Friday, December 30, 2011

Finalé: Roasted Pumpkin and Pear Soup with Brie

For some time I knew the last post of 2011 would be sticky toffee pudding.  At first I was going to make it Christmas Eve, but in the end it was a quiet night with my Mom and we had appetizers and watched Mildred Pierce on HBO (brilliant!), and ate that caramel popcorn.  Then I was going to make it when my sister came a calling but it seemed there was already so much sweet stuff in the house, like these cookies, and my Mom's super awesome Jam-Jams, which the kids go nuts for.  And frankly, I don't know about you, but there was some heavy indulging over the past few weeks, and just looking at a sauce that required 2 cups of whipping cream and a sizable chunk of butter, made me a wee bit queasy and I couldn't do that to you.  Or me!  Not yet.  Given that I've pretty much been living in stretchy pants for the better part of a week, I thought I'd give the sweet stuff a rest.  But all hope is not lost, the recipe will appear here in the next couple of weeks I'm sure.  So far it's on the New Years' Day menu, unless I'm still on a sugar holiday (historically, these holidays are short-lived).

When I was thinking what else I could cook up for a year-end finalé, a novel concept hit me.  Cook some vegetables!  It's been ages since one graced the pages of this blog - not since these mushrooms, in fact.  Crazy hey?  Further digging around the freezer located some pumpkin I roasted  back in November, when I was in full throttle Christmas baking mode and had no time or inclination to do anything with it then.  There were some beautiful organic Anjou pears on the counter, I thought how fitting.  My first post of 2011 (and first post, ever!) had pears in it, so it seemed somehow cosmic to cook with pears in the finalé.  It all has a certain symmetry to it, which I kind of like. And with that a soup was born, and an elegant one at that.  It's simple, not fussy, but contains leeks and brie so it sounds all fancy pants.

My sister has a gigantic garden and grows gigantic pumpkins.  This is one of hers.  The flesh was a light yellow when it finished roasting, hence the light colour of this soup.  Don't think I be foolin' ya!  There's really pumpkin in those bowls, though the pumpkin flavour doesn't shout out at you.  It's balanced with the slight sweetness coming from the pears and maple syrup; the aromatic leeks and thyme; the lushness of a little bit of whipping cream at the end.  I know, I added cream.  Adding milk would have just been wrong.  All wrong.  And whipping cream is so, so right.  

What I really love about this soup is the bit of brie in the bottom of the bowls.  Hot soup is spooned over top and when you give it a stir, the brie melds beautifully, and you wonder why you never put brie in the bottom of your soup bowl before.

So it's almost New Year's Eve.  Are you ready to say goodbye?  I totally am.  While 2011 was incredibly good to me, and every day I count myself lucky and grateful to be where I am, doing what I do, I'm also happy to let it go.  I've been taking stock of all the good things and writing them down in my little Moleskine.  Like when I saw Dave Grohl up close at the Foo Fighters show (okay, not close enough to touch, but we shared a moment, for reals); and when I was the featured food blogger here; and when Mushrooms Canada loved my recipe; and when my garden gave me such amazing bounty; and when old friends came to visit; and when new friendships blossomed; and when everyone I love continues to be healthy and doing so very well.  Looking back, some good stuff happened this year.  Yes, indeedy.

Exactly one year ago I was looking at Blogger and reading about how to start a blog, and frankly freaked out of my mind and overwhelmed with all of the techie lingo.  But I soon got over any hesitations, and just did it.  Starting writing and taking pictures and letting little pieces of my world unfold for you.  Among the many shining moments of 2011, seeing sweetsugarbean live for the first time was one of the biggest and happiest.  Thank you for stopping by and making my recipes and leaving me with the kindest comments.  You've pretty much made my 2011 rock.  Here's to an even better 2012, full of more food, recipes and stories from my little green kitchen.  xo Renee  

Roasted Pumpkin and Pear Soup with Brie

10 cups of pumpkin, or any other squash, like butternut or buttercup, peeled and chopped into 1 inch chunks
2 tbsp butter
1 carrot, diced
1 medium onion, diced
2 leeks, light green part only, washed very well and sliced
8 cups chicken stock
2 tsp dried thyme
coarse salt and pepper
2 ripe pears, peeled and diced
2 tbsp maple syrup
1/2 cup whipping cream
8 ounces of Brie cheese, rind removed, and sliced
snipped chives for garnish

On two parchment lined bake sheets, toss the pumpkin in a bit of olive oil, salt and pepper and roast in a 375* oven until soft, about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Set aside.

