Saturday, July 27, 2013

Win with Lady Potluck

I came back from a (very brief) vacation last week to have this email message waiting for me:


Since I'm still new to the Tucson job, it's the first time I've been around for such an event. Apparently this place does potlucks, dubbed "the graze" because people are picking at crap all day, twice a year. The second one, predictably, falls before Christmas. I didn't know the nuances yet: who brought chips, who hogged all the mini-meatballs, what way most people swing whether it be savory or sweet. I didn't have a whole ton of time, either. Finding out on Monday meant all prep would have to be done on Tuesday night after getting home. And I don't know if I've mentioned this, but I am extremely cranky and unmotivated on weeknights.


As I am getting way up there in years nowadays, or at least have enough solid years of tenure on my resume to look sort-of-not-stupid at last, I have developed guidelines. Rules, if you will. A few strategies that tend to snag wins at company potlucks. It's not usually a contest... they say. But I'm a competitive contributor. I want to have the dish emptied first, the recipe requested most, and most of all I am a clone of every other writer you'll meet. I have a pathological need to be loved.

My selection of a Cornbread Trifle, a colorful cool salad served in the old trusty trifle bowl, can be understood by following these important rules.

1. Go cold or room-temperature. I found a really neat recipe on Pinterest for Tamale Hand Pies. Yeah, you know. One of those adorable things you make in a muffin tin. If you all were coming over for a party at my house, where I could pop these right out of the oven, then they'd be a great choice. But I've only worked in one office with a legit kitchen, and it was a food distribution company. Who knew. I don't care how well you wrap a casserole dish in tinfoil. By the time you get it to your office, people get hungry for lunch and start picking at your dish, it's going to be congealed and gross. The industrious will perhaps microwave their portions, but we all know that's not going to taste an ounce as good as it did when it was fresh. Let it stay fresh by keeping it the fridge or at room temp. The exception would be a great Crock-Pot recipe, but this can be tricky, since you don't have all day to let stuff cook. Plus those things are a bear to lug around.

2. Don't bring pasta salad. Or its modern-day, ever-growing equivalent, quinoa salad. Everybody does. And they're boring. And fail to ever taste great.

3. Bring a dish that doesn't look like Tupperware you bought at a party in 1983. This is supposed to be a party! Or at least a slight diversion to keep shrinking middle-class America from FoxConn levels of despair. Bring your food in something pretty, or at least attractive. It helps with that whole eat-with-your-eyes first concept when you're staring down the buffet line. And everything tastes better when it's not retrieved from an olive green, half-melted plastic trough.

4. Don't you dare lazy out! Yeah, you. The one grabbing that cheap plastic carton of grocery store "cookies" that might as well be whimsically cut cardboard with sprinkles. Or the one bringing that veggie tray with carrot sticks, withered snap peas, and watery ranch dressing. You give everyone putting a half-ounce of effort into this thing a bad trade, and are totes not holding up your end of the bargain as you scoop up our delicious offerings. If you ARE going to buy something pre-made, buy something that has flavor and interest, like those sorbets they sell at Costco served in the hollowed-out fruits. Or an upscale deli salad that doesn't taste like preservatives with a side of soggy noodles. You don't have to be an amazing cook to either create or pick out something appetizing. My friend makes brownies with Ghirardelli chocolate mix. And that stuff is yumTASTIC.

5. Make a fun ingredient posty. With everyone eschewing bread and animals, an ingredient advisory is an unsaid necessity. That doesn't mean you can't be interesting. People get chatty about anything slightly different.

So did I win the potluck? I like to think so. Why don't you make a lovely version and see how it goes over.

