Slow Cooker Pork Carnitas (and Cilantro-Lime Rice)

A few weeks ago, my husband and I entered the world of Real Meat Comes From a Farm, Not From Walmart, with the purchase of half a hog.

The good news:  our chest freezer is 100 pounds happier.
The bad news:  I forgot to defrost the freezer before adding said 100 pounds of pork, so… I guess that won’t be happening for a while.

The good news:  this pork is so good, even I can’t mess it up.
The bad news:  I will never be happy with crappy $4 bacon from the store again.

The good news:  I discovered a delicious pork carnitas recipe and developed it to perfection.
The bad news:  the pork shoulder roasts are almost gone already.  Can you order a half hog in roasts?  Because I would definitely do that, just to make carnitas all year.  Well, and I’d probably want the bacon, too.  Because… it’s bacon.

Anyway, these carnitas are great.  Traditionally, they should be fried in lard then braised in a copper pot until tender and amazing, but I don’t have a copper pot (although I do have lard, thanks to the half hog).  The idea of actually putting my slow cooker to use for once in its sad life is a plus, too–who wants to stand over a hot stove in July, anyway?

The options for this stuff are endless–we eat it wrapped in flour tortillas with sauteed peppers and onions, corn and black beans, chopped tomatoes, sliced avocados, cilantro-lime rice, sour cream, and/or salsa.  It’s sort of like Chipotle, but better.  So dig in and pig out!

Slow Cooker Pork CarnitasSlow Cooker Pork Carnitas (based on this recipe)
Time:  6 1/2 hours (10 minutes active)
Serves 2 people per pound of meat

2 tsp. kosher salt (or 1 tsp. table salt)
2 tsp. garlic powder
2 tsp. cumin (freshly ground, if possible)
1 tsp. dried oregano
1 tsp. coriander
1 (3 to 4 pound) boneless pork shoulder roast, cut into large (about 2-inch) chunks (you can use bone-in, but remember that it will serve fewer people per pound)
2 bay leaves
2 cups chicken broth
toppings (see below)

Combine first 5 ingredients (through coriander); set aside.  Sprinkle mixture over pork chunks; turn to coat (I use my hands to really get the rub to stick).  Place bay leaves and broth in slow cooker.  Add pork; cover and cook on low for 6 hours.

Remove pork with tongs and place in a 9×13 baking pan.  Ladle about 1 cup liquid over pork.  Bake, uncovered at 400 F for 20 minutes.  Shred and serve on tortillas with toppings such as sour cream, chopped tomatoes, sliced avocado, sauteed sliced green peppers and onions, corn and black beans, salsa, and cilantro-lime rice (see below).

***Preparation notes:  I usually chop the tomato ahead of time, along with 1 large green bell pepper and 1 large onion (slice into strips).  I start the pork in the late morning (11:30 for a 6:00 dinner).  After 6 hours in the slow cooker, I preheat the oven, start the rice in the slow cooker, put the meat in the baking pan, and heat a large skillet with a little olive oil for the pepper and onion.  While the meat is baking, I sauteé the peppers and onions and chop cilantro for the rice.  I also heat up 1 can each of black beans and corn (or 2 cups each) and slice an avocado.  The rice, meat, and veggies should all finish at about the same time.  Then the meat just needs to be shredded and the rice finished (don’t add the cilantro until it cools a little, or the cilantro will wilt).

Cilantro-Lime Rice

1 cup rice
2 cups water
juice from 1/2 lime (about 1 T.)
2 tsp. olive oil (optional)
1 bunch cilantro, finely chopped (remove stems first, if you like)

Cook rice using your desired method (I use a rice cooker).  Gently toss cooked rice with lime juice and oil, if desired.  Allow to cool slightly, then gently stir in cilantro.

Broccoli Souffle

Souffles are supposed to be scary.  At least that’s what I’ve heard.  They’re always “falling” or something.  I wouldn’t know.  Until recently, I don’t think I’ve ever eaten a souffle, much less tried to make one.  But then I found a recipe for broccoli souffle that sounded too good to pass up (come on, it’s broccoli!), and I decided to be extra crazy and test it out for the first time on my in-laws.

It turned out great.  Light and fluffy and broccoli-y.  It deflated just a little after sitting at room temperature for a few minutes, but then, so do other baked goods, right?  Whatever.  It looked okay to me.  Aaaand… I might have eaten all the leftovers by myself the next day.  I even made it again a week later (broccoli!) and it was still delicious.  I think I’ve found another keeper.