In a large soup pot, heat butter over medium heat.  Add the carrot, leeks and onion.  Sauté until soft, about 5 minutes, careful not to brown.  Add the cooked pumpkin, thyme, salt and pepper, and about 7 cups of chicken broth.  Stir well and bring to a boil.  Let it simmer for 25 minutes, add the diced pears and simmer 10 minutes longer.  If it seems too thick, add more stock.  Remove from heat, and with an immersion blender, pureé the soup until smooth.  Add the maple syrup and whipping cream, and more stock if too thick.  Adjust seasonings.  Place slices of brie in soup bowls and ladle the hot soup over top.  Garnish with fresh chives.  Serves 8 

Have a very Happy New Year!  All good things to you in 2012!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Sweet Tidings!

With just a couple of sleeps left before Santa makes his big appearance, I'd like to wish everyone a very Merry (and Bright!) Christmas and an absolutely lovely Holiday.  I hope you get to enjoy plenty of time with your loved ones, soaking in the JOY and WONDER that is all around.  Be gentle and excellent to each other.  xoxo Renee

And now, a few photos of what Christmas looks like around my house...

Vintage porcelaine even plays Silver Bells.  Got it for a steal a few years ago.

I love the mix of vintage and new ornaments.  And I sort of have a thing for birds/feathers!


A sweet Grandma knit those skates. 

I love my snow globe!  

Vintage Angel

Milk Glass collection, all glammed up.

May your hearts be light!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

For the Movies: Caramel Popcorn with Roasted Nuts

I see it.  The light at the end of the tunnel.  Just two days left of work then I'm home free.  I cannot tell you how much I'm looking forward to my holiday vacay.  The past few months have roared on by and I need me some down time.  Big time.  Not that I'm planning anything wild and crazy.  No tropical vacations or skiing holidays (I've only been downhill skiing once and nearly died, so I've vowed never to do that again.  Okay, I didn't nearly die, but when you are 13 and roaring down a bunny hill mountain and can't stop and end up crashing into a snow bank while your cute instructor stands by, it does feel like you are dying.)  Given my lack of coordination at any sporty, and fear of sharp things on my feet propelling me forward - you should see me skate - the only calorie burning activity I'll be up to is a long hike through the beautiful river valley here in Saskatoon.  But lookout!  I may strap on a snow shoe or two and really do it up.  Lord knows after eating this ridiculously delicious caramel popcorn, something will have to be done.

No, I'm not going too far at all over the holidays.  And I like it like that.  For so many years I'd pack up the car and the evil fur beasts cats (if you've ever traveled a great distance with 2 cats in a car, you know of which sweet hell I speak) and drive the 600km to come home for Christmas, then leave after a few days and make the long drive back to Edmonton.  It was what it was, but I'm so happy that these days I just have to go a few blocks to my Mom's house and everyone is there.  My brothers and sisters and all of the little ones running around with rosy cheeks and runny noses.  We eat until it's slightly uncomfortable, because everything is just so. good.  This year the main attraction will be Prime Rib with Yorkshire Pudding - because after cooking roughly 350 pounds of turkey in December, it's pretty much the last thing I want to eat right now.  So we are switching up the menu and I'm super stoked; if only because I'm already envisioning the gravy soaking into the Yorkshires.  Can't wait.


