Holiday Giving: Little Loaves of Cranberry Bread

jam and bread

This year for Thanksgiving, Scott and I drove down to Virginia to celebrate the holiday with his mother and extended family. We took a variety of treats to Joan, including bread and butter pickles and blondies (sadly, we forgot the pound of grated locatelli she had requested). In return, she sent us home with a big box of books she was finished with, the crystal wine glasses she had gotten for her engagement many years ago and a mini-loaf pan that she wasn’t using.

cranberry bread batter

The wine glasses are beautiful and the books have provided a great deal of pleasure in recent days. However, it was that mini-loaf pan that got my creative juices flowing. I started imagining holiday gift bags that included two or three different loaves of quick breads to accompany a jar of jam.

baked loaves

For my first round of quick bread baked into mini-loaves, I used a recipe for cranberry bread that I’ve made nearly 100 times in my lifetime. It comes from the back cover of a storybook called Cranberry Thanksgiving and I first begged my mom to help me make it when I was six years ago. She was quickly convinced of its virtues and it became a family tradition to make up several loaves of this bread each year and give them to our friends and neighbors for the holidays.

cranberry bread

I’ve altered the recipe a little from the one printed on the book, mostly in an attempt to make it healthier. I use whole wheat pastry flour in place of all-purpose and have reduced the sugar a little (I’m okay with sweets in the morning, but I don’t want to feel like I’m eating straight cake). Typically, I will include toasted pecans in the batter, but left them out this time because my pecans had been in the fridge for some time (at least a year) and had that spongy, fridge taste. Nobody likes that.

The lack of pecans aside, I’m really happy with these little loaves. I took one to brunch with friends this morning and the four year old who was present delighted in unfurling it from its parchment and baker’s string wrappings. She loved that it was sized just for her and the rest of us just liked how good it tasted.

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December Can Jam: Cranberry Marmalade with Dried Apricots

cranberry chutney

I’m not quite sure how it’s possible, but we’ve reached the end of the 2010 Can Jam. I’m not sure if I’m still even eligible to participate, since I’ve gotten my posts up past the deadline the last two times, but it felt strange not to finish things off, so I’m posting a contribution nonetheless.

sliced oranges

As you might guess, due to Wednesday’s potluck, I’ve had The Essential New York Times Cookbook on the brain a bit lately. I’ve had my copy for about two weeks now and even before Amanda Hesser signed it, I found myself carrying it from room to room (granted, we really only have three rooms, so that isn’t as much of a feat as it sounds) so as to always have it near. You know, in case a recipe emergency struck.

cooking the chutney

When it was time to determine what I was going to make for the December Can Jam, it felt right to turn to my new best-friend-in-book-form and see what it had to offer. There’s a whole chapter devoted to Sauces, Dressings, Condiments, Rubs and Preserves, so there was quite a wealth to choose from. Keeping the theme ingredient (dried fruit) in mind, I settled on a recipe for Cranberry Chutney. It called for dried apricots and was quite seasonal to boot.

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Originally designed as part of a low stress Thanksgiving meal, it’s a chutney recipe different from those I’ve encountered in the past. It does not include onions or vinegar, so it doesn’t offer the pucker or sweet-and-savory aspect that so many of us have come to associate with the word chutney. That does not mean, however, that it isn’t worth making. I found it to be quite delicious, though more akin to marmalade than chutney (whole, chopped orange will do that a palate).

cranberry chutney with dried apricots

For once in my life, I followed the recipe fairly devotedly. The one place I deviated is that I did a bit of small batch canning with it. I kept one jar for the fridge (that’s the one you see above) and then filled as second (traditional, with a two-piece lid) pint jar with what remained and water bath canned it for ten minutes (using my handy little asparagus steamer). I did this because while it was quite tasty, there’s no way I’ll be able to work my way through two full pints quickly enough to merit that kind of refrigerator space. Because the recipe was written for Thanksgiving, it did not include directions for canning. However, the recipe is made of up a cacophony of high acid ingredients, so there shouldn’t be a problem. For even longer shelf stability, you could replace some of the honey with sugar.

The recipe is after the jump.

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Amanda Hesser Comes to Philadelphia for a Potluck

The Essential New York Times Cookbook

Last night, a collection of food bloggers, food writers and publishing folk gathered at Audra’s home in West Philly to meet, share food and celebrate Amanda Hesser and her extraordinary new book.

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It was a party many months in the planning. It all started back in August, when Audra and I went up to Brooklyn, to attend a canning party that the fabulous Kate from The Hip Girl’s Guide to Homemaking was hosting. It was there that we met Katarina, who was coordinating the publicity for the book. They were planning a series of potluck events around the country and had been looking for a Philadelphia connection. It was kismet.

Amanda, doing her demo

Audra provided the space and I used my various connections to obtain beer (many thanks to Victory Brewing and their social media guy Dave for bringing such a tasty collection of brews) and pull together a list of possible attendees.

