Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Loaded Potato Soup

Hi, folks.  It seems like it has been a long time since I last posted.  I hope everyone had a nice holiday.  It has been a very busy one for me, and I have been on the go most of it.  I am now back home and ready to relax for a few days before heading back to work.  I have had my fill of sweets and holiday goodies (although I do have plans for a cake made with leftover wine). 

Today was the first cool day we have had here in a while, and I had plans for some type of soup.  As I rummaged through the pantry to see what was hanging around, I found several russet potatoes crying out to be used, a small piece of cheddar cheese that looked very lonely in the cheese drawer all by itself, and a few strips of bacon from the freezer.  That sounded like the beginnings of a pot of potato soup. I am sure everyone is familiar with potato soup, but if you are anything like me, the familiar sometimes gets lost in your mental file box as you try new recipes.  So, here is reminder that potato soup is yummy and should not be forgotten.  In fact, it should be made as soon as possible! 

Sorry about the terrible picture-  this is what happens when you take a quick picture with no daylight and only a small kitchen lamp.  Anyway, focus on the soup, not the poor photography.

This soup is pure comfort food, and is the perfect quick meal following the hustle and bustle of the holidays or on a weeknight when spending hours in the kitchen is just not very appealing.  It takes about 30 minutes start to finish, and most of that is hands-off time.  It needs no more than the toppings, but it is also delicious with a grilled sandwich or a light salad and bread and butter pickles.  It is creamy with small chunks of potato and a deep potato flavor which is enhanced by a sprinkling of cheese and bacon.  You can omit the cheese and bacon, but I am warning you that they are what take it from potato soup to potato soup!!!  We enjoyed a warm bowl tonight sprinkled with cheese and bacon with sweet pickles on the side.  Yum!

This recipe is an adaptation from a Paula Deen recipe I found years ago and have been making ever since.  I leave out the shrimp and corn (which the original recipe calls for), and I cut the recipe in half because I don't need to feed an army.   I have also adapted it slightly to include a little more liquid as I found that it was a little thick the first time I made it. 

The soup is so filling that a single serving usually satisfies, and since it does not keep that well, I only make what I need.  If you are serving four or fewer, make my scaled down version (below).  If you need to feed 6 to 8 or are feeding very hungry people, you can double the ingredients very easily.  This is not low-fat food, so if you are starting a New Year's resolution, you had better make this asap so you don't ruin it.  However, made with low-fat milk and only a small bit of half-and-half, it is not as bad as some potato soups out there either. 

Loaded Potato Soup
makes approximately 5 one-cup servings

2 tbsp unsalted butter
1/2 onion, minced
1 carrot, peeled and diced
1 tbsp all-purpose flour
1 vegetable bouillon cube, crumbled
4 medium russet potatoes, peeled and diced
2 1/2 cups 2% milk
1/2 cup half-and-half
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
4 slices bacon, cooked and crumbled
2 oz sharp cheddar cheese, grated
2 scallions, sliced (we don't usually have them, but if you do they are good)

In a 3 quart pot (or larger), melt the butter.  Cook the onion and carrot in the butter on medium-low until soft, about 8 minutes.  Whisk the flour and crumbled bouillon cube into the onion mixture and cook 1 minute.  Slowly whisk in the milk being careful to work out any lumps.  Add the potatoes and bring to a slight simmer.  Simmer 20 minutes until soft and easily smashed with a fork (be careful not to bring to a rolling boil to prevent the milk from curdling).  Add the salt and pepper.  Using a potato masher, lightly mash some of the softened potatoes into the soup, leaving some chunks behind.  Add the half-and-half and cook 1 minute longer.  Ladle soup into bowls and garnish each serving with a sprinkling of cheese, bacon, and scallions (if using).   

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Gift in a Jar: Cranberry Oatmeal Cookies with White Chocolate

I have two more days of work left, and I am feeling a little more calm and less frazzled than last time I posted.  I actually feel like I am getting some things accomplished which makes me relax a little.  I told you in the last post that I was probably not going to have time to post the goodies I am making for Christmas, but I wanted to post a couple of good food related gifts instead.  If the wine jelly wasn't your thing, maybe these cookies in a jar will be.

Jars dressed up with red and white checked ribbon and recipe cards
Actually, I was racking my brain trying to figure out what type of gift to give co-workers and room moms at my school (I'm a teacher) without making the typical baked goods.  It seems you get so many baked goods this time of year (all delicious and appreciated, of course) that sometimes you need something that can hold off until all the other sweets are gone.  In comes the cookie mix in a jar idea.  Having a pre-made cookie mix ready to make in the jar is ideal.  You can add some butter, an egg, and a little vanilla and have homemade cookies in just about the time it takes you to open a pack of store-bought cookie dough and bake it.  This is better, though, because you know the ingredients are fresh, and you know what's in it.