I really thought this recipe was pretty simple, if a little time-consuming for a side dish, but if you’re still scared of souffles, here’s a good intro to handling egg whites.

Broccoli SouffleBroccoli Souffle (source)
Time:  1 hour
Serves 6

10 ounces frozen broccoli, thawed, drained, and coarsely chopped OR 10 ounces fresh broccoli, lightly steamed (just until bright green) and coarsely chopped
2 T. butter
2 T. flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 cup milk
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese (use the real stuff if possible)
4 eggs, separated (be sure that NO yolk gets into the whites)

In a saucepan over medium heat, cook and stir broccoli and butter until the butter is melted.  Set 2 T. aside for topping.  Add flour and salt to remaining broccoli; stir until blended.  Gradually add milk.  Bring to a boil; cook and stir for 2 minutes or until thickened.  Remove from heat; stir in cheese.

In a large mixing bowl, beat egg yolks (I use a hand mixer on medium speed) until thick and lemon-colored, about 3 minutes.  Add broccoli mixture and set aside.

In a medium mixing bowl, beat egg whites at high speed until stiff peaks form; gently fold into broccoli mixture (I use a rubber spatula).  Pour into an ungreased 1-1/2-quart deep round baking dish (it should have a flat bottom and vertical sides).  Bake, uncovered, at 350 F for 20 minutes.  Sprinkle with the reserved broccoli.  Bake 10 minutes longer or until a knife inserted near the center comes out clean.

Broccoli Souffle

World’s Best Chocolate Chip Cookies

I finally did it.  I found the perfect chocolate chip cookie recipe.  Slightly crispy on the bottom, chewy but not undercooked on the inside, chock-full of chocolate and walnuts, just perfect with a glass of milk… are you drooling yet?  These things are amazing.  My family doesn’t really “have” a favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe, so I sacrificed my precious time and slaved over a hot oven for months on a soul-searching quest for the perfect recipe to call my own.  (Not really.  I just tried out a handful of online recipes and ate the cookies all day while my husband was working.  We wouldn’t want him to get fat, would we?)

Anyway, this recipe is not my own; it’s from allrecipes.com, and I made some changes based on the reviews.  I also cut the recipe in half because, as you know, I hate baking cookies, and making six dozen of anything at once would drive me insane.  These cookies, however, would almost be worth it.  Just make them.

World's Best Chocolate Chip CookiesWorld’s Amazingest Chocolate Chip Cookies (based on this recipe)
Yield: about 3 dozen

2 1/4 cups flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1 cup butter, softened (not melted)
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup white sugar
1 (3.4 ounce) package instant vanilla pudding mix (dry; don’t make the pudding)
2 eggs
1 T. vanilla extract
2 cups semisweet chocolate chips
1 cup walnuts, coarsely chopped

In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt; set aside.

In a large bowl, cream butter and sugars with an electric or stand mixer (about 2 minutes).  Add dry pudding mix until well combined.  Beat in eggs, one at a time, and vanilla.  Continuing to use the electric/stand mixer, gradually add flour mixture, about 1/2 cup at a time, until well combined.  Finally, stir in chocolate chips and walnuts (I find it easiest to use my hands).

Chill dough for 30-60 minutes before using.

Preheat oven to 350 F.  Roll dough into balls (mine are about 1 1/4″ in diameter) and place on an ungreased cookie sheet (these cookies don’t spread a lot, so at least 12 will fit on a standard sheet).  Bake 10-12 minutes, until golden brown on the edges (cookies will look underdone on top–don’t overcook them!)  Rest for 1 minute on pan before transferring to a cooling rack.

Wolrd's Best Chocolate Chip Cookies

Southwestern Pork Soup

Right about now is when winter stops being fun and starts getting old.  Christmas is months in the past, the New Year’s resolutions are, well, what New Year’s resolutions?, and Valentine’s Day just doesn’t cut it when everyone knows there are at least two more months of snow and gray skies ahead.

I’ve been using my trapped-inside-because-it’s-so-stinking-cold status as an excuse to try out some new recipes lately.  Some have been amazing, others, not so much.  Since I’m always hunting for new pork recipes in particular, I was excited to discover this delicious southwestern pork soup full of tasty ingredients like tomatoes, avocados, and cilantro (don’t worry, it’s not just a bowl of guacamole).   It’s fast, easy, and uses ingredients that I generally have on hand.  So if you’re freezing after an afternoon of snowblowing–again–give this one a try.