Victory Beer

I must admit, I was pretty jazzed to meet Amanda. Seven years ago, when she was promoting Cooking for Mr. Latte I was working at a job I didn’t particularly like. I spent my days sitting in a basement office that smelled of mildew and the cigarette smoke that blew in from the loading deck 50 feet away. One morning, while answering emails and doing a bit of filing, I found myself listening to a interview between Marty Moss-Coane and Amanda on WHYY.

Amanda and Kristen

In that moment, hearing her talk about her book and the work she did at the New York Times, I felt like a light was coming on in my body. It had never occurred to me that one could actually make their living writing about food. After a lifetime of agonizing over my lack of passion and direction, I suddenly knew what I wanted to work towards.

Audra, Amanda and Marisa

I shared my little story of illumination with Amanda while she was signing my books (I totally made her lose her train of signing thought though) and she didn’t back away or think I was a crazy stalker. Thanks for that Amanda!

my NYT spinach salad

Part of the intention of the potluck was that everyone would bring a dish made from their favorite New York Times recipe. It didn’t have to be one that appeared in the book, just one that had run sometime in the last 150 years. I brought a spinach salad that was first introduced to me by an ex-boyfriend’s mother and has been a favorite of mine since I gushed over it at a lunch in 2003. Two days later, the recipe appeared in the mail, xeroxed from a New York Times cutting.

You finely slice two lemons (rind and all) and marinate them overnight in two tablespoons of sugar and a few pinches of salt (it’s essentially a quick preserved lemon). I recommend sharpening your knife before starting this task. Makes those paper thin slices much easier to do. Just before you’re ready to serve the salad, you dump the lemon and juice out onto a foil-lined cookie sheet and broil it until the liquid gets syrupy and edges of the lemon start to brown. You heap the broiled lemon mess on top of a bowl of hearty spinach, drizzle with olive oil and toss to combine. A little freshly cracked pepper and a bit of honey (if the balance of sweet to tart is out of balance) finish things off.

One thing to note is that this salad requires mature spinach leaves because the heat of broiled lemons cause the greens to wilt pretty quickly. Baby spinach leaves dissolve into mush far too quickly. I realize it might sound a bit intense, but the resulting salad tastes verdant, bitter, sweet and tart all at the same time. It’s a highly appealing combination that always sends people running to the bowl for seconds.

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Canning 101: What to do When a Jar Breaks in the Canner

broken jar

At 11 p.m. last night, I was in my kitchen doggedly trying to complete the canning project I’d started hours before. I’d made stock from a turkey carcass a friend had given me (knowing that I didn’t get a chance to roast a bird, this friend froze his remains for me after all the meat was picked away. I know such good people) and was nearing the end of the process. The stock was strained, defatted, funneled into jars and in the pressure canner when tragedy struck. A jar broke.

I had just put the lid on the pressure canner and was venting it before beginning to raise the pressure when I heard a quiet snap. Though it doesn’t happen to me often, the sound that a jar makes as it cracks is etched into my kitchen existence and I recognized it immediately.

After a few choice expletives (my grandma Bunny called it “work language” and would have certainly approved its use in this circumstance), I pulled the lid off the pot and surveyed the scene. The stock from the broken jar was draining out into the canner and there were several chunks of floating glass. I pulled the good jars and set them on a cutting board (wood is always better in this situation than cold countertops made from granite, marble, steel or even formica). Using tongs, I fished the broken pieces out of the pot. Lifting the pot off the stove, I poured its contents into the sink, rinsed the pot and replaced the necessary water with the hottest my tap could produce.

The pot went back on the stove over the highest heat possible with the lid on. My goal was to raise the temperature of the water back to near-boiling level as quickly as possible, so that my hot jars of stock didn’t have a chance to cool down too much before I was able to put them back in the pot. However, I didn’t want to put them back in before the water had a chance to heat a bit more, since I know that my hot tap water tends to be around 180 degrees and those jars were hovering right around the boiling point. The last thing I wanted to deal with was more broken jars.

When the water was nearly at a boil, I returned the five remaining quarts of stock to the pot and began the process of venting, pressurizing and then monitoring the pressure. It was after 12:30 a.m. when the processing time was up. I was grateful to be able to simply leave the canner to depressurize and cool on its own and headed to bed.

