Thursday, December 24, 2009

On this Merry Christmas Night....



Merry Christmas, blog friends!

I know you're wondering, "Did she finish painting her family room (finally....)??"




(Nope!)


* * *

Doesn't this look like how our days are sometimes?

Myriad things scattered about, unfinished.

Trying to take a cozy, restful seat by the fire, but still that seat stays empty.

We try to make things brighter, but the light strings don't quite have the power to make things clear for us.

And we wonder how many coats it will take to cover up what had been there before, without splotches and unevenness. (Three may just be right--sigh....!)

* * *

We may have things unfinished. We may have "miscalculated" the use of our time. Or perhaps we were called away to other things for which we were needed, even if they weren't part of our plans.

Even in our peaceful approach to Christmas, that seat of rest may be vacant. But the opportunity to "Be still...." doesn't always lie in a cozy seat by the fire.

We may go about our days feeling a lack of energy, or a lack of that "spark" or "glow" that radiates the Christmas spirit. But the true Light of Christmas can shine brighter through us than a string of twinkling bulbs.

As for the splotches and unevenness, we were not promised days without difficulty, without challenge, without trouble. But that doesn't mean we don't have hope, or can't have our hope restored.

Love is raining down on the world tonight
There's a presence here I can tell
God is in us, God is for us, God is with us, Emmanuel
He's the Savior we have been praying for
In our humble hearts He will dwell
God is in us, God is for us, God is with us, Emmanuel

Let the words sink in tonight, tomorrow, and into 2010 and beyond--every day!
God is IN us. God is FOR US! God is WITH us, Emmanuel!!

Merry Christmas!


Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Home for Christmas

I had the opportunity to play for the MOPS (mothers of preschoolers) brunch at church a couple weeks ago. I can never say no to MOPS. It's just one of those things.

In 2001, I joined the group as a first-time mom of a 2 year old and have been serving or helping support them in some way since then. Last year, I was their Mentor Mom. This year, I'm a soloist at brunch. Not quite the same, is it? But, there is a time and season for everything, and the level of my involvement continues to change.

When the leadership--sweet devoted moms with whom I've shared all kinds of moments--approached me about performing, I said, "Yes! Can't say no to MOPS!" But, when it came time to find something to play, that was when things got challenging. I didn't have much time to decide, as I needed time to rehearse, to find an accompanist and to sub for two upcoming bell choir concerts (which is a challenge in itself when you're directing).

I had it on my heart to play "I'll Be Home for Christmas." Didn't know why. Always liked the flow of the song and had some nice piano music that would work well as accompaniment. But, what else? I usually play a medley, because I like to tie in a contemporary Christian song with the Christmas music--it sends the message that Christ goes beyond Christmas.

I also had some dear friends on my heart--two mothers of preschoolers who passed away this year after long and incredibly strong fights against some tough cancers. Neither one was in the MOPS group (Miche actually coordinated MOPS groups for the entire Richmond area), but both had ties to the people in the group, which suddenly made the music all that more personal. They are both home for Christmas in the most real sense of the phrase.

So, in the end, I had two secular Christmas songs wrapping a favorite Christian song of my friend Kate ("Come to Jesus"). In introducing the medley, I reminded the group that this is a season filled with lots of emotions. To deny the losses and what we feel is to deny the opportunity for healing and wholeness. "Israel's strength and consolation," as we sing in "Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus" is not just the One who came and will come again, but the One who is here now, to comfort and encourage us wherever we are.

Not without some "grace notes" but with lots of heart, here's my medley. Special thanks to Chatty Kelly for, again, being the videographer, and to Jon, Minister of Worship and Arts at my church, for his supportive and gracious accompaniment!

For Kate and Miche....


Saturday, December 19, 2009

We Interrupt This Blog (Again!)


I was telling the truth about the snow a Saturday or two back.


But now I'm REALLY telling the truth!


It will be 12 to 16 inches by the time the day is through.


There is even a 30 percent chance of snow on Christmas Eve.


Yes, Virginia...there is snow today!!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

I Knew in a Moment....


Because who else has that kind of blinding light, except for Rudolph... (And he was making chili for the guys back at the firehouse! Oh wait--we're in Virginia. Make that Brunswick stew!)



The best part for CJ was eating her candy cane before bed. For RJ2, it was running on the driveway in pajamas.

And I was just so pleased that since RJ2 had already brushed her teeth that she knew NOT to eat her candy cane.

But I heard him exclaim, 'ere he drove out of sight,

Whhhhhhhhhhhhhh.....WWWHHHHHHHhhhhhhhhh.........

(I wish they didn't give Rudolph kitchen duty on our night!)

