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Roasted Tomatoes

When I was young, tomatoes were up towards the top of my Most Hated Foods list. My mother once paid me $20 to eat a slice of one (a slice). I did it, but I definitely did not enjoy it. But then I grew up, and I developed those “mature taste buds” that everyone was telling me I’d have eventually. And I realized that tomatoes are quite delicious.

OK, confession: I still have a bit of a neurosis when it comes to tomatoes. See, I’m not sure I believe that any of our taste buds “mature” (in the strictly biological sense), as much as I think we all give in to trying things we’d shunned in our younger years, to avoid being that person. And so, I had to deconstruct my childhood enemy The Tomato and figure out what exactly it is that I don’t like about it. The answer: those gross, slimy, seed-ridden guts. Ick. And I’m glad I figured it out, because now I can enjoy things like these roasted tomatoes!

 

This is pretty much the perfect use for all of those smaller tomatoes you’ve got hanging around that you have no other use for. It seemed like my roma tomato plant turned into a monster overnight. And as I was driving several different stakes into the soil and tying up the endless branches laden with oddly-small tomatoes, I was saying to myself, “dude, what are you going to do with all these things?” They’re too small for sandwiches. I’m feeling too lazy for sauce. Oh wait, cut them in half and throw them in the oven? Yes.

 

FYI: Roasted tomatoes = stupid good. With all of the garlic and basil I added, they taste like little bite-size bits of the most delicious tomato sauce. I had plans to use them on a pizza, and I had to hide them behind a bunch of other, annoying-to-move things in the fridge to keep myself from snacking incessantly. I can’t wait to get back to my freakish tomato plant in Vermont and make some more!

Roasted Tomatoes

  • lots of small tomatoes (I used roma/grape tomatoes, though anything small would probably work)
  • garlic, minced
  • basil, minced
  • olive oil
  • salt

Preheat your oven to 250°. Cut your tomatoes in half. De-seed them if you’re crazy (err . . . “particular”) like me.

Place tomatoes in a bowl. Drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt, and toss to coat. You could also throw in the basil and garlic at this point and toss to evenly distribute those, but I wanted to make sure that I got every little bit of garlic and basil inside of the tomatoes. To do this, I arranged the tomatoes, cut-side up, on a baking sheet. I then pushed them all together to make sure nothing could fall between, sprinkled the basil and garlic over them, rearranged them to be evenly-spaced, and put the sheet in the oven.

Bake for about an hour and a half or more (depending on how large/small your tomatoes are, and how “roasted” you want them to be). I prefer mine to be closer to sundried tomatoes. They were quite small, and I took them out after an hour and a half. Just check them after about an hour. When they look perfect to you, take them out. Eat them on anything! Pasta, pizza, with cheese and crackers, by themselves . . . whatever you like! They will make most anything taste even better. 🙂

Poached Eggs, Avocado, & Smoked Salmon on English Muffins

A couple years ago, I was addicted to sliced avocado on buttered whole wheat toast. I think I ate it for breakfast almost every day for several months straight. Then one Sunday, I decided that it would be the perfect cure for a particularly bothersome hangover I was nursing. I made it. I devoured it. I felt even worse. And so ended the reign of avocado toast in my world of breakfast.

Then last week, I found saw this post on Framed Cooks.  Mmmmm. I felt the avocado hunger returning. Since then, all I’ve been able to think about is avocado + egg + smoked salmon.  I even made my boyfriend a smoked salmon and scallion omelette topped with avocado . . . for dinner. Today, I made myself this delightful little number for breakfast. And I endured a grumbling tummy and a lukewarm (but still delicious) end result so that I could show it to all of you!

Poached Eggs, Avocado, & Smoked Salmon on English Muffins

  • 2 large eggs
  • half of an avocado
  • smoked salmon
  • cheese, sliced (I used jarlsberg, though I drool thinking about how deliciously decadent this would have been with brie)
  • an english muffin
  • vinegar (for poaching the eggs)

Remove avocado from its skin and mash it in a small bowl. Add a small squeeze of lemon, if you have one handy (I did not).

