Monday, December 29, 2008

Red and White Pasta Bake

Mmmm, doesn't that look good? Oh, it was good! The bechamel sauce was creamy and flavorful and the tomato sauce on top added a little zing. It was a perfect combination.

This was originally a recipe from Cooking Light Magazine. I used to make it from time to time. It was really good. But when I made it this time, I made it less light and it was more than really good - it was divine.

And now that I made this excellent sauce, I would like to revisit a recipe I did earlier, Butternut Squash Casserole, and add it in. I would be willing to bet that it would make the casserole heavenly.

A little note about the bechamel sauce: I originally made it with 4 tablespoons of flour, as recommended in Mario's recipe. But I found my sauce to be to watery. So I added 3 more tablespoons of flour, but that was toward the end. So when I wrote out the ingredients for this recipe, I wrote to use 6 tablespoons of flour at the beginning. I'm estimating that the sauce would be thick enough that way. Of course, if it's too thick, add some milk and perhaps a few more dashes of spices.

Red and White Pasta Bake
Adapted from Cooking Light Magazine

1 pound linguine
Cooking spray
4 cups sliced cremini or button mushrooms (about 12 ounces)
2 (14.5-ounce) can Italian-style diced tomatoes, undrained
1 recipe of Bechamel Sauce (see below)
1 cup mixture of mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses

Preheat your oven to 350°.

Cook the linguine according to the directions on the package. Cover it and set it aside.

Saute the mushrooms and set them aside.

Empty the cans of tomatoes with the liquid into a bowl. Puree it with an emulsion blender until it is fairly smooth. I, personally, don't like the chunks, so I blended it till all of them were gone.

Prepare the bechamel sauce:

Bechamel Sauce
Adapted from Mario Batali

5 tablespoons butter
6 tablespoons flour
3 cups milk (1 cup whole, 2 cups 2%)
½ onion
2 cloves
2 cloves garlic, sliced in half
2 teaspoons salt
1/4-1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg (to your taste)
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
3.5 oz. light Finlandia Swiss

For the Bechamel Sauce
In a medium saucepan, heat the butter until melted. Add the flour and stir until smooth. Over medium heat, cook the mixture until it's light golden brown, about 6 to 7 minutes.

Meanwhile, cut the onion in half and stud it with the whole cloves. My onion was large, so I cut off a chunk and pretended it was a small onion.

Place the onion with the cloves, and the garlic into the milk in a small pot. Heat it until it is just about to boil.

Add the milk to butter mixture 1 cup at a time, whisking continuously until very smooth and bring to a boil. Add the Swiss cheese and stir for another 30 seconds or so. Remove the mixture from the heat and continue stirring until the cheese is completely melted. Season the sauce with salt, white pepper, and nutmeg.

Assemble the Dish

Add the mushrooms and pasta to the bechamel sauce. Mix it well to evenly distribute all the contents of the mixture.

Prepare a 9 x 13 inch baking dish (or similarly sized casserole dish) by spraying it generously with cooking spray. Pour the pasta mixture in and distribute it evenly. Top it with the pureed tomato sauce and a mixture of mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses.

Bake the dish, covered, for 20 minutes. Then, uncover and bake 5-10 minutes more to melt and slightly brown the cheeses on top.

Mangia Bene!

Red and White Pasta Bake

Mmmm, doesn't that look good? Oh, it was good ...

See Red and White Pasta Bake on Key Ingredient.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Christmas Baking - Barely done on time!

This was a very challenging Christmas season, but things ended up being really good.

Challenging was the week we spent away from home while we waited for the power to come back on. I was already running behind and then that happened. You see, I have cookie assortments to make each year. People are counting on me and I have to come through!

Then, as a result of the ice storm, school was cancelled until January 5. That gave me time to catch up in my Christmas baking. Three days straight were spent searching for recipes, making and rolling out dough, and baking. But it was worth it.

I have a list of 17 people - each receiving this package:

First I made the chocolate mint cookie drops. They were a favorite of the family:

And they certainly don't need to be a Christmas cookie either.

I made two different kinds of butter/sugar cookies. This first one, came from the Land O' Lakes Web site. They are called Sparkling Citrus Cookies. I changed the recipe just slightly. They were supposed to have little colored balls in them and be in a triangular shape. I made them more festive with colored sugar on top (which I sprinkled on before baking). Also, I didn't like how the triangular shape looked once baked, so I switched to using a cookie cutter. This was the delicious result:

The Holiday Butter Cookies below came from the King Arthur Flour site.

I ordered a special flavoring from King Arthur so I could make it: Fiori di Sicilia. It's sort of like vanilla with citrus. Most people really enjoyed the taste - that is everyone except for Joe, who thinks that citrus doesn't belong in cookies. Hmmf!

