Food Firsts

November is almost over (seriously, how did that happen?!) and December is closer than I realized, which also means my baking frenzy is about to start!

I love to bake for anyone and everyone throughout the year, but the need to bake really kicks in around the holidays. I mean, baking is such an easy way to show others you care, and everyone (both neighbors and loved ones alike) appreciates the results. I do try and step it up a notch and do something different than peppermint whatevers or the peanut butter kiss cookies you see on numerous cookie trays, and sometimes my ambitious nature gets the best of me and my “well that looks easy” fun-loving nature turns into “why did this look fun again?” but thankfully, everything seems to work out, the finished product is tasty and all my worrying was for nothing.

November gave me a chance to expand my cooking/baking repertoire (and my mix of emotions mentioned above) whether I wanted to or not. For the first time since moving to Nebraska, Mike’s parents were going to visit his sister and we were on our own for Thanksgiving. Well, we didn’t have to necessarily be alone…he does have other siblings who would have let us join their Thanksgiving, but they also have children and their own extended families, so we decided to do our own thing this year. My first thoughts: Yay! I get to do it for two! That should make it easier!

I started making the menu in my head (which at the time consisted of pumpkin pie with whipped cream, mashed potatoes, gravy and turkey), then I asked Mike what he liked at Thanksgiving and my list grew: stuffing, green bean casserole, cranberry sauce, rolls….I wrote down everything on a sheet of paper and realized there was waaaaaaaay too much food for just two people to eat (although I’m sure Nova would have enjoyed eating any and all leftovers). Then something even more pressing entered my mind: I had no idea how to make anything but pie, rolls and potatoes. Then the further realization I’d never actually made a pumpkin pie, I just enjoyed eating it. My “fun Thanksgiving for two” bubble burst and the hardcore planning started.

And by planning I mean something like this: Look up recipe for ____________; find billions of results. Search through some, feel confused; call mom for advice. Mom gives semi-advice (“they all sound good” or “I don’t know about a specific stuffing recipe, I kind of do my own thing”), wishes me luck and I ponder on my own. I think I made about five or six attempts at a menu before my wonderful boyfriend said it didn’t matter what we had for Thanksgiving. We could have Chipotle (which at a certain point sounded like the best idea ever, except they’re closed on major holidays) and it’d be perfect because it’d be just the three of us (yay, Nova was included!). He also advised me I should go super easy and light for the meal because it was just two of us and there was no reason to stress about it so much.

It made my heart oh-so happy to hear that, but it kind of pushed me to make it even better. I mean, it’s our first “us only” Thanksgiving, it needed to be good and my need for it to be good kept my menu fairly hefty. I proudly made my grocery list, then did a double take at the loooooooong list of things I’d need for just Thanksgiving. I reworked my menu again, caving and adding a few premade items and ended up with: turkey breast, gravy, mashed potatoes, stuffing mix (which would be doctored up with some real ingredients) and pumpkin pie with whipped cream. The day we went grocery shopping, I warned Mike if the turkey failed, we would have the BEST Thanksgiving meal of mashed potatoes and pie ever. Boy oh boy was I right about the pie.

I went all out for the pumpkin pie, and used Martha Stewart’s “Pies & Tarts” book recipe (click the link for the recipe and a peek at the book–it is definitely worth buying). And in typical, fancy, impressive Martha Stewart fashion, the pie crust was more complicated than it probably needed to be but there was no way I was going to cheat and do it in an easier way. I made 48 little leaves to line my crust (I made extras just in case), carefully used egg wash to stick them on, put it in the oven to prebake, made the filling, popped it in the oven for the allotted time, pulled it out to cool and hoped for the best. I didn’t have the patience to wait until the next day to try out my pie so I cut a slice the night before Thanksgiving. Mike thought that was insane, but I liked to look at it this way: I still had half a recipe of crust and enough supplies for filling so if this pie was awful, I still had enough time to do another one before dinner tomorrow. All the fuss and work was worth it in the end. It was so, so tasty. It’s possible I ate like, 60 percent of the pie. Okay, okay, probably more like 80 percent.