My favorite jars were the ones with the burlap ribbon in the left side of this picture.  They were just simple and pretty.
I realize these cookies, like any others, contain sugar.  However, I like to think of these cookies as wholesome.  Even though they have all the caloric ingredients, they are also chewy from oats and bursting with dried cranberries.  Health food, right?  Maybe not, but they are definitely better for you than some of the alternative cookies you could be eating this time of year. 

Cookies cooling- don't you just love Christmas?
So, whether you make a jar for yourself or make several jars as gifts, I think you will agree that they are easy, tasty, and pretty darn good looking all dressed up with ribbons and bows. 

Two warm cookies and a glass of cold milk- the perfect snack
I got the cookie in a jar idea and recipe online.  I am posting the recipe at the bottom of the page, but it originally came from this site.  I did change a little about the recipe including how it was layered in the jar and a few of the steps when mixing the ingredients with the butter.  I thought that the jars on this site were pretty cool looking, so I layered mine in a similar way.  I did dress them up a little differently to give them as gifts.  I just used twine to tie the recipe card (printed on cardstock) onto the neck of a quart jar.  I then tied ribbon (some red check and some burlap) around the twine to cover it. 

Of course, before you give a gift like this, you must try the recipe first.  I made a jar for myself, mixed the cookies according to the directions, and baked them.  They were chewy with a hint of cinnamon and a little sweetness from the white chocolate, and they made the house smell heavenly.  Even my husband who doesn't like cookies with cranberries couldn't get enough of these. 

I hope you enjoy whatever goodies you are making this holiday season, and most importantly, enjoy time with friends and family.  Happy Holidays!

Cranberry Oatmeal Cookies with White Chocolate (in a jar)
makes approximately two dozen cookies

For Each Quart Jar:
3/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1 1/2 cups old-fashioned rolled oats (not instant)
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup white chocolate chips

For mixing the cookies:
1 stick of butter, softened
1 large egg
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

Preparing the Jar:
In a small bowl, whisk the flour, baking soda, salt and cinnamon together.  Use a funnel to put this mixture into the bottom of a quart jar.  Tap the jar lightly on the counter to help the flour mixture settle.  Add the brown sugar and use a spoon to pack it down a little into the jar.  Add the granulated sugar.  Add the oats into the jar and use a spoon to press them down.  Next, add the cranberries.  Press the cranberries down using a spoon or your fingers to make some room at the top of the jar.  Finally, add the white chocolate chips (you will probably have to add about 1/2 cup of the chips, press them down, and then add the rest).  The ingredients will just fit into the jar and should fill it to the top.  Place the lid on the jar.  This mix should be used within about 2 weeks to prevent the brown sugar from hardening.

For mixing the cookies:
(write on a recipe card or piece of paper when giving)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  In a large bowl, beat 1 stick softened butter, 1 egg, and ½ teaspoon vanilla with an electric mixer until blended.  Add the ingredients from the jar and mix on low until moistened and combined.  Scoop by rounded tablespoons onto an ungreased cookie sheet, leaving 3 inches between each cookie.  Bake 12-16 minutes until lightly browned and set on top.  Cool on wire racks.  Store in an airtight container 2-3 days.  Makes approximately 2 dozen cookies.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Muscadine Wine Jelly

The holidays are really creeping up on me this year, and I feel like I have so much to do and so little time.  I plan on making holiday goodies including painted cookies, gingerbread cupcakes, and cinnamon candy, but I am not going to be around to blog about any of it next week due to holiday travel plans.  Sorry.  Instead, I thought I would post several holiday gifts that are easy to make, inexpensive to give, and delicious to receive.  The very best part about these gifts is that you make them yourself which shows the recipient that you really care enough to put your time and energy into a gift.

So, without further ado, here is a wonderful jelly made from muscadine wine.  Those of you from other parts of the country (I am from NC) may not be very familiar with the muscadine grape.  Muscadines are native to America and are grown widely across the southern US in backyards as well as vineyards.  The grapes are sweeter than other grapes used for wine and produce a sweeter juice.  They are also delicious eaten fresh or made into grape jelly which is how most people tend to use them.  They can, however, be fermented into a wine that is sweet and intensely fruity.  You can purchase wine made from muscadine grapes, but I use homemade wine fermented by a friend of my uncle.  The wine is usually ready in late November and a gallon goes a long way toward making jelly and muscadine wine pound cake (I will post the recipe later).  Of course, you can also drink it. 