Cornbread Trifle
1 box cornbread mix, baked per instructions, cooled, and cut into 1" squares (I like Marie Callendar's version because it's not as sickly-sweet. You can even savory it up by adding some cheddar cheese and sriracha)
2 small Romaine lettuces, roughly chopped
1 can black beans, drained
1 cup Ranch dressing, divided
1 cup sharp cheddar, divided
1/2 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
6 pieces of bacon, cooked and diced
1 cup grilled chicken chunks (mine were marinated in lime and chiles)
1 cup corn kernels (Trader Joe's sells frozen Roasted Corn that is fantastic for this)
1 small can green chiles, drained

In a trifle or large glass bowl, arrange a solid layer of cornbread chunks. Top first with half of the lettuce, half the black beans, 1/2 cup Ranch dressing, 1/2 cup sharp cheddar cheese, the bacon, 1/2 cup corn kernels, and 1/2 of the chiles. Arrange the halved cherry tomatoes around the top of the layer, as shown in the picture. Add the 2nd layer of cornbread, and the remaining ingredients, topping with the chicken and another row of tomato halves. Garnish with a sprig of cilantro. Chill at least 4 hours before serving, or overnight.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Preserving the Desert

When we were moving, I got rid of most of my canning jars. Who wants to pack crates of glass 1500 miles down the road? Although I will readily admit that seeing them leave brought on a few preemptive homesick tears. As did the concept of selling our lawn mower. I kept all my essential supplies, like the giant water bath pot, the can rack, funnels, magnet wands, and my cute labels (although those are still MIA in the Giant Sea of Garage Boxes). My canning future was very unsure after this pre-move conversation with a friend living in Phoenix:

Me: Do you have cherries in Arizona?
Katie: Well yeah, you can get cherries at the grocery store.
Me: No, but do they have cherry orchards there? And do they sell big bulk boxes at farm stands?
Katie: Ummm... no. I've never seen that here.

No, fruit that's not blooming off a prickly pear cactus is not easy to come by here. I almost fell over when I saw raspberries at the farmer's market today. And they looked much paler and sadder than any I've ever seen before (and probably cost around $10 for half a pint--not great jam-making prices).

 But last weekend, catching a farmer's market a little before closing, we met a guy who had cratefuls of gorgeous red-and-yellow heirloom tomatoes he didn't want to haul back to his farm. These fruity jewels were full of sugar, flavor, and fragrance, and taste like an entire different species of edibles from their grocery store, uh, cousins? Maybe? Unfortunately in Tucson, even the better grocery stores don't have exceptional produce. So when we were offered this incredible bounty for just $1.50 a pound, we scooped up 15.

I already have a good stash of lovely quartered tomatoes in juice from our garden last year, which aren't being used up very fast here. There's only so many hearty stews and braises you can crave when it's over 100 degrees for 39 days straight. But as I quickly learned, the Ball Book of Preserving doesn't stop at jams and jellies. Get to the back of the book and you get recipes for taco sauce, canned clams in saltwater, and cultivated canned mushrooms. Somewhere in the middle of the adventure spectrum are salsas. 

And if you're to find anything around here, it's bell peppers, onions, green chiles (a southern AZ specialty), and cilantro. One fun thing about the salsa recipes is that you get to pick your own peppers. They want "chili peppers" but that can mean anything from the benign poblano peppers up to habaneros with the casing and seeds left in (for when you want to give away really sadistic Christmas presents). Since we're living in the green chile capital, I wanted to show off the local flavors of our new home. I used half Anaheim chiles, a relatively mild and larger chile pepper, and half jalapenos. They grow so giant and beautiful here! Oregon jalapenos tend to look a little suicidal.

Oh no! But I have no jars! Whatever shall we do?

As fortune (or marketing genius) would have it, Ball just released their anniversary blue, antique-style jars this spring. Are they twice as much as clear jars? YES! Are they just blue and no better? YES! But if you don't understand why they're special, you do not understand me or this blog, and you might as well just go find some Susie Sensibility's Frugal Spartan Kitchen musings to try out.

The jar ransom paid, we returned to the cozy tile kitchen to slice and boil up a spicy storm. Even after the cooking process, this home-canned salsa has a surprisingly fresh flavor. Although you could use an immersion blender to get a smoother consistency, I prefer my salsa chunky, showing up the sparse harvest through blue-colored glasses.

Zesty Salsa (from the Ball Book of Preserving)
10 cups chopped, cored and peeled tomatoes (I didn't peel mine because the skins were so very thin. If you can find these kinds of heirloom varieties, it saves you a gigantic hassle)
5 cups chopped, seeded green bell peppers
5 cups chopped onions
2 1/2 cups chopped and seeded peppers. I used jalapenos and Anaheim chiles
1 1/4 cups cider vinegar
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tbsp fresh chopped cilantro
1 tbsp salt
1 tsp hot pepper sauce (Secret Aardvark, obvi!)

