of my gingerbread men ornaments. one particular ornament a few years back had a hanging hole right smack in the middle of his forehead, so i felt compelled to use royal icing and make Xs for eyes (it was all in fun - don't hate me). surprisingly, that ornament was a big hit.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

MEME on you

I got tagged by Ann. and now you got meme tagged too.

I always enjoy these kind of meme tags because I like to write about myself. not because i'm an egotistical beotch, but because I like to remember things in my past. I recently wrote that I love to daydream, and man do I have that down to an artform. Daydreaming and reflecting on memories got me through Architectural Theory and Criticism in college. I thought i'd love the class, but the professor was a hard-ass and took all the fun right out of architecture.

What were you cooking/baking ten years ago?

Uh. let's see. this very month ten years ago, I was on a school break staying with my parents and working at Macy's. A woman I worked with had a Meyer lemon tree in her yard, and she gave me a huge paper bag full of lemons. I made a lemon tart with them. But the rest of that year, I lived on beans and rice, beans and rice, beans and rice. Hey, I was a poor college student.

What were you cooking/baking one year ago?

We were eating a lot of roast chickens last winter.

Five snacks you enjoy:

i absolutely adore Blue Diamond wasabi and soy almonds. i've eaten a whole can in 5 minutes and been very upset when i finished them. I also enjoy standing at the fridge with the doors open stealing pieces of cheese from the cheese drawer (we have a cheese drawer in the new fridge). Pistachios (not shelled - I like to put them whole into my mouth and then spit out the shells - classy!). Peanut butter on saltines - reminds me of childhood. Popcorn with hot sauce splashed all over it. i'm throwing in a 6th here; i love Utz brand potato chips, but those are a Pennsylvania/Maryland thing. Can't find them here.

Five recipes you know by heart:

Roast chicken. Rice Pilaf. How to make a good cup of coffee. Dauphinois potatoes (you don't need a recipe for that). Salad dressing.

Five culinary luxuries you would indulge in if you were a millionaire:

I would hire a gardener to keep track of the lovely and fantastic herb and veggie garden i'd have.
I would definitely have a bigger stove, 6 to 8 gas burners, with electric oven.
while we're at it, how about a walk-in fridge? oooh, and matching freezer!
and i would totally hire help to clean up after me.

Five foods you love to cook/bake:

Roast chicken.
Ice cream.
bread of any kind (because to me there is nothing better than the smell of bread baking).
pizza (same as the bread thing, love the smell of pizza dough baking on the stone)
fried eggs. i don't eat them often enough.

Five things you cannot/will not eat:

hmm. this is a hard one.

i don't think i'd eat one of those Thousand Year Old eggs.

and i don' t like kimchee that is overly fish saucy.

from my youth, my mom would buy andouillette from the butcher near her childhood home and haul it back to Paris, and the smell repulsed me enough to never want to eat it. but i tried some on my last trip to France, and I admit that the smell is much worse than the taste. I could eat it again, but make the executive decision not to.

Scrapple. Although I will eat the hell out of some pork roll. I guess that's a Northern thing; picked that up when we lived in Baltimore.

I can't think of a fifth.

Five favorite culinary toys:

a tiny little Nigella Lawson whisk
sugar cube tongs
pizza stone
suede oven mitts
the Boat Motor (stick blender)

Tagged are Carolina Girl, and my buddies Mrs B, Nathan, and Ashley (even though they don't have food blogs); and I humbly understand if you just don't feel like participating. Just poop on my parade, will ya.

and if you weren't tagged yet want to participate, well by all means do so.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

girl's night in

Patty invited me over to her house on Friday night so that we could watch Amelie. J asked me later if we sat around in skimpy nighties and had a pillow fight. Men are such dim bulbs. Of course that's what we did!

(eyes rolling)

Amelie has been out forever now - in fact, i think i may have a copy on VHS that Charles sent me but never watched as I don't have a VCR anymore. I'd never seen it. I wanted to see it. I really did. But for the past few years, everyone has been telling me I ought to watch it, and somewhere deep down, the rebellious teenager in me came out and I was just not going to have it. years ago this German dude I knew in Florida was waxing poetic about how damn great Dances With Wolves was and how I just had to get to the movie theater to check it out. That's all he talked about for days, which resulted in me not seeing the movie for about 10 years.

frankly, I don't know what my damn problem was.

and i'm going to have to rewatch Amelie soon, because Patty and I drank a bit too much while cooking and I had a tendency to start talking during key parts. We were having an animated discussion about wedding dresses and how they are ridiculously sized. As if women weren't already batty about their dress size, wedding dressmakers size their dresses even lower than industry standard. I'm surprised they don't just hand out sedatives and Kleenex at bridal boutiques.

part of the deal about going to Patty's was that we'd have a nice light dinner, to kind of compensate for overindulging during Thanksgiving. that meant, no cheese and crusty baguette, which is usually what we opt for when eating together. so we made shrimp curry with yogurt and peas, and I adapted that Cook's Illustrated recipe for it.

by the time this picture was taken, we'd imbibed a bottle of champagne and were on to the dessert wine I brought. it took us forever to do the mise en place (which you must to do before attempting any successful curry recipe; well, any recipe for that matter).

while we were cooking, Patty had the Arena Rock station playing on Comcast, so we rocked out to this gem.

I hadn't heard that song in about 20 years. and next? they played Slaughter. anyone remember that band? yikes. I do. and now I feel old.

I want to thank Patty for a lovely evening in, and thanks to Zack for sharpening his knife for me and having all the curry spices at hand. and i'm sorry I left your kitchen in a mess. I'm normally pretty good about doing dishes, but it was creeping on 1 am and I had to drive back to suburbia. I'm old and stuff. I don't like seeing 1 am.