Christmas Cooking on a Rainy Day

img_4090More rain. Yes, yes, it could be a lot worse—freezing rain or mounds and mounds of snow. The snow, at least, would be prettier than this rain, which makes the December landscape look like March. Did we ever have such weather in the olden days, say, when I was a kid in Maine? No, we did not. Well, we humans have changed the climate, and now we must cope with what we have wrought.

On a more positive note…Today I will commence with Christmas cooking. My plan is to make one of the two ice cream pies that have become a tradition for dessert on Christmas day. The whole family agrees that homemade chocolate ice cream is good any time of year. Add a graham cracker pie shell and some hot fudge or caramel, and you have a pretty tasty dessert. But the best thing about this dessert is that it can be made ahead of time. One less thing to do Christmas week.

I’ll also bake two pumpkins so that I have purée for a spicy peanut soup I’ll be making for Christmas Eve and for pumpkin bread. This time around, I’ll be lining the bread pans with something—foil or parchment paper—so that the loaves won’t stick to the pan the way they did at Thanksgiving. The bread was still tasty, but it looked sorry and hunched over, as though it had traveled too many miles to get to the table.

But before I bake the pumpkins, I will make yeast bread, one loaf for immediate use and one loaf to tuck in the freezer. I hope to make another batch this weekend so that I have extra for French toast over the holidays. (Let’s just say that French toast is especially delicious when it’s made with homemade bread.)

Anyway, damn the rain and on with the cooking!

Cheddar Cheese Soup and a Gathering of Friends

Last Saturday, we had two sets of friends over for dinner, and it was one of those special gatherings that brings a happy glow to the cook. We’ve known these friends for many, many years. Our daughters are the same age and graduated from high school together. So perhaps part of the reason for the glow was that we are all so comfortable together.

Then there was the beer and wine. Clif had an assortment of beer from Craft Beer Cellar in Portland, where our son-in-law works. Craft Beer Cellar sells hundreds of different kinds of beer, which has become as specialized as wine. Not all of our guests are beer lovers, but the ones who do like beer were impressed with Clif’s selection. For the wine lovers, there was a nice bottle of a white wine called Viognier, from Meridians in Fairfield. There’s nothing like good wine and beer to bring a happy glow to a party.

Flickering candles and a tree with blue Christmas lights provided an actual glow in the little house in the big woods. While perhaps they weren’t essential, candles and tree surely set the stage for the food and the wine.

The centerpiece of the meal was cheddar cheese soup—creamy and rich and adapted from a Moosewood recipe. This soup is a  favorite with the family, and it’s one I make for the holidays. For gatherings, I put the soup in a crock-pot, and nearby I have big bowls of cooked broccoli and tortellini so that guests can serve themselves. That way, they can have exactly how much they want of the soup, broccoli, and tortellini.

“Very, very good,” was the consensus about the soup. There were seconds for some of our guests and requests for the recipe. Now that surely brings a glow to the cook’s cheeks because one of the chief delights of cooking is to feed and please people.

To add to the meal there was also the brie appetizer that one friend brought and the chocolate and coconut squares from another friend. Surely they contributed to the happy mood of the party.

In the end, I truthfully I can’t say whether it was the beer, the wine, the candles, the soup, the appetizer, or the dessert that made this gathering such a success. Whatever it was, there were kisses and hugs as everyone left and a promise to get together after the holidays.

All in all, it was some party, as we Mainers like to say.

 

Cheddar Cheese Soup Recipe
(Six hearty servings by itself; Eight with the addition of broccoli and pasta)

10 medium size potatoes, peeled and diced
2 large carrots, peeled and chopped
1 large onion, chopped
2 tablespoons of oil
2 large cloves of garlic, cut in thirds
6 cups of water
2 teaspoons of dried dill
8 ounces of cream cheese, sliced in four or five segments
2 cups of grated cheddar cheese (Go for a good, sharp brand and please do not buy the pre-shredded cheese. The taste of this soup hinges on the quality of the cheddar.)
Salt and pepper to taste. (I use two teaspoons of salt and liberal grinds of the pepper mill.)

In a large stockpot, heat the oil and sauté the potatoes, carrots, and onion for 5 minutes or so. Add the garlic and sauté for 30 seconds, then add the water and the dill. Let simmer for 45 minutes or an hour, until all the vegetables are really soft.

