Tag Archives: Christmas

Onion Cheddar Beer Bread

One of the hardest parts about moving halfway across the country is making new friends in a strange city. Luckily, the Internet makes it relatively easy to find social groups, volunteer organizations, and more. Within a few weeks of moving to Austin, I started exploring the Austin MeetUp website, where I found several local women’s social groups that appeared to be filled with people I could definitely get along with. Through events these groups have sponsored, I’ve been able to explore Austin while meeting lots of funny, smart, and awesome people who have the potential to become a great group of friends.

Onion Cheddar Bread - cookie swap table

Setting the table before the guests arrive.

I’ve begun to enjoy the people in one group in particular over the past few weeks and wanted to give back by hosting my own MeetUp event for ladies in the group. I decided to host a small Christmas cookie swap for those who were interested as a chance to hang out while also getting a fun collection of holiday treats to enjoy over the coming weeks. As the host, I wanted to make sure I had some salty snacks to compliment the sweets we’d be sampling as well as a little mulled wine for everyone. With so much already on my to do list, I needed make a swap treat that had minimal steps and took little time to bake. Spending hours preparing baking sheet after sheet of cookies seemed like too daunting a task when the floor still needed to be mopped.

Onion Cheddar Bread - finished onion cheese bread

The clear choice for my dilemma was mini-loaves of quick bread. With 3 loaves of bread baked per recipe batch, it would be easy to quadruple the recipe and make the required 12 loaves of bread for the ladies to take home aftewards. I even had 12 cardboard mini loaf pans in the closet waiting to be used! It was fate. A few test runs later, I perfected this super easy, 9-ingredient, savory quick bread. It is perfect with a little butter  or cream cheese served on the side of a smooth tomato soup.

Onion Cheddar Beer Bread
(1) 9-inch loaf bread or (3) mini 4-inch loaves

1 large yellow onion, diced
2 tablespoons olive oil
5 ounces white cheddar cheese
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon sugar
12 ounce bottle nut brown ale or porter

1)     Preheat oven to 375ºF. Grease and flour a 9-inch loaf pan or 3 mini 4-inch loaf pans.

2)     Add olive oil to large heavy bottomed skillet over low-medium heat. Add diced onion and cook slowly to caramelize. While the onion is cooking, shred or roughly chop the cheddar cheese. When the onion has just begun to caramelize, about 10 minutes, remove from heat and let cool so that it doesn’t melt the cheese.

Onion Cheddar Bread - cook the onions

3)     Whisk together flours, baking powder, salt, and sugar. Stir in onions and cheddar until evenly distributed.

Onion Cheddar Bread - whisk dry ingredients

Onion Cheddar Bread - add chredded cheese

Onion Cheddar Bread - stir in onions

4)     Slowly add beer, stirring to fully combine. The final batter will be thick and you will need to spoon it into baking dish. Bake for 50 minutes for a large loaf or 30 minutes for smaller loafs. Remove from oven and cool completely before storing, airtight, in the fridge.

Onion Cheddar Bread - add the beer

Onion Cheddar Bread - add the beer 1

Onion Cheddar Bread - add the beer 2

Let’s Get Crafty: Wine Cork Christmas Wreath

It’s the weekend after Thanksgiving, and while many people are out battling each other over the latest and greatest children’s toy, I am decorating for Christmas. Growing up, the third Friday in November was always about setting up the Christmas tree, decking the mantel with garland and stockings, and hanging Christmas lights along the roof.  The third Friday of November was the start of Christmas season.

Wine Cork Wreath - finished up close

This year, I’m really excited to hang my first Christmas wreath on the front door. I know, how is it possible I’ve never had a Christmas Wreath?! As someone who loves adding meaningful personal details when decorating, I’ve always shied away from store bought wreathes so I’ve never had one for our front door. This year, though, as I was unpacking all of our moving boxes, I realized I had a lot of wine corks, and what better way to create a personalized wreath than to use wine corks from all the bottles of wine I’ve shared with friends and family.

Wine Cork Wreath - finished full doorAfter a little research, and dozens of wine cork wreath tutorials, I finally settled on a DIY tutorial from Save-on-Crafts as my base inspiration.  By adding some Christmas-like berries and a greenery center piece, I was able to take the simple wreath to the next level.

