Happy New Year!

One of the guys in the band is hosting a New Year's gathering. CRB is going to play the set for our gig on January 5 and probably do some jamming. I'm taking this cheesecake, which I haven't made before. Like so many things I make in the kitchen, the process didn't exactly go smoothly.

I baked the cheesecake in my 13 by 9 Kaiser Bakeware springform pan. I love that pan! If I had been thinking, I would have lined the pan with foil or parchment so that I could transfer the cheesecake to a nicer serving platter. Oh well.

When I took the cake out of the oven, it had a sizable crater in the middle. And the corner of the potholder hit the side, making a big mark. Nothing a layer of chocolate ganache can't cover...

Oops! I didn't like the way my first try at piping the letters looked, so I tried to "erase" them by spreading the chocolate around. Obviously that didn't work. Nothing that MORE chocolate ganache can't fix. (I used an additional three ounces of chocolate and 1/4 cup whipping cream.) I hope tonight's guests love chocolate!

The final result wasn't perfect, but it's good enough. Here's the recipe:

Ribbon Bar Cheesecake
Adapted from a Kraft calendar

Note: The original recipe called for coconut and pecans. I omitted them and added extra Oreos. If you want to take it out of the 13 by 9 baking dish, line it with foil, leaving extra on the sides, so you can lift it out of the pan. All cheesecakes are better made a day ahead.

38 Oreo cookies, crushed
1/2 cup butter, melted (1 stick)

4 (8 ounce) packages cream cheese, softened
1 cup sugar
4 eggs

1/2 cup whipping cream
6 ounces semi-sweet chocolate (plus more for decorating)

Preheat oven to 350°F.

Crush cookies in food processor. Add butter and process until crumbs look wet. Press firmly onto bottom of 13x9-inch baking pan. Refrigerate while preparing filling.

Beat cream cheese and sugar in a large bowl with electric mixer on medium speed until well blended. Add eggs, one at a time, mixing on low speed after each addition just until blended. Pour over crust.

Bake 40 minutes or until center is almost set. Cool. Refrigerate overnight (or for three hours). Place whipping cream and chocolate in saucepan. Cook on low heat until chocolate is completely melted and mixture is well blended, stirring occasionally. Pour over cheesecake. Refrigerate 15 minutes or until chocolate is firm.

Once chocolate topping is firm, place additional chocolate in microwaveable bowl. Microwave on medium 1 minute, stirring after 30 seconds. Stir till chocolate is completely melted. Pour into small plastic storage bag; seal bag; twist bag. Snip off one small corner from bottom of bag; twist top of bag to squeeze chocolate from bag. Pipe message on top of cheesecake. Chill until ready to serve.

Store leftover cheesecake (if there's any!) in the refrigerator.

Throwdown Cheesecake: My Best Baking Project of 2007 (that I didn't blog about)

Sometimes it's not good to have kids who watch the Food Network.

When I asked my 9-year-old son what kind of a birthday cake he wanted, he said, without a pause,

"Remember the cheesecake episode of "Throwdown with Bobby Flay?" I want the cake that won that episode -- the one with three layers of chocolate cake and a layer of cheesecake.

And I want it to have kids with sleeping bags on it.

And a roller coaster."

Surely I told him that he was off his rocker.

Well, no, actually I didn't. I like it when my kids think creatively. And it made perfect sense. He had been talking about that cake since he saw the show. Sleeping bags because he was having friends sleep over. A roller coaster because we were taking him and his guests to Seabreeze first.

Plus, I like a challenge. So I did it. And it wasn't too bad. The secret was doing the project over two days.

I found the recipe on the Food Network Web site. The first step was making the cheesecake layer, cooling it, then freezing it. The next step was making the three chocolate cake layers, which also was a piece of cake (ha, ha, couldn't resist). And unlike my usual tendency to try to do too much in one day, I called it a day. That gave the cakes plenty of time to cool and the cheesecake time to freeze.

The next day I frosted and decorated the cake. The frosting in the recipe was easy to prepare and use. The frozen cheesecake layer wasn't any harder to handle than any other cake layer.

For the roller coaster, I made an old-fashioned wooden roller coaster, like the Jack Rabbit at Seabreeze. I melted white chocolate and created the coaster in sections on wax paper. After it cooled and solidified, I transferred the sections to the side of the cake, and touched up the whole thing with more melted white chocolate. I'm not sure I'd use that technique again. It didn't end up looking perfect, but I think you could tell it was a coaster.

I got the idea for the kids in sleeping bags from Family Fun Magazine. Instead of frosting, I thought I'd use a glaze that would flow over the Twinkies and look like a blanket. Well, the glaze (which I made out of confectioner's sugar, milk and corn syrup -- don't ask me the amounts) was too thin and the Twinkies could be seen underneath. I disguised the worst spots with dots of colored frosting.

