Friday, December 16, 2011

Caramel Pudding (Karamellpudding) and a Norwegian Christmas

Six years ago, we hosted a terrific exchange student for a year from Norway named Maren. She was a senior in high school at the time and now she’s halfway through law school in Bergen, Norway (I’m a proud mama!).

As December rolled in, we shared Hanukkah with her, and she shared her Norwegian Christmas traditions with us. Our boys had never had a Christmas tree before, so it was their chance to go out with Maren and pick out a tree from a Christmas tree farm that sets up near our house. We walked through the rows of trees, enjoying the scent and beauty of the evergreens and searching for just the right tree -- we chose a Norway Spruce of course, and had fun decorating it with Norwegian flags and lights. It was truly a beautiful tree.

Maren also told us about all the festive dishes she enjoyed at this time of year, such as risgrot (rice porridge), seven kinds of cookies, lefse with brown cheese and butter, lynogtordenkake (a layered yellow cake with meringue and cream) and other tortes and puddings. I was in heaven hearing about all these wonderful treats. It was clear ... we had to have a party!

Maren’s mother, Yngvil, sent family recipes and Maren and I began shopping and baking. In the days leading up to Christmas, Maren’s family also mailed little Advent gifts for Maren, Sam and Isaac to open.

On the evening of the party, seventy friends crowded into our little house. I should probably mention 90% of our guests were Jewish! Well, Maren led the way and I must say it was a Fantastic Party! The table overflowed with cookies, tortes, cakes, cheeses, breads, herring salads and a gingerbread house. Children licked candy canes, we all kissed under mistletoe and the air was filled with talking, laughing, good cheer and shouts of “L’chaim” and “Gledelig Jul” (OK, only Maren was saying “Gledelig Jul”).

My favorite dessert from the evening was karamellpudding, or caramel pudding. Custard is a weakness of mine that I happily embrace! Maren’s family serves this dessert on Christmas evening and it is delightful. It’s a flan-like pudding with a smooth, silky texture and lightly sweet flavor. It needs to be prepared the day before to have time to chill overnight. Serve it with whipped cream and some fresh berries.

Eating a spoonful of this festive dessert just now I let out a deep sigh. It brings back such warm memories of the famous Jewish Norwegian Christmas party and the year our family shared with Maren. Lots to savor!

We are heading out for Australia now to learn about how they celebrate Christmas. Wishing all of you a Happy Hanukkah, a Gledelig Jul and very Merry Christmas, mates!

Caramel Pudding (Karamellpudding)
From Maren’s mom, Yngvil
Serves 4-6

1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar
2 1/2 cups whole milk
4 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Whipped cream for serving

Preheat the oven to 250 degrees. Pour 1/2 cup sugar into a loaf pan and place it over low to medium heat until it melts and turns light golden brown. Watch it closely so it doesn’t burn. When melted, tip the pan to swirl it around and cover the bottom. Wear oven mitts and be very careful. Set the pan aside. The sugar will harden and possibly crack.

In a medium sauce pan, stir together the milk and 1 tablespoon sugar. Heat it over medium high heat to just a boil. Remove from heat and set aside to cool.

Whisk the eggs and vanilla together. When the milk mixture has cooled, whisk the eggs and vanilla in. Pour it into the loaf pan and set the pan in a larger roasting pan. Pour boiling water into the roasting pan until it reaches halfway up the loaf tin. Bake for about 2 1/2 hours, until the pudding is set.

Remove the pan from the water bath and let cool. Cover and chill overnight. When ready to serve, run a knife around the edge carefully to loosen the pudding. You can set the bottom of the pan in some warm water if needed to loosen the bottom. Place a serving platter (one with a lip or that is wide enough for the sugary syrup that will come out) over the loaf pan and flip to unmold it. Serve with whipped cream.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Fig-Walnut Tapenade with Ricotta and Asian Pears

The holiday season lends itself perfectly to appetizers, doesn’t it? I think eating a small, individual creation feels extra special and quite festive. They also look so pretty on platters and are easy to balance on a cocktail napkin.

