Homemade Spreadable Butter

About 6 months ago, I had an existential crisis in the grocery store.

I was standing in the oil section, trying to choose a neutral flavored oil for these delicious banana muffins.  I use olive oil in almost everything I cook, but it seemed like it wouldn’t lend the right flavor to the muffins.  I also thought it would be good to get an oil that had some beneficial component that would add to the healthiness of the muffins.

Grapeseed oil was a good price and what the original recipe had suggested.  So I googled grapeseed oil to see if it had any particularly healthy attributes.  And I was attacked by the following results:

Print Screen Grapeseed Oil

Some sites claimed that grapeseed oil was a great choice for my baked goods and others claimed that it would surely kill me.  I was literally paralyzed, hunched over my phone like that annoying person I usually grumble about in the grocery store.  I kept clicking and reading and clicking and reading, frenzied by the conflicting arguments and desperate for an answer for what I should actually choose.  All of the claims became more and more hysterical and this seemingly simple choice became more dire than ever.

I felt betrayed, afraid and embarrassed.  How was everyone else buying their products so easily?  Didn’t they know that EVERYTHING WAS A LIE?!

Why am I such a lunatic about this?  Most of it has to do with watching my mother suffer from pancreatic cancer.  When something like that happens to a loved one, it’s natural to seek answers, and I decided to focus on food, which is really the only thing I can control about my environment.  Well, and exercise, but that’s a whole separate discussion.

The point is, I was very vulnerable and these “click-bait” headlines really messed with my head.  I’m very grateful to James for encouraging me to do more research before making drastic changes to my (and, because we live together, his) diet.  Now I’m able to look at Google results like the ones above and search for reputable websites that I have decided to trust like the Mayo Clinic or Harvard Medical School.  Are these sites infallible?  Of course not.  But I try to at least look for information with a science background.  It keeps me sane.

So what does all of this crap have to do with spreadable butter?  Merely that homemade spreadable butter has two ingredients: real butter and the oil of your choosing.  And after all that, my choosing is still grapeseed oil.  It’s cheap, has a neutral flavor and a long shelf life.

Because I’m a huge nerd, I find homemade spreadable butter so much fun.  I took spreadable butter for granted for so long, as something I HAD to buy, no other options, the end. But in my health crusade, I decided to look at the labels on every single spreadable butter in the store, hoping that one contained healthy oils so I could not only use delicious butter but increase my health as well.  Each and every one, even the ones that claimed to be organic and super healthy, had a ton of chemicals in it.  A TON.  Do I know these are bad for me?  Absolutely not.  They could be fine.  I really don’t know.  But it had me thinking – can’t I make spreadable butter at home?  Does it have to have chemicals to be spreadable? And this time the internet DID come in handy – not only was homemade spreadable butter possible, it only contains two ingredients. Done and done.

So, after that rant, I give you the recipe for Homemade Spreadable Butter.  I can’t say that it’s better for you, but I can say that it’s cheaper, less wasteful (no plastic container) and tastes AMAZING.  And it’s super fast, too!

Homemade Spreadable Butter

Ingredients:

  • 2 sticks (1 cup, 16 TBL) of salted butter
  • 2/3 cup of oil (I use grapeseed, but you can use any type that pleases you.)

Procedure:

  1. Let your butter come to room temperature so it is soft and easy to combine with oil (Alternately, heat your butter in the microwave in 5 second intervals until soft)
  2. Combine butter and oil in a small food processor until homogeneous and smooth
  3. Chill and enjoy spreadable butter anytime

Procedure with Pictures and Anecdotes:

Our apartment often gets really hot, especially when we’re cooking and baking all day, and this was one of those days.  My butter was way meltier than recommended and it still worked out great.

DSC_0092

Because I am obsessive, I actually have three food processors to choose from, and this one can be used as an attachment to my immersion blender.  I know.  I have a lot of kitchen appliances.  I find using my tiny food processor much easier in this application, but you can combine the butter and oil with a fork or with a whisk as well.  It comes out a little chunky, but it was still spreadable out of the fridge.

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So tiny – how can I not use that?

DSC_0096You can see here that the food processor makes the butter incredibly smooth in just a matter of seconds.

DSC_0024Yeah it’s… really easy.  There’s nothing else to say.  Go make some!  And then spread it on these delicious buttermilk biscuits!  Everybody wins.

Christmas Cookie Crazy: Chocolate-Hazelnut Sables

You can tell something has changed this year.  Just from the simple fact that I’ve actually gotten a blog post out, on time, during the Christmas season, about cookies.20141209_122744

All my loved ones know that for the last nine years I have been 100% Christmas Cookie Crazy.  There was research and there were spreadsheets.  I’d spend hours upon hours making dough and freezing it; then hours upon hours baking as close to Christmas as possible so that the cookies would be given at peak freshness.  People loved them and the more they raved, the more encouraged I was to make and give more.  (I really hope that people weren’t just being nice, because now we’ve been dragged into a vicious cycle.)

