Thursday, October 31, 2013

Apple Pie Cream Martini, A Special Halloween Treat

Who says Halloween is just for kids? And as much as I love to indulge myself in my favorite Halloween treats (Oreo cookies and M&M's), this year's holiday called for a martini. Of course, not in replacement for the treats, but in addition to them. I am thinking that the martini might slightly moderate my desire for the Halloween sweets.

This was a martini that almost wasn't. When a friend shared she had a great new martini recipe she inadvertently shared one wrong ingredient. And this one wrong ingredient made for one wrong martini.    Actually I wondered if this recipe was intended to be a trick rather than a treat. When she asked how I liked it, I said 'well, you are two for three on the martini recipe recommendations'. While it was receiving rave reviews from everyone she had made it for, she couldn't believe I wasn't a fan. As we talked about the taste of the martini, she realized she had inadvertently given me the wrong recipe.

After making this martini the first time, I have to be honest and say I wasn't sure I wanted to make 'another' one, even with knowing what the correct ingredients were. But since I believe in second chances, I thought what the heck. What's the worse thing that could happen if I didn't like it? Well I could never try another martini recipe shared by this friend or I could throw it down the drain. Either way, the risk factor really wasn't too high. So this time rather than tasting a trick, I tasted a treat. I finally understood why she was so excited to share the recipe in the first place and why it was one worthy of rave reviews.

This could not be a more simple martini to make as it only has two ingredients. For those of you who are martini purists, it might have one ingredient too many. It is one of those martinis you might only be able to enjoy in the fall as the Apple Pie Cream Liqueur would be considered a seasonal item. I understand this liqueur is hard to find on the east coast, but here in the midwest it was front and center in Binny's, one of my favorite spirit stores.

In a shaker filled with ice, you add 2 parts of the Apple Pie Cream Liqueur and 1 part McGillicuddy's Raw Vanilla vodka. To ensure the creaminess of the martini, shake the martini vigorously for as long as it takes you to shake it fifty times. Pour into the martini glass of your choice and enjoy before, during or long after Halloween. Or for as long as your bottle of the Apple Cream Liqueur lasts.

Apple Pie Cream Martini

2 parts Fulton's Harvest Apple Pie Cream Liqueur
1 part Dr. McGillicuddy's Raw Vanilla vodka or the Vanilla Vodka of your choice

1. Pour the apple pie cream liquor and vodka into a cocktail shaker filled with ice.
2. Shake vigorously (up to 50 shakes to ensure it is well blended).
3. Pour into the martini glass of your choice.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Spiced Pumpkin Layer Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting

It seems like forever since I have posted to the blog. Time as we know is all relative so today's definition of forever is a little more than three weeks. So why the interruption? Well, packing up the east coast farmhouse and relocating back to the Midwest would be the simple answer to that question. The thousand mile drive back to the Midwest is now behind me, however, the unpacking is (ugh) still before me. The good news is that I have made enough progress unpacking and reorganizing that I am now able to get back to cooking and baking. Not surprisingly, putting away all of my cooking and baking tools took precedence over the unpacking of my clothes. But even though there is still some unpacking to do, I am happy to say "the blog is ba-a-ack"!

There are so many things I love about the fall I wouldn't even know where to begin to list them all. But amongst those things are the cooler temperatures as they are perfect for baking. With Halloween a day away and Thanksgiving just weeks away, I thought I would 're-christen' the Midwest kitchen by baking something using, what else, but pumpkin puree. The pumpkin pie recipe could wait a few weeks but the Spiced Pumpkin Layer Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting could not. Because who does not love cake? Particularly one having a cream cheese frosting. If you are one of those non-cake loving people, maybe it's because you have never eaten really good cake. Because seriously, what other reason could there be?

I knew I wanted to make a pumpkin cake that didn't taste like a pumpkin loaf made into a cake. So when I discovered the Spiced Pumpkin Cake recipe and looked at the list of ingredients, I knew this was the one. In addition to pumpkin puree, it had crushed pineapple, coconut and dried currants in it. In some ways you might say this is a pumpkin version of either a Hummingbird or a Carrot Cake. An easier and simpler version as you don't need a mixer to make the cake, you only need it when making the frosting. And who doesn't like easy and simple when making a cake? Particularly when the outcome makes everyone think it was just the opposite!

All of the dry ingredients are sifted together and set aside in a medium sized bowl. This will be the bowl you will mix the batter in so choose your bowl size wisely.

