All is quiet

This year has gone so quickly and I wanted to wish everyone a very happy new year. The holidays, like always, have gone by in a blur and here I am, early new year's eve morning, typing away. All is quiet here in Michigan, a fresh blanket of snow covers the beach and we're spending our last day skiing the tiny hills of a local mid-west ski resort.

Here is a recipe for a tried and tested mulled wine, one that says "happy holidays to you and yours" in a glass. I love the combination of the sharp citrus with the sweetness of the sugar and vanilla. When guests walk in the door wrapped in hats and gloves against the cold, they will be hit by an aroma that is instantly welcoming.

Mulled Wine
Adapted from Jamie Oliver

2 clementines, peel and juice
peel of one lemon
peel of one lime
1 1/4 cups sugar
6 whole cloves
1 cinnamon stick
3 fresh bay leaves
1 whole nutmeg or 2 tsp of ground nutmeg
1 whole vanilla pod, halved
2 star anise
2 bottles of Chianti or other Italian red wine

Peel large sections of your clementines, lemon and lime using a vegetable peeler. Put a large pan over medium heat and add the sugar, peel and then the juice of the two clementines. Throw in all other ingredients other then the star anise and wine. If grating a whole nutmeg, grate about 10 to 12 gratings into the mix. Pour in just enough wine to cover the sugar and bring to a boil. This will produce a flavored syrup that infuses the rest of your wine without cooking off the alcohol.

Keep this boiling for about 4-5 minutes until the sugar has dissolved and it's a nice thick syrup consistency. Once this has cooled slightly, turn down the heat to very low and add the star anise and the rest of the two bottles of wine.

Let the wine warm slowly. This should take about five minutes and you'll be ready to ladle them into welcoming glasses. I like to make this ahead and then warm it up when I know guests will be arriving.

Thank you all for reading my blog in 2009.... I'm looking forward to 2010!


It's on

It's on. Christmas is officially back on and my in-laws are due to fly in this Wednesday. Seeing as we've overcome several hurdles to get to this point, I'm approaching the cooking that this holiday requires with a calmness that is very unlike me. The week of cooking seemed to get kick started yesterday as I was preparing some pizzettes (mini-pizzas) for our neighborly holiday party.

I am hoping that the near disaster that occurred two minutes before we were due to head upstairs to the party is not a sign of things to come. As I went to fetch the innocent looking baking sheet from the very hot oven, I blinked and one entire tray of mini pizzas were upended on the oven door. With my face melting, I carefully salvaged all but one offensive pizza who's toppings were smeared across the oven's glass window. Mental note: add oven cleaner to the holiday shopping list.

Tis the season for get-togethers and festive gatherings of family, friends and co-workers. I am constantly in search for nibbles that will taste great with a cocktail or glass of wine. We decided to do a cocktail party for Christmas Eve at my sister's place and I'll be taking Ina Garten's roasted shrimp cocktail, some roast beef and arugula crostini and home-made chicken meatballs with peperonata.

These pizzettes, from Italian beauty Giada De Laurentiis, are perfect two-bite cocktail accompaniments. They use ready-made pizza dough that you can find pretty much anywhere these days. The last thing you want to be making from scratch at this time of year is pizza dough. Here's a helpful tip though: Make sure when you're rolling out the dough to use enough flour on both sides so that it doesn't stick to your counter-top and so the circles hold their shape.

I made three different toppings, but you can try a multitude of combinations depending on your tastes. Giada's toppings included caramelized onions, goat cheese and prosciutto and another with gorgonzola, cherry tomatoes and basil. I added a third topping combo with fresh ricotta, rosemary, red grapes and local honey from Heritage Prairie Market.

For the three recipes below, I actually bought 2 balls of store-bought pizza dough and got about 40 circles out of them and split them between the three different toppings.

Pizzettes with Caramelized Onion, Goat Cheese and Prosciutto
Adapted from Everyday Italian by Giada De Laurentiis

1 ball of store-bought pizza dough (12-16 oz)
3 large onions, sliced
3 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp each of kosher salt, ground black pepper, herbs de Provence and sugar
1/2 cup crumbled goat cheese
5 slices of prosciutto cut into 2x2 inch pieces
handful of parsley, chopped for garnish
2 1/2 inch round cookie cutter (or you can use a glass about the same size and a sharp knife)

Start your onions first. These will take about an hour, so I started mine in the morning. In a heavy skillet, add the oil over low heat and combine the onions, salt, pepper, herbs de Provence and sugar. Stir together and cook over a very low heat for about an hour. Stir them occasionally until they become caramelized and are a dark, gooey golden brown.

Preheat the oven to 475F. Roll out your dough on a well floured surface until it is a 1/4 inch thick round. Using your cookie cutter or the top end of a glass, cut out the circles and place them on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.

Top each dough circle with a spoonful of your caramelized onions and then some of the crumbled goat cheese. Don't add the prosciutto until after they come out of the oven.