James even made this video last year to prepare everyone for the baked goodness:

http://youtu.be/tdk0JoRFgSM

When James and I started dating, he valiantly, like the good new boyfriend he was, offered to help me make the cookies.  You’d think that would have made things easier but no, it just added to my fervor.  Think of what we could accomplish with TWO sets of hands?! Mwhahahahaha!!!

The craze reached a fever pitch last year.  It was year 8 that I had been making hundreds of Christmas cookies and I really went overboard – I made over 400 cookies.  I kept convincing myself that I hadn’t made enough and started new batches or added another kind of cookie to the collection.  I exhausted myself to the point that it wasn’t fun anymore.  I felt incredibly sick and miserable during the romantic, and expensive, dinner out that we had planned.  (It didn’t help that I also had gallstones at the time and didn’t know it…)  And while the cookies did go over well, there were leftovers.  There was cookie fatigue.  It was obvious that I had gone to far.

And so to prevent James from leaving me, I told our families that I would not be giving cookies as gifts this year, because it was simply too difficult for me.  This year, we’re giving out salted caramels and hot cocoa mix.  Hopefully blog posts about those to follow!

However, I simply couldn’t let the season go by without making any cookies at all so I decided to make, bake and freeze two batches of cookies to share with our families.  The smells, chills and sounds of Christmas just engage something inside me that tells me I must bake!  And what do you know – I’m enjoying it again and experimenting in the kitchen.  Behold – Chocolate-Hazelnut Sables.

Chocolate-Hazelnut Sables

  • Servings: yield about 42 cookies
  • Print

Adapated quite a bit from Bon Appetit’s Chocolate-Pistachio Sables

Ingredients:

  • cups (2½ sticks) salted butter, room temperature
  • cups (lightly packed) light brown sugar
  • cups all-purpose flour
  • ¾ tsp kosher salt
  • ¼ tsp baking soda
  • ½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder, “bloomed” in 7 TBL of hot water
  • 1 TBL vanilla extract
  • 1 egg 
  • 1 cup dark chocolate chips
  • 1 cup unsalted, roasted hazelnuts, crushed with a mallet
  • Flaky sea salt (such as Maldon)

Procedure:

The dough needs to chill for at least four hours before you slice into cookies, so the procedure for these cookies comes in two parts.

Making the dough:

  1. Put 1 cup hazelnuts in a gallon plastic bag.  Seal while pressing out all the air you can.  With a mallet, rolling pin or even a bowl, whack those hazelnuts until they’ve broken into smaller chunks.  Resist the urge to take out all your Christmas frustration and pulverize the suckers – you want small chunks, not dust!
  2. Add 1 cup of chocolate chips to the hazelnuts bag and set aside for later.
  3. Cream butter and brown sugar together until light and fluffy, about four minutes.
  4. Add flour, salt and baking soda and mix to combine.
  5. Combine cocoa powder with hot water, adding one TBL at a time and stirring until smooth.
  6. Add “bloomed” cocoa powder and vanilla to dough and mix to combine.
  7. Add egg to dough and mix to combine. (Adding egg to fully mixed dough will avoid any contact with hot bloomed cocoa, preventing the chance of curdling your egg.)
  8. Unroll a large length of parchment paper, about 2 ft. long.  Cut and lay flat on counter or table.
  9. Spoon 1/3 of dough onto parchment paper.  Using your hands, form the dough into a log of relatively uniform thickness – about the size you’d like your cookies to be.  Place the log on the long end of the parchment closest to you, centered.
  10. Roll the dough up in the parchment.
  11. Grab the ends of the parchment with both hands and, with your hands close to the dough, twist several times in opposite directions.  The motion will consolidate the dough into a beautifully round log.
  12. Repeat with the remaining 2/3 of dough to create 3 dough logs.
  13. Store dough in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours, so the dough becomes firm enough to slice into cookies.  Alternately, freeze until a later date.  Home-made slice and bake cookies!

Baking the cookies:

  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F.
  2. Working with one dough log at a time (keep the others in the fridge), unwrap and slice cookies with a serrated knife about 1/4 inch wide.
  3. Arrange cookies on a jellyroll baking sheet, lined with parchment or silpat, 12 or 15 cookies to a baking sheet.
  4. Sprinkle liberally with finishing salt, Maldon recommended.
  5. Bake for 12 minutes total, switching the racks and turning each pan 180° halfway through baking.  Cookies should look dry in the center.
  6. Let cool 2 minutes on baking sheet.  Move cookies to cooling racks to cool completely.

Procedure with Pictures and Anecdotes

I made these cookies twice last year – once to test on co-workers and the second time as gifts.  While people raved, I just wanted a richer, more chocolatey flavor and I couldn’t quite attain it.  To try to maximize the chocolate, I made FIVE changes to this batch: all things I’d learned to “up the ante” on chocolate flavor:

1. Blooming chocolate: I learned this from America’s Test Kitchen – apparently, to get the richest flavor from your cocoa powder, you need to “activate” it with hot water.  Even though the original recipe doesn’t call for any liquid, I added 7 TBL of water to bloom the cocoa.20141207_091017

2. More salt: Salt brings out other flavors – it’s often what’s missing when you find a recipe to be “meh.”  I used salted butter instead of unsalted to increase the salt quotient.