The Royal Icing on the cookies was a recipe I found online that was accompanied by a video demonstration on decorating your gingerbread men. I used it on the butter cookies and on the gingerbread. I found the recipe for the icing and the video demonstration to be so helpful. And even though my power went out for four hours on Christmas Eve, just when I had made the icing and was about to decorate, I used the techniques with much success - by candle light. I wish I would have had more time, and better lighting, but such is life. My relatives and friends oohed and ahhed over the gingerbread men.

By the way, this is the only gingerbread cookie I make because the recipe is stupendous! It is the original Martha Stewart recipe and can be found here. Everyone loves these cookies. Even Joe's family!

On to the next cookie! I used a recipe from for Pecan Salbes. They are quite delicious.

The Almond-Cardamom Christmas Cookies was a slightly controversial recipe within the family circle. I sort of knew there would be issues, but made them anyway.

You see, my husband's family is very meat and potatoes. They don't tend to go outside of their comfort zone to try new things and enjoy exotic ingredients. So the cardamom didn't go over so well. Also, they don't hold back in expressing their thoughts - but they also hugged me and told me not to take it personally when they described the cardamom as tasting like turkey stuffing.

Personally, I did enjoy these cookies, and I love cardamom. But I will suggest to anyone who views the recipe to cut down on the amount of cardamom by half. My cardamom was from Penzey's and was fresh. So the flavor was strong. I would imagine that most people would appreciate it in lesser amounts.

Finally, were the Santa's Whiskers, which also came from the Land O' Lakes site. I changed the recipe by using dried cherries instead of the candied ones. I also lowered the amount of coconut to 2 cups and instead of rolling the dough in the coconut so it would only be on the outside edges (the whiskers), I combined it with the dough.

The Santa's Whiskers were good, but not great. I suppose that the candied cherries would have made them look more festive, but I preferred the dried fruit instead.

In the end, I was pleased with my cookie assortment, as were the recipients. Christmas was great. And the gifts were wonderful. That will be a separate post.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Chocolate Mint Cookie Drops

Okay, time is running out to get all of our Christmas-cookie baking done. But in case you are still looking for something festive, easy, and yummy, I'm posting this now.

This recipe is from the Land O Lakes Web site. Click here to see it. I made one slight modification. I added 1/2 teaspoon mint extract to the dough. Then, the chips I put on top were mint-flavored. I got them at Ocean State Job Lot just yesterday.

They are made by Nestle and they are pretty tasty too. In fact, they exceeded my expectations.

Other than adding the mint extract, I followed the directions exactly. But I do have two recommendations:

  1. Make them a little on the small side. They tend to be more plump that way.
  2. Undercook them just slightly. They are done when they begin to crack.

This batch was neither undercooked nor overcooked:

Oh, and one last thing...

if you can enjoy them warm, they are the best! Just look at that melted morsel on the top of my cookie! That was a treat indeed!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Almond-Cardamom Christmas Cookies

Every year I make a small assortment of Christmas cookies for friends and family. Now that I'm home again, I have just enough time to make some before Christmas!

My first cookie this year is one that I found on
Recipezarr and was posted by a member named Bergy. I'm so happy I found it because it is such an awesome recipe. It melts in your mouth from all the delicious butter, yet has a crunch from the almonds. It's perfectly sweet too, and has one of my favorite flavors - cardamom! But I will warn you, if you don't absolutely love cardamom, or if you like it more subtle, you may want to cut the amount in half.

I tried different patterns for the top of the cookie, but the one pictured at the top is my favorite, and it's perhaps the easiest one to do! Other things I tried were arrangements of three almond slices, four almond slices, just one big almond slice, and even mini chocolate chips.

The one slice was elegant, but there were very few large slices in the bag that would do the trick.

Oh, and another wonderful little feature of this cookie is that it can be stored for months in the freezer in a plastic container - not that they would ever last that long!

Almond-Cardamom Christmas Cookies

12 tablespoons powdered sugar
10 teaspoons ground cardamom (whichever amount - it will be separated) *
1 1/2 cups salted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
4 cups flour
1 cup sliced almonds
sliced almonds for garnish
1 egg (or just the white) to adhere the garnishes

* Some people may want to consider cutting the cardamom in half. I love cardamom, but I will admit that it was strong in this amount.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Mix together the powdered sugar and 6 teaspoons of cardamom in a small bowl. Set it aside.

Cream the butter and sugar, and the remaining 4 teaspoons of the cardamom in a large bowl. Add the flour by cupfuls until it is completely blended. Then stir in the almonds by hand.

Grab a heaping tablespoon of the dough at a time and roll each piece into a ball. Drop it into the powdered sugar and cardamom and toss it around until it is coated.

Place each cookie on a greased cookie sheet (or one lined with a Silpat silicone sheet) and press gently with something flat (I used a measuring cup) until the cookie below is about 1/2 inch thick. Once flattened, the cookies should be 1/2 inch apart on the cookie sheet.