Bake for about 10 minutes until the golden and bubbly. Top with the prosciutto pieces and place them on a serving tray. Chop the parsley and scatter over the entire platter and serve immediately.

Pizzettes with Gorgonzola, Cherry Tomatoes and Basil
Adapted from Everyday Italian by Giada De Laurentiis

1 ball of store-bought pizza dough
1/2 cup gorgonzola, crumbled
3 oz cherry tomatoes, quartered
handful of basil leaves, torn into pieces
2 tsp extra-virgin olive oil
salt and pepper

Follow the instructions above for the pizza dough and top each round with a spoonful of crumbled gorgonzola. On top of the gorgonzola, place 2-3 tomato quarters.

Bake at 475F for 10 minutes until golden and bubbly. Remove from the oven and place on a serving platter. Season with salt and pepper. Drizzle with the olive oil and sprinkle the basil leaves over the entire platter.

Serve immediately.

Pizzettes with Ricotta, Rosemary, Red Grapes and Local Honey

1 ball of store-bought pizza dough
15 oz tub of ricotta cheese
2 tbsp rosemary, finely chopped
1 cup of red grapes, sliced in half
2 tbsp honey
salt and pepper

Follow the instructions above for the pizza dough and top each round with a spoonful of the ricotta cheese. Season with salt and pepper and sprinkle the cheese with a pinch of rosemary. Top the cheese with 2-3 red grape slices and bake for 10 minutes at 475F until golden and bubbly.

Drizzle with honey and remove to a serving platter. Sprinkle over a little rosemary to garnish.

Serve immediately.


In limbo

I am currently in a state of limbo. My in-laws are due to fly over from London next week and with an airline strike looming, we're wondering if it will be a Christmas dinner for 5 or a lonely dinner for 2. We are all trying to be positive and hope that they will arrive, as planned, with all of their newly bought winter attire and ready to face the Chicago cold. When I put it in perspective, planning the Christmas meal at the last minute is the least of my worries. I know that if pushed, we'll all pitch in and make it happen. My sister-in-law, Helen, will definitely be put in charge of the roast potatoes. She is a potato fanatic. As long as there are a few cold roast potatoes and sausages left in the fridge Christmas night, I'm pretty sure she doesn't care what was served hot on the table.

In preparation for the holidays, I spent a weekend at my sister's with my two Aunts, Patty and Michelle, making Christmas cookies. I adore spending time in the kitchen with these ladies, sipping wine and chit-chatting. We managed to make 8 tins of cookies in one afternoon. The following are are a few recipes that are perfect for this time of year to either have around the house during Christmas or to give as gifts.

If you're like me, I spend a lot of time during December gathering recipes for parties, family gatherings and gift giving. I like to incorporate the new with the old, incorporating family recipes that are made every year with new ones to keep it exciting. Over the next week I'll be sharing a few recipes that are essential in my kitchen this time of year.

My Aunts spent the night before they arrived at my sister's making the dough for the Neapolitan Christmas Bars. These shortbread cookies are unbelievably tasty. In fact, many of them did not make it to the tins. The recipe came from my Aunt Patty's friend, Karen Howard, from LA and date back to 1983.

I brought Triple-Ginger cookie dough (in lieu of making gingerbread) with me. I made these after seeing them in the latest issue of Bon Appetit.

Click on the link above to see the recipe. I made the dough balls smaller so we could maximize the number of cookies. It says it makes 40 but we got about 60 smaller cookies out of the recipe.

They turned out perfectly chewy and packed a mighty spicy punch with the combination of cinnamon, ground ginger, ground cloves, grated fresh ginger and crystallized ginger.

We made the Spritz dough on-site. These cookies are a permanent fixture in my childhood Christmas memories. My Mom would always make these and chocolate chip cookies. We made them on the day because the dough cannot be refrigerated and we needed to use a cookie press. You can get a cookie press at most places that sell baking gear.

My sister, Stacia, is a great baker of cookies. You can always find some home-made cookie dough in her freezer ready to thaw and pop in the oven. I have a feeling this habit will come in handy as her 11 month-old twins grow older. I inherited most of my Mom's cookbooks, but there is one special book that had Stacia written all over it. It is the Better Homes and Gardens Cookies and Candies circa 1969. The Spritz cookies come from this book and she makes these sugar cookies every year.

I know that Christmas cookies are a thing of tradition, but I urge you to add these to your holiday cookie recipe collection.

Neapolitan Christmas Bars
Makes about 60 cookies

2 cups sifted all purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
2/3 cup unsalted butter at room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 egg
1 tsp good vanilla extract
1 square of unsweetened chocolate, melted
1/4 cup finely chopped maraschino cherries, well drained from their juices
1 or 2 drops of red food color
1/4 cup of finely chopped pecans or walnuts

Don't forget that the dough has to be refrigerated overnight for this recipe.

