Thursday, December 29, 2011

Christmas Brunch: Baked French Toast with Pears and Brie

My name is Hope, and I am addicted to brunch. Seriously. The other day, whilst dining at a breakfast buffet with my family, I told my husband that I have a deep passion for make-your-own omelet bars. He looked at me like I was nuts. There's something about an abundance of sweet and savory food in the late morning that fills me with delight. Brunch is my favorite meal to eat out (it doesn't hurt that my kids are generally happiest at this time of day), and it is also my favorite meal for entertaining.

That said, I am always on the lookout for new brunch recipes, and I am particularly drawn to recipes that you can make in advance and throw in the oven in the morning. Put on a pot of coffee, slice up some fruit, and you are done. This recipe was perfect for our Christmas morning festivities - I made it the night before, stuck it in the fridge, then baked it while we exchanged gifts. It also happens to be insanely good. Remember that sentence above where I mentioned my love for sweet and savory food? Well, this killer recipe is BOTH! The sweetness of the pears perfectly balances the saltiness of the Brie, and the French toast component brings it all together in perfect harmony. Yum.

This recipe was found on the pages of a Better Homes and Gardens Special Interest Publication that I picked up at the checkout counter a few years ago. I don't do this often, but this one caught my eye ("Quick and Easy Recipes: 250 Weeknight Meals in Minutes"), and there are easily thirty recipes in here that I have tried and have loved. I often completely bomb on these impulse purchases, so this one has been a treat.

Enjoy, and happy brunching!

Baked French Toast with Pears and Brie
 
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Prep: 35 minutes
Chill: 1 to 24 hours
Bake: 40 minutes
Stand: 10 minutes
Makes: 8 servings

3 medium pears, peeled, cored and thinly sliced
2 tbsp packed brown sugar (use a little more if pears not really sweet)
1/2 tsp snipped fresh rosemary (I used about 1/4 tsp dried)
2 tbsp butter
14 to 16 1/2 inch thick slices French bread
8 oz. Brie cheese, rind removed and cheese thinly sliced (it's easier to slice if slightly frozen)
2 tbsp butter, melted
3 tbsp granulated sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
2 1/2 cups milk
3 eggs
1 tbsp vanilla
1/4 tsp salt

1. Grease a rectangular baking dish. Set aside.
2. In a large skillet, cook pear slices, brown sugar, and rosemary in 2 tbsp butter over medium heat for 4 to 5 minutes or until pears are just tender. Set aside.
3. In the prepared baking dish, arrange half of the bread slices in a single layer. Spoon pear mixture over bread slices.  Arrange Brie slices over pear mixture. Top with remaining bread slices in a single layer.  Brush bread slices with melted butter.  In a small bowl, combine granulated sugar and cinnamon. Sprinkle evenly over bread slices.
4. In a medium bowl, whisk together milk, eggs, vanilla, and salt. Slowly pour over bread slices. Cover and chill for 1 to 24 hours.
5. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Bake casserole, uncovered, for 40 to 45 minutes or until edges are puffed and golden. Let stand 10 minutes. Serve warm with warmed syrup, honey, or fruit preserves.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Cream Wafers for Sean

I did not grow up with a strong tradition of Christmas cookies. My mother always made an assortment of cookies around the holidays to have for gatherings and what-not, but there were no must-have cookies or cookie-baking/decorating events that I recall. There were always sweets, and plenty of them, but they tended to change from year to year.

Sean, on the other hand, grew up with a very specific list of requisite holiday sweets. I remember him telling me in detail about his family's Christmas cookies when we were still living in Mongolia (then again, Peace Corps Volunteers in Mongolia often waxed poetic about good food from back home), and I remember very well the first Christmas that I spent with his family, trying all the cookies for the first time.

Given my previously noted wariness of baking, I have for many years been altogether reticent to attempt to make any of his family's Christmas cookies. What follows is Sean's favorite cookie recipe of all time, which Finn and I made this afternoon as a special treat to celebrate the beginning of his winter break. And if I might brag for a moment, we nailed it - they were perfect.

