>Mo’s Peanut Brittle

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My Grandma Mona was one of my closest friends. She taught me to sew, to paint, and that “being naughty is fun”. We would drive over the mountains to stay with her for a long weekend about once a month. Besides cable television in the kid’s bedroom, another wonderful feature of G-Mo’s was the breakfast cereal. Sugary boxes of wonder awaited us, and frozen waffles were the alternate. Once in the weekend my grandpa would pull together a rich breakfast, sausages and eggs and pots and pots of coffee. I taught myself to like coffee at my grandma’s house, wanting to be like her so much that I made myself chew coffee beans until I liked them.
She did not cook much, at least in my memory, although she always allowed us to choose things from the Schwann’s truck. Golden Nugget bars, Dixie cups, and those perfectly round little pizzas were the most popular choices.
She did, however, made the best peanut brittle in the whole world. This brittle is different from your typical hard-candy-with-suspended-peanuts affair; this has two generous cups of peanut butter folded in to make a rich, buttery, slightly crumbly treat. Before she died someone had the wise thought to get the recipe, and I now own it written in her own hand. 
Top, Peanut Brittle. Bottom, Coffee Walnut Toffee.
Perhaps like me you wanted to give small gifts to people around you, but the holidays snuck up on you and then you caught that bug that everyone had and now it’s too! late! I’m here to tell you: Make this peanut brittle and everybody will be happy.

Mona’s Soft Peanut Brittle
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/4 cup water
1 1/2 cups white corn syrup
2 teaspoons butter
2 cups Spanish peanuts
2 cups peanut butter (I always use creamy Jif)
1 teaspoon baking soda dissolved in two teaspoons water
1 teaspoon vanilla
Soften peanut butter in microwave until warm and runny, about 2 minutes.
In a medium saucepot, cook the the sugar, 1/4 cup water, and the corn syrup over high heat, stirring occasionally, until the mixture reaches 275˚F/135˚C. Lower the heat to medium and add the peanuts and butter. Cook, stirring often, until the mixture reaches 300˚F/150˚C. Remove from heat and thoroughly stir in the soda-water and vanilla; mixture will spit and fizz. Lightly fold in the softened peanut butter. Pour onto one or two cookies sheets or slabs. Using a rolling pin, roll as thin as you can. Let cool. Use a flat spatula to pry up and break it into pieces.
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>Princess Cookies

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I’m pretty picky about spelling, and I’m not afraid to correct misspelled words. I don’t understand people who don’t employ spell-check. In college part of my job was to read my boss’s papers with a red pen in hand. Besides all the free marshmallows and gummy bears I could eat, that was my favorite part of the job — the power of that red pen. (Can you guess where I worked?)
A caveat: I’m not, per se, the best speller. I’m pretty good, but there are certain words that trip me up. It’s gotten to the point where I have psyched myself out over these words, and so I’m never quite sure what the real spelling is. Calender. Independence. Lavender. 

That semi-interesting tidbit brings us to the title recipe. They’re actually Coconut Lavender Macaroons. I associate coconut macaroons with two things: Christmas, and teatime. Christmas because my mom always made them this time of year, and teatime because they just seem like such a girly cookie. I also had a Disney princess bandaid on today, and it was the color of lavender. These cookies have lavender. So, Princess Cookies. (My brain wants so hard to talk about Kate Middleton right now. She might like these cookies! She is going to marry a prince! Her hair — how does she do it!!!)

This is a pretty basic coconut macaroon recipe, except for two things.
1. You buzz up the coconut, and then all the other ingredients, in a food processor. This helps the coconut to not be so stringy. It also makes for a super-fast recipe, especially if you already have the egg whites ready to go. (You can freeze egg whites too, if you ever use the yolks for something else but have no immediate use for the whites. Thaw ’em in the fridge.) It all fits in a little food processor too.
2. I felt bored by coconut macaroons as I was making them. Oops. I looked through my spice rack (conveniently alphabetized!) and settled on lavender. The quantity I used was a wee bit much, so I reduced it for this recipe. Let me know your thoughts.
Coconut Lavender Cookies
adapted from “The America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook”, pp. 517-518
2 1/2 cups (10 ounces) sweetened flaked or shredded coconut
4 large egg whites, room temperature
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon dried lavender buds

Pulse the coconut in a food processor until finely chopped, about 15 seconds, and put the coconut in a large bowl. Process the egg whites, sugar, salt, and lavender in the food processor until light and foamy, about 15 seconds. Stir the egg mixture into the coconut until combined. Cover the bowl and refrigerate until the mixture thickens, about 30 minutes. (Can also be refrigerated up to two days.)