Before I get into making the jelly, let me tell you that the first time I ever got this wine, it was given to me by my uncle as a Christmas gift. It came with a warning.  He said that I had to open it every few hours because it was still fermenting and would explode if I didn't.  He knew this from experience as he had accidentally left a gallon in the back of his truck.  The pressure in the jug kept building until the lid could not hold, and it burst open making a bit of a mess.  Needless to say, I was very careful to open the jug regularly. 

Now, for the jelly.  This wine produces a jelly that is sweet, grapey, and very pretty.  It is not red, but more of a pinkish purple color which is gorgeous spread on fresh bread.  It would also go very nicely with a sampling of various cheeses.  If you can't get your hands on muscadine wine, I am sure you could use a red wine of your choice.  The flavor may be slightly different.  This recipe does contain a lot of sugar.  My uncle is going to try it with the no sugar added pectin and once he does, I will let you know the results. 

This jelly makes a wonderful gift for anyone who enjoys unique food items or wine, and it only takes a short time to make a batch. 

Muscadine Wine Jelly
makes approximately six half-pint jars

3 1/2 cups muscadine wine (or other red wine)
1/2 cup bottled lemon juice
1 package dry pectin (such as Sure-Jell)
4 1/2 cups granulated sugar

Mix the wine and lemon juice in a large nonreactive pot.  Slowly add the pectin whisking constantly to avoid lumps.  Bring the mixture to a rapid boil, whisking constantly. 

Once boiling rapidly, slowly whisk in the sugar and continue whisking until it is dissolved.  Bring the mixture back to a rolling boil while whisking.  Once boiling again, allow it to boil for 1 minute as you stir. 

Turn the burner off and ladle the jelly into prepared half-pint jelly jars.  Leave 1/4 inch headspace at the top of each jar.  Wipe the rim of each jar with a damp cloth to remove any drips.  Top each jar with a hot sterilized lid and ring.  Process in a boiling water bath for 5 minutes.  Allow jars to sit in canner with heat off for five minutes after processing time is complete.  Remove jars to a towel to cool for 24 hours.  Check seals, label, and store. 

Even though it may be tempting to make a double batch, it is best to make it one batch at a time.  Trying to make a double batch at one time may result in a looser set jelly. 

Monday, December 5, 2011

Chocolate Almond Pound Cake

I enjoy baking.  I also enjoy eating what I have baked.  The problem is that I enjoy it a little too much sometimes.  Having sugary sweets in the house is dangerous for me.  So, yesterday, when my husband announced that he was in the mood for something sweet (a chocolate pound cake, no less), I knew I could make it but would have to get rid of it.  I decided to make the cake, keep several slices at home, and take the rest to work.  That way other people would eat it, not me.  Right?  Wrong!  I have had two thin pieces of this cake today and one last night, and it is staring at me right now from the kitchen counter. 

I don't know that this pound cake is extremely different from other pound cakes you have made or eaten, but something about this cake is really addictive for me.  Maybe it's the hint of cocoa, maybe it's the almond extract, maybe it's the insane amount of fat and sugar that go into any pound cake.  Whatever it is, it is tasty and it is dangerous.  Therefore, I will not unwrap the pound cake.  I will not unwrap the pound cake.  I will not unwrap the pound cake.  Maybe if I repeat this enough, it will work (but I doubt it).  This is why I don't bake more often.

Just to give you a little background on this cake before giving you the recipe...this cake has been in my family for years.  I have no idea where the original recipe came from, probably either another family member or a church cookbook.  The cake is not overly chocolately, and it is extremely moist (especially the day it is made) assuming you don't overbake it.  It does contain a little shortening which I realize many people these days try to stay away from.  You can make it with all butter (just use an extra 1/2 cup butter), but I have to warn you that it is the shortening that causes it to have an extra crispy crust on the outside which is one of the things that makes it so delicious.  One more thing, the original recipe only calls for vanilla extract, but I like to add a little almond extract for more flavor.  If you prefer, leave the almond out. 

Chocolate Almond Pound Cake

2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup vegetable shortening, at room temperature
3 cups granulated sugar
5 large eggs
4 tbsp cocoa powder
1 cup milk, preferably whole (although 2% is fine)
3 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 tbsp pure vanilla extract
1/2 tsp almond extract

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.  Butter and flour a standard tube pan (or bundt cake pan) and set aside.  Place the rack in the middle of the oven.  Cream the butter, shortening, and sugar in a large bowl until pale yellow and creamy.  Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition.  Sift the dry ingredients into a medium bowl.  Alternately add the dry ingredients and the milk to the butter mixture, mixing after each addition.  Be careful not to overmix the batter at this point.  Gently stir in the extracts.  Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth it evenly with a spatula.  Bake for 1 hour 20 minutes until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.  I usually begin checking it every 10 minutes after 1 hour just to ensure it is not overbaked. 

