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La Petite Maison Verte

La Petite Maison Verte: December 2011

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Happy Birthday to Me!

Even though today is my 28th Birthday, Brian and I celebrated it over the weekend.  On Saturday, my hubby cooked me a three course dinner paying tribute to squash.  Let me explain...

For the last 2 or 3 years worth of our birthdays, we have celebrated Iron Chef style.  Here's how it goes:  the birthday boy or girl gets to name a "secret ingredient" and the other person makes a special meal using that ingredient, but the actual dish is a surprise until it is served - a la Iron Chef.  We do things a little differently than the TV show though (ya know, since neither one of us has any professional training,  sous chefs, or a fully stocked grocery store in our kitchen).  First, we allow more than just one hour to prepare the meal.  Some days I can barely get a "regular" dinner on the table in an hour or less, let alone a special birthday dinner, so we can take as long as we need.  Second, the one celebrating their birthday tries to give "the Chef" about a week's notice on their choice of "secret ingredient" so the Chef can come up with a meal plan and pick up the necessary items from the grocery store.  And last, there is no requirement on number of courses to be served and no judging, just enjoying!

This year, Brian took our little Birthday Secret Ingredient Challenge to a whole other level!  He planned and executed three elegant courses that showcased my choice of ingredient and elevated it to something worthy of a more prestigious title than simply "squash".  Not only did he plan and cook, but he printed out a menu, set the table, lit candles and had jazzy Christmas music playing in the background.  All I know is, I better bring my A-Game for his birthday next year!

The Menu

The First Course was the most divine soup I have ever tasted.  Brian roasted butternut squash and then pureed it with vegetable stock, cream, ginger and honey (and probably a few other things).  He topped it with a delicate swirl of sour cream and a dusting of fresh thyme.  Wow, totally blew me away!  I could have been satisfied with just the soup but there was more...

To my delight, the Second Course highlighted three more kinds of squash!  Brian roasted acorn squash and mashed it to serve as a bed for a pan-seared chicken breast.  Then he assembled a trio of julienned summer squash, zucchini and carrots which he sauteed and as a side dish he created an Herbed Quinoa Pilaf with Leeks.  I loved the sage and thyme in the quinoa as they complimented the nuttiness of the roasted acorn squash and the earthiness of the summer squash, zucchini and carrot trio.

On to dessert and Brian wowed me again!  He managed to incorporate yet another species within the Cucurbita genus (at the bottom of the menu Brian prepared, he even gave some scientific information and history the squash, similar to the commentary provided by Alton Brown during each episode of Iron Chef).  We ended the meal with a delicious homemade pumpkin roll with cream cheese filling that he served with some decaf (pumpkin spice) coffee.

I couldn't believe the amount of thought and level of detail that Brian went into in order to make such a special, elegant and delicious meal.  It was definitely one of the best birthdays I've ever had, and if it's any indication of how the rest of my 28th (or is it 29th?) year is going to look, I am in for a great year!

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Thursday, December 1, 2011

Christmas Cookies: Jam Thumbprints

It's December 1st so I guess I can officially start posting about Christmas!  (I just made that rule up right now, by the way).  Apparently, my thermostat also knew it was the first day of December because when I got up this morning it registered 49 degrees and all morning has been hovering around 54 degrees F!  I can see eyes rolling in Maryland, New York and Massachusetts.  But this is FLORIDA, people!!!  (Colleen, at least you get me, right?!)

Well, I wish I could say it was the calendar or the thermostat that forced me to start baking, but really it was just that I've had this recipe bookmarked for a while and I was dying to give them a try.  And honestly, what better excuse is there than making Christmas Cookies?!!