In the end, the cake wouldn't win any contests, but my son was thrilled with it, which was all that mattered.

How did it taste? The kids enjoyed it, although some of them didn't eat the cheesecake layer. The parents who had a piece raved about it.

I wasn't wowed by it. The cheesecake layer was just right -- firm enough to hold its shape in the cake without being dry. The chocolate cake was fairly dense, which was ok -- I'm sure it had to be to support cheesecake layer. But to my taste, neither the cake nor the frosting was chocolate-y enough. But maybe I've been spoiled by the Wegmans Ultimate Chocolate Cake. Finally, I think the three layers of chocolate cake (which is the way it was shown in the TV show and the way it is described in the recipe) is overkill. If I decided to make this again, which I probably wouldn't, I would make two layers of chocolate cake instead. That is actually the way it was shown on the Junior's Cheesecake Web site.

Still want to make the recipe? Well, here it is, with a few notes and modifications from me.

Four-Layer Devil's Food Cheesecake

Recipe adapted from Junior’s Cheesecake Cookbook, 50 To-Die-For Recipes for New York–Style Cheesecake, by Alan Rosen and Beth Allen

Rah Cha Chow note: This was originally written as a one-day process. I edited to make it a two-day process. Make the cakes the first day, then frost the second day. Trust me.

For the cheesecake layer:
3 (8-ounce) packages cream cheese (use only full fat), at room temperature
1 1/3 cups sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
2 extra-large eggs
2/3 cup heavy or whipping cream

For the devil's food cake (3 layers):
2 1/4 cups sifted cake flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
3 extra-large eggs, separated
4 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, melted and cooled
1 tablespoons pure vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar

(The recipe also called for chocolate curls, which I omitted. If you want to make them, use the recipe from the Food Network.)

For the fudge frosting:
6 cups sifted confectioners' sugar (1 1/2 pounds)
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
6 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, melted and cooled
2 tablespoons dark corn syrup
2 tablespoons pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup heavy or whipping cream

Day One:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F and generously butter the bottom and sides of one 9-inch springform pan (preferably a nonstick one). Wrap the outside with aluminum foil, covering the bottom and extending all the way up the sides.

To make the cheesecake layer, put one package of the cream cheese, 1/3 cup of the sugar, and the cornstarch in a large bowl and beat with an electric mixer on low until creamy, about 3 minutes, scraping down the bowl a couple of times. Blend in the remaining cream cheese, one package at a time, scraping down the bowl after each. Increase the mixer speed to medium and beat in the remaining 1 cup sugar, then the vanilla. Blend in the eggs, one at a time, beating well after adding each. Beat in the cream just until it's completely blended. Be careful not to overmix!

Gently spoon the batter into the foil-wrapped springform and place it in a large shallow pan containing hot water that comes about 1 inch up the sides of the springform. Bake the cake at 350 degrees F until the edges are light golden brown and the top is slightly golden tan, about 1 1/4 hours. Remove the cake from the water bath, transfer to a wire rack, and cool in the pan for 2 hours, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate (while still in the pan) until it's completely cold, about 4 hours. Place in the freezer and freeze overnight or until ready to assemble the cake.

Meanwhile, prepare the devil's food cake layers. Check that the oven is preheated to 350 degrees F and that the water bath has been removed. Generously butter the bottom and sides of three 9-inch round layer cake pans. It is important to line the bottom of all three pans with parchment or waxed paper. Trace the bottom of your pan onto wax paper or parchment, cut out the circle, then use it to line the pan.

Sift the flour, baking powder, and salt together in a small bowl. Cream the butter and both sugars together in a large bowl with the mixer on medium until light yellow and creamy. Add the egg yolks, one at a time, beating well after each. Beat in the melted chocolate and vanilla. Using a wooden spoon, stir in the flour mixture, alternately with the milk, mixing well after each until blended.

Put the egg whites and cream of tartar in a clean medium-size bowl and beat with clean, dry beaters on high until stiff (but not dry) peaks form. Fold about one-third of the whites into the chocolate batter until they disappear, then gently fold in the remaining whites. Don't worry if you still see a few white specks--they'll disappear during baking. Divide the batter evenly between the three pans. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the centers comes out with moist crumbs clinging to it, about 30 minutes. Cool the cakes in the pans on a rack for 15 minutes, then remove the cakes from the pans and gently peel off the paper liners. Let cool completely, about 2 hours, then cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight or until ready to assemble the cake.