Despite having stuffing mix, my guilt of not doing it “the real way” and knowing it would be tasty got to me. I used up every remaining bit of bread we had around the house, combined two different recipes and made stuffing from scratch that would serve a max of four people versus the usual 10 or more.

Overall, the meal and the panic was worth it and all was yummy. It was actually really nice to do a holiday celebration with just the two of us. Maybe we’ll have to do an early Thanksgiving for two again before the larger, family version. However, my mini feast idea kind of backfired on me: there was not enough stuffing. We had it all eaten by the next day and I happily could have eaten more. Guess next year I’ll be making stuffing for 10…I might even try to work stuffing into our meals more than just once a year–who says I can’t have stuffing with pork chops or chicken on a Tuesday night in April anyway?!

We also did not have enough turkey left over to make turkey pot pies and I’d already hunted down and bought a bunch of leeks. I knew little about leeks, except what I’ve heard/seen from cooking shows: they’re kinda hard to clean, have a mild onion flavor and look like huge scallions. Thank goodness I’m a recipe hoarder: I flipped through binder #2 and lo and behold, a recipe for pan-roasted chicken with leeks.

The shows were right because they are kind of a pain to clean (I triple washed mine to be extra sure there was no dirt anywhere), but worth the effort. Sure, the bacon they’re fried with and the cream sauce they’re used in might have helped a bit, but they’ll definitely make more appearances in our meals.

December will also hold a few baking challenges for me. I’m participating in a “sweets swap” with some of Mike’s coworkers and since there’s so few of us doing it, I’m going to pull out the Bon Appetit cookbook and see what yumminess I can find!


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Revenge of the Fifth, AKA Mini Pies Update

As you may recall from yesterday’s geek-filled post, I finally decided to try out the Breville mini pie maker I bought as a birthday gift to myself and make Star Wars-themed pies in honor of May 4, or May the Fourth be With You Day.

Being the first time I’ve used the pie maker, I was nervous. Especially since I was going to be fancy and not do a full crust on top, but instead use cut outs in Star Wars shapes.

I made my dough and filling from scratch. I know it’s more work, but my philosophy on baked goods, if it’s made from scratch, it’ll taste better and a little more effort isn’t that big of a deal. I did a double preheat for the machine like the instructions suggested, rolled out my dough and cut out the bottom crusts and toppers. Trying to put the bottom crust in, press it in with the mold, measure out the filling and top them was tricky to do quickly. Next time I’ll have everything arranged and ready to go. I closed the lid, set the timer and waited.

Alas, my first batch didn’t turn out well. The dough was a bit too thick, leaving undone spots in some areas but really burned in others and the filling was a little too runny so it leaked out and burnt in spots. I tossed them, got out the second batch of dough I’d made (phew!) remade the filling and tried again.

The second time definitely went better, but there were still some flaws. I added more filling, but without a full top crust, some of the apples burned in spots and my cut outs didn’t get very brown because they didn’t really connect with the top plates.

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Overall though, I think they were pretty successful. Kinda bummed the images of the characters didn’t show up too well. Maybe I need to brush them with butter or colored sugars to help them stand out. The crust was cooked much more evenly and even though they weren’t super golden brown, the toppers were cooked through.

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I ended up eating the Darth Vader pie; it looked fairly burned on the edges, but it turned out it was just filled too full and the syrup from the filling turned to caramel.

It will take some more tweaking and experimentation, but I’m pleased I bought the machine. It was fun and easy to make them and very nice to know I won’t be throwing away most of a pie. Next time I will probably try ones with a full top crust, or ones without any top crust at all.

Easter Celebrations

Happy Easter and Happy Pesach/Passover to those who celebrate either holiday.

I wasn’t able to make it home for Easter again, but it will be fun to spend it with the boyfriend’s family. His mom always puts on a lovely dinner, and usually the kids bring simple things like bread or sides.