This is a simple, inexpensive craft that cost me about $15 in supplies – not including all the wine I had to drink. If you want to make your own wreath this year, but are short on corks, make friends with your local bartenders and ask them to hold corks for you and ask wineries or grocery store tasting booths (like at Trader Joe’s) if they have any they can save for you.

How To Make Your Own Wine Cork Christmas Wreath

12-inch straw wreath form
floral wire or string
approximately 200 wine corks*
5-6 sprigs of faux berries
greenery and decorations for center piece
hot glue gun
high-temp glue sticks, at least 8

First, sort through your corks and set aside any that have special meaning for you. For example, I made sure to set aside at least one cork from each Virginia and Texas winery I’ve visited as well as any corks I found particularly pretty or touching. These will be the top level of your wreath and the corks people will see when they look at the cork. Any corks you have lots of or aren’t inspiring can form the bottom, hidden layer.

Next, tie a string or floral wire to the wreath for hanging the finished
product. I tied two peices of floral wire around the wreath, about 2 inches apart, and then connected them with a third wire, which would support the wreath.

Wine Cork Wreath - attach the wire


Start by gluing the corks along the inside of the wreath form in a straight line. You will almost certainly come to a point near the end where the corks will not line up as you’d likeand you will have repress the OCD and just make it work. I happened to have a few abnormally short corks and I squeezed one of those into that space, you could also trim another cork smaller, or just lay them out slightly askew. 

Wine Cork Wreath - starting the 1st layer

Remember to leave the back of the wreath empty so that it will lie flat against the wall or door.

Wine Cork Wreath - wonky corks

Continue with the first layer of corks, lining them up flat against the wreath until it is mostly covered. You want to line these up as closely as possible to minimize areas of visible straw.

Wine Cork Wreath - completed first layer

Begin layering the second level of corks, arranging to cover gaps in the first layer of corks. This is where you get to start being artistic with your arrangement.

Wine Cork Wreath - starting the 2ndlater

While creating the second layer of corks, you should start arranging small bunches of berries throughout the layer. I used inexpensive styrofoam berry picks from Michael’s Christmas collection, but the exact type of berries used is totally up to you and what you feel most comfortable using.

Wine Cork Wreath - 2nd layer 60%

At this point you are going to start wanting to think about what and where you want the wreath’s center piece. I decided to place mine slightly above center on the right side of the wreath.

I began by arranging the main piece of the greenery – a Christmas pick with a red bird I bought at Michael’s Craft – and attaching it with floral wire and a little hot glue. I then cut small branches from basic greenery picks and used those to fill in the center piece.

Wine Cork Christmas Wreath - centerpiece up close


Once the center piece was arranged the way I wanted, I finished attached the last of my wine corks and berries. I let it sit for a few days and then double checked my corks to make sure they were all secure. Then it is ready to hang on your front door or anywhere else you might like to put it!

Holiday Gifts for Little Foodies

Growing up, one of my top 5 toys was the play kitchen my sisters and I shared. It was a homemade 2-piece set – simple plywood boxes built with doors and painted to look like a refrigerator and stove-topped oven. It wasn’t fancy like the Little Tykes plastic kitchens my friends had, with their attached phones and ironing boards, but it was spacious and more realistic, so I was happy.  We filled it with tons of plastic foods from apples to unidentifiable uniformly brown “meat” products and those awesome Fisher Price milk and juice bottles. It provided endless hours of fun, and while I don’t remember exactly when we got rid of it, that play kitchen is one of my clearest childhood memories.

It was with these childhood memories fresh in my head that I started Christmas shopping for nieces and nephews. After picking out some cool toys for the older ones, I started looking for a soft fruit and veggie sets designed for my niece who is under 2 and I quickly became overwhelmed by the totally awesome and amazing play food toys that are now available. While I may not be in the market for a brand new play kitchen and all of its associated accessories, I had so much fun exploring, I thought I’d turn it into a post for those of you who may have a few burgeoning chefs and foodies in need of their own kitchen set up.

