Archives for December 2012

Merry Christmas!

presents

This year’s wrapping theme: Red, white and kraft.

Hope that your Christmas holiday is filled with family and friends, all the cookies your heart desires and surprises under the tree!

–Lauren

The Friday Five: Christmas Cookies

Today is my last day of work for the year and I’m looking forward to spending part of my time off next week in the kitchen, making cookies.

After consulting multiple sources and changing my mind many times, here’s what’s on my list this year. I don’t know that I’ll actually get to all of them, but it’s good to be ambitious, right?

1) Black and White Chocolate Chunk Cookies: These are kind of my signature item and the first thing that I baked successfully when I was just learning how. As I mentioned last year, the recipe is handwritten and I have no idea where I got it from.

2) Chocolate and Peanut Butter Chip Pretzel Cookies (via Sugar Cooking): All my favorite things, all together!

3) Chewy Sugar Cookies (via America’s Test Kitchen): I have a sugar cookie recipe (that I’ve used as the base for these cookies) already, but Chester and I recently saw an episode of ATK that featured these cookies and now I’ve got to try them. The Test Kitchen always gets it right. Plus, Christopher Kimbell told me that they make everyone who interviews for a job at the Test Kitchen has to make sugar cookies. I have to start practicing for my second career.

4) Lemon Ricotta Cookies with Lemon Glaze (via Giada deLaurentiis for the Food Network): The lemon cookies I made last year were a hit, but I figured I would give this Italian favorite at try (While trying not to get annoyed by hearing Giada’s voice in my head, pronouncing ricotta in her exaggerated, fake accent that she reserves for Italian words).

5) Cranberry Thumbprints (via Martha Stewart) I love cranberries and always regret not using them more when they are in season.

Have you started your holiday baking yet? What’s on your list?

The Friday Five: Christmas Movies

One of my new favorite ornaments. We named him Buddy, just like the Elf.

I was going to share Christmas cookie recipes today, but as soon as a narrow down what I’m going to be baking this year, I come across at least six more recipes that look too good to pass up. As much as I would love to make 20 kinds of cookies, I don’t have the time to do it or an army to feed. Hopefully, I’ll have things narrowed down by next week because I need to get baking!

In the meantime, I’ll share one of my other favorite things about this season: Christmas movies. I love most Christmas themed movies, with the exception of those that appear on the Hallmark or Lifetime channels. I can’t get past the cheesy plotlines and horrible acting.

In no particular order, here are the five movies that I must watch at least once during the season, in order for it to truly feel like Christmas:

Elf: I’ve seen this movie so many times, I’m pretty sure I could recite the whole thing. Will Ferrell’s antics experiencing the real world after being raised by elves at the North Pole makes me laugh out loud every time. This scene where Buddy goes crazy over Santa’s impending arrival at Gimbel’s is one of my favorites.


A Muppet Christmas Carol: There are many great versions of A Christmas Carol out there, but Kermit just makes everything much more fabulous. Michael Caine plays a pretty good Scrooge even though he has to interact with Muppets and there are some great original songs, including this one, sung by the Ghost of Christmas Present (one of my favorite parts is near the opening of this song, about 12 seconds in, when one of the little choir singers gets whacked in the face with a trumpet and a fight ensues. My brother and I used to rewind our tape to watch it over and over. Ah, the days of VHS).


Love, Actually: Since this movie came out in 2003, there have been other attempts at movies with huge all-star casts, telling multiple, interrelated love stories (see: Valentine’s Day, New Year’s Eve). None of them even come close to being as magical as this one. The Christmas setting (and substantial doses of Colin Firth and Hugh Grant) definitely helps.


Ziggy’s Gift: I feel like not many people know about this one, but it was one of my favorites growing up. Sweet little Ziggy and his dog take a job as a Salvation Army type Santa to collect money from the poor, but has actually gotten himself wrapped up into a “Crooked Santa” scheme. Of course, he actually ends up teaching everyone a lesson about the importance of honesty and kindness along the way. Plus, there is a particularly hilarious scene towards the end where he sets free a bunch of turkeys.

A Charlie Brown Christmas: Charlie Brown and his friends remind us of what Christmas is all about. Enough said (Also, they are all better dancers than I am).

What are your favorites?

Happy Birthday, Checkter!

Chester got another year older this week (I won’t tell you his exact age because that’s just mean and I’ve made fun of him enough lately for his proximity to 40). So, we celebrated with food, of course.

Saturday night, we had dinner at one of his favorite places, Fogo de Chao, where he estimated that he ate about a pound and a half of filet mignon, lamb and other assorted meats. My favorite thing about Fogo is salad bar, which offers a huge assortment of salads, veggies, and cheeses. I loaded up on so much of that stuff that I didn’t even flip my card from red to green once.

We walked off some of our dinner with a stroll down Walnut Street to see the Christmas tree in Rittenhouse Square park.

Then, somehow, we found room for milkshakes at Max Brenner.

For the homemade portion of his birthday celebration, Chester requested blondies. He loves brown sugar more than anyone I’ve ever met (he told me he used to eat it by the spoonful when he was little), so it’s no surprise that he would prefer these to rich, chocolate brownies. Obviously, we are total opposites in this regard.