Southwestern Pork SoupSouthwestern Pork Soup (adapted from Cooking Light)
Time:  15-20 minutes
Serves 4

2 T. olive oil
1 cup chopped onion (about 1/2 large onion)
2/3 cup chopped green bell pepper (about 1/2 large pepper)
1 T. minced garlic
1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and minced
1 pound pork loin, trimmed and cut into bite-sized pieces
3 cups low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth
2 tsp. chili powder
1 tsp. ground cumin
1/2 tsp. salt (to taste)
1/4 tsp. pepper
1 (15 ounce) can pinto beans, rinsed and drained (about 2 cups)
1 (14 ounce) can diced tomatoes, undrained (I prefer petite)
3 T. chopped fresh cilantro
1 medium avocado, diced

Heat a soup pot or Dutch oven over medium heat.  Saute onion, bell pepper, garlic, and jalapeño in olive oil for 2-3 minutes or until slightly tender.  Add pork; cook 3 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Add broth and next 6 ingredients (through tomatoes); bring to a boil.  Partially cover, reduce heat, and simmer 6 minutes or until pork is done, stirring occasionally.

Garnish individual servings with cilantro and avocado.

Tamales

What are your plans for Christmas dinner?  A honey-glazed ham?  A fat, juicy goose?  Actually, I don’t really know what other people serve for the holidays, because for my family, Christmas dinner always means a platter heaped high with steaming homemade tamales–a traditional Mexican festival meal.

Sometime early in their marriage, my Hispanic grandfather managed to convince my German grandmother to help him make dozens of them every year for Christmas.  I remember choking them down as a child, unappreciative of the hours of work that were involved in their production.  When I was older, we started going to my grandparents’ house to help make the tamales.  Donuts were usually present as a reward for a long morning’s work, and laughter was always present to help the morning go by.  I always helped spread the masa; my grandmother did quality control as she added the meat.  My brothers had the lowly job of drying the corn husks, just as my dad had as a child.  “If you don’t help, you don’t eat,” my grandpa always said, although the youngest helpers might not have minded skipping out, either on the helping or the eating.  I think you have to grow into the flavor of tamales–but then you can’t give them up, which explains why I and several of my cousins now make tamales with our own families for Christmas.  My grandpa has been gone for nearly seventeen years and my parents now host the tamale making party.  But I can still make my own batch, 800 miles from home, and share my grandparents’ tradition with my own little family.

I’m always a little intimidated by the tamale making process, but it really isn’t too hard, once you get the hang of it.  The process will go much more quickly, and be much more fun, if you can get a group of people together to assemble the tamales.  If you’re making them on your own, I would give yourself the better part of a day to complete the whole process–although the steps can be divided up over several days, if you wish.  Most of the required ingredients can be found in any good grocery store.  If you have a Mexican grocery store or a tortilla factory nearby, you should be able to find fresh masa and corn husks easily.  Otherwise, you may have some success online.  I was unable to find fresh masa in my area, so I made my own from masa harina, a traditional corn-based flour for making tamales and tortillas.  My grandfather would probably have disapproved, but then he didn’t live in North Dakota, where Mexican groceries are few and far between.

The recipe here will make about five dozen tamales.  The original recipe yields ten dozen, but I’ve decreased everything by half to make it more manageable.  You can make the meat ahead of time, and then do everything else on one day.  It took me about 2 1/2 hours to assemble one batch, not including the corn husk and masa preparation.  The uncooked tamales can be stored in the refrigerator overnight, too, if you don’t have time for the three hour steaming time right after they’re assembled.  Any leftovers will freeze well.

Let’s begin!

We’ll start with the meat filling.  Brown 2 1/2 pounds coarsely ground pork in a large pan or Dutch oven, stirring occasionally.  Boston butt or pork shoulder works well; you can grind it yourself or buy it pre-ground.  Break any large pieces apart; the end result should look similar to ground cooked hamburger, but lighter in color.

1-IMG_2882Remove from heat; drain fat into measuring cup (I use a Pyrex 2-cup measure); refrigerate 1 cup fat for later (sorry; this isn’t health food!).

1-IMG_2883Add to meat:  1 T. + 1 tsp. chili powder, 2 1/2 tsp. salt, 1 1/2 tsp. garlic salt, 1 T. + 1 tsp. ground cumin, 1/4 tsp. ground cloves, 1 1/2 T. white vinegar, and 1 (15 oz.) can tomato sauce.  Stir well; set aside.

1-IMG_2885On to the corn husks.  You should be able to find dried corn husks in the Mexican section of most grocery stores.  In areas with a bigger Hispanic population, you might find them in the produce section, especially around Christmas.  You will definitely be able to find them in any Mexican grocery store.  I bought an 8-ounce bag, but I think next time I’ll go for a full pound; it’s better if you have a little selection among the husks.