Toast the english muffin and top it with cheese, avocado, and smoked salmon.

To poach the eggs:
Begin heating water in a pan over high heat. You want your water to be no more than a couple inches deep (otherwise your egg whites will feather out and separate when you drop the egg into the water). Crack each egg into a separate bowl. When the water is nearing a boil, add 1–2 tbsps of vinegar to the pan (I used white vinegar this time, but I’ve used apple cider vinegar in the past as well). The vinegar will help hold the egg together, as it makes the whites congeal more rapidly. Once the water and vinegar reaches a boil, reduce to a simmer. Gently slip the eggs into the water, doing your best to do so in one fell swoop (to keep the egg as “together” as possible), then turn off heat entirely. (Some people leave it on simmer for the entire time, but this is what works for me.) Using a spoon, nudge the whites back towards the egg. Cover the pan and let eggs sit for 4 minutes. (I removed the lid after 3 minutes to gently nudge the yolk, to make sure it was still a little soft.) When the yolk is cooked to your liking, gently remove them from the water with a slotted spoon.

Place each egg on top of your english muffin halves. Add salt and pepper to taste, then dig in!

Chocolate Espresso Cookies

Where did February go? What did I do? Apparently, I made coffee cake—that was a good idea. I joyfully stomped around in the giant puddles brought about by enormous mounds of snow melting in near-60° weather. I slipped and fell on my butt in front of the fire department the following day, when the melted snow turned to sheets of ice on a 12° morning. Not cool, Nature. Not cool. (And can you believe that not one strapping young fireman came running out to save me? Come on!) And what else? Oh, that’s right—I WORKED. Like crazy. For those who don’t know, here’s a quick insight into my job: I work from home doing book composition for a NY-based company. And even though I know this is the time of year when things begin to get hectic, it always seems to take me by surprise. On the plus side, my mild case of insanity has done wonders for my metabolism. I’ve been seriously over-using my stress-combating technique of stuffing cheese and crackers into my face while intermittently growling at my computer, and yet I’m losing weight. How? Who cares! Bring me more cheese!

Okay, enough about non-cookie-related topics. Oh wait, I’m sorry, just one more thing that happened in February. My very sweet boyfriend gave me a half dozen of these delicious and adorable chocolate-covered long-stem strawberries for Valentine’s Day.

Look at them—all dressed up!

Alright, now I’m done. On to the cookies that inspired a redesign of my blog (which was definitely overdue). I’ve had this Brown Eyed Baker recipe bookmarked for over a year now. On the day I finally decided to make it, I did so because I was craving brownies, but in a smaller, less dense form. Brownies I could eat two or three of without feeling like a big piggy. With a nice espresso kick too. And these things totally hit the spot. (I made them a little bit smaller than the ones on BEB, because I really wanted to be able to eat several of them in one sitting!)

Chocolate Espresso Cookies
(adapted from Brown Eyed Baker)

yield: around 3 dozen cookies

  • 2⅔ cups (around 16 oz.) bittersweet chocolate, chopped
  • 4 tablespoons of butter, softened
  • 4 eggs
  • 1⅓ cups of granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • ½ cup of all-purpose flour
  • ½ teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 tablespoon espresso
  • 1 cup semisweet or bittersweet chocolate chips

Preheat over to 350°. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

Melt chocolate and butter in a double boiler, stirring occasionally, until a smooth mixture forms. While chocolate and butter are melting, combine eggs, vanilla, and sugar in a large bowl and set aside.

Sift together flour, baking powder, and espresso. Beat chocolate and butter into the egg mixture until well combined. Gradually beat in flour, baking powder, and espresso until a smooth batter forms. Stir in chocolate chips.

(Note: Your batter should be rather runny [like brownie batter]. If you’d like to firm it up a little, just stick it in the fridge for half an hour or so.)

Drop tablespoons of batter on to your parchment paper–lined cookie sheet. Give them a little space, because they will spread out a bit. Bake for 8–10 minutes, or until they’re firm on the outside.