3. More vanilla: Vanilla is often cited as a flavor booster, so instead of the teaspoon the recipe suggests, I added a tablespoon.

4. More fat: The reason that milk chocolate is so popular is because it contains more fat and more sugar than dark chocolate.  So instead of using an egg white, as the recipe suggests, I used a whole egg.  A little more fat to increase the chocolate flavor – and a little more egg magic also helped the dough stayed together better.  I’ve done this with peanut butter cookies as well and I’m very happy with the result.

5. More sugar: I used Toll House dark chocolate chips instead of chopped bittersweet chocolate.  The sugar brings out the chocolate flavor we all know and love while the chocolate chips cut out a whole step of chopping chocolate by hand – not one of my favorite kitchen chores.

The combined efforts definitely gave me a more satisfactory cookies – the dough wasn’t as brittle and I did have a better chocolate flavor.  Still not perfect, but I think my loved ones will enjoy them!

A manageable dough:

I think the addition of a whole egg as opposed to an egg white really gave this dough what it needed to be easier to handle.  While the steps above seem a little complex, and certainly take more time than a scoop cookie, I think you’ll find it’s easier than it sounds.  Pictures to help visualize below.

The log formed with my hands.  I know it… looks gross.  Try to look past that.

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Rolling in the parchment:20141207_095316

Twisting the ends to make the cylinder:

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20141207_095401 Last year, I found that my cookie logs became flat on one side when chilling.  It’s easy to fix by hand once you’ve sliced the cookies, but I thought I must have some vessel that was curved that would help them keep their shape.  And behold – I remembered that I had a baguette pan, which I have never ever used to make baguettes, but that is just the right size.20141207_100353The twist method makes a pretty impressive cylinder.  However, the edges to get a little wonky, as one might expect.  Fortunately, this dough is very forgiving.  I slice the ends to the right width and then just mold those scraggly edges with my fingers.  In some ways, I actually like the look of them better! 20141208_18272720141208_183503

Left: cookie that has been cut from the inside of the log. Right: end slice that has been molded into shape.

Cutting the slices is very easy, especially with a serrated knife (bread knife)…

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Sometimes the knife can’t get through the chunks of chocolate chip or hazelnut and they fall apart.  Never fear!  Just mold them back together with your fingers.20141208_19131920141208_19133420141208_191336Baked cookies:

With a little bit of effort, these cookies are dressed to impress.

20141209_122707Here you can see the differences in the cookies.  Some turn out picture perfect like the cookie in the top right but, really, I think they all look pretty delicious.  I kinda like the imperfect ones better.

Perfect with a mug of something warm, snuggled with loved ones in front of the fire.  Cookies and Christmas just go together.  I mean, really – what’s Christmas without cookies?

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Holy Guacamole

While we’re on the subject of the wonders of dried herbs and spices, it’s only fitting that I discuss our “secret ingredient” Guacamole.

When I realized that I couldn’t eat cheese, James and I started making A TON of guacamole and putting it on everything you’d eat with cheese, mostly sandwiches.  Turkey burgers, shredded pork, tacos – guacamole was a staple.

After making the recipe in many different ways, we found some tricks that not only made our guacamole easy to throw together, but balanced the flavors perfectly.  The one secret was garlic powder instead of minced garlic.  If you’re not going to heat minced or pressed garlic, it can be extremely potent and make your breath heinous – not just while you’re eating it, but for days.  Using garlic powder gives the flavor without any of the bite, and in powdered form it can distribute evenly throughout the dip.

Our other secret ingredient?  Jarred Jalapenos instead of fresh.  These last a really long time in the refrigerator and can come sliced and even diced, although I’ve had a hard time finding the diced ones lately.  The jarred jalapenos still have lots of heat but you don’t need to worry about touching them with your bare hands – the capsaicin has been muted by the liquid in which they’re packed.

I can count the number of times I’ve seen James truly angry on both hands.  He is, 99% of the time, the most calm, reasonable and kind person I have ever met.  But one of the times I experienced his anger was, fortunately, not at me but at a fresh jalapeno.  We were making guacamole while dog-sitting for my sister, and we bought all the ingredients to make dinner while we were there.  James bought a fresh jalapeno and scraped the seeds out with his fingers, “like Bobby Flay does.”  Then… he rubbed his eye.

This is what you’d call “a lesson learned the hard way.”  James was in terrible pain and I’d never experienced something like this before.  So I hopped from one foot to the other anxiously crying “Oh James, I don’t know what to do.”  And one of the few times I’ve ever heard him shout, James yelled “GOOGLE IT!!! GOOGLE IT!!!”

Fortunately and unfortunately, it’s a common problem but most of the advice online tells you how to prevent the burn, not how to cure it – there’s actually very few ways to cure a capsaicin burn besides time.  To cool the burning, you can ice the skin you rubbed with capsaicin, but it will not solve your problem.   We were advised to wash his hands with just soap (without water) before rinsing – the soap will adhere to the capsaicin molecules, whereas just water will actually spread them more easily.  For terrible cases like James, his hands were literally burning for 24 hours.  We had to soak his hands in milk the next day.