Here is a tasty bite that is quick to make and combines some lovely flavors and textures. The inspiration comes from a cooking class I took a number of years ago with my friend, Julie. In the class, we prepared an appetizer of sliced Asian pears topped with goat cheese, a drizzle of honey and a sprig of thyme. Simple and delicious.

Replacing crackers with slices of crisp, sweet Asian pear provides a wonderful platform for many flavors. Keeping this in mind, I decided to introduce bolder tastes and textures. A tapenade began to take form ... saltiness from olives, sweetness from figs, crunch from toasted walnuts and a dash of balsamic vinegar to round it out. I still wanted some form of creamy cheese to balance out the tapenade.

Fresh ricotta is a natural choice, given its versatility and absolute deliciousness. If you haven’t made homemade ricotta, please try it - I promise you’ll start keeping a bowl of it in your fridge all the time! Ricotta provides an instant dessert when drizzled with honey and a sprinkle of cinnamon, a filling for manicotti or a last-minute appetizer when mixed with fresh herbs and spread on grilled baguette slices. I’ve made ricotta with different types of acid such as lemon juice or vinegar and found that buttermilk is my favorite. Once I discovered this recipe for ricotta, I never looked back!

Both the tapenade and the ricotta can be made ahead of time, leaving just a quick assembly before you greet your guests. This is such a terrific time of year to get creative, try new ideas and share your discoveries with appreciative friends.

Fig-Walnut Tapenade with Ricotta and Asian Pears
Makes about 12 individual appetizers, 1 1/2 cups tapenade

1 cup dried figs, roughly chopped
1/3 cup water
1/3 cup green olives, finely chopped
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves, chopped (plus a few sprigs for garnish)
1/2 cup walnuts, toasted and finely chopped
1 large Asian pear
1 cup fresh ricotta cheese, store-bought or homemade

In a small saucepan, combine the figs and water and bring to a simmer. Cook until the liquid evaporates and the figs are soft, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat, and when cool, puree until smooth.

In a small bowl, stir together the fig puree, olives, oil, vinegar, salt, thyme leaves and walnuts. Taste for seasoning. The tapenade can be prepared ahead of time. Cover it and set aside at room temperature.

When ready to serve, slice the Asian pear cross-wise into roughly 12 1/4 inch slices (the very middle ones will have some core that you can cup out). Arrange the slices on a serving platter. Scoop about 1 tablespoon of ricotta cheese on to each slice and spread gently. Top each with 1 tablespoon of tapenade (you will have extra tapenade leftover). Garnish with a sprig of thyme and serve.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Uncle Mike’s Cheese and Green Onion Latkes

The scent of potatoes and onions cooking can only mean one thing this time of year ... Hanukkah is near! Latkes are fried pancakes, usually made with potatoes and onions, and are one of the foods eaten during Hanukkah.

Hanukkah is the festival of lights and commemorates the rededication of the Jerusalem Temple during the Maccabee Revolt. The oil we used to rededicate the Temple in the second century BCE revolt miraculously lasted eight days, and now we light eight candles on a Hanukkiah (menorah) and eat foods fried in oil. Jelly doughnuts, called sufganiyot, are another popular fried choice. Children spin dreidels and eat chocolate gelt in the flickering candlelight.

Latkes are not limited to potatoes, though! There are many different variations made with apples, carrots, sweet potatoes, parsnips, zucchini or cabbage. Basically, if you can grate it you can make it into a latke! It’s a good thing Hanukkah lasts for eight nights so we have plenty of time to try lots of different kinds. (More than eight nights and our waistlines might start to expand too much...)

A number of years ago, my brother, Mike, worked at a café/take-out spot in our hometown of Lexington, MA. During Hanukkah, their latkes were one of the most popular items. Based on the ingredients Mike shared with me, I recreated the latkes and my sons began calling them Uncle Mike’s Latkes.

These latkes are cheesy and delicious! They fry up delightfully crisp around the edges and have a fresh flavor from the green onions. The Swiss cheese is an unusual, tasty addition. Latkes are usually served with applesauce and/or sour cream, but these are so rich we eat them as is.

We always look forward to latkes during Hanukkah, and this year we’ll be eating them in Australia! We leave on Friday and can’t wait! We are visiting our lovely friends Chris, Cheryl, Nick, Carly and Lucy and we look forward to sharing Hanukkah and celebrating Christmas Aussie-style with them.

