Ginger Cranberry Scones

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Having less choice is a good thing.

When we have friends or family spend the night, I don't deliberate about what to make for breakfast. If we don't send someone on a donut run (if you lived near Lafeen's, you would too), I am predictable. Broiled eggs and some kind of scone, biscuit, or muffin. And more predictably than that, some version of these scones.

Isn't there so much pressure to be novel all the time? Pinterest, Rachel Ray's infinite hamburger combinations, piles and piles of new cookbooks being published every day. Do you want to know my little secret? I don't buy cookbooks! I love to browse at the bookstore and ones with beautiful photos certainly inspire me. And I will happily receive them as gifts. But I only own about 30 cookbooks. More than being frugal or trying to save space, the main reason I don't add to my collection is because all those possibilities overwhelm me. When it comes to making family dinners or something tried and true when we have company, those beautiful cookbooks don't seem to help me much.

I love to quote Christopher Kimball who says that most of us don't need more recipes. We just need to perfect a handful of things that we're good at. After that, it's easier to get inspired by novel things. For me, this repertoire is a few soups I can make in my sleep (minestrone, potato leek, lentil, mulligatawny), anything that can be baked all together on a big sheet pan (sausages with peppers, salmon with bok choy, chicken thighs with practically anything), a few pasta basics (puttanesca, tomato cream sauce with lots of sauteed veggies melting into the sauce), frittatas, and some sweets--galettes, pies, scones, biscuits. Sometimes (or most the time?), much as I love food, I don't really have the energy to THINK about being novel, let alone actually doing it. 

I love these scones, based on a recipe from Nick Malgieri's How to Bake, for many reasons. They can be made in the food processor. They're full of oats. The dough is soft but still easy to work with, and they emerge moist and sturdy at the same time. Three cheers for predictability!

Ginger Cranberry Scones
So many things can be subbed out for the ginger and dried cranberry. Add raisins. Or no dried fruit. Or take the sugar out and add shredded cheddar and dried dill instead. I often serve them that way with soup. Or make your own chai spice mixture and use dried apricots and figs.

1 1/2 c. flour
1 1/2 c. oats
1/3 c. brown sugar
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. dried ginger
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 cube unsalted butter, cut into 8 pieces
1 c. buttermilk
1/2 c. dried cranberries
1/4 c. candied ginger, finely chopped 

For topping:
1/4 c. buttermilk
cinnamon sugar mixture 

Preheat oven to 400.

In a food processor, combine first 8 dry ingredients and pulse a couple times to mix.

Add butter and pulse about 10 times until butter is in pea-sized lumps. Add buttermilk, cranberries, and ginger and pulse just until dough holds together, about 5 or 6 times.

Turn dough onto a floured surface, knead a couple times, then divide the dough into two equal balls. Using your hands, flatten each round until it's about 1" thick and cut each round into 6 equal wedges for a total of 12 triangular scones. Transfer to a parchment lined baking sheet. Brush each scone with buttermilk and spinkle a generous amount of cinnamon sugar over each. Bake for 12-15 minutes, watching carefully after 10 minutes so they don't get too crunchy on the outside. Let them cool for a few minutes before serving plain or with butter.

Pebbly Beach Fruit Squares

Pebbly Beach Fruit Squares

For those of you aspiring to eat less sugar and more kale, I hear you. I'm with you. But on a cookie-baking roll. Forgive me.

Alice Medrich's Chewy Gooey Crispy Crunchy Melt-in-your-Mouth Cookies isn't helping matters. I haven't come across a baker that GETS COOKIES like she does. As you know, I'm a cookie person. Just by looking, I'm able to tell a great cookie from an okay one, and a passable one from a don't-waste-your-calories one. And I'm also aware that cookies baked in most home ovens often don't turn out like the OMG ones you might get at your favorite bakery. If you stick with Alice, she'll help you.

I could say a lot more about cookies and even my philosophy about having them sitting around the house. (The short version is I allow myself one when they are warm and about two more over the course of the batch/days. The rest go in the kids lunches or are given away as gifts.) 

But I want to talk about my dog! I am so pathetic. I'm eating a giant slice of humble pie every day. I used to think, "Spare me! People and their pets! What are all these pet super stores doing popping up? Why do people need to get home to their dog, for Pete's sake?" The universe is laughing as I follow Padre around with my camera, look for opportunities to introduce his existence into every conversation, and find myself talking with other dog owners like we have just brought fragile babies home from the hospital. 