Prepare canner, jars, and lids. If you don't know how to do this, watch YouTube videos or take a class. It's the most important part!

In a large, stainless steel saucepan, combine tomatoes, green peppers, onions, chili peppers, vinegar, garlic, cilantro, salt, and hot pepper sauce. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring constantly. Reduce heat and boil gently, stirring frequently, until slightly thickened, about 10 minutes.

Ladle hot salsa into hot jars, leaving 1/2 inch headspace. Remove air bubbles and adjust headspace, if necessary, by adding hot salsa. Wipe rim. Center lid on jar. Screw band down until resistance is met, then increase to fingertip-tight.

Place jars in canner, ensuring that they are completely covered with water. Bring to a boil and process both 8-oz and 1-pint jars for 15 minutes. Remove canner lid. Wait 5 minutes, then remove jars, cool, and store.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Southwestward Ho - A Relaunch

A lot has happened since I made risotto.

Matt had an unexpected, un-turndownable job offer in Tucson, Arizona. We had a month to move. I had to quit my job. I had to find a new one. I had to pack up every last superfluous serving dish in my Oregon eden kitchen for a smaller place with tile floors and blue cabinets we had to choose off a leap of faith and the Internet. I have learned that there is a difference between Mexican and New Mexican food, and that I prefer the latter. I've discovered that there is a level of heat that can shrivel tomatoes off the vine, in opposition to our drowned Hubbard tomatoes. My canning supplies have sat collecting dust, for there are no berries in the desert.

I miss home. I miss my family and friends. I miss the seasons of the farmer's market and a trip over to New Seasons. Avocados and lemons are great here, but the blackberries lack juice and taste. In-N-Out Burger is delicious, but the fancy restaurants are more ho-hum than gung-ho. I miss driving through hazelnut groves on my way home from work, and I miss a summer that is not synonymous with "misery."

And I really miss my blog.

I might not be the only one, either. Whenever I set down a creative culinary adventure on our table (same table, 1500 mile away new digs), Matt asks me where the camera is. A few times when I logged on for one reason or another, the number of hits that Eats of Eden was receiving knocked me over (I thought I was all alone here since there aren't usually any comments on my yammerings... ya'll are a silent stalky bunch!).

So, I thought, maybe I'm not exactly in Eden anymore. Not right now, at least. For the unaware, Tucson summers rarely dip out of the triple digits, this year we're setting records, and now we're in monsoon season. That's when freaky lightening storms and flash floods sneak in. And no, it doesn't cool off that much. But in the fall, when we get our second growing season and can sit out on our porch at night again, it may be closer to that joy of land and food that I used to know.

Or, I still don't like it that much. But the Northwest is home, and will be waiting after an adventure. An adventure that would be better if I kept track of the stories.

We hosted a small, last-minute 4th of July party yesterday with a few of Matt's co-workers in town on business. I brought up Eats of Eden, my trove of favorites, for a few classics like Roosevelt Beans and Secret Aardvark Macaroni and Cheese. Matt smoked brisket (which would have probably cooked up just as toasty if thrown on the patio bricks), and I decided to re-visit my cooking nemesis: layer cake.

If you've read the couple of posts this year, you know that I royally botched my last layer cake. Although I was able to rescue the cake and filling into trifle form, it was a potential giant waste of expensive ingredients and precious time. Time, increasingly not on my side, since my commute is now an hour each way and, well, whine, it's hot. The oven sucks. But I had a vision. A vision of a beautiful red, white, and blue cake, heavily influenced by the fact that I walked out of Williams-Sonoma last week with a box of Ad-Hoc red velvet cake mix.

That's right, cake mix. Am I going soft? Probably. But when you're putting together a three-layer dessert after work on a Wednesday, you take a few shortcuts, all right?

Red velvet, white cake and cream cheese frosting, and the blue? A quite-homemade blueberry compote using some of the techniques I learned last summer from our cherry pie filling escapades. That Clear-Jel finally went to work down here making a cake layer filling so thick, even the light white cake in the middle of this masterpiece did not dare slide out of place.