When making latkes, the key is really to squeeze the moisture out of the potatoes. I tend to make small batches of batter and squeeze the potatoes and add them in right before frying. For some reason, the first couple I fry up never turn out very pretty (I have a similar experience with pancakes) but they make for good snacking.

Enjoy these fried morsels! Happy Hanukkah!

Uncle Mike’s Cheese and Green Onion Latkes
Makes 12-4 inch latkes

2 pounds potatoes (I use Yukon Gold and do not peel)
3/4 cups grated Swiss cheese
1 1/4 cups green onions, finely chopped (reserve some for garnish)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
3 tablespoons heavy cream
1/4 cup flour
A few grinds black pepper
Canola oil for frying

Grate the potatoes with a hand grater over a bowl. Scoop the potatoes out onto a kitchen towel and wring out as much moisture as possible. Drain any leftover liquid out of the bowl and return potatoes to it. Add the remaining ingredients and gently mix. Taste for salt and pepper.

Heat approximately 1/4 inch of canola oil in a large fry pan over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, spoon potato mixture to form 4 inch patties (flatten slightly so they cook evenly). Do not crowd the latkes in the pan. After 3-4 minutes, carefully flip latkes and cook for another couple minutes on other side. You may have to adjust the heat if they are browning too quickly (you want to be sure they are cooking inside). Latkes should be golden brown and crispy outside and tender inside.

Remove latkes to a baking pan lined with paper towels to absorb the oil. Keep the pan in a warm oven while you fry the rest. Scatter with the reserved green onions and serve as soon as you are finished frying.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Black Sesame Tuna Skewers with Carrot-Miso Sauce

Holiday parties are in the air! Time to dress up, get together with friends, chill some bubbly (or make a Cosmopolitan Champagne Cocktail) and feel the warmth and light of the season. These December weekends are filling up quickly with festive gatherings, and what better way to feed guests than with an array of appetizers? Appetizers are a lovely way to sample a variety of tasty nibbles. Basically, you can graze all evening and not fill up too much!

When thinking of new hors d’hoeuvres to serve, I thought about flavors that pack a punch in a small bite. Miso, ginger and rice wine vinegar came to mind and from there a sauce was born. I added a carrot for sweetness and color, peanut butter for texture and a dash of soy sauce and lime juice. A little salty, a little tangy, a little sweet ... I have to say, it’s good! It’s also vegan and can be prepared ahead.

The next decision – what to dip – was easy. Tuna skewers! Seared tuna is quick to prepare and it pairs well with the flavors of the sauce, plus skewers are always fun at a party. Served on a platter, they are easy for your guests to grab while sipping a cocktail and chatting. You could also place a platter of crudités to dip alongside for color and crunch. The skewers offer a nice balance to the rich, cheesy bites on the buffet table (of which I’m a fan!). These were a hit with my family and I only wish I’d made more. I was looking for something else to dip in the sauce when the skewers disappeared and found that a spoon works well, too!

Black Sesame Tuna Skewers with Carrot-Miso Sauce
Makes 12-13 skewers and 1 cup of sauce

Carrot-Miso Sauce:

3 tablespoons miso paste (I used shiro miso)
2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1 medium carrot, roughly chopped
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
3 tablespoons fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1/4 cup crunchy peanut butter
2 tablespoons vegetable oil

Black Sesame Tuna Skewers:

1 pound fresh tuna steaks, cut into 24-26 cubes, approximately 3/4 inch
3 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon black sesame seeds
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
Pickled ginger for skewers
12-13 wooden skewers

For the sauce, place all the ingredients in the bowl of a food processor and whiz until a smooth sauce is formed. Spoon into a small serving bowl. This can be prepared ahead of time and kept chilled. Bring to room temperature before serving.

For the tuna, toss the tuna cubes with the soy sauce in a medium sized bowl. Let marinate for about half an hour. Sprinkle the sesame seeds over the tuna and stir gently to evenly coat.

Heat the vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Arrange the tuna in the skillet in a single layer and sear until it is browned on all sides but still pink inside (use tongs to move the pieces around since it cooks quickly).

