Saturday, December 29, 2012

Nut loaf and Other Festive Fare

A few weeks ago, a dear friend of ours called and said she was coming to visit. What's more, she was arriving on Christmas eve and staying for a few days. Most years, Christmas is not something we really celebrate in any special way. We've been known to do a "Jewish Christmas"- going to a movie theater and then to a Chinese restaurant!

But the minute my friend called, I knew this year would be different. She grew up celebrating Christmas and I wanted to make the holiday special for her in some way. A few stockings went up by the fireplace. I sewed a felt garland to make the mantle more festive. And I started to plan Christmas dinner.

The festive meals in my home are quite predictable and not even that different from what we normally eat. I'll make a biryani or a lasagna. Or something crowd-pleasing like pav bhaji or aloo tikki chana chaat. I looked for something different this time and decided on a nut loaf- a vegetarian version of the meatloaf. Then I would make a couple of side dishes, and something special for dessert.

Food experts will often remind you of a golden rule of cooking: Never try a recipe for the first time when you're cooking for a special occasion. Well, I break this rule on a very regular basis. Call it beginner's luck or whatever you will, but usually I get away with it.

And that's how I made nut loaf for the very first time this Christmas, using this recipe, originally from Martha Stewart. It worked beautifully. I've seen nut loaf mentioned on blogs many many times and had some notion that they are difficult to make. Not so. It is easy as sautéing and mixing and baking.

Here is the recipe in brief, in my words. Instead of buying separate jars of the spices that the recipe calls for, spices that I rarely use, I bought a jar of poultry seasoning instead. This is a mixture of all of the spices that the recipe calls for.

1.  Saute 1 onion, 3 cloves minced garlic and a 10 oz. box of baby bella mushrooms, minced, in olive oil.
2. Season generously with poultry seasoning blend.
3. Mix. Remove vegetables to a large bowl and add the following:
(a) Nuts: Roasted and minced walnuts and cashews (2 cups total)
(b) Cooked brown rice, 1.5 cups
(c) Cheddar cheese, shredded, 2 cups
(d) Eggs, 4, beaten
(e) Cottage cheese, 1 cup
4. Bake. Season with salt and pepper and mix together well. Transfer the mixture to a well-greased loaf pan (I lined mine with parchment paper) and bake at 375F for an hour. Cool for 20 minutes in the pan before inverting on a serving platter. 

Somehow, miraculously, this seemingly hodge-podge mixture of rice and cheese (especially cottage cheese which I can't stand, usually) and eggs and nuts transforms into one cohesive and utterly delectable, savory loaf. You can't really make out the components of the nut loaf. It tastes like more than a sum of the parts. The only thing I would say is that the slices were a little delicate and prone to breaking; I possibly added more cottage cheese than I should have or maybe less of the cheddar.

To go with the rich and filling nut loaf, I made mashed potatoes- seasoned simply with butter, salt and pepper. And maple roasted brussels sprouts, which was another winner, even if I left them too long in the oven and reduced some of them to pure carbon.

Finally, I made some vegan gravy to complete the meal. Nutritional yeast has a uniquely savory, nutty, cheesy taste that makes this gravy a flavorful accompaniment for the nut loaf.
Nut loaf, maple-roasted Brussels sprouts and mashed potatoes
and vegan gravy!
Setting a festive table with berries from the backyard

When I tried to think of a Christmassy dessert for this meal, I remembered this NPR article on trifle pudding. This pudding also makes me nostalgic because my Dad made it often when we were kids, with Rex jelly and Brown and Polson custard (I know some of you will remember these brands fondly).

I assembled my trifle with layers of:
(a) Pound cake
(b) Berries: Frozen berries that were thawed and macerated in sugar and brandy
(c) Strawberry jelly (I chose a brand that does not contain gelatin)
(d) Homemade vanilla custard

The trifle was enjoyable, but next time, I'll skip the pound cake and berries and just make jelly and custard. Those are the parts that I love the best anyway.
Trifle pudding
And so that was our holiday meal- well worth the effort, and it made for excellent leftovers. We had a wonderful time with our friend, going for walks around the neighborhood to look at holiday lights, watching movies (Chak de with Shah Rukh Khan; my only Hindi movie of 2012 as it turns out), chatting over endless cups of chai. The very best kind of holiday there is, and it went by too fast.

Last night, I woke up when Lila had a bout of coughing (she's recovering from a cold) and then I found myself wide awake for an hour or so, unable to drift back to sleep as I normally do. There's so much to think about- about the year that's gone by, and about the one that's starting on Tuesday, ready or not. 