In a separate bowl or large measuring cup, the oil and vanilla are mixed in with the already lightly beaten eggs. Once mixed it is set aside as well.

In the third bowl (okay, maybe using a mixer would be easier as now you have at least three bowls to wash), the pumpkin puree, coconut, pineapple and currants are mixed together until combined. The recipe calls for 1 1/4 cups of pumpkin puree which is slightly less than the puree in a 15 ounce can. Remember to buy the pumpkin puree and not the pumpkin pie filling for this recipe as they are not the same and not interchangeable.

To the flour mixture, you first add the egg mixture blending with a wooden spoon until just combined. Last but not least, you add the combined pumpkin mixture and stir until just combined. It is important to not over mix this cake batter.

In two prepared 9 inch cake pans you will equally divide the spiced pumpkin cake batter. Because I like my layers to be perfectly even I weigh the filled cake pans on a scale. The payout for this attention to detail comes not only when you are assembling and frosting the cake, but when you are serving it.

The cakes bake for 35 to 40 minutes in a preheated 350 degree oven. The baking time for me was 40 minutes, but I began testing at 35 minutes. The baked cakes are placed on a wire rack and allowed to cool or come to room temperature. 

While the cakes are cooling you can assemble the frosting. Sixteen ounces of room temperature cream cheese are whipped in a standing mixer for approximately three minutes or until smooth. The room temperature butter is added and the mixed for at least two minutes. The sifted confectionary sugar (this is a step you don't want to skip or else you will have lumps in your frosting) and vanilla and added in. The entire mixture is beaten for another three minutes or until smooth. The frosting can be covered and refrigerated until you are ready to use.

In the event that you do not refrigerate your frosting, you will need to refrigerate the first frosted layer so it will set up. This frosting is very creamy and the refrigeration ensures that it will not come spilling out when the second layer is placed on top. I refrigerated the first frosted layer for about 30 minutes. Note: Half of the frosting is used for the middle layer and the other half for the top layer.

I like using a pastry bag when frosting a cake, but depending on the look you are going for an offset spatula will work too. Because the layers of the cake are such a beautiful color I didn't frost the sides of the cake. Once frosted the cake is returned to the refrigerator. The cake is removed from the refrigerator at least 30 to 40 minutes before serving.
Spiced Pumpkin Layer Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting (slight adaptation to the Spiced Pumpkin Cake recipe created by Diane Morgan in 'The New Thanksgiving Table')

2 cups all purpose flour
2 cups granulated sugar
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons Saigon cinnamon
1 teaspoon Kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
3 large eggs, room temperature, lightly beaten
1 cup canola (or vegetable oil)
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 1/4 cups canned unsweetened pumpkin puree
1 cup lightly packed sweetened flaked coconut
3/4 cup canned crushed pineapple (undrained)
1/3 cup dried currants

16 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1 3/4 cups confectionary sugar, sifted
1 teaspoon vanilla

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Prepare two 9 inch cake pans (lined with parchment paper and lightly buttered/floured).
2. In a medium sized bowl, sift together flour, baking soda, cinnamon, salt, nutmeg, and cloves. Mix in granulated sugar. Set aside.
3. In a separate bowl, combine eggs, oil and vanilla. Set aside.
4. Combine pumpkin puree, coconut, crushed pineapple and currants. Set aside.
5. Add egg mixture to flour mixture and stir using a wooden spoon until just combined.
6. Add the pumpkin mixture and stir using a wooden spoon until combined.
7. Equally divide batter between the two 9 inch cake pans.
8. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes until a toothpick inserted in center of cake comes out clean.
9. Allow cakes to cool on a wire rack until cool to the touch.
10. To make the frosting, beat the cream cheese on medium speed in a mixer using a paddle attachment for approximately 3 minutes or until smooth. Add butter and beat for at least 2 minutes until combined. Beat in confectionary sugar and vanilla for approximately 3 minutes or until fluffy. Frosting can be chilled while you are waiting for the cakes to cool.
11. Spread half of the frosting on the first layer of the cake using a pastry bag or offset spatula. Refrigerate cake for approximately 20 minutes to set the frosting.
12. Top with second layer of cake with remaining frosting using either a pastry bag or offset spatula. Return cake to refrigerator to set the frosting.
13. Remove from refrigerator 30 to 40 minutes before serving. 

I had wondered why packing and unpacking can be such hard work, but after giving it some thought I came up with a theory. When packing up, most of us pack pretty much everything instead of deciding which things could be given away, sold, donated or throw away. So when the unpacking process occurs we wonder why we didn't give away, sell, donate or throw away more things. Okay for those of us with thing attachments the packing/unpacking process is hard work, but for those of you who are at the other end of the continuum packing is probably a piece of cake! 