Day Two:

Make the frosting: In a large bowl, sift the confectioners' sugar, cocoa, and salt together. In another large bowl, cream the butter with a mixer on high until light yellow and slightly thickened, about 3 minutes. With the mixer still running, beat in the chocolate, corn syrup, and vanilla. Reduce the mixer speed to low and beat in the sugar-cocoa mixture in two additions, beating well after each. Blend in the cream until the frosting is a spreading consistency, adding a little more cream if needed. Whip the frosting on high until light and creamy, about 2 minutes more.

To assemble the cake, remove the cheesecake from the freezer and let stand at room temperature about 10 minutes. Place one layer of devil's food cake, top side down, on a cake plate and spread with some of the frosting. Release and remove the ring of the springform, then remove the frozen cheesecake from the bottom of the pan. Place top side down on the frosted cake layer and spread with some frosting. Top with the second devil's food layer, top side down. Spread with more frosting and cover with the third devil's food layer, top side up. Brush away any crumbs from the sides and top of the fudge cake layers. Frost the sides and top of the cake with the remaining frosting, spreading the top with frosting about 1/2 inch deep. Use a long metal spatula that has been warmed under hot running water to smooth out the frosting on the sides and top of the cake. Decorate as desired.

Refrigerate the cake for at least 2 hours to allow the cheesecake to thaw enough to easily slice. Use a sharp straight-edge knife, not a serrated one, to cut it. Cover any leftover cake with plastic wrap and refrigerate, or wrap and freeze for up to 1 month.

Best restaurant of 2007 (that I didn't blog about)

Now for my "Best of 2007" ... that I didn't have a chance to blog about. First, my favorite new (to me) restaurant.

2 Vine is an upscale bistro, tucked behind the Little Theatre. It has been around for about eight years, a time frame in which I haven't done whole lot of fine dining. My visit there was a spur-of-the-moment occasion after a concert at the Eastman Theater.

I didn't have my camera with me, so I had planned to go back to snap a few photos. I never got around to it, so I borrowed this photo from the 2 Vine Web site. The photo doesn't come close to capturing the charm of the restaurant when we were there in the summer. The window boxes were bursting with colorful, delicate flowers, and to the left of the photo was a large outdoor seating area, surrounded by a well-tended garden and overflowing planters of flowers.

Since it was late, we ordered a salad and appetizer instead of a full meal -- which was graciously accommodated by our server. My friend recommended the Roasted Beet Salad with Pistachio-Crusted Goat Cheese. I'm not usually a big fan of beets, but I decided to take her suggestion. It was divine -- the tender, earthy beets sat on top of delicate greens, all tossed in a light vinaigrette. It came with a medallion of mild, creamy goat cheese that was crusted in pistachios. It was a wonderful combination of flavors and textures. My appetizer was crab cakes, also very good, but the memory doesn't stick with me like the beet salad.

I rarely drink alcohol, but that night I decided to order a special drink called the Italian Ice Pick. It was iced tea with Limoncello and lemon vodka. It was refreshing and not too sweet -- the perfect beverage on a summer night.

I do hope I get to go there again, next time for a full meal.

Restaurant 2 Vine on Urbanspoon

Best of 2007 on Rah Cha Chow

One Hot Stove is hosting a blog event that highlights the best that food blogs had to offer this year. Well, a fair amount of this year's blog was spent apologizing for not blogging! So I'm pointing you to just a few tasty tidbits from this year. Then, over the next few days, I'll catch up the best stuff that I didn't have a chance to write about in 2007.

1. Favorite new recipes of the year

My two favorite new recipes (that I wrote about) were Spiced Pumpkin Bread and Cranberry Chutney.

2. Favorite Food TV

My favorite food TV programs haven't changed from a year ago. Top Chef is still my favorite Food TV program by a mile. Recently, I've found myself strangely drawn to some of Gordon Ramsay's shows, particularly Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares on BBC America (I hate Fox's adaptation of the show). It would be a stretch to say I like them, though.

3. Favorite products discovered in 2007

Hooray for King Arthur White Whole Wheat flour! According to the King Arthur Web site, it has all the fiber and nutritional value of whole wheat flour. I have used it in place of all-purpose flour in quite a few recipes, and my persnickety family has never noticed a difference in flavor or texture. (To be on the safe side, I usually only replace half of the all-purpose flour with the white whole wheat flour.) What a great way to sneak in some whole grains!

In second place would be Kraft caramel bits -- bits of caramel that don't need to be unwrapped -- but I can't find them. I grabbed some at Wegmans at Halloween time, and I haven't seen them since. Boo-hoo! If anyone spots them in the Rochester area, would you mind letting me know so that I can grab some more?