1-IMG_2895Place the husks into a large stock pot or canner–be gentle; you don’t want to tear them.  Add enough tap water to cover (about 6 inches).  You may need to add a plate on top to weigh them down.

1-IMG_2896Cover and bring water to a boil over high heat.  As soon as water boils, reduce heat to medium-low and simmer/steam until husks are softened, at least 30 minutes.  You may need to use a pair to tongs to move them around and get them all soaked.  Turn off the heat, but keep the husks covered and in the water until you need them.

1-IMG_2901Next, the masa.  You will need 3 pounds fresh masa.  Again, this can be found at Mexican groceries, tortilla factories, and some large grocery stores.  When we lived in Texas, I found some in the meat cooler section–near the lunch meat, refrigerated pickles, sauerkraut, and so on.  It might be in a bag or in a tub.  To the masa, add the 1 cup reserved pork fat and 1/2 cup + 1/3 cup melted lard (or canola oil).  You may want to microwave the masa for 30-60 seconds to soften it a little, then work the fats in with a sturdy spoon or your hands.  Then add in 1 1/2 tsp. salt, 1 tsp. cumin, 3/4 tsp. garlic salt, and 1 1/2 tsp. chili powder.

If, like me, you live in an area where fresh masa is hard to come by, you can resort to using masa harina.  This should be available in the Mexican section of most grocery stores, or you can buy it online.

To use masa harina:  In a large bowl, whisk together 4 cups masa harina, 2 tsp. baking powder, and 1 tsp. salt.  Gradually stir in 4 cups broth (I used homemade chicken stock, but pork would be ideal).  Then stir in the 1 cup reserved pork fat and the spices–1 1/2 tsp. salt, 1 tsp. cumin, 3/4 tsp. garlic salt, and 1 1/2 tsp. chili powder.  The consistency should be like a thick peanut butter–spreadable, but not runny.  Add in a little melted lard or canola oil to thin it out, or a little more masa harina to thicken it if needed.

1-IMG_2899Time to assemble the tamales!  You’ll need the masa, the pork filling, a tray for the completed tamales, and a large work surface.  You’ll also need to drain and dry the corn husks.  If you’re working alone, dry five or six husks at a time, then make each tamale, then dry some more husks, etc.  If you have help, one person can dry the husks, one or two can spread the masa, and another can add the meat and roll the tamales.

To dry the husks, carefully remove them from the hot water with tongs, and lay them out on clean towels.  Add more towels on top and press to dry.  If the husks are too wet, the masa won’t stick, but you don’t want them to get too dried out, either.

1-IMG_2903Grab a corn husk.  The best husks to use are large and flat.  The wrinkly ones are frustrating to work with–the masa won’t spread evenly.  So start with the nice husks, like this one, first:

1-IMG_2906This one is both too small and too wrinkly; but don’t throw it away–we’ll use it later:

1-IMG_2907Set the corn husk in front of you with the narrow end pointing up.  There is no right or wrong side.  Spread a rectangle of masa on the bottom right corner of the husk, about six inches high by four or five inches wide.  The masa should go all the way to the edge, and should be just thick enough to cover the husk evenly–don’t make it too thick.  I like to glob about 3 T. of masa on, spread it around, and then scrape away any extra.  I think a regular butter/table knife works best for this.

1-IMG_2919Next, put about 1 T. pork in a line on the masa, about an inch from the right edge, like this:

1-IMG_2910Fold the right edge of the husk over the meat:

1-IMG_2912Then roll up the rest of the way.

1-IMG_2913Finally, bend the narrow end of the husk over, like this:

1-IMG_2915Set the tamale down on your tray with the bend end tucked underneath.  Repeat.

1-IMG_2927Finally, the tamales need to be steamed.  You will need a pot that is at least two or three inches taller than the tamales are long–the tamales are going to be steamed upright.  You will also need some kind of rack that will allow the tamales to stand above two inches of water without standing in it.  Some pots come with spaghetti strainer inserts, which can work.  You could also put a simple vegetable steamer in the bottom of a smaller pot.  Both options will probably require you to continue adding water as it boils away, which can be a pain.  I prefer to use a large canner with a rack.  My parents have cut a piece of hardware cloth to fit on top of their canning rack, so the tamales can’t fall through the gaps.  A disposable grill topper can be cut to fit, too.  I didn’t have either on hand, so I tried another way.  I put the rack in upside down and added about two inches of water:

1-IMG_2929Then I added crumpled tin foil around the edge to keep the tamales from falling down:

1-IMG_2930I added the unused corn husks to cover the gaps in the rack:

1-IMG_2931The canner was too big for my tamale batch, so I added a casserole dish to take up space.  If you’re doubling the bath, you can add an upside-down mug.

