Friday, December 19, 2008

My 20 Things - Christmas Edition

Over at the blog The Inspired Room (which I love), Melissa's asked us to consider the little things that make Christmas special. This was a good exercise for me; there's been a lot of sadness this season (my friend's suicide, my 20-year-old cat's passing), but there's also been a lot of joy. A lot of it has just come from the simple things, and stopping to notice them.

Here's my list (in no particular order, btw), and I encourage you to go over to The Inspired Room and read more lists - then make your own.

1.) Smelling the scent of a real Christmas tree.
2.) Stealing the candy canes off the Christmas tree.
3.) Seeing the elaborate displays in the lobbies of buildings throughout San Francisco’s Financial District.
4.) Eating fondue on Christmas Eve.
5.) Attending Christmas Eve mass.
6.) Helping to decorate the church for Christmas Eve mass.
7.) Dressing Stelladog in a Mrs. Claus costume.

8.) Always having tons of candy in the break room at work.
9.) Listening to the soundtrack from The Charlie Brown Christmas Special.
10.) Watching The Charlie Brown Christmas Special!
11.) Viewing the gorgeous red lights on the huge tree outside my office window.
12.) Santarchy!
13.) Adding to my collection of ornaments in the annual Ornament Exchange with my Mom and sisters.
14.) Topping the tree with my wooden and tin star, so heavy that the tree ends up bending at the top every year.
15.) Reveling in that quiet that settles over everything as people start leaving for their vacations.
16.) Attending the Dickens Christmas Fair.
17.) Eating Starbucks gingerbread - with the thick spread of cream cheese frosting dotted with crystallized ginger
18.) Having my friends over for our annual Christmas party - lots of goofiness and playing games.
19.) Picking out just the right gift for people I love.
20.) Watching my daughter carefully unpack and set up her little snow village of ceramic houses, people and trees.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Cookie Exchange

Here is my haul from yesterday's office Cookie Exchange:

As you can see, I made out like a bandit. (Actually, I had a lot more but I gave about half to J, because I am an awesome best friend.)

I had never been to a cookie exchange before. Basically, you brought a dozen or so cookies, and the recipe if you wanted, as well as a container to take your cookies home. We laid each type of cookie out on trays, with labels. Then each of us told the story of our cookies - why we chose them. what was special about them and any baking tips. We then descended on the table, and however many cookies you brought was how many you were supposed to take.

Except no one followed that rule and everyone yelled at me for counting.

Our extras were sold that afternoon to raise money for a needy family.

My favorites, above, were the prettily-decorated sugar cookies on the right, and the chocolate-drizzled meringues on the left. Also in there are my friend Risey's cran-white chocolate-oatmeal-deliciousness cookies (they probably have a better name). None of my little hamburgers made it home with me, having been dipped in mine and J's tea.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Salt Butter Cookies

First of all, forgive the quality (or lack thereof) of these photos. My camera's having fits, and I'm stuck with the iPhone for now. Still, I wanted to get you the recipe for these little babies:

These are the cookies I made for the cookie exchange at work, and they were pretty tasty, if I do say so myself. They're called "Grandma Sylvia's Salt Butter Cookies" and are from the America's Lost Recipes cookbook.

Now, this name kind of sucks, to be honest. I guess it's named for the fact that you use salted instead of unsalted butter, but they're really more like Rich and Buttery, Whiskey-Tinged, Chocolate-Filled Sandwich Cookies of Absolute Fabulousness. (Or, as my co-workers immediately named them "the little hamburgers".)

Not "Salt Butter Cookies". Lame. But whatever.

