Living in Guizhou is great for a lot of things--improving my Chinese, for example, or going on hikes with a local SWAT team, or getting a serious education in Buyi ethnic culture. Food-wise, if you love spicy eggplant, sticky rice, duck soup, or breakfast noodles (and ohmigosh do I), then really there's nowhere better.

But sometimes, even the most open-minded and open-mouthed of us get homesick. And food can play a big role in that. When I'm in the US and I get a craving for some thin crust pizza or some Ben and Jerry's, well, most of the time I talk myself out of it. But sometimes, of course, I indulge. And it's nice to have that option. Because when I'm in rural China and a craving like that strikes, it just acts as another reminder of the fact that I am really, really far away from home. And the Whole Foods salad bar. (Which is actually my favorite food.)

It was so good to be home. And the holidays this year were the best. My only complaint is that they passed far too quickly for me to fully take in the magical, sparkly feelings of Christmas and New Year's before they were gone. But let's be serious . . . No amount of time is ever enough for that. 

And now, my fair readers, I have an announcement. 

(No, I am not engaged. But I did pick out a ring while I was home! Eek!)

I have officially upgraded from the camera on an iPhone 4S to a Canon Rebel T3. Quite an upgrade indeed. Thanks, mom and dad, for the incredible birthday present!
The Christmas Day meal in my family is all about tradition. All of the dishes come straight out of my grandmother's kitchen exactly the way they have for the last fifty years: crab meat spaghetti, a rhubarb jello mold, strawberry quick bread, a German Stollen, and a smoked turkey and a honey ham.
Oma asks us every year if we're sure we don't want to update the menu, but the answer's always no. The only thing that's changed is the classic canned-soup-green-bean-casserole. For the past few years, I've been charged with vegetable casserole duty. This year, I chose Emeril's Cauliflower Gratin. The only change I made was to use broccoli in place of half the cauliflower. Since I was serving a big group, I also doubled the original recipe. My casserole is the second one from the left. (The first is that crab meat spaghetti--bring on the Velveeta and cream of mushroom soup! Mmm.)

I love the way the onion, bay leaves and cloves are used to infuse the milk with flavor. This recipe was a keeper!

Recipe for Broccoli Cauliflower Gratin
Adapted from Emeril Lagasse
Makes 12 servings.

2 bay leaves
1 yellow onion, peeled and cut in half
6 whole cloves
6 cups milk
1 large head cauliflower, rinsed and cut into florets
1 large head broccoli, rinsed and cut into florets
10 tbsp butter, divided
4 tbsp minced shallots
4 tsp minced garlic
6 tbsp flour
Pinch freshly ground nutmeg
1 cup freshly grated Gruyere
1 cup coarse breadcrumbs
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp white pepper
4 tsp fresh parsley, roughly chopped

Lay the bay leaves over the cut sides of the onion and poke 3 cloves through each to secure leaves to onion. Put the onion halves in a 2-quart saucepan and pour the milk over them. Over medium heat, bring to a gentle simmer. Cook--do not boil--for ten minutes. Remove from heat and strain through a fine mesh sieve. Set aside until ready to use.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Steam the cauliflower until just tender, 10 minutes. Halfway through, add the broccoli. Arrange florets in a shallow casserole dish and set aside while you make the sauce.

In a saucepan, melt 6 tbsp butter. Add the shallots and garlic and saute until fragrant, 1 minute. Add the flour to the pan and stir with a wooden spoon to form a blonde roux. Do not allow mixture to brown. Add the simmered, strained milk and whisk till smooth. Increase the heat and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and continue to simmer for ten minutes or until thick, smooth and creamy. Remove pan from heat and add the Gruyere and nutmeg; stir until cheese has melted. Emeril recommends that you strain the sauce, but I left mine as is. Pour strained or un-strained sauce evenly over florets. Melt the remaining 4 tbsp butter in a saucepan and add breadcrumbs. Toss well to coat. Sprinkle with the salt and pepper and add the chopped parsley. Sprinkle breadcrumbs evenly over casserole and bake until golden and bubbly, 30-45 minutes.
When I came to China back in April to decide if Libo was for me, I had a chance to go to Shanghai and visit my friend Sarah. She promised that if I were in China over Thanksgiving, we could have a dinner party at her apartment (but only if I did the cooking!). And as I packed my suitcases to come over in August, I remembered that promise and included cans of pumpkin, cranberry sauce, a box of cornbread mix, and a few other odds and ends, all of which came in handy last weekend.

