“Since hunger is the most primitive and permanent of human wants, men always want to eat, but since their wish not to be a mere animal is also profound, they have always attended with special care to the manners which conceal the fact that at the table we are animals feeding.” - John Erskine

28 December 2011

Christmas cookies

So many yummy cookies vied for my attention this year.  It was almost impossible to narrow it down, and I had every intention of baking many more than I did.  Finally it came down to two.  I had them all baked and laid out so pretty on a Christmas tray... and totally forgot to take pictures!  So youre just going to have to go to the websites and see the pictures of them there.

Chocolate Caramel Cookies with Sea Salt
makes 2 dozen cookies
1¼ cups all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons butter
7 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa
2/3 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup packed brown sugar
1/3 cup plain yogurt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
soft caramel, rolled into little balls
sea salt

Preheat oven to 350º; line 2 baking sheets with baking paper, lightly coated with cooking spray.  I used Silpats!  Lightly spoon flour into a dry measuring cup; level with a knife.  Sift together flour, soda, and salt; set aside.

Melt butter in a large saucepan over medium heat.  Remove from heat; stir in cocoa powder and sugars (mixture will resemble coarse sand).  Add yogurt and vanilla, stirring to combine.  Add flour mixture, stirring until moist.  Wrap the chocolate dough around the caramel balls.  Place balls on cookie sheets and sprinkle with sea salt.

Bake for 10-12 minutes or until almost set.  Cool on pans 2 to 3 minutes or until firm.  Remove cookies from pans; cool on wire racks.

These were really yummy, but a little salty for my taste.  (Duh!)  I didn’t think I put all that much salt on them, but I wasn’t liking the salt.  I might try them again without it and see how they taste.  Oh, and I used Milk Duds in the middle so I didn’t have to worry about rolling my caramel into a ball.  Good cookies, but not my favorites.  The boys seem to agree with me, as we still have quite a few left.

Soft Gingersnap Cookies with White Chocolate Chunks
makes about 3 dozen cookies
1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
½ cup molasses
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2¼ teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1¼ teaspoons cinnamon
1¼ teaspoons ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground ginger
2 large eggs
3½ cups all-purpose flour
1½ cups white chocolate chunks
1 cup granulated sugar-for coating cookie dough balls

Preheat oven to 350°.  Line two large baking sheets with parchment papers or with a silicone baking mat.  Set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream together butter and sugar until smooth and creamy.

Beat in the molasses, canola oil, vanilla, baking soda, salt, and spices.  Mix until well combined.

Add the eggs, one at a time, and beat until smooth.  Slowly add in the flour.  Next, stir in the white chocolate chunks.

Scoop the dough into balls and roll in granulated sugar.  Place on lined baking sheets, about two inches apart.  Bake for 10 minutes, the cookies will still be soft.  Remove from oven and let cookies cool on the baking sheet for five minutes.  Transfer to a wire rack and cool completely.

In place of the cinnamon and cloves I used 2½ teaspoons of Chef Tesss Wise Woman of the East spice mix.  And I could find no white chocolate chips in my house.  Must have used them all for something.  So I chopped up some Baker’s white chocolate and used that instead.  Mmm.  Really yummy gingersnaps, nice and soft, even the next day.  This recipe I highly recommend!  So do the animals ~ they were gone within a day!

What kind of cookies did you make for Christmas?

buttermilk cookie mix neighbor gifts

I’m always looking for good neighbor gifts, and was delighted when I found this on ~ yep, you guessed it ~ Chef Tess Bakeress’s blog.  I love the idea of cookie mixes, since we all get inundated with way too many sweets this time of year, and this way you can hang on to the mix and make up some cookies when you’re more in the mood for them.  I used the basic recipe, which I am listing here, but there are more baking options once you have the mix, which you can find on the website.

Tess’s Extra Moist Buttermilk Cookie Mix
9 cups all purpose flour (whole wheat works, but be sure it is soft wheat or pastry flour)
1½ cups buttermilk powder (instant milk is okay too)
1½ cups Homemade Instant Pudding Mix
3 tablespoons baking powder
1 tablespoon salt
2 tablespoons vanilla or LorAnn Princess emulsion
2 cups butter or shortening (I use Spectrum Organic)
3 cups sugar (you can use splenda spoonable instead)

Soften butter in a very large bowl, electric mixers are amazing for making mixes, I highly recommend using one.  Add the sugar and vanilla (I also love brandy, rum, nut flavors...) and cream well.  In a separate large bowl combine the dry ingredients.  Gradually add the dry ingredients into the butter mixture.  If done correctly it will look like a course cornmeal.

