Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas! My First (and only?!) Gingerbread House

The December 2009 Daring Bakers’ challenge was brought to you by Anna of Very Small Anna and Y of Lemonpi. They chose to challenge Daring Bakers’ everywhere to bake and assemble a gingerbread house from scratch. They chose recipes from Good Housekeeping and from The Great Scandinavian Baking Book as the challenge recipes. Thanks to Anna and Y for hosting this month's truly challenging project! I chose to use Y's recipe (the second one) as all the ingredients were on hand at my parent's house.

As usual I started this challenge by thoroughly reading the trials and tribulations of other Daring Bakers' and putting myself in a slight panic. Thus my devotion to sorting two movie size packs of Nerds (Thanks to Jarrett for his help with this tedious task) and various other candies by color in preparation rather than moving forward with baking and construction.

My initial plan was to go Gaudi in honor of visiting Spain this year, but when I began rolling the gingerbread at 11 a.m. Christmas Eve that went out the window. Procrastination never wins. As expected from my reading the dough crumbled, but rolling it between wax paper sheets forced it back together and all was well. Or it was well until I carefully cut out the front, back and sides of the house using Martha Stewart's Snow Swept Gingerbread Cottage template and stuck them in the oven only to realize the template lacked a roof! Needless to say I was none to happy and concerned about the likely dough shortage.

Fortunately my Dad was able to create a roof template, there was just enough dough using the scraps and a roof was made. I opted to "glue" the house together with the simple syrup, which Mom kindly made, because it would be quicker. Simple syrup worked like a charm creating a VERY sturdy house, although once something is set crooked it is SET. Sigh. Also, it is pretty dangerous. I burnt my finger, the roof of my mouth (genius!) and got syrup in my hair. This was around the time when I informed Mom that I thought I preferred cooking to baking. :)

The decorative gluing and snow are royal icing, made using the linked recipe and a touch of maple extract to improve the flavor without making the snow look dirty.While tasty the icing was like cement, which is the ultimate goal but not the instant one. My hands are sore today but somehow it all worked out and I was able to present the lovely house below to my family at our annual Christmas Eve gathering at Mom's parents.

My house may not be exactly what I envisioned but it wasn't a bad first try. I haven't decided if I'll tackle this again but maybe by next year I'll have recovered and be up for the challenge again. Gingerbread Houses like those of my fellow Daring Baker's can be beautiful and come in all shapes and sizes. It's hard to fail.

Wishing you a very Merry Christmas (or whatever you celebrate/celebrated) to you and your loved ones! If something in this entry doesn't make sense, please forgive me. I got a migraine for Christmas, in addition to fun gifts, and it is killing me.
 The finished project!
 Detail Shot
 See? It was very sturdy. 
And I was very sticky.

Y's Recipe: Scandinavian Gingerbread (Pepparkakstuga)
from The Great Scandinavian Baking Book by Beatrice Ojakangas 

1 cup butter, room temperature [226g]
1 cup brown sugar, well packed [220g]
2 tablespoons cinnamon*
4 teaspoons ground ginger*
3 teaspoons ground cloves*
2 teaspoons baking soda*
½ cup boiling water
5 cups all-purpose flour [675g]

1. In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar until blended. Add the cinnamon, ginger and cloves. Mix the baking soda with the boiling water and add to the dough along with the flour. Mix to make a stiff dough. If necessary add more water, a tablespoon at a time. Chill 2 hours or overnight.
2. Cut patterns for the house, making patterns for the roof, front walls, gabled walls, chimney and door out of cardboard.
3. Roll the dough out on a large, ungreased baking sheet and place the patterns on the dough. Mark off the various pieces with a knife, but leave the pieces in place.
4. [I rolled out the dough on a floured bench, roughly 1/8 inch thick (which allows for fact that the dough puffs a little when baked), cut required shapes and transferred these to the baking sheet. Any scraps I saved and rerolled at the end.]
5. Preheat the oven to 375'F (190'C). Bake for 12 to 15 minutes until the cookie dough feels firm. After baking, again place the pattern on top of the gingerbread and trim the shapes, cutting the edges with a straight-edged knife. Leave to cool on the baking sheet.

*After my reading I halved all of these items. The resulting gingerbread didn't puff up enough to distort and wasn't overly potent to eat. It was a very dry, slightly sweet gingerbread which balanced nicely with the sweets and icing used to decorate.

Simple Syrup

2 cups (400g) sugar

Place in a small saucepan and heat until just boiling and the sugar dissolves. Dredge or brush the edges of the pieces to glue them together. If the syrup crystallizes, remake it.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Mushroom Bourguignon

Smitten Kitchen's Mushroom Bourguignon is a hearty, visually appealing dish. I served it to Leslie and Danielle a few Sundays ago with a spinach, red onion and bosc pear salad topped with a homemade lemon-feta-bsalmic vinaigrette and the leftover red wine as a one course meal.

Mushroom Bourguignon smells heavenly when cooking and as long as you aren't fastidious about your dicing, which of course I was, it is low maintenance to make though not particularly quick. I don't think I have ever before enjoyed portabellos as much as I did in this preparation. They are so juicy, tender and thick that they resembled yet trumped any stewed meat I've consumed.

My only change to the recipe was using Trader Joe's Low Fat Greek-Style Yogurt instead of Sour Cream to top it. When I enjoyed the one leftover portion the following day, I skipped the yogurt entirely as I didn't find it to make a significate difference to my palate. The fresh parsley garnish, however, is as must have. It adds a light note to an otherwise rich dish.

