experiments in cooking

For Christmas, Chris gave me a Dutch oven made by Lodge. A Dutch oven is a thick-walled (usually cast iron) cooking pot with a tight-fitting lid that can be used both on the range top and in the oven. I’d never had any cooking dish that could be used both on the range and in the oven. How cool is that?

I asked for a Dutch oven because so many recipes I’ve seen called for one, including a couple of recipes for some personal favorites: chicken fricassee and macaroni and cheese. In the past few weeks, I’ve made both dishes with my new Dutch oven and got to make use of the range-to-oven versatility for both meals. Boy, is it fun to use!

It is not, however, fun to clean any dish in which you have made macaroni and cheese. That said, this baked macaroni and cheese recipe, which my mother emailed to me, is absolutely delicious and worth the time it took to clean the pot—my lovely, cast-iron, pre-seasoned Dutch oven.

Macaroni and Cheese (from New World Pasta

8 oz dried elbow macaroni (2 cups)

2 tbsp butter or margarine

2 tbsp all-purpose flour

1/8 tsp ground black pepper

1-1/2 cups fat-free milk

12 oz of Velveeta (or processed cheese product), broken up

Directions:

Cook macaroni according to package directions; drain.  Meanwhile, for cheese sauce, in a large saucepan or Dutch oven, melt butter over medium heat.  Stir in flour and pepper.  Add milk all at once.  Cook and stir until slightly thickened and bubbly.  Add cheese, stirring until melted.  Stir macaroni into cheese sauce in sauce pan, stirring to coat.  Cook over low heat for 2 to 3 minutes or until heated through, stirring frequently.  Let stand for 10 minutes before serving.  Makes 4 servings.

Oven Macaroni and Cheese:  Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.  Prepare as above, except increase milk to 2 cups.  (If mixture is not in a Dutch oven, transfer mixture to a 2 quart casserole.)  Bake, uncovered for 25 to 30 minutes or until bubbly and heated through.  Let stand for 10 minutes before serving.

A few weeks back, I volunteered to make Christmas dinner, because my mother-in-law was scheduled to work all Christmas Day. I, on the other hand, would be home and available to cook.

I let Chris decide what he’d like for dinner, and he chose ham. I’d never baked a ham before, but I said I’d do it. A couple of days before Christmas, Chris’s brother dropped off a spiral-cut ham for me to bake. Thanks to his work schedule, he wouldn’t be at Christmas dinner himself, but we planned to send ham and all the fixin’s to him after dinner was over.

Spiral-cut hams are typically fully cooked, so you just have to warm them before serving, unless you want to serve cold ham. It was going to take quite some time to warm up a ham the size of the one Jeremiah brought over. The package recommended two and a half hours at 275 degrees, so I popped the ham in the oven at 2:15 p.m., planning to take it out of the oven at 4:45 and serve it at 5 o’clock.

Around 4 p.m., I mixed up a cranberry glaze (taken from Joy of Cooking) for the ham and began a pot of mashed potatoes. I’d never made mashed potatoes myself before, although I’d helped my mom make them once or twice. The thing is, I hate mashed potatoes. But most people, including my husband, seem to love them, and they go well with ham, and it was Christmas, after all, so I thought, Why not? For the potatoes, I combined an online recipe with one in my new 2006 edition of Joy of Cooking.

At 4:45, the potatoes were coming along swimmingly, and the cranberry glaze was on the ham, but the ham just wasn’t hot. Frustrated, I checked my Joy of Cooking, which suggested baking a fully cooked ham at 325 degrees, a full 50 degrees hotter than suggested by the instructions that came with the ham. Stupid instructions! I wound up having to turn up the oven to 400 degrees for the last several minutes, and shortly after 5 p.m. got the ham warm enough to eat. But it still was not as hot as I would have liked.

The ham tasted good, even if I wasn’t happy about the baking process. And the cranberry glaze was delicious. (In fact, it was so good that I used the leftover glaze a couple of days later as a topping for baked chicken breasts—baked them beneath the cranberry glaze at 350 degrees, covered, for 40 minutes. Yum!)

Also, Chris and his parents told me the potatoes were great. They certainly looked good—white and fluffy as any I’ve ever seen—and they smelled good too. The ranch dressing, everybody said, added a nice flavor.

Finally, Chris begged me to try a bite, and I did, but couldn’t stomach ’em. I just flat out don’t enjoy mashed potatoes, no matter how pretty they are. You know how much easier my life would be if I could enjoy a big pile of mashed potatoes? For one thing, then I wouldn’t have to hear Chris telling everyone how weird I am.

Below are the recipes for the best parts of our Christmas meal: the glaze that I loved, and the potatoes that Chris loved.

Cranberry Glaze

1 can of cranberry sauce, jellied or whole

¼ to ½ cup brown sugar

Orange juice (amount left to the cook’s discretion)

Optional: whole cloves

Mix cranberry sauce, brown sugar, and orange juice. If you are using the glaze on a ham, remove the ham from the oven 45 minutes before the end of the baking time. If you want to use cloves, press them into the outside of the ham. Spread cranberry sauce mixture over the outside of the ham and return the ham to the oven.