This mix will make 20 cups of cookie mix.  I use 2 cups of mix per gourmet mix.  Most often I will put 2 cup portions in storage size zip bags.  This mix will make 10 bags of plain sugar cookie mix.

I started by making a big batch of Tess’s homemade pudding mix (find it here).  I also had a can of powdered butter and decided to use that instead of regular butter.  (I found a #10 can at Wal-Mart, but can’t find it online anywhere.  They also sell it at Kitchen Kneads.)  I threw everything in my Kitchen Aid and mixed it all up.  Be aware that your mixer bowl will be VERY full, especially when using powdered butter, so use the pouring shield if you have one.  I then put 2 cups each into holiday Ziploc bags.
Only I didn’t get 10 bags full.  I only got 8.  Hmm.  I decided I’d better bake up a batch and sample them.  So I mixed it all up and used the drop method, and got the funniest cookies I’ve ever seen.  They looked like biscuits.  They tasted like biscuits.  They tasted like biscuits because I forgot to put the sugar in.  Ug.  So I dumped all the bag contents back into a large bowl, added a little less than 2 cups of sugar, stirred it all up and bagged it all again.  Then I used the leftovers (about 1¼ cups that didn’t go into the bags) to make up another batch.  This time they turned out great.  Very yummy.  They would probably have been even better with a little butter cream frosting on top, but they were gone before I could find out.  This is the best picture I was able to get before little fingers had grabbed them all up.

After I had them all in bags, I made up a few of these,
used my Xyron to make the labels into stickers, stuck them onto the bag and plopped placed them carefully into these cute little treat holders I got from Current several years ago.  Fit perfectly, and made a great neighbor gift.  (I even made a second batch of the mix, more to give away and some to keep for myself.)

What did you give for neighbor gifts this year?  Did you stick with a tried-and-true or did you make something new this year?

26 December 2011

homemade chinese

Well, sorta homemade.  I was really in the mood for Chinese, so I decided to give this recipe a try.  I don’t know if Benihana counts as Chinese ~ aren’t they mainly Japanese food? ~ but hey, you have to use what you have, right?  And no, I have never been to Benihana.  Can you believe that?  I’m really going to have to get there one of these days.  They do still have Benihanas, right?

Benihana Fried Rice
source: copykat.com
1 cup uncooked rice
5 tablespoons butter
1 cup chopped onion
1 cup chopped carrots
2/3 cup chopped scallions
3 tablespoons sesame seeds
5 eggs
5 tablespoons soy sauce

Cook rice according to package directions.  In a large skillet melt butter.  Add onions, carrots and scallions.  Sauté until carrots are translucent.  Set aside.

Heat oven to 350°.  Place sesame seeds in a shallow pan.  Bake until golden brown (10 to 15 minutes), shaking pan occasionally for even color.

Lightly grease another skillet.  Beat eggs.  Pour into hot skillet.  Cook as you would scrambled eggs.  Combine rice, vegetables, sesame seeds and eggs.  Add soy sauce.  Stir.  Salt and pepper to taste.

I could have sworn I had some sesame seeds around the house somewhere.  I did, but couldn’t find them until about a week after I made this.  Oh well.  I wonder if it would have tasted any better with them?  Yeah, we didn’t like this all that well.  I did swap out the carrots and scallions for onion powder and frozen peas & carrots, but other than that (and the sesame seeds) I really did follow the recipe.  Luckily for me I bought some of these puppies on my last trip to Sam’s.  Mmm!  I’m a sucker for the spring rolls ~ I usually give the kids my entré and just eat the spring rolls, dipped in soy sauce.  I know, I’m weird, right?

oat bread with ham & cheese soup

Yep, I made bread again.  Finally!  And what bread.  Mmm!  So soft, so flavorful, so yum!  If you haven’t made bread yet, this may be the recipe to start with.  I’m not sure you can go wrong with it.  Really, really a must try!

