Friday, December 10, 2010

Peanut Butter Buckeyes

I love, love, love when something makes me look good - and even better? When it's ridiculously delicious, super easy and makes me look not just good, but brilliant. The first time I made these peanut butter buckeyes I realized that this was one of those concoctions.

A buckeye is simply a candy made from peanut butter, rolled into a ball and dipped in chocolate. What you end up with is like a Reese's Cup, but one that has been dressed up for the prom. The peanut butter is smooth, sweet and creamy, and they're robed in a semi sweet chocolate coating. They're adorable to look at, easy to produce, and the taste is out of this world.

I took these to so many parties, and delivered so many boxes at the holidays (by request!) that I *almost* got tired of them. Because no matter how many thousands I made, I always found myself going back to the fridge for just one more....they're that good. And if the kids find out I've been making buckeyes, well then Nelly bar the door. My oldest son will do anything - and I do mean anything - for these. Want the yard raked? Windows washed? Floors swept? Buckeyes. And when I say these are good - let me just say these will make a teenager keep his room clean. Bombshell in little balls, dipped in chocolate.

The Recipe!

You'll need:

•1 1/2 cups creamy peanut butter

•1 stick butter, room temperature

•3 cups powdered sugar*

•pinch of salt

•1 12 ounce package semi sweet chocolate chips

•2 tablespoons shortening

1.In the bowl of an electric mixer, blend together peanut butter, butter and the pinch of salt. Mix until very smooth and fully combined.

2.Add about half of the powdered sugar, blending on low until incorporated. Add enough additional sugar, 1/2 cup at a time, until the mixture is stiff enough to hold a ball when rolled out. You may also add additional sugar to taste, but too much will make the centers crumbly instead of creamy. I normally stop at about three cups.

3.Once the sugar is fully incorporated, roll the mixture into balls about 1 inch in diameter. A small scooper or disher is perfect for this, or a tablespoon works well. They're prettiest in a group when they are even.

4.Melt chocolate and shortening together in the microwave, using 30 second bursts, and stirring well. You want it just to come together and be smooth.

5.Stick each peanut butter ball on a toothpick, and dip into the melted chocolate to cover 3/4 of the ball. The point is that they look like real buckeyes. Transfer to a waxed paper lined sheet and allow to dry.

6.Store in the fridge, although they taste best at room temperature, so allow to sit out for a few minutes before serving. If you wish, smooth over the little spot made by the toothpick before giving as gifts.

*You may need a bit more powdered sugar, up to 5 cups. This recipe is to taste, and the amount needed to make the peanut butter centers the consistency you wish.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Asian Chicken Wraps

The first time I had a lettuce wrap was several years ago at my friend Diane's house. I have no idea now what she had done, but there was a variety of fillings and they were absolutely delicious. I love Asian flavors to begin with, and the crisp lettuce against the pungent, sharp and spicy fillings was delightful.

Several years before that I had found Larb Gai, a Thai chicken salad that is served as a street food, wrapped in crisp fresh cabbage leaves. The salad is spicy, light, tangy and delicious, and quickly became one of my favorite all time dishes.

Like many stir fry recipes, this one seems to have a long list of ingredients, but most of the prep time for this one comes in the chopping. I find the easiest thing to do is to simply line all ingredients up on the counter, and measure out the sauce, then chop all the vegetables at once.

This dish comes somewhere between the two mentioned above - it contains a stir fried chicken like the larb gai, but has milder flavors (although they can be as spicy as you wish!). Instead of several fillings I've simplified it into one, served warm with a fabulous dipping sauce. Try this one - the flavors are out of this world, and you'll add it to your own list of favorites in no time!

You'll Need:

for the sauce:

•1/2 cup soy sauce

•2 tablespoons rice or black vinegar

•2 tablespoons minced garlic

•2 tablespoons minced ginger

•1 tablsepoon garlic chili paste

•1 tablespoon plum sauce

•1 tablespoon mirin

•1 tablespoon fresh cilantro, minced

•2 teaspoons toasted sesame seeds

•1 teaspoon sesame oil

For the stir-fry:

•2 tablespoons canola oil

•1 pound skinless, boneless chicken, diced

•1/2 cup carrot, diced

•1/2 cup celery, diced

•1/2 cup bell pepper, diced

•1/2 cup sugar snap peas, thinly sliced

•1/2 cup onion, diced

•1/2 teaspoons minced peeled ginger

•1 teaspoon minced garlic

•1/2 cup mushroom caps, sliced

•2 tablespoons green onions, diced

•2 tablespoons peanuts, chopped

•Iceberg or butter lettuce leaves, or fresh green cabbage, for wrapping

1.Start with combining all ingredients for the sauce. Stir and set aside. Stir again before adding to the chicken.