Therefore – pickled jalepenos are the norm in our household.  But not only are they safer, they add the right amount of heat to our perfectly balanced guacamole.  It’s party, season, y’all, so keep this recipe handy.  Oh – and you’re welcome.

Bonnie and James' Perfect Guacamole

Ingredients

  • 1 ripe avocado
  • 1/4 cup red onion (1/2 half small onion), diced
  • 1 TBL jarred jalapeño, diced finely
  • 1-2 TBL of lime juice, to taste (we use 2)
  • 1/2 tsp garlic powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt

Procedure:

  1. Core avocado and scoop flesh into a bowl
  2. Dice your onion and jalapeno and add to avocado
  3. Add lime juice, garlic powder, and salt
  4. Using a fork, press down on the flesh of the avocado to achieve the desired texture.  We like ours very smooth, but I know preferences vary.
  5. Mix together all ingredients and taste, adjusting seasoning to taste as needed.
  6. Serve immediately.

Procedure with pictures and anecdotes

Ah, avocados – how I love them, even though they are probably the most frustrating fruit to buy and store.  Here’s some tricks I learned in my cheese-less days…

Picking avocados: A ripe avocado’s skin will be black, not brown.  Pick up the avocado and squeeze gently – it should yield to the pressure, but not feel mushy.  A hard avocado will not be ripe for another few days.  Finally, you’ll see at the stem end of the avocado that there’s a small nub, almost like a button.  This can be easily flicked out with a finger – if it’s a nice light green (not yellow), you’re good to go!

Cutting avocados: On a cutting board and using a chef’s knife, slice the avocado lengthwise – once the knife hits large pit, rotate the avocado so that you’ve sliced the flesh in half all the way around the fruit.  Put down your knife and twist each side of the fruit in opposite directions – this will separate each half so you can scoop out the flesh.20141019_165853  I like to use the heel of my knife to take the pit out of the avocado.  Fold a thick dish towel over several times and hold in your outstretched hand so that your skin is completely covered.  Place the half of the avocado with the pit into your towel-covered hand.  Place the heel of your knife on the pit and, with a very focused, deliberate motion, lodge your knife heel into the pit.  YOU DO NOT NEED A STRONG “WHACK” – remember, your hand is on the other side of that towel!  (For a good, quick video of this – check out CHOW’s video here.)20141019_165934Once lodged, grip the knife blade from the dull side and twist the avocado and knife in opposite directions.  The pit should easily dislodge from the flesh of the avocado.  Press the pit gently downward, again from the dull side of the knife, to slide off the blade.

Some people do not like using the knife method, which is perfectly fair – you are definitely driving a knife towards your hand.  Hence the towel.  You can also use a spoon to scoop the pit from the flesh – the riper your avocado, the easier this will be.  Not the cleanest method, but certainly safer.

To get the avocado flesh out of the skin, I usually slice the flesh while it’s still in the skin.  Again, using the towel-to-protect-your-hand method: make lengthwise cuts in the flesh and then widthwise cuts in the flesh to make a grid.  Use a spoon to circle around the flesh in the skin and then scoop out.

Storing guacamole: This is a tough one, and there’s a lot of theories of how to keep guacamole from browning on the internet.  My favorite is to lay plastic wrap directly on top of the guacamole, after smoothing it into an even layer.  This keeps the guac from having a lot of contact with oxygen in the air, which causes the browning.  This works well for about 24-hours, but sometimes there will  be a very thin layer of brown on the top of the guac.  I usually scrape this off before eating.  I’ve noticed that the longer you try to keep it, the farther down the brown will extend.  However – it doesn’t last long enough in my house to be much of a problem.

Granulated garlic: Looks like this!20141019_172344Use it for a myriad of possibilities in the kitchen.

Juicing a lime: If you’re using freshly squeezed lime juice, and you have weak little baby hands like me, here’s a few tips:

  1. Roll the whole, un-sliced lime on your cutting board to break down some of the fibers.
  2. Once sliced in half, poke holes in the flesh of the lime to help release the juices.
  3. You can use a reamer, but I find limes so difficult that sometimes I use the fork as a reamer instead, squeezing the lime around the fork to release the juice.  It may help to re-pierce the lime in several spots as you try this.20141019_171746

Using a fork to squash avocado:20141019_171342Happy Guacamole!20141019_172433

 

Thanksgiving 2: Reenie’s Bread Dressing

As I’ve stated before, my mother really didn’t like to cook.  Yet, she made sure our family of 6 ate a home-cooked meal every single night and sat down at the table together at the end of the day (except for Friday which was, of course, pizza night.)  When I went to college, my tastes in food and interest in cooking soared to a much more adventurous place than my mother’s would ever go.  But despite that, my mother taught me invaluable lessons in the kitchen, from how to store food, how to make food stretch farther, etc.  One of the greatest was using dried herbs and granulates while cooking.