2012 treated us well as we weaved through many life changes and moments of pure joy- new jobs, new city, new home, a visit from a very dear cousin/niece and aunt/uncle in summer, the births of 3 new babies in the clan, plenty of travel (including a trip to Colorado for my cousin's wedding when Manisha and her husband took us out to dinner- and she's just as lovely and fun a person as her blog would lead you to believe). 

And of course, I have to think back and shed a tear for all the people we lost this year- some near and dear members of our extended family, others like Miri who I knew virtually but who inspired me for real, and yet others that I know of only through headlines and whose loss unfortunately showed humanity's darkest and most brutal side. 

Now 2013 is arriving as a gift, like a brand-new blank notebook whose crisp pages are yet to be filled. I think the world needs more kindness and although I'm not the sort to make resolutions with any seriousness, I nevertheless resolve to be mindful this year, and more kind, to myself and to others. 

I've also been thinking of this blog, and how best to keep up the pace of writing in this space while balancing everything else that's important in my life. And mind you, the list of all-that's-going-on-in-my-life seems to get longer all the time. For instance, I'm going to take up quilting. Sewing machine, here I come. Getting back to the issue of how best to blog regularly, here's my tentative plan. I'm going to post food related posts every Monday. It will be a round up of the week's food highlights. When I have book-related posts, I'll post them on an occasional Thursday and if I have photo-heavy posts for crafts etc., I'll post those on occasional Saturdays. I think having some sort of schedule will keep me from succumbing to Blogger's Block and leaving the blog sad and silent for weeks on end. 

See you on January 7th with the first post of the new year. For 2013, I wish you health above all, and an abundance of food, laughter and joy. Thank you for being part of the One Hot Stove family and letting me be part of your world! 

Friday, December 21, 2012

Book Review: The Meals on Wheels Family Cookbook

In this season of festive gatherings, there's a virtual dinner party going on today, with bloggers cooking different dishes from a new cookbook, Made With Love: The Meals on Wheels Family Cookbook.

Meals on Wheels is a community-based program that delivers nutritious meals to seniors who are unable to make their own. For their cookbook (which aims to raise funds to support their cause), they have gathered up favorite family recipes from a variety of people, including several celebrities and public figures.

The result is a vibrant collection of beloved recipes that are as diverse as you can imagine- simple fixes with store bought ingredients (Mexican pinwheels made simply with tortillas, cream cheese and jarred salsa) and elaborate made from scratch ones (Martha Stewart's recipe for potato pierogi); homely fare (Fried rice with egg) and fancier dishes (Mario Batali's spinach and goat cheese gnocchi).

Like all good family cookbooks, this collection has (a) Funny family stories to back up the recipes, like the one where the noodle kugel recipe was attributed to the wrong aunt, and (b) Recipes with the word "surprise" in it. And of course there's a recipe or two with Jell-O in it.

I've been in baking mode lately, and also in hot-beverage-sipping mode, so I chose to make dunkable cookies- Papa's Mandelbrot, a recipe shared by the food writer Josh Friedland.

I loved the story behind these cookies. Any cookie recipe that comes from the baking repertoire of a beloved grandfather is all right with me. Mandelbrot are traditional Jewish cookies that are very similar to almond biscotti. This recipe was simple and fun to make, using ingredients that are always on hand in my kitchen. I've adapted the recipe to add a touch of salt and some of my favorite extract called Fiori di Sicilia which has notes of citrus and vanilla. I also changed baking times and temps for the second round. Here is the recipe in my own words.

Mandelbrot (Jewish almond cookies)
(Adapted from Made With Love: The Meals on Wheels Family Cookbook)

1. Blanch 1 cup almonds: It was my first time blanching almonds and it was not a pain like I thought it would be. Start with 1 cup raw almonds. Place them in a bowl and cover with boiling water for 3 minutes. Pour off the hot water and add ice cold water. After 5 minutes, press each almond in your fingers and the skin should pop right off. Dry the skinned almonds on a clean dishtowel, then chop roughly and set aside. Or make it easy and simply use 1 cup raw slivered almonds. 

2. In a large bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients:
2.5 cups flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking powder

3. In a medium bowl, whisk together the wet ingredients:
3 eggs
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup canola oil
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 tsp. Fiori di Sicilia (optional; this is an extract with notes of citrus and vanilla)

4. Mix. Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients and mix well. Stir in the chopped blanched almonds. The dough will be thick and sticky. Cover the bowl and refrigerate for 3 hours.

5. Bake once: Preheat oven to 350F. Using oiled hands, divide the dough into 2 portions and pat each one onto a long loaf shaped rectangle on a parchment-covered baking sheet. Bake for 25 minutes.