This was my first time using the dutch oven I purchased back in August (there was a bit of time involved in getting it from Va to NYC but thanks to Val, Vika, Rafe, my limited arm muscle and the MTA Transit system it arrived to my apartment) and I'm as happy with it as I thought I would be. I can't wait to try out other recipes where I can take advantage of its stovetop to oven functionality. It will be perfect for winter.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Quinoa Salad With Lime Ginger Dressing and Shrimp

I've actually made this Quinoa Salad With Lime Ginger Dressing and Shrimp twice now, an honor few recipes experience. It is a very delicate, Asian-inspired salad that makes me feel very healthy and satisfied when I eat it. Quinoa's crunch plays well against the firm yet soft texture of the shrimp while the cucumber refreshes your palate.

The first time I prepared the recipe exactly as instructed but found the dressing too slick on my lips, a very professional taste test, so I (approximately) halved the canola oil this time. This adjustment left the salad dressed enough for my taste and removed the unpleasant post-consumption texture. Cutting canola oil didn't have a noticeable effect on the flavor. Thank God because otherwise I'd probably be telling you how sick this dish made me, instead of suggesting that you make it next time you want a light, quick meal that is easy to assemble after work.

Just keep in mind it is very light. I can barely get 3 meals out of it, much less the 4 described in the recipe. In the future I'll plan on it being 2 servings, instead of trying to squeeze out three and ending up starving at the vending machine at work.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Salmon en Croute

The 2009 Daring Cooks December challenge was hosted by Simone of Junglefrog Cooking. Simone chose Salmon en Croute (or alternative recipes for Beef Wellington or Vegetable en Croute) from Good Food Online. I'm glad she introduced me to this dish as Salmon en Croute is delicious, rich and relatively simple.

As usual it took me longer than the expected cooking time of 50 minutes to create thanks to pre-made puff pastry's unaccounted for thaw time and my relatively meticulous chopping of the red potatoes, bosc pears, carrots and onions I roasted to serve on the side. I'm pretty sure Rafe was ready to shoot me when we sat down to eat at 9:50 p.m. but I've also convinced myself that he, Vika and Demaris forgave me when they realized how tasty the creamy Salmon en Croute was.

I used watercress and spinach for the herb crepe and made the decorative cut outs by hand, which were pretty even if they didn't cover up the seam where the pastry shell joined together. Cooking salmon for 30 minutes made me skeptical, but it was very moist and flaky likely thanks to the puff pastry packet and herb crepe's protection.

Next time I make this, I will use smaller pieces of salmon and remember to reserve some of the herb mixture for a garnish because as you can see my salmon packets are oozing green goo (so not attractive). This would be a great dinner party dish accompanied by a fresh salad or something similar. Roasted vegetables went well but doing two things in the oven certainly didn't help with getting this to the table promptly.


Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Buttermilk Cookies with Lemon Zest and Lemon Glaze

These Buttermilk Cookies with Lemon Zest and Lemon Glaze are a reminder of the lightness and fun of summer, which is perfect as the bitter cold of winter has started here in NYC. They are petite, slightly sweet and full of citrus, especially if you choose to use a full lemon's zest and then add a tablespoon or so of fresh lemon juice to the glaze like I did. What? I didn't like the buttermilk-confectionery sugar glaze. It just tasted too much like sugar paste. The juice made the glaze lighter, more refreshing and the whole project less wasteful. Their texture is almost cake-like but slightly chewy.

I can tell you with confidence that no one minded all that lemon in the least. My co-worker, N, came back for seconds immediately and said they were amazing cookies and he is hard judge. Danielle said they were tasty, Jeff fully approved although he questioned my ability to cook as he always ends up testing sweets, and I ate, well, I don't want to tell you how many, but way too many of the 40 involved in the halved recipe Molly at Orangette provided on her blog adapted from the now closed Gourmet. These cookies make me feel like I really missed something with the whole Gourmet thing. Oh well. 

I can't wait to make these using grapefruit, much to most people's chagrin. I don't care. I'm doing it anyway (as soon as my self-imposed baking ban lifts). They will be delicious. An excellent lesson I learned about buttermilk this year, that enabled me to make these cookies on a whim to deal with dying lemons, is that you can freeze buttermilk! When defrosted and stirred it is as good as new.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Sesame-Garlic Soba Noodles with Fried Egg

A few Friday's ago I invited Meg over to eat dinner and to catch up on Gossip Girl, which we haven't been able to watch in a timely manner this year. Last year virtually every Monday night was spent on her couch enjoying the dramatic times and (mostly) fantastic wardrobes of those scandalous Upper East Siders. I'm not sure why fitting it in is so much harder this year, but a three hour viewing block wasn't exactly a bad thing on a dreary Friday.

For dinner I revisited this Sesame-Garlic Soba Noodles with a Fried Egg recipe and it was just as good the second time as the first. These noodles are easy, inexpensive, filling and feature sesame oil, my favorite. The sesame flavor and creamy yolk make the dish decadent, the red pepper's spiciness is a nice kick to the palate and the green onions add flavor and punch of color to an otherwise neutral looking dish. My only complaint is how sticky my soba noodles always get. Am I doing something wrong to have them end up gummed together - overcooking perhaps?

To add some texture and to be healthier by eating more veggies, I julienned rainbow carrots and sauteed/steamed them with snow peas and a touch more sesame oil just long enough enough to leave them crisp this time. They were a great addition, although getting OCD about the cutting certainly made this quick dish take longer.

This dish is feasible to make in advance and reheat. Last time I had an excessive amount of soba noodles, so I fried 3 more eggs and contentedly ate it for lunch most of the week. If you like Asian-inspired food, I recommend you try this recipe. If you are anything like me it will only leave you wanting more.

And with the delicious yolk oozing out to mingle...