Monday, December 26, 2011

X'mas Dinner 2011

Merry X'mas & Happy Holidays. At the time of this posting, it is already Boxing Day but December is all about the Holidays and from the time we put up the X'mas tree, we will continue to celebrate the festivities up till New year's day!

This year has been pretty hectic, especially since we returned from our Asia trip over the summer. Kids ushered into new classrooms, mingled with new classmates, occasional breakdowns over stress in school work and all the new activities lining up everyday for them. It is true that life for me is getting busier by the days, ruled by my kids schedules rather than my own convictions. Pretty lacking in the blogs here and will try to do better next year.

I love spending X'mas at home, cooking, doing projects with the kids and just let them watch all holiday programs on TV. They are happy to don in Pajamas all day long and play with their new X'mas toys with wrapping paper ripped and littered all over under the tree while I put on my favorite apron and dominate the kitchen for the X'mas Dinner. 

For this year, I went for duck and the spiral Ham. Turkey is a X'mas bird in England but definitely a Thanksgiving tradition in USA. But I always think a fowl makes the X'mas dinner complete and having no luck looking for a goose, I bought a duck instead. And thankfully I did as I bought a huge spiral ham that can last us up till New Year with its left over. At least the duck is down to meat on Bones for soup and nibbling. I am very satisfied with this X'mas dinner as everything turned out tasty, moist, perfect and delicious. But one thing was disappointing which is the chocolate tart of which recipe I googled and followed blindly. I should have known better now to stick with my French Apple Tart Crust Recipe which never fails me! The thing with baking tart is that the crust is everything and this Chocolate Tart was only nice to look at but the crust recipe totally disappoint! In the end, we just scooped out the chocolate filling and chucked away with the crust. No more online recipes.

 Duck with Chestnut, Bacon & crumb Stuffing
Chestnut is lovely for stuffing. It is naturally sweet and doesn't taste too nutty like almond nor walnut. And of course, everything is better with Bacon, pan fried to release the fat and mixed into the chopped chestnut and crumb. The duck was more than 4lbs and it was first given a hot water bath and left to dry out for about 30 mins while the stuffing was made. The hot water was to melt the duck fat under the skin which oozed out relentlessly during the roasting to render a crisper and nicely browned skin. For the stuffing, the bacon was cut to smaller pieces and pan fried and drained on kitchen paper towel. I retained the fat and sauteed the chopped chestnut pieces and stuffing crumb in it. Adding grapefruit juice and a little water along the way and mixing in the bacon lastly with oregano as my main herb. Once the stuffed into the cavity of the dark and all bounded up with toothpick at its butt, the outside of the duck was seasoned with salt, black pepper and dried oregano. And then with a parring knife, I made slits all over the breast and legs and lay it breast facing up. To avoid the wings from over browing or burning faster than the rest of the duck, I pinned them down with toothpicks to the legs and the result was really clear... a perfectly and evenly roasted duck! The duck was roasted at 375F for 2 hours & 15 mins and done at 175F meat thermometer temperature. The best duck I have done!

 Honey Glazed Spiral Ham with Rosemary
This is the first time I did Ham. Despite having them spill all over the cold meat area in my local grocery, I never thought of cooking one all these past X'mases! This year, somehow I wanted to try one and thought my family would love it too. And believe it or not, I had the carving fork in my pantry for donkey years, all ready for this X'mas. With no experience of buying nor estimating for a meal, I got the smallest of the lot weighing more than 6lbs and boned in. It didn't looked that big in the packaging but I think it swelled up after cooking! Spiral ham are sold cooked here and just needed a heating up in the oven before the honey glaze is applied lastly. For a special touch, I inserted rosemary leaves randomly into the spiral cuts before heating. It really perked up the whole ordinary ham. 

 Sauteed Baby Sprouts with dry fried onion
I tried cooking Brussel sprouts once long time ago but it didn't turn out good. They were bitter and not a welcoming vegetable choice for kids. I finally understand why, I cooked the Old sprouts and for too long. After reading through BBC Good Food magazine, which I also believed Brussel sprouts is more loved by the British than the Americans, I set out to find Baby sprouts instead and they were available in the frozen section rather than sitting next to the fresh Brussel Sprouts lot in the vegetable area. I bought 2 packets and instead of roasting them, I parboiled them in salt for 5 mins and drained them dry. To add flavor, I pan fried some dry onion flakes that I got from the Asian store and threw in the baby sprouts. Sauteed for about 3 mins and added a bit of water with the lid on to steam to perfection. About 7 mins in all! They tasted like softened cabbage, slightly sweet and nothing bitter. The onion flakes did wonder to this dish. Simple.

