Saturday, November 26, 2011

Dessert - Smores Bars

I was asked to bring a dessert to Thanksgiving this year, and since I was informed that there would already be two varieties of pie attending the party, I opted against adding to the pie pile. I briefly considered making the pumpkin bread pudding that I made for last year’s Thanksgiving dinner, but it’s a very long process, and one of the aforementioned pies was of the pumpkin variety, so it seemed wrong to overpumpkin everyone with a second gourd-based dessert.

My final dessert choice? Smores bars. My coworker brought these in a few months ago, and they were so good that they disappeared almost immediately. She gave me the recipe and I hadn’t had a chance to make them yet, so this was the perfect occasion.

Karen’s Smores Bars

2 packets of graham crackers*
2 sticks unsalted butter, melted
2 tbsp sugar
Pinch of salt (If you are using salted butter, skip the extra salt)
3 cups milk chocolate chips
miniature marshmallows (I used half the 10.5 oz bag)

* The graham crackers I bought were in a 14.4 oz box and inside they were split into 3 small packets, so I used 2 of those. It added up to 36 squares, but this is a flexible enough recipe that there's probably a margin of error built in. If your crust isn't holding together, add more butter, and if it's too gooey, add more crackers.

Line a 9x13 baking dish with a layer of foil. If you don’t do this, you’ll have a hell of a time trying to cut the bars later.

Melt your butter in the microwave. Crush the graham crackers in a food processor (break them up a little by hand first, or the processor might choke) with the sugar and salt, then stir them into the bowl of melted butter. Press this gently into the foil-lined pan to make an even crust. Bake it at 350F for about 10 minutes, and let it cool. Meanwhile, melt the chocolate chips in a double-boiler (or in a microwave, if you’re impatient, but be careful not to scorch the chocolate), so you can pour the chocolate over the graham crust. Sprinkle a layer of mini marshmallows over the chocolate, then put it under the broiler for a minute or two so the marshmallows start to swell up and brown just the slightest bit. Be very careful and watch the pan during this step – it’s a very fine line between golden-crusted marshmallows and charred ones.

Put the whole thing into the fridge to chill completely, then when you’re ready to cut it into bars, take it out and let it sit at room temperature for a few minutes. The colder it is, the harder it is to get through the chocolate layer. Lift the bars out, using the foil, then use a big knife to cut them into small squares – I didn’t let mine warm up for long, so it was hard to cut. If you’re cutting them cold, be careful and remember you’re working with hard chocolate: lay the knife across the top and rock it back and forth with a little pressure until you get fractures in the bars and pieces snap off, instead of really trying to “cut” them.

The graham layer is crumbly and the marshmallows are sticky and the chocolate gets all over your fingers, but damn, this stuff is good.

Baking - No-Knead Dutch Oven Bread

Bread! Glorious bread!

It has always seemed to me that baking bread is a special category of baking reserved for the talented elite among us. This, pastry dough, and cakes from scratch, all belong to graduate-level baking: difficult, requiring effort and concentration, and taking much longer than you think it should.

Well, with baking bread from scratch on my 30 in 30 list, and the year coming to a close, I had no choice but to try. And I cheated a little bit. Just a little. I found the world’s easiest bread recipe. It’s a yeast bread, but with no kneading required, and it’s baked in a dutch oven instead of a loaf pan.

Here’s the recipe, which I got from the Steamy Kitchen blog, who got it from elsewhere:

3 cups bread flour
1/4 teaspoon instant yeast*
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups warm water

Just mix all the ingredients together in a big bowl, cover, let it sit overnight in a warm place, and it’ll puff up full of bubbles and smell nice and yeasty. Flip it out onto a floured countertop, and then shape it into a ball with either your hands or a big spoon or spatula (make sure your shaping implement is wet or things will get real sticky real fast), folding the edges up over the middle. Dust a tea towel with more flour and put the ball, seam-side down, into the towel, cover it up with the rest of the towel, and let it hang out on the counter for another two hours.