I had never been to Sarah's apartment before, and I was truly awe-struck when I entered it for the first time last Friday. It is on the thirty-fifth floor of one of the "Skyline Mansions," and is situated directly across from the Shanghai World Financial Center (the tallest free-standing building in China and 9th tallest in the world). It's all hardwood floors and modern, tasteful furniture. There's a lily pond and fountain in the living room, and priceless pieces of art adorn the walls. The kitchen was more than suitable to my needs, as it had an oven and three gas burners. Sarah does not cook, though, and the contents of the kitchen cabinets reflected that. When I took a pre-shopping inventory, I discovered quirky assortment of gadgets, like a tool for peeling and sectioning a grapefruit in one motion, a set of colorful silicon potholders, an immersion blender still in the original packaging, and a display drawer full of German spices that were long expired and "just for show." Mysteriously absent, however, were any oven-proof dishware, mixing bowls, measuring spoons, or typical kitchen stand-bys like butter or flour.

I spent all day on Friday making preparations for Saturday's dinner while Sarah was at work. The IFC supermarket had nearly everything a foreigner could dream of: imported dairy products, muffin tins, Betty Crocker cake mixes, frozen pizzas, and Le Creuset cookware. The only things I couldn't find were pre-made pie crusts and corn syrup, both of which I could live without, despite that one of my arch-nemeses of cooking is any recipe that requires cutting butter into flour. (A few others include recipes that involve browning butter or candy thermometers.)

I bought two huge bags' worth of groceries and walked the several long city blocks back to Sarah's apartment to finally get into some real cooking. The first thing I did was make the box of cornbread to have it ready for the stuffing the next day. Then I made the pie crusts and the mashed potatoes. By seven o'clock, I was finished and had time to get ready before hitting the clubs with a few friends in town.

The nightlife in Shanghai is so good that it was impossible to return to Sarah's apartment any earlier than 3:30 am, which meant that an early morning of cooking was tougher than I would have liked. But thanks to a latte the Starbucks around the corner, I was able to soothe my aching head and launch into a frenzied few hours of cooking so that I could have the oven free for Chris's turkey, which was scheduled to arrive mid-afternoon.

Somehow, I managed to get it all done, and the meal was as authentic as could be. Sarah invited eight friends over, and the night really couldn't have gone any better. Everyone loved the food, although the three-year-old Chinese boy insisted on having dumplings with his turkey. Spending Thanksgiving away from home was tough, but I definitely made the best of it!
With Sarah:
And, I know you were wondering... Here are the pictures of the food! Click on a photo to for a link to the recipe. (Except for the pumpkin pie. That recipe's super secret and belongs to my friend Dan's aunt. I was only given it in the strictest confidence.)
No recipe for this one yet... This was all my friend Chris Lu's work! He used Sichuan peppers in the rub and agave nectar on the skin and it was one of the BEST turkeys I have ever had. When I have the recipe, I will definitely share it!
Relaxing with my new little friend after a great meal:
Big Mountain's daughter turned six last week, so I of course made her a birthday cake! You can read more about the story of her birthday here. I'm sharing the recipe with you just in case you have similar ingredient constraints (maybe you're baking in rural Panama, I don't know!) or maybe you're opposed to butter (I'm sorry) for health reasons. The cake is really good, for what it is. But it doesn't compare to, say, my Classic Yellow Cake with Chocolate Malt Frosting.

Putting the second layer on:
The cake recipe I used is from Seasoned to Taste. It's really simple and it doesn't call for any exotic ingredients. The only thing I did differently was to chop up a bar of white chocolate and add it to the batter instead of adding orange zest.

To form the smaller second tier, I simply halved the recipe and used a smaller pan.

The frosting is Betty Crocker chocolate. It was actually pretty good, although as you probably are aware I'd much rather have made my own.

The finished product:
Miracle of miracles, I now have access to an oven in China! Granted it fits on a counter top and looks more like an oversize toaster than anything else, but it works! And last week, I baked Big Mountain a cake for his birthday. (The oven is his, by the way. Purchased in my honor.)

This cake doesn't look very pretty, but that's partially due to the fact that I took the pictures at night with fluorescent lighting, and partially due to the fact that the original recipe calls for blood oranges (pretty) and I used regular oranges (not as pretty). That said, the cake is delicious! It's not too sweet (though my Chinese family still complained that it was) and it's very, very moist.