Play kitchens for purchase1)Little Tykes Super Chef Kitchen ($80)  // 2)Kid Kraft Uptown Kitchen($144)   3)2 Step Life Kitchen($93)  // 4)Hape Playfully Delicious Gourmet Kitchen ($87)

DIY Play Kitchens1) Giggleberry Creations DIY Entertainment Center Play Kitchen // 2) DIY Pottery Barn Knock-Off Play Kitchen  // 3) DIY Play Kitchen from Nightstand  4) Play Kitchen From Ikea Parts

Once you have picked out the perfect play kitchen, its time to stock it. The basics for the perfect play kitchen fall under 2 categories. First you need a few basics for cooking up and serving fun and imagination. The 3 sets below are each a great price and will ensure every little chef has everything they need.

Toy dishes1)Children’s Stainless Steel Cookware Set($23) // 2)Toysmith Cooking Utensils ($11) // 3)Kidoozie Dish Drainer Set ($18)

Once you have dishes and silverware, your lil’ chef will need something to cook up and serve. I think its important to start with a amazing basics with multiple uses to stock the toy fridge and pantry. The Melissa and Doug 4 Food Groups play set, number 1 below, is a good all around starter set. If you want a more substantial starting place for you fledgling foodie, I encourage getting separate produce, meat, and bread sets. Really well curated bread sets were the hardest to find. While the sandwich set is a bit more specialized that I was going for, the collection of bakery items was the best out there.

Play Food Starters1)Melissa and Doug Food Groups Play Set – Wooden ($20) // 2)Ikea Duktig 14-Piece Vegetable Set ($8) & Ikea Duktig 9-Piece Fruit Set ($8) // 3) PlanToys Plan Activity Large Scale Meat Set ($16) // 4) Melissa and Doug Felt Food – Sandwich Set ($17)

If your favorite youngster has a well established play kitchen with dishes, produce, and more, you may be at a loss for what to buy. Don’t worry, there are tons of specialty toys for the little foodie who already has it all.

Fun Kitchen Toys for the Establish Kitchen

1)  Fisher-Price Servin’ Surprises Ice Cream Party Set ($19) // 2)  Homemade Felt Sushi Platter // 3)  Melissa & Doug Felt Cookie Decorating Set ($19)             4)  Homemade Felt Cheez-It Crackers // 5)  Hape Playfully Delicious Pasta Set   ($19)  //   6)  Homemade Felt Poptart Tutorial

Holiday Gifts under $75

The $50 to $75 dollar range for gift giving is a rich with amazing, unique, and, frequently, hand-crafted kitchen tools and serving dishes. I love perusing the tabletop section of Houzz.com to find cool things from boutique stores I may never have heard of otherwise. Sure, sometimes people post things that are outrageously priced (seriously, $90 for a single coffee cup and saucer??) but it is still fun way to find gift-giving inspiration.

Kitchen Gifts Under 75- An Elegant Kitchen

1)  Mason Cash Large Mortar and Pestle ($46)  // 2)  Delta Decanting Wine Carafe ($64)  // 3)  Solid Wood Mezzaluna and Herb Chopping Bowl ($60)

I love to give beautiful practical pieces to friends and family for birthdays and holidays. Items like this mortar and pestle or this herb bowl and mezzaluna would be perfect to round out the kitchen of even your most elegant friend.  Mortar and pestles and mezzalunas are items that people frequently don’t think to buy for themselves, but once they own will find themselves turning to again and again. While an extra special wine decanter, like this one from Delta designed to maximize aeration with a stone cap that filters out sediment or errant cork pieces, are great for friends that enjoy a good bottle of wine.

As nice as it is to be able to find a single perfect item to give someone, I actually find it easier to give gift sets at this price range. There are many options for pre-made gift sets on sites like Williams and Sonoma, but I love to search websites and put together my own sets when I can. Below are 2 examples of great gift (one of which I may have already bought for someone on my Christmas list) that you can put together yourself.