4. Favorite cooking class/demo

Even though I went to a pricey fall salads class at the New York Wine & Culinary Center, my favorite cooking class was a free demo by Ming Tsai at the Pittsford Wegmans. I liked the way he showed his recipe for shrimp mousse, and then demonstrated three different ways to use it. The samples that were handed out were delicious. Plus, he had a fun, engaging personality. I bought one of his cookbooks but haven't cooked a single recipe from it yet. I'll put that on my to-do list for 2008.

At the time of the demo, I was also contributing to a blog called Edible TV, so my post about the demo is here. (Contributing to a group blog in addition to my own proved to be more than I wanted to handle.)

5. Favorite new Web site

My favorite newly discovered Website is Picnik, a photo editing Web site. I have Adobe Photoshop, but I feel like I need to take a class to be able to use all of its features. Picnik is so much easier. It took me less than an hour to create the title banner that's above (it's a work in progress but much better than the plain title I had before). I've also been playing around with combining Picnik and Photoshop to create CD covers for CRB's demo (my work in progress is shown to the right).

6. Favorite post

My favorite post was about this year's gingerbread house. It pretty much captures the spirit of our family.

7. Favorite blog photo(s)

They aren't food related, but I love the ones of my dog, Charlie, with a frog that kept visiting our pool cover last summer.

8. "Cooking resolutions" for 2008

These are the same almost every year, but they are:
1. To get better at planning meals so I don't go to Wegmans every day.
2. To cook healthier on a regular basis.

9. "Sneak peek" of Rah Cha Chow in 2008

- I will tinker some more with that title banner.
- I do plan to blog more regularly, although I don't think I'll ever be someone who posts daily.
- I will create a better index of the recipes I've posted on this blog.
- Finally, I will chronicle the excitement of the lead-up to the Pillsbury Bake-off, as well as my experience at the competition!

Hot mulled cider recipe, but first a meme

Charlie is exhausted, and so am I. So much to do, so hard to time to find the time to blog.

To the rescue: my pal Emiline from Sugar Plum with a quick and easy meme. Here goes...

1. What were you cooking/baking 10 years ago?

I have a cookbook called Christmas Memories Cookbook from Mystic Seaport. I've used it for years, so much that it's missing both of its covers. In the back are pages to record "Memorable Christmas Menus." Looking back to 1997, we had a Christmas party for about 30 friends and their 30 young children. We all sang Christmas carols with Tom playing the organ, me playing the guitar, and the kids ringing jingle bells. When the singing ended, some elves had visited the family room and left candy for the kids to find!

My menu included a purchased Honey-Baked Ham, and I made meatballs, hot crab dip, phyllo triangles, lots of Christmas cookies, and mulled cider (recipe to follow). Tom made his homemade eggnog.

2. What were you cooking/baking a year ago?

I did a lot of baking last year, much of it chronicled in this blog. My most successful new recipe of the 2006 Christmas baking season was Black-and-White Cookies.

3. Three snacks you like

I'm with Emiline -- if coffee qualifies as a snack, that would top my list! If not, I'd include Sponge candy from Stever's, popcorn (even better if buttered!) and Twizzlers.

4. Three recipes you know by heart

- Chicken parmesan
- Bruschetta (with tomatoes, basil, etc.)
- Artichoke dip

5. Three culinary luxuries you would have if you were a millionaire.
- Someone to clean my kitchen for me.
- Regular jaunts to NYC to visit family there and dine out at great restaurants.
- A remodeled/enlarged kitchen.

6. Three foods you love to cook

- Chocolate chip cookies
- Scones
- Quiche

7. Three foods you hate to eat/cook

- Oysters
- Water chestnuts
- Oatmeal

8. A happy food memory

The dinner Tom & I had at Mader's, a German restaurant in Milwaukee, the night we got engaged (November 1990).

So the deal is that I'm supposed to "tag" people, so I think I'll tag my fellow Rochester food bloggers:
- Smita from Smita Serves You Right
- Bibliochef (don't know her real name) from Cooking With Ideas
- Laura Rebecca from Laura Rebecca's Kitchen (who I just "met" yesterday)
Maybe you folks can do it if you get foodie burnout after the holidays.

Now for the Hot Mulled Cider recipe from 1997, which I've made for years. It's the perfect calming brew for this busy time of year.

Hot Mulled Cider
adapted from Christmas Memories Cookbook, Mystic Seaport

1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 quarts apple cider
cheesecloth bag containing:
1/2 teaspoon whole allspice
1 teaspoon whole cloves
dash nutmeg
cinnamon stick (plus extras for serving)

To make on the stove: Bring all ingredients to a bowl in a large saucepan. Reduce heat and simmer 20 minutes. Remove bag of spices. If desired, serve with cinnamon stick stirrers.

