November 30, 2010

Blackberry Bliss Bars

Last Wednesday, after we arrived at the in-laws' home, I decided to cook something the we, the hosts and the other guests could snack on.    It seemed a perfect opportunity to try out a recipe I'd been wanting to make for a few weeks.

The most recent issue of Cook's Country (January 2011) featured the results of their annual Christmas Cookie Contest.   The year's winning recipe and six finalists were printed in the new issue, and one of the finalists, Blackberry Bliss Bars, looked simply wonderful.  Coconut, chocolate and white chocolate chips, toffee, cinnamon, oats and blackberry jam... even though it was only a finalist in the contest, the recipe sounded like a winner to me!  I'm happy to say that the recipe more than lived up to expectations.

Some of the ingredients for Blackberry Bliss Bars
The crust, fresh out of the oven.

I started by mixing flour, granulated and brown sugar, butter, cinnamon, oats and coconut to make the crust, then baked the crust for a bit.  After the crust cooled for a bit, I first spread a layer of blackberry jam over the crust, then topped it with walnuts, chocolate, white chocolate and toffee chips and a bit of the crust mixture.  

Ready to go back into the oven

Then it was back to the oven.   I knew I had a winner when I pulled the bars out of the oven... the melted chocolate, warm toffee, toasted nuts and coconut and hot blackberry jam mingled into a mouthwatering melange of scents, and the blackberry jam bubbling up through the top layer looked downright delicious.  The bars had to cool for awhile before they could be eaten, and I honestly had a bit of difficulty going to bed without sampling them.

Fresh from the oven
Close-up view of bubbling blackberry deliciousness!

The next morning, I removed the bars from the pan and sliced them.  The flavor... well, "bliss" is a pretty apt description for these delicious treats.   They were, unsurprisingly, quite popular on Thanksgiving Day and the next, and there were only a couple left to take back home with us on Saturday. 

This recipe is definitely a keeper, and I plan to make up another batch really soon.

Leftover Turkey, Part 2: Quick Southwestern-Spiced Breadsticks and White Turkey Chili

Juli's sister Cecelia made the main dish for dinner on Black Friday.  She'd decided to make a white chili using the leftover turkey, but since she didn't have a recipe handy, she decided to wing it.  I helped out with a few seasoning suggestions, and I also came up with a nice little side to go with the chili - breadsticks flavored with southwestern seasonings. 

These breadsticks represent one of those rare times when I go with pre-prepared dough instead of making my own.  I did that largely because of the convenience and speed.  I'd recently read an article somewhere about using pre-made pizza dough to make breadsticks, as opposed to using bread dough.   The author stated the pizza dough tends to crisp up better, and that sounded good to me, so I went with that idea.

Coming up with the recipe was pretty simple, really.  All I did was select some spices common to southwestern, Tex-Mex and Mexican dishes and figure out the proper ratio.   From there, it was a simple matter of slicing the dough, shaping the breadsticks, brushing them with melted butter, sprinkling on the spice mixture and tossing them into the oven for a few minutes. 

They turned out quite good, especially considering how quick and easy they were to assemble, and they were indeed nice and crispy without being hard or dried-out.  The recipe is definitely a winner, and the breadsticks went great with the chili. 

I've included both my breadstick recipe and the tossed-together-on-the-spot recipe used for the chili. 

Cecelia's White Chili

1 1/2       pounds dried navy beans
3             tablespoons butter
3             carrots, peeled and thinly sliced
6             stalks celery with leaves, thinly sliced
1             yellow onion, finely chopped
1/2          white onion, finely chopped
1             tablespoon chili powder
1             teaspoon kosher salt
3/4          teaspoon dried oregano, crushed
1/2          teaspoon ground cumin
1/2          teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper
4             cups chicken broth
2             pounds cooked turkey or chicken
1             can Ro-Tel diced tomatoes and green chilies
3/4          teaspoon garlic powder
               sour cream, chopped cilantro, chopped fresh tomatoes
               and/or grated cheese to garnish.

Add beans to a Dutch oven.  Add water to two inches above the level of the beans.  Soak 12+ hours.