Ranch Mashed Potatoes

3–4 baking potatoes, peeled, cut into chunks

1 bay leaf

2 cloves crushed fresh garlic

2 tbsp butter

¼ cup Light Ranch Dressing

For best results, cut potatoes into equal-size pieces to ensure even cooking. Cook vegetables, garlic, and bay leaf in boiling water in large saucepan 20 min. or until tender; drain and remove the bay leaf. Add butter and dressing. Mash until light and fluffy.

Overnight Orange Rolls

For Christmas morning 2010, I decided to bake some homemade orange rolls. I chose an overnight cinnamon rolls recipe I got from Chickens in the Road.

This recipes starts with the same dough I used to make pumpkin spice swirl bread in November, the loaf of bread that was only half-cooked and which I had to throw away after arriving at the church women’s breakfast.

I prepared the rolls on Dec. 24 after getting home from our German Mennonite Christmas Eve dinner at Chris’s mom’s house. They didn’t take long—I mixed the dough, let it rise, rolled the dough into a long, and cut it into 12 pinwheel rolls that I lay in my metal 9 x 13 pan, the one that has a lid. Then I shoved the pan in the fridge, where Christmas Day’s ham already waited.

On Christmas morning, the rolls weren’t raised as high as I expected. I wasn’t quite sure how they ought to look. So I let them sit out for about 45 minutes before baking them. It took about 35 minutes in the oven for them to reach the shade of golden brown I wanted. Once they were done, I let them cool a couple of minutes and then I spread an orange glaze over the top.

Unfortunately, as yummy as the rolls themselves tasted, I didn’t like the orange glaze. I might have liked it better as a thicker icing. The thing is, I make the Pillsbury orange rolls in a can every Saturday, and I’m used to the taste of the orange icing that’s included with those. My boys love the Pillsbury orange icing too—I mean absolutely LOVE it—and they were upset that these new orange rolls were merely glazed and not thickly iced.

“Where’s the icing?” Jonah complained.

“It’s on there,” I said.

“I don’t see it!” he said.

“I promise you, I put icing on the rolls,” I said.

“No, you didn’t,” he said, inspecting the roll carefully. Then he wailed, “I want my icing!”

“Tough,” I said. “You get what’s on there.”

Yes, it was a peaceful Christmas morning breakfast in the Nichols family.

At any rate, the next time I make these rolls I think I’ll use a powdered sugar white icing and spread it on thick. Preschoolers expect icing that they can see.

One-Pan Recipe (makes 12-15 rolls)

1 ½ cups warm water
1 tsp yeast
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sugar*
(Optional add-ins: 1/3 cup oil, 1 egg)**
3 ½ cups flour

*If you have a sweet tooth, add up to 1/3 cup sugar to the dough instead of 2 tablespoons.

**If using oil and egg, you’ll need about 1/2 cup more flour.

In a large bowl, combine water, yeast, sugar, and salt, along with oil and egg, if using. Let sit five minutes. Stir in first cup and a half cup of flour with a heavy spoon. Add more flour a little at a time as needed, stirring until dough becomes too stiff to continue stirring easily. Add a little more flour and begin kneading. The amount of flour is approximate–your mileage may vary! Continue adding flour and kneading until the dough is smooth and elastic. Let dough rise in a greased, covered bowl until doubled. (Usually, about an hour.) Uncover bowl; sprinkle in a little more flour and knead again. Roll out onto a floured surface into an approximately 15 x 8 rectangle.

Orange Filling:
2 tbsp plus 2 tsp butter (softened)

4 tbsp sugar (or brown sugar)

2 tsp cinnamon

2 tsp orange juice

1 tsp orange zest or extract

Brush dough with melted butter, orange juice, and orange zest. Combine sugar and cinnamon; generously spoon onto dough, taking care to get right up to the edges.

Roll dough up and seal seams. How many rolls you get will depend on how you cut the slices.

Place rolls in a large greased pan. To bake right away, let rise 30 minutes to an hour, until doubled, or for overnight rolls, stick the pan (covered) in the fridge. They’ll be risen and ready the next morning.

Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for approximately 30 minutes.

Orange Glaze
For an orange glaze on top, stir together 1 cup powdered sugar, 2 tablespoons orange juice, and 1/4 teaspoon orange extract or orange peel.

Two days before Christmas, Chris emailed me a recipe from a co-worker for something called “Glass Candy.” This co-worker had brought some to a work party and he thought it would be something I’d like to make. I’d never tried making candy before, but it looked pretty easy.

I started making the candy after lunch on Christmas Eve. First, I coated a cookie sheet with powdered sugar. Then I combined sugar, water, and Karo syrup in a pot. Then I read the next step: “Boil until the mixture reaches a hard crack about 300 degrees.”

No problem. I had a thermometer. But as I stood at my stove, the sugar mixture already heating to a bubbling syrup, and looked down at my thermometer, I was dismayed to see that it had a maximum temperature reading of 220 degrees. What could I do?

I considered the reference to a “hard crack.”Was “hard crack” an actual candymaking term? I had thought it was just a description chosen by the writer of the recipe, but if were a “technical” term used in candy making, perhaps it held the solution to my problem.

I flipped open my new 2006 edition of The Joy of Cooking to the chapter about candy, where I found a description of how to check the readiness of sugar syrup without a thermometer, using the cold water test. It was followed by illustrations.

Apparently the hard-crack stage occurs between 300 and 310 degrees Fahrenheit. Toffee, nut brittles, and lollipops are all cooked to the hard-crack stage. The hard-crack stage is the highest temperature a cook is likely to see specified in a candy recipe. At these temperatures, there is almost no water left in the syrup.