Use egg wash to adhere the almonds on top. Truth be told, I used Just Whites because I had it in the fridge.

Bake for 14-15 minutes, until beginning to brown around the edges.

Don't try to remove the cookies from the cookie sheet until they have cooled somewhat. Otherwise, you would risk having them crumble apart, and that would be a shame.

Makes 50 cookies.

Almond-Cardamom Christmas Cookies

Every year I make a small assortment of Christmas cookies ...

See Almond-Cardamom Christmas Cookies on Key Ingredient.

Fruitcake Wishes and Gingerbread Homes of Old Sturbridge Village

Let me begin this post by saying that I am no longer homeless! Yippee!!!!!! We fortunately had our power restored late on Friday and moved back into our home that night. It's so good to be home.

Late on Friday night, we got a snowstorm too and got about 10" of fresh powder. It hasn't stopped since. And now we are beginning a new storm that will bring another 10 inches of snow.

During our period of refuge, we visited our friends, Karen and Todd. Karen had just discovered the King Arthur Flour catalog and she and I ordered several items that were delivered to her home. So yesterday I went to pick up my fruit cake kit:

I am looking forward to making it. Then, I'd also like to make one from scratch and compare them. But that's a lot of fruitcake, and other than myself, I don't think anyone else will eat it! So I'm totally indecisive about which to make first.

Before I left Karen and Todd's to head back home, they invited me to Old Sturbridge Village. The village is a living history museum - buildings represent those of the time, volunteers dress in period costumes and demonstrate crafts, careers, and life during the years of 1790-1840.

It's hard to believe that in all my years in New England (about 20 years), I've never been there! I was going to spend the day making Christmas cookies, but I ditched my plans and jumped at the opportunity. And I'm so glad I did.

Todd sings with the Worcester Men of Song who were performing that night at the village. After watching the performance, we ventured out into the village. It was still snowing lightly and there was a real winter wonderland before our eyes.

There were sleigh rides around the village common:

But the best part for me was the gingerbread house competition taking place in one of the buildings.

Some of the entries were representations of the buildings of Old Sturbridge Village:

I was fascinated with the gingerbread houses. They are so beautiful and I can only imagine how much work some of them were. I applaud all the contest entrants!!!

There were other food-related demonstrations also.

In one house, we got to sample the cider, which I very much enjoyed. They added spices like cloves and cinnamon, and then they would put a red-hot poker that had been sitting directly on a fire into the metal bucket of cider. The sugars in the cider instantly caramelize and make the most marvelous flavor.

In another house there was a demonstration of Christmas dessert-making techniques and ingredients. The woman volunteering was making waffle-cones. She had a batter which she would butter and then pour onto an iron that had been sitting directly on the fire heating up. Within a few seconds the cone was ready to be removed from the iron and wrapped. She would then fill them with cream that had been whipped using a whisk made of small twigs tied together with string. You can see the cones in the background of the following picture. They are behind the sugar plums (which look like rum balls).

It was a great time. But today I must get back to the cookie making!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

I'm homeless! (pics included)

Well, folks, we are homeless. Seriously. We had the worst ice storm ever and evacuated yesterday morning.

It began in the afternoon on Thursday. We all went home from school. Then, around 8:00 pm the power went out. We took out our heaviest down blanket and burrowed in for the night. But sleep was not easy. Every few minutes we heard a tree snap and break and fall to the ground. The ice made it especially noisy, and it sounded like a war was going on around us. Joe was worried about a tree coming in through the roof. I'm happy to say that didn't happen.

We had a transistor radio which came in real handy in the morning for me. I wake up at 5 and it's pitch-black out. So I found a local station and listened till I could find out my school was closed.

When daylight came, we could see just how bad it was, so we decided to try to leave. Trees were down everywhere and we saw a neighbor from the other side of the neighborhood seeming to be looking for an exit in his truck. Not a good sign.

Joe ventured out and found an escape route out of the immediate area. Good enough to decide to risk it and try to leave. En route out of the neighborhood, we saw a neighbor who is a part time police officer in town. He said he heard it may be weeks before we get the power back in our area.

This was the road we took to get out of our neighborhood. The other one was impassable.

These pics are the main road that gets you near the highway. We were in a little caravan of large vehicles. Luckily, Joe has a 4-wheel drive truck. Between the truck and a whole lot of desperation we made it through 15 miles of this to a safer place.

Once we got to the highway we were free and made it to the first open gas station, filled up, and continued south.

So we are staying with some very generous friends about one and 3/4 hours from our home. They have an efficiency apartment above their garage. I am so grateful and feel so fortunate to have this to escape to.

I'm spending time wondering how long it will be before my school has power and I'll either also have power at home, or I'll have to drive 2 hours to work. Only time will tell!