This is basically a sandwich cookie, with a powdered sugar/butter frosting wedged between two very flaky, buttery wafer cookies.  The cookies themselves do not have any sugar in them but are dipped in granulated sugar prior to baking. This is very helpful in that you will not be tempted to eat any of the cookie dough. The resulting cookies are very light and melt-in-your-mouth delicious, and the filling adds just a touch of super sweetness. You can tint the filling to match the holiday if so desired; because tinted cookies generally result in tinted kids around here, I chose to leave mine plain. Case in point:


This is a great recipe to make with little kids, because there are several steps that are just perfect for little fingers. Finn loved dipping the cookie rounds in the bowl of sugar and stabbing the cookies with a fork. This recipe makes about two and a half a dozen sandwich cookies.





Cream Wafers

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For the cookies:
1 cup salted butter, softened
2 cups flour
1/3 cup whipping cream
granulated sugar, for dipping

For the filling:
1/4 cup softened butter
3/4 cup sifted powdered sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
food coloring, if desired

1. Beat butter, flour, and whipping cream until well mixed. Form into a ball, wrap in plastic, and chill for 1 hour.

2. After 1 hour, roll out as thinly as possible (I put the dough between sheets of waxed paper). Cut into 1 1/2" rounds (I used a shot glass).  Dip both sides of rounds into granulated sugar. Place on ungreased cookie sheet. Prick 3-4 times with a fork.

3. Bake at 375 degrees for 7-9 minutes or until slightly puffy. Remove immediately from cookie sheet and transfer to cooling rack.

4. To make filling, beat butter, powdered sugar, and vanilla. Add water as needed to get a smooth consistency (I used about 4 tsp). Sandwich two cooled cookies together with filling in between.



Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Salt Dough Ornaments - Part II

Things I've learned about making salt dough ornaments since my last post:
  1. Despite the fact that we got the idea to make salt dough ornaments from a dated craft book, it turns out that salt dough ornaments are far from forgotten; they turned up on several  blogs I follow this month, from The Artful Parent to TinkerLab to Paint Cut Paste (gluten free, no less!). So I'm not nearly as vintage chic as I had thought, as there are lots of folks out there having fun with salt dough right now. I am honored to share the company, and these ladies have lots of awesome and unique decorating ideas.

  2. Figuring out how to finish the ornaments proved more of an ordeal than I had anticipated. The recipe I consulted suggested using "shellac."  When I went to Michael's, I wasn't able to find shellac or to find anyone who could tell me where to find shellac. I found myself in the adhesives aisle for a while, in the paint aisle for a while, in the miscellaneous things that spray aisle for a while...nothing seemed quite right. I started exploring other blogs for ideas, and I still wasn't able to come up with anything definitive. The next day, I went to the hardware store, and there I found shellac. It was expensive ($15 for a small can), and I had to buy a lot more than I needed. I do like the shiny finish that it gave the ornaments, however (even if it made for bad photos, as the flash reflected in the shininess). One thing I did notice is that it needed to be painted on very thinly, particularly over white sections so as not to give it a yellowish tint.

  3. My biggest mistake was that I used a Sharpie to add customization to the ornaments before shellacking them. Despite the fact that Sharpies are permanent and that I wrote on the ornaments the day before I shellacked them, they still smeared. Grrrrr.  Fortunately, I noticed it right away. I was able to work with it by kind of lightly dabbing the areas with writing then painting all around them. Next time, I'll shellac them first then write on them with a Sharpie. It wasn't a disaster, but it did make the ornaments noticeably less impressive.

  4. A lot of the other bloggers that wrote about salt dough ornaments talked about how happily their kids painted the ornaments. My kid enjoyed making the ornaments for his friends and painting a few others, but he got bored pretty quickly. In part, I think that if we had been working in a place where it was okay to paint with reckless abandon, he may have had more fun; I opted to use acrylic paints, and they look great, but because they stain fabric, we had to be extra careful. This would be a great project for outside; in these parts, we don't generally do Christmas crafts outdoors, however. As noted in my previous post, I might experiment with paint markers next time. I also really like the look of stamping the ornaments. 