Homemade Vanilla Extract: Giveaway!

Way back in mid-October, I’d already decided on the treat-trifecta I would be doling out to friends and family during the holidays: vanilla extract, handmade orecciette, and candied citrus peels. It is currently t-minus 3 days to christmas, and I have completed one of those items. Well, one and a half . . . ish. I made one gift bag of orecciette for a yankee swap; it took up three hours of my time and a majority of my counter space. Doing that again, for a dozen more gifts? Nuh uh. Not happening. And as for the citrus peels, watching a pot of boiling sugar water for several hours and cleaning stickiness off of everything in my kitchen is pretty much at the top of my list of Things I Don’t Want To Do right now. But in my world, where ambition is constantly pitted against laziness-fueled procrastination, one out of three ain’t bad.

Because I love the idea of homemade vanilla extract so much (which—to give credit where credit is due—I originally discovered here), I really wanted to post this in late November / early December, so that you too might have a chance to make your own and delight all of the bakers on your gift list. It’s hard to find a more perfect gift for a habitual baker. Not only is it practical, adorable, and easy to make (once you’ve collected all the components), it is also virtually endless. Every time I run out of vanilla extract, I wind up in the baking aisle, begrudgingly scanning the bottles and trying to convince myself that it really is ok to spend $7+ on a tiny amount of liquid, because I will only be using it a teaspoon at a time. But this will be a problem no more! Once you begin to run low, you just add a little more vodka.

Anyway, since I’m way too late to inspire any of you to make this yourselves (for this holiday season, at least), I would like to give a few away! It’s the least I can do. Please forgive me for being lazy. I’ve got three up for grabs. Just comment on this post by midnight on Sunday. I will choose the three people at random, and announce the winners early next week. Hurray for free things!

Now, for those of you who would like to make your own extract, here’s how it’s done. First, you need a bunch of vanilla beans. I purchased a half pound of bourbon vanilla beans from Beanilla. Next, you’ll need a bunch of 4 oz. bottles and caps (I bought a couple dozen from the Specialty Bottle company). And last, you’ll need some vodka. The cheap stuff is fine, just make sure it’s unflavored. As for labels, I just bought some label paper from staples and made my own. If you don’t feel like bothering with that, there are plenty of places online where you can get custom labels.

Now that you have all the pieces, start by cutting up the beans. First, cut them in half. Then split each one down the side, making the yummy goodness (“caviar”) inside more accessible.

And then, stick the beans in the bottle and pour in the vodka.

Seal it, and you’re done. This will begin to look and smell like extract after only 24 hours, but you should let it steep for about 6 weeks for it to reach its full vanilla-ness. As I mentioned before, just keep adding a little vodka when you start to run low. If it seems weak after a while, just throw in another vanilla bean. Three cheers for never buying the store-bought stuff again!

 

 

HOMEMADE BUTTER

That’s right. That delicious stuff you’re buying in the store, those tasty blocks that come wrapped in paper and packaged four-at-a-time in little 1-lb boxes—you can make that.

Not only is homemade butter so much yummier than the store-bought kind, it’s also easy to make. This can be done several different ways. You can use a mixer, a food processor, or a container of some sort. I prefer the container method because it allows for a slow churn, rather than an unbridled whip that risks incorporating buttermilk back into the butter, so that’s what I will explain here.

All you’ll need is:

  • 1 pint of heavy cream
  • a 2-pint* or larger container (I used a 1-liter bottle)
  • cheesecloth (I use a gold filter)
  • salt

*You will need to use a container that is at least twice the volume of the cream.

First, you’re going to want to bring the heavy cream to room temperature. Why is that, you ask? Okay, science time! Milk and cream contain oodles of tiny fat molecules called globules (I still can’t decide how I feel about that word, but I think I like it). These globules are surrounded by membranes that prevent them from sticking to each other, keeping your milk and cream un-chunky (gross, I know). You make butter by agitating these membranes until they begin to break down, allowing the fat molecules to stick together (a process more commonly known as churning), and eventually resulting in the separation of butter and buttermilk. These membranes break down quickest at room temperature or slightly below. You can churn chilled cream and it will eventually yield butter as well, it will just take a lot longer. If you’re impatient like me, pour the cream into a wider container and set in a warm area for an hour or two, stirring occasionally. (I also use this time to try to finish a liter of seltzer.)