Once your pot is ready, add the tamales, open end up.  It helps to have another person hold the tamales in place while you add more.

1-IMG_2935Cover; bring water to boil over high heat.  Reduce heat to medium-low; steam, covered, for three hours.

Serve with homemade salsa, corn, and mashed pinto beans (NOT canned!).  Extra tamales can be wrapped in foil and frozen.  To reheat, steam (preferred) or microwave.

1-IMG_2925Tamales
Yield:  5 dozen

Pork filling:
2 1/2 pounds pork (Boston butt or pork shoulder), coarsely ground
1 T. + 1 tsp. chili powder
1 T. + 1 tsp. salt
1 1/2 tsp. garlic salt
1 T. + 1 tsp. ground cumin
1/4 tsp. ground cloves
1 1/2 T. white vinegar
1 (15 ounce) can tomato sauce

Cook pork in large pan or Dutch oven, stirring occasionally.  Drain fat into Pyrex measuring cup; save 1 cup for masa.  Add remaining ingredients to meat.  Refrigerate meat and fat until ready to use.

Corn Husks
1 (1 pound) bag dried corn husks

Place corn husks in a large pot or canner.  Add water to cover.  Cover and bring water to a boil over high heat.  As soon as water boils, reduce heat to medium-low and simmer/steam until husks are softened, at least 30 minutes.  Rotate with tongs as needed.  Keep husks in water until ready to use, then dry with towels.

Masa
3 pounds fresh masa (see below for masa harina option)
1 cup reserved pork fat
1/2 + 1/3 cup melted lard (or canola oil)
1 1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. cumin
3/4 tsp. garlic salt
1 1/2 tsp. chili powder

Combine masa, fat, and lard or canola oil.  Add remaining ingredients until well combined.

Masa (from masa harina)
4 cups masa harina
2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
4 cups broth (chicken or pork)
1 cup reserved pork fat
1 1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. cumin
3/4 tsp. garlic salt
1 1/2 tsp. chili powder

In a large bowl, whisk together masa harina, baking powder, and salt.  Gradually stir in broth and reserved fat.  Then stir in remaining ingredients until well combined.

To assemble and cook tamales:
Spread masa on corn husks (6″ by 4-5″ rectangle), with approximately 1 T. meat in center.  Roll up and fold over end.  Steam, open end up, in large pot with 2 inches of water (on steaming rack–tamales should not touch water) for three hours, covered.

Christmas Cookies!

It’s Christmas cookie time!  To be completely honest, I don’t have much fun baking cookies.  Rolling out dozens of little dough balls and moving them on and off counters, pans, and cooling racks always seems so… boring.  But I love eating cookies (probably a little too much), and the only way to eat them is to bake them.

From left to right:  Vamino Bars, Snowball Cookies, Molasses Cookies, Peanut Butter Blossoms, Almond Glazed Sugar Cookies

From left to right: Vamino Bars, Snowball Cookies, Molasses Cookies, Peanut Butter Blossoms, Almond Glazed Sugar Cookies

Here are five of my family’s favorite Christmas confections.  I suppose none of them are uniquely Christmas-y, but we always make them in December for the holidays.  I’ve omitted spritz cookies, which are my very favorite, mostly because I don’t have a cookie press and the rolled-out versions just aren’t as pretty.

My tips for baking:  1)  Always use room temperature butter.  Do not microwave the butter to soften it!  Plan ahead and let it sit out on the counter for at least an hour.  2)  Most of these recipes begin by creaming together the butter and sugar(s), then adding eggs, extracts, and flour.  I use a hand mixer for each step:  first, “cream” or beat the softened butter and sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy; second, beat in eggs, one at a time, on low speed, followed by any extracts; third, gradually add flour and other dry ingredients on low speed, about 1/2 cup at a time, until well combined.  Scrape the bowl’s sides and finish working the dough with your hands, if needed.

Christmas CookiesVamino Bars
Yield:  3 dozen

The unsweetened chocolate gives these bars a grown-up flavor–I never really cared for them much as a kid.  Now, of course, I know better.  The inclusion of pistachio pudding mix is probably more for color than flavor, but I’m not going to mess with Grandma’s recipe.