  5. In the end, we had close to three dozen ornaments, some painted by Finn, some by Iona, and some by me. We put a few on the tree, a lot on presents, and sent a few back to France with Iona. And we will definitely be making more salt dough ornaments in the future (particularly since I still have a lump of dough in the freezer...). 
Just shellacked
For Finn's preschool pals
Initials in the tree
Gingerbread boy
Finn's heart
Ho Ho Ho piano
     


                        Monday, December 19, 2011

                        Salt Dough Ornaments - Part I

                        We decided not to take our pajamas off today. Partly because the boys are wearing matching red snowman pajamas that are just too cute to change out of, and partly because our car is in the shop and so I knew we weren't going anywhere. Whatever the reason, it's fun to have a pajama day every once in a while.

                        Staying in days often breed surprises, as was the case this morning. Finn came across a recently acquired book on the shelf: Arts & Crafts from Things Around the House. Sean brought it home from work not too long ago; I think it was a cast-off from a classroom book collection. It reminds me of the craft books I used to check out from my elementary school library, and, given the 1983 publication date, it may in fact be something I read back then:


                        The first project that Finn selected involved collecting pine branches, splashing them with white tempera paint, adding drops of glue then sprinkling them with glitter. I managed to talk him out of that one. Then he picked out a project called "Make and Bake Play Dough."  Perfect.

                        The dough requires flour, water, and a lot of salt. We had everything on hand that we needed (except the shellac, which we will do later). I pulled out a handful of cookie cutters and we were on our way.

                        NOTE: This makes a ridiculous amount of play dough. I filled two big cookie sheets with ornaments and still froze enough to make at least one more batch (I should add that I'm not sure you can freeze salt dough, but I though it was worth a shot). You may want to halve the recipe if you don't need a bajillion ornaments.

                        Make and Bake Play Dough
                        • Mix 2 cups salt, 5 cups flour, and 2 cups warm water. I put it in my stand mixer with a dough hook attachment.  Add additional water as needed to make the dough easy to handle.
                        • Knead until smooth.
                        • Roll out with a rolling pin on waxed paper to a 1/2 inch thickness.
                        • Use a knife or cookie cutter to cut the dough to desired shapes. Transfer to a cookie sheet. If you want to hang your creations, poke a hole at the top (a straw works really well for this).
                        • Bake at 300 for a hour (I baked mine a little longer - they still seemed soft after an hour). When they are cool, paint and coat with a clear shellac.
                        Making the dough was fun. Rolling out the dough was fun. Cutting out the shapes was fun. But painting was by far the most fun. We decided early on to make some presents, and Finn had a good time planning different designs for different people. He made a little ornament for each of the kids in his preschool class, and I made a bunch to add as gift toppers.We used acrylic craft paint; the only downside of this is that it stains fabric, so I was a bit manic about Finn's use of it. I might try paint markers in the future until he is a little older.

                        The ornaments I liked the best were the ones I painted to read "HO HO HO."  I plan on stringing them onto a garland and hanging them in the kitchen. I made the letters by pressing refrigerator magnets into the soft dough, then painting over the indentations.  I originally was going to do "JOY" until I realized that I needed to use letters that worked in mirror image. "HO HO HO" was the perfect solution :)

                        We're not done with this project yet - it'll take a few days to see it through to completion. But here are a few pics of our progress so far.

                        Tuesday, December 13, 2011

                        A First for Finn

                        Yesterday afternoon, while finishing up a sewing project, I found myself with two lengths of polar fleece, about 8 inches wide and 30 inches long. I remembered that Finn had asked me for a scarf and noted that the fleece was just the color to match his coat. The part of me that likes to make things more complicated than they need to be then said, "Oh Hope, you can make him a much nicer knitted scarf." The part of me that is always working to be a better mom said, "But he could make this himself."

                        Finn had his parent-teacher conference at preschool last week, and one of the things that we took away from it was the importance of allowing four-year-olds to focus on the process rather than the product. Sean and I are both product people. Many a night Sean starts out playing blocks with the kids and ends up creating the world's greatest block creation while the kids have moved onto something else. Many an evening I deny Finn the opportunity to help with the trickier parts of dinner because I want something just so. We both have a tendency to initiate art projects that have a definitive end product rather than putting out the art supplies and letting him explore.