Drain off water, then add fresh water to about 1 inch above the beans.  Boil one hour.  Check beans for doneness at that point; cook until beans are soft.  Once beans are soft, drain the water.  Reserve 1/3 to 1/2 of the beans; return the remainder to the Dutch oven.

Melt the butter in a skillet, then saute the carrots, celery and onions until they are softened.  Stir in the salt, oregano, cumin, chili powder and black pepper and cook for a couple minutes.  Meanwhile, add the chicken broth to the Dutch oven with the beans , then add the sauted vegetables.  Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer 20 minutes.  Add the turkey (or chicken), the Ro-Tel diced tomatoes with chilis, the reserved beans and the garlic powder.   Cook for about 5 minutes to heat through; taste, adjust seasoning if necessary and serve.

If you like larger chunks of carrots but also want them soft, microwave them for about 2 minutes before sauteing them.

Leftovers of the jalapeno corn casserole Juli made the day before mix in well with the chili.  

Quick Southwestern-Spiced Breadsticks

yield = 8 breadsticks

1       teaspoon ground cumin
1       teaspoon garlic powder
1       teaspoon onion powder
1/2    teaspoon dried oregano, crushed
1/2    teaspooons dried cilantro, crushed
1/4    teaspoon kosher salt
1/8    teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper
1/8    teaspoon cayenne pepper
1       tube prepared pizza dough
2       tablespoons butter, melted

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.  Prepare two baking sheets with nonstick cooking spray.

Combine the first eight ingredients in a small bowl.  Mix thoroughly.

Unroll the pizza dough and cut it into 16 slices.  Twist two slices together in a spiral pattern, pinching the two slices of dough together at each end, and place the dough twist on one of the baking sheets.  Repeat with the remainder of the pizza dough.

Lightly brush each dough twist with melted butter, then sprinkle with the spice mix.  Bake for 12 minutes or until golden-brown.  Transfer the cooked breadsticks to a cooling rack lined with parchment paper or paper towels, let cool for 5 minutes, then serve.

November 29, 2010

Leftover Turkey, Part 1: Turkey Enchiladas + Tex-Mex Black Beans and Rice

Friday after Thanksgiving I did a lot of cooking.   The first thing I did was prepare lunch.  We had lots of leftover turkey, and so, naturally, lunch included turkey.

I've made various versions of Turkey Enchiladas over the years.  In the past I've always used recipes, but this time I ended up winging it, as I hadn't planned on cooking that dish.  I combined bits and pieces of various turkey enchilada recipes I could recall and put them all together.   The result was pretty good.

Juli's sister has difficulty handling some milk products, but does okay with highly-processed milk products.  Thus, I used Mexican Velveeta as the primary cheese (I'm using the term 'cheese' lightly in this respect).  I'm not a huge fan of Velveeta, though, so I also picked up some oaxaca cheese for a more authentically Mexican taste.  All of the enchiladas had the Velveeta on the inside, but some were topped with the queso oaxaca.  I preferred those ones, but Juli and several others preferred the Velveeta ones, finding them more spicy.

Since my son Alex is vegetarian, Turkey Enchiladas weren't going to cut it with him, so I also made another dish so he'd have something, and as a side for the Turkey Enchiladas.  I ended up making a from-scratch Black Beans and Rice dish, and to save time, I used some of the same ingredients as in the Enchiladas, so I could cook part of the dishes (the onions, poblano and garlic) together.  The result was a mild but flavorful dish, more warm than spicy-hot.  Alex liked it quite a bit.

All in all, lunch turned out pretty good, especially given that I made it without consulting any recipes.

