Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Christmas Table ~ Holiday Entertaining Part II

One of the best gifts we can give others is the pleasure of dining.  For as long as their has been civilization and perhaps longer, one of the most basic and fulfilling pleasures we have is breaking bread together.  This week I wanted to share with you how I arrange the holiday table and the little things I try to do to make the dining experience pleasurable for our friends and family.  All of the photos below are from years of Christmas meals.

In the above photo I've tried to break up the busy
Christmas tablecloth pattern by adding a solid runner.
The first thing to be considered is the actually surroundings.  For special occasions I use the formal dining room.  Each year we decorate it for the holidays so that when we have dinner parties, the room sets the special atmosphere.  A tree tucked into the corner and glowing in deep red tones matches the dining room theme and the holiday dishware.

In the above photo, even I'm dressed to match the holiday theme.
Click to Enlarge
Table favors are another old fashioned but excellent way to make your holiday table special.  Over the years I've used small goody baskets, ornaments nested in the napkin and nuts in a sleigh with a candle and a chocolate reindeer.  All have proved popular and make a nice little 'take away' for our guests, reminding them of their dinner at our house.

Click to Enlarge
I like to start off my holiday dinners in the adjacent living room, where a champagne cocktail is most always on the menu along with an appetizer.  (Shown in photo below left.)  After a drink and some conversation to get things started, we move to the table where even the food can 'blink a bright red and green'.  (Shown below right is a crab meat cocktail on a gold charger and a Lenox Holiday plate.)

Of course sometimes you need to feed a bigger crowd and then I fall back to disposal dinner service.  But even plastic plates and napkins can look elegant when placed on a well-dressed table.  I also make sure I garnish every platter so they look just as festive as the Christmas tree!

Click to Enlarge
Have you seen the below nifty little item?  It's a cloth doily of sorts except it has little pockets to hold your dinner rolls.  I placed some beaded flowers in the center pocket.  I have several of these in colors that accent my dining room.  While I don't use them often, for special occasions I do put them out. 

Of course we don't have every meal in the dining room during the holidays so even our kitchen table area is well decorated for Christmas.  So whether it's breakfast and blueberry pancakes (shown below right) or crab legs on Christmas Eve (shown below left), I still accent my normally green kitchen decor with as much red as possible so even casual meals feel special.

Click to Enlarge

Even though I have a busy job and travel extensively, I still like to spend the month of December at home with friends and family.  I do plenty of baking and making holiday meals.  No matter what I make or where I serve it, I try to add a special holiday touch this time of the year.

So from my kitchen to yours, my best wishes for a safe, lovely, and very Merry Christmas!


Saturday, December 8, 2012

Hosting a Dessert ~ Holiday Entertaining Part I

The month of December is a particularly busy time.  I try to have a formal dinner party and often a big friends/neighbors party too.  During both of these I'm often so busy I get to spend little time talking with my guests.  It is for this reason I particularly enjoy hosting a holiday dessert.

For a group of six to eight, I use the bar serving area in the Great Room so we can bask in the ambiance of the fire and the Great Tree.  Kevin goes to so much effort to decorate this room and this tree that most everyone wants to spend time here.  It feels warm and comfortable and is a great place to gather more intimately with friends.  The desserts are self-serve and in addition to eggnog and coffee I like to put out a little bottle of chocolate liqueur for those that want it to add to their coffee. I also try to find some chocolate coffee stirs or coated spoons.  It's a little holiday addition that makes the dessert feel particularly special.

The Great Room and Tree
I've hosted these events just after a Christmas parade, in the evening after going to a movie and during tea time.  Really anytime works, even after dining out with friends.  It's so easy to prepare and set up in advance, I do one or more of these each holiday season.

If I'm not feeling particularly ambitious or know that we are dining out with friends before the dessert at our place, I'll simply make a tray of cookies and pick up some special holiday chocolates.  Below is my homemade cookie tray on a Fitz & Floyd holiday platter along with some Belgian chocolate cups filled with chocolate liquors and other tasty treats.   With a pot of coffee after a big dinner, that's surely all you need.

But if I'm feeling more ambitious and having guests mid-day or after a cold Christmas parade, I do try and bake a special dessert for the occasion.  I always think of a cream pie as a winter pie, I guess because fresh fruits are out of season and the velvety cream is so rich and delicious, it's perhaps only during the holiday season your guests wish to indulge in this special treat.  My cream pie recipe uses nine egg yolks an nine cups of cream (but it does make two pies, if that's of any consolation) so you can see why it should be served only on the most special occasions.      