Once the cream has warmed, pour it into the empty container and seal with a secure lid. Shake the container steadily but not too rapidly (I am really trying to avoid the term “medium pace” here, despite how fitting it would be—thanks a lot, Adam Sandler). If you shake too violently, you risk reincorporating the buttermilk and over-churning the butter, which cannot be undone. As you shake, you’ll feel the cream begin to thicken, like whipped cream. Next, it’s going to start to feel like a big dairy rock. It will seem like your shaking isn’t doing anything at all (and you may need to put a little more “umph” into it). And then, like magic, things will start to separate! I switch to a slower and more emphatic shake at this point in time—forcefully inverting the bottle one way, then the other. Continue shaking for a few more minutes, or until a good amount of buttermilk has separated from the butter (around ¾–1 cup).

Remove the top from the container. Place the cheesecloth or gold filter over the opening and strain out the buttermilk. (Reserve the buttermilk for delicious pancake- or biscuit-related uses.) Now, you need to rinse the butter to remove any lingering buttermilk, which can cause your butter to spoil quickly. (Confession: I actually forgot to do this and didn’t remember I was supposed to until I started writing this post. My butter has survived so far [it has been about a week], but it’s still an important part of the process that should not be bypassed.) Fill your container with very cold water until it just covers the butter, then drain out through the cheesecloth. Repeat this process a number of times (around 7), until the drained water is clear. Remove the butter from the container (if you’re using a bottle, just cut the top off) and transfer it to a large wooden cutting board. I actually used a plastic cutting board, which was a mistake. (Is it obvious that it’s been a while since I’ve done this?) You want to use something semi-porous that’s capable of absorbing a little liquid.

Using a wooden spoon, press your butter down into a large, flattened pancake. As you do this, you’ll notice liquid oozing out from the butter. Your cutting board should absorb some of that, but you can also use a paper towel to lightly dab away any excess. Gather butter back into a ball and press flat again. Continue to do this until you have removed most of the liquid. Before you gather up your last butter pancake, add some salt to it (about ¼ teaspoon). This will also ward off spoilage.

And now, grab the nearest piece of bread and slather it with fresh butter! It’s good, isn’t it? It isn’t exactly practical to make for use in cooking or baking, but it’s definitely worth the time and effort as a table-bound, buttering butter. (*Ahem*, a Thanksgiving table, perhaps?) There’s no reason this shouldn’t make an appearance at Thanksgiving, or any holiday, for that matter. It can be made days in advance, it’s easily transportable, and it’s delicious. Done and done.

BASIC EGG PASTA DOUGH

When I learned how easy it was to make fresh pasta dough, I couldn’t believe it. Just mix together some flour and eggs, and knead for a bit? Yeah, I think I can handle that.

So, what can you do with this? Many, many things. Roll it out to make ravioli or lasagna. Tear off little blobs and smush your thumb into them to make orecchiette. Mix it with potato to make gnocchi. Run it through a pasta crank to make spaghetti. The list goes on! I’ve even entertained the idea of rolling out the dough, slicing it into thin strips, rounding them out, and wrapping them around a skewer to make fusilli. (I’ll save that project for when I start to get the dead-of-winter crazies).

A few notes about fresh pasta dough:

— If you’re rolling out pasta dough by hand, you will find that the dough becomes difficult to work with after a couple minutes. Whenever you are kneading, rolling out, or working dough in any way, you are aggravating the glutens in the flour, causing them to form and strengthen. This is why the dough becomes increasingly elastic. To fix this, simply cover it with a damp tea towel and leave it alone for a few minutes. The glutens will relax, and the dough will be easy to work with once again.