Turkey Enchiladas
Left:  topped with queso oaxaca
Right:  topped with Mexican Velveeta

Turkey Enchiladas

yield = 8 servings

1       tablespoon vegetable oil
1/2    yellow onion, chopped fine
1       poblano pepper, roasted, peeled, seeded and chopped
1 1/2 teaspoons minced garlic
1       pound cooked turkey, chopped
1       10-ounce can Ro-Tel Diced Tomatoes and Green Chilies
4       ounces cream cheese, softened
1       10-ounce can enchilada sauce
8       tortillas, warm
2       cups grated Mexican Velveeta

Heat the oil in a skillet over medium-high heat and cook the onion until it is softened.  Add the chopped, roasted poblano pepper and continue to cook, stirring often.  When the onion has started to brown, add the garlic and cook for about 45 seconds, then add the turkey and Ro-Tel.  Cook until almost all the liquid has boiled off (about 10 minutes), then stir in the cream cheese.  Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Spray a 9x13 casserole dish with nonstick cooking spray, then spread three tablespoons of enchilada sauce on the bottom of the dish.  Spread 1/8 of the turkey mixture on one side of a tortilla, top with a bit of the grated Velveeta, roll up tightly and place in the casserole, seam down.  Repeat with the rest of the turkey mixture and tortillas.  Spoon the rest of the enchilada sauce evenly over the enchiladas, then top with more grated cheese.

Bake until the cheese is melted and bubbling, about 20-25 minutes.

If you are using packaged tortillas, you can warm them pretty easily.  Simply place them on a plate, cover them with a damp (water squeezed out) paper towel and microwave for 1 minute.

Tex-Mex Black Beans and Rice

yield = 6 servings

1       tablespoon vegetable oil
1/2    yellow onion, chopped fine
1       poblano pepper, roasted, peeled, seeded and chopped
1 1/2 teaspoons minced garlic
1       teaspoon ground cumin
1/2    teaspoon dried oregano, crushed
1 1/2 cups long grain rice
1       can black beans, drained and rinsed
1       can Ro-Tel diced tomatoes and green chilies
2 1/2 cups water
1/2    teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper
1/4    teaspoon salt
1/4    teaspoon cayenne pepper
2/3    cup queso oaxaca, grated
1       tablespoon fresh cilantro, chopped

Heat the oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat and cook the onion until it is softened.  Add the chopped, roasted poblano pepper and continue to cook, stirring often.  When the onion has started to brown, add the garlic and cook for about 45 seconds.   Clear a spot in the middle of the pan and add the cumin and oregano.  Cook, stirring constantly, about 45 seconds or until fragrant, then add the black beans, Ro-Tel, water, pepper, salt and cayenne pepper. 

Bring to a boil, then cover, remove from heat and let rest 20 minutes.  Stir in 1/3 cup of the grated cheese, sprinkle the rest of the cheese and the cilantro over the top of the rice, recover and let rest another 5 minutes, then serve.

The Entire Thanksgiving Menu

In this part of our impromptu buffet table, you can see:
Sliced turkey,
Whipped potatoes,
Green Bean Casserole,
Candied Fresh Yams
 with Sweet Potatoes,
Cornaroni (recipe follows)

Vegetable Fruit Curry,
Gingered Cranberry Sauce,
Cranberry Fluff,
Jalapeno Corn Casserole,

Oh, and here is the cranberry fluff, with its own special bowl, that I wrote about here.

Not pictured (because I think we were more interested in eating than photographing):
Apple Streusel Pie
Icebox Pumpkin Ice Cream Pie
Butterscotch Banana Cream Pie

All the pies were whipped up by my Dad.  He has a way with pie crust that is impossible to match.

The following recipe comes straight from my late Aunt Helen.  This is the first year we've made Cornaroni, aka Corn-Macaroni Casserole.  The general consensus around our own Thanksgiving table was that if you had a "kids'" table, this would be a popular item.  I had the worst time remembering the name on Thanksgiving Day, so it was also called Mackacorny, Tunaroni (I know, there's no tuna) and Cornamacky.

1 can     creamed corn, undrained
1 can     whole kernal corn, undrained
1 cup     macaroni, uncooked
1 cup     diced Velveeta
1/2 cup  oleo, cut up

Mix together and bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes uncovered.  Stir, cover, and bake 15 minutes more.

