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Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Beginnings of Tradition

Since I think I expressed my adoration for this time of year earlier, I wont bother with reaffirming those sentiments once again. Instead, I think I'll offer for your close approaching Holiday pleasure, what is quickly becoming a tradition in our home, an annual Bûche de Noël, aka a Yule Log.

 The Bûche de Noël is closely related to (or has almost replaced) the tradition of the "Yule Log," when the carefully selected Christmas log was burned to bring warmth and prosperity to the home. Although it's now used in relation to Christmas traditions, it had its origins in a "Winter Solstice" tradition.  Some traditions suggest the yule log was burned with the remnants of last years log, while others suggest the 'log' was actual a bundle of sticks tied together, and as each binding broke they toasted with a beverage. There were apparently many variations of the Yule Log, but as people slowly replaced the hearth with other forms of heating in many countries, the tradition slowly declined and was replaced with the edible cake version.

The cake itself is typically prepared using some sort of sponge cake, buttercream frosting, and various decorations possibly including branches, fresh berries, meringue mushrooms, and powdered sugar. Once iced, the log is usually sliced and placed on the side or top as another branch. I didn't want the cake to dry out (and what's wrong with more chocolate!), so I iced this piece as well.

We had our first version of the Bûche de Noël a couple years ago as part of our Christmas Eve / Dad's Birthday celebration, and have managed to find an excuse to make a new one each year since. The extra dose of sweet from chocolate ganache I use to top the log makes for an exceptionally sweet dessert that looks nice and festive sitting on the table with just a little extra adornment.This is by far the most enjoyable recipe of the three that I've tried, so I thought it an appropriate time to share it with you.

For the Cake:
1/4 cup water
1/3 cup Dutch-process cocoa powder
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 large egg yolks
2/3 cup sugar, divided
1/2 cup flour
4 large egg whites
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar

1. Preheat oven to 425. Line a jelly roll baking sheet with a 17" x 10-1/2" with parchment paper. Butter & dust with flour. 
2. Boil water. Pour over cocoa and begin to stir. Add vanilla and continue to stir until smooth.
3. In a separate bowl, combine egg yolks and 1/3 cup sugar. Beat until smooth and pale yellow. Add chocolate mixture and beat until smooth and well combined.Add flour and beat one more minute.
4. In a clean bowl, beat egg white until soft peaks form. Add cream of tartar and sugar and beat until it holds stiff, glossy peaks.
5. Using a spatula gently fold 1/2 of meringue mixture into chocolate. Gently fold in remaining.
6. Using a pastry bag with wide tip (or coupler), place mixture into bag and pipe in long rows filling the prepared pan.
7. Bake cake 8 minutes, until it springs back when touched in the middle.
8. Remove from oven and place on a rack to cool. Place a damp towel over the cake. When cool, invert it onto the towel and gently peel parchment paper away.

For the Filling  Icing:
1 Stick Salted Butter, at room temperature

1/2 Tsp Pure Peppermint Extract
1/2 lb Powdered Sugar
3-4 Tbsp Milk
2 Tbsp Dutch Process Cocoa

1. Cream butter. Add flavoring. Add cocoa, powdered sugar a 1/2 cup at a time adding milk when needed to achieve desired consistency.

For the Ganache (outer frosting):
1-1/4 Cup Heavy Cream
10 Oz Semi-Sweet Chocolate finely chopped

1. Bring heavy cream to a boil. Pour over chopped chocolate and stir until smooth. Chill covered, and stir occasionally until set.

For the decorations, use your imagination! You can sift powdered sugar over the cake and make Meringue Mushrooms as I did here, or you can do whatever suits you, your guests, and your Christmas or Holiday wishes.


Sunday, December 12, 2010

Seasonal Faux Pas

I know we all have predicaments of craving a dish that is far from seasonal but sounds amazing at the moment. I got home from work the other night and was really thinking about some perfectly cripy edged and melting buttery-centered crab cakes. I have been to Baltimore and sampled some excellent specimens and some that were subpar, but the object of perfection in my opinion has a hint of sea saltiness, a bit of an herbal note, and a hit of spiciness to balance out the richness.

With the impending snow on the way, that is now piling up, I had crab meat up to my wrists and the scent of Old Bay wafting around the kitchen. I have been dabbling in curing over the last couple months with a simple bacon and pancetta under my belt and dreams of a meat grinder in my near future. The herbal salty kick of the pancetta  with crisp edged crab cakes resting atop a thin sliced tomato seemed like an excellent dinner, even with the snow flinging itself against the windows.
Sriracha Bay Crab Cakes
1 # crab claw meat
1 1/2 T mayonnaise
1 tsp mustard
1/2 tsp sriracha chili sauce, or to taste

7 T buttered cracker crumbs, such as Ritz
1 tsp Old Bay seasoning, plus more for garnish
1/2 tsp dried oregano, plus more for garnish
1 egg
1/2 tsp Worcestershire sauce

3 oz. pancetta sliced into batons
canola oil for frying
2 tomatoes thinly sliced

Mix all the crab cake ingredients together and form into patties the size of the tomato you are serving them with (about the circumference of a baseball seems just right). Stick the cakes onto a sheetpan in the freezer for 20 minutes to chill enough to make them maintain shape. Fry pancetta for about 3 minutes in a cast iron skillet, or until a deep mahogany shade and remove, leaving drippings in pan. Add enough oil to fill pan 1/2 inch deep. Fry crab cakes until they are a crisp pecan brown, regulating heat until it warms the cakes all the way through when both sides are crisp. Serve crab cakes over a tomato slice with pancetta cracklings on top sprinkled with oregano and Old Bay. Enjoy.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

