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I’ve been drowning in wrapping paper and ribbon for the past few days. Since I’m giving a lot of homemade gifts this year, and I insisted on decorating all the jars, my wrapping responsibilities have tripled: in addition to wrapping gifts, I have to decorate a few jars to go in the gifts first. Which means I’ve been watching every Christmas movie and musical I own or Netflix will show me so I have some entertainment as I make a mess every night in my living room floor.
It also means I can’t wait until Saturday, when I get in the car to start the first leg of my holiday journey and stop wrapping. I don’t know about you guys, but I’m going to be in the car a LOT this Christmas break. D and I will drive 6 hours, then 4 hours, then 12 hours, then 12 hours again. That’s a lot of hours in the car, and a lot of opportunity to catch up on some pleasure reading and let the paper cuts heal. So here’s what I’m reading!
A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. LeGuin, reminds me of a more contemplative, richer version of the Harry Potter series (and it predates it by about 30 years). This novel, the first in a series, follows young Ged as he trains and then begins working as a wizard. One of the most powerful young wizards in the world, his adolescent competitiveness leads him to unleash a dark shadow on the world, which follows him as he is forced to confront the darkness within him and his own mortality. I’m about halfway done with it, and really enjoying the fullness of the universe, and the richness of the story.
Justin Cronin’s The Twelve is the follow-up to The Passage, which I read when it was first released. The trilogy is not your average vampire novel; the first novel had more in comment with World War Z than with Twilight, which was part of the reason I liked it so much. The Twelve picks up where the first novel left off and follows a group of survivors of the “virus” as they lead an offensive against the virals (vampires). I have to say, I’m apprehensive about this one; the first novel was really gripping, but this follow-up has received tepid reviews. Then again, what do critics know? And Justin Cronin sure does know how to spin a plot.
The Outlander series has been around awhile, and I’ve had the first book downloaded on my Nook for awhile, but I’ve yet to open it. A Facebook conversation last night persuaded me to give this one a try soon, though. A friend with very similar taste in fantasy-esque fiction (think the Sookie Stackhouse novels and the Discovery of Witches series) asked for recommendations on similar fare, and Diana Gabaldon’s series was overwhelmingly recommended. A time-traveling love story? Count me in.
What are you reading in the car over the holidays?
Today, I’m going to let you peak behind the curtain. I don’t have photos for the hot mess that I’m about to share with you (my hands were covered in curry powder, so pardon me for not running to grab my Canon), but I have a description.
Picture this: a recipe for gingered, curried almonds, the perfect salty/ savory/ spicy snack to add to your gift baskets. A three-pound bag of almonds in your freezer that you bought so long ago, they feel free. You assemble the ingredients: almonds, butter, sugar, and spices, and get to work.
Guys, I followed the recipe exactly. I don’t know what happened. Or rather, I know what happened, but I don’t understand why it happened. See, the recipe said to add the sugar and spices to the butter and melt it all together for about 5 minutes on the stove, until the sugar dissolved. It was supposed to make a glaze.
Instead (and I’m trying to paint a word picture here, so bear with me), what happened was this: The mixture bubbled and separated. The sugar and spices all clung to one another, refusing to dissolve or emulsify. The butter swirled around, failing to incorporate the spices. Eventually, I took the “glaze” off the heat and poured it over the almonds, hoping that adding in the almonds would mean things would sort themselves out.
They. Did. Not.
As I used my hands to toss the almonds with the glaze, the butter separated from the other ingredients even further. It was like the spices and sugar were seeking each other out, eager to huddle together for refuge from the butter and almonds. Eventually, I had buttery almonds and a huge, Play-Doh-like lump of spices in the middle of the pan.
Four years ago, I would have panicked. I would have thrown it all out, cried, and never made roasted almonds again. As it was, I still needed to call in reinforcements to know how to proceed, but I was pretty sure all was not lost. D is a lot better than I am at rescuing that which threatens to be lost, so he helped me redirect this project, suggested a spice mixture, and even suggested an explanation that made this strange paste failure not my fault. (Yes!)
Instead of the original recipe, I wound up with something radically different, but still complex and delicious. And now you all know that what happens on this blog isn’t magic, or even talent. It’s success, over and over again, snatched from the jaws of defeat.