To perform a cold water test, you drop a little of the molten syrup in cold water. At the hard-crack stage, it will form hard, brittle threads that break when bent.

So! I could check the readiness of the candy without an accurate thermometer.

But, even with an answer in hand, I was nervous. I had never tried anything like this before, and I had no one to show me how to do it right—just a set of illustrations and some reading done on the spot while the pot was boiling.

I used my thermometer to tell me when the mixture has passed 220 degrees. Then I began testing the sugar syrup by scooping a small amount of it on a metal spoon (that I warmed in a nearby jar of warm water) and dropping it into a small bowl of cold water. The first time I did this, the syrup formed a liquid-y thread in the cold water but did not ball up or harden. My cookbook told me that this is called the thread stage.

I tested the syrup several more times. Each time it did something different when dropped in the cold water:

  • Formed a soft, flexible ball that flattened when I removed it from the water (soft-ball stage, 235° F–240° F)
  • Formed a firm ball that remained malleable when removed from the water and flattened when squeezed (firm-ball stage, 245° F–250° F)
  • Formed thick, ropy threads as it dripped from the spoon into the water, then formed a hard ball in the water and did not flatten when removed, although it could be squashed (hard-ball stage, 250° F–265° F)
  • Formed threads and not a ball in the water. When removed from the water, the threads were flexible, not brittle, and bent before breaking (soft-crack stage, 270° F–290° F)
  • Formed hard, brittle threads that, once removed from the water, broke when bent (hard-crack stage, 300° F–310° F)

When the syrup reached the last stage, I immediately added several drops of blue food coloring and about two splashes of anise flavoring. (I was so nervous that I forgot to measure the anise I used, but I’d estimate I used a couple of teaspoons.) Then I poured the mixture onto the prepared cookie sheet and let it cool completely.

When the sheet of candy was cooled to the touch, Chris and I shattered it with the edge of a meat tenderizer and placed the pieces in a glass dish. The candy looked just like pieces of blue glass and tasted like licorice.

Making glass candy for the first time was not as easy as it looked. It’s probably just as well that I didn’t know how nerve-wracking it would be, because I might not have tried it. Now, on the other side of my first candy adventure, I can say that the science experiment of progressing through the stages of cooking sugar syrup using the cold water test was pretty darn fascinating.

I’m looking forward to trying candy again. And I won’t have to do it without a clue as to the actual temperature next time, because my mother-in-law just gave me an old candy thermometer to use, one that most definitely reads up to 300 degrees.

Sweet!

Glass Candy

Powdered sugar

2 cups sugar

1 cup water

¾ cup Karo syrup

Flavoring (peppermint, anise, etc.)

Food coloring

Prepare a cookie sheet by coating with powdered sugar.

Combine in a pot sugar, water, and Karo syrup.  Boil until the mixture reaches a hard crack about 300 degrees.

(Note: if using the cold water test to check the syrup’s readiness, look for the syrup to form, after being dropped in the cold water, hard, brittle threads that break when bent. CAUTION: To avoid burns, allow the syrup to cool in the cold water for a few moments before touching it.)

Quickly stir in desired flavor and food coloring. Note: it probably will take twice as much as you think it should.

Pour onto prepared cookie sheet.  Allow to cool for a bit. If desired, sprinkle top with powdered sugar. (I liked it without the powdered sugar on top.)  Allow to cool completely.

Break apart (the edge of a meat tenderizer works well) and enjoy!

For Christmas Eve this year, Chris’s mom and I planned a German Mennonite supper of chicken noodle soup, zwiebach, and cherry moos (pronounced moze.) I volunteered to bring the zwiebach (all I had to do was thaw some rolls I froze in November) and to make the cherry moos as part of my education in traditional German Mennonite cooking.

Cherry moos are essentially a cherry soup or thin cherry pudding. I’d had cherry moos only once before, the Christmas Eve when I met Chris’s grandma Dorothy Weber 10 years ago. So I had a vague idea of what they should look and taste like.

Without the German gastronomical experience, I confess, I found the idea of plain cherry soup to be missing something. It wouldn’t sound odd to me if I’d grown up eating cherry moos, I’m sure. But I am who I am. So I decided to add my own touch to the cherry moos.

When my parents serve strawberries and cream, they serve the fruit over broken pieces of pie crust, which is eaten scooped up with the fruit like crackers crumbled into soup. That gave me the idea for making pie crust Christmas shapes to eat with the cherry moos. I figured it would be like a deconstructed cherry pie.

“Could you eat cherry moos over cookies or a crust?” I asked Chris.

He gave me a weird look. But after a moment he said, “I don’t know. That might be okay.”

And that was all I needed to forge ahead with my plan to make some “holiday pastry crisps” to serve with the cherry moos.

Other than adding some pastry as an accompaniment for the cherry moos, I intended to stay completely true to Chris’s grandmother’s cherry moos recipe. I read over the recipe several times before Christmas Eve. It didn’t look difficult.

But when I went in the kitchen on Christmas Eve to start cooking, it suddenly occurred to me, rather late in the game, that I didn’t have an important ingredient in my cabinets: cherries.

I sent Chris, armed with a cell phone to call me with questions, out to Russ’s Market to buy two cans of cherries. He called me a few minutes later.