November 28, 2010

Our Thanksgiving Part 2

I was only responsible for one side dish, and the recipe I chose was probably the simplest one on the whole Thanksgiving menu.  It also was one of the most remarked upon- my sister in particular really loved it!  My stepson enjoyed slicing and dicing the peppers, which made the recipe prep even easier.  I looked at other corn casserole recipes to get a starting point, and ended with this:

Jalapeno Corn Casserole
2 8-ounce packages          cream cheese, softened
1 stick (8 tablespoons)       butter, softened
5 15-ounce cans               corn, drained
3-6                                   fresh jalapeno peppers

1.  Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2.  Place the softened cream cheese and butter in a 9x13 baking dish.  Microwave about 1 minute, until the butter is mostly melted.  If your microwave isn't big enough to hold a 9x13 pan, melt ingredients in a separate bowl and then transfer the mixture into your baking dish.

3.  While the butter is melting, slice the stem end off your desired number of peppers.  I used three peppers for the assembled guests, since there are a few people who don't care for an excessive heat level.  At home, I would tend more toward the upper range.  Cut each pepper the long way and remove seeds- this will also help control the amount of spiciness, and will make the finished dish look more appetizing.  Next, dice the peppers finely.  Add to the baking dish.

4.  Add the drained corn, and mix well.  Smooth the corn mixture, and bake for 30-40 minutes.

Before baking.

This recipe makes a lot! 

Fresh from the oven!

Leftovers are good heated up, or would be a brilliant addition to a Southwestern style soup. 

Our Thanksgiving, Part 1

We were at Juli's parents' place from late Wednesday through breakfast Saturday.  We celebrated Thanksgiving with her parents, sister and brother-in-law, my son, her son and her son's fiance.  As usual, we had quite the Thanksgiving feast.   More than one, really... there was lots of good eating this Thanksgiving.

On Thursday morning, I got up before a lot of the others were awake and started preparing a double batch of Blueberry Pancakes, using the recipe first presented in the July 2003 Cook's Illustrated.  I've used this recipe before.  It's reliably great, and the pancakes turned out wonderfully on this occasion.  They were a real hit, with several people commenting on their fluffiness and wonderful texture. 

After breakfast, Juli and I started work on the parts of the Thanksgiving meal for which we were responsible.  My son, who is also interested in cooking, chipped in as well, which was neat.   It provided me a good opportunity to share with him some of the cooking tips I've picked up over the past few month. 

The first thing I prepared was Gingered Cranberry Sauce, from the Closet Cooking blog.  It was a big hit, though a couple people commented on the heat of the ginger when taking a spoonful of the sauce on its own, as opposed to having a bite of turkey or stuffing along with the cranberry sauce.

Once the Gingered Cranberry Sauce was done, I started in on my second dish, a Vegetable and Fruit Curry.  My son, Alex, helped me quite a bit on this one.  He's a vegetarian, and this dish was added to the day's menu in part to give him more to choose among.  As it happens, it was a big hit with everyone, even though (as I realized only later) I forgot to add one ingredient (the peas).  

The original version of this dish appeared in The Complete Step-By-Step Cookbook (Salamander Press, 1998; as far as I can tell, the book is long out of print, but used copies are available).  I'd made that version previously, but this time around I changed around several details - some different ingredients, different amounts and, most importantly, making it a one-pot recipe, save for briefly toasting a couple ingredients in a small skillet - to make it my own.

Vegetable and Fruit Curry

yield = six main-dish servings, or approx. 12 side dish servings

1 1/2        teaspoons coriander seed
1 1/2        teaspoons cumin seed
2/3           cup whole raw cashews
3              tablespoons canola or vegetable oil, divided
1              large onion, chopped fine
3              carrots, peeled and chopped
2              large russet potatoes, peeled and diced
3              teaspoons minced garlic
4              teaspoon fresh grated ginger
1              teaspoon curry powder
1              teaspoon powdered turmeric
1              pound tomatoes, chopped
1              can (14.5 ounces) vegetable broth
2              mangoes, peeled and chopped
1              Granny Smith apple, peeled and chopped
1              cup frozen peas
1              can (13.5 ounces) coconut milk
1              tablespoon fresh cilantro leaves, whole or chopped

In a small skillet, roast the cumin and coriander seeds.  Stir often and cook until fragrant and slightly browned.  Cool, then grind in a mortar or spice grinder.  Set aside.

In the same small skillet, roast the cashews until slightly browned, stirring often.  Cool, then finely grind 1/3 cup of the cashews.  Set whole and ground cashews aside separately.