6. Bake again: Slice each loaf crosswise into 1 inch wide cookies. Lay them cut side down (I needed a second baking sheet this time) and bake at 300F (note reduced oven temperature) for 20 minutes. Flip over and bake with the other cut side down for another 15-20 minutes or until pale golden. These cookies should not be over-baked because they burn easily.

Cool completely and then dunk into a cup of coffee or chai! With just the right amount of sweetness and crunch, I adored these cookies. V thought they were a bit eggy- I didn't. If you're worried about that, increase the amount of vanilla extract. The dough can be embellished with dried fruit or chocolate chips or other spices, but take my word for it- sometimes simple and traditional is as good as it gets.

Disclaimer: I was sent a free copy of the Made With Love: The Meals on Wheels Family Cookbook by the publisher. All opinions expressed are my own. 

I've baked more cookies in the last 2 weeks than I have in the first 49 weeks of 2012. There's definitely something in the air. We had a friend staying over for 2 weeks in our newly furnished guest bedroom. She was in town for work, though, and rarely had time to just hang out. The one evening that she did not have to work, she shyly asked me, "Can we bake after Lila goes to bed?" Of course I gave a little cheer and quickly pulled out butter to soften. We made fruit and nut cookies from King Arthur, using pecans instead of pistachios. They were ever so tasty, mildly sweet and bursting with flavor. I highly recommend this recipe for anyone looking for an easy and tasty cookie this holiday season. All the taste of fruit cakes inside a shortbread cookie. What's more, the dough can be made and refrigerated/frozen for freshly baked cut-and-serve cookies. 

Then last weekend, Neighbor Girl came down to see our new home and spend the weekend with us. She got off the plane, hugged me and said hello and the next thing out of her mouth: "Can we bake World Peace cookies?" We can and we did. With the weather taking a turn towards the wet and chilly side, we stayed home and did all sorts of cozy things, like baking those cookies, and knitting a hat, and watching movies while sipping on soup.

Tiny gifts for Lila's daycare teachers: crocheted face scrubbies
paired with my favorite soap
A third friend is arriving to spend Christmas with us, so excuse me while I log off to continue planning the holiday meals and to go shop for some stocking stuffers. Have a wonderful weekend, all. 

Monday, December 10, 2012

On The Bookshelf: The Reading Challenge Edition

The end of the year is upon us, which means the predictable (and yet, very enjoyable) avalanche of "Best of 2012" lists. I've been going through 2012 book lists such as the NYT 100 notable books of 2012 and the NPR's picks for best books of 2012, and I noticed that I've barely read any of the books on those lists. Maybe those lists are too cerebral for someone who has a soft spot for cozy mysteries, or maybe I'm so far behind that I'm reading the bestsellers from 4 years ago as I spot them in the library. In any case, I hope to read some of the books from these lists in the next year or two. But isn't it nice to know that there is a never-ending supply of books to be read? That's a reason to bounce out of bed every morning.

The end of the year is also the time to sit down and do some delicious planning for 2013. A lot of the book bloggers do these annual reading challenges. Sometimes, the challenge is to read a certain number of books in a year. Other times, the challenges have themes and genres. I've never done reading challenges before but they sound like fun, and I'm signing up to do 3 of them in 2013. Go big or go home, right?

1. Color Coded Challenge 2013 hosted at My Reader's Block.
The rules are to read nine books in 2013, with the following colors in the title.  

1. "Blue" or any shade of Blue (Turquoise, Aquamarine, Navy, etc.)

2. "Red" or any shade of Red (Scarlet, Crimson, Burgundy, etc.)
Salaam Brick Lane by Tarquin Hall

3. "Yellow" or any shade of Yellow (Gold, Lemon, Maize, etc.)

4. "Green" or any shade of Green (Emerald, Lime, Jade, etc.)
How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn

5. "Brown" or any shade of Brown (Tan, Chocolate, Beige, etc.)

6. "Black" or any shade of Black (Jet, Ebony, Charcoal, etc.)
The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey by Walter Mosley

7. "White" or any shade of White (Ivory, Eggshell, Cream, etc.)
Winter's Bone by Daniel Woodrell 
The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

8. Any other color in the title (Purple, Orange, Silver, Pink, Magenta, etc.)
When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr

9. A word that implies color (Rainbow, Polka-dot, Plaid, Paisley, Stripe, etc.).

2.  What's In A Name 6 hosted at Beth Fish Reads.
 Between January 1 and December 31, 2013, read one book in each of the following categories:

1. A book with up or down (or equivalent) in the title
Below Stairs by Margaret Powell

2. A book with something you'd find in your kitchen in the title

3. A book with a party or celebration in the title

4. A book with fire (or equivalent) in the title

5. A book with an emotion in the title

6. A book with lost or found (or equivalent) in the title

3. 7 Continents, 7 Billion People, 7 Books - Reading Challenge 2013 hosted at Life As A Journey.
The challenge: to select and read seven books, each belonging to one of the following categories:
- one of the 7 countries with the most population
- one of the 7 highest countries in the world
- one of the 7 oldest countries of the world
- one of the 7 megacities of the world
- one of the 7 countries with the most immigrants
- one of the 7 richest (or poorest) countries
- one of the 7 most rainy (or dry) countries

If you have any suggestions at all for good reads that fit into these challenge categories, please do leave a comment! I hope to stumble upon some treasures as I try and find books for the categories. I'll keep updating this post with potential books.

Are you tempted to sign up for a reading challenge yourself? A lot of the challenges seem to be posted here on A Novel Challenge.

As for what I've been reading...

I finished Frenchman's Creek by Daphne du Maurier but I did not really enjoy the story. The brash and spoiled heroine who bossed around her servants, the "gentlemanly" pirate- the whole thing was too ludicrous for me.

On the other hand, Room by Emma Donoghue was a very satisfying read. The book was an easy read in the sense that the story, written in the voice of a 5 year old, moved quickly, and I couldn't wait to find out what happened next. It was a tough read in the sense that the author describes a harrowing situation for a mother and child.

Birds of a Feather by Jacqueline Winspear was another terrific read from last week. This time the mystery is much more complex and involved and the story is rich in character and history. I will happily read the rest of this series.

What are you reading? 

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Saturday Snapshot: Birthday Cake

I love baking a cake for each of V's birthdays. Past birthdays have seen everything from a rich chocolate cake to a cheesecake to a Boston cream pie.

This time, it was a Tiramisu Cake, yellow cake drenched in a syrup of espresso and Marsala wine, then sandwiched and frosted with a luscious blend of mascarpone cheese and whipped cream. I used Dorie Greenspan's recipe as posted on Smitten Kitchen. It has all the flavors of traditional tiramisu but with fresh cake instead of the ladyfinger cookies.

I followed the recipe closely with some variations (intended and unintended!)-
1. I did not buy cake flour; instead I made my own cake flour using all purpose flour and cornstarch. One less ingredient in the pantry.
2. Instead of the liqueurs mentioned, I used Marsala wine. I'd lugged a half-full bottle of Marsala wine from my St. Louis pantry just for this.
3.  After reading the comments on that post about the cake needing more syrup, I doubled the amount of syrup. I did not quite end up using all of it, but the extra syrup was soaked up well by the cake.
4. I forgot to add the chocolate in between the layers- ah well. It would have made a good cake even better.
5. I used chocolate covered espresso beans to decorate the cake, instead of cocoa powder. It possibly looked a little childish but the espresso beans were a nice crunchy treat to eat alongside the cake.

The cake was wonderful- fun to make and even more fun to eat. With all that coffee and booze, this cake is a grown up dessert. I think I'll be making this again and again for special occasions.

I'm sending these pictures to Saturday Snapshot.

This weekend, we'll go shopping for V's birthday gift. In past years, I've given him such a spectrum of gifts from an experience gift (a skydive) to a handmade gift (knitted scarf and hat) to supporting his favorite cause (membership to the local public broadcasting station) to electronics (an iPhone). This year, it is furniture! I'm hoping to buy him one of those super comfortable recliners. This hard-working guy deserves to put his feet up in style. V ended up buying an original watercolor painting for his new office from an art fair instead!

Have a wonderful weekend, all! I'm hitting local craft holiday markets today looking for small gifts. We might also put up a little string of lights on the front porch. What are you doing this weekend?

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Hot Cocoa and Tasty Gift Ideas

This week, there seems to be a palpable excitement building in the air. An afternoon walk around the neighborhood yesterday revealed windows adorned with wreaths and neighbors perched on ladders stringing up lights. There is a steady stream of invitations to holiday parties. Store shelves are piled high with holiday confections and shiny baubles. And I'm sitting and thinking of holiday gifts that I want to give and wishes that I want to send, via e-mail or snail mail.

Giving a gift is fun and challenging in equal parts. I think gift-giving reveals how much you really know about a person. And sometimes the one thing you know about a person is that they already have two of everything.

As my darling friend Shoots said, "Turns out my family has enough shoes, hand bags, make-up, watches, wallets, perfumes and liquor to last them a life time so I was thinking of home-made food items as presents."