“What kind of cherries am I supposed to buy?” he asked.

I looked at the recipe.

“The recipe says 1 quart fruit in syrup,” I said.

“Well, there are two kinds here,” Chris said. “Tart red cherries and dark cherries.”

“I have no idea which,” I said.

“You’re sure the recipe doesn’t say?”

“Nope, it doesn’t,” I said.

There was silence on the other end of the line. Clearly we were at an impasse.

“How about dark cherries?” I said. “They sound good.”

“Okay!” said Chris, sounding relieved.

As soon as he got home with the cherries, I got to work. The recipe was easy to follow. And while the cherry moos were stewing on the stove, I made my pastry crisps. Then we put everything into portable containers and took it over to Chris’s mom’s house.

After dinner, I brought out bowls of steaming, purple cherry moos and stood a couple of pastry crisps in each bowl. I hoped the cherry moos tasted right, but only Chris and his parents would know.

Chris took a bite. His mother took a bite.

Quietly, everyone took a few bites. But no one said anything.

The silence seemed significant.

“Well, how do they taste?” I said.

“It’s … good,” said Chris. But he sounded puzzled. And I wasn’t convinced.

“Yes, it’s good,” Chris’s mom agreed. But she’s so nice, she’d say it was good if it was the worst thing she’d ever tasted.

“You can serve cherry moos cold,” said Chris’s dad.

As we were not discussing the temperature of the dish, this non sequitor seemed to be a hint that the cherry moos were not all that they should be.

“It’s not right, is it?” I blurted out. “Just say it.”

“No … It’s … good …” said Chris.

“Then why are you saying it that way?” I asked.

“Something is different,” he said.

Bad is different,” I said. “I knew it!”

“No, not bad,” said Chris. “Let me think …”

Then inspiration hit him.

“The cherries!” he said. “You used dark cherries.”

“You said you didn’t know which to buy,” I said.

“I know, but I think maybe you’re supposed to use the tart cherries,” he said.

“I wish you’d remembered this earlier,” I said.

“But this is good!” said Chris. “Now that I know why they’re different, I think they’re fine.”

I looked at Chris’s mom.

“I like it this way,” she said. And she said it very firmly, not like when you serve her meat that is underdone or overdone and she says she likes it but you know she couldn’t possibly like it, really.

I must have still looked downcast, because she added, “I suppose my mother and grandmother used the tart cherries, but I don’t think they had canned dark cherries available back then.”

“I wanted to make it the way you remembered,” I said.

“No worries!” said Chris. “And you know some people make moos with plum. I bet it tastes like this.”

But it wasn’t plum moos I wanted to make for Christmas Eve.

On the plus side, the “holiday pastry crisps” added a nice texture to the dish, as well as a nice visual contrast to the deep color of the cherry moos.

We had several pastry crisps left over, so I froze them to serve with the next batch of cherry moos I make. And I will get them right next time.

Below are Grandma Weber’s recipe for Cherry Moos and my recipe for Holiday Pastry Crisps.

Cherry Moos

Combine:

1 quart fruit in syrup (traditionally, tart red cherries are used)

3 cups additional water or milk (can use 1 cup cream)

½ cup honey or sugar

Cook slowly until fruit is soft.

Combine in small bowl:

4–5 T flour

Additional honey or sugar if needed

1 cup milk or cream

Mix to a smooth paste. Dip out some of the hot fruit mixture and stir into paste; then slowly pour mixture back into the fruit, stirring constantly. Continue cooking over low heat until thickened. Serve warm or cold.

[Sarah’s note: May serve over shortbread, pie pastry, or, in warmer months, over ice cream.]

 

Holiday Pastry Crisps

1 pie crust (premade refrigerated crust is fine)

Sugar to sprinkle

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Let the pie crust sit out for a few minutes or take the chill off it by microwaving it for a few seconds. Roll out the pie crust, then cut out shapes with cookie cutters. (I cut out stars and Christmas trees.) Reroll the dough and cut out shapes until it is used up. Place shapes on a cookie sheet, either greased or ungreased. Sprinkle shapes lightly with sugar. Bake approximately 8–10 minutes or until light golden brown. Remove from pan and cool.

Serve crisps with cherry moos or strawberries and cream. Dip the crisps into the fruit mixture like a cracker into soup.

On Christmas Eve Eve, also known as December 23, Chris had his first night at home after 11 evenings away at various functions with work, church and friends. I had been away for 10 of those 11 nights. The boys had been away half of those nights at Grandma’s or the church Christmas program. So we were all tired and looking forward to an evening home as a family.

That morning we’d discovered that Jonah’s favorite Mozart CD wasn’t working anymore, and he listens to it every night at bedtime. He loves it, and it works like a charm—he falls to sleep within minutes every night. He was sad, and I wasn’t up for a rough bedtime that night, so I promised to find him something new at Barnes & Noble, which across the street from my office. I found a two-CD set called “The Most Relaxing Classical Album in the World … Ever!” and brought it home with me.

Jonah was excited about the new CDs, especially the fact that there were 18 tracks on each. The more tracks, the better the CD, in his opinion.

“I’m going to listen to my music,” he said.

“Not in the living room,” I said. “Neeley is already watching Elmo.”

Jonah looked nonplussed.

“You can listen in your bedroom, and when Elmo’s over, I’ll let you know so you can come listen in the living room.”