To prepare the skewers, slide one piece of tuna on a skewer, a slice of pickled ginger and then a second piece of tuna. Repeat with remaining tuna. Arrange the skewers and the sauce on a platter and serve. Pour some bubbly and start your party!

Monday, December 5, 2011

Nibs & Seeds Chocolate Bark and Spiced Curry Cocoa Mix – Time for Holiday Gift Making!

December is here and the holiday season is buzzing already. I love the festivity and lights during this time of year. I just brought our Hanukkah box in from the garage and am having fun pulling out the colorfully painted dreidels, the Hanukkiahs my sons made from clay when they were little, cookie cutters and familiar decorations. Listening to Pink Martini sing “Ocho Kandelikas” has me in the holiday spirit, too.

It’s time to begin my holiday gift making. I always appreciate receiving handmade gifts - I know that someone used their talents and personal touches to create a gift that is meaningful and unique (and delicious!). So pull out your Mason jars, spice bottles, gift bags and ribbons!

I have two recipes to share with you today: Nibs & Seeds Chocolate Bark and Spiced Curry Cocoa Mix. I’ve made a variety of chocolate barks over the years – toasted coconut and macadamias, chilies and cinnamon, pistachios and dried cherries – and this year I decided to try something new with a roasted, crunchy flavor.

Cacao nibs have become my go-to snack to nibble on when I crave some chocolate. They are wonderful to include in granola, to top your vanilla ice cream or yogurt or to roll a log of goat cheese in for a quick appetizer. I could go on and on about cacao nibs!

I also have roasted pumpkin seeds on my mind from Halloween which leads me to think about other seeds. Flax seeds have health benefits and add some lovely texture, so why not include them, too? And with a sprinkling of coarse grey sea salt this bark is complete. I usually prefer very dark chocolate (85-90%) but when making bark for gifts, I use 72%. The large bars at Trader Joe’s are wonderful to stock up on this time of year.

I was inspired to make homemade cocoa mix by Jennifer Reese in her new book, Make the Bread, Buy the Butter. I read her book cover-to-cover in almost one sitting and loved it. I promise to write more about it in another post – lots to share! Jennifer’s recipe is for classic hot cocoa, and I decided to take it a step further and spice it up with cinnamon and curry powder. It is fragrant, delicious and just a little bit different.

Some other gifts from the kitchen that I am making are granola, dukkah spice mix, chipotle spice rub, cacao nib brittle and cranberry bread. I do love spending time in the kitchen during this time of year. Happy December to you!

Nibs & Seeds Chocolate Bark
Makes 2 1/2 - 3 dozen pieces

1 pound dark chocolate
1/4 cup toasted pumpkin seeds
1/8 cup flax seeds
1/4 cup cacao nibs
1/2 teaspoon coarse grey sea salt
Gift bags to package it

Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil.

In a medium saucepan, melt the chocolate over very low heat, stirring often and being careful to not scorch it. When most of the chocolate is melted, remove from the heat and keep stirring to melt the remaining pieces.

Reserve a few of the seeds and nibs to sprinkle on top. Stir the rest of the seeds and nibs into the chocolate. Pour the chocolate mix onto the prepared baking sheet and use a spatula to spread evenly. Sprinkle the reserved seeds and the salt over the top.

Pop the pan in the refrigerator for about an hour or until solid. When ready to package, break the chocolate into pieces. You can also score the chocolate with a knife (perhaps 4x8) and break along the lines if you’d like more uniform pieces. Store at room temperature in an air tight container.

Spiced Curry Cocoa Mix
Adapted from Make the Bread, Buy the Butter
By Jennifer Reese
Makes 2 1/2 cups mix for about 15-20 cups of cocoa

1 1/2 cups dark brown sugar
1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 teaspoons cinnamon
3 teaspoons curry powder
Small jars with lids for packaging

Sift all of the ingredients together into a bowl. Store in an airtight container, such as a lidded jar. You can give it as gifts in smaller Mason or Weck jars – just add a tag with instructions.

To make the cocoa, use 2-3 tablespoons per cup of hot milk and stir.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Carrot Cake for Rebecca

I’m feeling emotional as I sit down to write and am having a difficult time knowing how to begin. Today is my dear friend Rebecca’s birthday. Rebecca died of cancer three years ago.