There are so many options for these dried spices and our apartment in full of them.  They last much longer than fresh herbs and don’t require any kind of chopping, which makes them perfect for busy families, weeknight meals and, especially, experimenting.  They can help you save a dish that’s missing something or guide you to creating a brand new recipe.  I am incredibly grateful to my Mom for introducing me to their wonders.

This year, I celebrated Thanksgiving Day with James’ family and we had a second Thanksgiving with my family on Black Friday.  I made stuffing for both Thanksgivings and for my family I made my Mom’s traditional bread stuffing, which consists of all dried herbs and granulated onion powder.  It’s a simple dish and absolutely delicious – all the flavors you expect from Thanksgiving without any of the work.  When splitting up the side dish duties this year, we realized that my Mom’s “bread dressing” and the family’s famous “rice dressing” had almost the exact same ingredient – one has bread and butter, the other has rice and bacon.  Otherwise, all the ingredients are the same.  Why mess with perfection?

I did experiment a little bit, of course.  I increased the butter by… 150%, which frankly was a little overkill.  But below I give you the recipe that I think will come out just right.

Reenie's Bread Dressing

Ingredients:

16 slices Arnold’s Whole Wheat Bread (one loaf)
8 TBL butter (1 stick) – 6 TBL melted, 2 TBL cut into small chunks
1 tsp poultry seasoning
1/2 tsp sage
1/2 tsp onion powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
1 & 1/2 cups chicken stock

Procedure:

  1. Preheat oven to 400ºF.
  2. Melt 6 TBL of butter.  Keep remaining 2 TBL in refrigerator until step 8.
  3. Cut or tear bread into chunks.
  4. Mix all dried spices together.
  5. Pour half  of melted butter onto bread and toss to coat.  Pour remaining butter and toss again so butter is as evenly distributed as possible.
  6. Immediately after, while butter is still wet, sprinkle dried spices while tossing so coating is even.
  7. Add 1 & 1/2 cup of chicken stock to moisten bread.
  8. Pour dressing into a 9 x 13 casserole dish.
  9. Cut remaining 2 TBL butter into small chunks and distribute on the top of the casserole.  (The butter doesn’t need to be cold, but it helps when handling with your fingers!)
  10. Bake in oven for 30 – 45 minutes until top is crisp.

Procedure with anecdotes and pictures:

Unfortunately I lost a lot of my pictures, so I don’t have any visual illustration of mixing the dressing.  I hope my description above will suffice!

Mom loved to keep Arnold’s Whole Wheat Bread in the house and that’s what the bread dressing was always made from as well.  I made sure to pick that up for this dish as well, but I’m sure any wheat bread would be great.20141128_115559

Another wonderful feature of this recipe is that you don’t need to wait for the bread to get stale – it can come right out of the bag!  That really saves on time and prep.

I find it’s easier to cut the bread with a bread knife than to tear into chunks with my hands.  I was able to cut four slices at a time, which made it really fast.  I found that cutting length-wise first made it easier to hold the slices together as I cut.20141128_12350220141128_115839

Dotting the stuffing with butter is something I just learned in this past month from Bon Appetit and it yielded great results – lots of crunchy, buttery pieces for everyone to enjoy, giving contrast to the soft pieces buried underneath.  I totally recommend it – what’s 2 more tablespoons of butter on Thanksgiving?20141128_125515

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Yeah… it got a little burnt. Stick to 30-45 minutes and you should be safe! And it was still tasty!

 

Thanksgiving Dry Run: Cornbread Stuffing

This year for Thanksgiving, James and I have volunteered to bring a dish we’ve never tried before but that I’ve always wanted to make: cornbread stuffing.  Or I guess, more exactly, cornbread dressing since it won’t be stuffed inside the bird. We’re from Philadelphia and cornbread is not really a staple of family meals, although always welcome.  Stuffings or dressings that don’t use regular sandwich bread have always fascinated me, since that’s what I grew up eating – Mom’s bread dressing is always made with Arnold’s Whole Wheat Bread.  I’m also interested in the texture difference that chunks of cornbread would lend to stuffing – but most importantly, the flavors of slightly sweet cornbread combined with sage and rosemary sounds heavenly.  James’ brother, Andrew, the brave host of Thanksgiving even with the most adorable 3.5-months-old baby now residing in their home, welcomed the side dish and we’re excited to contribute.

Cornbread stuffing actually requires the use of two completely new recipes to us: baking cornbread and then the cornbread stuffing.  We could buy the cornbread, of course, but I saw several warnings that grocery-store cornbread would be too sweet.  And I had to concede that can happen – grocery-store cornbread can often taste like corncake.  So we decided to do a dry run and make both recipes, so we can be sure it’s delicious on Thanksgiving Day.

I only do dry-runs for really important things: I’ve done a few Christmas Cookie dry-runs, feeding my office with the tests, or before we’re going to make a special meal for someone.  But having the audacity to volunteer yourself for the most important part of the Thanksgiving table and trying a new recipe?  You must have some nerve.  Thanksgiving is the most sacred of meals in the year: if you’re contributing, you better bring your A-game.