When I'm not hiking, or eating too much or colouring with the kiddies, I will be watching movies.  You know how much I love movies right? The is the prime season for all of the great ones.  Oscar contenders are being released weekly, and I'm super excited to plant my behind in a comfy seat and watch The Descendants, and Young Adult and The Iron Lady, and My Week With Marilyn.  How fabulous does Michelle Williams look as Marilyn?  Oh yes.  There will be movie watching.  On the small screen too, because what is Christmas without watching my boyfriend Colin Firth in Love Actually?  Or watching the March sisters in Little Women?  Or Mr. Bean stick his head up the turkey? All classics, which require curling up on the couch with a blankie and a hot beverage and a bowl of popcorn.  But just not any popcorn.  And now I get to the really good part.

For years and years my Mom would make this caramel popcorn.  Package it up in pretty tins for her kids, she did.  Hell, it was worth the car ride of wailing of cats, it was.  And then she stopped.  Not sure why.  We kind of don't talk about it in my family.  So this year I was like "Mom do you still have that recipe for that caramel popcorn you USED to make and we all loved and then stopped making it for some reason?"  And she said yes, I still have it.  Hooray!  This is the best popcorn to munch on while Colin Firth dives into the water to fetch his manuscript.  It's buttery, oh god, it is buttery and caramely and laden with roasted nuts.  But so. damn. good.

You think popping popcorn is fool proof, right?  But clearly not Renee proof.  I don't have a popcorn maker, so I just made it on the stove top.  But my favourite pot for doing so is without a lid because I threw it over the small fire back when there was that kitchen incident.  So I had to use this other crappy pot and burnt the popcorn.  So then I had to use a smaller pot, and make two batches of popcorn.  All in all it took much longer than it should have.  My dear friend Stacy says I need the STIR CRAZY by West Bend, which apparently makes the best popcorn in the world.  If Santa hasn't packed his sleigh yet, Renee would like very much.   Making the caramel goo is a bit of a science project, hence no photos of that because I was quite transfixed with all of the bubbling sugar action, and I've never been that great at science so this required all of my attention.  It's crazy, all of that bubbling, but I let it go for about 5 minutes, like Ma said, and it was fine.  Even dropped a little of the caramel in a glass of water to see if it formed a ball.  It did and it was done.  Adding the baking soda and booze in the end makes it go wild again, but don't be afraid.  Just carefully pour it over the roasted nuts and popcorn and stir stir stir.  Press it into a greased bake sheet, let it cool, then break it off into pieces to eat right away or package it up in airtight containers and freeze for later.  Just let it thaw for an hour before breaking it apart and munching.  Don't want any of you to lose a tooth over the holidays! Whether you are sneaking this contraband popcorn into the theatre like me (shhhhhh! don't tell!) or munching on it while you are all curled up with your favourite peeps and furry friends, this popcorn will make your movie watching all that more enjoyable.  Just go on a little hike afterwards okay?  Or if you dare, don the skates.  You just won't see me at a rink near you anytime soon.

Caramel Popcorn with Roasted Nuts

3 cups nuts (I used whole pecans and almonds)
2 cups of butter (I used salted)
18 cups popped popcorn
2 2/3 cups brown sugar, lightly packed
1 cup of Rogers Golden Syrup or corn syrup if you can't find Rogers
1 tsp cream of tartar
1 tsp baking soda
1 tbsp rum

Heat oven to 300*F.  Spread nuts on cookie sheet and roast for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally and keeping an eyeball on them.  Let them cool and mix with your popped corn in a VERY large bowl, or two not so large bowls.

Combine sugar, butter, syrup and cream of tartar in a sauce pan.  Cook until it forms a ball when dropped into a glass of water, or for about 5 minutes.  It's tricky, I know, but trust me, it will be okay.  Just stir, stir, stir.  Remove from heat, stir in the baking soda and rum.  Bubbles!  Then pour over the nuts and popcorn.  Stir really well, and divide it amongst two greased cookie sheets (I used butter, of course) and press it into the pans.  Let it cool, then tear it into pieces to devour immediately, or pack it into airtight containers.  If you want to freeze it, go ahead, just let it thaw for an hour before digging in.  Makes a rather large batch.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Merry & Bright: Rosemary Oatmeal Shortbread

