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:
Two things. First, you'll notice that I'm posting a savory recipe. I know, right? I told you I eat vegetables . . . Second, I made this casserole for Mother's Day. So yes, it has been that long since I've posted anything. I've been busy.
Recipe for Swiss Chard, White Bean & Sweet Potato Gratin
Adapted from Eats Well with Others
Makes approximately 6 side-dish servings.

1 tbsp olive oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 bunches swiss chard, stems and leaves cut into one-inch pieces
2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp flour
2 cups milk
2 cloves garlic, crushed
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 large sweet potato, peeled and sliced 1/8th of an inch thick
1 can white beans, drained and rinsed
1 cup coarsely shredded gruyere

Heat olive oil in heavy skillet on medium high heat. Sauté onion until translucent, 3-5 minutes. Add chard, sprinkle with salt, and cook until chard wilts and no more moisture is in the pan. Transfer to a bowl.

Add butter and flour to skillet and whisk together to form a paste. Whisk in milk, add garlic and bring to a simmer. Boil 2 minutes, whisking. Season with salt and pepper. Remove from heat.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Spray a square baking dish with non-stick cooking spray. Spread half the sweet potatoes along the bottom of the dish. Top with half the beans, salt and pepper, half the greens mixture, half the cheese, and half the sauce. Add another layer of sweet potatoes, beans, greens, sauce, and top with cheese. 

Cover with tin foil and bake for 45 minutes. Remove foil and bake another 15 minutes, until golden brown and bubbly. Let stand 15 minutes before serving.

First of all, let me apologize for the poor photo quality. It was nighttime, and my father's birthday, so I didn't want to make a fuss about taking cake pictures before the man got to eat.

Over it? So am I. Moving on. My dad's all-time favorite dessert is carrot cake, and since I'm finally in town for his birthday, I got to make him one from scratch! It turned out really well--the right texture (thanks to the carrots, walnuts, golden raisins, coconut, and crushed pineapple) and the right amount of sweetness, thanks to the cream cheese frosting. Honestly, there could have been more frosting in my book. But I always want more frosting. So maybe that's just me.

While the coconut paired well with the carrots in terms of texture, it didn't add much in terms of flavor. There was general agreement that the amount of coconut should be increased for next time. If you do end up adding extra, let me know how it turns out!

Mmm, frosting . . .
Recipe for Carrot Cake
Slightly adapted from Simply Scratch
Makes 2 9-inch cakes (for one layer cake).

2 cups all-purpose flour
2-1/2 tsp baking powder
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp nutmeg
3/4 cup butter, softened
1-1/2 cups sugar
3 eggs
1/2 cup whole milk
2 cups grated carrots (I used two jumbo-sized carrots)
1 cup shredded coconut
3/4 cup chopped walnuts
1 cup golden raisins
1 8-oz. can crushed pineapple

1 8-oz. package cream cheese, softened
1/4 cup butter, softened
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 16-oz. package powdered sugar

For the Cake:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Butter two 9-inch cake pans and line bottoms with parchment paper.

Whisk flour, baking powder, cinnamon and nutmeg until combined. Set aside.

Beat butter and sugar together in a large bowl with an electric mixer on medium speed until light and fluffy. Add eggs, one and a time, and mix well. *Alternating,* add flour mixture and milk, beating well after each addition. Mix in carrots, coconut, pineapple, raisins, and walnuts; mix well. Pour evenly into prepared pans.

Bake for 35 minutes or until toothpick inserted into center comes out clean. Cool in pans 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from pans and cool completely on wire racks.

For the Frosting:
With an electric mixer, beat cream cheese, butter and vanilla in a medium bowl until well combined. Gradually sift in powdered sugar, beating well after each addition.

To assemble, remove parchment paper and place one layer upside down on a serving platter and spread a layer of frosting. Cover with remaining cake layer (upside down), remove parchment paper, and spread top and sides of cake with remaining frosting.

Store in the refrigerator.
This may sound slightly off-topic, but I love salad bars. I like my salads light on the lettuce and heavy on the toppings--carrots, mushrooms, roasted beets, feta cheese, cherry tomatoes, sunflower seeds, hard-boiled egg . . . You get the idea. And this is relevant because? I like my cookies the same way. While I can appreciate a soft sugar cookie as much as the next person, what I really love is a cookie that has it all. And these cookies, dear reader, have it all. "Everything but the kitchen sink," as they say.

I used pastel M&M's, which gave them a very festive look just in time for Easter. Not that these cookies made it anywhere near next Sunday. I had to hide four of them just so I would have enough to photograph the next day.
Recipe for Kitchen Sink Cookies
Adapted from Bakergirl
Makes 26-30 cookies.

1-1/3 cups flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup oats
1/3 cup sweetened shredded coconut
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 egg
1-1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup M&Ms
2/3 cup white chocolate chips
2/3 cup raisins
1/3 cup pecans, roughly chopped

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Line three baking sheets with parchment paper. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour and following five ingredients, through coconut.

In a large bowl, beat sugars and butter until combined, about one minute. Add egg and vanilla extract. Slowly beat in the dry ingredients. With a rubber spatula, fold in the remaining ingredients (M&Ms, white chocolate chips, raisins, and pecans).