Put two oven racks in the upper- and lower-middle slots in the oven and preheat to 375˚/190˚. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone pan liners. Scoop the dough out in small balls using wet hands or a cookie scoop and place about one inch apart on the cookie sheets. I made dough balls about the one tablespoon in size, and the recipe made more than 2 dozen cookies for me. Obviously yield depends on individual size. 

Bake until the macaroons are light golden brown and darker around the edges, 14 to 17 minutes, rotating the sheets halfway through baking. Cool the macaroons completely on the baking sheets, at least 30 minutes, before serving. 

Also potentially delicious drizzled with melted chocolate! Bejeweled crown optional.

Recommended Accompaniment:  Earl Grey tea and cucumber sandwiches. Don’t forget to stick out your pinky!

>Five-Spice Beef Party Delight

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PARTY FOOD I LIKE:
Deviled eggs. I could eat a whole platter.
Cheeses.
Weddings only: Those wedding pillow mints.
Seafood stuff.
Tiny sandwiches.
Smoked salmon.

Time to party! Except apparently me and my friends are not the party type.* Actually, I did go to a party this weekend, a potluck. The night before I decided that I would have to use a recipe from a cookbook that’s languished on my shelf forever; there’s no point in having something you never use. The Five-Spice Beef, categorized under appetizers, sounded delicious yet non-threatening.

(Although I am hosting a craft party this Saturday. Leave a comment or email me if you’d like to come! Goodies will be served.)

To make the recipe, you simmer a roast in a spiced soy sauce broth for a few hours, then chill and slice it. Chinese five-spice is a mixture of five spices, the specifics of which vary a little. Serve the sliced beef with a delicious dipping sauce that’s spicy and savory!

Five-Spice Poached Beef

adapted from “New World Chinese Cooking”, by Bill Jones and Stephen Wong

Beef:
1 pound pot roast or beef shank
1 onion, skin removed, cut into quarters
2 teaspoons fennel seeds
8 to 10 whole cloves
2 star anise, lightly crushed (hit once with the handle end of the knife)
2 teaspoons black peppercorns or Szechuan peppercorns
1 small cinnamon stick (about 2 inches)
4 1/4″ thick slices fresh peeled ginger root
3 tablespoons soy sauce
2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons white wine, sherry, or rice wine 
6 cups water

Trim any excess fat from the beef. 


Put the spices and ginger in a spice bag, teaball, or large piece of cheesecloth you can tie up. Secure and place in a large pot along with the onion, soy sauce, salt, sugar, wine, and water. Bring to a boil. 


Carefully add the beef to the hot liquid. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook, partially covered, until tender, about 1 1/2 to 2 hours. If you can stick a chopstick without too much effort in the middle, it’s cooked. Remove the pot from the heat. Discard the spice pouch and onions.. Let the beef and broth cool and refrigerate overnight or for up to two days. Slice before serving; for appetizer-sized pieces, you may wish to cut the roast into smaller pieces (halves or thirds) and then slice.


Sauce:
1/2 cup mayonaisse (I used a vegan mayo substitute; I get the irony, but it’s lower in fat!)
1 clove garlic, minced
pinch red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
4 shoots green onion, white part and 1 inch green part only, chopped (reserve rest of green for garnish)


Whisk all the ingredients together in a small bowl. 

Arrange the meat attractively and garnish with the green onions (cut them on a bias for extra points). Serve with the sauce.


>Deck the halls

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That cabinet? Four bucks.

Lately at work I’ve been tuning into the “Holiday Showcase” music station. It’s nothing super great, but the four-year-old that I nanny likes to sing along. Everybody!