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Beef Stew with Pumpkin Ale

I love pumpkin.  Anything pumpkin.  I have never tasted a dish with pumpkin  that I did not like.  I also happen to love a good pot of beef stew on a cold fall or winter evening.  I had never really thought to combine the two in any way, but several years ago I was browsing in one of my favorite stores and saw a bottle of pumpkin ale.  I am not a beer drinker but the thought of a pumpkin beer was something I could not resist.  I had to buy a bottle.  The store I was in at the time (World Market) sells it by the bottle.  Not sure what to do with the beer, it sat in the refrigerator for quite a while.  When I opened the fridge, I would see it and be reminded of the fact that I needed to do something with it.  Finally, one evening, I was planning to make beef stew and decided that rather than make it with just beef stock or red wine, I would use the pumpkin ale.  I pried the cap off the bottle and tasted it.  It tasted like pumpkin with a little hint of spice.  I had nothing to lose.

Turns out that pumpkin ale adds a lot to beef stew.  It adds a sweetness and depth that cannot be pin-pointed.  It is also a unique flavor combination with fall vegetables such as potatoes, carrots, and butternut squash. 

Over the course of several years I have played with this recipe making it in various ways and with various vegetables.  Almost anything works as long as you keep the liquid portion of the stew the same.  I almost always use locally grown carrots and potatoes, and then I add in other vegetables like turnips, butternut squash, or sweet potatoes depending on what I have on hand.  It is nice to add one of those three for the subtle sweetness that they provide to the stew.  If the potatoes are newly dug, I leave the peel on after scrubbing them thoroughly.  I should also say that I generally use dried thyme which I get at my local farmers' market.  If you can't get your hands on a good dried herb like that, you can definitely use fresh.  Just double the amount from the recipe.  It is also important to skim any fat off the surface of the stew.  I usually make this the night before we want to eat it and chill it in the refrigerator.  The next day, I remove it, skim any solidified fat from the surface and reheat it.  It is actually even better the next day after the flavors have mixed and mingled (that sounds like a Christmas song, doesn't it?).

Leftovers of this stew are great.  I have added barley to the broth left behind, and I have thickened the liquid of the stew up and baked it with biscuits on top for a quick pot pie.  Both are easy and delicious reinventions of the stew (especially if you are like me and are not a huge leftovers fan). 

Here is the basic recipe.  Play around with it as I do.  Really, I never make it exactly the same.  Use whatever root vegetables you have on hand and in the quantities you desire, but please don't forget the pumpkin ale (and if you happen to be a beer drinker, have a bottle alongside as well).

Beef Stew with Pumpkin Ale- 
serves 6

1-2 tbsp vegetable oil
1 pound beef chuck steak, cubed (or beef stew meat)
2 tbsp all-purpose flour
1/2 medium onion, finely diced
4 large cloves garlic, minced
2 tbsp tomato paste
1 tbsp sugar
1/2 tbsp dried thyme (or 1 tbsp fresh)
1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
1 bay leaf
salt and pepper, to taste
2 tbsp butter
3 cups cubed potatoes (1/2 inch cubes)
2 cups sliced carrots (1/4 inch slices)
2 cups peeled, cubed butternut squash (1/2 inch cubes)
6 cups homemade beef stock (or good quality canned broth)
1 bottle pumpkin ale

Place flour in a zip bag.  Season meat with salt and pepper.  Place the meat in the bag with the flour and shake it around.  Heat oil in a large pot on medium high.  Remove meat from flour, shaking off excess, and place the meat in the hot oil.  Brown the cubes of meat evenly on all sides.  Remove the meat from the pot and place on a plate to rest.  Add the onion and cook 5 minutes until transluscent.  Add the garlic and cook 30 more seconds.  Add the tomato paste, sugar, thyme, worcestershire sauce, bay leaf, beef stock and beer and whisk to combine.  Add the meat and any juices from the plate back to the pot.  Bring to a boil.  Reduce heat until it is simmering.  Cover tightly and cook 1 hour. 

In the meantime, melt the butter in a skillet on medium heat.  Add the potatoes, carrots, and butternut (or other vegetables) and saute 10 minutes until they are beginning to brown.  Set aside until ready to add to the stew.  After the stew has cooked 1 hour, add the vegetables and continue to simmer 30 minutes more (sometimes longer) until the vegetables are tender but not falling apart.  Use a spoon to skim any fat off of the surface of the stew or refrigerate the stew overnight and skim any fat the next day before reheating.