If you don’t have an immersion blender, buying one before you make this soup would be a very good idea. Immersion blenders are not expensive and are ever so much easier to use than one with a glass container. Directions for an immersion blender: Place the stockpot in the sink and blend the potatoes, carrots, garlic, onion, and water. When this is smooth, add the cream cheese in chunks and blend until smooth. Return the pot to the stove and on a medium heat, add the cheddar, salt, and pepper. At this point, the soup must be kept warm enough so that it is hot but low enough so that it doesn’t boil. No matter how careful you are, it will probably develop a skim on the top. No need to worry. Just stir it into the rest of the soup, and the skim will melt.

Directions for a blender with a glass container: In four batches, blend the potato, carrots, onions, garlic, water with a slice of cream cheese that has been quartered. Be sure not to fill the container too much and to cover the top with some kind of cloth as you blend. This soup is hot, and it will burn you if it spurts out the top and onto your hand. I speak from experience from my pre-immersion blender days.

Any kind of pasta can be added to this soup as well as broccoli. I serve them on the side so that the pasta and broccoli don’t swell or get too mushy in the soup.

Happy holidays and happy anytime that you have this soup.

Beet Gratin at the End of a Gray Week

IMG_7117Since Tuesday the skies have been gray. There has been sleet followed by rain—lots of it—now capped by a bit of snow. I’m not complaining, mind you, especially when I consider what we might have had—an ice storm that could have knocked out our power for days or more. Then I think of the deluge the West Coast is dealing with, the floods and the landslides, all just before the holidays.

But it would be nice to see blue sky and sun. It would be nice to not have another storm until after the New Year. It would be nice to have bare roads for the holidays. All right. Maybe I am complaining. Just a little.

On a more positive note…I made a beet gratin last night from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. I’ve been wanting to make this gratin for a while, but I was afraid Clif wouldn’t like it, and we would be left high and dry for our supper. But Farmer Kev keeps bringing us beets, and it was time to do something with them.

Bittman suggesting cooking the beets whole in a covered roasting pan in a 350 degree oven, and that’s just what I did. It took a long time—almost an hour—for the beets to cook, but there was no fuss and little mess. (The beets were scrubbed but not peeled.)

When the beets were done, I let them cool and cut them into slices, which I then arrayed in the bottom of a 9 x 12 baking dish. I sprinkled salt, pepper, and dried thyme on the beets. Then I crumbled an eight-ounce log of goat cheese on top and covered the whole thing with fresh bread crumbs—I used three slices of homemade bread.

Bittman suggested broiling the gratin until the crumbs were brown and the cheese was melted. I followed his advice, but unfortunately the top became too brown before the beets were heated through.

However, the overall taste more than made up for the lukewarm dish. The tangy cheese was a perfect compliment to the sweet beets, and the overall effect could even be called elegant.

“Pretty darned good,” Clif said, going back for seconds.

I nodded, relieved we wouldn’t have to resort to scrambled eggs and toast.

“But you might want to bake it next time rather than just broil it,” Clif added. “If need be, you can broil it a little at the end.”

I agreed, and next time I make beet gratin, I will bake it so that everything is piping hot.

Still, I was pretty pleased with the way the dish turned out, especially after such a long, gray week.

 

 

 

 

The Ice Storm Didn’t Cometh—At Least Not Yet

A Christmas ornament from Ireland
A Christmas ornament from Ireland

This time, luck was with us in central Maine. Instead of two days of freezing rain and almost certain power outages, it was warm enough so that we got plain old rain that did not coat the trees and roads with ice. While the rain makes an awful drizzly mess, at least it isn’t an ice storm. How I hate ice storms.

I am hoping we can make it to the New Year without any major storms and power outages. We have lots of holiday plans, and much of it involves cooking and baking and visiting with family and friends. Once again our daughter Dee will be traveling from New York to Maine, and it would be great if wasn’t a nail-biter of a trip.

Winter, of course, will do what it wants, and all we can do is be prepared for terrible weather. The soup and beans remain in the pantry; the water is at the ready in covered buckets. The cookies? Well, I have to confess that Clif and I broke into the Pepperidge Farm cookies last night, and they are unlikely to make it to the next ice storm, unless—heaven forbid—we have one in the next few days.

In yesterday’s gray and gloom, I received a package from Shari Burke—all the way from Ireland—and in it was one of the sweetest Christmas tree ornaments I have ever seen. A little book dangles at the end of it, and this ornament was the first to go on the tree last night. Shari also sent us a coaster, which is under a candle in the living room, and a bookmark with blue embroidered Christmas trees. The bookmark is in the current book I’m reading.  All the gifts were homemade, and what a treat to receive them.