“Deck the halls with boughs of folly…”
Yes, that’s really how she sings it. I kind of like it.  Boughs of folly. I feel a little sad putting up Christmas decorations, because in a month I know I’ll have a serious case of the Januaries and no pretty greenery to alleviate it. I did buy two little dinky strands of blue lights and draped one around my bed, canopy-style. The other I wrapped around my Giant Branch. What is a Giant Branch, you ask? I will tell you. (Also, I am going to do a little bargain-bragging.)
About a month ago I parked on my university campus. A big windstorm had just blown through. As I ran up to Frat Row (gross) I saw a Giant Branch on the ground. I immediately wanted it, but my errand was urgent. As I hurried, I worried that someone would take my Giant Branch. Obviously I am a crazy person, because who else would want a Giant Branch? 
(Background: It is a well-documented fact that I ❤ branches. When I worked in an art studio where we used a lot of natural materials, I was constantly dragging them inside after my breaks. Some were broken up for art projects; one winter I stuck a whole bunch into the top of a wire shelf and decorated them all to look like a winter wonderland, with glitter and ornaments and shiny things. I blame that job for my continued giant stick obsession.)

The G.B. in all it’s glory.

THANK HEAVENS the Giant Branch was still there!

(Sidenote: I used to study art in college, but I wasn’t as “serious” about it as some of the other “serious” art students (meaning I took classes in other subjects and other buildings). One day I made a really weird request of someone to save some materials that would otherwise have been thrown out (fine, it was human hair, from the student salon), and the other person looked at me like I was cray-zy. In that moment, I felt so proud, like “I’m a real art student!”. I still get that feeling whenever I am gathering branches.)
That quilt? Ten bucks. Bookshelf and coatrack? Free.

This Giant Branch is the most giantest branch I have ever had. It is so wonderful. There’s a little bark, and a little moss that’s still green, but mostly it’s naked and relatively smooth. To prepare it to enter my bedroom, I shook it (to get rid of bugs, duh) and let it dry out in my garage. Then I let it season for three weeks (meaning, I forgot about it). Finally, I brought it the two flights up to my room and lashed one end to the foot of my bed.The other end rests on the wall.

My branch can touch the sky!

FACTS ABOUT THE GIANT BRANCH:
It is about nine feet long.
It is made of wood and moss and bark.
It is vegan.

WHAT ELSE HAVE YOU DONE TO DECK THE HALLS BESIDES BLATHER ON ABOUT A GIANT BRANCH:
I put pine boughs into cups and vases to make branch bouquets. Totally a planned branch theme (except not. I didn’t notice it until justthismoment. I am just that savvy.)
Then I put some silver balls in strategic places around the room (meaning: where they would not roll away.)

ANYTHING ELSE:
Well, yesterday I had this stuck in my head all day. You’re welcome. My favorite/most hated to have in my head part is the soaring “evergreen bough” line.

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This weekend we bought our tree. We go to a cut-your-own farm nearby. Last year the farm was blanketed in snow. One of our international students said “It is like a Disney movie!” Indeed.
Not our tree.


Our tree!

I totally picked it. Tell me I did a good job!

>Week of Loaves: Cinnamon Roll Bread

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Fun fact: I have four brothers. Sometimes when I’m getting to know people I’ll mention this, and they’re like “Oh my gosh, four brothers, that’s so many siblings, crazy crazy crazy.” And I’ll be like, “I know!” And so sometimes I don’t tell them I also have four sisters. One of my friends didn’t find that out for months after first meeting me. Whoops, sorry. 

So, I’m the oldest, and I was 15 when the youngest was born. A 15-year span is rather long. Family traditions that were totally followed and amazing when I was a kid are not things that my youngest siblings have grown up with, and vice versa. Sometimes I’ll wax nostalgic about a fond childhood memory, and some of the “little kids” have no idea what I’m talking about. 

A few things have stuck around, which makes me very happy. One that’s been a tradition since I was a kid is having cinnamon rolls on Christmas morning. Sometimes they’ve been from a can (so fun to pop!) and sometimes they’re homemade. That tradition inspired me to make this bread.