Of course everyone likes to see a holiday Yule log cake on the dessert buffet and I've made this jelly-roll type cake several times.  It looks lovely and sets the scene, although if I have to chose which one of the above I'm having for dessert, count me in for the cream pie!

Of course sometimes it's a rather larger crowd, like this year when I've invited my colleagues from work to stop in for dessert after our holiday party.  That requires significantly more food and for this I generally set the dining room table with a wide range of smaller items, as I know they want to taste a bit of everything.

Of course sometimes it's just one other couple or even just the two of us, and even then I do try to put a little something by the fire to finish off the day.

A cup of holiday coffee or a glass of good port are often all you need to finish off a good dinner or wrap up a busy day of shopping.  Why not make it special during this holiday season.  We have the rest of the year to diet and exercise!  Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Classic Pot Roast

This favorite Sunday dinner family meal has been popular in the American homes for many years.  Braised beef cooked in a onion red wine reduction then surrounded by potatoes, carrots and other favorite vegetables, is sure to feed a crowd and fill your home with an aroma guaranteed to make stomachs growl.  If you follow these simple instructions, you will have a tender and very flavorful dinner.
Julian's Yankee Pot Roast 2017
Sometimes called a "Yankee Pot Roast" the cut of beef used varies significantly.  In the US, typical cuts often labeled 'pot roast' at your store are the 7-bone pot roast, arm roast, blade roast, chuck eye, cross rib roast, top blade pot roast, under blade pot roast, bottom round roast, eye round roast, and rump roast.  The shoulder roast is typically called an English cut pot roast.

Let's get cooking!
Some of these have a bone and some are boneless, and the selection is really up to you.  I often think meat with a bone has more flavor although I do not always select that cut.  I prefer the flat cuts about 2" thick with some nice marbling of fat, which will largely melt away during the long cooking period. All of the roasts named here have in common that they are tough and not suitable for dry roasting.  As such they must all be browned and then surrounded by a cooking liquid for a slow cook to make them tender and flavorful.  

Another version to which I added Brussels Sprouts
Previously I've shared my recipe for old-fashioned country round steak which starts its preparation similarly.  I mention this so as not to confuse you with the two similar but different meals.  Old-fashioned country round steak is made using "round steak" which comes from the eye round, bottom round, and top round with or without the "round" bone, hence the name.  It is finished in a rich gravy and served with mashed potatoes.  This is a different cut of meat from the classic pot roast and has an all-together different outcome.

Click to
4-5 pound pot roast
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
large onion, roughly chopped
2-4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
salt and pepper to taste
3/4 cup red wine
1 quart chicken stock
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 large carrots, cut into 1" pieces
10-12 small red potatoes, cut in half
    10-12 Brussels sprouts, ends removed and cut in half
    1 pint whole washed mushrooms

2 tablespoons corn starch
2 tablespoons water

Preheat your oven to 350F degrees.

Brown the roast in a skillet or Dutch oven (do not use non-stick surfaces) using 2-3 tablespoons of oil.  Do not turn it until it is well browned, about 5 minutes per side.  Remove the meat to the roasting pan or set aside if using the same Dutch oven for the roasting.  Deglaze the brown bits from the bottom of the pan using the chopped onion.  Salt and stir the onion using its juices to scrape up the brown flavorful bits from the bottom of the pan.  This will take about five minutes.  Then add the chopped garlic cloves and stir in for another minute or two.  Spoon the onion mixture over the roast or remove to a serving bowl if using a Dutch oven, while you make the cooking liquid.

In skillet or Dutch oven, add the red wine and scrape up any remaining bits of flavor while the wine reduces by half, about five minutes. Stir in the tomato paste. Add the chicken broth and bring to a boil.  Season with salt and pepper to taste and pour around (not on top of) roast in your roasting pan or transfer the meat back into your Dutch over and pour over the onion mixture.  The liquid should come up most of the way on the sides of the beef without covering it.  Place the lid on the roasting pan and place it in the preheated oven.  Let cook covered for one hour.

While the meat is roasting, cut up your potatoes, carrots and optional Brussels sprouts and whole mushrooms and toss with olive oil. Sprinkle with your favorite seasonings or at least salt and pepper.  After the meat has roasted for 1 1/2 hours, check to ensure there is still cooking liquid around the roast.  If not, add additional liquid (broth or water) which should come up about half way on the sides of the roast.  Spread the vegetables around the roast in the liquid.  Remove the cover and continue cooking for another hour.  Check about half way through to ensure the vegetables are not becoming to brown.  If so, replace the cover.  Cook an additional 30 minutes until the vegetables are tender (total roasting time with vegetables is approximately 60-90 minutes, or 2 hours 30 minutes total roasting time.)