Kitchen Gifts Under 75- Cheese SetRectangular Marble and Wood Cheese Board ($58) // Gold Cheese Knives ($29)

I may be biased, but cheese should be an FDA required food group unto itself, and cheese themed gifts are sure to be a hit with about 95% of the public (and that other 5%, well they have to entertain cheese lovers at some point, right?). Marble and slate make ideal cheese boards because they stay cool which helps to keep the cheese at an ideal temperature while it sits on an appetizer table. I am in love with this elegant marble and wood cheese board from Terrain, but am happy to report that you can find an identical one at West Elm for a mere $39! Which is convenient because these gold-toned cheese knives are also from West Elm. Together, the two pieces are $68 (plus taxes & shipping). You can always pick up some lovely cheese samples from your local cheese monger if you want to round out the gift.

Kitchen Gifts Under 75- Salt Block CookingHimalaya Salt Plate ($35)  //  Himalaya Salt Plate Holder ($15)  //  Salt Block Cooking: 70 Recipes for Grilling, Chilling, Searing, and Serving on Himalayan Salt Blocks ($17)

Have an adventurous chef on your Christmas list? The kind who will try to make anything once and loves to own specialty tools like pasta makers and creme brulee sets. Then click the links above  and buy this immediately. Himalaya salt blocks are a unique and fun way to infuse flavors into your cooking, and this gift collection is a great way for someone to experiment with the technique. The salt plate and the plate holder are both from Williams and Sonoma, although The Meadow and other online stores have a wider selection of salt block shapes and sizes. Normally, I would link to Amazon.com for a book, but Amazon is sold out, so order this salt block cookbook from Barnes and Nobel to get it in time for Christmas.

Holiday Gifts under $30

Sure, Christmas decorations and wrapping paper sets have been on store shelves for a month already, but in my family, the tradition has been to put up the Christmas tree the day after Thanksgiving. That makes today the official start of the Christmas season as far as I am concerned. This year, Ruth and I thought we’d share some of our favorite gift options in case you need a little inspiration.

We are kicking off this series today with some great under $30 items. This list is really great for any price-capped Secret Santa exchanges you may have coming up, or for a small gift to give on one of Hanukkah’s 8 nights.

Christmas Gifts Under $30 - Kitchen Gadgets

1) Three Tier Stacking Salt Box by Rachel Ray ($25)  // 2) Wine Pearls ($25)  3) Ad-N-Art Flavor It Glass Water Bottle ($14)

1)     I think we can all agree that holiday gifts should not be useful and enjoyable, but not overly practical – unless of course someone actually asks you to buy them a vacuum for for the Christmas, vacuums are never gifts. Many people would see something like this beautiful acacia salt box or the BlissHome Nigella Lawson Salt Pig ($29) as unnecessary or extravagant, which makes it the perfect gift for the cook in your life. It is beautiful and once they start using it, they will fall in love with how convenient it is,  just like Ruth fell in love with hers.

2)    These wine pearls, much like whiskey stones ($20) are a great way to keep your beverage chilled while keeping it from watering down. I like these pearls because the smooth unique design is perfect for delicate wine glasses because it creates an elegant presentation in the bottom of your glass while not scratching the surface. If you are shopping for a wine novice, this wine accessory kit ($24) is a good option for helping them foster their burgeoning love of vino . It includes a foil cutter, cork screw, bottle collar, stopper, and more.

3)  We should all be drinking more water, and with this nifty glass bottle with built in fruit infuser, there is no reason not to! It come in a variety of colors from grey to red and you can even pick up 2 yellow or blue ones from Overstock.com for $35 in case you want one for yourself. For the hostess in your life who always always has a pitcher of water on her perfectly set table, this  infusing pitcher ($25) had both the basket for holding fruit and re-freezable ice tube to keep the water cold.

Kitchen Gifts Under 30- Gourmet Samples

1) Peet’s Major Dickinson Coffee and Tea Sampler ($30) // 2) Fancy Mayo Trio from Empire Mayo ($21) // 3) 6-bottle mini wine sampler ($25)

1)     I was first introduced to Peet’s Coffee a decade ago, when I visited my friend in San Francisco for a week. For years after that, she would send me freshly roasted Major Dickinson’s Blend – my favorite – every year for Christmas. I can now get Peet’s coffee at the grocery store, but it is never as good as the freshly roasted beans I used to receive. Coffee from a local roaster makes, such as M.E. Swing Co. in D.C., also make great gifts.