Here's the recipe:

2 egg yolks
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon whiskey
1 cup (2 sticks) salted butter, room temperature
2/3 cup granulated sugar
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 ounce unsweetened chocolate, broken into pieces
1/4 cup boiling water (from the kettle)
2 cups confectioners' sugar

1.) Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.
2.) In a small bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, vanilla and whiskey. Set aside.
3.) In a mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar together until fluffy.
4.) Beat in the yolk mixture.
5.) Add the flour and beat until incorporated.
6.) Shape the dough into 3/4-inch balls* and place 1 inch apart on the cookie sheet.
7.) Bake until lightly browned around the edges, 10 to 12 minutes.
8.) Cool on the baking sheet for 2 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely, about 1 hour.
9.) When the cookies are cool, pour the boiling water over the chocolate pieces, stirring until completely smooth.
10.) Stir in the confectioners' sugar until smooth.
11.) Spread 1 teaspoon of filling on one cookie and top with another cookie, pressing them together. Repeat with remaining cookies.
12.) Let the filling set until hardened, about 20 minutes, before serving.

These will keep in an airtight container for up to three days. They're also astonishingly good dipped in tea.

*Make the balls smaller than you think they should be. If you make them too big, the little domes will seem fine on the cookie sheet, but will be kind of a mouthful when they're stuffed with chocolate and stacked on top of each other.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008


At the risk of giving away this year's Christmas gifts, I wanted to introduce you to:


This is one of the best sites I've come across in a long time. It basically allows you to create your own cookbook, but it does so in an easy, elegant way. It's head and shoulders above any publishing tool I've used before, and it's dedicated solely to cookbooks.

Basically, you create a "Tastebook" and can fill it with your own recipes or recipes that you choose from their site. They have thousands of recipes from a lot of the big "names" in food. You just drag and drop them into your Tastebook. Or, you write your own, with room for your own personal description, photos and more. The font and design is very clean and professional-looking.

Then, you have them print off as few or as many books as you want - all hardbound binders that let you take the pages out and replace them.

And here's the cool part:

Say you order a 100-recipe Tastebook (for $35), but you only have 30 recipes. They will credit you for the other 70 recipes. Later, you can fill in those recipes and have them send you the recipe pages to pop in your Tastebook. You only pay for shipping.

No, I am not affiliated with them at all, but I did create my own cookbook with them. I took over 80 of the recipes that worked out great or that I make all the time and turned them into a Tastebook, complete with my own commentary on each of the recipes. Not only are they destined for gifts, but I'm excited about having them all in one place!

If you cook a lot, or just want a cool gift idea, I would definitely check them out.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Yule Goat!

Behold my favorite Christmas decoration ever: the Yule Goat!

I picked him up a couple of years ago at IKEA, which is appropriate, since the Yule Goat (or Julbok) is a distinctly Nordic tradition. Being Swiss means I'm not actually Nordic, but when it comes to being able to stick a big straw goat on my table and call it Christmas, I make an exception.

The Julbok originated in pagan times, presumably tied to the god Thor, whose chariot was pulled by two strong goats. There are lots of "Yule bucking" traditions that involve blackface, pretending to slaughter one of your neighbors, and cake. I'm not real clear on how they all fit together, but you can look at this Wikipedia entry for more info.

(Funny, there's also a tradition of hiding a small Yule goat in your neighbor's house and seeing how long he takes to find it. I may start that tradition at work...)

In many towns in Sweden, they erect a giant Yule goat in the town square, and see if it can survive until Christmas before vandals burn it down. (Pretty sure that wasn't the original intention of the tradition, but that's how it's turned out.) The vandals get REALLY creative, and so do the towns in trying to prevent the torching.

The most famous of these is the city of Gavle, which has had a goat for years, and has about a 50% record of reaching Christmas versus early firey death. One of Gavle's fire-prevention methods has turned into one of my absolute favorite personal Christmas traditions. I bring you...


Yes, the Gavle Goat has its very own webcam! (Plus, the word "bockenkamera" is right up there with "wunderbar" as the coolest non-English words EVAR.)

It's one of those 1998-style ones, too, where you have to refresh every few seconds. ("Look, the blue car moved!") I don't know what it is about this thing, but I am mesmerized by it every year. I keep it on my screen at work and keep refreshing the page - because, of course, the more we watch the better the Goat's chances of making it to Christmas sans arson.

We're watching you, goat burners...

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Turkey Soup

I am slowly but surely working my way through the Thanksgiving leftovers, and the greatest of these, of course, is Turkey Soup. I hardly felt that this needed a post until I ran into a friend who said they never made it because they "didn't know how". I'm pretty sure they know how to boil things, which is all turkey soup is, but whatever...

