Monday, December 24

Merry Christmas Eve

It's Christmas Eve, and the spirited anticipation is building to a tangible level here.  My Chocolate Cherry Truffles are packed in pretty tin boxes, nestled between layers of parchment paper, ready to share with family and friends this evening.  I have Cookie Jar Gingersnaps baking in the oven and the house smells like fresh pine boughs and sweet holiday spice.  Traditional, old fashioned date bars will go in next, destined to be the star of our dessert table tonight.

I want to take this time to tell you all Thank You from the bottom of my heart.  Peanut Butter, Passports and Epinephrine has grown and blossomed this year, and it's all thanks to you.  Your kind comments and thoughtful insights mean so much to me!  I only hope I'm able to return the favour by providing inspiration, tasty recipes, and most importantly, a place of peace and tranquility in the buzzing and chaotic world of cyberspace.

So it's with much gratitude that I wish you all the magic that Christmas can bring.  From my family to yours ~ Merry Christmas!

Christmas–that magic blanket that wraps itself about us, that something so intangible that it is like a fragrance. It may weave a spell of nostalgia. Christmas may be a day of feasting, or of prayer, but always it will be a day of remembrance–a day in which we think of everything we have ever loved.
~ Augusta E. Rundell

Wednesday, December 19

A Quiet Christmas

The events of last week in Newtown, Connecticut have left us, as a nation, reeling in gut-wrenching sorrow, hot anger, and collective, stunned shock.  That something so horrific could happen to the vulnerable and most innocent of our society is simply nauseating.  I've spent the week grieving with silent tears for those who were lost that terrible morning.  Celebrating Christmas is farthest from my mind.  In fact, I haven't felt like doing much of anything, so I find myself staring at Pinterest for hours with indifference, marveling at the triviality of it all in the face of such tragedy.  The glittery lights, the tinseled trees, the bright packages wrapped in frivolous bows all seem so utterly inconsequential - I have half a mind to let the holiday slip quietly by without notice . . .

But I have children in whom the vivid magic of Christmas is still very much alive.  I see it sparkling in their bright eyes like the sun rise over a blanket of fresh, Colorado snow and, though my eyes have grown dim and clouded with tears, I must keep the season alive for their sake. 

So . . .  I'm back in the kitchen, busying myself with the comforting rhythm of holiday baking.  We have several holiday parties coming, so I need to have safe, nut-free cookies and sweets for Eve to bring along.  Not to mention that Santa, as my children recently informed me, would be devastated if he doesn't find a treat waiting for him by the fireplace on Christmas Eve.

I make truffles every year.  It's a Christmas tradition that I always look forward to.  They're so decadent and festive, and there's something so calming in stirring the luscious chocolate into the smooth, ivory cream.  Watching it melt together into a rich, velvety elixir, smooth as glass.  The fragrance of chocolate and vanilla envelope me in a blanket of warmth, and while it won't remove the grief, it does provide a measure of comfort in the darkest of times.  That's all anyone can ask for now - is it not?

As for Christmas this year, I will spend it quietly celebrating with those who are most dear to me, reflecting on the real reason for the season:  a Holy Baby, born to make a path for each and every one of those precious, murdered children into a joyous eternity.

To those who lost loved ones on that tragic day I extend my deepest and most sincere condolences.  May the Light of Christmas cut through the dark despair and shine with bright hope on your family this year.

I'll leave you with the recipe for my Chocolate Cherry Truffles, dedicated to twenty precious children and six adults who will forever be known as heroes. 

Christmas Blessings to you and yours.

Chocolate Cherry Truffles

1/2 cup heavy cream
2 tsp caster sugar
1/4 cup dried cherries
6 oz good, nut-free semisweet chocolate (54% cocoa)
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
Cocoa powder and icing sugar for dusting

Finely chop the chocolate and set aside.  Finely chop the cherries and toss with one teaspoon of cocoa powder and set aside.  In a medium sauce pan heat the cream and sugar together over medium heat, stirring gently until the sugar dissolves and the cream just starts to bubble.  Remove from the heat and whisk in the chocolate and vanilla.  Whisk until the chocolate is melted and the mixture is smooth and shiny.  Stir in the chopped cherries.  Cover the pot and chill in the refrigerator for 45 - 50 minutes.

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.  When the mixture has chilled scoop heaping teaspoon-sized dollops onto the parchment paper.  You should be able to make about 20 dollops.  Place the baking sheet in the refrigerator to chill for another 15 - 20 minutes. 

When the chocolate is firm, roll each dollop into a ball and then roll in cocoa powder.  Work fast, as they will start to melt almost immediately.  Place the truffles back on the baking sheet and refrigerate until chilled through.  Just before serving, dust with icing sugar.

