Friday, December 21, 2012

Chocolate Chip Shortbread Bars

Next stop on the holiday baking train: Chocolate. Chip. Shortbread.
 No nuts, no eggs, extra chocolate drizzled on top, this is Roo's kind of cookie. His mother's too.
You'll need a steady hand to cut the shortbread so it doesn't crumble, but once that part's done, you can enlist a slew of young chocolatiers to drizzle and dollop melted chocolate over the top.
Chocolate Chip Shortbread
adapted from Food Network Magazine, December 2012

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp salt
3/4 cup confectioners sugar
2 cups all purpose flour
1 & 1/2 cups bittersweet chocolate chips

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a 9x9-inch baking pan with foil. Leave a bit of an overhang on all sides. 
2. Use a mixer on medium speed to cream the butter, vanilla, and salt. Turn the mixer to low speed and beat in the confectioners' sugar until just incorporated. Add the flour in two parts, beating until smooth between and after each addition. Stir in half (3/4 cup) of the chocolate chips with a sturdy spoon. 
3. Using your hands, press the dough into the prepared pan. If necessary, you can dust your hands lightly with flour so the dough doesn't stick to them. Score the top of the dough with a knife to make 9 strips. Then score the strips into thirds to make 27 pieces. Bake about 40-45 minutes or until the edges are firm and the dough appears dry. 
4. Remove from oven and score over your knife marks once again. Cool 20 minutes in the pan. Gently lift the shortbread out of the pan using the edges of the foil to pull it out and cool completely on a wire rack. 
5. When completely cool, cut the shortbread into pieces using your score marks as a guide. Put the remaining 3/4 cups of chocolate chips into a microwave safe bowl and warm in 30 second intervals, stirring in between until melted. Use a spoon to drizzle melted chocolate over the top of the shortbread cookies and let stand until the chocolate is set, about 1 hour. 
Make sure to save some for Santa!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Easy Peppermint Bark

In keeping with our new tradition of holiday treats that don't include nuts or eggs from the get go, here's a super simple but sublime addition to our cookie tray this year.
Peppermint Bark
adapted from Food Network Magazine, December 2012

1 10-ounce bag good quality bittersweet chocolate chips
12 ounces good quality white chocolate
2 tsp peppermint extract
3-4 candy canes, crushed

1. Line a 9 x 13-inch baking dish with foil, shiny side facing up. Place the bittersweet chocolate chips in a microwave safe bowl and heat in 20 second intervals, stirring between each cycle until about 2/3 of the chips have melted. Stir the chocolate gently until completely melted. Stir in 1 tsp peppermint extract. Pour the bittersweet chocolate mixture into the prepared pan and spread to an even thickness. Allow the bittersweet chocolate to cool until it's almost set, about 10-12 minutes.
2. Chop the white chocolate into small pieces and place in a microwave safe bowl. Heat as you did the bittersweet chocolate, taking extra care not to scald the white chocolate. (All chocolate can be temperamental but I find white chocolate to be particularly so. Take your time and don't rush the melting process!) Stir the white chocolate until completely melted. Stir in remaining 1 tsp peppermint extract. Pour the white chocolate on top of the almost set bittersweet chocolate and smooth to an even thickness. Immediately sprinkle with crushed candy canes, gently pressing the larger pieces into the chocolate. Allow to cool to room temperature for an hour or more.
3. Once completely set, use the foil to lift the peppermint bark from the pan. Break into pieces and store in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks - or better yet, wrap some up to give as a festive holiday gift.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Ancho Pork Hominy Stew

The holiday whirlwind is upon us and we're expecting a full house this year. Three generations of grandparents, aunts, uncles, sisters, and cousins will descend upon us in less than 48 hours and I cannot wait. As far as I'm concerned it wouldn't be Christmas without a little chaos.

Mufasa must have been extra good this year because he is now the proud owner of a brand spanking new Big Green Egg. So while he's working out plans for several holiday roasts on his new toy, I'm turning my focus to what we're all going to eat in the days leading up to and in between the major celebrations.