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Old Favorite Gets New Twist: PUMPKIN-CHOCOLATE CHIP CAKE


L
ike cranberries, pumpkin rates really high on my list of favorite Fall/Winter treats. When given the choice of pumpkin pie, mince pie or cherry pie at Grandma's table, pumpkin won hands down! Whipped cream? Yes, please!!


After I got married, and decided being domestic meant making more stuff from scratch (whaa??), I started making my own pumpkin pie filling. No canned shortcuts for me! I baked many a whole pumpkin in the oven, reserving the seeds to make my own salted pumpkin seed snacks. Those never worked out well. And, truly, the early pumpkin pies I brought to my sister's Thanksgiving Day table were...well...earthy!

Time marches on, and I've discovered a few tips since the earthy days. I cut the pumpkin first and boil it rather than baking a whole pumpkin. Seeds and strings are removed before baking and it's a much easier (and probably more energy-efficient) method. My husband bought me a ricer several Christmases ago. It really makes a difference when you rice your cooked pumpkin. Puree with the quality of a fine mashed potato!

Unfortunately, my house is not big on pumpkin pie. But, with pumpkin's delicious nutrients, I can't let the opportunity to give the girls something tasty and healthy pass by. For them, pumpkin-chocolate chip muffins, and they eat them any time of the year (and I even buy canned pumpkin in the summer!).

For the grown-ups (and RJ2, who loves cake in general), Pumpkin-Chocolate Chip cake! My thanks to Chatty Kelly for sharing her recipe, which she, and now I, credit to the folks at Taste of Home publications.


Ingredients
  • 3/4 cup butter, softened
  • 1-1/2 cups sugar
  • 1/2 cup packed brown sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 can (15 ounces) solid-pack pumpkin
  • 1 cup (6 ounces) semisweet chocolate chips
  • 2 squares (1 oz each) unsweetened chocolate, melted and cooled
  • 3/4 cup finely chopped pecans, divided (optional)
Directions
  • In a large bowl, cream butter and sugars until light and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in vanilla. Combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda and cinnamon; add to the creamed mixture alternately with pumpkin. Fold in chocolate chips.
  • Divide batter in half. Stir melted chocolate into one portion. In a well-greased 10-in. fluted tube pan, sprinkle 1/2 cup pecans. Spoon chocolate batter over pecans; top with pumpkin batter. Sprinkle with remaining pecans.
  • Bake at 325° for 65-70 minutes or until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean. Cool for 15 minutes before removing from pan to a wire rack. Yield: 12 servings.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

New Kid in the Kitchen/COCONUT-LEMON LOAF



W
hen I'm pondering recipes for Christmas brunch, I like to make sure that all the major "scentsations" are included. For me, that means some...

Cranberry
--which usually includes orange and brown sugar (see last post); Apples--and cinnamon;
Pumpkin
--and cloves, allspice and ginger;
Be
rries--even though they are off-season, I love the look of mixed berries on the table, and I'll frequently have a batch of frozen summer-picked blueberries around for muffins;
Chocolate
(a touch of the browniful....); and,
Lemon--which leads to today's recipe.

[
See how pretty that looks?]

There's something about a lemon-flavored cake or bar that is really yummy and refreshing alongside other foods. It's why we sometimes put lemon in tea or water or unflavored seltzer water, or spritz some on chicken, broccoli or fish when we're making up a hot dish. Lemon gets those taste buds awake! Cleanses the palate, too.

This is a recipe from Family Fun magazine, which has been an annual gift from my folks to us at Christmas for many years now. I rarely get the chance to just sit down with it, mostly because when it arrives at the house, CJ grabs it off the mail pile and disappears with it. Sequestering herself with an issue for days, she'll often ask me if I've seen this or read that, forgetting that she is the only one who has actually opened the magazine!

But, before it gets recycled, I read through the issue and usually find a tidbit or, in this case, recipe, to rip out and file away.


When I saw this is an issue on specialty breads, it looked like a sure winner--lemon and coconut?! Perfect for the beach trip....anytime! I made my first loaf and promptly turned it over for a Teacher Appreciation Day at school. It looked great! My Mom and sisters made it for Thanksgiving at my sister's house; I heard about it on the phone.

Then, I made it for brunch and froze it (and rewarmed it! So important....). Finally got to taste it. Mmm.... And you've got to make the "optional" glaze with it. With fresh zest and juice--oh my!
As Food Network Star chef Guy Fieri would say, you could pour this on your flip-flop and it would taste out of this world! It's like spending Christmas on Christmas Island....How'd ya like to hang a stocking on a great big coconut tree?...

