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 GratinAdapted from Emeril LagasseMakes 12 servings.Ingredients:2 bay leaves1 yellow onion, peeled and cut in half6 whole cloves
6 cups milk1 large head cauliflower
, rinsed and cut into florets1 large head broccoli, rinsed and cut into florets10 tbsp butter
, divided4 tbsp minced shallots4 tsp minced garlic6 tbsp flourPinch freshly ground nutmeg1 cup freshly grated Gruyere1 cup coarse breadcrumbs 1 tsp salt1/2 tsp white pepper4 tsp fresh parsley, roughly choppedInstructions:
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!
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:
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 LightMakes 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
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 LightMakes 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 SpecialsMakes 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
, 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
, and you have just started your morning off right. I promise.
I have achieved biscotti perfection. A bold statement, I am aware. I would invite you to come over and taste for yourself, but there isn't any biscotti left. I'm sorry. If you have to blame someone, blame my fourteen year old brother. (This is a good strategy for a variety of problems.)
The cranberry-pistachio biscotti from last week was delicious and festive. But in my mind, one of the most classic autumn/winter flavors is pumpkin. And pumpkin + baked goods = good for you! This is what I tell myself; do not try to dissuade me.
Recipe for Pumpkin Biscotti
(Adapted from Dessert for Two
)Makes about 24 cookies.Ingredients:
2 large eggs1 cup sugar1 tsp baking powder1/4 cup pumpkin puree1/4 cup olive oil1 tsp cinnamon1/2 tsp nutmegpinch of gingerpinch of cloves1/4 tsp salt1/2 tbsp vanilla2-1/2 cups flour1/4 cup + 2 tbsp pepitas (pumpkin seeds)1 12-oz. bag white chocolate chips (I used Ghiradelli--it really never disappoints.)Instructions:
Preheat the oven to 350 and line two baking sheets with parchment paper. In a medium bowl, beat eggs, sugar and baking powder vigorously with a whisk for about two to three minutes.
Add pumpkin puree, olive oil, spices, and vanilla. Whisk vigorously again.Sprinkle flour on top and mix in with a spatula.
Fold in the pepitas.With wet fingers, divide the dough in half and shape it into two flat logs, one on each prepared baking sheet.
Bake for about 35 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean.Remove from oven and let rest for at least 15 minutes.
Cut into half-inch slices and bake for another 30 minutes at 300 degrees, flipping the slices over halfway through.Cool completely. Melt white chocolate in 15-second bursts in the microwave, stirring after each time. Dip one side of the biscotti in the chocolate; for a festive addition, dip again into colored sprinkles.