I carefully assembled the layers, using a serrated bread knife to take off the top poofy layer of each cake layer to make a clean, flat surface and promote stability. I kept the blueberry compote about a 3/4" away from the edge of the cake so that it didn't smoosh out and tint the icing. I put the cake back in the fridge to chill and harden a smidge for about 20 minutes while the icing came to room temperature, spreadable without causing friction on the delicate cake.

And, yes, FINALLY! Nailed it. If I was actually good at photography, I'd stick this thing on Pinterest.

(Cool knife-holder-point Tucson).

The Red, White, & Blueberry Cake was the grand finale to an epic barbecue that won the "best meal on work trip to Tucson contest." Because that's how we do it in my 'hood. No matter where, at the moment, that happens to be.

Red, White & Blueberry Cake
1 box Red Velvet Cake mix, made to package directions for 2 9" rounds
1 box White Cake mix, made to package directions for 1 9" rounds (use the extra mix to make 6 cupcakes! Bonus yum!)
2 cups washed fresh blueberries
1 cup sugar
4 tablespoons Clear-Jel (you can use cornstarch, but I can't guarantee that your results will be as good and sturdy)
Juice of 1/2 lemon
2 packages cream cheese at room temperature
1/2 cup butter at room temperature
2 cups powdered sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
Toppings: blackberries, raspberries, and red white and blue sprinkles (these are the Williams-Sonoma natural series, and I am biased to their awesomeness)

While your mix cakes are all cooked and cooled to room temperature, make the blueberry compote. In a medium saucepan, bring the blueberries, 1 cup sugar, Clear-Jel, lemon juice, and 1 cup of water to a slow boil over medium heat, stirring frequently, and constantly as the mixture nears a boil. After hitting a boil, turn down to low and keep stirring until berries are bursting and the mixture is thick like jam. Think cranberry sauce-like consistency.

You can also make the frosting by creaming together the cream cheese, butter, and vanilla extract with a stand mixer. Slowly add the powdered sugar in 3 additions, and mix until all sugar is fully incorporated. Be sure the mixture is at room temperature before attempting to frost.

To prepare the cake layers, select your cake stand of preference, and invert one of the red velvet cakes onto it. With a serrated knife, take off the "poofy" top of the cake, leaving a smooth and even surface. Invert the other red velvet cake and white cake on a baking sheet, repeating the shearing process.

Take the cooled, room-temperature compote and place 1/2 cup into the middle of the cake stand cake. Using a spatula, work the compote out into an even layer that does not reach past 3/4" of the edge of the cake. Carefully remove the white layer cake from the baking sheet, and place atop the red and compote layer. Gently add another 1/2 cup of compote and spread as before. Top with the final layer of red velvet cake.

To frost, use a large spreading knife, and evenly coat the sides and top with icing. I had the best luck by starting on top and then turning the stand along with the knife for the sides, but I am not an authority on this so if you're an expert cake-froster, do your thing.

Use leftover compote to top your extra cupcakes, or make some banging waffles.

Top with berries and sprinkles. Absorb the awesome feeling of success and freedom from trifle dishes.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Day I Made the Best Risotto Ever

When I was twelve, I was completely obsessed with Kathryn Janeway on Star Trek: Voyager (super-cool, I know). But she was so kick-ass with that kicky bun, bossing everyone around--a geeky Hillary Clinton. So in the pre-Internet days of celeb-stalking, my dad brought me home an Entertainment Weekly she had been interviewed in. I mean, that Kate Mulgrew had been interviewed in. I'm not sure I knew the difference at the time. ANYWAY. Apparently Kate liked cooking, and they included her recipe for penne with vodka sauce (which I made, and got completely ill on, but that's a different story that's not so great for a cooking blog). What stuck with me, much longer than that pasta dish, was her quote about cooking for so many years that she stopped cracking her cookbooks open and just made shit up. I thought that was cool, being able to just make things out of whatever was around. But I was nearly two decades away from getting close.