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One of the values I articulated for myself in this new year, pre-Padre, was the value of Playfulness. Not to take myself too seriously, to stop what I'm doing and play with my children, and to be more unorthodox with how I spend my time or what I find humorous. Clearly, the shortcut to all of this is having a dog. You can read a bunch of self-help books, search for funny skits on YouTube, take an art class. OR you can get a dog. And enjoy his unrelenting love and loyalty, the way he gets you outside, and the way he's always waiting at the door for you.

snuggles

Alice Medrich's Pebbly Beach Fruit Squares
I had to read these directions carefully to visualize how these cookies are formed, but I found the dough easy to work with and didn't experience any problems. You can use any dried fruit, and she instructs to soak it in water, fruit juice, or wine to soften it. But only for 20 minutes. I soaked my dried cranberries in orange juice. Yum. And I used lemon zest and just mixed the softened butter and sugar with a spoon. Anything to avoid getting out the mixer. The kids and I pronounced these divine. 

P.S. Alice is big on refrigerating your dough, which develops the flavor of the cookies, makes them less prone to spread in the oven, and makes your dough easier to work with. This dough requires 2 hours of refrigeration.

Makes 32 2 1/2" squares.

1 1/2 c. plus 2 Tb. flour
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
8 Tb. (1 stick) unsalted butter
3/4 c. granulated sugar
1 large egg
1 tsp. vanilla
1 Tb. finely grated lemon zest or 1 tsp. cinnamon or anise
1 c. moist dried fruit (raisins, cherries, cranberries, apricots, candied ginger, dates, prunes) 
1/4 c. turbinado or other coarse sugar

Combine the flour, baking powder, and salt in a bowl and mix together thoroughly.

With a large spoon in a medium mixing bowl or with a mixer, beat the butter with the granulated sugar until smooth and well-blended but not fluffy. Add the egg, vanilla, and lemon zest and beat until smooth. Add the flour mixture and mix until completely incorporated.

Divide the dough in half and form each into a rectangle. Wrap the patties in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or overnight. 

Preheat the oven to 350 and position racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven.

Remove the dough from the refrigerator and let sit for 15 minutes to soften slightly. On a sheet of parchment paper or plastic wrap, roll one piece of dough into a rectangle about 8 inches by 16 inches. With the short side facing you, scatter half the dried fruit on the bottom half of the dough. Fold of top half of the dough over the fruit, using the paper as a handle if it's sticking. Peel the paper from the top of the dough. Dust the top of the dough lightly with flour. Flip the dough onto a lightly floured cutting board and peel off the remaining paper. Sprinkle with half the coarse sugar and pat lightly to make sure the sugar adheres. Use a heavy knife to trim the edges. Cut into 4 strips and cut each strip into 4 pieces to make 16 squares. Place cookies 2" apart on parchment-lined or greased cookie sheets. Repeat with the remaining dough, fruit, and sugar.

Bake for about 12 minutes, or until the edges are VERY lightly browned. Rotate the pans from top to bottom and from front to back halfway through the baking time to ensure even baking. Cool cookies completely before stacking or storing.

Gingerbread Cranberry Trifle

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I've been reading Gretchen Rubin's Happier at Home lately and laughing at all her little lists, rules for life, resolutions, and mantras. Laughing because I relate so completely to wanting to categorize the world that way. I won't go so far as to say we're two peas in a pod (her pod happens to be more disciplined and successful than mine) but I'm sure we'd enjoy a cup of coffee with one another.

She has a rule to Keep it Simple. Unless it leads to too much simplicity! She says,

 I was always telling myself, "Keep it simple." But as Albert Einstein pointed out, "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler." I was made happier by my decision to bring paper plates, not home-baked muffins, to Eleanor's school party, but "Keep it simple" wasn't always the right response. Many things that boosted my happiness also added complexity to my life. Having children. Learning to post videos to my website. Going to an out-of-town wedding. Applied too broadly, my impulse to "Keep it simple" would impoverish me. "Life is barren enough surely with all her trappings," warned Samuel Johnson, "let us therefore be cautious how we strip her."

I would put food and cooking into the "Happy Complexity" category. Making thoughtful decisions about what to feed my family, keeping a stocked pantry, cooking every day. All of this boosts my happiness, but it surely adds complexity. I always joke that if I were to add up the hours I spend planning, shopping, prepping, cooking, eating, and cleaning up, I'd go into shock.