Excellent idea! The thing about consumable gifts is, you don't have to find a place to store the gift, dust it for eternity or remember to pull it out and display it when the gift-giver visits you. With an edible gift, you simply eat the treat and enjoy the moment.

There are still plenty of things to consider when giving homemade food gifts. Such as- Does the recipient have any dietary restrictions? How far is the gift being shipped and how long will it take to get there? Do they enjoy cooking or baking, in which case they would enjoy getting specialty ingredients like extracts and spices? Do they prefer sweet or savory foods?

A box of homemade cookies/nuts that I gave as a holiday gift a couple of years ago
Here are my top picks for gifts that are being mailed or taken long-distance. I would say that these food items have a shelf-life of at least a week or two.

1. Candy, such as nut brittle, caramels, and toffee. Candy can seem intimidating but it is amazing how easy it is- armed with just an inexpensive candy thermometer, you can whip up unbelievable confections.

2. Low-moisture cookies such as shortbread cookies and biscotti.

3. Boozy cakes such as fruitcake.

4. Mixtures such as chivda and granola.

5. Roasted and spiced nuts, like these spicy-sweet pecans (which should be accompanied by a warning about their addictive potential).

6. Spices, like a homemade garam masala or taco spice or sachets of mulling spices. 

7. Beverage mixes, such as hot cocoa or mocha mix.

One of the tastiest edible gifts I've ever received: dinkache laadu
If you're not shipping stuff but instead giving it to folks locally, there are even more options, because you can give goodies that are best stored under refrigeration, such as truffles and fudge.

A popular edible gift idea is the gift-in-a-jar. These can range from pancake and cookie mixes to lentil soup mix and its cousin, a dal mix. Also, there are the DIY gift baskets which can be endlessly customized, such as a "DIY sundae box" packed with cones, a couple of homemade ice cream sauces and candy toppings. The recipient simply buys ice cream and makes their own sundaes.

Packaging food gifts can be very fun and creative if you have the time. With ribbons, decorative paper and baskets and bows, you can come up with something that looks like it came out of the Harry and David catalog. By the way, I regularly read catalogs cover to cover not because I want to shop but because I'm looking for cute packaging ideas. Not that it matters- people will devour homemade food gifts regardless of whether they're dolled up or not.

Food gifts don't necessarily have to be homemade. If the recipient lives in another place, you can send them a food specialty from your city. My sister made me deliriously happy last year when she got me a huge supply of specialties from two famous food stores in Bangalore and Chennai- spice powders and pastes and snacks. This summer, my aunt visited the US and I gave her a large grocery bag stuffed with my favorite snacks from Trader Joe's- triple ginger cookies and Thai spiced cashews and some other things. She loved them so much that she bought more of those to take back to India for her friends. 

If the food gift is a hit with the recipient, you can send the same thing over and over again! After all, it gets consumed. One of my favorite childhood food memories comes from one of my aunts who visited us once or twice a year. Every time, she would get a big packet of fried banana chips from a shop in her neighborhood. These banana chips were crisp, salty and heavily seasoned with tons of black pepper. It was a double treat- hugging a favorite aunt and then snacking on the banana chips she got without fail.

When I visit my parents, I always take a big bag of roasted pistachios and some dark chocolate for my father. These two treats never fail to please him. A friend of mine has the sweet tradition of baking fig cookies for her father as his birthday present. This is a neat way to get around the question of "what new gift idea can I come up with every time" while keeping the other person perfectly happy.

I think over the years I'll figure out a short list of edible gifts that I am good at making and that are consistently well-received. And then that will be my tradition, to make those things year after year. For now, I tend to experiment and try different recipes every year. I made a hot chocolate mix last year and it was delicious, but when I needed hostess gifts this weekend, I couldn't resist trying a new recipe.

It is the hot chocolate mix originally from Cook's Country but I used malted milk powder instead of regular milk powder. The white chocolate chips melt into the beverage, making it creamy and irresistible. Make a batch of this and be sure to fill up a jar and decorate it with a ribbon just for yourself.

These are the proportions I used:

2 cups malted milk powder
1.5 cups cocoa powder
3/4 cup powdered sugar
1.5 cups white chocolate chips
1 tsp. cornstarch
1/4 tsp. salt

Mix together in a bowl, then process through food processor in 2 batches to make a fine powder.

To make a cup of cocoa, take 1/3 cup cocoa mix into a mug. Add 1 cup hot milk (dairy or non-dairy) and mix well. It helps to add a small amount of hot milk and then whisk all the powder in before adding the rest of the milk. Enjoy a steaming hot mug of cocoa!

Are you giving any edible gifts this year? Are you looking forward to receiving any? What are your greatest  hits? Do you have any fond memories of giving or receiving edible gifts?