2)     Artisanal or local specialty foods always make a great gift, whether from your city or not. A sampler of gourmet mayos like these form Empire Mayo are a perfect gift for sandwich lovers, while an olive oil dipping set ($22) for those who love great bread or haven’t experience great olive oil yet. Pickles from Gordy’s Pickle Jar, a D.C. favorite, can be ordered for $10 and are a really delicious gift.

3)     I have not tried the Tasting Room’s personalized wine bottle service, but I love the idea of it. The company is a membership club for wine lovers that sends subscribers bottles of wine based on their individual wine profile. To put together the profile, the Tasting Room sends you 6 mini-bottles of wine, that you then rate online. Your opinion of each bottle of wine is used to assemble your wine profile. For just $25, you can gift the 6 bottle sampler and the wine profile to a friend, and if they love it, they can then chose to subscribe to the service.

Kitchen Gifts Under 30- Kitchen Decor

1) Bamboo & Acrylic Folding Cookbook Stand ($17) // 2) Kitchen conversion print ($18) // State Themed Dish Towels ($15)

1)     When gifting a cookbook stand, look for one that can fold flat when not in use, to protect precious counter space. I selected the bamboo & acrylic one featured here because I love that the acrylic panel holds the pages still while protecting the pages from accidental splatter.  This  Joseph Joseph Folding Cookbook Stand ($30) folds up like a book and stores neatly right next to the cookbooks.

2)     Kitchen prints and artwork are great gifts, especially for friends or family who are still new to being out on their own and setting up their own kitchen. When buying decor like this, be sure you have an idea of the receiver’s aesthetic, otherwise it may fall flat. If they have a less modern tastes, this classy seasonal fruit and vegetable poster ($18) may be more to their liking.

3)     I first saw these fabulous state themed kitchen towels at Hill’s Kitchen here in D.C. and immediately snatched up several for family and friends who are a bit obsessed with their home states. If state themed towels don’t meet your needs their are other fun and beautiful dish towels, such as this cocktail themed one from Uncommon Goods for $14. BONUS: a pretty dish towel can be used as creative gift wrapping for another foodie themed gift.


White Cranberry Martini, a Winter Wonderland Cocktail

White Cranberry Martini 1

Oh, are you going to love, love, love this cocktail! I mean, just look at it. Doesn’t it make you think of the holidays? Seriously, I can hear Bing Crosby crooning “White Christmas” in my head right now. Love it!

Yes, I am gushing.  These White Cranberry Martinis are that good. They make me want to buy a ridiculously sparkly dress and throw a cocktail party so I can make pitchers of the stuff.

So what makes this winter wonderland cocktail different from everyone else’s? My addition of rosemary in the form of an infused simple syrup.White Cranberry Martini 2 Yes,  I put a little Christmas tree action into these beauties! (I so want one of those little rosemary shrubs they prune into Christmas tree shapes!). Please do not panic, though. I know what you’re thinking. “Ugh, gin!”, right?  And you’re thinking of what turns most people off from gin:  the juniper. We are not getting that kind of evergreen flavor here in these White Cranberry Martinis. Juniper is much more resinous and medicinal than rosemary. With the rosemary, the resin notes are milder, plus you get a little spice. Trust me, you’re not going to feel like you’re drinking a pine tree with this cocktail.

White Cranberry Martini 4So what does it taste like? Very fresh. White cranberries are sweeter and less tart than your typical cranberries, so the juice has a lighter body.  Adding the lime brings back a little tartness, and both the lime and rosemary bring clean, fresh notes into the mix.

When I was drinking this cocktail,  it reminded me of a mild winter day where the cold isn’t horribly unbearable and the smell of firewood is in White Cranberry Martini 5the air. You know, those days that make you feel all warm and toasty even if Jack Frost may be nipping at your nose.

Told you it was good.