Tess’s Oat Bread Recipe
3 cups rolled oats
2½ cups water or milk no hotter than 110°
½ cup honey
¼ cup olive oil
2 teaspoons yeast

Allow oats to absorb the water and the yeast to get hyper active.  This usually takes about 30 minutes.  On the plus side, this softens the oats without cooking the starch.  The main difference between using cooked oats and uncooked oats.  Starch will still cook, but not be gummy.  Tender loaf.  Oats...soft...good.

3 cups whole wheat bread flour
1 tablespoon salt

You may need more or less flour depending on the storing conditions of the flour.  I usually opt for less flour whenever possible.  I knead by hand in the bowl and avoid using too much flour.  300 turns if you can do.  You can use a mixer.  3-4 minutes medium speed.

Form into a ball and allow to raise until doubled.  If I am busy I will put the bread in a covered bowl in the fridge at this point and let it raise there.  That gives me a couple more hours to get running around done.

So.  Allow the dough to raise then use the loaf molding technique (found here).  In the case of this bread I have found steaming the loaf in a covered clay crock to be by far, my favorite application.  Lightly oiled and then free standing large double loaf using all the dough.

Allow bread to raise until twice its size and very fluffy.  Bake in oven pre-heated to 425° 40-45 minutes (or until internal temperature reaches 170°).  Allow bread to cool before slicing.

This bread you will find to be very moist and have a shelf life of 3-4 days if it lasts that long.

I don't have a clay crock, and wanted standard loaves for sandwich making, so after the first (and second ~ I forget about my bread dough a lot) rise, I divided the dough in two and put it in bread pans.  As usual for me, I left the bread rising a little too long in the pans, so it took on a weird shape.  I went to another bread recipe to figure out baking for pans, and ended up baking it at 425° (because I live in Utah) for 20 minutes, then 350° for 15 minutes.  It looked a little weird from over-rising, but tasted amazing.  Especially when dipped into soup.  Mmm, soup. 
And speaking of soup, this was a weird experiment in cooking gone right.  That doesn’t always happen to me, and I’m hoping I can remember everything I did so that I can do it again.  So yummy!  Here’s where it started:

Cordon Bleu Potato Soup
serves 4
2 cans (10¾ ounces each) condensed cream of potato soup
1 can (14½ ounces) chicken broth
1 cup (4 ounces) shredded Swiss cheese
1 cup diced fully cooked ham
1 cup milk
1 can (5 ounces) chunk white chicken, drained
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

In a 2-quart microwave-safe dish, combine all ingredients.  Cover and microwave on high for 5-8 minutes or until heated through, stirring twice.

We love cordon bleu and I thought this would be a great soup to try.  But when I went to make it I realized that I didn’t have any cream of potato soup.  (I thought the recipe called for actual potatoes.  Go figure.)  Ok.  Cream of mushroom will work so I grabbed a couple of cans of that.  I got out the canned chicken and just didn’t feel much like chicken.  Hmm.  So I just started throwing things in a pot, and here’s what I came up with.

M’s Ham & Cheese Soup
serves 8 (or a family of 4 animals + mom)
4 cans (10¾ ounces each) cream of mushroom soup
2 cans (14½ ounces each) chicken broth
1 cup shredded Swiss cheese
1 cup shredded cheddar jack cheese
1-2 packages (8 ounces each) diced ham
(You can use cubed, but we usually have diced on hand for pizza.  I buy it at Wal-Mart in the “deli” packaged meat section ~ you can’t get it from the actual deli.)
2 cups milk
2 tablespoons mustard (I used regular yellow)
½ teaspoon dill weed
½ teaspoon celery seed
salt to taste (I, of course, used season salt)

Add soup to a medium-sized pot over medium heat.  Pour in chicken broth a little at a time, stirring well or whisking to prevent lumps.  Add all other ingredients and heat, stirring occasionally, until cheese is melted and soup is heated through.  Serve with dippy bread.

I’m not exactly sure of the amounts of everything I used ~ it was mostly just dump or sprinkle or squirt and taste ~ but I gave it my best guess.  As I was mixing away I decided I wanted it to taste as much like a ham & cheese sandwich as I could, which explains the dill, celery, mustard, and the most important ingredient, dippy oat bread.  It tasted so good, and everyone love it.  Well, everyone except Middlest and Littlest, who refused to taste it and only ate the bread.  I think they’re getting tired of soup...