The reacclimation process to the midwest kitchen has been enlightening (or should I say a little disheartening) in so far as I realized I could probably equip not one, not two but three kitchens. It would be an understatement to say I have accumulated too many cooking and baking tools, too many dishes and too much glassware. I mean how many cupcake pans, mixers, rolling pins, measuring spoons, measuring cups, baking pans, cake pans, plates, and glasses does one really need? I could blame Martha Stewart for the influence she has had on me, but that wouldn't be fair to her or me. I guess I decided at some point I needed the things I have. Because when unpacking and reorganizing I painfully realized there were some things I had too many of and some things I should have just thrown away when I had the chance. Because wherever I live, I seem to create a rather large carbon footprint. The good news is it is never too late to change. Now that I have had this epiphany (step one in the change process), I am pretty sure I know what I need to do next. More specifically I know what I don't need to do (i.e., shop). Can hardly for the spring yard sale!

Monday, October 7, 2013

Four Cheese Spinach Stuffed Shells

Originally this was a three cheese spinach stuffed shells dish, but then my childhood best friend said she adds crumbled goat cheese to the top of her stuffed shells. Because I too think goat cheese makes almost any dish better, this went from being a three to a four cheese spinach stuffed shells dish. Imitation is the highest form of flattery, right? So after making this recipe change, I don't think I will ever go back to the three cheese version as the tanginess of the melted goat cheese on top of the melted mozzarella makes this an insanely delicious dish.

Unless I know someone has a specific food allergy, I don't always share what is in the dish I am serving until after they have tasted it. So when someone says 'What's in this?', I usually say 'I will tell you after dinner'. This may sound terribly wicked, but my experience of 'the taste first, tell second' always seems to surprise (in almost always a good way) those who had thought they didn't like something (goat cheese being one of them) or those who didn't think the combination of ingredients would taste good together.

What I love about this recipe is that you can assemble it the night before or earlier in the day. So by time dinner comes all that is left to do is make the salad, cut up some bread, and put the stuffed shells in the oven. While the shells are cooking, you are free to just relax enjoy the appetizers and wine with your friends and not be a slave in the kitchen while everyone else is having fun (not that cooking isn't fun, it's just a different kind of fun grazing and chatting with friends).

I am not a complete purist when I am cooking. Oh yes, I have become a little obsessive about using only fresh eggs (living in a town where many raise chickens and sell their eggs is nirvana) and I love only whole milk ricotta in recipes. However, when it comes to recipes requiring cooked spinach, well this is where I swing to the other end of the continuum and substitute frozen chopped spinach. I don't think I could live without Bird's Eye frozen chopped spinach, and thanks to them I don't have to take the extra step and cook fresh spinach for this recipe. But for those of you who are purists, by all means cook down some fresh spinach for this recipe!

With the weather continuing to be mild, my herbs are still thriving. I don't why it is that I get such a thrill out of going out my back door and going over to the herb garden to cut fresh herbs. Maybe it is because my green thumb is limited to growing herbs or maybe it is because living in the farmhouse I somehow feel I am channeling my inner farm girl. Whatever the reason, the chopped fresh parsley and basil in the filling make it even more flavorful. And other than garlic, I love the taste of fresh basil in pasta dishes with a red sauce base.

All of the filling ingredients are mixed in large bowl. Once you make the filling, you can chill slightly if you would like. If you are not using a pastry bag to fill the shells, chilling makes it a little easier if filling using a spoon. I usually know something is going to be good when the uncooked version of it is also good. I have been known to take a few tastes of this filling when assembling the recipe.

A one pound box of jumbo pasta shells is cooked al dente or for about 7 to 9 minutes. The shells should  still retain their shape and are that combination of slightly tender/still firm. The cooked shells are rinsed, drained and then placed on a baking sheet you have added olive to. How much olive oil? About 3 to 4 tablespoons. I like to the rub the shells in the olive oil to ensure they don't dry out while I am filling them as well as to prevent them from sticking together.

The 9 x 12 baking dish is first layered with a little more than a cup of marinara sauce. Then the stuffed shells are placed on top.

I find it easier to fill the shells with a pastry bag. If you don't have a pastry bag, you can you a large ziploc bag and then cut a 1/2 inch off of one of the corners.