To make in a crockpot: Put ingredients into pot and cook on "high" for 30 to 40 minutes. Remove spice bag; reduce heat to "low" until ready to serve. May be kept on "low" for many hours.

Chocolate and gingerbread and cookies -- oh, my!

Are you done with your Christmas shopping yet? I am. I think.

If you're in Rochester and need a few last-minute gifts, I have a suggestion that will work for almost everyone. That's Stever's Candies. It is located on Park Avenue, a trendy street that has lots of fun little places to shop and eat. I lived in the area for four years in my 20s, and I love going down there, even if parking can be a pain. And, for that matter, so can the lines in Stever's -- but that's part of the ritual at this time of year.

Stevers is known for their chocolates in a wide variety of shapes -- I spotted every Christmas shape, plus musical instruments, sporting equipment, computers, cell phones, flip flops, etc. I have to believe there's a shape that would apply to almost everyone. I thought this skyline of Rochester was pretty cool, and bought it with the idea of using it to create a new title banner for this blog. Well, I didn't like the way it looked as a banner, but I'm sure it will make a nice gift for someone. (By the way, I did end up recreating the title banner ... I'm interested in hearing what you think!)
I couldn't pass up buying one goodie for myself -- sponge candy! Yes, they carry sponge candy in bulk at Wegmans and Tops, but this stuff is tons better. The dainty bites have a thick layer of creamy Stever's chocolate. The inside is both crispy and ethereal, melting away with a fleeting taste of honey. I'm not sharing it. Nope. No way.

I got a bunch of little gifts but don't want to reveal too much in case any of the recipients read this. In the end I dropped $72 there. Yikes!

So now I need to mention some fun holiday round-ups on a couple of other blogs:

- The Christmas Cookie Roundup on Food Blogga continues to grow. I contributed a couple of recipes. If you need to do some more baking and want some new ideas, that's a great place to look.

- The gingerbread house roundup on YumSugar includes our "Boy Humor" gingerbread house. I laughed when I saw the first photo on the post -- a Snoopy gingerbread house. It is much more successful than our attempt during last year's gingerbread disaster! It's fun to look at what other people created.
- If want to see more gingerbread, I just stumbled across another local food blogger who took photos of this year's George Eastman House gingerbread house display. I usually go to see the display, but missed it this year. It was nice to see what I missed. I especially like the replica of the Highland Park Diner. If you still want more gingerbread, my photos of last year's display are here.

Crunchy, chewy, chocolatey -- and easy too!

My grandma used to make a variety of wonderful Christmas cookies, but the one I'd reach for first was probably the easiest to make. It was Scotcheroos, a recipe that's about as ubiquitous as Rice Krispie Treats. My grandma used to make them every year, with a few changes from the original recipe, and now I make her version, with a change of my own.

D. spotted me making them last week.

"Those are my favorite," he said. "Why do only make them at Christmas?"

One reason is that I associate them with Christmas. But the real reason is that I have a hard time staying away from them, and my waistline doesn't need them around.

You'll find this recipe all over the Internet, but ours are a little bit different. Many recipes call for Rice Krispies, and for them to be made in a 13 by 9 pan. Grandma made hers with Special K, and made them in a 15 by 10 jelly roll pan. My change: I double the amount of chocolate. What can I say, I only make them once a year.

Special Scotcheroos

6 cups Special K cereal (you can also use Rice Krispies or a mixture of the 2)
1 cup white sugar
1 cup light corn syrup (spray the measuring cup with cooking spray to easily get it out of the cup)
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup peanut butter
2 cups semisweet chocolate chips
1 cup butterscotch chips

Spray a 15 by 10-inch jelly roll pan with cooking spray.

Measure Special K into a large bowl. In a saucepan over medium heat, combine the sugar and corn syrup, and bring to a rolling boil. Remove from heat, and stir in the vanilla and peanut butter. Pour the mixture over the Special K and mix well. Press the mixture into the prepared pan. (I spray wax paper with cooking spray, and press with the wax paper.)

In a glass bowl in the microwave, melt the chocolate and butterscotch chips, stopping and stirring every 30 seconds, until smooth and well blended. Spread over the top of the bars. Chill until set, then cut into bars.

I'm sending this to the Christmas cookie post on Food Blogga -- just in case someone is looking for an easy last-minute cookie recipe. For 100+ more recipes, just check out that post!

Cut-out cookies that taste as good as they look

When I was a little girl, I totally bought the fantasies of an old-fashioned Christmas. I wanted to go on sleigh rides and cut down our own Christmas tree. I wanted presents that looked like they were made by Santa's elves. I wanted to make sugar and gingerbread cut-out cookies and decorate them with all kind of fancy things.