Remove the meat and vegetables to a serving platting and cover to keep warm. Place the broth in a small sauce pan. Strain out any solids if you prefer.  Heat to a low boil.  Mix the cornstarch and water in a small dish and whisk into the hot broth to thicken into gravy.  Serve.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Broccoli ~ Parmesan Roasted with Pine Nuts

"I'll never skip broccoli again" proclaimed a reader that had requested a new way to prepare fresh broccoli.  She had been reading my blog post on sugar snap peas and decided to drop me a note, telling me that she and her family were not all that fond of broccoli.  They had recently 'upgraded' from frozen to fresh (big improvement) and she had been steaming it and then drizzling with butter, salt and pepper (delicious, I find). They hadn't warmed to it as much as she had hoped and wondered if I could give her any tips (besides a cheese sauce that she had already tried).  She was looking for something flavorful yet not burying the broccoli in a heavy sauce.

A couple years ago I came across this recipe from Ina Garten’s Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics cookbook and I've been making it ever since.  I no longer use the written recipe so this may be slightly modified from her original.  If you don't have her book on the shelf, you may want to consider it.  She is a fabulous cook with wonderful recipes!  In any case, you can easily adjust the quantities of any of the items below to suit your taste.


Garlic Cloves (fresh preferred)
Olive Oil
Salt and Pepper
Lemon (substitute McCormick Lemon and Herb Seasoning)
Pine Nuts
Freshly Grated Parmesan Cheese
Fresh Basil, thinly sliced (optional)


Preheat the oven to 425F degrees and cut the broccoli florets from the stalks, leaving an inch or two of stalk attached to the florets. Discard the rest. Cut the larger pieces pulling the florets apart into bite-sized pieces.

Place the broccoli on a sheet pan lined with foil and prepared with cooking spray (food release) large enough to hold it in a single layer. Slice or chop the garlic and sprinkle on the broccoli, and drizzle liberally with olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Roast for 20 to 25 minutes, until tender and the tips of some of the broccoli are browned. While the broccoli roasts, heat a small skillet with a few drops of oil.  Add the pine nuts and stir constantly until they are browned and toasted.  If using the fresh lemon (preferred) zest the peel and squeeze out the juice.  Shred the cheese and slice the basil.

Remove the broccoli from the oven, and immediately toss with olive oil, lemon zest, lemon juice, (or substitute lemon herb seasoning) pine nuts, Parmesan and optional basil.  Serve immediately.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Holiday Dinners in a Great English Manor House ~ Petworth

This year we were fortunate to visit several English manor homes and castles.  Each was a different and spectacular experience and today I wanted to share some highlights of our travels and most particularly, take you into the kitchens of one of these great residences as they prepared and served large glorious meals.

Julian at Petworth
A manor house is a country house, which historically formed the administrative center of a "manor", the lowest unit of territorial organization in the feudal system in Europe.  As such you can find manor homes and castles throughout much of Europe.  If you find yourself in Germany, France, England, etc. do rent a car and spend some time in the countryside visiting these properties.

The primary feature of the manor-house was its great hall, to which apartments were added as warfare across Europe permitted more peaceful domestic life.  These halls originally served as court rooms and were used for other public functions, as well as banquet halls when the Lord entertained.  Thankfully many of these properties have been preserved, some with their Lords of the Manor still in place.  Others have been preserved through government historic trusts while others survive as hotels, private properties and movie sets.  If you are a fan of the PBS show Downton Abbey, historic Highclere Castle is one such property.  However, like Highclere, many of the residences historic kitchens and servants areas have been replaced with modern facilities.  (The 'below stairs' portion of Downton Abbey is filmed on a set, for this reason.)

Julian in the Petworth Entry Hall
Thankfully a few of these kitchens survived and here you can get a better understanding of what it took to serve the people of these magnificent homes.  Servants always accessed the front (or family portion) of the manor from the back stairs or other servants passages that kept them out of site as much as possible from family and their guests.  Maids were expected to work invisibly and clean when the family was asleep, or work in a room when the family was not scheduled to use it.  Only butlers and footman were common in areas were family and guests were present.  In fact, many of the lower servants (kitchen cooks, assistants, etc.) never encountered the family during their years of service.  In this regard, these homes were much like today's major hotels.