It's the Hap-Hapiest Season of All

Christmas is undoubtedly my favorite time of year. There's so much to enjoy and to do from decorating the tree, decorating the house, enjoying a plethora of Christmas movies, making homemade gifts (a tradition in our home), putting gingerbread houses together, wrapping presents, Christmas parties, get-togethers and events. You have so many more opportunities to reach out into you community in some way, and people are for the most more giving and kind than any other time of the year. And of course, let's not forget the food. The cookies, the candy, the egg nog, Christmas Eve dinner for my family (with my Dad's birthday on Christmas Eve), Christmas morning goodies, and finally Christmas Dinner. Yes, my jeans are groaning as I write this. 

The only problem (if you even want to call it that) that arises with the holidays is there just is never enough time to try and squeeze in absolutely everything you want to do or try. I probably have a list of a hundred different peppermint Christmas treats I want to try, not to mention dozens of cookies and candy recipes. There is just no time to try every new holiday recipe and still enjoy the holidays. I guess sometimes, you can either just choose to settle with only three types of Christmas candy (instead of seven), or you could throw in a couple of these quick Christmas Candy treats. 

I’m not sure why, but I have never made peppermint bark. Never. I’ve enjoyed it plenty over the past few Christmas holidays, but never actually made it myself. So, over the weekend we were booked with Christmas related plans and I thought I would make a batch to tote along on our festivities. Low and behold, when I consulted my trusted candy guide, candy thermometer laid out and ready to go, I quickly discovered that this is probably the easiest candy in the world to make. The hardest part is probably breaking up the candy canes. It's so easy, in fact, that at Daniel's suggestion for an additional version, I quickly whipped up this "Egg Nog Bark" to enjoy as well. Safe for the kiddies, don't worry. 

Peppermint Bark

1 12 oz bag white chocolate
About 3 regular sized candy canes, crushed
½ tsp peppermint extract
1.      1. Line baking sheet or glass baking dish with wax paper.
2.      2. Carefully melt chocolate (over low heat or preferably in a double-boiler), being careful not to scorch.
3.      3. Once melted, add peppermint extract and a handful of crushed candy canes (less than half).
4.      4. Carefully pour chocolate mixture on wax paper lined sheet or dish. If necessary, carefully spread to even out slightly. Quickly top with remaining candy cane bits.
5.      5. Allow to set (15-20 minutes). Break apart, and enjoy!

To dress it up, first melt 1 (12 oz) bag of chocolate (milk/dark/semisweet your choice), adding ½ tsp peppermint extract and pour into wax paper lined glass baking dish. Follow above directions, pouring mixture on top of regular chocolate.

Egg Nog Bark

1 12 oz bag white chocolate
2 tsp nutmeg, divided*
1 tsp rum flavoring

1.       1. Line baking sheet or glass baking dish with wax paper.
2.      2. Carefully melt chocolate (over low heat or preferably in a double-boiler), being careful not to scorch.
3.      3. Once melted, add rum flavoring and one teaspoon of nutmeg.
4.      4. Carefully pour chocolate mixture on wax paper lined sheet or dish. If necessary, carefully spread to even out slightly. Quickly top with remaining nutmeg, using more or less as desired for appearance.
5.      5. Allow to set (15-20 minutes). Break apart, and enjoy!
* Typically, I’m a strong proponent of using freshly ground nutmeg. It’s relatively inexpensive and packs a strong flavor. BUT, in this case, because you are going to want to use more for appearance purposes, I would use a high quality ground nutmeg.

Last, but certainly not least, it wouldn’t be Christmas without fudge, and nor would it be Christmas without sharing a family story. Luckily, this recipe will give you both. 

Given my baking and all things sweet addiction, for our first Christmas together as husband and wife I went on a baking extravaganza, making peppermint fudge, chocolate fudge, tons of cookies, and tossing in this super easy peanut butter fudge for a last minute gift for co-workers. Our next Christmas together, on my first day of baking, I did not begin with all three fudges. Instead, I began with my assortment of cookies, and only had time to do a peppermint fudge. My sweet husband comes home and as I show him the gems of my days labor one by one, he looks perplexed and confused. As I show him the peppermint fudge (that is somewhat labor intensive I might add), he responds, “but I like peanut butter fudge.”

So, despite giving him a hard time every year for this incident, every year we also enjoy this super easy, takes-you-longer-to-do-the-dishes-afterward, peanut butter fudge.

5 Minute Peanut Butter Fudge

1/2 cup butter, plus more for greasing pan
1-1/2 cups peanut butter
1/2 cup half & half
2 teaspoons vanilla
2  pounds powdered sugar

1.       1. Grease 10x10 dish with butter.
2.      2. Pour all ingredients into a microwave safe dish.
3.      3. Microwave on high for three minutes.
4.      4. Stir well with a wooden spoon.
5.      5. Pour into prepared dish. Allow to cool and set.
6.      6. Cut and store in between sheets of wax paper in air-tight container.