Baking in China is an experience. I didn't bring any 'tools' with me besides my measuring cups, so I used chopsticks in place of a whisk or fork . . .
This is what happens when you ask a five year old to take your picture:
Big Mountain's birthday dinner was a FEAST! He of course cooked it himself (can't trust someone else with that job!) and every dish was incredible. There were stir fries of every variation--beef and onion, spinach and egg, bamboo and ground pork, spicy carrots and tofu--along with steamed squash, panko fried fish, and homemade sausage.
And then, of course, there was cake!
Even though he claimed it was too sweet, that didn't stop Big Mountain for going in for seconds . . .
For the recipe I used to make this cake, check out The Quinces and the Pea (a great blog that I've cooked from more than once!). You won't be sorry!
Also for Matt's birthday, I made a cake! (Duh.) Back in May, we went to his family's house on Lake Erie for a few days. One stormy evening, we huddled on the porch with blankets and glasses of limoncello to ward off the chill and watched the rain fall. In light of that fond memory, I decided to search for a cake recipe with limoncello in it.

This one from Jane's Sweets is what I ultimately decided on:

She makes small cakes in a mini bundt pan, which is an adorable idea if you have a mini bundt pan lying around. All I had at my disposal was my grandmother's heavy but beautiful bundt pan, which is not nonstick. With Crisco slathered on every inch and a healthy dose of cooking spray for good measure, I managed to get the cake out of the pan without a hitch. It was a gamble, though.
Jane's recipe is a great alternative to a traditional pound cake, as it halves the amount of butter from the requisite pound (four sticks, omg) and replaces it with yogurt. The cake is still plenty rich, and the best part is that slight crunch of a powdered sugar glaze around the edges, anyway.

I served it with a large batch of homemade whipped cream. I'm surprised I haven't ranted more about my whipped cream snobbery, so here goes. My family does not ever buy pre-made whipped cream. If you are raised on the homemade stuff like I am, the canned version tastes like metal and aerosol. I am not being dramatic. Whipped cream is so simple to make, and it tastes so. much. better. than the store-bought kind. So how do you make it? I thought you'd never ask!

Combine one container of heavy whipping cream with enough powdered sugar to bring it to the sweetness you desire. For tangy, citrus desserts, I use more sugar; for chocolate or other rich, sweet desserts, I use less. Start out with less than you think you need (a quarter of a cup, perhaps) and add more as you go. Beat the mixture on high for 3 to 5 minutes until it reaches the desired consistency. I always make mine a little on the runny side; I like it better that way.

Next time I make this cake, I'll only pour over as much glaze as needed to cover the outside of the cake and save the rest to pour on top of each individual slice for some extra zing. My mouth is watering just thinking about it . . .
For Matt's 28th birthday (old, I know), I made one of his favorite meals . . . Meatloaf. I know the jury's still out on this old standby for a lot of people, but done right, I think it's an easy, delicious meal best served with potatoes and a smooth red wine.

For the recipe, click the Food Network link below:

When I read some of the reviews on the site, I noticed that there were some complaints that it tasted "Mexican." After making it myself, I can say that I understand where those people were coming from. I personally wouldn't necessarily complain about that fact, but next time I make this, I think I'll omit the chili powder. It lent the meatloaf a Superbowl Sunday-like flavor, and combined with the cumin in the glaze it was a bit overpowering.

To round out the meal, we had oven-baked fries and a spinach salad with grapes and feta cheese.
This pie was declared by several members of my family to be the best pie they had ever eaten; one was so bold as to say it was the best thing I'd ever baked.

Here's the secret: between the graham cracker crust and the key lime filling, there is a layer of caramel sauce and toasted pecans. Ohmygosh. It is serious, people. Seriously good.

Because I'm catching up on my posts from China and am short on time, I'm not going to rewrite the recipe here. If you want to make it (and trust me, you want to make it), just click on this link from Southern Living:

The only remark I would have about it is that I've made it twice now, and the first time was better. The only difference was that the first time I made it, I was lucky enough to score a bottle of fresh key lime juice, and managed to avoid squeezing 25 tiny key limes myself. The second time, I couldn't find the pre-made stuff, so I recruited my loving boyfriend to squeeze said limes for me. The resulting filling was, for some reason, much more bitter than the first time I made it. So word to the wise: Take the short cut on this one, and use the pre-made juice if you can find it. If not, maybe go easier on the amount of zest you use.
Sheet cakes are probably the simplest kind of cake you can make. There's no layering involved, no scary moment of truth where you discover whether or not you greased the pan well enough. They are casual cakes, begging to be taken to a school or work function, a picnic, or (in my case) a potluck dinner. Everyone will know and appreciate the fact that you made something with your own two hands, and you can smile secretly to yourself because you didn't have to work all that hard.