Part of the batterie de cuisine at Petworth
Petworth is one of the rare English Manor houses with kitchens and servants areas still intact, kept much as they were when the servants block was given over to the government to house the Chelsea Day Nursery which had been evacuated from London in 1939 with the advent of World War II. The servants block is located well behind the main house in a 1100-foot-long stone building, which also included servants quarters and the complex of offices necessary for the administration of the 100,000 acre estate belonging to the Earl of Egremont.  Unlike many Manor homes, Petworth's main serving quarters were not in the basement of the main house, hence the name 'servants block'.  This was thought to be a particularly good idea to avoid odors in the main house as well as for fire protection of the manor house itself.  The servants block was built in the mid-18th century and is shown as it would have looked between 1920 and 1940, little having changed from Victorian times.

Famed for its food, Petworth supported a large staff whose numbers contributed to the reputed 30,000 yearly meals cooked here during the early 19th century.  Records show that in 1834, a grand picnic for 6,000 was prepared in the kitchen at Petworth.  At the time the house employed 35 live-in indoor servants, plus daily indoor help as required, along with 24 grooms and coachmen, 25 full-time gardeners, plus daily outdoor labor as required.  The house also had its own fire brigade, engine and pump, along with a room for an upholsterer and for a professional cricketer to coach the estate's team.    With all of this staff, the house was able to be virtually self-sufficient, providing its own venison, game, eels, fish, eggs, dairy, meats, poultry, fruits and vegetables.  The gardens were famous for growing 400 varieties of vegetables and 100 kinds of pear.  Talk about putting on a Thanksgiving feast!

Fish ponds at Petworth
The main kitchen boasted a high ceiling and huge windows.  Food preparation took place at the central table. Sauces and hot liquids were held in pots set into a large black cast-iron hot water bath for transport to one of three dining rooms in the main house.

Julian says 'let's get cookin' in the Petworth kitchens
The status of the houses main resident meant the kitchens usually had the latest in technology, such as the latest innovation in 1872, cooking with steam.  A large boiler was added to the Scullery and powered warming ovens, a hotplate, steamers and bain-marie.  Large square copper boxes with a steam inlet pipe at the back and a tap in the front were also used for cooking steamed and Christmas puddings.

Vegetable and Meat Steamers

Julian with the Aga, a somewhat later addition.
In earlier times, the spits of the roasting range where the big pieces of meat were cooked had been turned by a kitchen boy.  During this time however, a large fan was added in the chimney, which was driven by the heat and smoke of the fire.  A roasting chef would control the proximity of the food to the fire and also adjust the size. A huge dripping pan underneath caught the fat, which could be used for basting with the long-handled ladles (shown at the bottom of the image below).

Now that's how your roast a lot of meat!

Holiday Dinners and Formal Dinner Parties

Upper class dinner parties around the 1910’s were considered the ultimate social test, and a hostess’s reputation could be ruined if the meal or the service wasn't stellar. The menus were sizable and provided ample opportunity for failures on the part of the cooks, serving staff and guests.

They started with a soup course, usually accompanied by sherry. Next came the fish course, served with a good white wine. A fish knife and fork were always used here, the knife being more for pushing the fish onto the fork than for actually cutting it.  Next, the entree  – perhaps a vol au vent (filled puff pastry) served with Champagne or claret.

Vol au Vent
After the clearing of used dishware and glasses and resetting the table, a luscious joint of meat or poultry from the estate was served.  This was typically accompanied by potatoes and seasonal vegetables, and served with a Burgundy wine.  The meal still was far from over!

A game course was then served with crispy potatoes and washed down by a good claret. And to give new meaning to the word feast, then came three mini courses called ‘entremêts’, a dressed vegetable dish, something sweet (perhaps a cherry tart) and a savory dish, like cheese, or even deviled sardines  (the latter of which I can't imagine trying to get down at this point in the dinner.)

Elaborate confections such as jellies and ice creams
were prepared in the cold section of the kitchen.
Their own ice houses supported these activities.
The table was then reset once again and dessert was served which frequently included ices, jellies or elaborate pastries. This was followed by fruit and nuts which would be eaten by hand and accompanied with port or Madeira wines.

Once the food had been cleared, the ladies, at a discreet nod from the hostess would exit for coffee and conversation while the men would stay behind,to drink yet more port and claret, and smoke cigars.  You might wonder why they weren't all enormous after dining like this.  In fact, these were holiday meals or meals where special guests were in the house.  During other times they took much more simple meals in less elaborate dining rooms.  One, no matter how rich, surely couldn't eat this way daily and live long to tell about it.

On our next trip, I'd like to drive north.  Some homes on my list are Holkham Hall and Estate and Harewood House as they too have their old kitchens in tact and open for viewing. Also Hardwick Hall, Blenheim Palace and perhaps ending at Highclere Castle (of Downton Abby; Jeeves and Wooster fame) on the way back to Heathrow airport.  Other great estate homes that you may want to consider if you are touring England are those known as the Treasure Houses of England. Check out the link and begin planning your next visit!