But that was the 1960s and that stuff wasn't in vogue. Instead of sleigh rides, we took car rides around the neighborhood, admiring decorations that usually consisted of big fat Christmas lights and lit-up plastic Santas. Our tree was the same artificial one, year after year. My gifts, like the Barbies and the Easy Bake Oven and the Veronica doll with hair that grew, did not resemble anything elves could construct. And my mom made many different Christmas cookies, but cut-out cookies (either sugar or gingerbread) were way too much work for her.

As an adult I've tried out many of the old-fashioned traditions that I longed for as a child. Some I've adopted and others I've found to be vastly overrated. The real tree that we cut down last year, for example, aggravated my allergies and gave me a perpetual sinus headache (so it's back to an artificial tree, augmented by a reed diffuser that really smells pine-y).

But I do make cut-out cookies, even though I agree with my mom that they are a lot of work. I have tried out lots of cut-out cookie and icing recipes, and I've settled on a few favorites. This is one of my top two in terms of taste. Unfortunately they are a pain to make. You refrigerate the dough for three hours, and when you get it out of the fridge, you need to use some muscle to work with it. Then, once you've rolled it out once and cut out some shapes, it becomes too soft to work with and the dough has to go back into the fridge until it's harder. But the results are delicious.

Rich Rolled (Cinnamon) Cookies
(adapted from The Joy of Cooking)

1 cup butter
2/3 cup sugar
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 ½ cups sifted all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
1 Tablespoon (yes, tablespoon!) cinnamon

Cream together the butter and sugar. Beat in egg and vanilla.
Combine the flour, salt and cinnamon. Add to the butter mixture.
Chill dough 3-4 hours.
Preheat oven to 350. Grease cookie sheets.
Roll, somewhat thick, and cut with cutters.
Bake 8-10 minutes on greased cookie sheets, until slightly colored on the edges.

Sugar Cookie Frosting
(adapted from Allrecipes.com)

4 cups confectioners sugar
½ cup shortening
5 tablespoons milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
food coloring, if desired

Using an electric mixer, combine confectioners sugar and shortening. Mixture will look crumbly. Add milk and vanilla. Mix until smooth and stiff, about 5 minutes. Color with food coloring.

I'm contributing this to a food blog event at Foodblogga. For LOTS more Christmas cookies from food bloggers around the world, go here.

Gingerbread #2: Our Friends' Houses

Last weekend we had our traditional day of gingerbread house decorating with another family. Yesterday I posted our "Boy Humor" gingerbread house. Here are the houses our friends made. You'll see why I didn't want ours to follow theirs!

Our friends' 12-year-old daughter doesn't like sweets, so she has made her own sweets-free house for the past couple of years. (Sometimes I envy her -- I think I'd have the body of Heidi Klum if I didn't like sweets!) Anyhow, I always like to see what materials she decides to use, and how she uses them. This year her decorations primarily consisted of Triscuit crackers and various pretzels. Her design included a moat around the house, and a bridge crossing the moat. I thought that was a cool idea.

The rest of the family worked on the "candy" house, which took on a red and green theme this year. I would have never thought to use Honeycomb cereal for the roof. I thought it was cute. You really have to see some of the details of their house to fully appreciate it.

I mentioned on last year's gingerbread house post that our friend, Mike, is freakishly talented at making critters and characters out of Starburst and Tootsie Roll candies. This year's efforts surpassed past years' efforts. This was the Shrek and Donkey he created. Isn't the Shrek amazing? He didn't even have a picture to use as reference! OK, it wasn't perfect. I think he confused Donkey with one of the Wallace and Grommit characters (Wallace? Grommit? Which is which?). To be fair, his results may have been better if we had figured out a gray material for him to sculpt with.

Well, this year it became apparent that sculpting with candy is a hereditary trait, because their 10-year-old daughter demonstrated some serious talent in that area. Here's the Cindy Lou Who she created.

And this is the Grinch she created, complete with sleigh and his dog, Max. Amazing, huh?

A "Boy Humor" Gingerbread House

I can't quite explain what happened to our gingerbread house this year. It started out nice enough. I bought the pieces at Wegmans, made several batches of Martha Stewart's royal icing, put together the house, and was ready for our day of decorating with another family with whom we've been decorating gingerbread for years. D asked what theme we were going to do, but after last year's disaster, I suggested we go theme-free and just decorate a nice house. And that's where we started. You can see that it came out fairly nice. It's in the details where the house ... well, let's just say it really deviates from the usual Christmas spirit. And I have nobody to blame but myself.