I still can't cook everything without a recipe to reference, but in the past couple of years I've definitely gotten better about mixing up established guidelines or figuring out my own. The act of simply cooking in a kitchen, of turning off the more exhausting parts of your mind and reaching for an ingredient on a whim, for playing and unwinding over simmering saucepans and whisked sauces. You reach a state of Zen when you're purely creating that gets interrupted when you've got to keep thumbing through and re-reading instructions. I love getting there. When I'm there, I forget about the workday. I forget that the world is a cruel place. It's creativity with almost-instant gratification (as opposed to the achingly slow process of writing)--yummy, savored, joy.

Last night I decided to make risotto to go along with pork chops. There were a few strips of exceptional bacon in the fridge, and a bag of mushrooms, so I went with a woodsier profile on the ingredients. Because I didn't know any Italians to greatly offend, I added a splash of Worcestershire sauce. I didn't actually taste it in the end, but it's those little subtle things that set off the bolder flavors. Also because why not, I skipped the traditional Parmigiano Reggiano for shredded mozzarella. A subtle, almost non-cheese that melts into background gooey deliciousness.

When I took a bite, I couldn't believe how rich, salty, buttery and delicious these ingredients had become. The mushroom's slow fry-cook in the bacon's treasured leftovers was a cold season delight. Unlike most risotto I make, which is good, this stuff was memorable. Ethereal. Unforgettable. And the result of simply taking a trip into the daze of cooking.

I would suggest you take a voyage to the final frontier, but that is TNG, so it's like totally the wrong thing.

Mushroom-Bacon Risotto
4 1/2 cups chicken broth
1 1/2 cups Arborio rice
2 tbsp Olive oil
2 tbsp butter + 1 tbsp separated
4 strips bacon
2 cups sliced and de-stemmed baby portobello mushrooms
1 small onion, diced
4 cloves garlic
1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
Salt and pepper to taste

Start the broth simmering in a small saucepan.

In a fry pan or cast iron skillet, fry the bacon over medium-high heat until crisp. Remove and pat the bacon dry, reserving fat in the pan. Crumble the bacon into 1/4" pieces when it has cooled. In the same pan, melt the 1 tbsp butter with the bacon fat, then add the mushrooms and cook over medium heat until browning and softened. Remove mushrooms from the pan and reserve.

In a fresh pan, melt the 2 tbsp butter and add olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and cook, stirring frequently, for 5-6 minutes until onions begin to turn translucent. Keep stirring, and take care not to char the garlic. Add the Arborio rice and saute for one minute, until rice grains are thoroughly coated in oil. Add the wine and deglaze the pan for one minute, stirring constantly. While stirring, add one ladle scoop (about a cup's worth) of the warmed chicken broth. Stir risotto until the broth has fully incorporated into the rice, and when you run your spoon down the middle of the pan, the path remains dry. Keep adding broth by the spoonful until fully incorporated. This process will take 20-30 minutes. Stir in the reserved bacon, mushrooms with any accumulated juices, the cheese and Worcestershire. Allow cheese to melt and ingredients to warm through, salt and pepper to taste, and serve immediately.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Forty Minutes to Home

Last night I had a wonderful dinner at Ned Ludd with my old cheese business friend Jessica. Ned Ludd is on MLK in Northeast Portland, just a mile or so from my college dorm room. Back then there were no Pacific Northwest American Craft Kitchens, explained thusly on their neatly-designed websites:

American  Of, relating to, or characteristic of the United States or its inhabitants
Craft  An activity involving skill in making things by hand
Kitchen  A room or area where food is prepared and cooked

There was a Taco Bell, a greasy pizza place, a taco truck, a barbecue place that has sadly been chased out with the totality of the neighborhood's gentrification. I have to search for clues when I drive through Alberta and Killingsworth streets nowadays, hints that my first taste of Portland life wasn't a dream. There is the Alberta Co-Op Grocery, and a jazz mural. My dorm room is still there, although the campus has undergone a complete overhaul in the last decade. Returning to Northeast Portland is coming home to a home that now only exists in my memory.