Rebecca and I met the beginning of freshman year at Boston University. She danced and twirled into English class that first day and I was struck by her glowing, happy confidence. We immediately bonded over big hair, nail polish, jean skirts and sun worship. I was drawn to Rebecca’s joyful embrace of life, her gracious and kind spirit, her distinctive snorting laughter. I soon learned Rebecca loved bunnies, Italy, lemon poppy seed scones, the color green, bananas, classic films (I’m listening to the soundtracks for Casablanca and Breakfast at Tiffany’s as I write), her friends and, most of all, her family. She was full of thoughtful gestures, like slipping a cute card into your statistics notebook, calling to take a walk in the first snowfall or knocking at your door with a bottle of Kahlua (don’t tell the R.A.!) and a bag of Pepperidge Farm cookies.

We ate dinner together most evenings while at B.U. and often discussed the merits of a particular dish in great detail, even if said dish was being served in the dorm cafeteria. After college graduation, we lived together in Los Angeles and our eating and cooking rose to new levels (having a real kitchen and jobs helped immensely!).

Over our years of jobs, graduate schools, living in different cities, our weddings and our children, Rebecca and I made plans. We continued to dream of where we would travel in order to gather stories and recipes for our cookbook together. Rebecca collected quite a few recipes that I’ll share with you in future posts.

She lived her life with grace, humor and dignity. She was full of gratitude and never wavered in her belief of “how truly sparkling life is.” Rebecca is always with me and still inspiring me. She was a big motivation for me to take a leap and start writing Blue Kale Road. She would have loved this chapter of my life.

To celebrate Rebecca’s birthday, I am baking her favorite carrot cake, one that has been baked in her family for many occasions. This really is a marvelous cake – I love that the carrots are cooked and pureed before being added to the batter, infusing the cake with a smooth, carrot flavor that is punctuated with toasted walnuts, fruity pineapple and tropical coconut. I double the cream cheese frosting since I like to slather it on in thick layers.

As I write, the scent of the baking carrot cake fills the house. I’m sipping rooibos tea with honey. Rebecca feels close by. I know the best way to honor her is to live in the moment, to share time with loved ones, to see each day as a gift and not to let the noise and clutter creep into my life. Today is a day to celebrate a beautiful friend who lived life well. And loved to eat cake.

Rebecca’s Carrot Cake
From the recipe created by Sheila Lukins’ mother, Berta
Serves 12

2 cups all-purposed flour
2 cups sugar (I used 1 1/2 cups)
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 cup corn oil (I used canola)
3 eggs, lightly beaten
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 1/3 cups cooked, pureed carrots
1 cup walnuts, toasted and chopped
1 cup shredded coconut
3/4 cup crushed pineapple, drained
Cream cheese frosting (recipe follows)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line the bottoms of two 9 inch round cake pans with parchment paper and butter the sides. (You can also bake in a 9x13 inch cake pan as is instructed in the original recipe.)

Sift together the flour, sugar, baking soda and cinnamon in a large bowl. Add the oil, eggs and vanilla and beat well. Fold in the carrots, walnuts, coconut and pineapple.

Divide the batter evenly between the two pans. Bake until the middles of the cakes feel firm when gently pressed, about 35 minutes. (The original recipe calls for baking 1 hour, but mine were done in 35 minutes.)

Remove cakes from oven and let cool for 15 minutes. Run a knife around the edges of the cakes, unmold and remove the parchment paper. Continue to cool on a cake rack for 1 hour.

Place one cake layer on a serving plate. Spread half of the cream cheese frosting evenly over it (I like the contrast in color, so I don’t frost the sides). Gently set the other cake layer on top and spread the remaining frosting on top.

Cream Cheese Frosting (this is doubled from the original recipe)

8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
3 cups powdered sugar (I ended up using only 2 1/2 cups)
1 teaspoon vanilla
Juice of 1/2 a lemon

In a mixing bowl, cream the cream cheese and butter together until smooth. Slowly sift the powdered sugar in and beat until mixed well. Stir in the vanilla and lemon juice. Generously frosts a 2 layer cake.