In a Dutch oven, heat 2 tablespoons oil to medium-high.  Cook the onion an carrots for 5 minutes, stirring often, then add the potatoes and continue to cook until the onion is well browned, approximately 5 more minutes.  

Push the vegetables to the sides of the Dutch oven, then pour the remaining tablespoon oil into the middle of the pan.  Allow it to heat for a minute, then add the ground cumin and coriander, garlic, ginger, curry powder and turmeric.  Cook, stirring constantly, for one minute, then stir in tomatoes.  Cook for about 2 minutes, then add vegetable broth.  Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer uncovered 10 minutes. 

Add peas, apple, mango, ground cashews and coconut milk.  Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer uncovered 10 more minutes or until thickened.   Transfer to a serving bowl, top with whole cashews and cilantro, and serve.

November 27, 2010

Szechuan Pork Stir-Fry

My recent Kung Pao Chicken didn't completely cool down my desire for Chinese, so this time I decided to go with some Szechuan.  I'd originally planned to make a shrimp dish, but the local market didn't have enough fresh shrimp for the dish (they had only about half a pound, which calls into question why they bothered even having it at all), so I decided to go with pork instead and picked up some pork chops.  This change of plans really didn't change the recipe I'd planned all that much.

It turned out to be quite tasty, with the flavors being authentic due to the use of the Chinese black vinegar (you can use ordinary white vinegar if that's the best you have, but nothing else really matches the flavor of the real thing) and Szechuan peppercorns.  The only thing I can think of that might have made it better would have been the addition of some Chinese straw mushrooms, but I didn't have any around.   I need to pick up some jars of those and keep them on hand for occasions like this, and will make sure to have them next time I plan to make this dish.

Szechuan Pork

yield = 4 servings

4       boneless pork loin chops (4 ounces each), trimmed
2       tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
3       teaspoons soy sauce, divided
2       teaspoons minced garlic, divided
2       teaspoons Asian hot chili oil, divided
1/2    teaspoon Szechuan peppercorns
3/4    cup chicken broth of Asian chicken stock
2       tablespoons rice wine (or dry sherry)
1       tablespoon hot bean sauce (also called chili bean sauce)
1       tablespoon Asian chili paste
1       tablespoon Chinese black vinegar (or regular white vinegar)
3       teaspoons cornstarch      
1       teaspoon sugar
1       jalapeno, ribs and seeds removed and cut into long, thin slices
3/4    cup roasted unsalted peanuts
2-3   carrots, peeled and cut into long, thin slices
1      15 ounce can baby corn, drained

Thinly slice the pork chops against the grain.  In a medium bowl, mix the pork chops, 1 tablespoon vegetable oil, 1 teaspoon soy sauce, 1 teaspoon minced garlic and one teaspoon Asian chili oil, stirring to evenly distribute.  Set aside, allowing the pork to marinate for at least 1/2 hour.

In a small skillet, roast the peppercorns until fragrant.  Remove from heat and allow the peppercorns to cool a few minutes, then grind them.

In a small bowl, mix the chicken broth, rice wine (or sherry), hot bean sauce, chili paste, Chinese black vinegar, cornstarch, sugar, 1 teaspoon minced garlic, 1 teaspoon chili oil and the ground peppercorns, stirring to dissolve the cornstarch and sugar.  Set aside.   Combine the peanuts and sliced jalapenos in a small bowl.

Heat one tablespoon of vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat.  When the oil is shimmering, add the carrots and baby corn.  Stir-fry about 2 minutes, then push the vegetables to the edge of the skillet.  Add the pork mixture, stir fry it for a couple minutes, then mix it in with the vegetables and stir-fry until the pork and vegetables have started to brown in a few spots.  Push the pork and vegetables to the edges of the skillet and add the peanuts and sliced jalapeno,  Stir fry the peanuts and jalapeno them until the peanuts start to brown, about 45 seconds, then mix them in with the rest of the ingredients. 

Add the chicken broth mixture and stir in thoroughly until the sauce starts to thicken.  Serve over rice.