The charming Ned Ludd restaurant, next to an adorable Quirky Girls-inspired bakery called Bushel & A Peck, was meticulously designed to look rustic. Cords of wood around the patio (to light the showcase wood-fired brick oven, natch), tiny glass terrariums hanging from shelves and tucked onto tables, and--chickens. Chickens everywhere. I even spotted a framed black-and-white photo of someone's beloved goat, placed next to a table I wasn't lucky enough to be seated at. Ball jars held homemade pickles, just like the one on my counter. I was sitting in a Portlandian approximation of my own home, the place where all these heirloom jewel cherry tomatoes and pastured hens came from. The whole place made me feel close to my own cooking home, down to the little metal hen perched next to my head.

Maybe I wasn't quite as far removed from my culinary heroes as I had been thinking. Off in Hubbard, hidden by hazelnut groves and free-range bunny pastures, I often feel as though I'm a Portland community imposter. Like someone who lives in Federal Way and claims to be a Seattleite. But maybe I'm in the heart of something less flashy, less hipster-packed, but just as special in its own contribution to food culture.

Maybe. But I'll still keep driving forty minutes into the city to brush against the metropolis, just like Portland chefs will keep sourcing their inspiration from my neck of the woods.

And a fake chicken looks fabulous in ANY setting.

Tonight I created my own version of a Ned Ludd American Craft Kitchen dinner. I don't have the gorgeous oven, but I did just get my very own cast-iron skillet, which I used to sear the organically-raised pork chops in. The Pastured Heirloom Hog Thyme-Rubbed Pork Chops with Cider Pan Jus (I can write mile-long food porn menus with the best of 'em, btw) are more technique than recipe. Remove from fridge and rub a half hour before cooking (so they don't hit the pan frigid), with salt, pepper and dried thyme (in the winter, if you're cooking in the summer time by all means, go pluck something fresh.... how I miss that luxury! Remember tomatoes??). Heat the oil in the skillet, and sear on each side for 4 minutes. Turn the heat off and cover for 8 minutes, which allows the pork chops to cook through.

To make the pan sauce--I mean, jus--remove the pork chops from the skillet and deglaze with cider vinegar. Add about 1/2 cup of vegetable broth and a teaspoon of flour to thicken. Season with salt and pepper, and serve.

I've been sick of the potato-rice side dish rotation, so tonight I branched into holiday tricks with a Pacific Northwest rustic focus spin. This is a slightly modified recipe from Epicurious, shrunk down to not serve a holiday crowd. The apples are an inspired pairing for the pork chops, and the wild rice lends a wonderful alternate texture from the bread. I love how crunchy the top of this stuffing gets, from the high heat and butter drizzle.

As much as I'd love to, I can't go to Portland every night. The cocktail tab alone would kill me. But sitting at my vintage tablecloth table, in the shadow of my faux chickens, I didn't feel so very far away.

Wild Rice Dressing with Apples
2 cups water
1/2 cup wild rice
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 cups dressing bread cubes (yes, they still sell them outside of Thanksgiving)
1/2 stick unsalted butter, plus 1 tablespoons melted
1 cup diced onion
1 cup diced celery
1 cup diced apple (I used a Granny Smith)
1 tsp dried parsley
1/2 tsp dried sage
1/2 tsp dried marjoram
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 tsp dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1/2 cup chicken broth

Bring water to a boil in a 2-quart heavy saucepan, then add rice and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Reduce heat to low and cook, covered, until rice is tender and most grains are split open, 1 to 1 1/4 hours (not all liquid will be absorbed). Drain well in a colander and spread out in a baking pan to cool completely.
Put oven rack in upper third of oven and preheat oven to 350°F.

Melt 1 stick butter in a large nonstick skillet over moderate heat, then cook onion, garlic and celery, stirring, until softened, about 8 minutes. Add apple and cook, stirring, until crisp-tender, about 5 minutes. Stir in herbs, pepper, and remaining teaspoon salt and cook, stirring, 2 minutes. Transfer to a large bowl and toss with rice, bread, and dried cranberries.

Increase oven temperature to 450°F and butter a baking dish.