Sift the flour with the baking powder and salt and set aside. In a large bowl, beat the butter until light with an electric mixer. Gradually beat in the sugar and add the vanilla. Continue beating until the mixture is very light and fluffy.

At a low speed, beat in half of the flour mixture and mix the rest with hand to form the dough.

Divide the dough into thirds and place in separate bowls. Add the chocolate to one bowl, the cherries and food color to the second and the nuts to the third bowl. Combine until completely mixed through.

Turn out the dough separately onto a lightly floured surface and divide in half. With hands, shape each half into a 7 inch long roll and flatten each roll to a 2 inch width. Stack a layer of each on top of each other and press lightly. Repeat. This should make about four separate sections of dough.

When you're ready to bake, preheat your oven to 375F and slice the dough in 1/8 inch pieces to produce a cookie that shows each of the three layers. Lay them on a non-stick baking sheet and cook for 10 minutes. They should be cooked through, and only slightly starting to turn golden. You don't want to over-cook these.

Spritz Cookies
Makes 5 Dozen

1 1/2 cup unsalted butter at room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
1 egg
1 tbsp milk
1 tsp good vanilla extract
1/2 tsp almond extract
4 cups sifted all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
Colored sugar sprinkles in green and red

Preheat the oven to 400 F.

In a large bowl, cream together the butter and sugar with an electric mixer. Add the egg, vanilla and almond extracts. Beat well. Sift together the flour and baking powder and gradually add to the butter mixture, mixing until you get a smooth dough. DO NOT CHILL.

Using a cookie press, force the dough through it and onto an un-greased cookie sheet. This may take a little practice, but it's easy to get the hang of. Sprinkle each cookie with colored sugar.

Bake for about 7-8 minutes until just turning slightly golden.


Season's spice

I have no idea where the first part of December has gone, but all of a sudden, I look back and the last I've posted was Thanksgiving. A quick blink of the eye sees me wrapped in my eskimo coat and thanking my lucky stars for a nice warm fire to sit beside. As busy as we all are at this time of year, it's easy to cut a few corners just to stay above water. If I break down my holiday to-do list, I end up savoring every little chore- even writing and addressing cards. I can remember several years when my own Mother did not send out Christmas cards (shock/horror) and she was rewarded with a case of shingles the other side of New Year's Eve.

Having learned from that lesson, I decided that in order to tackle the holiday properly, one must start early and take your time. There's no reason to work yourself into a tizzy right before you're supposed to be relaxing and enjoying yourself.

Two years ago, I started making homemade Christmas gifts for close family and friends as a way of sharing a little bit of my kitchen with them during the festive season. As usual, I have referred to Nigella Lawson and her excellent gift ideas. Homemade gifts may seem like an extravagance, but I've found it ends up saving money and is so much more thoughtful than the obligatory bottle of booze (which isn't to say that booze isn't welcome during the holidays.)

2007 was my last Christmas in London and I made chutney delivered in little mason jars with a cheese knife and a block of mature Montgomery cheddar from Neal's Yard. If there is one place I miss most in London, it is Borough Market with its vibrant food stalls and delicious smells wafting from every direction. At Christmas time, there are carols being sung and vin chaud available to sip until you have no choice but be moved into the holiday spirit.

2008 saw a return of the chutney as I had moved state-side and all of my family had heard of it, but had yet to taste it. This time, my then very-pregnant sister sipped tea from my sofa while I dolloped the chutney into jars and she tied them up in pretty tea towels as packages.

This year, I have strayed from the edible gift and moved to the drinkable, which I feel will go down a storm among those around me. This spiced chilli vodka will not only dazzle when presented to the lucky receiver because of its floating cinnamon stick and red chilli, but it will be welcomed when a festive tipple is ready to be poured.

By all means, this is made to be the base layer of a well-rounded bloody mary (see last post for bloody mary inspirations.) You may also find it goes well with a little tonic and a squirt of lime. Please let me know how you use it!

I ordered my glass flasks from the Container Store but if you can't get them there (or you're in the UK), then I would just recommend getting something that holds a 1/2 liter of vodka. I also purchased a small funnel, so keep that in mind if you don't already have one. In order to sterilize the bottles, I put them in my dishwasher (without soap of course) or you can follow these instructions.

Chilli Vodka
Adapted from Nigella Christmas by Nigella Lawson
Makes enough for one 1/2 liter bottle

2 cups of vodka (I use Svedka)
1 dried red chilli
1 tsp coriander seeds
3 cardamom pods, crushed
1 cinnamon stick

Sterilize the bottles (see above). Drop all of the spices into the bottle and pour the vodka in. You may need a little extra vodka to fill to the bottom of the neck of the bottle. Close the container and let it sit in a cool place for about a week.

You'll notice in this picture that I made the one on the far right last. They'll become a darker auburn color as time goes on, mainly from the cinnamon stick.

Serve with tomato juice (and all the fixin's) for a festive bloody mary!