Baking (and eating!) shortbread at Christmastime is absolutely mandatory.  As is watching A Charlie Brown Christmas, enjoying Baileys in hot chocolate, and singing along to Christmas Elvis.  Is it me or is he damn hot especially handsome in this video?  I was never a super huge Elvis fan, but out of all the Elvises I like Christmas Elvis the best.  He's way smokin'.  Fun Fact:  Blue Christmas was a cover...someone else (Doye O'Dell) recorded it first in 1948, but Elvis' version in 1957 made it internationally famoso. It's listed #7 on a Rolling Stone Reader's Poll of the Best Christmas songs, and it ranks right up there with me, too.  I'm a little bit drawn to the sadder Christmas songs, not that I'm a particulary sad person, quite the opposite, really.  I just like mixing a little maudlin with my merry - just a touch seems to make the merry shine that much brighter. 

Don't be freaking that there is rosemary in my shortbread, okay?  You'll be down with the woodsy/savory/ sweet/buttery concoction of goodness after one bite, promise.
These cookies taste like Christmas.

My first taste was well over 10 years ago, when a pastry chef I was working with made a batch.  This is her Grandma's recipe and she was gracious enough to share with me back then.  'Tis the season of sharing after all, so think of this as my little prezzie to you.  These cookies will flatter any dessert platter and will gather rave reviews and recipe requests, even from people who were at first scared of the rosemary.  Trust me.  Don't be freaking about the 2 cups of butter either...this makes a massive batch of about 75 cookies.  And because there's oatmeal in them they are practically health food.  No bubble bursting, please!

I rather like rolling the dough out and cutting it into various shapes.  Stars are always good.  I don't see why you couldn't roll the dough into logs, chill, then slice and bake too.  That would probably save time, if you are lacking in that department (who isn't, really?).  One of the best things is the smell emanating from the oven while you bake these babies off...rosemary...butter...sugar. Keep an eyeball on them so they don't burn - once they start to brown around the edges I take them out, because over-browned shortbread does nothing for me.  A light dusting of icing sugar and you'll have the prettiest cookies in town.  Elvis would definitely approve.

Rosemary Oatmeal Shortbread 

2 cups of salted butter (if using unsalted, add about 1/2 tsp salt to batter)
1 1/3 cups granulated sugar
2 tbsp finely chopped fresh rosemary
2 3/4 cups all purpose flour, plus more for dusting
2 1/2 cups large flake oatmeal (not the small instant stuff, please)
icing sugar

In a mixer, cream the butter an sugar until fluffy.  Beat in the fresh rosemary.  On low, add the flour and oatmeal.  Mix until all is incorporated.
On a lightly floured surface, fold the dough into a ball, flatten and roll out dough to 1/4 inch thick.  Having a little flour on your rolling pin helps too. Cut into shapes and place cookies on parchment lined bake sheets.  In a preheated 350* oven, bake for about 11 minutes, or until edges start to turn brown.  Remove from oven and cool.  Repeat with  remaining dough.  Once all cookies are baked and have cooled down, dust with icing sugar.  Makes about 75 cookies.  They freeze rather well, too.  

And how cute do these look all packed up in a pretty tin?  Your loved ones will be overJOYed!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Sausage & Asiago Stuffed Mushrooms with Balsamic Glaze

It's party time!  Excellent!
I know that's so 1989, but now that there are 200,000 channels on my television there's no getting away from Saturday Night Live.  But I love the SNL of yesteryear.  All of the sprockets and lunch ladies and Wayne & Garths.  When I run into one of those episodes, I feel all warm and fuzzy inside, or maybe it's just the wine or maybe I'm just feeling nostalgic; 'tis nostalgia's prime time though, no?  It seeps in from all sorts of crevices - like when you unpack your boxes of ornaments, and there's a Christmas card from 1999 tucked in, from an old friend you haven't seen in as long.  Or when you hear "River" and have to sit down because it gets you every time.  It doesn't take much these days to momentarily transport you back to another Christmas; another life.     

