Monday, December 31, 2012

Hot Chocolate Mix

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I woke up this morning to find a heavy dusting of snow on the ground and I couldn't have been happier. It's been cold here for weeks, but not a single snowflake dropped until last night.

I miss the snow we had growing up. We had big storms that would dump inches upon inches of the white stuff providing inspiration for all kinds of snowy fun. My brothers and I would bundle up in our snow pants, parkas and moon boots to make the journey to a hill that offered perfect sledding conditions. My two brothers, both older than me, led the way on their cross country skis while I brought up the rear on foot pulling my red plastic sled behind me. Looking back I'm pretty sure that walk was a short one, but at that time it felt like an epic journey.

And the reward after arriving home? It was always a steaming mug of hot chocolate.

Hot Chocolate Mix
Adapted from The Epicurious Cookbook

This mix makes approximately 24 servings and can be kept in the pantry in an airtight container for up to 6 months.

2 cups sugar
1 vanilla bean
8 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
6 ounces milk chocolate, chopped
1 cup unsweetened Dutch process cocoa powder

Cut open the vanilla bean and scrap out the seeds. In a bowl combine the sugar with the seeds -- it works best to use your hands to work the seeds through the sugar to distribute. There shouldn't be any lumps of vanilla. Toss the pod in and cover with plastic wrap. Leave the sugar and vanilla out at room temperature overnight.

Process the milk chocolate and semi-sweet chocolate in a food processor until finely ground. Depending on the size of your food processor you may need to do this in batches. In a large bowl combine the ground chocolate with the baking cocoa and sugar (remove the vanilla pod). To get it thoroughly combined I think it's easiest to pour it all into a large zip-lock bag, seal and then shake to combine. Store in an airtight container.

To make a single serving, warm 8 ounces of milk until scalded and add in approximately 1/4 cup of the mix whisking until the chocolate is melted. Serve with a dollop of unsweetened whipped cream.

Monday, December 17, 2012


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Sometimes simple is better.

Is it just me or is there an undercurrent of cookie one-upmanship out there in the world? It seems that no one makes just a simple cookie anymore and instead there are a plethora of jacked-up cookie concoctions. It's like a game of who can stuff the most ingredients a single batch of cookies.  Nutella! White chocolate chips! Browned butter frosting! Nuts, nuts and more nuts! Peppermint candies, M&Ms and butterscotch chips! It's amazing! The best cookie ever!

Seriously, it can get a little crazy.

Of course, like most things, it takes one to know one and I have often fallen prey to the whole ingredient overload frenzy. I think it probably stems from a desire to be original. There's an insidious need to take that simple cookie to the next level and that's where the trouble starts. In my mind it works out great after adding a little of this and a little of that. In reality? I usually end up with some weird blob so overwhelmed by my "creativity" that it's lost all it's original wonderfulness. Then I sit there and try and convince myself that it is amazing all the while knowing in my heart that it's wrong. So wrong.

For the record, I'm not suggesting a campaign to stamp out creative cookies. Definitely not. However, I need some safe-guards in place so that I can still be creative, but when things go south I have a way to salvage the original concept so not all is lost. At the end of the day a well executed simple chocolate chip cookie is much better than a Frankenstein chocolate chip cookie bursting with a myriad of crazy ingredients that begs the question "what is that thing?".  

With Christmas right around the corner I set out to make gingersnaps and quickly felt that familiar tug to take it a step further by topping the finished cookies with a lemon glaze. I thought the glaze would be an interesting addition to this classic cookie and thought to myself, "A glaze! With lemon! And a little lemon zest! It will be amazing!"

I made  a small batch of the glaze to start and topped only a few of the finished cookies to test it. It was an incredible exercise in restraint that paid off because the lemon glaze wasn't that great. It's sweetness completely masked the complex flavors of spice and molasses, which are what make a gingersnap so special.

Since I only glazed a few it wasn't a big deal. I still had a bunch of gingersnaps left unadorned ready to be dunked in a cup of coffee, which happens to be my favorite way to enjoy them.


3/4 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar, plus 1/2 cup extra to top the cookies
1/4 cup molasses
1 egg
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 & 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a large bowl with an electric mixer beat both sugars together with the softened butter until fluffy. Add in the molasses, egg and vanilla extract. Beat together until combined. In a separate bowl whisk the flour, baking soda, salt and spices together until combined. Add to the wet ingredients and mix together until combined, stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl if necessary. At this point the dough will be very soft so cover the bowl with plastic wrap and chill in the fridge for at 30 minutes.

Once the dough is firm, pinch off enough to roll into 1 inch balls. Roll the balls in the extra sugar and line them up, about 2 inches apart, on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Once all the dough balls are made, lightly press down on each of them with the bottom of a glass. 