2.In a large skillet or wok over high heat, stir fry the chicken until cooked through, about 3-4 minutes or so.

3.Add the carrot, celery, pepper, peas and onion and and stir fry until just crisp tender, about 2-3 minutes.

4.Add the garlic, mushrooms and ginger. Add 1/3 cup of the prepared sauce, and allow to cook for about 1 minutes, until the chicken and vegetables are well coated and the sauce has thickened slightly.

5.Place the stir fy in a large serving bowl, and top with the nuts and green onion.

6.Serve the stir fry with lettuce leaves or cabbage. Serve with the remaining sauce.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Pumpkin Bread

Pumpkin Pie is nearly de riguer for fall holiday tables, but there's no need to relegate this wonderful vegetable to a once a year desert. There are plenty of other ways to have the warm yumminess of pumpkin - and this quick bread is a perfect example. it takes only a few minutes to throw together, and makes several loaves - plenty enough to share, or stash the extras in the freezer for up two weeks. This bread is absolutely delicious - you won't have the extra around for long.

Moist, sweet and the color of warm honey, pumpkin bread also smells divine - it's like a holiday in a loaf pan. It's best if you have fresh pumpkin, but if you don't, the canned pumpkin is of such high quality that you'll still get great results. I love to make quick breads for my children for their after school snacks, and this pumpkin bread gets not only rave reviews, but requests for frequent repeat appearances. Try it for yourself and you'll quickly see why!
You'll Need:

•3 cups canned pumpkin puree

•1 1/2 cups vegetable oil

•4 cups white sugar

•6 eggs

•4 3/4 cups all-purpose flour

•1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

•1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda

•1 1/2 teaspoons salt

•1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

•1 1/2 teaspoons freshly grated nutmeg

•1 1/2 teaspoons ground allspice

1.Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and flour three 9x5 inch loaf pans.

2.In a large bowl, beat together the pumpkin, oil, sugar, and eggs. In a separate bowl, combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice; stir into the pumpkin mixture until well blended. Don't overmix! Divide the batter evenly between the prepared pans.

3.Bake in preheated oven for 45 minutes to 1 hour. A skewer inserted into the center of the loaf should come out clean and the top be slightly springy when pressed.

Pumpkin Pie

Nothing is more evocative of fall and the holidays than pumpkin pie. It's the first dish most kids associate with Thanksgiving, and quite probably the only time they'll voluntarily eat squash of any kind. Silky, warm and filling, it's a comfort food worthy of it's place on the top of everyone's lists.

Pumpkin Pie is a custard pie - meaning that a liquid filling is poured into a partially baked pie shell and baked until the filling has set. The richness comes from the eggs and half and half. Evaporated milk can be substituted for some of the half and half if you wish, as can cream if you want it more rich. The 'set' of the custard during baking is due to the eggs.

You can certainly use a prepackaged pie crust, although the link in the recipe explains how to make one from scratch, and it only takes a moment. You can use a graham cracker crust as well - the flavor with the pumpkin is wonderful. Whatever you'd like - this is a pretty forgiving pie. Just try not to over bake it - you want to pull it when the very center is still just a little wobbly. The pie will finish baking with carryover cooking once you pull it from the oven.

The Recipe!

You'll Need:

•1 8 ounce package of cream cheese, room temperature

•2 cups pureed pumpkin - canned is fine if you don't have fresh

•1 small banana, roasted

•1 cup sugar

•1/2 teaspoon salt

•1 whole egg plus 2 egg yolks, slightly beaten

•1 cup half-and-half

•1/4 cup (1/2 stick) melted butter

•1 teaspoon vanilla extract

•1 teaspoon cinnamon

•1/2 teaspoon allspice

•pastry for a nine inch pie

•fresh whipped cream

1.Preheat the oven to 350F.