There are important things to be learned from this experience. Here’s what I think the key points are:

  • It’s vital to stay around your stove when canning, particularly in the beginning of the process. Had I strayed a few feet further from the canner, I might not have heard the crack of the jar and wouldn’t have known there was an issue until much later. This is particularly important when pressure canning, because a broken jar can turn into a projectile in the hot, volatile environment of the pot and damage the remaining jars. It also leaked all the stock out into the pot, which drastically changed my carefully controlled liquid level and could have caused issues during processing.
  • Don’t freak out when a jar breaks. Take a moment and a deep breath. You’re already dealing with boiling water and broken glass, don’t add frenzied behavior to the mix.
  • Use your head. Plot out how you’re going to tackle the mess before you start moving pots. You don’t want to be left holding a pot of heavy, boiling water without knowing where it’s going to land.
  • Get the broken glass out of the pot as soon as it is practical. This is particularly key when it comes to pressure canning, but it’s always a good idea. You run an increased risk of more broken jars if you leave it in there to bang around and it may also break into smaller shards. That turns clean-up into even more of a chore. However, if you’re doing a standard boiling water bath and it’s nearly done, you can let it go to completion and deal with the clean-up once the other jars are finished.
  • If you have to temporarily remove full jars from the pot before processing is finished, remember to take care with them. Protect them from heat shock by placing them on a wooden cutting board or towel-lined countertop. If your process was curtailed half way through, know that you’ll have to start your timer from the beginning when you return the jars to the canner.
  • Always look closely at your jars before starting a canning project. In this case, I was using older jars that had already taken a couple of trips through the pressure canner in their life with me. That jar’s lifespan was probably just nearing its end.

Now that you’ve heard my tale of woe, let’s hear your stories of canning misfortune. Have you had a jar break? How did you handle it?

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Dark Days: Veal Cutlets, Sauteed Spinach and Roasted Potatoes

Valentine's Day Meal

The short, chilly days of winter are now upon us and that means just one thing. Time for another round of the Dark Day Challenge, in which participants from all over the country (and world) prepare at least one intentionally local meal per week during the winter and blog about it. The goal is to prove that it’s possible to eat locally, even during the cold months when the verdant abundance of summer is just a memory.

For this first week, I have a meal that’s actually doing double duty for me. It’s the bulk of my article for the February issue of Grid Philly, all about how to have a romantic and tasty home-cooked Valentine’s Day. You’ll have to wait until that issue hits the street (or internet) to get the full details of the menu. However, I can tell you that it was everything you want in a celebratory meal – a little bit special, not at all too hard and very satisfying. It also requires the use of both a knife and a fork, which alone elevates it above more than half the meals I make on a regular basis. All ingredients were sourced from the Fair Food Farmstand at Reading Terminal Market, a highly useful resource for Philadelphia grocery shoppers as they carry nearly everything you need for virtuous eating, all year round.

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Holiday Giving: Homemade Vanilla Extract

vanilla extract ingredients

Thanksgiving is behind us and out here on the East Coast, December is less than an hour away. Sounds to me like a fine time to start talking about homemade, edible gifts (well, as long as you’re prepping for Christmas. For those of you starting your Hanukkah celebrations tomorrow night, well, I’ve failed you miserably).

Now, I know that lots of you spent the summer putting up luscious jams, vivid jellies and puckery pickles to tuck into boxes and baskets. However, I have my suspicions that there are more than a few folks out there just beginning to think about how to cover their gift giving bases. I can empathize, as I am a known procrastinator and truly, if it weren’t for my canning habit, I’d be perpetually stuck for hostess and holiday gifts.

splitting vanilla beans

However, there is hope. One easy, lovely holiday gift that you can get started now and will be ready in plenty of time for Christmas/New Year’s giving is homemade vanilla extract. It’s an amazingly easy thing to do and people are mightily impressed when you present them with a ribbon-wrapped bottle.

Vanilla beans in vodka

Making vanilla extract is as simple as splitting eight or nine beans (although even more is better) and dropping them into a bottle of vodka. Now, I realize that vanilla beans can be a bit spendy. However, if you buy them bulk the price drops impressively. I have found that you can get them on eBay in bundles of 12, 15, 30 or more beans for just a few bucks. Team up with a few friends, order a pound and suddenly whole vanilla beans won’t feel like such a rare commodity anymore.

I like to let the beans steep for at least a couple of weeks before pouring the now-infused booze into the regular-mouth half pints jars. I typically include at least one bean in per jar (though two is even better) that I’m gifting and I like to top each one off with a bit of dark rum, to balance the sharpness of the vodka.

It’s nice to add a tag to the jar before giving it as a gift, instructing the recipient that as they use it, they can keep topping it off with vodka or rum to extend the extract. Eventually the vanilla bean will surrender the entirety of its fragrant virtue, but it can refresh several rounds of booze quite happily.

Updated: Many of you have gotten in touch to say that you don’t think that a couple of weeks is long enough to fully develop the extract flavor. And while I’ve always managed to get good vanilla flavor in that time, I do understand that results can vary. If you don’t think the vanilla extract is sufficiently vanilla-y when the gift exchanges arrive, you can still bottle it up and give it away. Just let your recipients know that it may need a bit more time to get appropriately fragrant and flavorful. Asking people to wait prior to use does nothing to the thoughtfulness and eventual utility of the gift.

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