Winter Wonderland White Cranberry Martini

White Cranberry Martini IngredientsWhite Cranberry Martini Ingredients
  • 2 ounces vodka*
  • 1 ounce White Cranberry Juice
  • juice of 1 lime
  • 1/2 ounce Rosemary simple syrup
  • fresh or frozen cranberries for garnish
  • ice cubes
Rosemary Simple Syrup
makes about a 1/2 cup of simple syrup
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, crushed to release essential oils
Rosemary Simple Syrup Directions
  1. For the simple syrup, combine sugar and water in a saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring until sugar is completely dissolved.Rosemary Simple Syrup
  2. Add fresh rosemary and simmer for one minute.Rosemary Simple Syrup Crushing Rosemary
  3. Remove saucepan from heat and let the syrup stand for at least half an hour.
  4. Remove rosemary from the syrup and pour into an airtight container. Store in the refrigerator until ready to use.
Making you Winter Wonderland CocktailWhite Cranberry Martini Shaking
  1. Fill a cocktail shaker with  ice cubes and add all of the ingredients.
  2. Secure the cover of the cocktail shaker and shake vigorously.
  3. Strain into your favorite cocktail glass and garnish with the bright red cranberries.

White Cranberry Martini 3

*Experiment with the vodka if you like. Cranberry vodka will bring more tartness. Whipped cream vodka may create a sweeter cocktail. Vanilla vodka may enhance the rosemary.

Chestnut and Proscuitto Pasta

“Chestnuts roastiiing…on an ooopen fire…,” Well, more like an oven in this case, though I did watch David Rocco roast these little morsels over an open fire in the middle of a forest of chestnut trees in an episode of Dolce Vitta on the Cooking Channel (so jealous!). Like many of you,  I love experimenting in the kitchen, so when I hit the grocery store I am always on the lookout for something interesting to play with. A few weeks ago, I brought home fresh chestnuts.

Aaaah.  I had visions of these little  Japanese tea cakes I used to have in Okinawa. My sister, friends, and I would sometimes have tea with our teachers after school let out.  We sat on the tatami, watching our sensei make the tea. Then she would cut these beautiful little cakes to serve with the tea. There was this one I absolutely loved. It had a juicy, candied chestnut (“kuri”) hidden at its center rather than  that traditional sweet bean paste. I wish I could find a picture for you all. I googled and googled, but so far have not been able to find the cake from my memory. Ah, well.

After a debate with myself as I passed the mochiko (sweet rice flour)  in the International aisle at Wegmans , however, I admitted that now was not the time to teach myself to tackle the art of Japanese pastries. Between getting ready for Christmas and the stress at the office (as you may recall from my post last week)…yeah, I needed something easier!  It is times like this that remind me my move to a smart phone was a pretty good decision, lol. Thanks to my Epicurious app, I found this tasty recipe, which I made only a few tiny changes to.

Chestnut and Prosciutto Pasta

adapted from Epicurious Tagliatelle with Chestnuts, Pancetta, and Sage

  • 40z pkg of cubed Prosciutto (1/4 lb if you’re lucky enough to have a butcher)
  • 1 cup roasted chestnuts, chopped
  • 1/2 a medium white Onion
  • 5-8 oz Baby Bella Mushrooms, sliced
  • 2 tbsp fresh Sage, chopped
  • 2 tbsp fresh Italian Parsley, chopped
  • 3-4 cloves Garlic, minced
  • 1 cup grated Parmesan
  • 6 oz egg Pasta (egg noodles, tagliatelle, fettuccine)
  • 2 tbsp Butter
  • 1 tbsp Olive OIl
  • 1 cup reserved Pasta Water
  1. Cook pasta according to package directions. Retain 1 cup of the pasta water when noodles are cooked
  2. In the meanwhile, heat a large pan over medium heat and cook prosciutto until nicely browned
  3. Add onion to the pan, stir and cook until translucent
  4. Add garlic, half the sage, and half the parsley. Stir for 1 minute
  5. Add mushrooms. Stir and cook until softened
  6. Add Chestnuts. Stir to mix and removed from heat
  7. Add butter, olive oil, and Parmesan to the prosciutto mixture and mix well
  8. Slowly pour reserved pasta water into the pan, whisking with your spoon to blend the Parmesan into a creamy sauce*
  9. Season with salt and pepper to taste
  10. Add the cooked pasta to the pan and toss until well coated
  11. Garnish with remaining sage and parsley and serve
*I messed up here. I did not have enough grated Parmesan so I used some shredded Romano to help make up the difference…and the cheese totally clumped up rather than turn into an Alfredoesque sauce. Happily, I was able to solve this with leftovers. When I re-heated, I added 1 tsbp of cream and after stirring I had a lovely creamy sauce.
Click here to learn how to oven roast Fresh Chestnuts. I added an extra step of using a meat mallet to bust open the shells b/c they’re hot and once they start to cool they get hard again!