Once the shells are filled you pour 3 to 4 cups of marinara over them. The amount of sauce you pour is somewhat of a personal preference. Just be careful not to drown the shells in sauce. The grated mozzarella is layered next, followed by the crumbled goat cheese. I know some of you might be thinking, goat cheese, really? And all I will say is yes, really goat cheese. If you don't trust me, you should trust the source of this inspiration. The four cheese stuffed shells are baked for 30 to 35 minutes or until the cheeses have melted, are lightly browned and the filling is cooked through. Allow the dish to set for at least 10 minutes before serving.

Four Cheese Spinach Stuffed Shells (inspired from many sources)

2 (15 ounce size) containers of whole milk ricotta cheese
1 1/3 cups freshly grated Parmesan cheese
3 Tablespoons chopped Italian (flat) parsley
3 Tablespoons chopped basil
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
3/4 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
4 large egg yolks
1 box of frozen spinach (thawed and drained)

1 pound box of jumbo shells
1 to 1 1/2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
4 to 6 ounces of goat cheese

Marinara Sauce 
(homemade or jarred. For jarred I love Rao's Marinara Sauce for its' taste and convenience. Recommend using the 2 pound jar.)

1. Cook pasta shells in large pot of boiling salted water until slightly tender but still firm (about 7 to 9 minutes).
2. Drain pasta shells and place on an olive oiled baking sheet. Toss shells in olive oil so they don't stick together. Cool slightly.
3. Combine all filling ingredients and set aside.
4. On the bottom of 9 x 12 baking dish, spoon 1 1/4 cups of marinara sauce on the bottom.
5. Using a pastry bag or tablespoon, fill each of the shells with the filling and place on top of sauce.
6. Top finished stuffed shells with 3 to 4 cups of marinara sauce over the top of the shells.
7. Sprinkle grated mozzarella followed by crumbled goat cheese.
8. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 to 35 minutes or until top is lightly browned and filling in shells is cooked through.
9. Allow to rest for at least 10 minutes before serving.
Note: The dish can be assembled the day before or earlier in the day. Cover with plastic wrap and keep chilled until ready to cook. If chilled overnight, allow to sit out at least 30 minutes before baking.

I have packing to do and all I want to do is try to capture some of the colors and images of a New England autumn. And even though the weather wasn't cooperative this past weekend (rainy, gray and gloomy), I found other things to distract my attention from the task of packing. I have convinced myself I can get it all done in two days. An since I invited the couple who own the farmhouse I have been living in for dinner this week, I can't possibly start packing (who knows what dishes, napkins, glassware pots, and pans I will need). Maybe having a midweek dinner party was a subliminal delay tactic on my part but I wanted to make a meal for the two people who have 'taken care' of me (so to speak) over the last fifteen months. For me, there is something so much more personal about making a meal than in taking someone out to dinner (and I live in a one restaurant town with a pretty good restaurant) to thank them for a kindness.

And I have been the recipient of a great many kindnesses from this couple (who are in their 80s and who I consider to be some of the hardest working people I know). The portion of their property my house sits on is about two acres. I can't even tell you how many acres their house sits on. But let's just say many many. And at least once a week and sometimes twice from spring through fall, Walter cuts the grass for both houses. While I have been spoiled by not having to do this yardwork (other than keeping all of my flower and herb beds weed free and mulched), I have felt just a little guilty that this work was being done for me. Throughout the seasons, I would often come home to find some freshly picked berries or vegetables on my back table. And sometimes there would even be a jar of freshly made preserves or a bouquet of flowers from their garden. These would have been left for me by Norma. And the timing of these 'gifts' was almost always uncannily perfect.

In my lifetime I have not lived anywhere where these regular kindnesses were given to me, particularly without the expectation of anything in return. Unbeknownst to them, these simple kindnesses have nurtured my sometimes wounded spirit and brought me great joy. And even though I too have tried to give back, inviting them to dinner in the house that Walter's father built 83 years ago in my last week living in this house is not only what I need to do, it is what I want to do. And compared to all that I have received, it is still only a small, simple gesture of my appreciation both to and for them.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Banana Bread, Version 2

I just couldn't wait for the throw down with my sister, I just couldn't let the ripened bananas go to waste. and I couldn't wait any longer to use the new pumpkin loaf pan my brother-in-law sent me for my birthday. So I had to make a decision. Make another loaf of banana bread using the adapted version of Flour's recipe or listen to my sister and make the recipe she says was perfect. Which turned out to be a recipe she had modified. So I half listened to my sister. I made what I am now calling Banana Bread, Version 2 because, of course, I too had to make my own adaptations.