Christmas breakfast

So much going on this time of year, and I really haven’t wanted to cook, let alone blog.  But I am taking the time now, and it’s not because I’m procrastinating all the other stuff I have to do.  Really.  I’m not just trying to plant my behind in this chair because I can’t face cleaning up all the wrapping paper, gifts and Christmas breakfast dishes (not to mention the baking mess in the kitchen).  Don’t believe me?  Yeah, you’re a smart one, you are.

But I have been procrastinating this blog to the point that I’m feeling the guilt.  And now that the Christmas craziness is over, I’m going to be plopping my behind in a chair somewhere or other in the house for the next hour or so anyway, so I may as well do something productive, and, well, here I am.  Lots to blog about.  Let’s hope I can remember what most of it is.

Let me start with the hope that you had a very merry Christmas, spent with loved ones gathered close and all your favorite foods.  I love how food plays such a prominent part in our holiday celebrations.  There are some foods that, when you make them, just the smells bring a feeling of Christmas contentedness.  And there are just some things that you have to make or Christmas isn’t Christmas.

That being said, here’s one of the things that we do.  For my husband and me it’s a fairly new tradition, but we’ve been doing it pretty much my kids’ whole lives, and it’s one of their favorite things about Christmas.  We have the grandparents over for breakfast and present opening.  Yes, we’re cruel that way and make the kids wait until after breakfast to open presents.  Maybe because they’re used to it, there’s really not much complaining.  They do get to open their stockings and eat one piece of candy, and we start breakfast early to cut down on the whining.  And although I’m totally one for mixing things up, we seem to have settled into a rut routine as far as the food goes too.  Breakfast quiche, fresh fruit and white hot chocolate.  Mmm.

Quiche Lorraine
1 pie crust, baked                      
12 slices bacon, cooked and crumbled
1½ cups grated Swiss cheese
5 eggs
2 cups light cream or milk
¼ teaspoon paprika
½ teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon white pepper
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg

Heat the oven to 400°.  Prepare the pie shell, sprinkle half of the Swiss cheese in the shell then crumble the fried bacon over the cheese. Sprinkle remaining cheese evenly over the bacon.

Mix together eggs, cream, paprika, salt pepper and nutmeg until well-blended and pour slowly over the bacon and cheese, taking care not to create bare spots.  Cover pie crust edges with a thin strip of foil and bake quiche at 400° for 15 minutes.  Reduce heat to 350° and bake for 20 minutes more.  Remove foil covering and bake 10 minutes more.  Serve like pie.

I’m not sure where I got this recipe ~ I think it originally came out of one of my Betty Crocker cookbooks ~ but we’ve been using it and loving it for years.  I’ve tried other quiches (my family pretty much loves anything made mostly of eggs) but I keep coming back to this one.  Everyone thought it was one of the best, and even the grandparents kept complimenting it.

Here’s what I did.  First, you start with one of these, in our case two.  I know I’ve mentioned these babies before, but they are just so good.  So much tastier and easier than making your own.  (Ok, so much tastier and easier than making MY own.  If you want to make your own, feel free.)  Since I’m going to be baking the quiche again, I always bake the pie crust at the lowest recommended time.  Most quiche recipes call for you to pour the egg mixture into a hot pie crust, and while they usually cook better that way, it’s not strictly necessary for this one, so if you need to, you can bake your pie crust ahead of time.

Since I usually buy my Swiss in slices, which is really hard to grate, and I really didn’t feel like tearing it up into little pieces, which is what I usually do, I just laid a slice in the bottom of the pie crust.  Then I sprinkled in the bacon (I use this, which I always have in the fridge) and laid another slice of cheese on top.  Mixed up the eggs, cream and spices (I actually followed the recipe this time, no substitutes ~ can you believe it? ~ not even season salt!) and poured it all over the top.  I covered the crust edges with foil (which I did not remove, as it was slightly stuck to the egg and I didn’t want to burn myself ~ again) and they turned out great.  Very pretty.  I did the quiche the day before and stuck them in the refrigerator, heated them up early Christmas morning.  Very nice.