November 26, 2010

Mild Chicken and Sweet Potato Curry

It had been more than two weeks since I'd last prepared any Indian or Indian-inspired dishes, and that's a long time for us.   At the same time, I wasn't in the mood for anything really spicy, and since I was wanting to cook something new, rather than go with a recipe from another source, I used the knowledge of Indian cuisine I've developed over the past several months to toss together something from scratch. 

The result was pretty darn good, I have to say.  Juli really, really liked it, giving it five stars.  It isn't so much spicy-hot as warm and mellow, but it is nonetheless quite flavorful.  Served with some basmati rice and naan, it really hit the spot.  So, if you like curries but want something easy to make and fairly mild, or if you or someone you know has been interested in trying out Indian food but is somewhat wary due to its reputation for spiciness, this dish would be a great choice.

Mild Chicken and Sweet Potato Curry

yield = 6-8 servings

15     roasted, unsalted, whole cashews + 1/2 cup for serving
2       tablespoons vegetable oil
1       large onion, chopped fine
3       mild- to moderately-hot chili peppers, chopped
1       tablespoon fresh, grated ginger
2       teaspoons minced garlic
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
1       teaspoon ground coriander
3/4    teaspoon turmeric
1/2    teaspoon salt
1/4    teaspoon cayenne pepper
3       boneless, skinless chicken breasts, trimmed of excess fat and
         sliced into bite-size pieces
2       sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped into 1/2 inch pieces
1       can (13.5 ounces) coconut milk
1/2    can water
1 1/2 cups frozen green peas, thawed

Using a spice grinder or food processor, grind 15 whole cashews into a fine flour.  Set aside.

Heat the oil in a Dutch oven over medium heat.  Cook the onion and chilis until the onion is golden-brown, then add the ginger and garlic and cook for 30 seconds.  Add the cumin, coriander, turmeric, salt and cayenne and cook for 30 seconds, then add the chicken.  Stir-fry the chicken until it isn't pink at all, then add the sweet potatoes, coconut milk and water.  Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium and let simmer 15 minutes. 

Add the peas, cook another 5 minutes, then stir in the ground cashews.   Top with 1/2 cup cashews and serve with rice and naan.

I used a type of chilis I pick up at our favorite source for Indian produce, Maria's Grocery.  They are more or less equivalent in heat to a Serrano pepper, but are a bit sweeter.  In a pinch, Serrano peppers will do fine.

By omitting the chicken and adding 1 1/2 lbs of vegetables (carrots, broccoli, cauliflower or chickpeas would all be good choices), you can transform this recipe into a vegetarian dish, a mixed vegetable korma. 

November 25, 2010

Pineapple Custard

Jeffrey had a hankering for the pineapple custard that I make every year at Christmas and Easter, so I obliged him by making it even though we'll be gone for a few days.  It's not really a custard, but it does have eggs in it.  It can be served warm or cold.  I like it warm best.  It's a great side dish for baked ham.

Here's how you can tell the recipe is a favorite- just look at my old cookbook! 

When I spot old cookbooks at yard sales that look interesting, I always page through to see if the previous owner left notes, or if there are pages with major spills.  A really spattered page shows that the recipe was loved and was made a LOT!  I like seeing what other people loved to cook, and often their notes are helpful.  I almost feel like I'm reading someone else's diary;  I've gotten a little peek at one part of their lives.

Pineapple Custard
2 tablespoons          cornstarch
1/2 cup                    sugar
2 beaten                  eggs
1/4 cup                    water
1 teaspoon               vanilla
1 20-ounce can        crushed pineapple, undrained
3 tablespoons           butter
dusting of                 ground cinnamon

In a glass 8 x 8 baking dish, mix together the cornstarch and sugar.  Add the eggs, water, and vanilla.  Add the crushed pineapple, juice and all, and stir well.  Slice the 3 tablespoons of butter into about 5 pats and dot the pineapple mixture with them- don't mix in.  Dust lightly with a ground cinnamon.

Bake uncovered for one hour at 350 degrees.