This, then, is for that nameless friend.

1.) Fill your dutch oven with turkey stock. Bring to a boil.
2.) Meanwhile, thinly slice two or three carrots with your ultra-cool mandolin, or a not-so-cool knife.
3.) Finely dice a stalk of celery.
4.) Toss the veggies into the now-boiling pot of stock.
5.) Finely chop (or tear with your fingers) all the leftover turkey you saved from your turkey carcass before turning it into stock.
6.) Add the turkey meat to the stock.
7.) Open a bag of egg noodles, check how long they should cook, and tip them in the pot.

Note: If you listen to Rachael Ray (which I usually don't), you should cook the noodles separately if you don't plan to eat the whole pot at once. Then, just add a handful of noodles per bowl. This is sensible advice. I never follow it.

8.) Once the noodles are done and your veggies are tender, check for seasonings - kosher salt and plenty of fresh-ground black pepper.
9.) Chow down.

I know I don't give times, etc., but really, if you have good stock you can't make too big of a mess of this. You just want to heat the turkey and stock through and get the veggies and noodles really tender. If you slice the veggies thin enough (which you will if you use the cool mandolin) it doesn't take much time.

Also, feel free to experiment with onion, other veggies, herbs, etc., and you can, of course, use canned stock. My stock is very flavorful, and this is what I happen to like in my soup, but again, can't mess it up. Be creative.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Don't Do This

I bring you the first of what will no doubt to be many entries in the "Do Not Be Like Me" category.


Lesson: Hot pans of stuffing should not go straight from the oven to your favorite 10-year-old wooden cutting board, no matter how distracted you are.


Monday, December 1, 2008

Thanksgiving Recipe: Candied Yams

So, I completely thought the whole "sweet potatoes with marshmallows on top" was an American thing, until I served it last year. As in, all red-blooded 'Muricans ate it at Thanksgiving. Apparently not. It's a Southern/Midwestern thing. And the rest of the country is seriously missing out, I say.

This is my Mama's recipe, and I print it as she gave it to me. This is one of those recipes that you kind of have to do by feel but, honestly, you smother it in melted marshmallows. How could you really mess it up?

Mama's Candied Yams (aka Sweet Potato Casserole)

1.) Preheat oven to 350 degrees
2.) Drain and mash 2 big cans sweet potatoes
3.) Mix in well:
1 egg
Dash of salt
Pinch of cloves
Some cinnamon (I heart this ingredient. Precise, no?)
Brown sugar to make it sweet (This is even more precise!)
A few chunks of butter
Handful of mini marshmallows (you'll need more for topping)
4.) Spread into a pan and cook until heated through, about 30-45 minutes.
5.) Remove from oven, and cover with mini marshmallows. Return to oven until the top marshmallows are ’melty’ (exact phrase ala Mama) and browned.

Thanksgiving Decor

Editor: I realize I'm a little behind, but I want to catch up with a few Thanksgiving-related posts while the memories are still fresh. After that, I'll go full-on Christmas. Promise.

Thanksgiving is definitely a meal to break out your best tablecloth and china. On the other hand, you also want people to feel comfortable, particularly if you're hosting a group of "Thanksgiving orphans", like I did this year.

My goal was to balance an air of specialness with a dose of down-home warmth. Here're some of the things I did:

My table was a mix of fancy and not. I used my Lenox china pattern (Hayward - a simple gold-banded ivory china) and Waterford crystal (Clara, a discontinued pattern). To bring things down to earth, I covered the table with a simple ivory linen cloth and used brown napkins. I mixed and matched serving pieces - including decanting the ruby-colored homemade cranberry relish into a Mason jar!

Chunky candles and real fruit in the cornucopia added to the warmth. I actually had to look pretty hard to find a cornucopia that wasn't already filled with fake fruit and flowers; I ordered this one for about $20 (with shipping) from Cost Plus World Market.

I found these elegant leaf place cards at Papyrus. My daughter wrote the names on them by hand.

Note: These pics were taken by one of my guests, all rights reserved.