So for the moment,  all is calm, snug, and warm at the little house in the big woods. I am hoping it will stop raining this afternoon, and I can take Liam for a walk in the woods.

This might be hoping for too much, but you know what they say about hope.

More Winter Bite

IMG_7111Another storm is blowing up the East Coast, and the prediction for central Maine is sleet and freezing rain for the next two days. Oh, joy!

It wouldn’t surprise me if we lost our power again, and I am prepared. I’ve stocked up on canned soup, canned beans, bread, and, most important, cookies—Pepperidge Farm shortbread. We have lamp oil, propane tanks for our camp stove, and water in buckets in the basement.

But what a winter we’ve had so far, and it’s not even officially winter yet. Lord! When I was growing up in central Maine, I don’t remember the power going out at the farmhouse in North Vassalboro. I suppose we must have lost power from time to time, but it was not a regular occurrence the way it is now each winter. I think it’s because the nature of winter storms has changed in Maine. When I was young, we got lots of snow, but it was mostly light and fluffy and easy to manage. Now, all too often we get freezing rain or very heavy snow, just perfect for knocking down trees and big branches and power lines.

Onward! And thank goodness for the wood furnace and plenty of wood under cover.

The dog and I went for a walk before the weather got too bad.
The dog and I went for a walk today before the weather got too bad.

Chocolate chip Cookie in a frying pan

All right. Here is how it went. First, I made a batch of chocolate chip cookie dough, a standard recipe from the back of a bag of chocolate chips.IMG_7082

Then I pressed the dough into our trusty cast iron frying pan (greased).

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While the cookie was baking—375 degrees for 25 minutes or so—I set the table.

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When the dough was golden brown, I removed the pan from the oven.

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Our friends Judy and Paul were waiting at the dining room table. Clif brought over the hot pan, set it on the board, and scooped vanilla ice cream on top of the cookie.

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Upon which we all scooped into what was indeed a glorious, gooey,  chocolatey mess.

“It’s like a hot fudge sundae,” Judy said, spooning a glob of cookie dough with molten chocolate and ice cream onto her plate.

“Rich,” said Paul, digging in.

“Very chocolatey,” I added as I helped myself to seconds.

Clif didn’t say much. He just ate.

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I hope I am not embarrassing anyone by noting that when we were done, there wasn’t much left in the pan, and I had used a whole batch of chocolate  chip cookie dough.

Good as this dessert was, I have to admit it was a tad too chocolatey for my taste. (I never, ever thought I would write such a sentence.) It seemed to me that the melted chocolate overwhelmed the dough.

The next time I make it—oh yes, there will be a next time—I am going to use half the amount of chocolate chips—one cup instead of two—and see if I like the ratio of chocolate to cookie dough better.

And Mary Jane, you are right. This dessert is way more fun than fondue.

 

Early December: Winter is here

IMG_7078-1Despite what the calendar might say, winter has settled over central Maine. The ground is covered with snow, which doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to leave anytime soon. The air is sharp and cold, and by 5:00 p.m., it’s nearly as dark as midnight. The nights are very long indeed.

Clif, Liam, and I do our best to adapt to the short days, but we all suffer from a restlessness that comes from spending too much time inside. Liam actually doesn’t mind the cold weather, and he could be out from dawn until dusk. His humans, not so much. We dutifully bundle up and take the dog for a walk a couple of times a day. But it’s not enough for him, and in truth, it’s not enough for us either.

A few days ago, Liam and I went into the woods to gather pine for an arrangement in an outside deck box. Yesterday, I arranged the pine  along with branches of berries I had collected earlier. I did this outside, where the mess could fall on the ground and where I could throw the ball for Liam while I worked on the deck box. It made me laugh to watch the dog and the ball skittle across the hard snow.

Although my arrangements would never win any prizes, I really do enjoy making them. They might be plain and simple, but they are mine, from beginning to end.

This Sunday, weather permitting, our friends Judy and Paul are coming for an afternoon visit. On Food 52 I came across the decadent idea of baking chocolate chip cookie dough in an oven-proof pan, setting the pan in the middle of the table right after the dough has baked, dropping scoops of ice cream on top, and letting everyone spoon directly iinto the warm, glorious mess. I had thought about making muffins, but this cookie concoction sounds way more fun—more fun than fondue, as my friend Mary Jane has said. So I’ve changed my plans. Pictures will be taken, and if this dessert turns out to be as delicious as it sounds, then this might very well become a winter tradition.

Despite the cold, despite the dark, winter does have its pleasures.

 

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