Stuffed mushrooms are pretty classic, and no doubt conjure up culinary nostalgia.  And after one bite of these babies, you won't forget them, that is for sure.  If you are running to and fro various parties this season, or hosting one of your own, I bring you another appetizer that will get rave reviews from other party people.  They will disappear in a flash, so bring lots!  I daresay this could be the best stuffed mushroom I've ever eaten.  There.  I just put that out there.  Let it sink in.  Good.  Now let me tell you how I made them.

Take some lovely, fresh super large white button mushrooms. Wipe them clean with a damp paper towel.  Mushrooms.  So photogenic.  We like!

Take the stems off the mushrooms and save for another use.  Toss the mushroom caps in balsamic vinegar and olive oil.  Salt and pepper too, please

Roast them for 30 minutes.  The best part?  Most of the liquid will be released during the first roasting, so you won't end up with soggy mushrooms.  Ick.  Who wants those?

Meanwhile, make your sausage filling.  Cook off Italian sausage with onions, garlic, rosemary and fennel.  Add cream cheese and Asiago. This is good stuff.  (I had extra filling leftover from this recipe, so I just put some on Naan bread and it made lovely pizza.  Just so you know.)  When mushrooms are done roasting flip them over to drain the juices, then flip again to stuff the cap.  I filled them so they were heaping

Then I topped them with more Asiago.  God, I love cheese. 

Then they baked for another 30-40 minutes until all golden and simply gorgeous.  Let them cool for a bit before tasting or you'll burn your tongue like I did.

I really loved the textures here:  the crunchy cheesy topping, into the creamy, spicy filling and meatiness of the mushroom.  Super fun to eat, and bursting with flavour.  The fennel and rosemary are perfect compliments to the spicy sausage - use the best quality you can find, it makes a difference.   Roasting mushrooms in balsamic vinegar first really adds a tart/sweet factor, and rids the mushroom of extra juices.  Brilliant, that.  This appetizer will no doubt rock your party of 1 or 21.  Nothing more to add except Party On, Dudes!  


Sausage & Asiago Stuffed Mushrooms with Balsamic Glaze

20 large mushrooms, cleaned with damp paper towel, stem removed and saved for later use
2 links Italian sausage
1 tsp dried rosemary OR 2 tsp fresh, finely chopped
1 tsp dried fennel seed
1 onion, diced small
2 cloves garlic, minced
4 ounces (120grams) cream cheese
3 ounces (90grams) Asiago cheese, grated
3 tbsp olive oil
3 tbsp balsamic vinegar
salt and pepper

In a large bowl, toss the mushrooms with the balsamic vinegar and 3 tbsp olive oil, salt and pepper.  Place onto a parchment lined cookie sheet and place in a preheated 350* oven for about 30 min.  Stir once or twice.  Remove from oven.  Meanwhile, in a large skillet, over medium high heat, squeeze the sausage meat out of the casing  and cook until no longer pink, breaking it apart with the back of a spoon.  You want it fairly crumbly and in small pieces.  Stir in onions and garlic and spices, and cook a few minutes longer, until onion is softened.  (If you find that your sausage filling is too greasy, drain it on paper towel first before adding the cheese.) Remove from heat and place into a bowl, along with the cheeses (save some of the Asiago for topping).  Stir well to combine.   Take a teaspoon and fill each mushroom cap.  Sprinkle with  remaining Asiago.  Bake at 375* for about 30-40 minutes, until golden.  Can easily be doubled if feeding a large crowd.  Recipe adapted from Food 52.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Play: Gingerbread Trees with Lemon Icing

Our hearts grow tender with childhood memories and love of kindred, and we are better throughout the year for having, in spirit, become a child again at Christmastime.  
Laura Ingalls Wilder

Nothing like a little Little House to get you in the Christmas mood, hey?  My love of reading stems from pouring over those books when I was a kid.  I especially loved the Christmas chapters; when the Ingalls are housebound by raging blizzards and old Mr. Edwards saves they day by bringing Laura, Mary and Carrie candy and oranges.  Love. It. So. Much.  Laura was right though.  Everyone becomes a kid again at Christmas.