1/2 cup butter (1 stick)
1/4 cup sugar
5 T. cocoa powder
1 tsp. vanilla
1 egg
2 cups graham cracker crumbs (14 “boards,” about 1 1/2 packages)
1/2 cup chopped nuts (I use walnuts)
1/2 cup coconut
1/4 cup butter, melted
3 T. milk
2 T. dry instant pistachio pudding
2 cups confectioners’ sugar
2 one-ounce squares unsweetened chocolate
2 T. butter

Combine first five ingredients (through egg) in a medium saucepan.  Slowly bring to boil over low heat; continue boiling for 2 minutes, stirring constantly.  Add graham cracker crumbs, nuts, and coconut.  Spread mixture in a 9×13 pan; pat down with fingers.  Cool to room temperature.

In a medium bowl, combine 1/4 cup melted butter, milk, dry pudding, and confectioners’ sugar.  Gently spread mixture over bottom layer in pan.

In a small saucepan over very low heat, melt chocolate squares and 2 T. butter, stirring frequently (you can also use a double boiler).  Carefully spread mixture on top of pistachio layer.

Refrigerate until set (do not store at room temperature).  Cut into 36 bars (6 each way).

Snowball Cookies
Yield:  2 1/2 to 3 dozen

Some people call these Russian tea cakes, but we always called them powdered sugar cookies or snowball cookies.  Whatever you call them, they’re buttery, not overly sweet, and delicious.

1/2 cup butter, room temperature
1/2 cup shortening
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup finely chopped nuts (I use walnuts)
1 tsp. vanilla
dash salt
2 cups flour
confectioners’ sugar, for rolling (about 1/2 cup)

Cream butter, shortening, sugar, and nuts; add vanilla and salt; gradually mix in flour.  Roll into 1-inch balls; place on ungreased cookie sheet.  Bake at 350 F for 20-25 minutes.  Cool, then roll in confectioners’ sugar.

Molasses Cookies
Yield:  5 dozen

I recently tried a different molasses cookie recipe that used fresh ginger in place of ground ginger.  They turned out okay, but not nearly as soft and chewy as my family’s recipe.  Maybe I’ll do some more experimenting with fresh ginger later, but for now, I’m sticking with the old standby.

1 1/2 cups packed brown sugar
1/2 cup butter, room temperature
1/2 cup shortening
6 T. molasses
3 egg yolks
3 cups flour
1 T. baking soda
1 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1 1/2 tsp. ground ginger
1 1/2 tsp. ground cloves
1 1/2 tsp. salt
granulated sugar, for rolling (about 1 cup)

Cream together sugar, butter, shortening, and molasses.  Beat in egg yolks.  In a separate bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, spices, and salt; gradually add to creamed mixture.  Form 1-inch balls, roll in sugar, and place 2 inches apart on greased cookie sheet.  Bake at 375 F for 8 minutes or until large cracks appear in cookies.

Christmas CookiesPeanut Butter Blossoms
Yield:  4 dozen

I’m sure most people have a version of this recipe in their collections, but I still think my grandma’s is the best.  The kisses are pressed into the cookies while they are still undercooked, then baked a few minutes more to soften the chocolate.

1/2 cup shortening
1/2 cup peanut butter
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1 egg, unbeaten
2 T. milk
1 tsp. vanilla
1 3/4 cup flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking soda
granulated sugar, for rolling (about 1 cup)
4 to 5 dozen chocolate kisses, unwrapped

Cream shortening and peanut butter.  Gradually add sugars; cream well.  Add egg, milk, and vanilla; beat well.  In a separate bowl, whisk together flour, salt, and baking soda.  Gradually add dry ingredients into creamed mixture.

Shape dough into 3/4-inch balls.  Roll in granulated sugar; place on ungreased cookie sheets.  Bake at 350 F for 8-10 minutes (cookies should be set, but not browned).  Remove from oven; firmly press a chocolate kiss into top of each cookie, pressing down so that cookie cracks around the edge.  Return to oven; bake 2 minutes more, until cookies are lightly browned and chocolate is soft (but not melted).

Almond Glazed Sugar Cookies (source)
Yield:  3 1/2 dozen

If you like almond extract, you’ll love these crispy little cookies.  These are a fairly recent addition to my family’s cookie lineup.  We received the recipe from a family friend, and they were delicious enough to include in our holiday baking from then on.