When I’ve tried blondies in the past, I’ve always been disappointed. They always seem to be dense, bland and dry. The America’s Test Kitchen recipe that I used for this batch completely changed my mind.

Melting the butter instead of creaming it incorporates less air into the batter, for a light, chewy texture. I also added a little bit of espresso powder to bring out the flavor of the milk chocolate and took the extra time to toast the pecans to enhance their flavor as well. The longer they sit, the better the flavors and textures have become.

This recipe could be adapted for a wide variety of preferences, using different flavors of chocolate chips or different kinds of nuts. The possibilities are endless!

Blondies

Adapted slightly from America’s Test Kitchen Family Baking Book

What you will need

  • Cooking spray
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons espresso powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
  • 1 1/2 cups firmly packed light brown sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 4 teaspoons vanilla
  • 1 cup chocolate chips
  • 1 cup pecans, chopped and toasted

What to do

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a 13×9-inch baking pan with a foil sling and coat with cooking spray
  2. In a medium bowl, whisk the flour, espresso powder, baking powder and salt together. Set aside.
  3. In a medium bowl, whisk the melted butter and brown sugar together until combined. Add the eggs and vanilla and mix well. Using a rubber spatula, fold the dry ingredients into the egg mixture until just combined. Do not overmix.
  4. Fold in the chocolate chips and the nuts, and turn the batter into the prepared pan, smoothing the top with a rubber spatula.
  5. Bake until the top is shiny and cracked and feels firm to the touch, for 22 to 25 minutes.
  6. Place the pan on a rack and let cool completely (about an hour). Cut into 1 1/2- by 2-inch bars.

Restaurant Review: The Oyster House

I don’t really crave seafood that frequently, so although I had always heard good things about the Sansom Street Oyster House, it was never really at the top of my list of places to check out. However, when Chester and I were trying to decide on a place for dinner this past Friday, I was won over by the fact that they had two soups on the menu that seemed like they would be perfect for a chilly evening.

The restaurant has been a Philadelphia institution since 1947, when Philadelphia lawyer Samuel Mink purchased a seafood restaurant called Kelly’s on Mole Street. It relocated to its current home in what used to be an old barber shop on Sansom Street, in the mid-1970s, and has been in operation ever since, with the exception of a brief period several years ago when it closed for renovations. Over the years, menu items have changed and pricing has increased, but three generations of the Mink family have kept up the tradition of the city’s old oyster houses, serving up good, fairly inexpensive food, in a casual atmosphere.

The restaurant doesn’t take reservations and was full when we arrived, so we had about a 20 minute wait for a table. The interior is very clean and open, with marble topped bars and tables, dark wood accents and exposed brick walls, which had been painted white to showcase an extensive collection of colorful, antique oyster plates (You know I wanted to steal a few of them for my eventual dish closet and I don’t even like oysters).

The centerpiece of the restaurant is the raw bar, where you can watch the staff shucking a regularly changing selection of oysters and clams as quickly as diners could order them. It’s nice to know that everything that ends up on the table is fresh.

Aside from the raw bar items, the menu is divided into small, appetizer sized plates such as roasted oysters and clams, grilled octopus, snapper soup and chowder. For a first course, Chester enjoyed a half-dozen of the sweet Kusshi oysters while I opted for the fat, whole-bellied clams fried clams (because I’m health conscious like that).

Larger, entrée sized plates include the crab cake, lobster roll and a clam bake for two. For my second course, I knew I was going for one of the soups, but debated a bit between the three-day fish chowder with smoked cod and the fisherman’s stew with shellfish.

I decided on the former because I had never heard of it before. I’ve looked up a few recipes since and found that in fact does take three days to make—one day to make fish stock, another day for the chowder base and the third day to put it all together with cream, potatoes and other ingredients.

I’m not sure if the Oyster House follows the same method, but the soup definitely had a rich, smoky flavor that made it seem like it had been simmering for a few days. I liked that the creamy base was not as thick as other types of chowder I’ve tried and that the potatoes were diced up into very tiny bits. I hate when you get big chunks of potato in soup that are way too hot to eat. Chester’s bluefish was also exceptional. It was grilled to perfection with a crispy edges and a tender center. I particularly enjoyed the velvety mashed sweet potatoes that accompanied it.

I always think that the dessert menus at steakhouses and seafood restaurants seem like afterthoughts, but the Oyster House’s actually had quite a few options that I wanted to try. Not surprisingly, I couldn’t resist the flourless chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream. The dense, fudgy cake was finished with sweet whipped cream and a dash of sea salt for an interesting mix of textures and flavors.

Having never visited before, I can’t comment on how this iteration of the Oyster House differs from the earlier versions, but I was really impressed by the whole experience and look forward to returning again soon. Many of Philadelphia’s long-standing restaurants (including seafood places, like Bookbinders and Philadelphia Fish and Company), have faded away and it’s nice to know that there are some places like this that have managed to keep thriving decade after decade.