Mashed Red Potato with Sour Cream
Humble but yummy! To get a fluffy texture, the potatoes cannot be boiled too long and should be removed from the boiling water immediately when you can easily pierce it with a fork. Although potatoes sound simple, to cook it right needs some patience. I like red potatoes as they cook faster and with their red skin, they look prettier if roasted whole. For this dish, I peeled the skin off but you can see some left over spots. I peeled and cut up about 10 small red potatoes to large chunks and submerged them into a pot of cold water and bring it to a boil. Everyone knows what makes the best mashed potato..... butter & heavy cream! I melted some butter in the pan with the heavy cream and added to the mashed up potato, just enough to clump it up with a creamy texture. Lastly I added a dollop of sour cream and seasoned with salt & black pepper. This one was my daughter's favorite dish of the dinner.

 Roasted Baby Carrot with Pearl Onion, potato & Walnut
This year I went Nuts with nuts... literally! I have bags of almond, walnut and hazelnut in the kitchen. So far I have used the Almond for the cookies and X'mas cake that I sent out to my friends and nothing much done with the other 2. Maybe I will use them in making Macaron later. Since I love to dominate the kitchen and let no one lend a hand, I made Curry and the kids cracked the walnut out of their shells. Fresh walnut out of the shell are lovely as store packed ones sometimes taste rancid. For this simple dish, I parboiled the baby carrots together with the pearl onions for 5 mins to soften them a bit . Drained and mix in with some uncooked potato chunks, drizzled with cooking oil and seasoned with salt, black pepper and some rosemary, I just popped them into the oven at the same time with the Ham to roast at 325F for more than 1 hour. The walnut was toasted and scattered onto the dish lastly. Like that, the dish presents sweetness from the carrot and pearl onion together with the savory potato and crunchy and nutty Walnut.

Chocolate Tart
I am not sure what went wrong with this tart but everytime I decide to follow a recipe word by word from an online source, I somehow get it wrong. This tart will be perfect if only I had not followed the crust recipe. The chocolate filling actually firmed up nicely. I usually stick to my French Apple Tart recipe for all my Tart recipes which yields a perfect crumbly and buttery crust all the time. There was no need to add iced water nor brushing of egg white on the blind baked shell and the dough doesn't even need rolling! But for this tart, I followed a recipe that called for every steps that I just mentioned and it turned out tasteless and waxy! The sides did baked well but the bottom part simply unpalatable! My kids and I simply scrapped out the chocolate filling and ate the sides of the crust together with the raspberries and chucked the bottom part away. Lesson REALLY learned... stick with one tried and successful recipe and never ever try something new for a big occasion!


Thursday, December 15, 2011

Orange & Cherry Wreath Cookies

When I was planning for the X'mas Cookies boxes in November, I wanted the X'mas wreath to be my theme. And I was really hoping to make mini wreath cookies complete with all the ivy, holly and bow and thought how pretty they will be. But of course doing is always harder than thinking or saying and after a very busy November and December so far, I ditched the idea and opted for a more simple design.

I kept the color green and used a plastic mold for shaping polymer clay borders that I got from my local craft store to trace the leaf pattern onto the cookie dough itself and colored some with green coloring. I love dragee balls and I was lucky to grab 2 packets while I was on vacation in Malaysia as they are not commonly sold in the stores here and needs to be ordered from online cake stores. As I have already used red non pareils on the X'mas candies, using them on these cookies will clash with the colors. Afterall, the red cherries baked into the cookie itself has already added subtle red to the baked cookies and by popping one silver or blue or pink dragee into each of the green leaf part makes each cookie so special.

The combination of orange and cherry is a very sweet and fruity flavor, reminding me of the summer ice cream that I always have at my local ice cream stand. Powdered sugar is magical and while most expert and crafty X'mas cookies makers prefer to use it in making up the icing on the cookies, I love to use it this way with a mini sieve. The effect is equally lovely.