COCONUT-LEMON LOAF

Ingredients

* 1 cup sugar

* 5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
* 3 tablespoons canola or vegetable oil
* 1-1/2 tablespoons finely grated lemon zest
* 1 teaspoon lemon extract
* 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
* 1/4 cup milk
* 2 large eggs
* 3/4 cup buttermilk
* 2-1/2 cups flour

* 2-1/2 teaspoons baking powder

* 1 teaspoon salt
* 1/2 cup (2 ounces) sweetened flaked coconut

* Coconut-Lemon Glaze (optional...[NOT!] See below)

Instructions
1. Line a 9- by 5-inch loaf pan with waxed or parchment paper (or grease and flour it), then set it aside. Heat the oven to 350ยบ.
2. In a large bowl, whisk together the sugar, melted butter, oil, lemon zest, lemon extract, vanilla extract, and milk.

3. In a small bowl, whisk the eggs and the buttermilk until evenly blended. Set the bowl aside.
4. In a medium-size bowl, whisk the flour, baking powder, and salt. With a wooden spoon, stir about a third of the flour mixture into the sugar mixture, then alternately add half of the remaining egg mixture and half of the flour mixture, stirring after each addition just enough to blend. Stir in the coconut.
5. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top with a spoon. Bake on the center oven rack until a toothpick inserted into the center of the bread comes out clean, about 45 to 50 minutes.

6. Remove the pan from the oven and put it on a cooling rack for about 15 minutes, then remove the loaf and place it on the rack to finish cooling. When the loaf is completely cooled, in about two hours, apply the Coconut-Lemon Glaze, if using. Makes 10 servings.

COCONUT-LEMON GLAZE

Ingredients

* 1/2 cup confectioners' sugar

* 1 tablespoon lemon juice
* 1 teaspoon melted butter

* 1/8 teaspoon lemon extract (optional)
* 1/4 cup sweetened flaked coconut

Instructions

1. Combine the confectioners' sugar, lemon juice, butter, and lemon extract (if using) in a small bowl. Whisk to blend. The glaze should have the consistency of heavy cream. If needed, add more sugar to thicken it or more lemon juice to thin it.
2. When the bread has cooled, spoon the glaze evenly over the bread and immediately sprinkle the coconut over the top. Makes enough glaze for one large loaf.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Perennial Favorite/UPSIDE-DOWN BREAKFAST CAKE



I
'm not sure when I first came to appreciate the cranberry. Maybe it was back at my Grandmother's dinner table when she'd serve up Thanksgiving dinner with cranberry-orange relish. I love the ornamental look of dried cranberries. My Dad strung some on a wire-framed heart to dry with a raffia bow (which looks great in our new red room, which is still not done, friends, but getting closer every day!). I love to wear the color, too.

I remember my husband and I touring the Ocean Spray museum in Cape Cod, and we learned everything you'd ever want to learn about cranberry harvesting. We were vacationing there before my sister's beach wedding that weekend, and I was very early pregnant with CJ. Didn't stop me from rollerblading on the riverwalk (though that was my last time for awhile). She loves cranberry juice, by the way.

Ah, cranberries.... Just don't spill them anywhere!

When I started scoping out recipes for Christmas brunch, this was one of those I pulled. It seemed difficult at the time, but every recipe seemed challenging then. I pull this one every year now, because it's seasonally perfect, can be prepared in advance (but you must warm it up!), and its ingredients combine to give the house that scent of Christmas that blends just right with a fresh tree (or not!).

Upside-Down Breakfast Cake

1/2 C (1 stick) plus 2 T unsalted butter, softened

1 C packed light brown sugar

2-1/2 C fresh cranberries, blueberries or blackberries

1-1/2 C unbleached all-purpose flour

2-1/2 t baking powder

1/2 t salt

3/4 C granulated sugar

2 eggs

1/2 C freshly squeezed orange juice (for cranberries) or 1/4 C freshly squeezed lemon juice (for blueberries or blackberries) [I used two large oranges for juice and zest.]

1/3 C low-fat milk

1/2 t vanilla extract

2 T grated orange zest (cranberries) or 1 T grated lemon zest (blueberries or blackberries)


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.


Combine 2 T of the butter and the brown sugar in a small bowl, then spread the mixture evenly in the bottom of a lightly greased 9” round cake pan. Spread the berries over the mixture and set aside. [I have found that a 9" pie plate works well, too. Please put a baking pan under your cake pan or pie plate, because it can cook up big!]


Combine the flour, baking powder and salt in a bowl. Reserve.


In a separate bowl, combine the remaining 1/2 C butter, the sugar, and the eggs, and beat until creamy smooth. Add the reserved dry ingredients, juice, milk, vanilla and zest, and beat until well blended. Pour the batter over the berries and bake until the top is golden and a skewer tests clean when inserted in the center, 50-55 minutes.