I’m always kinda sad I don’t get to do something baking-related. I have quite a few Easter/spring themed baking items I haven’t gotten to use yet. I could make them for us, but the batches are usually too large for two people to split (at least healthily).

I was already plotting which side we’d bring or which bread/rolls I’d bring (the cloverleaf rolls I made for Thanksgiving were a huge hit, but I’d seen some awfully cute bunny rolls I was tempted to try) when he gave me the surprising news I’d always wanted to hear: “You need to make dessert for about 10 people.”

As I mentioned before, his mom is a great cook/baker and usually provides desserts that everyone loves. The excitement of baking and sharing a themed dessert I figured I’d feel was nowhere to be found. Instead it was quite a bit of nerves with a teeny hint of fear: what on earth would I make and would it measure up to his mom’s past yummy goodness? In my mind, being tasked with dessert was kind of an honor, like being really “in” the family and I did not want to mess it up.

I spent quite a lot of time pouring over my hefty collection of recipes, pondering and frequently asking him what the family would like or what they’d had in the past. Alas, he was little help and told me to stop worrying so much. I will admit I probably did worry a bit too much, but I’m sure most people can relate to wanting to do something well for your significant other’s family, no matter how well you get along and how well you know each other.

I finally decided to bring two desserts: a springy, strawberry frozen loaf and a chocolate cream pie. From scratch.

The strawberry loaf was a hit when my mom and I made it for an Easter a few years ago. The recipe is very easy and looks quite nice on a table. It also served 12 people, but I worried if people wanted seconds they’d be out of luck. And really, getting rid of extra dessert usually isn’t too hard.

Enter the chocolate cream pie! Easter and chocolate go hand in hand. His dad loooooooooves chocolate so I’m really making it with him in mind, especially since he’s been at our house for about a month (or more) working on our basement.

I decided to use a recipe from Martha Stewart’s Pies and Tarts book. I have never made a custard pie from scratch in my life so I was a little hesitant, but I’d had success with the other pie I’d made from the book and the instructions seemed easy to follow so I figured I could handle it. In the end it was quite a bit of work (so much whisking!), but maaaan, the chocolate custard is to die for. When the chopped chocolate was melting into the milk, I really wanted to grab a mug and drink it like hot cocoa, but I resisted. Okay, I had about a tablespoon (note to self: make hot cocoa this way once next fall/winter. YUM.).

My biggest frustration was the crust. It was another recipe that called for using chocolate wafers for the crust. Nebraska apparently isn’t cool enough to carry these magical wafers (or at least the four stores we tried weren’t) so it was time for plan “B.” If I had more time and it was for a less important occasion, I totally would have made my own chocolate wafer cookies, but instead I bought a bag of Oreo cookies. And scraped the filling out of 26 of them.

Slowly whisking the warm chocolate-milk mixture into the egg yolks was a bit worrisome. I had heard stories of people adding it too fast and cooking the eggs, so I went even slower than I needed to (better safe than sorry!). After even more whisking, I poured it into the crust. I apparently should have upped the number of Oreos because my crust wasn’t tall enough for all the filling (yay, leftover chocolate pudding for us!) so I ended up having to scoop some back out. Despite that, it looks lovely.

If only the kitchen was as lovely looking. Poor Mike had already done the dishes once and was quite disheartened to see the tower before him.
We have an agreement: since I cook, he does the dishes. I think it is the best deal ever     because I haaaate to do dishes (we don’t have a dishwasher). That isn’t to say I never do any. I always feel bad after I’ve done some baking because it takes so many dishes/utensils so I try to clean up as many as I can, or at the very least get them soaking. After doing dinner and both desserts (as well as all the other normal day things I do), it was a leave them soaking night.

I’m glad I got both desserts made ahead of time instead of trying to cram them in before dinner. I’m just hoping the frozen one unmolds well, the pie chills and sets up well and that both are tasty and well received.