Faster Than Takeout

This weekend we found Candy Cane sleighing down the side of the staircase:

And petting the reindeer in the Little People Christmas train:

This morning we found her taking pictures of the family as they walked down the stairs:

Yesterday was a very busy day filled with Christmas visits, Christmas shopping with a good friend, and knitting (I’m finally on Stocking #3). All that didn’t leave me with much time to cook, but I didn’t want to eat out, so I compromised with some quick fixes from the grocery store.

That’s pork schnitzel from the butcher section; I’ve had schnitzel before, even had it in Germany, but I’ve never had the pre-made pork version from the grocery store. I didn’t have high hopes, but it wasn’t half bad! In an effort to keep in quick and simple, I served it with eggs over easy and a prepackaged spinach salad with clementine wedges, strawberries, cucumber, goat cheese crumbles, and sliced almonds. Overall, it was quicker than ordering takeout, and also both cheaper and healthier!

Chestnut Roasting Fail

This morning we found Candy Cane hiding in with the Christmas stuffies:

While I’m still spending most of my time trying to finish up the Christmas knitting, we still have to eat! On a recent grocery store expedition, Thing 1 insisted that we purchase some chestnuts to roast at home — then promptly forgot about them. So I figured I should do something about that.

Now, around here we tend to think of roasted chestnuts as kind of quaint and old-timey, mostly because of the Christmas carol. But when I was in Istanbul some years ago, fresh-roasted chestnuts were sold on every second corner in the old city, alongside roasted corn on the cob and stacks of chewy pretzels. One of my big regrets is that I never tried any while I was there, despite their tantalizing aroma!

So I Googled how to roast chestnuts in the oven, and while everyone seemed to have a slightly different take, all of the methods seemed pretty simple. I more or less used the Howcast method. Basically, I preheated the oven to 375°F, rinsed and dried the chestnuts, and tried to make an X incision on the skin of the nut. It was here that I started to realize that things may not be going to according to plan, since if I’d used anything smaller than a butcher’s knife I would have snapped the blade.

Then I baked the chestnuts in the oven on a cookie sheet, and followed that by taking them out of the oven and putting them in a casserole dish, which I covered with a towel and let rest for ten minutes. At this point I was pretty sure that there was something not working, since the BBC says the skins should open and the insides should be tender — and the skins remained defiantly closed.

When I tried to peel them, my suspicions were confirmed. The shells were hard and the nutmeat was even harder; an experimental taste test threatened to chip a tooth. They were hard as a rock.

So either I got the wrong kind of chestnut for roasting (and in my inexperience I don’t know the difference), or the ones I bought were ridiculously old and dried out. I’d like to try this again, because I still regret not eating the ones in Istanbul, but where can I be sure to buy the right kind and age of chestnuts around here?

In the Knitting Weeds

This morning we discovered that Candy Cane must have gotten into my knitting cupboard, since she was all tangled up in my sock yarn leftovers:

I have to admit that I’m feeling a bit like how Candy Cane looks at the moment. I’m in the knitting weeds, as it were. There are 12 days left until Christmas and I’m only halfway through the second stocking. Granted, most of my holiday shopping and other making is already complete, which is what has been eating into my time, but I was hoping to finish all four stockings in time for Christmas Eve. And much as I love knitting, I’m no speedster like the Yarn Harlot, although I don’t think I have her level of experience either.

And yet I remain sure that I can get it all done, despite not yet having picked out my own yarn. Mine will be the last one knit in any case. I think I can, I think I can…

Bread Experiments

Today we found Candy Cane trying to fit in with the Christmas nesting dolls:

Last week I picked up a “new” (thrifted) bread machine for $7.99 at Value Village. It was exactly the same as my old Black & Decker All-In-One Horizontal Breadmaker, which I had loved so much that I wore it out. I’ve had a couple of second-hand replacements since then, some of which I’ve also worn out and some that I simply haven’t liked. However, none of them had the preheat function, which I didn’t realize I’d miss so much.

You see, the preheat function warms up your ingredients before it begins kneading the dough, which means the bread ends up being lighter and fluffier. The reason for this is that yeast is much more active at warmer temperatures (but not actual hot temperatures, which actually kills it off). Since “yeast farts” (the carbon dioxide emitted when the yeast eats sugar) are what causes bread to rise, warmer temperatures mean fluffier bread. I find that this is especially important when baking in the winter.

I tested out my new-to-me machine with a loaf of pumpernickel bread (page 21, Better Homes and Gardens: The Complete Guide to Bread Machine Baking, 1999). I’d forgotten that this particular recipe usually requires a little extra water (I really should read my own notes), so at first I thought that the motor was struggling. Nope, the dough was just too thick! About an extra 1/3 of a cup of water, added in a drizzle at a time, and it was right as rain.

Another recipe I’ve been trying to perfect is a hard apple cider bread. There are a lot of great ciders around here, and although I’m not a fan of them to drink, I thought they would make for an interesting flavour in a bread. (That’s more or less how I feel about beer, too.) My first attempt in my old bread machine didn’t rise much at all, but tasted quite nice. I put the lack of rising down to the ingredients being too cold, since the yeast is obviously still alive since it’s from the same package as the pumpernickel bread. The second time, I pre-warmed the liquids and used the “new” bread machine with the preheat option, which did help a lot. As you can see from the pulling apart of the crust in the above photo, it definitely did rise. But it’s still not as light and fluffy as I would like, especially in comparison to my beer bread recipe. Perhaps I just need more yeast? I generally only use 2tsp in a loaf this size, but it’s possible that the higher alcohol content of the cider is killing some of my yeast off.