Meltdown averted, Jonah went in his room and closed the door. As I went back to the kitchen to wash the dishes and feed the dogs, I heard, faintly, the strains of a Bach orchestral suite coming from the back of the house.

A few minutes later, as the Elmo’s World closing credits played, I called to Jonah to tell him he could come listen to his music. There was no response. So I walked to his room and opened the door.

There was Jonah, lying under his covers, one arm thrown above his head, fast asleep. His CD player showed Track 7 of CD 1 of “The Most Relaxing Classical Album in the World.”

Now that’s an aptly named CD.

While Jonah napped, I got ready to make a quick supper. I thought that making something simple would be best, considering all the holiday food we’d be eating over the next couple of days. Also, I wanted to make something that would suit the wintry weather. So I gave Chris two options: (1) macaroni and cheese or (2) French toast.

He picked French toast.

Chris says I make the best French toast. Yeah, of course he has to praise my cooking, but I do have strong feelings about how French toast should look and taste and I think my instincts are right on. In my opinion, many restaurants focus too much on the topping and not enough on making the toast itself taste good. A good piece of French toast would be delicious with no topping at all, and would be heavenly with just a small amount of syrup and possibly a small amount of butter.

French toast was one of the few things I mastered in the kitchen before I got married at age 24. There was very little else that I could make without a recipe—I even had to consult the box each time just to make packaged macaroni and cheese—but French toast I could cook by instinct. My mother taught me her method when I was a kid, I picked up some additional ideas in high school from my best friend Heather’s family, and then I refined my French toast through college and the couple of years after that.

A lot of the French toast out there is soggy, dry, too oily, too egg-y, not egg-y enough, undercooked, or overcooked. People hide this mediocre French toast under giant mounds of butter, blankets of powdered sugar, whipped cream, and syrup so deep you can’t see the toast beneath. I’m sorry if that sounds good to you, because I have to say, there’s no point to French toast like that. That’s a ruined piece of bread covered with a heart attack.

Instead, learn to make French toast so good on its own that it would seem a sacrilege to add powdered sugar, or even a mound of fruit, like some people do. Eat the fruit on the side and let the toast speak for itself.

Of course, my plain tastes don’t suit everyone. You can certainly top your next homemade French toast however you like, but I recommend trying it simple at least once, maybe twice, with just a little butter and syrup (no more than ¼ cup of syrup) to get the feel for how you actually want your toast to taste.

French Toast

Makes 6 slices

2–3 tbsp butter, halved

2–3 eggs (allow approximately one egg per two slices of bread)

2­–3 tbsp skim milk

Pinch of cinnamon

Sliced bread

  1. Melt one tablespoon of butter on a griddle or skillet. Keep an eye on the butter and use a spatula to spread the butter evenly across the griddle.
  2. While the butter is melting, use a fork to stir eggs as for scrambled eggs. Add milk and cinnamon to eggs and stir to combine. Mix well, because your toast will taste best if the egg, yolk, and milk are thoroughly mixed and completely smooth.
  3. When the skillet is hot and the butter melted and sizzling, dip both sides of a slice of bread in the egg mixture, making sure to coat the toast evenly. There should be no dry corners. Do not let the bread soak in the egg mixture or the toast will be soggy. I lay the bread on top of the egg mixture, push it in for just a moment, check to make sure the side I’ve dipped is coated. Then repeat with the other side of the bread. Note that the last pieces of toast you make may have very little cinnamon on them. If you want more cinnamon on them, you may add more cinnamon to the egg mixture before dipping the bread into it or carefully sprinkle cinnamon on the bread while it is toasting on the griddle.
  4. Immediately place the bread on the skillet. Repeat with additional slices.
  5. After a couple of minutes, flip each slice of toast. Do not flip until the bottom side is browned to your liking. After two minutes, you can lift a corner to check for doneness. I like a dark golden brown; my husband likes his lightly toasted. However you like it, do not flip the toast until the first side is completely toasted; it should not be soggy and should be crisp to the touch. When the second side is browned to your liking as well, remove the toast from the griddle and serve with butter and warm syrup.
  6. If you are making more toast than you can complete in the first batch, clean off the skillet with a paper towel after the first batch, then add the remaining butter and begin again at step one. (You can skip step 2 if you made enough egg mixture for all the toast you wish to make.)

Tip: As the toast cooks, you may want to add more butter to the skillet to give the toast the desired buttery, fried look. You can add more butter to the middle of the skillet and, as it melts, spread some around on the skillet under the pieces of toast.

Cranberry-Spice Icebox Cookies


Chris and I have gotten in the habit of taking homemade cookies to work for our lunches every day, but we usually run out of a weekend batch by Tuesday night, so I needed a way to make some quick cookies in the middle of the week.

Yes, I said every day. And no, we are not getting fat from this. I may eat a couple of cookies Monday through Friday, but I pay attention to my total calorie intake and I don’t eat near as many as I used to back when I was young and thought that chubby would never describe me. Anyone else ever had a point in their life where four big cookies was a small snack? And while Chris is eating more cookies than I am, since he gave up regular pop completely, he can afford to eat a few cookies.

Plus, there’s something good about eating fresh sweets instead of processed, store-bought sweets. Eaten in moderation, homemade cookies can add a little nutrition, especially those with nuts or cranberries or oatmeal in them. At least that’s what I tell myself.

