Holiday baking and sugary miscellany

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Because of my need to give homemade food gifts for the holidays, this is traditionally the weekend I atone for my lack of baking throughout the year — all at once. But instead of saying two dozen Hail Marys and 10 Our Fathers, my personal penance was making THREE batches of pralines, a few POUNDS of spiced nuts, and TWO types of cookies. Oh, my friends, I’m on a sugar high that would do Beavis proud. (What? You’ve never heard of quality assurance?)

For the pralines, I dug out my dad’s recipe which adulterates the traditional praline with marshmallows, but you’ve never tasted anything like them; they’re really creamy instead of gritty the way straight-sugar pralines can sometimes be. Gil would chime in to agree, only he’s shoving broken praline bits into his mouth and banging his head on the wall in the kitchen. Don’t worry — he’s wearing a bucket for protection. The sugar crash is going to be ugly.

But the real surprise of the weekend were the cookies, primarily surprising for the fact that I baked them and did not burn even one. I normally bring in savory treats for my co-workers (last year — bacon brittle and gougères), but I suspect people appreciate the sweet stuff a little bit more, so I was willing to go that extra mile for them. And we weren’t disappointed; I really hope they won’t be, either.

Here’s the really soft and sticky sugar cookie dough, cut and ready to be moved (CAREFULLY) to the parchment paper-lined baking sheet.

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As it turns out, I didn’t really need to be SO careful because these cookies s-p-r-e-a-d in the oven.

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But dressed up with chocolate and nut toupées, they turned very suave, indeed.

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So I’m really looking forward to a well-deserved break from baking this week. Maybe I’ll be chained to my desk at work, but at least I won’t be in the kitchen, forced to bake and sample delicious sweets!

Are those tiny violins I hear in the distance?

Incidentally, how sad is it that this is the only brandy we have in the house? I had to break into our kitschy Eiffel Tower stash to flavor the cookies.
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recipe after the jump

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Advent Calendar, Day 2

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Stillness
The holiday season can be so busy for everyone, though Christmas Eve is really the craziest day for my family — a day of baking and preparing other food for the evening’s party, followed by a church service, then a huge get-together with my dad’s family. But as fun as it is, my very favorite part of the day is always getting back to a quiet house after the long evening — TV off — just the expectant stillness of the night and the sound of the wind in the trees.

For all Advent Calendar posts, click here.

recipe after the jump

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An envie for couche-couche

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Ayyyy, I’m turning into my mother.

Ahem.

Anyway, in honor of LSU’s ridiculous victory over the Crimson Tide Saturday night (and superstitiously hoping to bring a little luck to the Saints), I pulled out the big guns and made myself couche-couche for breakfast Sunday morning. This dish is as Cajun as it gets — no pig, it’s true, but it takes a few humble ingredients and lets them shine.

I’m pretty sure my grandpa ate this every single morning. As a young kid, whenever I’d sleep over, my grandma would make extra and then our silly ritual would begin.

Paw-Paw: Here, try this.
Me: (duly taking bite)
Paw-Paw: C’est bon?
Me: Bon … ?

He got such a huge kick out of that little exchange, he didn’t bother telling me what it meant until I was a little older. [The only time my grandparents really spoke French around us was when they wanted to keep their conversations private, so I didn’t start learning it until ninth grade. My grandpa was already gone by then, but I credit him with teaching me my very first French phrase.]

Even though I haven’t had couche-couche since I was a small child sitting at my grandparents’ kitchen table, I woke up Sunday morning with a craving (or envie) for it. Part skillet cornbread, part pancake, part porridge, it develops a deep, roasted flavor from the hot cast iron skillet and has a nutty crunch that plain cornbread never achieves. It’s traditionally topped with milk and sugar or just cane syrup, but I wanted the best of both worlds that morning. I didn’t break it into tiny pieces the way my grandma used to because I didn’t have the patience, but it was fine just the way it was.

Can’t wait to get home for Christmas.