It kneaded together well, though, which makes me think the wet-to-dry ingredient ratio is correct. Also, the crust is a little too brown in spots, which makes me think that there is too much sugar. Cider by its very nature has natural sugars in it, so I may not need any added sugar at all. So this recipe definitely isn’t ready to post yet, but I will do so as soon as I have a satisfactory, repeatable result. Stay tuned!

Red Lobster Cheddar Bay Biscuits

I apologize for the delay in today’s post! We have been experiencing technical difficulties with our Internet connection (mostly with our router), so I couldn’t get my entry from the computer to the blog.

This morning we found Candy Cane in the big box of Christmas books that makes an appearance every holiday season. It seems that she really likes to read – not unlike the other members of this family. Today’s choice was “Twas the Night Before Christmas” by Clement C Moore.

Tonight for dinner, at my husband’s request, I whipped up some Red Lobster Cheddar Bay Biscuits. We’ve been a big fan of these biscuits for years, even if, in my personal opinion, they’re not quite as good as Dad’s Biscuits.

They always taste so good fresh out of the oven (although personally I find they don’t store well). As a bonus, they are really easy to make, and the cooking directions are extremely clear. The cheddar that I used was lactose-free, as usual, which I find doesn’t affect either the taste or consistency.

I served the biscuits with my standard chicken thighs (roasted in the oven with a sprinkle of parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, summer savoury, garlic powder, and salt). As a veggie we had steamed acorn squash that I cooked in the microwave and sprinkled with a little bit of brown sugar. Dinner definitely wasn’t anything fancy, but it was exactly what my family asked for.

Baby Panda Onigiri

This morning we found Candy Cane rappelling over the fireplace grate!

Last night for dinner I really wanted to try out a baby panda onigiri set I bought at a Goodwill in New Jersey in the fall. To be clear, that’s rice balls in the shape of baby pandas, not containing baby pandas.

I’d been wanting to try the fancier rice balls for a while now, but it’s hard to find the molds around here unless you want to import them, which can be prohibitively expensive. But this set was only $1.99, and it was still new in the package, which was a perfect combination for me.

Basically, you cook up your sticky rice, scoop it into the mold (the front and the back are both shaped), and then press it really firmly together. Then you place a sheet of nori between the white cutter and the flexible red board, and press down really firmly to punch out the shapes. You can then apply the nori shapes to the formed rice, sometimes using a dab of water to make the seaweed stick properly. This kit even makes little nori tails for their tiny rice butts! Now, there were a whole lot more instructions written on the back in Japanese, and I have at best a kindergartner’s grasp of written Japanese (probably worse, actually), so I mostly went with the little pictures on the front.

Despite not having a lot to go on, I think my baby panda onigiri turned out pretty cute, especially for a first try! I served them alongside onigiri made in my triangular mold, which I stuffed with teriyaki chicken. (The chicken is the brown stuff sticking out of the rice in the above photo; it looks a little weird but it hasn’t gone off, I swear.) I think I added a little too much sauce to the chicken, as it was a bit salty. I also learned for future reference that I’ll need to shred the chicken more finely if I want the rice balls to stay intact. It’s a learning process, but it’s one I’m greatly enjoying!

Beer Advent Calendar Tutorial

We found Candy Cane checking out the books on Thing 2’s bookshelf this morning:

Today I decided to make a beer advent calendar for the husbeast at his request, even though we’re already a few days into December. (What can I say, I am running behind in a few things.) I’d seen them advertised online, but they’re not available commercially anywhere around here that I’d seen. I’ve also seen them for wine and for little airline bottles of liquor. I honestly think the best thing would be to build a divided wooden case with 24 little hinged doors on the top and reuse it year to year, much like some of the older traditional advent calendars (only larger). However, I’ve totally run out of time for that, so I went for a cheaper, quicker alternative.

I started with twenty-four different beers, which conveniently fit into a standard flat. Now, a proper box with those little cardboard dividers would have been optimal, but those only tend to be available for bottles. Because I didn’t have a proper box, I needed a second empty flat.

Using a craft knife, I cut about 1/2cm in around the edge of the box. It doesn’t have to be perfect, since it will be hidden.

Then I put the cardboard ring I’d created around the top of the cans of beer.

Next I wrapped the case of beer like a gift. I normally would hide my seams along the bottom of the gift, but since I couldn’t turn it all upside down without it all falling apart, I put the seam along one side instead.

Using a Sharpie and a ruler, I drew a grid above the cans of beer. I could feel the edges of the cans through the paper, so I could easily figure out where the lines should go. Then I randomly numbered the grid from 1 to 24.

My husband tried opening the advent calendar at first by punching holes in the paper, but it tore too easily into the other sections. We found that the best bet is to use a craft knife or scissors to cut a hole a little smaller than the grid markings, so as to keep the paper from disintegrating.

Once the calendar is opened, it’s possible to see the kinds of beer from the side of the case, or to displace everything inside by picking it up. This can be solved by making a cardboard grid and putting it inside the box before the cans. But if you’re not too picky, it works just fine — and my husband, for one, is too happy with his calendar to really care.