Cut an "X" into the flat part of the Chestnut to prevent Chestnut firecrackers in your oven

Chestnuts ready to come out of the oven




Meat mallet comes in handy for cracking shells fast!











Add Poll

Chestnut comes out of its shell




Adventures in Holiday Cooking (or, What am I going to do with a duck?!)

I am embarking on a brave new adventure tomorrow – I am roasting a Christmas Eve duck. I won’t lie, this lovely waterfowl has be a bit intimidated because it is nothing like roasting a turkey or chicken. So I am doing the only thing I know how to do when confronted with a new situation, I am researching duck cooking methods and recipes like it is my full time job.  Some of the key things I’ve learned about duck are that it is quite fatty and that it is not a traditional white meat bird, in fact it more closely resembles a beef or venison that a turkey because it is a red meat animal. The first goal of my research has been to figure out how to roast a crispy duck with as little residual grease as possible. Janet Fletcher’s article in SFGate.com is particularly helpful because it included the author’s experience with 3 different cooking techniques. My main take away from this article is that roasting a duck is likely to set off my smoke alarm and splatter my oven with duck fat, so the first thing on my to do list is bring up a fan for blowing smoke out the kitchen window – just in case. This article, combined with some of the cooking tips from Maple Leaf Farms helped me decide on the following cooking plan:

  • Oven temperature at 350°F.
  • Plan on 30 minutes per pound.
  • Roast the duck in a shallow pan, set on a roasting rack so that the fat can drain.
  • For the first hour to hour and a half, roast the bird with the breast down. Score the skin on the breast to further encourage the fat to drain off of the bird.
  • The duck is done with the leg meat reaches an internal temperature of 175°F.

With my cooking techniques outlined, the next step in planning my Christmas Eve meal is deciding how I will approach the unique flavors of duck meat. As this is a family Christmas meal, I have made sure to ask my Mom, the supplier of this feast, what flavors she is thinking about using for the duck. Her only requirement is that the bird be accented with orange. So I plan to roast the duck with a simple poultry seasoning and salt & pepper rub. I will also stuff the duck cavity with half an onion, a whole orange (if it fits), and 2-3 garlic cloves.  About 30 minutes before I expect the duck to be done, I will brush it with an orange and Marsala glaze. If time is on my side, I’m also planning to make a sauce with oranges, ginger, and Marsala wine to be drizzled over the duck when it is sliced and served. I have the greatest confidence that this is going to be awesome, but I also plan on having several chicken breasts defrosted in the fridge, just in case. Check back in throughout the weekend, as I’ll be updating this post with my thoughts, some pictures, and whatever else my mom and I come up with while in the kitchen this Christmas eve. Welcome back everyone!! It’s 2:15 here on Christmas Eve and I have just put the duck in the oven!

I've stuffed the duck with 3/4 of an onion, a whole orange, and 5 small garlic cloves. Its been rubbed down with poultry seasoning and a little sea salt.

I've decided to drop the oven temperature to 325 to start out, hoping to minimize the splatter. The duck is 5.24lbs, so I suspect that it will take about 2.5 hours with the temperature cranked up to 400 degrees in 2 hours.

Update 4:15pm: Orange Marsala glaze made with juice of one fresh orange, 1 tsp garlic powder, about 4 tblsp orange marmalade, and a heavy pour of Marsala.

I put my mom to work drizzling the glaze over the duck while I cranked up the oven temperature to 375.

The duck is back in the oven with a wild rice and mushroom casserole.

Update 5:30: I pulled the duck out of the oven at 4:45. The skin was pretty crispy, but not as crispy as I would have expected. However, everything smelled amazing as I let the bird sit for about 5 minutes before carving it. up.