Big BIG thanks go to my rockstar Chef Tess Bakeresse for the white hot chocolate this year.  I asked her if she had a good recipe (I’ve been using Martha Stewart’s for several years, but wanted something new) and she sent me the recipe below.  She told me she needed to field test this recipe and I jumped at the chance to use my little animals as guinea pigs.  I made up a batch of the instant mix several days before and they went hog wild.  (I don’t like the taste of powdered milk and couldn’t get past it, but they didn’t even seem to notice.)  They love melty marshmallows though, and insisted on adding some in after their first taste.  I was planning on making some vanilla bean whipped cream to go on top, but then I had another idea.  I made a few modifications to the hot chocolate recipe (sorry Chef Tess! ~ just added real milk and cream) and made up a batch of vanilla bean marshmallows, and it was a BIG hit Christmas morning.

To make the hot chocolate and it’s accompanying marshmallows, I wanted to try some vanilla bean sugar.  I have never bought vanilla beans, and jumped on line to try to find some.  I was quite discouraged at what I read ~ so many people saying that they arrived all dried out and brittle ~ and at the price.  YIPES!  Luckily I found that my local “can’t find it in Wal-mart” kitchen supplier sells vanilla beans for much, much cheaper.  (I had to call to find out, as I couldn’t find them on their website.  If you live in Utah you really need to check these guys out.  They have just about everything I read about on cooking blogs that I can’t find anywhere else.)  And when I went to pick them up the saleslady told me they had just gotten them in, and they were so fresh and yummy.

I have read several places about making vanilla sugar by leaving a bean in a canister with the sugar for weeks, months, years... But I am an instant gratification kind of girl, and I wanted my vanilla sugar NOW!  Then I came across this recipe and did a little happy happy joy joy dance.  I read several other recipes online and adapted it a little to fit my own little desires.  This is what I finally ended up with.

M’s Vanilla Bean Sugar
5 cups granulated sugar
(I used 2 cups of this, and wondered if I could have made vanilla bean powdered sugar ... maybe next time)
5 fresh vanilla beans

Cut the vanilla beans into 3-4 pieces.

Add all vanilla bean pieces and about a third of the sugar to a food processor and grind for several minutes.  Pour mixture into a sieve or strainer (I used my handle strainer, which looks something like this) over a bowl and shake gently.  Return larger bits of vanilla bean to the food processor, add another third of sugar and process again.  Repeat straining and processing until beans and sugar reach desired consistency.  (My food processor blades kept getting gummed up ~ those vanilla beans really were fresh! ~  and I had to keep cleaning them off.  I just pulled the gunk off with my fingers so I didn’t dampen the sugar.  I was still left with several not quite little pieces of bean, but decided I didn’t care much and left them in.)

Since the concentration of bean to sugar changes with each batch, be sure to mix your sugar well before using.  Store in a Ziploc bag or an airtight jar.

I used this vanilla bean sugar as the base for the rest of my Christmassy recipes, starting with this one:
 Homemade Vanilla Bean Agave Marshmallows
source: skinnytaste.com
3 packets unflavored gelatin
1 cup COLD water
1½ cups granulated sugar
1 cup light agave syrup
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 vanilla bean, seeds scraped
2 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar, for dusting

Combine the gelatin and ½ cup of cold water in a small bowl; let it sit while you make the syrup.

Meanwhile, combine the sugar, agave, salt, and ½ cup water in a medium sized saucepan and cook over medium heat until the sugar dissolves.  Raise the heat to high and, using caution not to boil over, cook until the syrup reaches 240° on a candy thermometer (careful it doesn’t boil over, this will be hot).  Remove from the heat.

Add the gelatin mixture and scraped vanilla bean into the bowl of your stand mixer.

With the mixer on low speed, slowly pour the hot sugar syrup into the dissolved gelatin.  Please be careful not to burn yourself with the HOT syrup, do not let the kids do this, you can get third degree burns if the hot syrup touches your skin.

Set the mixer to high speed and whip until the mixture expands and is very thick, about 17 minutes.  This can be messy so if you have the protective lid attachment that came with your Kitchenaid, you might want to use that.  Add the vanilla extract towards the end of the mixing.

With a sieve, generously dust the bottom of a 12x17” jelly roll pan or large glass baking dish with confectioners’ sugar.  This is probably the most important step, skipping this step, the marshmallows will stick to the pan and never come off.

Pour the marshmallow mixture into the pan, smooth and dust with more confectioners’ sugar.