— If you’re using a pasta crank, you will want to divide your dough into four pieces. Cover three with a damp tea towel. Set your crank to the widest setting (usually 1). Run your first piece through. Fold it into thirds (like a business letter) and run it through on the same setting again. Repeat until you have a smooth dough (around 7–10 times). Set the crank to the next thinnest setting and run dough through once. Continue until you’ve reached the desired thickness for your pasta. (Don’t try to skip settings. You’ll just wind up with a dough pile-up in your machine.)

— Fresh pasta cooks much quicker than the regular ol’ dried versions. Keep an eye on it. A few minutes in boiling water is all you need.

Basic Egg Pasta Dough

2 cups of all-purpose flour
3 large eggs
olive oil if/as needed

Sift flour into a large bowl or onto a pastry board and make a well in the center. Crack eggs into the well. Using a fork, beat eggs and begin to pull flour into liquid.

Once you can no longer mix with a fork, knead dough on a well-floured surface until smooth and elastic (8–10 minutes). (If dough feels a bit dry, add a little bit of olive oil when kneading.) Cover dough with a wet tea towel and let rest for 10 minutes. If you won’t be using it right away, wrap with plastic wrap and refrigerate. I’ve read that you can keep fresh pasta dough in the fridge for 2 days, but I don’t recommend more than 24 hours, as the dough will start to turn a weird greyish-brown color. If you won’t be using it within one day, just toss it in the freezer.

Chai-iced Pumpkin Cookies

I’d like to take a moment to talk to you about a serious addiction I had many, many years ago. Absurd amounts of money went towards supporting my habit. I would indulge at least once—and sometimes twice—a day. I’d sneak away during lunch breaks to get a fix. I even tried to drag my friends and co-workers into my world of obsession.

My addiction: Starbucks Pumpkin Chai Lattes. I know everyone is all about the pumpkin espresso lattes as soon as fall hits, but I’m telling you, pumpkin chai lattes are where it’s at. Imagine drinking a warm cup of extra-spicy pumpkin panna cotta—it’s that good. I’m going to stop myself right here before I go full throttle on the latte love, because this post is about cookies, not lattes!

Point is, I’ve become quite the coffee and tea snob since I moved to Vermont a few years ago. I turn my nose up at coffee that isn’t roasted locally. I want nothing to do with chai that comes from a box. I know, I know—groan if you must, but it’s an unavoidable side effect of having a barista brother who also roasts coffee at a local shop, and a boyfriend who manages the café at another. (I even feel the need to put the acute accent on the “e” in “café”—it’s that bad.) If it’s any consolation, I still load my coffee up with cream and sugar, so there’s hope that I may not become completely insufferable!

Wait, am I still not talking about cookies? The real point is, I still crave that delicious pumpkin and chai combination. And if it works in drinks, it must work in baked goods as well, no? Yes. The answer is definitely “yes!”

I chose a more cake-like cookie for this recipe because it reminded me of the iced apple cookies my mother makes. And they are indeed very, very similar—in both texture and deliciousness. Just a warning: the icing can be a bit intense when it covers the entire top of the cookies. So if you like something that’s slightly less sweet, I’d suggest drizzling the icing over top, rather than dipping the cookie directly into it.

Chai-Iced Pumpkin Cookies
(adapted from Allrecipes)

yield: around 3 dozen

Cookies

  • 2 ½ cups of all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 2 tsp cinnamon
  • ½ tsp nutmeg
  • ½ tsp cloves
  • ½ tsp salt
  • ½ cup of butter (1 stick), softened
  • 1 ½ cups of sugar
  • 1 cup of pumpkin purée
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract

Icing

  • 2 cups of confectionery sugar
  • 3 tbsp milk
  • 1 tbsp melted butter
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 chai tea bag

Preheat your oven to 350°. Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, spices, and salt in a bowl and set aside.

In a separate bowl, cream together butter and sugar. Beat in pumpkin, egg, and vanilla until creamy, then mix in dry ingredients until well-combined.

If you batter seems a bit soft, stick it in the fridge for about half an hour (I had to do this). When ready, drop tablespoons of batter onto a parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake cookies for 15–20 minutes, or until they begin to have just a hint of golden brown around the edges. Remove from oven and cool complete before frosting.