I'm in full blown catering crazies, but happy to report no meltdowns and anxiety has been averted.  Touch wood!  Thanks, in part, to another set of hands peeling a million pounds of potatoes and dicing equal amounts of onion.  Poor guy will never want to touch either when he leaves our kitchen.  But just having those basic tasks done for me has meant the world.  And saved my sanity.  Give it up for Victor!  I've also decided I'm not going to let the stresses of the season bum me out.  My cortisol levels are staying relatively normal and I'm even having fun.  I keep getting invited to parties and I keep saying yes.  Good Lord, I'm tired, but this is the season to play, after all.

People think it's weird that after I cook all day at my real job, I would want to do anything in my own kitchen.  But honestly, it's not really mental to anyone who loves food like I do.  Rolling out gingerbread dough and cutting it into perfect tree shapes is playing.  And a reminder of a little girl with a blond head and a sweet tooth, by her Mom's side, eating the gingery dough behind her back and peeking through the glass door of the oven, watching the cookies rise into stars and trees and pigs.  I lived for those days before Christmas when the house smelled of butter and ginger and we got to decorate our cookies as we liked.  Icing! Sprinkles! Sugar!  The best part: biting off the limbs of the gingerbread man and saving head for last.  

Yes, me and cookie dough go waaaaay back - to days before everything was digital and my biggest worry was if my blue Club Monaco sweatshirt was washed so I could wear it to school the next day;  to days when my favourite song was "Eye of the Tiger" and I wanted to be Olivia Newton John when I grew up. Yeah, me and cookie making go way back.  If only my biggest "issue" these days could be whether or not I have clean laundry. Baking has always been a little therapy for this girl, and on more than one occasion it's saved me from holiday hell.  Sometimes the process of distraction is a magical thing.

This gingerbread is exactly what you want your house to smell like as you put that last star on the tree and as you finish addressing envelopes with the names of loved ones. The batter can be made the night before, so the next morning you just roll it out and cut into your favourite shapes.  They only need to bake for about 8 minutes if you like a softer cookie, or around 10 if you want your gingerbread to snap. The drizzle of lemon is a lovely compliment to the smooth bite of ginger.  Ginger + Lemon = Yummers.  Can't think of a better cookie to eat while I curl up on the couch to watch this, yet again.  It never gets old.

Gingerbread Tree with Lemon Icing

2 1/2 cups all purpose flour (spooned and leveled) plus a bit more for rolling
1 tsp baking soda
2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp coarse salt
1 cup unsalted butter, at room temp
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
1/4 cup molasses

2 tbsp fresh lemon juice
1 1/3 cup icing sugar
coarse sugar, optional

In a medium bowl, whisk flour with rest of dry ingredients.  In a large bowl of a mixer, cream the butter and granulated sugar on medium high until creamy, about 3 minutes.  Add egg and molasses and beat to combine, scraping down bowl as you need to. With  mixer on low, gradually add flour mixture and beat until combined.  Wrap dough in plastic and refrigerate until firm, about 1 hour or up to 3 days.
Preheat oven to 350*F, with racks in upper and lower thirds.
On a lightly floured work surface, roll out dough to a 1/4 inch thickness, and with cookie cutters, cut into your favourite shapes.  My Mom still uses the cutters from when we were kids and I love the pig!  Or you can use a sharp knife and cut into triangles.  Arrange cookies on parchment lined baking sheets, and bake until firm and golden, around 8 min for chewy, 10 min for snappy.  Let cool completely on sheets on wire racks.  Store in airtight containers for up to one week, or freeze.
To make the lemon icing, combine lemon juice, icing sugar with a small whisk.  It takes a little while for it to come together.  Add more lemon if too thick.  I just put the icing in a small Ziploc bag and cut one corner to make a tip.  Drizzle onto cooled cookies and sprinkle with sugar.  The cookies freeze well for up to one month.  Makes about 50-60 cookies.  

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