This sheet cake in particular was a great find for me, because I was trying to accommodate one friend who doesn't like chocolate (I know! Horrors!) and one who prefers fruit-less desserts. Not only were they pleased, but so was everyone else!
Recipe for Walnut Cake with Praline Frosting
Adapted from Cooking Light
Makes 16 servings.

For the cake:
2 cups flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
7 tbsp butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
2 large eggs
1 large egg white
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup chopped walnuts, toasted; divided
Cooking Spray

For the frosting:
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
6 tbsp milk, divided
2 tbsp butter
1 tbsp light corn syrup
Dash of salt
2 cups powdered sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

For the cake:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Spray a 9x13 inch baking pan with cooking spray. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, and salt. 

Place 7 tbsp butter, sugar, and brown sugar in a mixing bowl; beat at medium-high until light and fluffy (about 3 minutes). Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in egg white. Beat in vanilla. Add flour alternately with buttermilk, beginning and ending with flour mixture. Fold in 6 tbsp walnuts. Scrape batter into prepared pan.

Bake for 28 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool in pan on a wire rack.

For the frosting:
Place brown sugar, 1/4 cup milk, 2 tbsp butter, corn syrup, and dash of salt in a saucepan over medium-high heat; bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Cook two minutes. Scrape brown sugar mixture into a bowl. Add remaining two tbsp milk and powdered sugar; beat with mixer at high speed 2 minutes or until slightly cooled and thick. Beat in 1/2 tsp vanilla. Spread frosting in an even layer over cooled cake; sprinkle with 2 tbsp chopped walnuts. Let cake stand until frosting sets; cut into squares. 
My mom turned thirty (for several years in a row now!) on July 25th, and this was her birthday cake. It was very rich, especially with the frosting, and very lemony. And did I mention that it was also very, very tasty?
Recipe for Lemonade Layer Cake (Scroll down for frosting recipe.) 
Adapted from Cooking Light
Makes two nine-inch round cakes, or approximately 16 servings.

1-1/3 cups granulated sugar
6 tbsp butter, softened
1 tbsp grated lemon zest (about 3 medium lemons)
3 tbsp thawed lemonade concentrate
2 tsp vanilla extract
2 large eggs
2 large egg whites
2 cups flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt 
1-1/4 cups buttermilk

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease two nine-inch round baking pans. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, salt and baking soda. 

In a large bowl, beat first five ingredients (through vanilla) with a mixer at medium speed until well blended (about 5 minutes). Add eggs and egg whites one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add flour mixture and buttermilk alternately to sugar mixture, beginning and ending with flour and beating well after each addition.

Pour batter into prepared pans; sharply tap pans once on counter to remove air bubbles. Bake for 20 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool in pans for 10 minutes; remove from pans and cool on a wire rack. 

Lemonade Buttercream Frosting
Adapted from Brown Bag Specials
Makes enough frosting for one nine-inch two-layer cake or 12 cupcakes. 

3 cups confectioner's sugar
1 stick unsalted butter at room temperature
2-3 tbsp thawed lemonade concentrate

Mix all ingredients at medium speed until well combined. Spread onto cooled cake and allow frosting to set before cutting.
We have five chickens in the backyard, two of which are laying eggs right now. I get asked a lot if it's possible to actually taste a difference between our eggs and the store-bought kind, and the answer is a resounding YES! Our chickens' eggs are creamier and less 'eggy' tasting. I firmly believe that happy, healthy animals lead to happy, healthy humans, and my mother's little backyard farm is a step in the right direction.

There's no "recipe" for this; it's more like a process. I lightly toasted a piece of sourdough bread from Companion, and then topped it with thinly sliced tomatoes from the garden and shredded parmesan cheese. I then broiled the toast for a few more minutes while I fried up the egg in some butter. Top it all off with some slivers of fresh basil, salt and pepper, and you have just started your morning off right. I promise.