For the icing: Melt butter in a saucepan and add milk. Steep chai tea bag in the liquid for 5 minutes, then discard. Combine together with sugar, vanilla, and milk, and mix until a smooth icing forms.

Dip the cookies if you have a real sweet tooth, or drizzle the icing over top with a fork if you’d like to dial it back a little. Try to avoid immediately packing a ton of them into a bag in order to deliver them to a friend, like I did. (Big tasty mess!)

SPAGHETTI SQUASH WITH HOMEMADE ALFREDO

Spaghetti squash—what a neat vegetable! It’s low in calories, easy to make, and a nice alternative to pasta. And, if you’re like me, that whole low-in-calories thing means you can justify covering it in something like homemade alfredo sauce. The first time I had spaghetti squash, it was prepared this way, and that’s how I’ve made it ever since.

Note: although not included in my recipe below, I highly recommend using shrimp in this dish. (I meant to do so, and then smacked myself in the head when I got home from the grocery store and realized I had forgotten it.) I use around 1 lb. of 31–40 count shrimp. I also like to add mushrooms and avocado, but I don’t recommend doing so if you’re going to have leftovers, as they won’t keep very well.

Spaghetti Squash with Homemade Alfredo

one 3 1/2–4 lb. spaghetti squash
6 large carrots, peeled and sliced width-wise
2 large broccoli crowns, cut into spears
4 large garlic cloves
2 tablespoons of olive oil
homemade alfredo sauce (recipe below)
Preheat your oven to 400°. And now for my favorite part: stabbing! With a sharp knife, stab a bunch of holes on all sides of the squash. Place in the oven and bake for around 40 minutes, flipping once half-way through.

While the squash is baking, heat oil in a skillet and saute garlic for 1 minute. Add carrots, cook for 4 minutes, then broccoli and cook for another 8 minutes, or until carrots have softened. Remove from heat and set aside.

When the squash is ready, remove it from the oven and let it cool for 10–15 minutes. (I use this time to prepare the alfredo.) Cut off ends and slice open lengthwise. Be careful! Even though you’ve let it cool, that thing is still h-o-t on the inside, and there’s plenty of steam just waiting to escape. I gave my right hand a proper steam-burning a few years ago while lifting a cookie sheet off a pan of simmering curry. (What? I didn’t have a top big enough to fit.) You do not want a steam burn—take my word for it. Remove the seeds and discard (or set aside, if you’d like to roast them later). Using a fork, begin scraping the squash away from the sides.

 

Scrape with caution. I go nuts trying to get every last bit of squash meat out, and have accidentally incorporated chunks of the outer skin into the strands. Yuck. Empty squash into a large bowl and mix in your sauteed vegetables. Cover with alfredo and serve.

Homemade Alfredo Sauce
(I can’t recall where I found this recipe originally, but I have tweaked it over the years.)

1/4 cup of butter (1/2 stick)
1 cup of half & half or heavy cream
1 1/3 cups of freshly-grated parmesan cheese
1/4 cup of fresh flat-leaf Italian parsley, chopped
a few pinches of nutmeg
Notes: I did not use garlic in the sauce as there was already garlic in the spaghetti squash dish. If there was not, I would have crushed 2 cloves of garlic and added them with the cheese. Also, while I will be lazy from time to time and use whatever cream and butter I happen to have lying around, using the fancy organic kinds will make your sauce that much more amazing. But if there’s one ingredient you definitely don’t want to cut corners on, it’s the cheese. Get yourself a nice big chunk of quality parmesan. I recommend grating it through one of the finer slots, as it blends better when it’s more powder-like. You can also find fresh, finely-grated parm in the cheese section of most co-ops/organic food stores. Please do not use that pasta-aisle, cheese + potassium sorbate & anti-caking agents stuff!

Melt butter in a saucepan over medium-low heat. Add half & half/cream and allow it to simmer for a few minutes. Add cheese and whisk until sauce thickens. Stir in nutmeg and parsley. That’s it!