Your oven and pot need to be really hot from the start, so sometime during the two hours, put your pot in the oven and crank it to 450F to preheat. You will need a good enameled dutch oven type pot for this - check that what you're using can go to 450F, because not everything can. Take the hot pot out when it’s ready, plop the dough ball into the pot and wiggle it so it sits well, and put it in the oven, covered, for 30 minutes. After 30 minutes, take the lid off and give it another 15-20 minutes – you’re looking for the crust to get crusty and brown-gold. The website I linked to says the internal temperature should be 210F when it’s done.

Wait for it to cool – and good luck waiting, because the smell will drive you insane and you’ll keep coming back to poke it and see if it’s cool enough to eat yet. It makes a delicious squishy loaf with a thin crunchy crust, and it absorbs butter beautifully.

I’ll be baking bread often, now that I know how easy it is to do. I might even try a more complicated bread, with kneading! I need something for my 31 in 31 list, right?

* I bought regular yeast, because I don’t know the first thing about yeast and didn’t actually realize there were different kinds. Well, I know there are different kinds – I studied microbiology, after all – but I didn’t realize the grocery store had two different products, an instant and a not-instant. I used the regular yeast in this recipe, which meant that I had to “proof” it before using it. I followed the instructions on the packet and mixed my yeast with warm water and a little sugar, then let it sit for a few minutes to see if it would bubble. It did, which meant the yeast was alive and farting out CO2 like it’s supposed to, so I added that bubble sludge to the flour and just subtracted that amount of water from my total.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Dear lard, I found the perfect pie crust!

I'm bad at pie.

Crusts are not easy to get right, and I've been trying to match my Mom's perfect pie crust for years with no success. It's delicious and flaky and so good that I actually want to eat the sweet curve of crust left on the plate when the pie is gone.

Her secret, besides the traditional dash of love, is Tenderflake lard. It's a Canadian thing, and I've never found it here in the States, which makes me sad. Can someone ship me some lard, please? I did try using a different brand of lard here, but it was all wrong and I couldn't even roll out the dough because it was so sticky. Oh, how I sobbed that day, rolling pin hanging from my dejected hands as I stood, flour-dusted, by the sad lump of goo on my kitchen counter.

Crisco does a decent job in a pie crust. I've used it a few times now and it passes for edible, and I can make it work, but it's not a crust you'd want to eat on its own. At least not when I make it. I get a good shell to keep the pie filling in place, and that's about it. So sad.

I've also used refrigerated Pillsbury pie crusts in a pinch, and they're almost identical to the Crisco ones, but with a lot less work, so I'm a big fan. Yeah, it's cheating, but it results in faster pie.

This week, when I went grocery shopping, I picked up some refrigerated pie crusts. Feeling a little cheap, I decided to save 23 cents by buying the Giant store brand instead of the fancy Pillsbury stuff. Some things are just as good in generic form, and some are horrible, but I'm learning where I can cut corners to save a little... as it turns out, this is a situation where being cheap paid off.

I cut out the circles necessary for the pot pies I was making, and saw that I had leftover crust. Why waste crust? I spread some butter, sugar, and cinnamon on the remnants and popped them into the oven on a cookie sheet just for the hell of it. 15 minutes later they were golden and tasty-looking, and I found myself taking a bite far before they were cool enough to comfortably do so. Golden pastry has that effect on me. It was flaky. It was delicious.

It was Mom's pie crust.

I don't think I could have told them apart in a blind taste test.

I ran to the fridge, huffing and puffing not from exertion but from the pain of having a second much-too-hot wedge of sugary crust stuffed in my mouth, and checked the ingredient list on the box. Lard. Sweet, sweet lard. I almost died. I called my Mom to tell her. Really.