Anyway, as I said, we keep running out of cookies mid-week, when I’m usually so busy I don’t have much time to mix up and bake cookies. So, last weekend I used the “Fourteen-in-one” cookie recipe from my Joy of Cooking to mix up some spice cookie dough. I mixed dried cranberries into half the dough, and the other half I left plain. Then, in the beloved icebox cookie tradition, I refrigerated the dough to pull out the cranberry-spice dough as needed during the week.

On Tuesday evening, I discovered it was easy as could be to slice off nine cranberry-spice cookies and bake them for about 10 minutes. After cooling for just a short while they were ready to store to eat over the next couple of days.

As for the other half of the dough, I plan to roll out the plain spice cookie dough this weekend and cut out cookies with Jonah using some Christmas cookie cutters and maybe the new dog bone cookie cutter my mom gave me at Thanksgiving.

Our poor dogs won’t get any, though. They’re all on a diet. So maybe I shouldn’t make any cookie shapes that will get their hopes up.

 

“Fourteen-in-one” cookie basic ingredients

2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
½ pound unsalted butter cut into 14 pieces, at room temperature (that’s 2 sticks)
1 cup superfine sugar (you can also pulse granulated sugar in a food processor for 1 minute)
½ teaspoon table salt
1 large egg yolk
1 large egg
2 teaspoons vanilla


To make them into spice cookies:

Substitute 1 cup packed light brown sugar for the sugar and add ¾ tsp ground cinnamon, ½ tsp ginger, ¼ tsp nutmeg, ¼ tsp allspice, and 1/8 tsp ground cloves to the flour.

Optional: dried cranberries (chopped or whole; you can mix them into the entire batter or into just half of it) 

On medium speed, mix butter, sugar and salt until fluffy. Add egg yolk, whole egg, vanilla and melted chocolate (or wet chocolate mixture) and mix until well blended. Reduce speed to low and add flour and spice mixture slowly until well combined. Divide dough in half. Roll the dough into a roll if you want to slice cookies from it after it’s chilled. If you want to roll cookies later, you can leave the dough in a dish shape. Wrap dough and refrigerate until firm. (At least 1 hour and up to several days. Dough may also be frozen for up to a month.)

Substitute 1 cup packed light brown sugar for the sugar and add ¾ tsp ground cinnamon, ½ tsp ginger, ¼ tsp nutmeg, ¼ tsp allspice, and 1/8 tsp ground cloves to the flour.

 

Optional: dried cranberries (chopped or whole; you can mix them into the entire batter or into just half of it)

Preheat oven to 375 degree F and prepare two cookie sheets with parchment paper.

You can slice the cookies in desired thickness and place about two inches apart on the cookie sheets.

For rolled cookies, on a well-floured surface, roll dough out to 1/8 inch thick. Cut cookies with cookie cutters. May re-roll scraps one time. Any scraps left over at this point should be rolled into balls, placed on a cookie sheet, and flattened. Place cookies on baking sheets and place sheets into oven (one on lower rack, one on upper). Bake for 6–10 minutes, rotating sheets half way through baking (watch closely for browning).

Some people don’t like fudge. As for me, I don’t have much trouble turning down fudge at a party. I can turn down gourmet fudge at a candy store. I can say no to the fudge that a co-worker brings from home. But I can’t turn down the fudge I grew up eating and learned to make as a kid—my mom’s “five-minute fudge” recipe.

I used to make that fudge for gifts when I was a teenager. I didn’t have much money to buy gifts, so Mom would give me the ingredients to make fudge, and I’d make up a batch or two as presents for my teachers, my friends, and my aunts and uncles.

The list of ingredients is like Christmas music to my ears—marshmallows, sugar, salt, vanilla, evaporated milk, butter, and chocolate—and nuts, if you like nuts. I do.

Of course, I always saved out some for me. I used to take a couple of pieces of fudge into the dark living room, lit only by the lights on the Christmas tree, and eat it slowly, looking at the tree and daydreaming, sipping a mug of hot tea or washing down the fudge with cold milk.

I took a bite of fudge, and I dreamed.

Some day I will fall in love … some day I will have children of my own … some day I will sit next to my own Christmas tree in my very own house with adoring dogs at my feet and I will be a mature adult full of experience and wisdom. I will be beautiful and thin and funny and people will say, “Oh, what an exhilirating life she must have.”

And I took another bite of fudge.

The years passed. A couple decades of them, actually, which deposited me in the mature, experienced, wise adult life I live today. A life, incidentally, that hasn’t seen much fudge in recent years.

Chris doesn’t like fudge much, and in particular he doesn’t like fudge with nuts in it, so for several years I didn’t make it because it is hard to eat fudge in front of someone who says that pecans taste like hair and make him want to gag. Some years I felt I didn’t have time to make and package a batch of fudge; there is, naturally, not much extra time in the exhilirating, funny life I lead, surrounded by children and adoring dogs, and envied by all. And last year I wanted to make fudge, but I was on a diet (having not remained as thin as I dreamed I would). I could just see myself losing all restraint and licking the fudge spoon and pot like a madwoman, then tearing into the fudge tins and eating all of it myself. So I didn’t make it last year.

But this year, I’ve managed to maintain a healthy weight for ten months, while eating reasonable portions of desserts. As December started, I was confident that I could make fudge, enjoy it, and share it too. And not lick the pot.