Cookie:
1 cup butter, room temperature
3/4 cup sugar
1 tsp. almond extract
2 cups flour
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
sugar (about 1/4 cup)

Glaze:
1 1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar
1 tsp. almond extract
4-5 tsp. water

sliced almonds

Cream butter, sugar, and almond extract in large bowl until light and fluffy (1-2 minutes).  Reduce mixer speed to low; gradually add remaining cookie ingredients.  Beat 1-2 minutes until well combined.  Roll dough into 1-inch balls; place 2 inches apart on ungreased cookie sheet.  Flatten balls to 1/4-inch thickness with the bottom of a buttered glass dipped in sugar.  Bake at 400 F for 7-9 minutes or until edges are very lightly browned.  Cool 1 minute; remove from cookie sheets.  Cool completely.

Combine glaze ingredients in small bowl with whisk.  Decorate each cookie with glaze and three sliced almonds.  Glaze sets quickly, so frost and decorate a few cookies at a time.

Cranberry Sauce

Step away from the can.  You know the one.  Hiding in your pantry all year, only to be pulled out at the last minute on Thanksgiving, schlooped stealthily onto a plate, and sliced into perfectly ridged and jiggling rings that end up aimlessly scraped around plates piled high with home-cooked morsels of real food.  Who wants to eat fake cranberry sauce when there’s roast turkey, garlic mashed potatoes, poppy seed rolls, butter-laden stuffing, and a host of other dishes to squeeze onto that already-too-full table?  My husband claims he likes cranberry sauce from a can.  I don’t want to believe him.

My grandma’s cranberry sauce is probably the easiest Thanksgiving dish at my family’s feast.  Dump some stuff in a pan and let it cook for a while.  That’s it.  The instructions even tell you not to stir.  If you’ve got a bag of cranberries hiding in the freezer from last year’s clearance shelf, dig them out and make this.  There’s still time!

Cranberry SauceCranberry Sauce
Time:  20-25 minutes
Serves 8-10

1 cup sugar (you can cut it down to 3/4 cup if you like; I won’t tell)
1/2 cup plus 2 T. water
2 cups cranberries (fresh OR frozen, unthawed)
1 peeled, cored apple, sliced thin
1/2 stick cinnamon
zest from 1/2 lemon
zest from 1/2 orange

In a medium saucepan over medium heat, bring sugar and water to a boil.  Reduce heat to medium-low; add remaining ingredients.  Gently simmer without stirring 15 minutes (20 minutes if using frozen berries).  Cool; remove cinnamon.  Chill before serving.

Cranberry Sauce

Creamy Black Bean Soup

In my most recent attempt at organizing my meal planning process, I noticed that my recipe binder was full of tasty-looking soup recipes that I have yet to try.  A couple winters ago, I made soup practically every day for about a month (some days we had leftover soup).  I think it’s time to do it again.

If I find any keepers, I’ll try to post them here.  In the meantime, here’s one of our favorite soup recipes–a smooth black bean soup with a little bit of heat and a lot of flavor.  The ingredient list is long, but I usually have most of the items on hand.  Add a couple of cornbread muffins for a surprisingly filling meal.

(My attempts at getting fancy with the sour cream resulted in something you might serve at Halloween.  Oops.)

Creamy Black Bean SoupCreamy Black Bean Soup (from this recipe)
Time:  45 minutes
Serves 8-9

4 celery ribs, diced
1 large onion, diced
8 garlic cloves, minced
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and chopped
4 tsp. canola oil
5 cans (15 oz. each) black beans, rinsed (about 10 cups)
2 cans (14.5 oz. each) vegetable broth
3/4 cup water
2 tsp. dried oregano
2 tsp. ground cumin
2 tsp. chili powder
2 tsp. black pepper
1/2 tsp. ground coriander
1/4-1/2 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
1/4 tsp. Frank’s Red Hot sauce

Garnish:
2 roma tomatoes, diced
1/3 cup fresh cilantro, minced
sour cream (or, in a pinch, Greek yogurt)

In a large soup pot or dutch oven over medium heat, sauté the celery, onion, garlic, and jalapeno in oil until onion is tender.  Stir in remaining ingredients (except garnish).  Bring to a boil.  Reduce heat; simmer, uncovered, for 20 minutes.

Using an immersion blender, process soup until smooth (alternatively, cool soup slightly and process in batches in a regular blender, then return to pan and heat through).

Garnish each serving with tomatoes, cilantro, and sour cream.