Remove from the oven, run a knife around the inside edge of the pan, cover the cake with a serving plate, and invert the cake onto the plate, fruit side up. Cool slightly before serving warm.


Makes one 9” cake; serves 8 to 12. From James McNair's Breakfast.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

We Interrupt This Cooking Blog


...To bring you word that



It's SNOWING!!!



What do you mean you can't see it?

Friday, December 4, 2009

Christmas Morning Treat/HASH BROWN FRITTATA


T
here are so many wonderful parts of Christmas morning. For us, one of them is Christmas breakfast--special food for a special day! But, who likes to cook on Christmas morning? Some may see that as a family-together venture. But, coming up in a family that didn't make a big deal out of breakfast--ever!--I definitely wasn't up for making something extravagant when I could otherwise be enjoying my husband's company, Christmas music, gifts and coffee under the tree.

So, years ago, my husband and I started a tradition of prepping a breakfast casserole on Christmas Eve. We have tried various versions including a stale bread cubes soaked in egg overnight style...even huevos rancheros. We have now found a winning combination in a recipe from Bob Evans! The red and green peppers definitely make this casserole look Christmasy. And, if you serve breakfast for dinner--as we often do at our house--you don't even have to let this set up overnight. In 45 minutes, you can have a yummy frittata!

The picture on Bob Evans' website doesn't do the dish justice. It looks really dry, doesn't it? It's not! And, it was the most requested recipe at my annual Christmas brunch two years running.

Ingredients

10 oz. of breakfast sausage (Pick your favorite; we like a sage variety in a roll, but links wo
rk, too. And, truth be told, I just cook up the whole pound!!)


2-1/2 cups frozen shredded hash browns, THAWED

1 cup shredded cheddar cheese (Though we're partial to Monterey Jack)

6 eggs

1/3 cup whipping cream


1/4 cup green and/or red bell peppers, chopped


1/4 cup chopped onion


1/4 teaspoon salt


Dash black pepper


Directions

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Break up or cut sausage into bite-size pieces. Cook in small skillet over medium heat until lightly browned, stirring occasionally. Drain off any drippings. Whisk eggs in medium bowl; stir in sausage and remaining ingredients. Pour into greased 2-quart casserole dish. Bake, uncovered, 30 minutes or until eggs are almost set. Let stand 5 minutes before cutting into squares; serve hot. Refrigerate leftovers.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Celebrating Friends/COCOA BLOCKS



I have a lot of friends. (I know....who would have thought?) But, I do! And I'm so thankful for them. AND, I love making small treats for them at Christmastime.

My bloggy friend Carmen had these wonderful bookmarks posted on her crafty blog many weeks ago. I knew the moment I saw her pictures that it was the perfect little something for my friends. So, I asked her how to make them. She must have had quite a few questions of a similar vein, as she was led to do her first video training post on this very topic! Carmen, thank you so much--it worked!! And now that I've folded 150 or so, I think I can do this blindfolded!

Daughter CJ learned to make the star boxes from one of her origami books. They make just the right opening for a deep, dark, delicious browniful cocoa block!

This is the first of several recipe posts this month. Here's how to make COCOA BLOCKS:

1/2 cup (4 oz) heavy cream
14-oz can sweetened condensed milk
3 cups (18 oz) semisweet or bittersweet chocolate (chopped chocolate bars or chips)
3/4 cup (4 oz) unsweetened baking chocolate
wooden sticks, optional

Line an 8"x8" pan with parchment paper or aluminum foil.

Heat the cream and condensed milk over low heat until steaming. Remove from heat and add the chocolate; allow it to gently melt. After about 10 minutes, return the chocolate mixture to low heat to completely melt the chocolate. Whisk vigorously until the mixture is thick and shiny. Add a few drops of flavoring oil, if you like--hazelnut, coffee or vanilla.

Pour the chocolate mixture into the pan; shake the pan gently to level. Sprinkle with cocoa, if desired. Set aside overnight to slowly set up.

Run a knife around the edge of the pan and turn chocolate out onto a clean cutting surface. Slice into 1-1/4" cubes. Heat a knife in hot water and wipe dry before each cut, for smoothest cuts. If you wish, stick a wooden stick into the center of each block.

Roll in cocoa or crushed peppermint candy, if desired. Wrap in waxed paper, parchment, or plastic wrap to store.

Take small nibbles. But, probably best, swirl the cocoa block in one cup of warm milk for a delicious hot chocolate!

Yield: about 3 dozen blocks.

Recipe from King Arthur Flour