November 24, 2010

Chewy Pumpkin-Cranberry Cookies: The Quest Continues

I've previously written about my Pumpkin-Cranberry Cookies, and the effort I've put into making a version I'm happy with.  As I've also mentioned, though I am pleased with the flavor of those Pumpkin-Cranberry Cookies at this I've made to this point, I'm still not 100% satisfied with them due to their texture.  Those cookies are very light and cake-like, almost more like mini-cupcakes than cookies, whereas I prefer cookies that are more solid, either crunchy or chewy.  Thus, I continue on my quest, attempting to make a pumpkin cookie that isn't cake-like.

I've spent some time on and off researching pumpkin cookie recipes, in hopes they would point me in the right direction.  Mostly, that's gotten me nowhere, because the vast majority of pumpkin cookie recipes out there make cake-like cookies much like mine.  The couple potential exceptions I located just don't sound very good at all.   A recipe on a vegan site that uses no fat whatsoever and very little sugar, for example.  No thanks. 

So, with the recipes not getting me anywhere, I decided the best course of action would be for me to just experiment.

In deciding how to start my experiment, I gave some thought to the core problem and some potential solutions.   The core problem is pretty simple, really:  The pumpkin cookies I already make, and those made by most other people, are more like cake than a proper cookie.   Since the problem is cookies with cake texture, the most likely solution would be to reduce or eliminate ingredients that contribute to a cakelike texture. 

The primary offender, I realized right away, was probably flour, so the solution might lie in reducing the amount of flour, or the proportion of flour to other ingredients.  Still, with something as moist as pureed pumpkin, I'd need a fairly substantial amount of dry ingredients just to make the cookie hold together.  Considering my options, I went with something that is already used in lots of cookies anyhow:  Rolled oats.  I'd try to make a pumpkin-cranberry oatmeal cookie.

With that in mind, I started out with a basic oatmeal cookie recipe, then tried to customize it to incorporate the pumpkin and cranberries.  I knew that I'd have to use a fairly large amount of pumpkin, because ounce for ounce pumpkin puree isn't very flavorful.  I decided to start with 2/3 cup of pumpkin to 1 cup of flour and 1 cup of oats. 

These cookies tasted pretty good, but they were still quite cake-like.  I put them onto the cookie sheet as little balls of sticky dough, and when they were done, they were little mounds of fluffy cake, and hadn't really spread at all. 

That result having been gained, I thought about what makes cookies spread out, rather than maintaining the shape of the dough.   One important factor is sugar:  as the dough heats up, the sugar first dissolves, making the dough lose cohesion, before hardening again. 

With that idea in mind, I added some extra brown sugar, going from 1/2 cup of light sugar to 3/4 cup, along with 1/2 cup granulated sugar.  This was definitely a move in the right direction:  the cookies weren't that much sweeter, and they spread a bit more and ended up with a texture somewhat less like cake (though still more cake-like than I'd prefer). 

The quest isn't over yet, but I think I have some direction now.   Next time around I plan to bump up the amount of oatmeal while reducing the amount of flour.   I've also got to figure out a way to incorporate a bit more pumpkin, because while the current cookies taste pretty good, the pumpkin flavor isn't particularly strong at this point.  The key there will be how to do that without ending up with a runny mess, and that is going to be a challenge, because the dough is pretty sticky as is. 

Anyway, that's where things stand at the moment... but the quest continues.

The latest experiments.  The cookies on the right were from the first batch of
Pumpkin-Cranberry Oatmeal Cookies.  The ones on the right are the ones
made with extra brown sugar.  Notice they are flatter and spread more.

Slow-Cooked Memphis-Style BBQ Ribs

This past weekend, the weather was still nice enough that grilling could be more pleasant than an ordeal, so I took advantage of that and made up a rack of baby back ribs. 

Normally I prefer saucy ribs, but I was in a mood for Memphis-style ribs flavored only with a dry spice rum and wood smoke, the only liquid being steaming pans of water in the grill and the occasional brushing with a mop (a basting liquid, not the thing you use to clean floors with) to help keep the ribs moist.  So, I tossed together a basic spice mix, rubbed the spices over the ribs and let the rack sit in the fridge for a few hours.   Now, rib fanatics will often tell you the rubbed ribs should sit in the fridge for about 24 hours before they hit the grill, but in fact 2-3 hours seems to be the crucial amount of time.  Less than that and the spices don't adhere well enough to the ribs to form a crust.