Sweet and Spicy Roasted Almonds
Makes 2 cups
Note: The chile and cayenne powder measurements are approximations– use more or less to your taste. Don’t be afraid to taste an almond to see what you think you need to do. Feel free to substitute another spicy mixture– curry powder, Thai spices, or pumpkin pie spices would also be great here, even with the cayenne.
Also, I wish I had cooked mine longer, as I really wanted them to be more crisp than they were, but I was afraid of burning them. Use the timing here as a guide, and don’t let the nuts burn, but err on the side of “more done.”
You will need:
2 cups raw almonds
4 tbsp. butter, melted
1/4 c. granulated sugar
2 tbsp. chile powder
1 tbsp. cayenne
Kosher salt, to taste
Preheat the oven to 350.
Spread almonds in one layer on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper.
Roast almonds, dry, for about 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, combine sugar, chile powder, and cayenne in a small bowl and set aside.
Let the almonds cool until they are cool enough to touch. Pour the melted butter over the almonds and toss with a spoon or your hands to coat.
Using a spoon or your hands (I just got messy), sprinkle the almonds with the sugar-spice mixture and toss again. Shake the pan so that the almonds are again in one layer.
Roast another 15-20 minutes, until almonds are dry-ish. Sprinkle with kosher salt while still warm, then let cool completely. Store in an airtight container up to 1 month.
This is the first year that I’m being hard-core about homemade gifts.
I’m totally going to toot my own horn right now: I’ve eaten enough of my own canned goods to know that they’re pretty tasty. There are some talented canning bloggers out there who have yet to steer me wrong. I’ve also not hospitalized anyone, and the few “test” jars I’ve given to friends and family have received great reviews, so I’m going bigger. Almost everyone who receives a gift from me this year will receive at least one jar of something I’ve canned this year.
Like so many other bloggers, including Ring Finger Tan Line, who gave me a box of her goodies a couple weeks ago, I’m sending boxes of goodies to college buddies and family members. Those lucky people will get an assortment of sweet and spicy roasted almonds, jams, pickled peppers, and candied clementines.
I haven’t published posts about everything I’ve canned this year, but here is a round-up of the various jars my friends and family will be receiving, just in case you’re wondering which recipes I wound up deeming “gift-worthy.” Enjoy!
- Small Batch Fig Jam with mission figs, from The Hip Girl’s Guide to Homemaking
- Bourbon Peach Jam (made with brown sugar), from Serious Eats
- Peach Rosemary Jam, adapted from Apricot Rosemary Jam by Food in Jars
- Peach Preserves, from Country Living
- Strawberry Peach Jam, from Kraft
- Strawberry Vanilla Jam, from Food in Jars
- Strawberry Thyme Jam, from The Kitchn (I did some jars with basil, but used the same recipe.)
- Pickled Peppers
- Candied Clementines, from Saveur
- Yellow Tomato Jam, adapted from Food in Jars (I left out the basil)
- Sweet and spicy roasted almonds
(recipe coming soon!)
As you can see, things are pretty heavy on the peach-strawberry side this year. I may try to get in a batch of something with apple or pear before the weekend, to mix things up a bit, but it’s also nice to have the taste of summer when it’s cold outside. (If you’re not in Austin, that is.)
Now, let’s talk about packaging. I went pretty simple with my jars this year. I tried the whole “fabric under the ring” thing, but it just isn’t me. Instead, I got craft paper gift tags, plus a stamp, from a craft store, and stamped each label with the “Homemade for the Holidays” stamp. On the back of the tag, I either signed my name or suggested ways to use this particular preserve. Then, I tied a bow around the ring with raffia and attached the gift tag. For the lids, I wasn’t a fan of my Sharpie scrawl on metal, so I cut out circles out of craft paper (tedious, but pretty) and used adhesive spray to attach the paper to the lid. Then, I labeled the jar with the contents and the month/ year I packed the jar.
Maybe next year I’ll get even braver and there will be a Christmas giveaway!
These clementines might be my favorite thing I’ve canned. They’re easy, quick, seasonal, sweet with enough bitterness to be fun, and so pretty in a jar. When I first saw the recipe on Saveur, I knew I had to make them immediately, but then I got cold feet. What would people do with a jar of candied citrus? All manner of things, my wandering mind discovered.