Also, I knew the boys would eat fudge if I made it. Jonah and Neeley ask for chocolate every day. I believe Neeley believes chocolate is the first course of every meal, and he gets pretty indignant when I suggest he eat his dinner first.

So I made fudge this December. And I made a lighter version of it; fudge is so rich that you can dial down the sugar and fat a little and still feel the thrill of fudgy indulgence.

Since making the fudge last weekend, I’ve been well behaved. I licked the spoon only once and the pot not at all. I’ve eaten only small portions myself. I shared fudge with the boys (but not the adoring dogs, who are sadly overweight); I shared it with my co-workers; and, if there’s any left this weekend, I’m going to share with the folks who come to our church Christmas program … provided that God gives me the strength to hand over the fudge tin when the time comes.

If self control is one of the assets you’ve developed in your mature, experienced, and wise adult life, make this fudge before Christmas. And if it isn’t, make the fudge anyway. It’s never too late to learn self control. And your kids, if you have them, deserve the chance to dream over a piece of fudge.

Five-Minute Fudge

4 cups mini marshmallows

1 ½ cup sugar (substitute Splenda for ½ cup to ¾ cup of the sugar for a lower-sugar version)

¼ tsp salt

1 tsp vanilla

2/3 cup evaporated milk (skim is fine)

¼ cup butter or margarine

12 oz semisweet chocolate pieces

½ cup chopped nuts (optional)

Combine marshmallows, milk, butter, sugar and salt in saucepan. Stirring, bring mixture to full boil. Boil for 5 minutes over medium heat, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and add chocolate pieces, beating until melted. Do not overbeat. Fold in vanilla and nuts. Pour into greased 9-inch square pan. Chill until firm, then cut into small squares.

The People Who Eat Peppernuts

When Chris and I were first married nine years ago, and we approached our first Christmas as a married couple, he kept talking about something called “peppernuts” that his mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother used to make for Christmas. He described them basically as tiny red and green cookies flavored with peppermint.

The name confused me.

“Do they have nuts in them?” I asked.

“Nope,” he said.

“Or pepper?”

“Don’t think so,” he said.

Seemed a little odd to me.

Every year he raved about peppernuts, and one year he made some himself. It took him hours to do it, and he was really proud of what he’d done, but I wouldn’t touch the cookies.

“Peppermint-flavored cookies don’t appeal to me,” I said.

“Come on,” Chris said, “just try them.”

“No thanks,” I said. “Why don’t you have one of my family’s traditional iced Christmas cookies?”

“Can’t. I’m having peppernuts.”

“And I’m eating an iced Christmas cookie,” I said.

For the next several years, Chris kept his Christmas traditions, and I kept mine. He ate peppernuts. He reminisced about cherry moos and zwiebach. I ate iced Christmas cookies and talked wistfully about pecan fudge and date balls and spiced tea.

And then, this year, I decided to cross the great divide. It was time for me to connect with my husband’s German Mennonite roots, as they are my sons’ roots too. I want my sons to grow up in a home with traditions from both families.

So, in the fall, I learned about zwiebach and learned to make Chris’s family’s favorite buns. For Christmas, I planned to make cherry moos and toyed with the idea of making peppernuts. But I still thought the idea of peppermint-flavored cookies sounded a little odd.

Then two things happened that changed my mind: Chris tried to make his own peppernuts, and Chris’s mother sent home a peppernuts cookbook (yes, an entire cookbook full of nothing but peppernuts recipes).

This is what happened. After several years of not making peppernuts because I wouldn’t eat them or help him make them—and they are a lot of work—Chris decided to make up a batch for a bake sale at church. But he forgot to add the sugar. I found him in the kitchen late that evening, trying to fold sugar into the finished dough.

“That’s not going to work,” I said.

“Sure it will,” he said. “I’ve done it before.”

But it didn’t work. The test batch of peppernuts he pulled out of the oven looked awful. We both stared at the baking sheet full of discolored, flat lumps of baked dough, and Chris sighed. I threw away the botched cookies and the dough as he left the kitchen, dejected.

Then the next week, Chris’s mom told me she’d found a small cookbook about peppernuts and was sending it home in Jonah’s school bag for Chris to look at.

But it was me, not Chris, who opened the cookbook that evening and began to read.

I learned that peppernuts, the beloved little German spice cookie, come in many different versions, with and without food coloring, with and without pepper (usually white pepper), with different flavorings—many with anise, or molasses or cinnamon—in different shapes (round or like little pillows), even with and without yeast. And apparently there is much debate over whether the best peppernuts are hard and crispy, chewy, or soft.

I also read that Mennonite women used to make the dough several weeks before Christmas and let it chill for up to a week in a cold cellar to let the flavors mellow. I read about day-long gatherings of Mennonite women, mixing, rolling, cutting, baking, and packaging peppernuts. I read about church ladies baking peppernuts to supply an entire town, children waiting all year to eat peppernuts, mothers making peppernuts for Christmas guests. I read about women grinding their own spices to flavor their family’s special peppernuts recipe. I read about star anise, cloves, and nutmeg. I read debates about the origin and meaning of the name “peppernuts.” I read grandmothers’ recipes, best friends’ recipes, recipes from Mennonites in South America, recipes from Kansas, recipes from Canada.

Then I put down the cookbook. And I got out the recipe that Oma, Chris’s great-grandmother, had passed down to her granddaughter, my mother-in-law. And then I mixed up a batch up peppernuts.