                        "Hey, Finn, how would you like to make yourself a scarf?"

                        "Do I get to press the pedal on the sewing machine?"

                        "Yup."

                        And so, for the next forty-five minutes, Finn made a scarf. I tried to be as hands-off as I could while still ensuring his safety. I may have hovered a bit when he sewed that one seam on the sewing machine, and I did set the machine to its very slowest setting, but he did press the pedal himself -- in a standing position.  I don't usually let him use my fabric scissors, but with close supervision he was able to cut the fringe entirely by himself. And I resisted the urge to go back and clean it up when he was done. It is perfect just the way it is.

                        End result: a scarf made with two lengths of fleece with a seam up the middle and fringed ends.


                        Bigger result: the proudest four year old I have ever seen. Mama's pretty proud too.


                        Friday, December 9, 2011

                        Brunch for Iona: Sausage and Egg Casserole with Sun Dried Tomatoes

                        This weekend, we are hosting a brunch in honor of Iona who, unbelievably, heads back to France in one week. I cannot believe how quickly the four months have gone.

                        While I could dedicate this post to reflections on the many wonderful times we've had during Iona's stay, I will instead share the recipe for the casserole that I will be bringing to the brunch. This is one of my favs, and I am excited to share it with my extended family.

                        As an added bonus, I've adapted this very successfully as a vegetarian recipe, so I'll include those directions below.

                        Enjoy!

                        Sausage and Egg Casserole with Sun-Dried Tomatoes and Mozzarella

                        (with deepest apologies to the creator of this recipe, I do not have a source. Bad librarian!)

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                        1 pound sweet Italian sausage, casing removed
                        1/2 cup chopped shallots
                        2 garlic cloves, minced
                        1/2 cup chopped drained oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes
                        4 tbs. chopped fresh parsley

                        5 large eggs
                        3 large egg yolks
                        1 cup half and half
                        1 cup heavy cream
                        2 cups mozzarella cheese
                        1/2 tsp. salt

                        Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Butter 13x9 glass baking dish.

                        Saute sausage in medium skillet until brown and cooked through, breaking it into small pieces as it cooks, about ten minutes.  Add shallots and garlic and saute 3 minutes.  Add tomatoes and 2 tbs. parsley and stir 1 minute.  Spread sausage mixture in prepared dish. (Can be made one day ahead. Cover and refrigerate.)

                        Whisk eggs, egg yolks, half and half, whipping cream, 1 1/2 cups cheese, and salt in a large bowl to blend well. Pour egg mixture over sausage mixture in dish.  Sprinkle remaining 1/2 cup cheese and 2 tbs. parsley over the top.  Bake until golden brown and knife inserted in center comes out clean, about 30 minutes.  Let stand five minutes before serving.

                        VEGETARIAN VARIATION:
                        In place of the Italian sausage, I used Morningstar Farm sausage patties (2 8 oz. packages).  First, cook them in the microwave to soften them up. Then crumble into small pieces.  Heat 4 tbs. oil. Add  sausage crumbles, 1/2 tsp. crushed red pepper, and 1 tsp. Parmesan.  Heat about four minutes. Continue with shallots and garlic as above.

                        Au revoir, Iona!

                        Monday, December 5, 2011

                        There's something about a Christmas tree

                        It's the same living room: a couch, a piano, an armchair, a coffee table. Things are moved around a bit, and the end table is now a corner table, but it's the same living room. In that perfect spot, in front of the stained glass that went up with the house over one hundred years ago, there is now an eight and a half foot Scotch pine that we lovingly selected, cut down, and dragged in on Saturday afternoon. Sean and Finn strung it with lights that day, and we all pitched in to decorate while listening to John Denver's Rocky Mountain Christmas that evening. It was a perfect night.