The best way, in my opinion, to do a dry run is to do the recipe once exactly as written.  Therefore, I did no such thing.  Who has time for that?

When waiting at the doctor’s office one morning, James and I went through a whole bunch of recipes for cornbread stuffing on our phones and narrowed down the ones we liked.  Eventually, we settled on an Anne Burrell recipe, but we decided to sub in bacon for sausage, and omit cranberries and walnuts, to make it more crowd-pleasing.  All the rest of the ingredients seemed right on.

I found a recipe that reviews lauded as a sturdy cornbread that wouldn’t fall apart, that seemed perfect for this dish.  We needed 10 cups of cornbread, and in the very helpful video from Anne Burrell it looked like she just used two 8-inch cornbreads, so I’m trusting that I was right about that.

And therein lies one of my biggest frustrations as a home cook – poor recipe writing for normal people.  This recipe called for 10 cups of cornbread.  Sorry, but cornbread isn’t measured in cups.  Had I decided to base the amount of cornbread I needed to make on the number of cups in the recipe, I would have made 5 cornbreads instead of two.  Can you help a girl out and tell me how I get to 10 cups?  Come on now.

We’re feeling really good about the stuffing at this point, but we do have a few tweaks to make, which I’ve included in the recipe below.  I’ll make updates once Thanksgiving Day has gone down!

Cornbread Dressing

Adapted heavily from Anne Burrell’s recipe

Ingredients:

Cornbread (makes one 8″ x 1″ loaf):

Dry ingredients:

  • 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup plus 3 TBL yellow cornmeal
  • 1 TBL baking powder
  • 1 tsp salt

Wet ingredients:

  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup (1/2 stick or 4 TBL) melted butter
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 cup buttermilk

Cornbread dressing:

  • 2 pounds bacon
  • 2 medium-sized onions, diced
  • 1 heart celery, diced
  • salt
  • 3 gloves of garlic, pressed
  • 10 sage leaves, finely chopped
  • 3 sprigs rosemary, finely chopped
  • 2  8-inch cornbread loves, cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 5 cups chicken stock

Procedure:

  1. First, bake your cornbread, at least 6-hours prior.
    1. Preheat your oven to 400ºF.
    2. Grease your pans
    3. Combine dry ingredients and wet ingredients separately.
    4. Pour wet ingredients into dry ingredients and stir just to combine.
    5. Grease pan, pour batter into pan, smooth into an even layer.
    6. Cook for 30-33 minutes, until a skewer or knife inserted into the center of the loaf can be removed (mostly) clean
    7. Cool, remove loaf from pan, leave loaf out in the open air to stale
  2. When ready to make the dressing, preheat oven to 350ºF
  3. Chop all your ingredients – onions, celery, herbs
  4. Cook bacon in a skillet on the stovetop.  Cut bacon into pieces with kitchen scissors or with a knife.
  5. Once bacon is cooked, remove to a plate lined with paper towels to drain
  6. Let fat cool slightly and removed from pan.  Leave about 4 tablespoons of bacon fat in the pan. (You heard me.)
  7. Add onions, celery and 1/2 tsp salt and cook in bacon fat on medium heat until they are lightly golden brown, about 10 minutes.
  8. Add pressed garlic and herbs and cook until fragrant, about 3 minutes.
  9. Remove “aromatics” mixture from heat and let cool slightly – you’ll be mixing it with your hands soon.
  10. In a very large bowl (I mean VERY large), combine cornbread chunks, chicken stock and aromatics.
    1. Add chicken stock 1 cup at a time.  You may not need a full 5 cups.
    2. This may be easiest to do by hand: reach down into the bowl, and pull your hands up as if folding the mixture on top of itself.  It may take about 2 minutes until mixture is thoroughly combined.
    3. The final mixture will be very wet, but about half of the cornbread cubes will still hold their shape.
  11. Pour the mixture into a large casserole dish and bake in oven for 30-45 minutes, until the top is lightly golden and the mixture is very hot in the middle.
  12. Although delicious hot, we found the dressing even more delicious after sitting in the fridge for a day.  Heat in the oven again before serving.

Procedure anecdotes:

Since I’m serving this for guests, I took extra care to make sure my onion was properly diced, which can be a daunting task.  If you’ve never done it before, you make cuts in the onion in three directions.  It’s easiest in this order:

Horizontal slices (about 3):20141116_160028

Vertical Slices:20141116_160109

Now you can see the little cubes you’re aiming for, you can make perpendicular slices:20141116_160129

For the bacon, we cut the slices into pieces, instead of crumbling the bacon after it was crisp.  I wanted big chunks instead of bits.  James likes to cut each slice into the pan, as opposed to slicing the pieces altogether.