Until then, Happy Thanksgiving!

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Taco Pasta ~ A melding of Mexican and Italian Flavors

I'm always looking for new recipes and when I came across this one on Pinterest the flavors intrigued me.  But the several similar recipes I found seemed to lack some important ingredients... namely the vegetables.  So I've modified this recipe to make it a bit more family friendly.  With the simple addition of a fresh onion, pepper and tomato, the recipe is more flavorful and more healthy at the same time.

This recipe makes a 7 x 9" baking dish of pasta that easily feeds six adults.

1 pound of dry pasta, Rigatoni or Ziti, or any large noodle
1 medium onion
1 pepper of your choosing
2 medium chopped fresh, seeded tomatoes -or- a 14.5 ounce can diced tomatoes
1 to 1 1/2 pounds ground beef
1 pkg (1.25 ounce) McCormick® Taco Seasoning Mix**
1 cup water
4 ounces cream cheese
1 1/2 cups shredded cheese (I used the Mexican taco blend)
1/3 cup bread crumbs, Panko style preferred

Preheat oven to 350F degrees.  In a large pot, add water, a splash of olive oil and a tablespoon of salt.  Heat to boiling and add the pasta, stirring occasionally.  Cook about 10 minutes, or until al dente (chewy and still firm).  While the pasta is cooking prepare the meat sauce.

Chop the onion and peppers.  Brown the ground beef in a large skillet.  Drain the fat from the beef and let it sit in the colander while you saute the chopped onion and pepper for 4-5 minutes, until tender in the same unwashed skillet.  Add some olive oil if the skillet is too dry.  Return the browned beef to the skillet with the cooked onion/pepper and add the tomatoes.  Stir in and then add the water and taco seasoning.  Heat to boiling and then reduce heat to medium cook for five minutes, stirring 3-4 times.

Add the cream cheese to the beef mixture and stir until melted and combined.  Remove from heat.

Drain the pasta when ready and place in a mixing bowl or the empty pot.  Mix in 1 cup of the shredded cheese.  Add the beef mixture and stir gently to combine.  Prepare a 7 x 9" baking dish by spraying with food release or oil.  Pour pasta into baking dish.  Top with remaining 1/2 cup of shredded cheese sprinkle with the bread crumbs.

Bake covered for 25 minutes.  Uncover and brown the top lightly for another 5-10 minutes, or more quickly with your broiler.   Bring the casserole dish to the table and serve family style.

**NOTE:  You can make your own taco seasoning using the following recipe.  Store it away and use it as you need it.  Use about 1 heaping tablespoon for each pound of ground beef.

Taco Seasoning Ingredients

2 teaspoons dry onion, minced or powdered
1 teaspoon chili powder
1/2 teaspoon dried red pepper, crushed
1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon instant garlic, minced or powdered
1/2 teaspoon cumin, ground

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Creamy Chicken and Biscuits Casserole

I don't often make one-dish meals.  But as the cool weather is upon us and my travel schedule schedule is heating up, I'm making this simple but satisfying dish which will be just as good left-over as it was originally.

Creamy Chicken and Biscuits Casserole
In 1866, a French Canadian immigrant is said to have invented the precursor of the modern casserole.  Early casserole recipes consisted of rice that was pounded, pressed, and filled with a savory mixture of meats. With the advent of lightweight metal and glass cookware in the 1950's, the rice bowl was replaced and the idea of casserole cooking as a one-dish meal became popular in America.  The word casserole, from the French word for "saucepan", is a large, deep dish used both in the oven and as a serving dish. The word casserole is also used for the food cooked and served in such a dish. If you are more accustomed to the British English, this type of dish is frequently called a "bake" or if you are like my friends from Minnesota, you call this type of dish a "hotdish."  Casseroles are a staple at potlucks and family gatherings, so if you need dinner for six to eight people, this is dish is ideal.  Of course it can be easily doubled when made in a larger casserole dish.

This casserole is similar in ingredients and flavor to chicken pot pie.  But instead of pie dough on top and bottom, you simply put biscuits on the top during the final minutes of baking.  I also provide you with an alternative below which excludes the biscuits but includes noodles.

As most of the ingredients are pretty well cooked on the stove top before assembly, baking time is short and can be done later when you need a quick after-dinner meal that warms the family on a cold November evening.

Servings:  Most people will need only one biscuit for their dinner, although a hungry man or teen boy will likely want a double serving.