Since they’re delicious, peel and all, you can use them to garnish cocktails, serve them alongside hot chocolate, dip them in chocolate, mince them and fold them into scones or mix them into icings, layer them on top of a cake, or just snack on them. Which is what I’ll probably do with most of mine. I think they’d also be nice served in a spicy Christmas ale.
Making them makes your house smell wonderful, too. The sliced clementines on the counter and the vanilla-infused syrup heating on the stove made my apartment smell like Christmas. Since it was 80 degrees in Austin that day, I’d have taken any tiny bit of Christmas spirit I could get. As citrus season is upon us, I’d like to try candying other sweet/sour fruits: Meyer lemons, key limes, tangerines. If you try another fruit, let me know how it goes!
The night I made them, I had about a pint of the sugar syrup left over, and it was so infused with the vanilla and citrus that I just ate half of it with a spoon, and then dreamed of all the wonderful things I could do with it. As I ate too many clementines right out of the jar, I thought of the following things to do with the leftover syrup:
- Use it in mulled wine.
- Make a lemon-rosemary cake, and soak it in the syrup.
- Use it in mojitos.
- Add powdered sugar to make a glaze for sugar cookies.
- Drink it. Straight up.
You might not have the leftover syrup that I had, but I sincerely hope you do, because it inspired me in a way that a leftover ingredient never has before.
Adapted from Food in Jars, via Saveur
Note: Marisa says she got a total of 64 ounces of candied clementines (8 8-oz. jars). I did 16-oz. jars, but only got 2 (32 ounces). Your mileage may vary.
You will need:
3 lbs. clementines, sliced (I discarded the ends.)
2 c. water
4 c. granulated sugar
1 vanilla bean, halved
Prepare your jars for canning: sterilize the jars and rings, and simmer the lids in a small pot of water. Also prepare your canning pot by bringing a lot of water to boil.
Combine sugar, water, and vanilla bean in a large pot and bring to a boil. Stir occasionally, until sugar is dissolved. Add clementine slices and cook about 15 minutes, until clementines are softened.
Divide clementines up among your jars– I used tongs to fill each jar with clementine slices, then poured the sugar syrup over the slices until the jars were full to within 1/2″ of the top of the jar. Wipe the lips of the jars, and add lids and rings. Process for 10 minutes in a boiling water bath canner. Let sit overnight, without disturbing. Any jars that don’t seal, refrigerate immediately and use those first.
For a great canning primer, see the Food in Jars Canning 101 posts.
For Thanksgiving, D and I spent the weekend with his family in Virginia. We ate (too much), we drank (more too much), and spent a lot of time with his very large extended family (never enough). His family is a group of funny, generous, warm people. The best part? No kids! The youngest person there was still a teenager, so the kids table was the place to be this year. Not that babies aren’t awesome, but it was such a strange experience to spend a holiday in a house with no one running, crying, or otherwise demanding attention. Other than the adults. (wink, wink.)
The best part of the weekend was this camera, D’s Rolleiflex. It was his grandfather’s, who is famous for having used it to take incessant family photos. D reprised that tradition over Thanksgiving; his camera was always in his hands, ready to capture candid family moments. He also used it to take some posed photos. Seeing his family’s reaction to the camera that was so much a part of their childhoods was really special.
You guys, I won something on the internet! The illustrious Laura from Ring Finger Tan Line, a blog I started following a couple of months ago, held one of those awesome foodie giveaways. The gift was the same box of homemade goodies she’s sending to her college buddies, and included hot cocoa mix, homemade marshmallows, spiced nuts, chocolate bacon (yes, you read that right), and homemade cheek highlighter.
Plus, since RFTL and I are in the same city, she hand-delivered it to me! I got to meet a real, live Austin food blogger, in the wild, AND her mom. I’m pretty sure I was a total nerd– meeting a blogger I follow is a little like meeting a celebrity for me– but D assures me I was super cool. This is why I love him. But no, I was a total nerd. Ah, well.
Anyway, let me show you my loot! The photos are not up to my usual standard (ha), but in my defense, I really felt like I needed to take photos right this second, despite the fact that it was stony dark, because I promptly tore into everything. Laura has pretty pretty pictures over on her blog, if you’d like to see them.