Spread stuffing evenly in baking dish and drizzle with turkey stock and melted butter. Bake, covered tightly with foil, in upper third of oven until heated through, about 20 minutes. Remove foil and bake until top is browned, 10 to 15 minutes more.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013


You know that feeling when you create something so perfect, so whimsical, so photogenic and creative and fabulous that you get butterflies in your stomach thinking about how blissful it will be to pin it on your Lovely Culinary Successes board? Flip that feeling upside down, and you've got that moment where you've just spent $30 on specialty ingredients (which will sit in your pantry for at least a year before you find them mentioned in another recipe again), several hours on your feet in the kitchen and the results look like something a kindergartner whipped out of the kitchen after chugging Mountain Dew and being blindfolded. You know that what you've got will probably taste good, but you also know that people are going to be laughing their asses off and whipping out their phone cameras behind your back to capture your moment of epic faildom.

This, my friends, is the moment you NAILED IT.

We all nail it. At least, those of us who try our hands at this whole "baking" thing do. Baking and frosting and getting everything to come out without falling over--it's hard, damn it! And after a long day at work when you're distracted in between reading recipe steps, and something in your head is telling you that a direction may not sound right but who are you to say (it's not like you're some professional Recipe Writer, after all). It's a recipe for heartache, really.

My biggest Nailed It moment of my life so far (and don't worry, I'm certain I've far from exhausted my supply) was last Friday. I rushed home from work to get a Black Forest Cake in the oven. You can see the glory shot right there of the desired end result. Matt had gone to the store to get the special ingredients the King Arthur Flour recipe called for, like cake flour and the "good" dark chocolate bars. I had a precious jar of my homemade cherry pie filling made over the summer set to use. I was making the cake for a late Christmas party I was hosting the next morning for my in-laws, and since I only entertain them once a year I wanted to at least have something presentable.

But I was tired. And dreadfully cranky. And I should have known that something was amiss when I stuck the two chocolate cake pans in the oven thinking "hmmm, that batter looked way too thin." Twenty seconds later I realized I hadn't bothered to add the sugar to the batter, so I quickly yanked both pans out, dumped them back into the mixing bowl, and made quick amends.

When the (now sweetened) cakes had cooled, the recipe instructed me to whip the cream to soft peaks and layer between the halved cake layers. Soft peaks seem really soft, I thought as I sawed through the perfect cakes. And did these really have to be halved? Would this thing stand up to all the soft cream and thin cake?

By layer number two, with the whipped cream spreading like soup, I knew I had a problem. When the last layer crumbled atop the Jenga puzzle of a dreamy layer cake, the cursing and feeble cries commenced. And as I lamely tried splashing whipped cream over the tipped sides, I knew I was completely effed.

Yes. That happened.

For a few minutes, staring at The Blob, I panicked. I was all out of cocoa powder and cream. I'd shaved all the good chocolate. My beautiful cherries were trapped inside the wreckage. Think, Tabitha! For Christ's sake!


Yes, the trifle dish! I dashed to the pantry and grabbed the glass pedestal dish from the top shelf, just as my phone was going off with a response text from my mom: can you turn it into a trifle?


I carefully removed the top layer with a spatula, and reserved it on a separate dinner plate. Then, layer by layer, I began inverting the ruined cake into the big bowl. Like a parfait. Skimmed cream, cherries, cake broken into brownie-sized pieces. Repeated until adding the last layer, carefully, so the chocolate shavings and cream layer tops off the whole deal. Is it as pretty? Not quite. But it tastes the same, and if you tell everyone they're having trifle for dessert, they're none the wiser.

"Trifle!" My mother-in-law said when I brought out the bowl, "now that's way more interesting than cake."


(stock footage of trifle, as I was sick of photographing my food by the time I was done. However, I can highly recommend a cocktail alongside these endeavors).

Monday, December 31, 2012

Merry Christmas Casserole

I love traditions. In fact, I don't just love them, I'm very militant about them. Like when we were driving up to my parent's house near Seattle from our Portland home, and Matt mentioned our stockings.

"Wait, did you forget to pack the stockings?" he asked, and I could see them hanging from our fireplace, and the thought crossing my mind--I need to remember to throw those in the suitcase--before forgetting all together.

"Not the stockings!" I cried out, mentally kicking myself in the knees. The same stocking I had woken up with my whole life, which in almost 10 years I had never, ever forgotten to pack, now would spend Christmas morning empty and alone.