Yancey and I are going to his work Christmas party tonight. His world at the fire station is so separate from mine, and it's a rare chance to meet his shift-mates and their partners and have a night away from the kids. Yancey signed up for the dessert slot, and I decided not to Keep it Simple. Instead, I made this trifle between basketball games, and it's made the house smell amazing all day. (Gretchen also talks about her rule of Embrace Good Smells. Check.)

Out of all the desserts in the world I could make, I chose this one because:

  1. I've made it before. As Christopher Kimball says, new recipes aren't what most of us need. We need to master a few good ones. I love pulling things out of my back pocket.
  2. Oil-based cakes like this gingerbread one are foolproof. You're not creaming butter and sugar, it's guaranteed to be moist.
  3. I adore ginger, gingerbread, and the tang of cranberries. Even though this dessert is definitely sweet, it's a spicy break from the over-the-top sugar that's around every corner at Christmas.
  4. No cooking eggs for a custard! Even I stress over custard occasionally. This mascarpone-based custard couldn't be easier.
  5. One trifle bowl will easily feed 15 adults, and it transports well.

And, to remind myself mostly, here's the Christmas Pledge I've posted at least once before. Thank you for being such a joyful part of my year:

The Christmas Pledge:

  1. To remember those who truly need my gifts.
  2. To express my love for family and friends in more direct ways than presents.
  3. To rededicate myself to the spiritual growth of my family.
  4. To examine my holiday activities in light of the true spirit of Christmas.
  5. To initiate one act of peacemaking within my circle of family and friends.

Gingerbread Cranberry Trifle
This is adapted from Epicurious. I found their recipe overly complicated, so yes, I made it simpler! You'll need a deep trifle dish or big glass bowl for this. I found the recipe made more than my trifle dish held, so I made mini trifles in drinking glasses with the rest. Fun and cute. Really any straight-sided glass vessel will work. The one pictured is packed in a glass cannister. I put a lid on it and gave it as a gift.

You'll need to have this assembled and in the fridge at least 4 hours before you need it as the "mushing" time is crucial for trifles. If you made it the night before, it would be even better.

Wine-poached cranberries
2 cups fruity red wine (such as Syrah)
2 cups sugar
16 oz. fresh or frozen cranberries

Gingerbread cake
1 c. extra stout (such as Guinness)
1 c. molasses
1 1/2 tsp. baking soda
2 c. flour
2 Tb. ground ginger
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
3/4 tsp. ground cinnamon 
1/4 tsp. ground cloves
1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg
3 large egs
1/2 c. sugar
1/2 c. packed brown sugar
3/4 c. vegetable oil

Mascarpone cream:
3 8 oz. containers mascarpone cheese (3 cups)
3 c. chilled heavy cream
1 1/2 c. powdered sugar
3 Tb. Grand Mariner or orange liqueur
4 tsp. finely grated orange peel

For wine-poached cranberries:
Stir wine and sugar in a large saucepan over medium heat until sugar dissolves. Increase heat and boil wine mixture for 5 minutes. Add cranberries and simmer until soft but still intact, about 5 minutes. Transfer mixture to a bowl and chill. Before using, pour cranberry mixture through a strainer to separate cranberries and syrup.

For cake:
Combine stout and molasses in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat; stir in baking soda (mixture will foam up). Pour into a bowl and put in the fridge to cool down.

Preheat oven to 350. Generously butter 3 8" cake pans and dust with flour.

Whisk flour and next 6 ingredients in a large bowl to blend. Whisk eggs and sugar in a medium bowl, then whisk oil and cooled stout mixture into egg mixture.  Gradually add flour mixture to stout-egg mixture and divide batter between prepared pans. It will look like it's not enough. Don't worry--you're going to cut the cake up into cubes, so it doesn't have to be all pretty and fluffy.

Bake until inserter comes out clean, about 25 minutes, switching pans on racks halfway through to ensure even cooking. Cook cakes in pans for 15 minutes, then turn out onto racks or a piece of parchment paper. Once cakes are cool, use a serrated knife to cut the cake into 1" cubes.

For mascrapone custard:
Using electric mixer, beat mascarpone in large bowl until smooth. Add all remaining ingredients and beat until peaks form and mixture is smooth. (Don't overbeat as mixture may curdle.) The mixture will look too wet at first. Don't despair. Pretty soon it will start to get more of a whipped cream look. Cover and chill up to 2 hours (though you can use it immediately).