Why was I so reluctant to listen to my sister? Anyone with a sibling knows the answer to that question, however, beyond the sibling rivalry decisions we make, the written reviews for this recipe on Epicurious were in my opinion 'all over the place'. A few said the banana bread collapsed when it baked. With my week long wait time for bananas to ripen, the last thing I wanted to make was a banana bread that didn't look bakery perfect. But my curiosity for tasting what my sister believed was the perfect banana bread needed to be satisfied. And since the recipe was rather simple and didn't require the use of a mixer, I thought 'okay I'm game, what do I have to lose?' (especially since I was my own judge and jury and if it didn't turn out, no one would be the wiser). The only issue would be coming up with a reasonable explanation for why I did not make this banana bread when pressed by my sister. And reasonable would not be 'our tastes in baked goods are not always in sync' (although that would be mostly true).

I wasn't going to post two banana bread recipes in one week (like how crazy is that), so I wasn't taking many photos as I was baking. Just a few to text to my sister (call it a virtual thrown down of sorts). But after baking and tasting this banana bread, I thought that you should be the one to decide which banana bread recipe version you want to make. Like version 1, this one was incredibly moist and also had that great denseness to it. I am not certain which one I like better yet. Will have to keep tasting them to see if a clear favorite emerges. Version 2 is definitely easier and requires less ingredients. That, in of itself, could be what influences your decision, especially those of you who subscribe to the 'less is more' way of thinking. Although you might want to make them both to decide for yourself!

And as you can see, this banana bread did not collapse (and I can't explain why that happened to others who have made this recipe although I have some ideas). Making this banana bread in the pumpkin mold from Williams-Sonoma certainly made it look even more beautiful. But I think the pumpkin bread  would also look beautiful made in 9x5 loaf pan.

Banana Bread, Version 2 (slight adaptation of Aunt Holly's Banana Bread recipe shared on Epicurious)

3 1/2 ripened bananas mashed (or 1 1/2 cups of mashed bananas)
1/4 cup melted unsalted butter, cooled
1 cup granulated sugar
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon Kosher salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 heaping teaspoon of Saigon cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 large egg, room temperature, lightly beaten
3/4 cup toasted and chopped walnuts

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Prepare 9x5 baking pan or Williams-Sonoma botanical pumpkin mold and set aside.
2. In a medium sized bowl, mix together all of the ingredients with a wooden spoon.
3. Scrap batter into prepared pan and smooth top.
4. Bake for 55 to 65 minutes or until a tester inserted into the bread comes out clean (Hint: if the banana bread springs back when you press lightly on it, it should be done. just make sure to do this in the middle of the bread).
5. Cool on wire rack for 20 to 30 minutes and then unmold.

If you have ever moved you know how much work and stressful it can be. While nothing compares to moving from a house you have lived in for many, many years, moving after living in a house for as little as a year has its' own set of emotions. Sometimes it's not moving from one house to another that causes a little angst, it's moving from one city/town/state/country to another that has a way of tempering with the emotions of change. In less than two weeks (and yes I am counting the days so I can savor each of them), I will be packing up the farm house and heading back to the house in the midwest. Already I am missing things about the east coast town I am living in and I haven't even left yet. I am calling it the 'anticipation of loss' versus calling it the 'thankfulness for having had the time here'. Someday I will get to the thankfulness place, but I am definitely not there yet.

Yet, in spite of living in the farmhouse for a little over a year, it feels as if I have spent more time here. I had a connection to this house and this town the day I moved in. There are people back in the midwest whose vision of me is one best described as 'high maintenance, up town kind of girl'. Guess they could never see or know that I had another side of me (but I knew). Yes, I still like to shop and still like to collect things, but living here has only reaffirmed what I have always known. It is not the size of the house one lives in, it is how one makes a space a home. And over the course of the past fifteen months, it has been nothing less than thrilling to search for the things that would make the farmhouse into a warm, welcoming home. Antique shows (including a trip to Brimfield), antique shops, thrift stores, resale stores, yard sales and, yes of course, Pottery Barn and Williams-Sonoma were the places where I found all that I needed (and of course, I took just a few a things from the midwest home too). My attachment to these furnishings is as much connected to the hunt for them as it is to their simplistic beauty, in how they transformed the farmhouse, as well as my life here and the people who have come into it. But this move back to the midwest means letting go of almost all of these things. While I am trying to tell myself they are just things, this time these 'things' symbolize so much more to me.