Let the marshmallows sit uncovered overnight until they dry out.

Use a cookie cutter to make pretty marshmallow shapes or turn the marshmallows onto a board sprinkled with confectioners’ sugar and cut them into squares.  Dust with more confectioners’ sugar to prevent sticking.

My husband walked in as I was frothing the marshmallows in my Kitchen Aid.  He bought it for me for Mothers Day and seems to be delighted every time he sees me using it.  He stared at me for a minute and said, Wow, you look so domestic.  When I married you I never thought you would ever be a crafty, domestic kind of woman.”  Was that a compliment?  Im not quite sure...

I found agave nectar at Amazon.com, and not knowing much about it, bought the amber variety, which turned out to have more of a maple flavor, but the marshmallows tasted divine to me.  I found it at Kitchen Kneads when I was there buying Vanilla beans, and will buy it there from now on, as it was remarkably cheaper and I could get a much bigger jar.  If you don’t have (or don’t want) agave nectar, you can probably use karo syrup, although you might want to run that by someone more knowledgeable than I before making the switch.

In place of regular granulated sugar and vanilla beans, I just used my freshly made vanilla sugar.  It worked very well.  I also went wild dusting everything with powdered sugar and realized that I probably didn’t need as much as I used.  I REALLY did not want these things to stick!  I also sprayed it lightly with cooking spray before dusting, and they turned out very nice.  Came off the pan easily, I must say.  I gave some to family with a homemade hot chocolate mix (made before Chef Tess sent me her recipe, darn it!) and they seemed to go over very well.  Littlest keeps asking me if he can have marshmallows for breakfast/lunch/snack...  And they looked so pretty cut out like stars sitting there next to the hot chocolate...

And on that note, the pièce de résistance:
Chef Tess’s White Hot Chocolate
source: e-mail from the Bakeresse herself!  (Yep, I have an in like that.)
1 cup instant milk powder
¼ cup sour cream powder (also found at Kitchen Kneads)
1 cup white chocolate chips
2 tablespoons vanilla pudding mix
¼ teaspoon chef tess wise woman
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Combine dry ingredients.  Add 1 quart boiling water and stir until chocolate melts. Serve warm with a scoop of whip cream.

As I said, I am not much of a fan of powdered milk, so I mixed up a triple batch of all the dry ingredients and put it in a bag the night before.  On Christmas morning I added the mix to 4 quarts of milk and ¾ cup whipping cream, heated it up and served.  Oh.  My.  Best white hot chocolate ever.  Have I mentioned yet what a rockstar Chef Tess is?  If you haven’t checked out her blog, do it NOW!  Mmm, yummy!

Oh yeah, I almost forgot the pudding mix.  Chef Tess has an amazing pudding mix which I used to make the hot chocolate, and other stuff that I’ll put in another blog.  I highly recommend using it, it is delicious!

Chef Tess’s Instant Pudding Mix
½ cup sugar or sugar free “spoon-able” alternative
(I used my vanilla bean sugar)
1/3 cup ultra gel
(I got permission from Chef Tess to use cornstarch instead ~ then I found ultra gel at Kitchen Kneads and used it for my second batch of pudding mix)
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon LorAnn flavored oil of your choice
(I used Bavarian cream, which I had purchased for something else, but oh wow, it made for an awesome flavor!)

Just mix all the ingredients together and you have your pudding mix.  I made a triple batch, so I used my Kitchen Aid, but you could easily mix it up with a spoon.  Easy peasy lemon squeezie, and so much nicer than boxed pudding mix.

Enough recipes for you?  (There are more coming.  Although I didnt feel like cooking, I havent just been sitting on my behind all month!)  After all that work, it doesn’t look like much, but boy did it taste good.  And it was just enough for a quick breakfast before tearing into the Christmas presents...