2 tablespoons cooking oil
1 tablespoon of butter
1 raw boneless, skinless chicken breast
1 medium onion, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
3/4 cup white wine
2 cups baby carrots, cut into bite size pieces
1/2 cup or more of frozen peas
salt and pepper
8 biscuits (Pillsbury Grands or make your own)

Note:  You can make the cream sauce as shown below, or your can use one can of Campbell's creamy chicken condensed soup mixed with 1 1/2 cans of milk or buttermilk.

2 cups chicken stock
3 tablespoons flour
1 cup milk or buttermilk
salt and pepper to taste

Served with Biscuits on Bottom
Chicken and Vegetables Spooned over the Top
Prepare your baking dish by spraying with food release or coating with butter.  Chop all of the vegetables as noted.  Place the oil and butter into a skillet and heat moderately high.  When the butter is sizzling, add the chicken breast and cook until brown, then turn and brown on the other side.  Note the chicken will not be cooked through.

Remove the chicken from the skillet and saute the onion for 2-3 minutes then add the celery and cook another 2-3 minutes.  While this is cooking, place the carrots into a microwave safe dish, sprinkle with a little olive oil and cook on high for 6-8 minutes, until tender.  Add the white wine to the skillet and cook for 3 minutes until it is reduced by half while scraping up any brown bits in the pan.

Reduce the skillet temperature to low and cut the chicken breasts into bit sized pieces and saute in the wine and vegetable mixture for 5 minutes until the chicken is cooked through.  While this is cooking, prepare the sauce.

Sauce:  Add the chicken stock to a pot and bring to a low boil.  Mix together flour and milk until all lumps are gone.  Slowly add the milk mixture to the hot stock stirring constantly until thickened.  Remove from heat and add salt and pepper to taste.

Add the carrots and peas to the chicken mixture and toss gently to combine.   Place in your prepared casserole dish and cover with the sauce, gently stirring it until well mixed.  At this point you may refrigerate for up to 3 days.

When you are ready to proceed, place the dish in a 350F degree oven and bake for 30 minutes if it has not been refrigerated or 45 minutes if it had been refrigerated prior to baking.  Remove from oven and add the biscuits to the top.  Return to the oven and bake for 17 minutes or until the biscuits are browned.  Remove and let stand for 5-10 minutes before serving.

Chicken and Vegetables Spooned into the Dish
with Biscuits served on Top
No-Biscuit Alternative
If you don't like a doughy biscuit on top of your meal, consider this option instead.  While you are preparing the chicken mixture, boil water and cook 8 ounces of curly egg noodles until they are just barely al dente (i.e., a bit under cooked.)  Add these to the casserole when you mix all of the other ingredients together before the first baking.  Bake for 15 minutes and while this is in the oven, make a topping.  The topping should consist of any good quality crushed cracker (saltines, Ritz or other favorite), mixed with a little melted butter to help with browning.  To that add some salt, pepper and a tablespoon of grated parmesean cheese.  When the first 15 minutes of baking have completed, increase the oven temperature to 400F and then top the casserole with the cracker crumb topping and return to the oven for 15 minutes more to brown the topping.  Let cool for five minutes and serve.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Apples, Equipment and Crisps, Oh My!

With the Autumn apple harvest still underway you can find a myriad of apples at your local grocer.  And with some simple equipment you can quickly be making a number of homemade apple delights.

Apple Selection

What type of apple should you choose when baking or cooking?  I know you can find elaborate charts naming every type of apple under the sun, with this one preferred for this recipe and that one for yet another.  But can you really remember all of those options when shopping?  I use one simple rule.  When baking apples for dessert, like pies and crisps, I choose a 50/50 combination of Granny Smith and Cortland.  When I can't get Cortland I substitute Fuji.

Granny Smiths are crisp and quite sour. They're a good all-purpose cooking apple, and their flavor is enhanced when paired with sweeter, spicier apples in pies and crisps.  Cortlands are juicy and slightly tart, with bright red skin and snowy white flesh. They are a terrific baking apple when combined with Granny Smith. And if you buy too many, Cortlands are a great on a fruit and cheese plate, as the flesh doesn't brown and discolor quickly when sliced.  The Fuji was developed in Japan by crossing Red Delicious apples and Ralls Janet, an antique apple cultivated by Thomas Jefferson in 1793. Though not the best choice for baking, Fuji apples' spicy, crisp sweetness makes them excellent for for applesauce and as a substitute for Cortland in pies and crisps.