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I don’t always use fresh herbs, but it’s fun for something special.  Fresh herbs taste deeper, in my opinion – you get more of the flavor.  For the rosemary, you can strip the leaves (or “needles”, really), off their sprig by holding onto the top of the sprig and pulling your fingers downward.  You do not need pick them off one by one!  The smaller “branches” that hold the leaves are perfectly safe to eat.20141116_162512

With the sage, the recipe calls for 10 leaves.  I pile these leaves on top of each other and then roll them up, almost like a cigar! Then I slice into very thin ribbons or “chiffonade.” I then run the knife through the ribbons again several times to get a very fine mince.

20141116_162108(0) 20141116_162236

 

Finally – that yummy cornbread.  As I said above, the recipe we used isn’t my ideal cornbread for eating with some BBQ – it isn’t very moist and doesn’t have an interesting flavor on its own.  However, we hit a home run for the stuffing.  It works PERFECTLY – not too sweet and very sturdy.  It’s very easy to cut into cubes and mix with the aromatics and chicken stock.20141116_162742 20141116_163709

The finished mixture is half crumbly, half chunky – the texture really could not be more perfect!

Oh.20141116_164106

Yeah.20141116_172742

 

Girl.20141116_173843

 

Purple Stride

Please visit my family’s team page, Run MacD, and donate or share.

October 23rd is my mother’s birthday.  Today, she would be 65-years-old.  When I knew that my mother was going to die before she turned 65, I became incredibly angry.  And not for the reason you might think – not because I would lose my mother before I turned 30 or because she would never know my angel of a nephew, Jude.  I was angry because my Mom had a very simple, delightful, adorably “Reenie” plan for her 65th birthday.  She was going to ride SEPTA, the public transportation sytem in Philadelphia, all the way to the end of the line and back.  Because when you turn 65, you can ride SEPTA, anytime, anywhere, for $1.

My mother wasn’t afraid of getting old, which is why it makes me so angry that she didn’t have the pleasure of becoming an old lady.  My mother died at 63, just a month before her 64th birthday, from pancreatic cancer.

Just a little over a year ago, through a strange turn of events, I became my Dad’s second-in-command caretaker for my mother.  I don’t have a speck of medical experience, in fact I need to lay down when I have the slightest bit of blood drawn or I’ll faint, but 4 days a week I would stay with my parents and act as my Mom’s nurse, doing my best to acclimate to her ever-changing needs and keep her as comfortable as possible.  Not because she was needy or demanding – not at all.  But because her decline was so quick, and she changed day-by-day.  She had already stopped her chemotherapy at this point.  We all knew she was going to die.  We were just biding the time, helping her through the last difficult months of her life.

It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.  I would come back to my apartment in Virginia so emotionally exhausted that I hardly ever actually made it to the office.  The stress made any physical pain I was feeling, like migraines or menstrual cramps, ten times worse.  Months later, after my Mom passed away, I would be diagnosed with PTSD.

But believe it or not, I wouldn’t trade the honor of being by my mother’s side in those final months for a second.  Not for anything. Because if my Mom was going to go through this pain, I was going to be with her, no matter how badly it has scarred me.  What I went through was nothing to what she went through.

Pancreatic cancer is a beast.  Before my Mom was diagnosed, I didn’t even know what my pancreas did or where it was.  But pancreatic cancer creeps up on you like an ambush, undetected until it’s already at Stage 4.  After that, it’s a swift killer.  We were actually lucky that we had Mom with us for a year, even an extremely tough year.  12 months survival after diagnosis is rare.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but my Mom’s Stage 4 diagnosis in October of 2012 was essentially a death sentence.

But death is only part of what makes cancer so horrible – the suffering at the end of life is the other part.  When I talk to medical professionals about the fact that my Mom had pancreatic cancer, they have a consistent reaction: a sharp intake of breath, avoiding eye contact and shaking their head.  That’s because pancreatic cancer is also one of the most painful diseases out there and it is a terrible way to spend the last months of your life.

I’ve thought a lot about how to illustrate how much a pancreatic cancer patient suffers without sharing too much of my mom’s personal struggle.  I know she’s gone, but I don’t want to insult her memory by sharing things she wouldn’t want shared on the internet.  So I asked a doctor to help me describe it.  He told me that, as far as doctors can tell, the pain of pancreatic cancer is so intense that it’s comparable to breaking your back but never healing.  At the height of pain in the journey of a pancreatic cancer patient, the only relief you can give the patient is to dose the painkillers until the patient is in a comatose state.  And still the pain can break through.  I know.  I saw it happen.

But it doesn’t need to be that way – there are amazing medical breakthroughs being discovered every day!  Penn has tested, with success, a revolutionary new treatment that literally reprograms your T-cells with HIV to attack cancer cells and it’s now being tested on solid tumors like ovarian and pancreatic cancer.  A young man named Jack Andraka has created a blood test that is faster and cheaper than any other test currently used, which could help me or my siblings detect pancreatic cancer before it becomes inoperable.  But these tests and treatments take years of research and testing before they can be offered to the public.  And in order to give these incredible scientists the resources they need to forge ahead, we need awareness of this disease and more funds to sustain them.