2.Fit the pie dough into the nine inch pie pan, crimping the edges. Press the dough gently into the bottom of the pan and along the sides. Place in the fridge to chill for at least half an hour.

3.Trip a piece of aluminum foil to fit the pie crust - making sure it's filled competely. Fill the shell with pie weights or dried beans. Bake for ten minutes with the foil and beans, then remove the foil and beans and bake for another ten minutes. You just want the pie dough to have begun to set and color, but not be cooked through. You can roast the banana while the pie crust bakes - it just needs 30 minutes in a 350F oven with the skin left on.

4.Meanwhile, place cream cheese in the bowl of a mixer. Beat it until soft and beginning to turn fluffy. Add pumpkin and banana and mix well. Add the sugar and salt, and beat well. Add the eggs, half and half and butter, mixing just until combined. Add cinnamon and allspice, scraping down the sides of the bowl to make sure everything is well incorporated.

5.Pour the pumpkin mixture into the pie crust, and place it back in the oven. The pie will take approximately 50-60 minutes for the center to become set. The pie can be served either at room temperature or well chilled. Be generous with the whipped cream though!

The Classic Martini

The martini is quit probably THE quintessential cocktail. Gin, a touch of vermouth, an olive and in the glass. There are hundreds of drinks now, especially with the artisanal cocktail movement, that are called martinis, but in my opinion there are really only three variations allowed. Anything more just isn't a martini anymore.

Now note that I said gin. I mean it. Lots of people make martinis with vodka, and if that's your thing, more power to you. But despite the fact that the nature of my culinary philosophy is to substitute at will, in this case I draw the line. A true martini is a gin martini. There. I've made my stand.

One of the three allowable variations is the amount of vermouth that's added. If you like less vermouth, then you're after what's known as a dry martini - the less vermouth the drier. I personally have been known to simply wave the bottle of vermouth over the gin - which is about as dry as it gets. To make what's known as a 'perfect' martini, then use equal parts sweet and dry vermouth. In either case, keep the vermouth to a minimum. It quickly will overwhelm the flavor of the gin.

You can also swap out the olive for pickled onion - in this case the drink is then known as a Gibson. The Gibson is also known as being the drink favored by those who really don't want a drink, but who don't want others to know they aren't partaking. Chilled water garnished with a pickled onion looks exactly like the regular cocktail. The story goes a businessman invented this 'version' during three-martini lunches with his competition - allowing him to keep a clear head while his competitors got tipsy.

One final small variation which, in my own humble opinion, is perfectly allowable is the 'dirty' martini or dirty Gibson. In this case, a small splash of the brine from the olives or onions is added to the shaker, and the resulting cocktail is known as a Dirty Martini. Or Gibson. So if you'd like you can order a martini dry and dirty, or just dirty, or just dry - and in any case you still have a martini.

Now don't get me wrong - the myriad of other cocktails which are known as 'martinis' of various kinds are wonderful. I think Appletinis are great, and one of the finer things in which I've ever partaken is a Chocolate martini made with Godiva liqueur. But these drinks honestly share only the glass in which they are served with the classic martini. So if you go to your favorite friendly neighborhood bartender, and order a martini, you should get exactly what I outlined in the recipe.

It's also critical in this case to use really good gin or vodka. Unlike most cocktails, where the liquor is covered up with the flavors of various mixers, in the case of a martini you taste almost nothing but the gin or (if you must) vodka. Therefore get the highest possible quality. It really matters here.

I also want to weigh in here on the shaken vs. stirred thing. I doubt I've seen more than two James Bond movies in my life, and don't think I've ever heard him actually utter his famous 'shaken, not stirred' line. But he's right. A martini made without the shaker just doesn't taste the same. I'd love to hear from someone who can tell me why, but the extra 30 seconds it takes to shake the martini with ice makes a big difference in the final product. Invest a couple of dollars in a cocktail shaker, and take the few seconds to shake it. You'll be glad you did.

You'll Need:

2 1/2 ounces Gin

1/4 ounce Dry Vermouth

1 green olive OR a twist of lemon peel

a handful of ice cubes

Into a cocktail shaker, drop the ice cubes, then measure in the Gin and Vermouth.

Cap the shaker, and shake well for at least 30 seconds. You're looking for the shaker to begin to frost.

Strain and pour into a martini glass. Add the olive in the bottom of the glass or lemon peel twist on the edge, and enjoy!