It all started when Tom made a perfectly nice dog out of Tootsie Rolls and placed it in front of our house. (By the way, that cute dog pales in comparison our friends' character creations ... but you'll have to check back tomorrow to see those.)

What I did to the dog I can only attribute to more than a decade of living in a household of nothing but males. It was pure impulse. All it took was a drop of yellow food coloring and a few bits of Tootsie Rolls to send us down a completely different creative path. The boys, needless to say, loved it. (I ignored Tom's groans and eye rolling.)

Upon seeing that, B got the idea of doing some decorations based on Calvin & Hobbes cartoons that depicted Calvin making some demented snowmen. Now you have to understand, B is talented in many ways, including being a gifted musician, but he has never had any aptitude for art. In grammar school, he got his lowest grades in art (proving that it actually is possible to get a low grade in art). When we do gingerbread decorating, he usually spends the afternoon eating the candy and asking when he can go play. So with B suddenly and unexpectedly excited about working on our gingerbread house, we had no choice but to let him go ahead with his ideas.

What B's decorations lack in artistic skill they make up for in imagination. To help you understand what they are supposed to be, you need to see the cartoons on which they are based. Cartoon #1:

... and here's B's interpretation of the cartoon. The fins of the snow sharks were created out of vanilla Tootsie Rolls.

Cartoon #2:

And B's interpretation of the second panel. I think his dad may have helped with the shovel, which was made from a toothpick and piece of shredded wheat cereal.

Honestly, I think our gingerbread house suits us. It probably will be one of those "remember when..." stories that the boys tell, like the time D. peed in a cup when we were stuck in a traffic jam in Chicago. But that's another story, probably not suited for a food blog.

I am submitting our house to a gingerbread house blog event on YumSugar. Wanna bet nobody has a theme like ours?

Tasty and Handy - A Great Recipe "Find"

I made a double batch of this in mid-November and it sure has come in handy. I took a jar on our Thanksgiving trip to Connecticut, and when it was time for an appetizer or a snack, all I had to do was slather some on a block of cream cheese and put it out with some crackers. (And it was devoured.) It also was a godsend on a day when I was booked solid and had to take an appetizer to a cocktail party; again, I slathered it on cream cheese, garnished with a few chopped pistachios to add some color, and added some crackers. I'm sure it would be great on goat cheese or brie, or as a spread on a turkey sandwich.

Cranberry Chutney
(The Farmhouse Cookbook)

Cranberries are so full of natural pectin that they are ideal for conserves, and this sweet, tart spread is wonderful. It can be canned or frozen, or kept in the refrigerator for weeks.

1 pound (4 cups) fresh or frozen cranberries (note that this is more than one package)
1 small tart apple, peeled, cored, and diced
2 cups packed light brown sugar
3/4 cup cider vinegar
1/2 cup dried currants
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. ground ginger
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp. ground cloves
1 tsp. yellow mustard seeds
1/2 to 1/2 tsp. dried pepper flakes (I used 1/4 teaspoon but probably would prefer more)

1. Place all the ingredients in a large heavy saucepan (using only 1/4 tsp. of the red pepper flakes) and bring to a boil over medium high heat. Reduce the heat and simmer until the mixture thickens slightly, about 25 minutes. The cranberries will pop as they cook. Taste and adjust the pepper flakes.

2. Allow the chutney to cool, then ladle into jars. Cover and refrigerate for up to 3 months. Alternatively, ladle into sterilized jars and seal according to mfrs. instructions. Or place in freezer containers, allow to cool to room temperature and freeze for up to one year.

Yield: 2 pints

Note: I've decided to name this my best new recipe of 2007 for the Foodbloggers Best of 2007.

Super Easy Holiday Treats

I'm in the midst of baking a package of treats to send to my fun and feisty 93-year-old grandma.

The first is a recipe I got from my friend, Kristen. Kristen has made this for years and whenever she serves it I have a hard time refraining from devouring the whole bowl! I haven't made it for Grandma before, but I thought the flaky texture of the saltines would make it easier for her to eat than regular toffee. I hope it's sturdy enough survive the U.S. Mail service.

Saltine Toffee

Saltine crackers - enough to cover the bottom of a jelly roll pan
1 cup butter
1 cup light or dark brown sugar
2 cups semisweet chocolate chips (or a mix of semisweet and milk chocolate)
3/4 cup chopped nuts, optional (I didn't use)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Grease a jelly roll pan, and line pan with saltine crackers in single layer.

In a saucepan combine the sugar and the butter. Bring to a boil and boil for 3 minutes. Immediately pour over saltines and spread to cover crackers completely.