This is our "normal" Thanksgiving/Christmas platter. Our duck was a bit smaller than our usual Christmas turkey. I quickly transferred him to a smaller platter.

The duck is done, the crab legs are ready, its time to light the candles and enjoy Christmas Eve dinner!

Orange-marsala glazed duck with orange sauce.

Final Verdict

My first duck cooking experience went really well. The duck was tender and flavorful, without being too greasy. I sill say that the skin was not as crispy as I would have liked, so next time I will start my duck at 350°F, instead of the 300°F I started with, this should help with the crispy skin. I will also say, that I made the mistake of not turning the duck over before glazing it. I started cooking it with the breast down, to help drain the fat, but I forgot to flip it with the breast up before glazing it. I’ll be sure to glaze the breast next time.

Research Sources: “Duck Cooking Tips: Discover Duck. “ Maple Leaf Farms. http://www.mapleleaffarms.com/48 Fletcher, Janet. “Bringing duck home/A guide to cooking a bird that’s both crisp and juicy.”  SFGate.com. http://articles.sfgate.com/2006-10-25/food/17316336_1_duck-sugar-and-msg-roast

Christmas Cookies Galore!

Ah! the hustle and bustle of the holiday season – starting the week before Thanksgiving  and lasting until just after the start of the new year everything is go-go-go. My to-do list usually includes putting up Christmas decorations, holiday shopping, several Christmas parties, and so much more. Every year my favorite holiday project is also my biggest and, therefore, my most dreaded – baking and sending cookies to friends and family who are far away. On average, I send cookies to about 10 people, although, when I was in Michigan for grad school, that list got as high as 20 people.

My sister's candy tin: (clockwise from top left) peppermint bark, "lumps of coal" rice krispies, English toffee, and rocky road fudge

The first step to my Christmas cookie bonanza is deciding what cookies and candies I plan to make that season. I aim to have about a dozen different confections to choose from as I fill the cookie tins. Some of the sweets are easy to pick because they are standard every year – decorated sugar cookies, gingerbread men, and Italian wedding cookies, for example. I also spend hours pouring over Christmas editions of my favorite foodie magazines and cooking blogs to pick new recipes to try. When I choose my cookies, I take several things into account, such as how long the baked cookie will last, if they can be frozen, and how many steps are involved in making the final product. My favorite sugar cookie recipe, for example, is great because it can be baked as early as 4 weeks before I mail the cookies, frozen undecorated, and decorated the weekend before the cookies go out. Toffees and caramels, on the other hand, have to be made a few days before shipping because they can’t be frozen or placed in the fridge. It’s okay though because they take little time to prepare, and can easily be done during the evening after a day at work.

Decorated Christmas cookies

This year’s confection list included:

The standout cookie for me this year was the Mexican Hot Chocolate cookie, a Martha Stewart recipe that is definitely going into regular rotation in my kitchen. I found the chocolate “pretzel” cookies, a recipe from the Smitten Kitchen, a little dry for my tastes, although they were great dipped in steaming cups of hot cocoa or coffee.

Sugar cookies, chocolate pretzels, and Mexican hot chocolate cookies

Most of the cookies were made on weekends when I had more time and  then frozen. When I woke up on packing day, I took all of the cookies out of the freezer and allowed them to defrost before packing the tins later that day. Although, the cutout sugar cookies and gingerbread men were taken out of the freezer several days in advance so that they could be decorated with royal icing. I was very lucky this year to have Ruth’s help with the sugar cookies. With her help I was able to get them decorated in about 3 hours, whereas it takes about 5 hours to decorate them by myself.

The cookie packing staging area... So many cookies!

Once the cookies are decorated, I spend a morning diving up the treats to cookie tins I’ve been collecting since the Christmas stuff hit store shelves. The hardest part of filling the cookie tins is realizing that I might have a few too many leftovers. Luckily, I have new coworkers who are unlikely to turn down free sweets and it is Christmas so I have every right to indulge a little. I spent the rest of the week scrounging around for boxes and newspapers for shipping and shipped the last of the cookies on Saturday. Now I’m going to turn my attention to my next big project – Christmas dinner and the duck that currently sits in my freezer.