On November 1st, my family is going to participate in Philadelphia’s Purple Stride 5k for the 3rd year in a row.  James and I are disappointed that we can’t join them, since I’m undergoing my second surgery for the year next week.   However, check out our page, Run MacD, and donate if you can – every little bit helps, and you’ll see that some team members are close to their fundraising goals.  You could help bump them over the edge!

But if you can’t make a monetary donation, there’s still something incredibly valuable that you can do.  Please share this post on the social media of your choosing.  It may show another person caring for an ailing parent that they’re not alone.  It might encourage someone with disposable income to throw a little our way.  And it may, hopefully, raise awareness that this disease is out there and it ain’t going anywhere unless we stand up to it, together.

Thanks so much for reading.  Even just your eyes on this page, in this moment, mean so much to me.

Long live the memory of Big Reen the Machine.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Chicken Meatballs

Ground poultry has been extremely trendy in the past, oh, 10 years or so and I’ve been fascinated with how it could become so mainstream.  Because for years now, I’ve found ground poultry extremely difficult to work with.

Unlike ground beef or pork, which has enough fat to create a rather homogeneous product, ground poultry can only be described as “goopy.”  The mixture is so fluid that I can hardly use my hands to form balls or patties, and often end up sculpting  a patty with my spatula in the pan.  And forget about flipping the burgers – just cross your fingers and then try to fix it after the mixture flops into the other patties.

Yet I see copious amounts of recipes using ground poultry on the internet and offerings in restaurants.  So what am I missing?!  How am I so incredibly terrible at using this ingredient?

It seems that the missing secret was fat.  I couldn’t imagine adding another liquidy ingredient like egg to my mixtures and never did – to my own detriment.  With this delicious recipe for Chicken Meatballs, I finally caved and added the egg and the meatballs turned out perfectly.  Perfectly!  In fact, I had figured out how to take pictures with my phone by voice command and rigged it up to be able to take pictures of the goopy process of making meatballs without touching the phone, but there was really nothing to show.  The mixture comes together like any other meatball.20141013_173603

This recipe has another fabulous ingredient that I never would have thought to use myself – rolled oats in place of traditional breadcrumbs.  Add a little fiber, why doncha?  The rolled oats didn’t add any distinguishable taste but helped to keep the meatballs together while adding wholesomeness.  Count me in.20141013_180034

Chicken Meatballs

  • Servings: 16-ish meatballs
  • Print

Adapted from the recipe by Janie Hoffman on Epicurious

1 pound ground chicken
1 large egg
1/3 cup coarsley grated or minced red onions
3/4 cup rolled or “old-fashioned” oats
1/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
3 TBL extra-virgin olive oil
1 TBL fresh oregano, chopped
1 tsp garlic powder
1 1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp fresh ground pepper
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes – star ingredient

1. Preheat the oven to 475°F
2. Combine all ingredients. To save time, I put the oregano and red onion in a food processor and pulverized them.
3. Grease a jelly roll pan or other rimmed baking sheet (I used nonstick cooking spray, but your can use some oil on a paper towel, too.)
4. Roll the mixture into medium-sized balls, about three tablespoons, and place on baking sheet.
5. Bake in oven at for 12 minutes or until the internal temperature is 165°F

Pictures and anecdotes

The original recipe is from a cookbook called The Chia Cookbook and uses a “chia gel” in place of egg.  I don’t have a problem with eggs, so I went ahead and added the egg and they turned out great!20141013_173259

I used shallots for this recipe, thinking I was clever.  I am not clever.  Shallots are great because they have a slightly less pungent flavor than onions.  I learned to love shallots when I lived alone because often just one little shallot is plenty for a meal for one – then you can keep the others with their peel intact for another meal.  However, the shallots were incredibly annoying to peel to have enough for this recipe – it took forever!  However, once peeled, I put both the shallots and the oregano in a small food processor instead of mincing or grating.  I saved a lot of time this way – will definitely be trying it again in other recipes!20141013_172716

Baking tips:

Baking is easier because you can put the meatballs into the oven and walk away but the method does not give you an even brown – unless you want to turn the meatballs halfway through cooking time, which makes it slightly less easy.  Still, I prefer this to browning on the stovetop, which can be very messy.  The original recipe suggests that you grill the meatballs – I can’t because I don’t have a grill, but a very interesting idea!

To find the perfect cooking time, I used one of my favorite kitchen tools – my oven safe thermometer.  You probe the meat and a long, oven safe cord attaches to the temperature display outside of the oven.  The trick is to position the tip of the probe in the center of your meatball, so that it doesn’t touch the pan, which will be a different temperature altogether.  My model also has an alarm that is triggered by the temperature.  Set the desired temperature and walk away – the thermometer will tell you when your food is done.  Brilliant!20141013_17562220141013_17561620141013_175737

They smell AMAZING – herby, cheesy, meaty, fantastic.  The red pepper is my favorite part, which gives you lovely heat at the end of your bite.  I think they would go great with the original recipe‘s pasta and lemon sauce or pretty much anywhere you’d use beef meatballs.  We stuck them in butternut squash soup and they were awesome.20141013_180018