I think I will buy a dozen of these and keep them in my freezer, because if they are discontinued I will die.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

What's for Dinner - Individual Chicken Pot Pies

I winged it on this one. I've been seeing chicken pot pie recipes on my Food Network shows, and I had a fabulous chicken pot pie for lunch at Bob Evans a while ago, and I really, really wanted to make some myself. I browsed around a little bit for a recipe and didn't find one that fit the ingredients I actually had on hand, so I improvised a whole lot and crossed my fingers.

Chicken pot pies

1 chicken breast
1 small onion
1 cup frozen veggies (I used a peas & carrots mix)
2 small potatoes
1 cup chicken broth (have more on hand, in case)
2 tbsp flour
2 tbsp butter
poultry seasoning
1 clove garlic
bay leaf
salt and pepper
refrigerated pie crust

I rubbed a chicken breast with "poultry seasoning", which is a blend of marjoram, sage, thyme, rosemary, black pepper, and nutmeg (nutmeg? really?), added a little salt, and then baked it in the oven at 350 until the thermometer told me it was done. When it was done, it got chopped and shredded.

I diced a small onion and a garlic clove and sauteed them in butter in a pot until they were soft, then I added the 2 tbsp of butter and flour and cooked that for a minute or two until it started to brown a little, and then I added my chicken broth. I peeled and diced a small potato, and added the cubes to the broth along with about a cup of the frozen veggies, then I added salt and pepper, some thyme (somewhere between a pinch and a dash, I guess) and a bay leaf, and the shredded chicken breast, and let it all simmer for a while to thicken up. After about 15 minutes, it wasn't thickening to my liking, so I decided to add mashed potatoes to the mixture.

To speed things up, instead of boiling potatoes on the stovetop, I peeled and chopped a second small potato and put the pieces into a glass measuring cup with enough water to cover it all, and nuked the cup on high in the microwave for about 3 minutes. They were fork-tender after their spin in the microwave, and I drained the water, mashed them quickly with a fork, and added them to the pot.

Once I was happy with the thickness, I spooned the stuff into my two smallest Corningware dishes (16-oz) and topped them with pie crusts. I cheated and bought the ready-made refrigerated pie crust, because I have still not honed my pastry skills enough to present a pie I'm proud of. One rolled-out crust, cut into two circles to fit over the tops the dishes, was plenty to work with, and even gave me some extra crust to cut into pretty shapes to decorate my pies just like the fancy TV chefs and the glamorous food photos in Good Housekeeping magazine.

I put the pies into the oven on a baking sheet in case they bubbled over, and baked them at 425 because the box told me to. It took 20 minutes for the crust to be cooked and golden and crispy.

Honestly, they were a little big for individual servings, but we ate them all anyway. They were super freaking delicious and I'm so proud of myself for making it up as I went along. This, of course, means that it will probably not taste the same if you follow my recipe, or if I make it again next week, but that's just how it is.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

What's for Dinner - Creamy Mushroom Chicken

Sometimes I feel guilty for making something easy using a can of soup or some other Kraft or Campbells product. I feel like I'm cheating, like it's not really cooking, and I think the Food Network is to blame. I need to stop watching those Next Iron Chef shows where they work from such complete scratch that I wouldn't be surprised to see them kill their own chickens for authenticity and freshness.

You know what? Some damn tasty things have been made in casserole form with cream-of-whatever soups, and I'm ok with that. Yes, I'll make my own chicken stock or pasta dough when I have time, but sometimes I want to make it easy.

Creamy Mushroom Chicken

1 package button mushrooms, sliced
1 medium onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
4 skinless, boneless chicken breasts
2 tablespoons butter
Olive oil
1 can cream of mushroom soup
3/4 cup chicken broth

Fry up the mushrooms, onions, and garlic in the butter until they're soft, then set aside.