16 December 2011

the magic of Christmas


What does the magic of Christmas mean?  Where exactly does it come from and why does it seem harder and harder to feel year after year?  I know Christmas magic is supposed to come from giving to others, but I have been so overwhelmed the last few days by some amazing gifts and gift-givers.  Hey, if some of us arent willing receive, givers would be totally out of luck, right?  I have a point besides that of being utterly selfish.  (Ok, maybe I am just a little selfish.  I LOVE getting gifts... almost as much as I love giving gifts.)  Sometimes it can be a stretch to be generous, to put ourselves out, to give when it’s uncomfortable or just unwanted (either because we don’t want to do it or the person we’re giving to doesn’t seem to want what we’re offering).  But I think it’s often (if not always) harder for us to be on the receiving end of the giving process.  Maybe it challenges our pride, our need to be self sufficient, or our desire not to appear “needy”.  Whatever the reason, it seems embarrassing to accept something from another person without some kind of equal exchange.  It’s one of the hardest of life’s lessons ~ that as uncomfortable as receiving can be for us, to refuse the gifts of others denies them the joy and blessings that come from giving.  Someone has to be the receiver.

I worked once with a single mother who, as many single parents do, experienced some pretty severe financial difficulties in her attempts to raise two children alone.  One Christmas we were discussing how to tell kids about the “reality” of Santa Claus.  Personally, I’ve always been a believer.  Not only do I find it difficult to let go of that childish desire to believe in magic, I actively work on ways to “prove” why we should all continue to believe.  It made me sad to think that the time must come when reality replaces our belief.  Without discussing any of this with my coworker, this then 50-something woman said, “I totally believe in Santa Claus.”  A couple of attnedant skeptics eyed her at that point, but she went on to explain that on those Christmases when money was particularly tight and she wasn’t sure how she was going to feed her children Christmas dinner, let alone arrange a visit from Jolly Old St. Nick, somehow Christmas always came.  Somehow ~ whether through unexpected kindnesses of friends or strangers, an unforeseen bonus or an unlooked-for package in the mail or some other kind of windfall ~ she and her children always managed to have something magical for Christmas.  This was what she believed in.  That, to her and to her children, was Santa Claus, the magical bringer ~ not of material gratification, but of whatever it is that makes this time of year so magical.

That’s one of the reasons I love the movie the Santa Clause so much.  It’s all about believing.  Nothing very magical can happen in our lives unless or until we believe.  It’s the believing that unlocks the magic.  For reasons I’m not willing to get in to at the moment, I have recently found myself believing in the magic of life again after a rather murky period of distrust.  (I’m not sure I became an actual unbeliever, but I went through a moment or two of magic agnosticism.)  But almost as soon as I opened myself up to belief again, oh what amazing gifts began to arrive.  And so this Christmas season, I wish that all of you can experience the magic of believing. 

<3 xoxoxo <3

07 December 2011

panera broccoli cheese soup

Yep, soup again.  What can I say, I love a good soup on a chilly day.  And it’s been freezing around here.  Brr!  I just hope we get a little snow before Christmas.  I know, I know, be careful what you wish for, right?

Have to say, no one really liked this particular soup.  I’m not sure why.  We all like broccoli.  We all like cheese.  My husband (who is not really a soup fan) was excited to see cheesy broccoli soup, and said that it’s one of his favorites.  But this recipe just didn’t taste right to any of us.  Maybe it’s because I couldn’t find the giant brick of Velveeta I know I have in the house somewhere.  (I’m not a big fan of Velveeta, so it’s not too unusual that I lost track of it.)  I ended up using frozen American cheese slices.  Did the freezer do something to the cheese that made the soup taste strange?  I just don’t know.  All I know is that none of us really liked this recipe much.  But feel free to try it for yourself.  (If you do, I’d be interested in knowing if you liked it any better than we did.)

Panera Broccoli Cheese Soup
serves 4
source: copykat.com
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
½ cup chopped yellow or white onion
1 cup of half and half
2 14.5-ounce cans low sodium chicken broth
1 16-ounce package of frozen chopped broccoli
1 cup Julianne cut carrots – shredded carrots are ok to use
1 pound loaf processed cheese food (Velveeta or a store brand)
8 ounces shredded cheddar cheese
salt and pepper to taste

In a large saucepan melt together butter, flour, and chopped onions.  Cook butter and flour together for about a minute, and then slowly add in half and half.  When all of the half and half is incorporated add frozen broccoli, and American cheese.  When the cheese is completely melted, add chicken broth one cup at a time until soup is well mixed and has a consistent texture.  When all of the chicken broth is added add carrots, and simmer soup for about 20 minutes.  During the last 10 minutes of cooking add the 8 ounces of shredded cheddar cheese.  Serve when all cheese if fully melted.