If we weren't almost to Kelso, I probably would have turned back.

So when my parents suggested that we eat Christmas breakfast before we opened presents this year, when every other year our breakfast was after, I almost freaked out. This is not how things are done! Everyone pointed out that I'm way too anal retentive. I had no case to argue back.

But the tradition of a new breakfast casserole recipe (though the great Breakfast Enchilada Casserole recipe was so good it stuck around a few years) slowly mitigated my frustration. This year was a recipe from Mom's favorite bakery authority, King Arthur Flour. It's a freaking biscuits, gravy and eggs casserole. How the hell do you get any better than that? (Well, you can see that little bottle of sriracha poking out in the corner of the picture.... and Mom's collection of Fiestaware somehow makes everything taste better). Breakfast was delicious with a new Christmas casserole winner crowned, I actually got the recipe, and all of the presents were just as nice to open while not on an empty stomach. In fact, just maybe I can be convinced to follow the same schedule next year. Now that it's established and all. As long as I have my stocking back.

Perhaps a good new year's resolution would be to try and be less of a control freak. But then I would be less me. And that simply won't do.

Christmas 2012 Sausage Biscuit Breakfast Casserole


6 tablespoons ( 3 oz) cold butter
3 cups (12 oz) unbleached self-rising flour
3/4 to 1 lb bulk breakfast sausage, cooked and drained:  save the fat and don't wash the skillet
3/4 to 1 cup (6-8 oz) cold buttermild or milk


2 tablespoons (1 oz) butter
2 tablespoons ( 1 oz) reserved fat from the sausage above
1 cup (5 1/2 oz) onions ( I had to leave this out due to onion haters in our family)
1/2 (2 1/2 oz) unbleached flour
3 cups (24 oz) milk
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon parsley
1/2 teaspoon thyme
1/2 teaspoon ground sage
ground fresh pepper


1 to 2 cups cooked vegetables (optional- suggestions were broccoli, red and green pepper, spinach etc)  
8 large eggs, hard boiled- no more than 10 min, peeled and cut into quarters.
2 cups (8 oz) grated cheese of your choice- pepperjack, cheddar or mixed-divided.

For the biscuits, Cut the butter into the flour until its the size of small peas.  Stir in the cooked sausage.  Add the milk and stir until the dough comes together.  Turn it out onto a floured piece of parchment, pat it into a 1/2" piece with floured hands then cut into 8 to 10 pieces.  Pull the pieces apart so there's an inch of space between them.  ( You're going to crumble the biscuits anyway so no need to cut them.)  Bake for 12 to 14 minutes at 350 until golden brown.  Remove from oven and cool.

For the sauce:  In the same skillet the sausage was cooked in, melt the butter and add back 2 tablespoons of the fat from the cooked sausage.  ( If you don't have enough fat, increase the butter to 1/4 cup).  Add the onions and cook over medium heat stirring to scrape up any flavorful bits on the bottom of the pan.  When the onions are translucent, stir in the flour.  Add the milk 1/4 cup at a time, stirring between the additions until smooth.  When all the milk is in, add the bay leaf, parsley, thyme, sage and several healthy grinds from the peppermill.  Bring the sauce to a low simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, for 10 to 12 min.  

To make the casserole:  Butter a 3 quart casserole.  Break up half the cooked biscuits and spread them evenly in the bottom of the pan.  If you want to add any other vegetables, sprinkle them over the biscuits.  Place the cooked eggs over all next, then pour the sauce on top.  Sprinkle the sauce with the grated cheese ( you can do half the pan with pepperjack and other half with cheddar).  Crumble the remaining biscuits over the top.  

To bake:   If you're making the casserole ahead, cover and refrigerate for up to 24 hours before baking.  Bake in a preheated 350 oven for 45 min, right from the fridge.  If you're baking right after you assemble the dish, it will be done in 30 min.  Remove from the oven and serve warm.  

Yield 12 servings ( or 5 if its our family) - haha! Note from mom. Love her. Seriously though, you'd have to be some skinny little bird-eaters to stretch out  to 12.