These ribs turned out great... perfectly cooked, tender with a zesty spice crust, the meat white at the center and surrounded by a red smoke ring closer to the surface.  The combination of pork, spices and hickory smoke is pretty much always a winning one, and this time was no exception. 

Along with the ribs, we had some steamed green beans and some Buttermilk Cornbread I made from a recipe I found in the November issue of Fine Cooking.  The recipe cut a good comprimise between northern-style, sweetened cornbread and the southern style, which is not sweetened.   It cooked in the oven in a pre-warmed, cast iron skillet, and it was great served up with butter and honey.

Ribs take a fair bit of time to prepare and to grill up right, but this batch was definitely worth it!

Slow-Cooked Memphis-Style BBQ Ribs

Spice Rub
2       teaspoons whole black peppercorns
1 1/2 teaspoons whole mustard seed
1       teaspoon dried oregano
3/4    teaspoon cumin seed
3/4    teaspoon fennel seed
1/2    teaspoon celery seed
1/4    teaspoon dried thyme
1       tablespoon kosher salt
1       tablespoon light brown sugar
1       tablespoon sweet paprika
3/4    teaspoon cayenne pepper
3/4    teaspoon granulated garlic powder
1/2    teaspoon onion powder

1       rack baby back ribs, 2 1/2-3 lbs
3       tablespoons vegetable oil

1      cup apple juice
4      tablespoons apple cider vinegar

Grill Preparation
         vegetable oil or nonstick cooking spray
2       cups hickory chips
2       disposable aluminum baking pans
4       apples
2       sprigs fresh thyme
2       bay leaves

Measure out peppercorns, mustard seed, oregano, cumin seed, fennel seed, celery seed and thyme into a spice grinder; grind the spices until finely ground.   Pour the ground spices into a bowl.  Add kosher salt, brown sugar, cayenne pepper, granulated garlic powder and onion powder and thoroughly mix all the spices together. 

Remove the membrane from the back of the ribs.  Place the ribs on a baking sheet.  Lightly brush both sides of the ribs with vegetable oil to help the spice rub adhere, then sprinkle spoonfulls of the spice rub over the ribs, pressing and rubbing it in with the fingers to thoroughly cover both sides of the ribs.   Refrigerate the ribs (still on the baking sheet) for at least two hours.

Combine the apple juice and apple cider vinegar in a small bowl.

Start the hickory chips soaking about an hour before you plan to start grilling the ribs. 

Slice each apple into four quarters and slice away the core.  Place eight apple slices, one thyme sprig and one bay leaf in each disposable pan and add water to about 1 inch deep.

Clean the cooking grate with a grill brush and either lightly coat it with vegetable oil or spray it with nonstick cooking spray.

Prepare the grill for indirect heat.  Fill a charcoal chimney about half-full and ignite the briquettes in the chimney.  Spread about a dozen unlit briquettes in the direct heat area.  When the briquettes in the chimney are hot (covered with white ash), arrange them on one side of the grill, atop the unlit briquettes.  On the other side of the lower layer of the grill, set one of the disposable pans. 

Set the cooking grate in place, close the grill and let it heat for about 5 minutes.  Ideally, the temperature in the indirect grilling area should be approximately 225 degrees.  Manipulate the grill vents to reach this temperature.

When the grill is ready, toss a handfull of the soaked hickory chips on top of the briquettes, then set the other disposable pan on the cooking grate, directly atop the briquettes.  Place the ribs, meat side up, in the indirect heating area, above the disposable pan on the lower level.  Close the grill, placing the top vent over the ribs to draw smoke through the grill.

Every half-hour, baste the ribs with a couple tablespoons of the apple juice-vinegar mixture, add some more hickory chips and add a few more briquettes or some water to the pans as necessary , but otherwise do not open the grill.  After about an hour, turn the ribs so the edge facing toward the direct heat instead faces away.  After two more hours, turn the ribs again, back to their original position.

The ribs are done when the meat hits an internal temperature of 180 degrees (approximately 4 hours on a 225-degree grill).   Transfer the ribs to a serving plate, tent with foil and let them rest about 10 minutes before slicing them into servings.