                        And with that tree, the space is somehow magically transformed. The same space where craziness ensues with frequency in my world of little boys seems calmer. Finn is less interested in popping in a DVD and happy just to search for ornaments on the tree. Emmett is delighted by the wooden train that Sean set up at the base. The white lights sparkle in the reflection on the shiny wood floors. The air smells like pine. The tree somehow makes quiet more permissible, and sitting in its glow feels like an activity in and of itself.

                        It is these little touches of magic that make the holiday season for me. Here's hoping you find your own simple holiday joys in the weeks ahead.

                        Friday, December 2, 2011

                        I Baked a Cake!

                        It's been two weeks since I last posted; between hosting out-of-town family, traveling out of town (twice) to visit family, and dealing with a laptop nearing the end of its life, I just haven't had much screentime. That said, it has also been two weeks full of cooking, baking, and crafting...even if I haven't been writing about it.

                        And so, I thought I'd come back with details of a most unexpected cooking adventure.

                        1. I decided out of the blue to bake a cake.
                        2. I chose a cake featured on the cover of a current cooking magazine.
                        3. It is not a chocolate cake.
                        4. It is a tangerine-flavored cake.
                        The thing is, I don't really  1) like to bake cakes, 2) generally attempt to make the kind of fancy cake recipes featured on covers, particularly those that require Bundt pans, 3) make any desserts that aren't chocolate or 4) like oranges. So this was all around uncharacteristic, and, admittedly, kind of fun. In the spirit of full disclosure, I'll add that while I don't much care for oranges, I love those little Cuties that show up in the market at this time of year, and that's what this recipe uses.

                        The chosen recipe was from Everyday Food Magazine (heart!) and was the cover recipe in the December 2011 issue. The recipe doesn't seem to be online as of yet, so I've included it below.

                        The recipe recommends making the cake a day in advance and storing at room temperature, so it'll be ready just in time for our tree-trimming plans tomorrow evening. I haven't tasted it yet, but if the batter is any indication...it's super yummy. I only ate a little bit, I promise.

                        ***Note - I had some issues with the glaze. It was too thick, so I added some water, but apparently I added too much as it was then too runny, so then I was adding more sugar, then more juice, etc.. My suggestion would be to start with the suggested amount and add a little water at a time until it is the desired consistency. Also, that cookie sheet under the cooling rack? That's to catch the icing runoff. Missed that detail.




                        Tangerine Cake with Citrus Glaze
                        adapted from Everyday Food Magazine, December 2011

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                        for the cake:
                        1 cup (2 sticks) butter, room temperature, plus more for the pan
                        3 cups all purpose flour, plus more for the pan
                        1 tsp baking soda
                        1 tsp salt
                        2 cups granulated sugar
                        6 large eggs
                        2 tbsp finely grated tangerine zest, plus 1/2 cup tangerine juice (I zested and squeezed 7 tangerines)
                        2 tbsp Grand Marnier (I didn't have any, so I used water)
                        3/4 cup plain lowfat yogurt
                        1 tsp vanilla extract

                        for the glaze:
                        1 1/2 cups confectioners sugar
                        3 tbsp tangerine juice (I used 3 tangerines)

                        1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour a Bundt pan and set aside.

                        2. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, and salt.

                        3. In a large bowl, using an electric mixer, beat butter and granulated sugar on medium-high until light and fluffy, about five minutes. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in tangerine zest, juice, and liqueur. With mixer on low, add flour mixture in three additions, alternating with two additions yogurt, and beat to combine. Beat in vanilla.

                        4. Transfer batter to pan, smooth top, and firmly tap pan on a flat surface to remove air bubbles.

                        5. Bake until toothpick inserted in center of cake comes out clean, 55 to 60 minutes. Let cool in pan on wire rack, 30 minutes. Invert cake onto a rack set on a rimmed baking sheet and let cool completely. With a serrated knife, trim cake to sit flat if necessary.

                        6. Whisk together confectioner's sugar and tangerine juice until smooth. Spoon glaze evenly over cake and let set one hour (or as recommended, glaze, cover, then store at room temperature a day in advance).

                        Serves 12. Active time: 30 minutes. Total time: 1 hour, 25 minutes plus cooling.