One of the reasons I most often hear for not making simple apple crisps is the peeling, coring and slicing of the apples.  If you make a full size baking dish (typically 11" x 7" in the USA), you'll need about 8-9 large apples.  If it's Thanksgiving and you're having a house full, you'll need even more!  For this task I do not peel the apples by hand.  Instead I use this tool I found while shopping in Amish country in Ohio.  You can find them online and at many local stores now. Just search for Apple Peeler/Corer/Slicer and you'll find many options.  I paid about $15 for mine and it's heavy duty cast iron and the base is painted green.  I wouldn't spend much more for anything high-tech and made of stainless steel or powered electrically.  The old design works great, has a counter suction cup and peels, cores and slices the apple quickly and easily by a few turns of the crank.  If, on the other hand, you are making homemade apple sauce, while you can rely on this device, I  prefer the KitchenAid  Fruit/Vegetable strainer which attaches to their stand mixer.  By using this device, you can cook the apples with skin and cores, which gives you additional flavor.  You place the cooked apples into the device and out one side comes the delicious apple sauce and out the other comes your seeds, peels and other solids.

Apple Crisp

I was looking back through all of my former posts thinking surely I had made apple crisp.  I've made other more exotic crisps, but never posted about the old fashioned family favorite, apple crisp.  So with the above in mind, today I'm going to share my apple crisp recipe and technique.  You may already have your own and I'm sure it's good so I hope you will pick up a little something of value from this posting.

Pre-Cook the Apples  

Now you may be thinking this seems like a waste of a first step, but I do think it is the key to having apples cooked to perfection.   I want apple slices that retain their structure as they bake, fully softening so that there is just the tiniest bit of crispness remaining, and remaining firm enough that an individual slice retains its initial shape. A splash of lemon juice helps to set the pectin in apples, which helps them retain their shape and this is why most recipes call for lemon juice.  But it's not enough to do the job  For this I typically use my microwave, tossing the apples with their usual starch, cinnamon and a little sugar, then cooking them on high for about 10 minutes in a glass bowl, stirring the ingredients gently once or twice while cooking.  This will help the pectin to fully set and then during regular baking they will not lose their structure.  Further if you've pressed the pre-cooked apples down into your baking dish, they will also not collapse further leaving you with a half dish of crisp or worse, a hollow dome on your apple pie.

Yield:  The below recipe is for a 8-inch square baking dish, serving 4-6 persons.  Double the recipe for a 11 x 7 inch baking dish.


4 large cooking apples, sliced (4 cups)
3 tablespoons flour or 2 of cornstarch (more if the apples are very juicy)
3 tablespoons white granulated sugar
juice from half of fresh lemon
dash of cinnamon

3/4 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup quick-cooking or old-fashioned oats
1/3 cup butter, direct from refrigerator
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
pinch of salt
1/2 cup chopped walnuts, optional

Serve with cream or ice cream, if desired


Peel, core and slice your apples.  Heat oven to 350F degrees. Grease or spray with food release the bottom and sides of 8-inch square pan.  Toss the sliced apples with the remaining filling ingredients.  Microwave for 10 minutes, stirring gently 2-3 times during cooking.  Remove and let cool to room temperature.  If the apples have release significant quantities of juice, toss with a bit more cornstarch before proceeding to the next step.

In medium bowl, toss together the topping ingredients except for the nuts coating the butter pieces very well.  Using a hard bladed (not wire) pastry blender/knife, cut the butter into the dry ingredients until it forms small pieces.  Stir in the chopped walnuts if using. If using whole walnuts as I often have on hand, simply use the pastry blender to chop the walnuts right into the topping mixture.

Spread the microwaved apples in the baking dish and sprinkle crumb topping over apples.  Sprinkle a bit more cinnamon on top for color.

Bake about 45 minutes or until topping is golden brown and apple mixture is bubbling. Serve warm or at room temperature with cream or ice cream, if desired.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Caramel Apple Breakfast Loaf

These are the flavors of fall when you live in the north.  The trees are in their Autumn splendor, leaves crunch under foot, and apples dipped in caramel sauce demand to be eaten.  I love the flavors of fall and I noticed this pastry when my sister pinned it to her Pinterest board.

I viewed a number of recipes to come up with this variety, which I think is particularly good for breakfast.  You'll find similar recipes for apple bread, caramel apple dessert cakes and similar coffee cake recipes.

If you you like a more dense moist bread like I do, use three apples in the recipe. If you want a more coffee-cake like texture, reduce the apples to two. In any case, ensure that you use a mix of good baking apples.  I used one Granny Smith and two Fuji, as these bake up very nicely.