Bake for 5 to 6 minutes. Remove from oven and sprinkle chocolate chips over the top. Let sit for 5 minutes. Spread melted chocolate. (If desired, top with chopped nuts.) Cool completely and break into pieces.

I'm also making her favorite holiday treat, which she said she hides from her company. It originally was given to me by a Bunco friend, and the name was "White Trash." I don't love the name, so I drizzle it with red and green to make it "Holiday Trash." This is one of those recipes that I change depending on what cereals and nuts are in the cupboard.

Holiday Trash

2 cups Crispix cereal
2 cups small pretzels
2 cups cocktail peanuts
2 cups M&Ms
White melting wafers -- about 1 1/4 pounds
1 tablespoon shortening
A handful of red & green melting wafers, plus a little shortening for each

Mix together cereal, pretzels, peanuts, and M&Ms. Melt wafers and shortening in the microwave, stirring every 30 seconds, until smooth. Pour over rest of ingredients and stir. Put on baking sheet and let cool. Break apart. Drizzle with red and green melts individually, cooling between colors.


RNews, our all-news Time Warner station, came bright and early this morning. The truck showed up a little before 6 a.m. Wendy Mills, the reporter, and Matt, the camera man, showed up around 6:15.

The process was short and sweet. We did a live segment at 6:30 a.m. After that, they shot me cooking my recipe from the 2004 Pillsbury Bake-off contest and did a short interview. Then they edited the footage to create a piece that I suppose will run throughout the day.

They didn't put video on their Web site, but here's a link to the RNews article.

The irony of this? We subscribe to DirecTV, not Time Warner, so we can't see what ran!

By the way, here's the recipe I demo'd:

Sun-dried Tomato and Goat Cheese Appetizers

1(12-oz.) can Pillsbury® Golden Layers® Refrigerated Buttermilk Biscuits
1/2 cup mayonnaise
2 oz. (1/2 cup) crumbled goat cheese
1/4 cup chopped drained oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes
1 teaspoon dried onion flakes
1 teaspoon dried pesto seasoning)*
1 tablespoon grated Parmesan cheese

Heat oven to 375°F. Separate dough into 10 biscuits; separate each evenly into 2 layers, making 20 dough rounds. Press each in ungreased miniature muffin cup.

In small bowl, mix mayonnaise, goat cheese, tomatoes, onion flakes and pesto seasoning. Spoon about 1 1/2 teaspoons mayonnaise mixture into each dough-lined cup. Sprinkle each with Parmesan cheese.

Bake at 375°F. for 10 to 16 minutes or until golden brown. Remove from muffin cups. Cool 5 minutes before serving.

High Altitude (3500-6500 ft) Bake at 375°F. for 12 to 16 minutes.

* About the pesto seasoning, I have used McCormick Gourmet Collection Pesto Seasoning, but it can be tough to find. Two alternatives:
- Use a scant teaspoon of dried basil and a pinch of garlic powder.
- Even better, measure a tablespoon of prepared pesto sauce into the 1/2 cup measure for the mayo. Then measure your mayo. That way, you're not adding extra oil to the mixture. Thanks very much to Susan H. for this idea!


I have a backlog of recipes to write about but Christmas preparations have gotten in the way...

Then today I get a call from a reporter from R News (Channel 9). They want to come to our house TOMORROW MORNING to tape us live about my going to the next Pillsbury Bake-off. AAAHHHH ... crazy day of cleaning today (which I planned anyway) plus I have to figure out a cooking demo. Did I say YIKES?!

If you get Time Warner cable , tune in at 6:30 or so and I'll be cooking up something. The next Pillsbury Bake-off recipe is still confidential so who knows what I'll actually be cooking. Maybe my recipe from last time, or maybe some cookies. We'll see.

The cat is out of the bag...

I'm a finalist in the next Pillsbury Bake-off contest. The article from the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle is here.

I'm in the "entertaining appetizers" category. Since an appetizer has never won the Pillsbury Bake-off contest, I don't have high hopes of winning. But it should be a fun trip!

I thought I'd add that if you're interested throwing your hat into the cooking contest ring, my buddy Erin has posted some great tips on her blog on Rachael Ray's site. If you want to see them, a link to her blog is here. Just click on entries 7 & 8. Both are titled "Confessions of a Competitive Cook."

The only think I'd add to Erin's excellent advice is to keep the whole thing in perspective. I spent loads of time (and money) on entries for the 2006 Pillsbury Bake-off contest, and when I didn't get the call to be a finalist, I moped for days. How ridiculous to let a hobby do that to you. It's supposed to be fun. Since then, I've backed off in terms of the amount of time, money and effort I spend on contests. I may not win as often, but I'm enjoying myself a lot more.