Bake for approximately 12 minutes. I started checking on mine at the 10-minute mark. Pull them out of the oven once the top of the cookies feel dry and firm. If you want a crisper cookie leave them in the oven 1-2 minutes longer. Allow to cool for a few minutes on the baking sheet before removing them to wire racks to cool completely.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Four Cheese Manicotti with Meat Sauce

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I wish I could say that I tossed this all together in an hour for a quick and hearty supper during the week, but I would be lying if I did. This is one of those meals that needs to be done on the weekend because of all the simmering, mixing and baking that needs to happen. I split this up into two baking dishes -- one that I enjoyed this past weekend and the other went into the freezer to be reheated when I want a hearty dinner during the week. The effort involved is worth it because the end result is a creamy and hearty pasta dish that makes you feel all good inside.

Four Cheese Manicotti with Meat Sauce
Makes 10 filled manicotti tubes

For the Sauce
1 pound ground beef
1/2 large onion, diced
4 garlic cloves, minced
24 ounce can of whole plum tomatoes
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup water
4 sprigs of thyme
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

For the Pasta
1 ten-count box of manicotti
15 ounce ricotta cheese
1 cup shredded mozzarella, plus a little extra for topping
1/2 cup shredded provolone
1/2 cup grated Parmesan, plus a little extra for topping
2 eggs
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
4 sprigs of fresh thyme
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

Start by heating 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large pan over medium heat. Add in the onions and garlic and cook until softened. Add in the ground beef and continue cooking until the meat is cooked through (you may need to raise the heat a bit). Add in the tomatoes, with the juices, along with a 1/2 cup of water, fresh thyme and balsamic. Break up the tomatoes with a spatula or spoon and stir to combine. Bring to a simmer and then cover with a lid and lower the heat to medium or low. You don't want the sauce to boil - just allow it to simmer. I recommend letting it simmer for at least an hour, stirring occasionally, to allow it to thicken and reduce. Be sure to taste and season with salt as it cooks.

While the sauce is doing it's thing preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Prepare the cheese filling by combining the four cheeses along with the parsley and thyme in a medium bowl. Add in the eggs, nutmeg, salt (a few pinches) and pepper (a few turns of the grinder). Stir until combined. Spoon into a large zip lock bag and keep in the refrigerator until ready to use.

Boil the pasta according to package directions. Drain and toss with olive oil to keep from sticking. Set aside until cool enough to handle.

Coat the bottom of a baking dish with some of the sauce. To fill the tubes, cut a corner of the zip lock bag to make it easy to squeeze the filling into the manicotti tubes. Squeeze in enough filling to fill the tubes with a little extra room on each end. Line them side-by-side in the dish. Ladle some sauce over the top and sprinkle the extra mozzarella and Parmesan on top. Cover with tin foil and bake for approximately 20 minutes. Uncover the dish and bake uncovered for another 10 minutes. Allow to stand a few minutes before serving.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Garlic Soup

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Move over chicken soup because I've got a new bowl of comfort in my life.

How I've made it this far in life without making garlic soup is beyond me. I love garlic and I love soup so it's clearly a match made in heaven. And, unlike chicken soup, it's easy to make and requires only a few ingredients. This particular version is thickened using egg yolks, which results in a rich and velvety smooth soup perfect for those days when you need a little TLC in a bowl.

You start with some garlic...

I just smashed the cloves with my knife and then peeled them.

Next, toss the peeled cloves into a large sauce pan with 5 cups of water, a few sprigs of fresh thyme and a bay leaf. Turn the heat on high, bring to a boil, and then lower the heat. Pop a lid on that bad boy and let it simmer for about 45 minutes. 

While the garlic and herbs are simmering make the croutons by first tossing bread cubes with some olive oil and fresh thyme. Toast the bread cubes in a preheated pan over high heat until  they start to brown and the outside is crispy. Remove from the heat and set aside.

A few minutes before the soup is done simmering, whisk together 5 egg yolks with a 3 tablespoons of fresh grated Parmesan cheese.

Once the garlic and herbs have simmered for 45 minutes run the broth through a fine mesh sieve and discard the solids -- you won't be needing those anymore. Return the soup to the pot and then ladle about a 1/2 cup of the broth into the bowl with the yolks. Slowly add the broth to the eggs, while whisking, to warm the eggs. Once incorporated, slowly pour the egg mixture into the rest of the broth in the pot, whisking continuously. Bring the soup to a simmer (don't let it boil) over medium low heat and continue to whisk until the soup slightly thickens, about 10 minutes or so. Check the seasoning and add salt to taste. Serve with the croutons.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Monday Photos: December Banner

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The countdown begins - Christmas is just a few short weeks away.


In celebration of the season I updated the banner to something a little more festive. It features  one of my favorite salads that is perfect for this time of year.

In other news, I've been listening to a whole lot of Christmas music lately and thought I would share some of my favorite albums in case anyone is looking to update their holiday playlists.


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