Mix some salt and pepper into a little bit of flour in a bowl, then dip the chicken into the mixture to coat it. Brown the chicken breasts on both sides in some olive oil, them remove them to a baking dish. Put the mushroom and onion mix back into the pan, add the cream of mushroom soup and the chicken broth (pour the broth into the soup can and stir it to get all the mushroomy goo out), and stir until the soup stops looking like goo and starts to look like soup. Pour the soupy mixture over the chicken in the baking dish, and then put the whole mess into the oven for 30 minutes at 350 degrees. After 30 minutes, check the chicken with a thermometer - once it's done, add some shredded mozzarella cheese to the top of the chicken breasts and put it back in for another 10 minutes.

This was delicious over rice, but next time I will cut up the chicken into small pieces before cooking it, both to reduce cooking time and to make it easier to eat. More mushrooms would also be a great idea - one package didn't seem to be enough, but maybe it's just because we love mushrooms.

Also, I keep forgetting that I have these wonderful Le Creuset dutch ovens of various sizes that I could be using instead of transferring food back and forth between skillet and baking dish. Maybe I need to just leave those suckers on the counter so they're in my face.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Complementary Brownie Preferences

You know how some people only like the squishy middle part of the brownie pan, and some people prefer the edges?

I woke up and found my brownie pan looking like this:

and I giggled and knew I married the right man.

The edges are the best part anyway, so I don't know what he's thinking, going for the middles. Crazy!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Baking - Cranberry Orange Bread

This is my Mom's recipe and it's so good I recommend you double it right away because you're not going to have enough! This makes one loaf, 8 mini-loaves, or 12 small muffins.

Cranberry-Orange Bread

1 cup fresh cranberries, cut in half
1/4 cup sugar

1 3/4 cups flour
3/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
2 tbsp shortening
1 tsp fresh orange zest (one large orange should do it)
3/4 cup orange juice
1 egg

Grease a bread pan or muffin/mini-loaf pan, and preheat the oven to 350F.

Mix the cranberries with 1/4 cup sugar until they're well coated. This mitigates their tartness and helps them not to sink to the bottom of the bread.

Mix the dry ingredients (including the non-cranberried sugar) in a large bowl, then cut in the shortening until it's all in tiny crumbles. Make a well in the middle and pour in the juice, egg, and zest, then mix until everything is wet - don't overdo it. Add the sugared cranberries and blend them in well, then pour into your baking receptacle of choice.

A loaf will need 40 to 45 minutes, my mini-loaves only took 20. Not sure how long muffins would take, but I'd start with 15 minutes and check from there.

Notes: I didn't get much more than 1/4 cup of juice out of my orange, since I don't have a juicer thingy - I was stabbing at the orange halves with a fork and squeezing them to death to get some juice out and it didn't go very well. Sadly, the OJ in the fridge was very expired, so I just made up the difference in liquid with plain water and hoped for the best. It turned out really well - still tasted plenty orangey.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

What's for Dinner - Pork chops, apples, and onions

Because I still work evenings, I need to get dinner figured out pretty early to avoid having to come up with a plan at midnight. Depending on what I'm making, I'll prep everything in the morning or I'll thaw stuff overnight, leaving me with only the cooking part to do once I get home. I don't mind so much having to cook late at night, but thinking is always a problem after a long day, and I hate having to come home and decide what to feed us.

So I reached into the freezer before shuffling off to bed around 2am, and pulled out two ziplock bags with fleshy pink frozen meat inside so I could leave them in the fridge overnight to thaw. I always buy the boneless, skinless chicken breasts at Costco and freeze them individually for easy portioning later, and that is what I thought was in those bags. I had a plan for a lemon garlic sauteed chicken breast dinner, and I was quite pleased with it. Lesson learned: label freezer food. Seriously. Because examination of the thawed meat at midnight after the following long day at work revealed pork chops. Eight teeny tiny thin pork chops.

Now what? After a moment or two of grumpy pouting because I couldn't make the dinner I wanted to, I threw together a new plan.