With eyes that were now a little familiar with the peppernuts tradition, I looked over the recipe. I saw that its unique features included the use of sour cream and the addition of food coloring to provide Christmas coloring. The recipe also called for wintergreen to flavor the green peppernuts, and I realized I could use anise instead, as in several of the recipes I’d read. And, of course, the recipe called for peppermint extract to flavor the red dough.

With determination, I set to work. And Saturday evening, after the dough was chilled and dinner was over, I called in Chris for help. We spent a couple of hours rolling and cutting and baking and pouring finished peppernuts into jars.

When we were done, we called in the boys for a treat. Jonah reached for a red peppernut, bit into it, and smiled.

“Can I have a green one too?” he said.

So now I get it. I understand where Chris got this passion for peppernuts. And now, although it’s my kids and my husbands who have German ancestry, not me, I am as proud as any German Mennonite woman’s daughter when I look at the glass jars of peppernuts sitting on my kitchen counter, right next to a tin of my family’s favorite “five-minute fudge.” And you can hear me talking about pfefferneusse at work just about any day this month, with the ladies who grew up making these cookies with their church youth group or dunking it in coffee or learning from their mother how to make it the way their family makes it.

Yes, now I understand.

 

Oma’s Peppernuts

2 2/3 cup sugar

1 1/3 cup butter (at room temperature)

4 eggs (at room temperature)

2 tsp baking soda

2 tsp baking powder

1 tsp cream of tartar

¼ cup sour cream

6 cups flour

1/8 tsp salt

Red and green food coloring

Flavoring: peppermint extract, anise extract, wintergreen extract, etc.

Cream butter and sugar on medium until fluffy. Add eggs and beat until well combined. Beat in baking soda, baking powder, cream of tartar, and sour cream. Stir in flour and salt until well blended. Refrigerate dough (for up to one week).

Divide dough into halves. Add red food coloring and 1 tsp peppermint extract. To the other half, add green coloring and 1 tsp anise extract. Roll into pencil-like rolls and cut into small pieces. Bake at 325 for 10 minutes for soft peppernuts or 1–2 minutes longer for crisper peppernuts.

I thought it might be fun to share some of the ideas for quick meals that I rely on for feeding my family. I have to keep a big repertoire of easy and fast meals for the many, many nights when we have to leave the house early for an evening church function.

I’ll tell you right now, some of those meals involve frozen foods. Do not judge until you have walked a mile in my moccasins, which I purchased at Walmart.

Every Wednesday night Chris has to leave for church band practice at 6:30, and most weeks I go with him. And right now we’re practicing almost every night for a skit that’s part of our church Christmas program. We are committed, even though it means missing my favorite a cappella singing competition on TV. And we missed the entire season of Hell’s Kitchen thanks to our schedule.

On these busy nights, I can’t try my skill at new meals or meals that take a lot of time to prepare. I save those meals for the nights when we’re home all evening, or for a Saturday when I can cook during the afternoon. Instead, I fix meals with just a few ingredients, many of them already prepared. Lately I’ve been able to work in some fresh foods and foods made from scratch but made ahead of time.

One thing I have to be careful about is not serving these quick meals too often. We’ve soured on a couple of old favorites because I made them too often. Take hot dogs wrapped in crescent rolls—I made crescent dogs so often a few years back that they began to sound distinctly nauseating, and we didn’t eat them for about two years. But, enough time having lapsed that I now find crescent dogs appealing again, I have recently worked them back into the rotation, largely because a hot dog is one of the few things my sons will eat. But now we eat them on a tolerable cycle of about once every six to eight weeks.

One of Chris’s favorite quick entrees, which we are not yet sick of, is a chicken and bacon sandwich made with a frozen chicken patty. A plain patty on a bun wouldn’t be much fun. But a patty on a really good roll, with bacon and cheese and tomato and ranch dressing or barbecue sauce—that’s worth eating.

The boys won’t eat the chicken sandwiches, but they like the bacon, which Neeley calls “macon.” He also likes to eat the top off my sandwich roll. I can give him his own, but that’s not as fun as eating the top off of mine.

This weekend I made and froze some ciabatta, which I’ll thaw next week for this meal. And because I don’t really want Neeley to eat the top of my ciabatta, I may have to distract him with a decoy roll that I can place on my plate and pretend to want to eat myself.

Here’s how I make them:

Chicken and Bacon Sandwiches

Frozen breaded chicken patties (Tyson patties are good quality)

Sandwich bun (I like using homemade ciabatta, but we’ve also used regular hamburger buns)

Bacon (I use Oscar Meyer ready-to-serve bacon because it’s quick and not that high in calories)

Cheese (I used a half slice of processed white cheese or any grated cheese)

Sliced tomato (I’ve been getting beefsteak tomatoes through the Nebraska Food Cooperative)

Any other veggies you like

Sauce (I use barbecue but Chris uses ranch dressing)

Bake the chicken patties are directed on the package. A few minutes before the patties are done, fix the bacon as directed on the package. When the patties are done, top with cheese and put them back in the oven for 2–3 minutes.

Spread sauce on the sandwich buns. When cheese is melted on the patties, take them out of the oven and lay a patty on each bun. Top the patty with bacon and then with tomato. Serve with chips, baked French fries, salad, beans, or any other vegetable or fruit you like.

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