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Update: The November issue of F&W has a good article on Chef Donald Link’s (of Herbsaint and Cochon restaurants) recommendations for an eating road trip through Cajun country. I can vouch for Poche’s — my aunt brings pounds of their boudin to our Christmas gathering every year. So many other great things in the issue, too — the obligatory Thanksgiving section, a cheese primer, an article devoted to Oregon whiskey, and the list goes on.

recipe after the jump

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Another shrimpy evening

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It was one of those weeks. Late nights at work (and many more to come for the next three months — my boss starts her maternity leave Monday) had me getting home too late to even consider cooking. But I hit the wall yesterday and decided to take off on time! Oh, what luxury!

In need of serious comfort food after such a grueling week, but not wanting to spend too much time in thought, I turned to my old standby — shrimp and grits. I never make it the same way twice, which hasn’t always been such a great idea, but this time it really hit the spot.

To about 3/4 lb. of peeled jumbo shrimp, I added some hot pimenton, a clove of chopped garlic, thyme, and oregano, then started on the grits. I like to use old fashioned, but if you don’t care that much or have no experience with grits at all, quick-cooking is probably fine. I set them to simmer in a mixture of 1/2 chicken stock and 1/2 water with a touch of salt and a bay leaf thrown in.

While the grits were cooking, I got the sauce ready. In about a teaspoon of avocado oil, I sauteed thinly sliced garlic and one slice of chopped bacon until the bacon had rendered and the garlic was golden. To that, I added a splash of white wine, a small can of whole tomatoes which I broke up with the back of the spoon, about a tablespoon of chopped sundried tomatoes packed in olive oil, then seasoned with crushed red pepper and more pimenton, thyme, and oregano. Once the mixture thickened, I added the shrimp to cook for a few minutes, then stirred in some heavy cream at the end of the cooking time to mellow out the flavors a bit.

Now the grits were ready, so I removed the bay leaf and added about 1/4 cup of heavy cream and maybe 1/2 cup of shredded asiago cheese. I served the shrimp over grits in bowls and topped the whole thing with slivers of green onions, then sat down to a home-cooked dinner with my husband. A perfect end to an imperfect week.

Broadening our chorizons

Deb left too early Sunday morning to partake in one of my favorite Creole dishes — shrimp & grits. Sausage or bacon really helps this dish along, but I have no idea where I’d find chaurice up here, so we went with chorizo instead. To keep the Spanish influence going, I used Manchego cheese in the grits, which lent them a subtle depth without overpowering their delicate flavor. It’s one of my favorite non-eggy brunch dishes and cooks up in a flash, the perfect meal for those mornings when your head feels too heavy to lug around for very long.

recipe after the jump

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Shrimp berl

I walked into the house this evening to find my husband at the top of the stairs with a look of panic on his face. “I tried to call you. I swear, I tried to call you.”

“It’s okay. You didn’t need to peel the onions or the garlic.”

Some couples finish each other’s sentences; we just process how badly the other has screwed up. It works for us.

See, I’d asked him to put a pot of water to boil with a couple of onions, a head of garlic, and a bag of Zatarain’s Crab Boil in preparation for our shrimp boil this evening. Specifically, I asked:

And around 7pm, can you fill the big silver pot (kept under the sink) about 3/4 with water and put a Zatarain’s bag in there to boil? Once the water starts boiling, add some salt, the onions and garlic to the pot. It needs to infuse the water before we begin our seafood boil!

Pretty clear, right? I know him well enough at this point to spell out everything when it comes to cooking, so I thought the lack of cutting/chopping direction would be enough. Sigh. Anyway, he could’ve always called my dad, but chose instead to peruse his iPhoto library to see how it looked last time.

Despite his worries, things turned out fine. I threw in some small red potatoes, some smoked sausage cut into pieces, and boiled until the potatoes were tender. The shrimp went in next and boiled for a couple of minutes until they floated to the top. At this point, I used a trick my dad taught me — I turned off the flame and threw in a package of frozen corn on the cob. It stops the cooking process and heats the corn through at the same time. After it rests for about 10 minutes, everything is ready to eat.

In Louisiana, we pour the boiled seafood over a table covered with newspaper (see below), but only made enough tonight for the two of us, so it went onto a platter. Not as colorful, maybe, but not as messy, either.

Delicious! I served it with dipping sauce from Leah Chase’s The Dooky Chase Cookbook.

recipe after the jump

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