Thanks to the chest freezer, I've been squirreling away banana bread, squash muffins, and countless freezer bags of soup for weeks now. Next on the list is one of my personal favorites, this spicy ancho chili spiced pork and hominy stew.
Ancho Pork Hominy Stew
Adapted from Cooking Light, December 2009

2 tbsp ancho chile powder
2 tbsp fresh oregano, chopped, or 2 tsp. dried oregano
1 & 1/2 tsp smoked paprika
2 tsp ground cumin*
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1 & 1/2 pounds pork tenderloin, trimmed and cut into bite-size pieces (about 1/2-ich cubes)
1 tbsp olive oil, divided
2 cups chopped onion
1/2 cup chopped green bell pepper
1/2 cup chopped yellow bell pepper
1/2 cup chopped red bell pepper
1 tbsp minced garlic
2 & 1/2 cups chicken broth
1 (28 ounce) can hominy, drained
1 (14.5 ounce) can fire-roasted diced tomatoes, undrained

For garnish
fresh lime slices
fresh cilantro, roughly chopped
1/2 cup queso fresco, crumbled

1. Combine the first 5 ingredients in a large bowl. Mix well. Set aside 1 & 1/2 tsp of the spice mixture. Add pork to the remaining spice mixture and toss to coat.
2. Heat 2 tsp of the oil in a large dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the pork and cook until browned on all sides, stirring occasionally (the pork does not need to cook through at this point). Remove the pork from the pot and set aside.
3. Add the remaining 1 tsp oil to the dutch oven. Add the onion, peppers, and garlic and saute for 5 minutes until the vegetables are tender, stirring occasionally. Return the pork to the pan. Add the remaining 1 & 1/2 tsp of spice mixture, broth, hominy, and tomatoes. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover partially and simmer for about 30 minutes or until ready to serve. Garnish with fresh lime slices, cilantro, or queso fresco.

Makes 6 (1 & 1/3 cup) servings

*The original recipe calls for half as much cumin but can one go wrong with pork and a little extra cumin? I think not.
My advice is double the recipe. You'll need a huge pot but the payoff is so worth it. Eat round one for dinner tonight and pack away round 2 for some night in the coming weeks when you've eaten a few too many sugar cookies to turn on the oven. This freezes and reheats beautifully and is such a nice departure in flavor from the typical Christmas roasts and hams we'll be eating next week.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Parmesan & Thyme "Cookies"

In all fairness, Ina Garten calls these Parmesan & Thyme Crackers but I call them cookies. Doing so triples the chances your children will eat them. I recommend it.
Buttery, cheesy, crumbly, herb cookies are so tasty with a sippy cup of milk, a mug of tea, or a glass of champagne, simple enough for kids but elegant enough for your fanciest dinner party.
The thyme is truly magical here. The herbs keep the flavor bright despite the ample butter and cheese. And really, what would a cookie be without a fair amount of butter?

Parmesan and Thyme "Cookies"
adapted slightly from Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics

1/2 cup unsalted butter (1 stick), at room temperature
4 ounces Parmesan cheese, finely grated
1 & 1/2 tsp fresh thyme leaves, minced
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper*
1 & 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

1. Using an electric mixer, cream the butter for about 1 minute. Add the cheese, thyme, salt and pepper and mix until well combined. Add the flour and continue to mix on low until the dough forms large crumbles. If the dough seems too crumbly and won't clump together, add a little water, 1 teaspoon at a time until it is workable.
2. Dump the dough onto a floured counter or board. Press the dough together into a mound and roll into a 9-inch log. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes and up to a few days.
3. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Use a sharp knife to cut the dough into 3/8-inch rounds and place them onto the parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake for 22 minutes until lightly browned. Cool on wire racks and serve at room temperature.

*The original recipe calls for 1/2 tsp of black pepper but I reduce it by half as the shorties in my house are pepper-averse. Add a little more or less to suit your audience. 

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Lamb and Lentil Mini-Meatballs with Cumin Yogurt Dip

Meatballs are usually a hit with the Kid Cultivation crew, but since Roo is allergic to eggs, my go-to substitution is silken tofu. It works beautifully in these Asian-Style Pork Mini-Meatballs, but given Beans love for beans and Looly's hatred of them, I thought I'd try something new.
I was hoping lentils would bind the meatballs and keep them from drying out. Mission accomplished. What I hadn't anticipated was the nice little bite the lentils would give the lamb, such a pleasant snap with each mouthful. They're a little unexpected and boast great flavor with or without the tangy yogurt dip. Cocktail parties, Christmas, New Year's Eve, I'm keeping this one in my back pocket for the holiday party potluck scene.

So, like I said, Looly abhors beans. She possesses a particular vehemence for lentils. She loves a plump sauce-covered meatball, however, especially if it came from Noodles & Company, but I digress. Even at home, she'll eat a meatball with sauce on it most of the time. I was fully prepared to drizzle marinara over these bad boys in anticipation that she would complain about yogurt sauce but I never got a chance. All three kids took down the meatballs before I got any sauce on the table - cumin yogurt or marinara. That never happens!
Now aside from Mufasa's praises, there were no rave reviews, choruses of delight or requests for second helpings from the six and under set. But the important thing is that the meatballs disappeared - no prodding, arguments, threats or negotiations. Of course Looly has no idea she ingested lentils, but I'm already eying a can of chickpeas.