Recipe (makes about 36 to 40 cookies)
85g butter, softened
225g sugar
2 large eggs
1 tbsp Orange Extract or 1 tbsp grated orange peel
100g red cherries for baking, cut into smaller pieces
450g all Purpose flour
1 tsp Baking Powder
3/4 tsp Baking Soda

1. Cream the butter and sugar till light. Beat in the eggs and orange extract/peel till well combined.
2. Sift flour together with the baking powder and baking soda. Fold this into the butter mixture and drop in the cherry pieces. Mix in to form a dough.
3. Shape into a disk and wrap up and let it rest in the fridge for 30 mins.
4. If making leaf shape, take 1/4 of the dough and color it green with coloring. Knead to blend the color. Cut out with a leaf cutter or any shapes of your choice.
 5. Roll out the remaining plain dough to less than 1/4 inch thick and cut with a 2 inch round cookie cutter. Use a smaller round to cut out the middle to resemble a donut. Complete this process and place all cut outs onto a non stick baking pan.
6. Attach the leaf to the cookie with a bit of water. Return to the fridge to rest for 20 mins while preheating the oven to 350F.
7. When the oven is ready, bake  for 10 to 15 mins till cookies have puffed up. When removed from the pan, the cookies feel soft but will harden up after cooling. Let them cool completely on the racks before storing.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Vanilla Candy with Walnut

Candy wafers are lovely to mold with and much more easier to work than melted chocolate and best of all they come in all sorts of colors to suit the seasons. Being successful with the silicone molds that I used for Halloween, I spotted and bought another set of cube shaped silicone molds 2 months ago with the intention to use them for this X'mas. I love any types of molds and kitchen tools and if possible, I hope to use them for more than their original purposes. The cube molds that I used for these candies are meant for ice cubes and their flexible but sturdy silicone material made it so easy to release the contents.

The walnut pieces for the filling were first toasted and let cool while the candy wafers were easily melted in the microwave. Since they are overly sweet, the addition of the walnut cut the sweetness and add a robust nutty flavor to the candies. Using a small teaspoon, one scoop of melted candy was scooped into the mold first and a few pieces of the roasted walnut were randomly dropped in. And another teaspoon of the candy on top to cover the nuts. The decorations were non pareil and sugar holly & Ivy, specially available for X'mas from Wilton. The candies must first be let to semi set for about 5 mins before the decorations are gently  pushed onto the top. This was to ensure the decorations attach to the candies when they are wholly set. If sprinkled on too early, they will sink into the melted candy instead.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

December Bento Days (2)

It is the X'mas Season and I am incorporating the main colors of red, green & white in my daughter's lunchboxes. There are plenty of X'mas themed pastas in the stores now together with festive food picks and I just couldn't resist! The teddy Bears were cut out of beef franks and attached together with fried dried noodle strands and to save time, I used store prepared frozen vegetable spring rolls and sliced up pickles from the jar.

Trader Joe's CornBread Mix

I was so lucky to be a guest at my cousin's Thanksgiving dinner since I could skip the preparation of the Big turkey with all the other more laborious side dishes and the table settings. To feel more involved, I volunteered to bake the Cornbread and dessert. While shopping for a hostess's basket at Trader Joe, I saw a mountain of their Cornbread mix, all stacked up to the ceiling and a passerby whispered to me "Oh. Do get this! They are awesome and you will never regret it!" And I did and grabbed 2 boxes without second thoughts and brought them all the way down to PA.

I hate cornbreads that taste too grainy with grits lodge on my throat and usually dry in the mouth. For this I suspect the cornmeal used were not processed fine enough and simply come from a cheap mix. This Trader Joe's version was different, it had nibbles of corn inside the mix and it was so easy to make with the addition of milk and vegetable oil. One box fills an 8 inch square pan or 2 usual sized loaves. The cornbread was moist, not overly sweet and bakes beautifully into its golden yellow hue. My daughter absolutely loved it and asked me to get more when we get back to NH.

And so I did and this time I added fresh cranberries to the cornbread mix and bake it in both loaf shape and muffin cups. Don't you want a piece from these pictures? Try it today and like the whispering lady said "you will not regret it!"