Creamy Black Bean Soup

Anniversary Dinner, Part 3: Kahlua Cheesecake

Part 3:  Dessert
No elegant dinner is complete without dessert, so I ended my parents’ anniversary meal with one of my favorite creamy, rich, decadent desserts:  kahlua cheesecake.  Oh. my. goodness.  This beauty uses twice the cream cheese of any of my other cheesecake recipes, yet it tastes light and airy somehow.  Topped with fresh whipped cream and cocoa powder, it’s worth every pound you might happen to gain while eating a slice.  In fact, just forget about the calories–it’s cheesecake, for pete’s sake.

Menu
Bruschetta and Tapenade on Homemade Crostini
Mushroom Bisque
Chicken Piccata
Kahlua Cheesecake

Kahlua CheesecakeKahlua Cheesecake (recipe from Family Circle, Nov. 29, 2010)
Time:  20 minutes prep, 70 minutes bake, chill overnight
Serves 16

Crust
12 cinnamon honey graham cracker boards (regular honey graham crackers work too)
1 T. sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted

Filling
2 (8 oz.) packages cream cheese, softened
2 (8 oz.) packages reduced-fat cream cheese, softened
1 1/4 cups sugar
3 T. cornstarch
4 eggs
1/4 cup coffee liqueur (such as Kahlua)
1 tsp. vanilla extract

Topping
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 T. sugar
1 T. cocoa powder for dusting
Chocolate-covered coffee beans (optional)

Crust:  In food processor, pulse graham crackers until fine crumbs are formed (about 3 cups).  Add sugar and butter; pulse until crumbs are moist (alternatively, combine crumbs, sugar, and butter in a large bowl with a fork).  Press into bottom and up side of a 9-inch springform pan.  Wrap foil around bottom and up side.  Chill.

Filling: In a large bowl, beat cream cheese until smooth, about 1 minute.  Add sugar and cornstarch; beat 2 to 3 minutes on medium-high speed until creamy.  Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.  Beat in Kahlua and vanilla.  Pour filling into crust.

Place springform pan into large baking pan (I use a roasting pan); place on oven rack and pour in hot tap water halfway up side of springform pan (about 6 cups).

Bake at 350 F for 60 to 70 minutes or until center of cheesecake is set and top is beginning to brown.  Carefully remove pan from water bath.  Run knife around edge of cake and remove foil.  Place on wire rack and cool completely.  Cover and refrigerate overnight.

Topping:  Remove side of pan.  Whip cream and sugar to stiff peaks.  Garnish cheesecake with whipped cream.  Dust with cocoa powder and scatter top with coffee beans, if desired.

Kahlua Cheesecake

Anniversary Dinner, Part 2: Mushroom Bisque

Part 2:  Soup
For the next part of my parents’ anniversary dinner extraordinaire, I made this mushroom bisque that is so creamy and warm and rich, you’ll think you’ve died and gone to, um, a place where they use the word “bisque” to describe any awesome soup.  Seriously.  We researched it, and “bisque” is supposed to be seafood-based.  Technically, this recipe should be called a “cream soup,” but “mushroom cream soup” just sounds like something gross you would glob out of a can, so I’m going to be all fancy and keep calling it a bisque.

Despite its elegant name and amazing, rich flavor, this soup is pretty easy to make.  The hardest part is chopping up all the mushrooms.  I do it by hand; I suppose you could try using a food processor, but I like a little more texture to mine.  If you forget to buy half and half (oops), just substitute equal parts whole milk and heavy cream.  A small cup of soup per person is plenty, especially if you’re following it with a main dish.

To make the heart shapes, I put sour cream in a sandwich-sized zip-top bag, cut a small hole in the corner, and squeezed it out like frosting.  It sort of floats on the top.  You could just spoon on a little instead, if you don’t care so much about the appearance.

Menu
Bruschetta and Tapenade on Homemade Crostini
Mushroom Bisque
Chicken Piccata
Mystery Dessert

Mushroom BisqueMushroom Bisque (recipe from a family friend)
Time:  20-25 minutes
Serves 8

1/2 cup butter
12-16 oz. mushrooms, finely chopped
4 T. flour
1/4 tsp. dry mustard powder
1 tsp. salt
2 cups chicken broth
2 cups half and half (OR 1 cup whole milk and 1 cup heavy cream)
1/4 cup cooking sherry
sour cream and chopped chives, for garnish

In a large saucepan, melt butter and sauté mushrooms over medium heat until tender.  Add flour, mustard, and salt, and cook for one minute, stirring with a whisk.  Pour in broth and continue to cook until thickened, stirring frequently, about 5 to 10 minutes.  Add half and half and sherry.  Heat thoroughly, but do not allow to boil.  Garnish in bowl with sour cream and chives.

Mushroom Bisque