Monday, December 17

Slow Cooker Chicken alla Pizzaiola

In my kitchen the week before Christmas is defined by simple, easy, everyday meals, and my crock pot works overtime.  With the extra baking for holiday get-togethers, class parties, and cookies for Santa, I like to keep dinners simple and stress-free.  After all, don't we all need a bit of simplicity this time of year?

Chicken alla Pizzaiola was created with my kids' two favourite foods in mind: pizza and chicken.  Alla pizzaiola means in the style of the pizza maker, and is most commonly characterized by a rich, herb-y, tomato-based sauce; however, it can refer to anything that combines the flavours of pizza.  Tomatoes, oregano, bell pepper, garlic all form the foundation of this dish, and I like to think that this is how a pizza maker would prepare chicken.  Since my kids have been asking for chicken legs (what they call "chicken on the bone") for a while, I decided to surprise them with a fun variation of their favourites.

The chicken is slowly simmered in a mélange of white wine with a touch of fish sauce until so tender and moist that it's nearly falling off the bone.  Our favourite pizza toppings blanket the chicken and marry into the perfect pizza-esque sauce.  Consequently, the whole house smells like one of the finest pizzerias around, and your family will be salivating long before dinner is ready.  I served it over a bed of pasta tossed with brown butter and parmesan cheese. 

You may be asking, Fish sauce in wine?  Really?  Yes, the fish sauce is imperceptible but its savory, meatiness (what some call umami) adds the perfect balance of flavour to this dish, and it mimics the anchovies we love on our pizza.  It can be left out if you're really adverse, but I wouldn't recommend it.  If you don't happen to have fish sauce you could break an anchovy fillet into the wine.  It will disappear into the sauce as the dish cooks.

This meal is so simple and, except for the addition of olives and parsley at the end, there are virtually no finishing steps which makes it perfect for these hectic days of long lines and last minute shopping.

Wishing you a stress-free final countdown to Christmas!

Tuesday, December 11

Winter Song

For two days now this sweet bird has been serenading me from the top of the tree outside my kitchen window.  If only it was warm enough to cook with the windows open!  It's as if nature herself is finally singing the glorious arias of winter and all the joyous carols of Christmas!
(p.s. This is a gorgeous male Northern Flicker.)   

Monday, December 10

Old Fashioned "Snowy" Brownies

Last weekend I took little Eve to her very first classical Christmas concert with a large city choir in which my mother sings.  I was a little apprehensive before we left.  Could I really expect a three year old to sit quietly through two hours of Baroque music sung completely in Latin?  I should never have doubted her though, as she sat rapt with excitement watching her grandma sing.  And she came away with a good dose of "culture" to boot.

The splendour of the music and the joy of the season made us feel like celebrating, and as we drove through the town centre thousands of tiny, sparkling Christmas lights reflected on the fluffy snowflakes which had just begun to float through the icy sky.   It was one of those picture perfect, postcard Christmas moments that people write happy songs about, and I wish I could have preserved it forever.

At home that evening I whipped up a celebratory batch of these old fashioned brownies, and put them in to bake as we ate a late dinner.  Oh, the smell of chocolate baking on a snowy December evening!  Is there anything better?

OK, I'll just come out and say it . . . I don't like ooey-gooey brownies.  I may be the only person in the world who doesn't, but it's the truth.  These cake-like brownies were my great-grandmother's and they're what we grew up eating as kids.  Old fashioned brownies are generally dense, thick, and cakey - not gooy - just the way I like them.  They're not overly sweet, just perfect, with a finishing touch of icing "snow" on top (which is how they got their name).  Of course, I've modified her recipe and made it more modern (does anyone really cook with oleo anymore?), and added just a touch more chocolate (you can never have too much).

Tuesday, December 4

Sweet Sausage and Wild Rice Pilaf

When the weather becomes cooler it seems I have an unquenchable urge to stuff vegetables.  It's something I don't feel in any other season.  I love the idea of a complete meal tucked into an edible package with a cute little "lid," slowly baked in the oven until tender and perfectly caramelized.  Stuffed vegetables are so pretty sitting on the plate, and my kids get such a kick out of peeking under the "lid" to see what tasty surprise awaits them - like a fun present at dinner time.  The pilaf stuffing can be made well in advance so when it comes time to cook you simply clean and hollow out the peppers (or zucchini, or aubergines, or sugar pumpkins, or whatever vegetable tickles your fancy), stuff them, and pop them in the oven for an hour.  It makes for one of the easiest weekday meals.

Incidentally, why doesn't anyone make rice pilaf these days?  Several years ago it was all the rage and pilaf recipes were everywhere.  It seems to have fallen out of fashion, though, which is a shame because it's a delicious, easy weeknight meal, and a simple lunch the next day.