I peeled and cut up two apples, put them in a covered bowl with about a quarter cup of apple cider, and put them into the microwave for two minutes so the apples would get soft. Meanwhile, I fried up the pork chops in a pan with some olive oil, salt, and pepper, and put them aside when they were done. Next into the pan went half an onion, sliced really thin, with a bit more oil and a dash of thyme. When they were soft, I put in a small bit of flour and stirred that around for a minute before dumping the apple cider and soft apples in. The pork chops and their juice went back in too, and I stirred it all up and left a lid on it with the heat all the way down for a couple more minutes before I called it ready because I was hungry.

It turned out pretty good. It got the husband's thumbs-up and there were no leftovers, so either we were starving or it was decent. I thought it was a little on the sweet side and I think I'll add some apple cider vinegar if I do this again. I probably should have gotten the pan hotter and done a better job browning the chops so they'd look nicer - this meal wasn't very photogenic!

Sunday, November 06, 2011

New Job, part 2

Apologies to my readers for not giving you anything all week. I'm often saying that there need to be more hours in a day so I can get everything done that needs doing, so I will use the free hour from the Daylight Savings fall-back to feed my poor little blog.

I've got a few book reviews to cover, and a project or two to write about, but I've been too stressed to focus on writing. I told you a little while ago that I'm going to be moving on to a new job and leaving the hospital behind. That was a hard decision, and one that I wavered on. My coworkers were very sad to hear I was leaving them, and I don't think it was all selfish sentiment from knowing they'd have to fill in all the gaps in the schedule. From the day I gave my notice, they've been trying to talk me out of my decision. They didn't use any arguments I hadn't already wrestled with, but hearing them from other people made me very nervous that maybe I was making the wrong decision.

Manufacturing? Really? Sitting in a quiet lab all day with almost nobody else around, running the same few tests over and over and over? I'm so used to doing four things at once and having to keep on top of everything; will this be too much of a change for me? Will I be bored? Lonely? The group of people I work with in the evenings now is really fabulous and I know I'll miss the goofy fun we have between crises. And I'll miss the high I get from zipping around and managing a situation as it tries to spiral out of control, and knowing at the end of the shift that my work contributed to a patient living another day.

But I'm so stressed out right now. And the stress from the actual work, while it will never go away because of its nature, isn't the problem. It's the little things. The doctors calling us liars when we say it'll take half an hour to thaw plasma. The all-caps emails CC'd to my supervisor threatening to "write me up" if I forget to staple paperwork one more time. The resistance to change and growth I encounter from so many people who tend to react reflexively by putting band-aids on problems instead of thinking about the causes and trying to eliminate them at the source.

I guess I take it too seriously. If I was able to disconnect a little more and just go to work and put in my hours and go home, maybe I'd be happier there. But I can't do that. Everyone who works part-time says it's a lot easier to care less when you're not there every single day, and maybe they're right but I can't afford to drop to part-time right now. So I spend more time at the hospital than I do with my husband all week, and I'm invested in that lab and I am so frustrated that it's not as great a lab as it has the potential to be.

I love my coworkers and they're all good techs. The hospital is growing and changing and it's exciting to be a part of all that. My supervisor is great. But somehow, we find ourselves griping and sniping and sabotaging each other out of stress when we should all be patting each other on the back and busting with pride at how awesome we all are for keeping the place running with fewer people and resources than we should have to. There are no fingers to point - everyone is guilty and everyone is a victim. I suspect it's a similar story in every hospital lab in the country, because we're all underrecognized and understaffed and the work is so draining.

So I need to step back. I feel like this job is like a boyfriend with potential - if only he'd apply himself a little more! But the relationship is toxic in its current state and it's time for some space. I'm not happy, and I need a break.

Making the decision was hard. There was no counter-offer from the current job (HR policy), but it's not even about the money. I made list after list of good things and bad things and there were so many unknowns, and every five minutes I'd talk myself into or out of staying, over and over. I might get bored. I might come crawling back in a few months. But in the end, I need to try something new so I can preserve a little sanity. I can't go to part-time work, so I need this new job. And maybe I will fall completely in love with it and never want to leave.