2-3 large baking apples
1 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup vegetable oil
4 eggs, lightly beaten
3 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup chopped pecans
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg


2 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
2 tablespoons buttermilk
1/2 cup powdered sugar, sifted


Heat oven to 350°F. Grease bottoms only of two loaf pans with cooking spray or shortening. Peel and core the apples and shred on a box grater.  In large bowl, stir together the shredded apples, brown sugar, buttermilk, oil and eggs. Stir in remaining cake ingredients until dry ingredients are moistened. Pour into loaf pans.

Bake 45 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Place paper towels under the cooking racks.  Cool cakes in pans on racks for 10 minutes. Run a knife around the sides of the pans to loosen the loaves; remove from pans and place directly on cooling rack. Cool completely, about 1 hour.

In small saucepan, melt butter over medium heat. Stir in brown sugar. Heat to boiling, stirring constantly; reduce heat to low. Boil and stir two minutes. Stir in buttermilk. Heat to boiling; remove from heat. Cool about 15 minutes.  If mixture is too thick, thin with a little buttermilk. Gradually stir powdered sugar into glaze mixture and let cool completely. Beat with spoon until smooth and thin enough to drizzle. If glaze becomes too stiff, stir in additional buttermilk or heat over low heat, stirring constantly. Drizzle glaze over cakes.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Lisbon, Great Seafood and Egg Custard Tarts

Another birthday finds me in Europe, and no nicer spot could you find to host a little celebration than Lisbon.  This small country's population (about 10 million) is clustered around its two major cities, Lisbon and Oporto.  On my last trip to Portugal I was in Oporto and wrote to you about the fine port wine in city named for its golden river.  But today I'm in the capital city and here you have the best selections of food prepared by some of the worlds best chefs using ingredients from around the world.

Fresh market in Lisbon
If you paid attention in world history, you will recall the Portuguese were quite a colonial power in their day with ships traveling to the far reaches of the planet bringing home spices and foods of all types.  Combine that with occupations of this land by Celts, the Roman Republic, Germanic invasions and, in the 8th century Moorish invaders, you find a country whose cuisine is truly international. 

Food is often seasoned with small, fiery chili peppers (piri piri), black pepper, cinnamon, vanilla and saffron. Olive oil is one of the bases of Portuguese cuisine both for cooking and flavouring meals. Garlic is widely used, as are herbs like coriander and parsley. Breakfast is usually just coffee or milk and a roll with butter, jam, cheese or ham. Lunch, often lasting over an hour is served between noon and three o'clock, and dinner is generally served late, beginning not before eight o'clock in the evening.  Is it any wonder breakfast is a very light affair?

The famous Portuguese tile work is notable.
Portugal is the westernmost country of mainland Europe, and is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean to the West giving miles of beautiful shoreline and access to fresh seafood.  As such, seafood seemed to be featured on many menus in Lisbon, with salted cod (bacalhau) being very popular.  I'm told by my local hosts that each region has its own bacalhau recipe.

On the meat front, pork is the most popular, with preparations from roast suckling pig to carne de porco à Alentajana, which consists of pork marinated in wine and garnished with clams.  Very tasty!  Of course grilled chicken seasoned with piri piri is always popular as is a hotpot of beef, sausages, potatoes, vegetables and rice known as cozido à Portuguesa. 

Many of the desserts in Portugal are egg-based, often seasoned with spices such as cinnamon and vanilla. The most typical desserts are rice pudding with cinnamon, caramel custard (flan), and the ever-popular pastel de nata, a small custard tart sprinkled with cinnamon. It is believed that these tarts were created before by monks at the Jerónimos Monastery (Portuguese: Mosteiro dos Jerónimos) in the civil parish of Santa Maria de Belém, in Lisbon: for this reason, they are alternately known in Lisbon as Pastéis de Belém.  Anywhere the Portuguese colonized, these little tarts became and remain popular!

Pastéis de Nata
When dining out understand that many of their dessert creations have names like barriga de freira (nun's belly), papos de anjo (angel's chests), and toucinho do céu (bacon from heaven), as they were invented by nuns and priests during the Middle Ages.  So don't expect a direct menu translation from your iPhone!

View of Lisbon Facing the Sea
If you haven't been to Lisbon or anywhere in Portugal, I would highly recommend it.  It is a popular destination with British tourists so its easy to get along with only English as your language.  If you speak some Spanish, all the better.  Prices are generally lower than most of the rest of Europe, the people are friendly, there are many tourist activities and the food/wine are sublime.  Add to that a seaside destination and one of the sunniest spots in Europe, and you have the makings of a perfect destination for your next trip!