Lamb and Lentil Meatballs

1 cup cooked lentils
1 pound ground lamb
3/4 cup Panko or other bread crumbs
2 tbsp chopped cilantro
2 tbsp chopped fresh mint
1 small onion, grated or finely diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp black pepper

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
2. Put the lentils in a large bowl. Using your hands, mash the lentils a few times until about half of them are mashed into a paste and half are intact.
3. Add the lamb and all other ingredients to the bowl with the lentils. Mix well with your hands until everything is nicely combined.
4. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper. Roll the meat mixture into small balls, about 1 & 1/2 inches in diameter. Place on baking sheet and cook approximately 15 minutes or until cooked through. Serve with Cumin Yogurt Dip (recipe below)
 Cumin Yogurt Dip

1 cup plain yogurt
1 tbsp chopped cilantro
1 tbsp chopped, fresh mint
2 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp kosher salt

1. Combine all ingredients in a small bowl and mix well. Serve with Lamb and Lentil Meatballs.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Asiago Thyme Popcorn

It was 70 degrees here the week. December 3rd. Chicago. 70 degrees.

We could not let a day like that pass us by so after school the kids and I spent the final hours of daylight doing gymnastics, swinging from monkey bars, and playing "triathlon" which, as far as I can tell, entails jumping off a moving bike and running as fast as you can for about 30 yards wearing a helmet. Good times. But all that outdoor activity also means we needed a quick and easy, tasty snack.
Asiago Thyme Popcorn

6 cups popped popcorn (give or take)
4 ounces Asiago cheese*, finely grated (about 3/4 cup grated)
1 tbsp kosher salt
1 tbsp fresh thyme leaves, chopped
Cooking spray or 1 tbsp melted butter

While the popcorn is still hot, spray lightly with a little cooking spray or drizzle with melted butter and toss to coat. Throw the cheese, salt, and thyme over the top of the popcorn and toss again. Distribute in individual snack bags and hand out to hungry kids. Don't forget a bag for yourself!

*Parmesan would work nicely too. We just happened to have a hunk of Asiago hanging around looking for a home.
It doesn't get much easier. Cheese-loving Looly dubbed this "the best popcorn ever" and claimed the leftovers for her snack at school today. Not a bad review for 10 minutes of my time.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Roasted Seckel Pears with Vanilla Mascarpone Cream and Thyme

Have you encountered the Seckel pear yet this season? I couldn't resist buying a bag last week at the grocery store because they are just so darn cute.
That's a Bartlett standing by for size comparison. 

The kiddos were smitten and they've been slurping their "baby pears" for breakfast, snack, and in their lunchboxes all week. Seckel pears, however, are most definitely not just for kids.
Wouldn't these look snazzy with a cocktail dress and a glass of champagne?! Seriously, what a sexy, succulent two-bite treat for Christmas, New Year's Eve or any event that entails balancing a cocktail and eating with one hand.
Of course you can use a fork.
The soft pears are so lush and velvety and sweet enough to punch any dessert craving in the face, but totally sophisticated and not overly indulgent compared to the hunks of peppermint fudge and frosted sugar cookies that will be here soon enough.
Roasted Seckel Pears with Vanilla Mascarpone Cream and Thyme
adapted from

8 Seckel Pears (or 4 larger pears), halved and cored
2 tbsp fresh lemon juice
1 tbsp unsalted butter, diced
1 tbsp granulated sugar
3 tbsp water
5 sprigs fresh thyme

For the cream
1 cup heavey whipping cream
1 whole vanilla bean
1/2 cup Mascarpone cheese
1 tbsp powdered sugar

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Place cored pear halves cut side up in a baking dish. Drizzle lemon juice over the tops of the pears, dot with butter and sprinkle with granulated sugar. Pour about 3 tablespoons of water into the bottom of the baking dish. Arrange thyme sprigs around the pears. Bake Seckel pears for about 30-40 minutes, flipping the pear halves to skin-side up halfway through baking. Larger pears will take longer to cook - estimate an additional 20 minutes or so. They are done when a fork easily slides through the flesh in the thickest part of the pear. Remove from oven and cool to room temperature.
2. Meanwhile, pour cream into a medium mixing bowl. Slice a vanilla bean in half lengthwise and scrape out the seeds. Add the gooey vanilla seeds to the cream and stir, then throw in the bean pod too. Refrigerate the cream mixture and mixing bowl for an hour or more.
3. Remove the vanilla bean pod from the cream. Add the Mascarpone and beat on medium speed until well combined. Add the powdered sugar and continue beating until soft peaks form.
4. Top each pear with a dollop of the cream mixture. Sprinkle with chopped fresh or roasted thyme leaves (from the pear roasting pan).