Roll the cookie dough into 1-inch balls (or slightly larger). Place on prepared baking sheets and bake 10 minutes on the middle rack, one batch at a time.
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.
2 large eggs
1 cup sugar
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 cup pumpkin puree
1/4 cup olive oil
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg
pinch of ginger
pinch of cloves
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tbsp vanilla
2-1/2 cups flour
1/4 cup + 2 tbsp pepitas (pumpkin seeds)
1 12-oz. bag white chocolate chips (I used Ghiradelli--it really never disappoints.)

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.
Welcome to my two-part holiday post on biscotti.

When it comes to cookies, biscotti ranks pretty low in my book, somewhere between vanilla wafers and those bizarre bacon-flavored cookies that are so popular in the foodie world right now. When I think about a store-bought (or more commonly Starbucks-bought) piece of biscotti, I think dry, jawbreaker-style cookie with the texture of sandpaper. Having become an occasional coffee drinker over the past few years, I can better understand their appeal with a nice espresso or latté, but not enough to really want to crunch into one in place of a piece of pumpkin bread or cranberry bar.

Now that I've completely turned you off of ever eating one of these things again, let me reign you back in. Here's the secret: Homemade biscotti is a totally different breed of cookie. It has just the right crunch without being too tough, and is anything but dry. Plus, you can decide what you want in it and control (read: go out of control with) the amount of chocolate drizzle or dip being used.

And the holiday bonus: Biscotti is a perfect gift! Wrap a few pieces up in a plastic cellophane bag, tie a pretty bow on it, and pair it with a nice bag of coffee for an excellent, affordable present.
Cranberry-Pistachio Biscotti with White Chocolate
Adapted from Diamonds for Dessert

1/4 cup olive oil
3/4 cup sugar
2 tsp vanilla extract
2 eggs
1-3/4 cups flour
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1 cup pistachios
6 oz. white chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 300 degrees F. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, combine olive oil and sugar. Add vanilla and eggs. In a separate bowl, mix together dry ingredients. Add dry ingredients into wet and stir until no streaks of flour remain. Fold in cranberries and pistachios.

With wet hands, divide dough into two equal portions and form into logs roughly the length of the cookie sheet. Bake for 35 minutes. Remove from oven and cool for 10 minutes.

Lower oven temperature to 275 degrees F. With a serrated knife, the logs into half-inch slices. Toast in the oven for 8-10 minutes, flipping once. Cool completely.

In a shallow bowl, melt white chocolate in the microwave in 15-second intervals, stirring well after each one. Be very careful not to scorch the chocolate. Dip one side of the cooled slices in the chocolate.

Yeah, muffins again. I know. Inappropriate for recipe #3 on my blog when recipe #1 was also for muffins. But this recipe for Cranberry Pumpkin Bran muffins is so delicious and so non-bran-muffiny that I just have to share it.

The second issue with this whole situation is that I haven't taken any pictures at all of my beautiful muffins and their white chocolate glaze. If you want to get an idea of what they look like, click here. I combined Sydney's recipe from Crepes of Wrath with my bran muffin recipe (which you might find is raaaather similar to the recipe for bran muffins on the back of a Kellog's cereal box--whatever) to make this latest creation. Also, a note about the Crepes of Wrath blog: I love it. I click on several Foodgawker pictures each week that look good to me, and often they end up being from her site. And the most exciting part about the whole thing is that Sydney and I actually have a mutual friend! My best friend from college, Katie, rowed with her on their high school crew team. Small world. Since I don't have muffin pictures to show you, here's a picture of Katie and me at our holiday party senior year of college:
Recipe for Cranberry Pumpkin Bran Muffins

3 cups Kellog's All Bran cereal
1/2 cup boiling water
1/2 cup oil
2 cups sugar
3 eggs, beaten
2 cups lowfat buttermilk
2-1/2 cups flour
1-1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1/4 tsp ground ginger
1 can pumpkin puree (not pumpkin pie filling!)
zest of 1 orange
1/2 of one 12 oz. package fresh cranberries, rinsed and patted dry
1 tbsp flour
8 oz. white chocolate, for drizzling (I used white chocolate chips)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

In a small bowl, combine 1 cup cereal with 1/2 cup boiling water. Add in oil and stir. Set aside.

In a medium bowl, combine flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger. Stir with whisk until combined and set aside.

In a large bowl, mix rest of cereal with sugar, eggs, and buttermilk. Add bran/oil mixture, pumpkin puree and orange zest; stir to combine. Mix in dry ingredients and stir just until fully incorporated.

In a small bowl, combine cranberries with 1 tbsp flour. Toss gently to coat. (This prevents berries from sinking to the bottom of the muffins.) Fold into batter.

Bake in lined muffin tins for approximately 20 minutes. I made a combination of 12 regular-sized muffins, 12 mini muffins, and 4 mini loaves.

For drizzle: Melt white chocolate in microwave in 30 second intervals, stirring after each cycle. When chocolate is melted, transfer to plastic bag and cut a hole in the corner. Drizzle over completely cooled muffins, and enjoy!