To assemble trifle:
Line of the bottom of your trifle dish with cake cubes, making sure you're covering the bottom while still leaving a tiny bit of wiggles room. Spoon about 2 Tb. of cranberries and a bit of the syrup over the cake cubes. Top the cake and cranberry layer with about 1 1/3 c. mascarpone cream, and repeat 3 more times, ending with a layer of cream. Sprinkle some more orange zest over the top, cover with plastic wrap (which means your trifle will have to stop just below the rim of your dish), and refrigerate for at least 4 hours.

To serve, use a long spoon and dish it into bowls.

What I Bring to Potlucks

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I feel two ways about potlucks. On one hand, they're the only sensible way for a big group to gather and eat together. In all my magazine-reading (have I mentioned how much I love magazines? The paper kind?), I often come across "Easy Do-Ahead Party Menus!" that look atrocious. More work than I have ever put into having anyone over in my life. Maybe each step is technically easy, but you'd still have to be unemployed (or have a kitchen staff), hyper organized, and LOVE cooking to pull it off. So potlucks solve this problem.

However, *&%$#!. Sometimes too many potlucks stack up in one week, and I find they are just as much work (or more) than what I would have made for my family that night. And I have occasionally cursed potlucks, though please don't tell anyone. Puget Sounders are supposed to love them. Always.

I adore people that bring a hot, main dish to potlucks. People with crockpots (I gave mine away as it was suffering from disuse), people with those handy Rubbermaid sets with thermal jackets. If you're one of those, thank you! Keep doing your thing!

As for me and my house, we will supply the salad. It's usually something like this one--brown rice and kale salad with cranberries and pecans. Here's my reasoning:

  1. It's vegan and gluten free. And I label it as such. 
  2. It's filling. Though I'm not a Main Dish Super Hero (God bless you!), it's conceivable that someone could eat a **#load of this and feel fairly satisfied.
  3. It's delicious. Have I ever let you down? (Don't chime in if I have. I know readers have slaved over some recipes and been ruinously disappointed. I'm sorry!)
  4. It is best served room temperature (Potluck Royalty!).
  5. It can sit in its vinaigrette forever and just get better. You don't have to worry about it getting soggy.
  6. Crazily, I usually have everything I need for a version of this salad--grains, greens, homemade vinagrette. If you wash and dry kale and put it in a ziploc bag in the fridge, it lasts a really long time. (Though it gets gobbled up around here. Along with a latte and Triscuits, it's the food I eat almost every day.)
  7. It looks bright and beautiful with the macerated cranberries and the green kale. There's never any left.

And for those of you that have been following this blog since its inception almost 4 years ago, you might remember the very first recipe I posted was something similar--Barley and kale salad with dried cherries and blue cheese. I had taken it to my Mom's birthday party and been accosted with requests for the recipe. I prided myself on always delivering recipes (handwritten and cobbled together from memory) to people who asked for them, but had the idea of putting it online to save my fingers from so much work. I made up the name on-the-spot, and I've always been glad I didn't think it about it much. Otherwise it wouldn't have happened. (I have a couple dear friends who are contemplating--and contemplating some more!--the idea starting a blog. Just get out there. We'll all be better for it.)

Happy Week of Giving Thanks. As always, I'm thankful for you.

Kale and Brown Rice Salad with Cranberries and Pecans
You could use white rice, barley, quinoa...so many other grains here. The important thing is that it's had a chance to cool down a little bit so the grains can separate. If you can't cook it ahead of time and chill it, just spread it out in a very shallow layer, drizzle a little bit of olive oil over it, and stir it occasionally to release the steam.

4 cups cooked grain (I made brown rice in my rice cooker the day before)
1 large bunch curly green kale, de-stemmed, washed, dried, and coarsely chopped
1/2 c. toasted pecans, coarsely chopped
2 Tb. honey
salt and pepper
2 garlic gloves
4 Tb. apple cider vinegar
1/4 c. olive oil 
1/2 red onion, thinly sliced 
1/2 c. dried cranberries

For dressing:
Combine honey, salt and pepper, garlic, vinegar, and olive oil with an immersion blender. (Or with a whisk if you use a garlic press.) Add more of anything to taste. Drop the sliced onions and dried cranberries into the dressing to marinate.

To assemble salad:
In a large bowl, combine rice, kale, and dressing. I use my hands. Make sure everything is covered with the vinaigrette. That's what makes this salad. Scatter the toasted pecans over the top and maybe a little more coarse salt and pepper.