It’s not as gooey as a normal cinnamon roll, but the bread is very soft and delicate, and it does fall apart a bit around the filling. It tastes amazing, like a cinnamon roll machine started up in your mouth, and it is a little tidier to eat than a sticky bun. 

It can be made the night before, right up to the second rise, and then put in the fridge overnight. The directions for overnight are included below.


Cinnamon Roll Bread

dough adapted from Overnight Rolls, Joy of Cooking, p. 612
Dough:
1 cup milk
1/2 cup shortening
2 tablespoons warm water (105˚ to 115˚; warm tap water)*
1 package (2 1/4 teaspoons) active dry yeast
1/2 cup plus 2 teaspoons sugar
3 large eggs
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon cardamom
5 cups all-purpose flour
* If the water or milk mix is too hot, it will kill the yeast and your bread will not rise.
In a small pan, heat the milk and shortening together over low heat until the shortening melts. Remove from the heat and put in the fridge to cool slightly*.
In a large bowl, stir together the warm water, the yeast, and 2 teaspoons of the sugar. Let this stand for 5 to 10 minutes, until the yeast is dissolved. (If the yeast does not make small bubbles and/or “puff” up, it is probably dead.)
Stir the milk mixture into the yeast. Stir in the additional 1/2 cup sugar, and the eggs, salt, vanilla, cinnamon, and cardamom. Gradually stir in the flour. Using your Hulk muscles or an electric mixer, beat the dough for about 5 minutes. The dough is very soft and sticky, so I recommend the beater blade instead of the dough hook. 
Lightly spray a large bowl with cooking spray, or coat with oil. Scrape the dough into the bowl and cover the bowl tightly. Put in a warm place to rise until doubled in volume. This will take about an hour, but the increase in volume is more important than the time. If you have a very cold or drafty apartment, turn on your oven for one minute, then turn it off. Use this as a “proofing box” to rise your dough in. I use an 8-cup measuring cup for this step, which makes it really easy to see when the dough has doubled in volume.

Once the dough has doubled, follow the instructions below.
Filling: 
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter
1/3 cup brown sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon
3/4 cup raisins (optional)
In a small pan, melt the butter and brown sugar over medium-low heat while stirring. Once the butter has melted, let cook for two to three more minutes, until the sauce begin to thicken and the spoon can make tracks in the sauce that take a moment to fill in. Add the cinnamon and cook for 30 more seconds.

Flour well a clean counter or a board. Punch down the dough, turn it out of the bowl, and roll into a 9″ by 18″ rectangle. You’ll probably need extra flour to help roll, as the dough is rather sticky. Spread the sugar-butter mixture over the dough, leaving a 1/2″ gap around the edges. Sprinkle the raisins evenly over the butter. Starting from one of the 9″ edges, roll the dough into a roll. To get started, fold the dough immediately over to make a little lip. Use a dough scraper or flat long knife to help the dough along if it sticks to the counter

Grease a 9″ x 5″ pan thoroughly. (Use a pan with a lip if you can, as the dough rises a lot and the lip will help prevent spillover.) Transfer the dough roll to the pan, making sure the top seam is tucked into the side of the pan. Cover with a clean towel or plastic wrap. Let rise four about 45 minutes, or cover tightly and refrigerate overnight.

Optional fancy-topping: Right before baking, spread 1 tablespoon very soft butter over the top of the dough. Mix 1 teaspoon cinnamon and 2 teaspoons sugar together and sprinkle over the bread.

If baking the same day: Preheat the oven to 350˚/180˚. Bake the bread until golden brown, about 1 hour. Let cool in the pan for 15 minutes before serving.

You can also use a thermometer stuck in the middle to see when the bread is done. Pull it out when it hits around 200˚/93˚. Just makes sure that the probe isn’t sitting in a raisin pocket. 

If refrigerating overnight: In the morning, remove the pan from the fridge. Make your coffee, and preheat the oven to 350˚/180˚. Bake the bread until golden brown, about 1 hour. Let cool in the pan for 15 minutes before serving.

Makes one 9 x 5 loaf.