These do require a little bit lot of patience:  you have to make the dough and then let it chill out in the fridge for a few hours or overnight, and forming the powdery cookie dough into balls and then rolling in egg whites and chopped nuts is not for the faint-hearted cookie-maker (Talking to you, Mom.  I know you won't take offense to that!) BUT they are Oh-So-Worth-It!  Buttery, delicate shortbread, sweet and tart jam or lemon curd and crunchy, toasty nuts.  These are Christmas Cookies at their finest, a perfect addition to a Holiday Cookie Tray or sweet homemade holiday gift.  Of course, I am not suggesting you should only make these around the holidays, they would be perfect with a cup of tea or served as a light dessert to company any time of the year.  Did I mention what a great gift they would make?  I certainly wouldn't mind getting a tin full of these babies for Christmas (hint, hint)....

You can take some liberties with this recipe too, as I did.  The original recipe called for walnuts but I had pecans, so I used those.  Just make sure they are very finely chopped so they stick to the cookie dough.  And you can be creative with the filling too, I filled half of my cookies with strawberry jam and the other half with lemon curd (both were DELICIOUS!), and I think raspberry jam or even apricot preserves would be lovely.  Or what about orange marmalade?  I think you could even use something like melted caramels or melted chocolate for an even more decadent treat...just a suggestion.

Jam Thumbprints
makes 18 cookies
original recipe from the Better Homes and Garden Cookbook, as found here

2/3 cup butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
2 eggs, whites and yolks divided
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 cup finely chopped pecans (or walnuts)
1/2 cup cookie filling of choice:  jam, preserves, lemon curd, melted caramel or chocolate (I filled half of the cookies with strawberry jam and the other half with lemon curd)

Beat butter with an electric mixer on medium speed for 30 seconds.  Then, add the sugar and cream them together until light and fluffy.  Beat in both egg yolks and vanilla until combined.  Add in flour and stir, just until combined (you may have to work the last bit in by hand, as the dough will be rather dense,  powdery and dry).  Turn the cookie dough out onto a large piece of plastic wrap and form it into a large ball, wrapping the dough tightly with the plastic wrap.  Chill dough ball in the refrigerator for several hours or overnight.

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.  If your dough is very hard to work with (i.e. too cold and crumbly), allow it to sit out at room temperature for about 15-20 minutes to soften before forming into balls.  (See note, below)  Shape the dough into small balls, about 1- 1 1/2 inch in diameter, then roll the ball in the egg whites, followed by the chopped nuts.

Place the cookies at least 1 inch apart on the lined cookie sheet.  Press your thumb (or the back of a teaspoon) into the tops of the cookies to leave a slight dip in the center.  Spoon the jam or curd into the little wells you have formed in the cookies (alternately, you can wait and fill the cookies after baking, once the cookies have cooled - perhaps this would be best for the melted caramel or chocolate option).

Bake cookies for 10-13 minutes, until edges are lightly browned.  Transfer to a wire rack and cool.  Fill indented centers with jam/filling if you haven't already done so.

Julia's note:  I left my dough in the refrigerator overnight.  When I took it out the next day it was very hard and I did not wait for it to warm up before I started forming it into cookie balls.  The first few balls I made were very crumbly and kept falling apart, then they broke up when I baked them.  The cookies I formed after the dough had been sitting out about 15 minutes were much easier to form and they stayed intact during baking!  You have been warned :-)  Also, I filled my cookies before baking.  As I noted above, if you decide to try filling your cookies with something really melty/oozy like chocolate or caramel you may want to wait to fill them until they have come out of the oven.

Do you bake Christmas Cookies?  What are your favorite kinds to give and get?

My Grandma has made christmas cookies every year that I can remember:  Lots of different kinds of German cookies:  spritzgebaack cookies, sacher tortes, frosted gingerbread cookies, vanille kipferl....some are dipped in chocolate, some have sprinkles or colored sugar crystals, others are dusted with powdered sugar.  They are my favorite Christmas present every year because I know how many hours days it takes her to bake them all, it just wouldn't be Christmas without them!

 P.S.  By special request, I'll be sharing my regular feature, my weekend recap...just a little later in the week than usual.  Stay tuned...