Welcome to Christmas in August!
Welcome! For at least the next few months, I'll be making posts to this blog related to my efforts and those of my Dad to create an Advent cookbook. We started on our project more than a year ago and would like to share some of our work with you. We'd also welcome your comments. The postings you'll see for the next few months will be primarily about the recipes and menus I'm developing for the cookbook, along with some tips on how to eat well while saving money on your meal preparations. Beginning in Advent, I'll start posting reflections on scripture and a menu for each of the days of Advent.
Who are we and why are we doing this?
I am, among other things, a cook--mostly self-taught and not a professional, gourmet chef. I like to eat, and I like to eat good food! I believe menus should be easy to prepare, nutritious, and made with ingredients that are readily available, not hard to find or froufrou. I've had plenty of kitchen mistakes and meltdowns over the years as I've tried to balance working full time outside the home with getting decent dinners on the table most nights. So, I know that what's easy for the professional and television chefs isn't always easy at home. The TV channel cooks also have sou-chefs to wash and chop the ingredients and someone else to do the clean up. Nice, if you can get the help, but sometimes you can't.
My Dad, Malcolm, is a United Methodist minister and a retired member of the Virginia Conference. He's been in charge of choosing the scripture and writing most of the reflections. Because Dad doesn't mess around--he went to Candler seminary at Emory University and has been preparing sermons for some 50 plus years--he finished his written contributions to the project months ago. Since then, Dad has helped, when possible, with some of the taste testing. He highly recommends the coconut-orange biscotti, so stick around for the recipe for those later!
I'm the slow one. I've been working on getting the recipes right, testing them and retesting them, and, the hardest part for me, getting photographs of the foods. Yes, I know, getting pictures shouldn't be hard. It is, though, if the foods get eaten before the photos get made. My husband tells me that that's a sign that the recipes are good! Maybe, but it makes it hard to move forward with our cookbook project. So, I've mostly given up on taking fancy photographs that have beautiful, Christmas backgrounds and require a lot of set up. What you'll see, when I can take them, are photos of real food in real dishes in my very real, very small, and very messy kitchen. You'll see food that is going to be eaten, not just food that looks good enough to eat! And sometimes you'll see food missing from the photos--i.e. an empty muffin well--because the kitchen "beasts" got to the food before I could take the photo.
Now, why are we working on this cookbook? For several reasons.
We feel a strong need to do something to help those who are food insecure--those who go hungry in our land and world of plenty. We'll donate much of the proceeds from our cookbook to help the hungry (please see the "About" page).
We want to offer you a book that goes beyond the usual glitzy spreads you see in seasonal blogs, websites, cookbooks, and magazines that advertise, "everything you could wish for" and tips to make your December, "the best season ever"--as long as you buy lots of stuff. We'd like to offer you, instead, readings and reflections that will help you find meaning and joy in the celebration of Advent. You won't need to buy a lot of stuff--or anything, really--to do that.
We also hope to offer you a cookbook that provides simple, great-tasting recipes that won't break your budget or require you to be a gourmet chef to prepare. The cookbook will focus on foods that are readily available. Many of the foods will fit within the guidelines of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, SNAP, which is the largest US nutrition program focused on reducing domestic hunger. We also intend to concentrate on using ingredients that are low fat, low calorie (relatively speaking), not too salty, not too sweet, and, in a season often characterized by excess, pretty good for you.
So, that's what we're up to with this blog. It's our effort to take you along for the ride on our Advent cookbook project. The blog also is our way of finding out if anyone is interested in helping with our project. We need recipe testers, eaters, photographers, readers, and those who want to hear and share the message of Advent!
I have one more issue to acknowledge before I move on to some recipes. I'm technically inept. I'm learning how to use the various website and blogging tools, software for formatting books, and even tools for photographers. Please be patient with me. I mess up a lot.
Now -- on to the cookies!
Yes! Christmas Cookies in August!
While most people have been busy this month charring chicken, veggies, or mammal flesh outside on their grills or chomping on fresh, cool salads to try to avoid heating up their ovens, I've been testing various cookie recipes in what has frequently become a more than toasty kitchen. In particular, I've been focusing on making chocolate biscotti. If you're not familiar with them, biscotti are twice-baked cookies of Italian origin that usually contain little fat and are dry and crunchy. They are quite good with ice cream, sherbet, fruit, or dipped in coffee. Some people also like to dip biscotti in sweet wine.
Never mind the unnecessary hoopla of some of the cooking shows; biscotti are easy to make. The homemade cookies can be quite economical compared to the versions you find in stores, and the taste of the home-made biscotti far exceeds that of the store-bought cookies, which have long shelf-lives and are usually coated in chocolate to hide the fact that the cookies are pretty tasteless, as is. I confess, I really didn't like biscotti much until I started making my own. Now I've become a biscotti fan--because they're easy, taste good, and are reasonably nutritious compared with many other cookies.
I've got some great recipes for almond and assorted other biscotti (including my Dad's favorite coconut-orange version)--stay tuned for those--but I've had trouble creating a chocolate version I think is worthy of the Advent cookbook. After multiple attempts and lots of biscotti crunching at home and among my husband's office mates, I now think I'm there, or at least very close to the chocolate biscotti I want. What I've been working toward is a biscotti that is low in fat, crunchy but not tooth shattering, includes some whole-grain flour, is just a little sweet, and that, of course, delivers dark, delicious, even slightly decadent chocolate taste. I want nuts in my biscotti, but, because I use a lot of almonds and walnuts in other variations of biscotti, I want something a little different in these. So, in this version, I've included pecans--chopped and toasted until they release their nutty, slightly sweet fragrance. I've also used mini chocolate chips, which make the biscotti easier to slice for the second baking and, just as important, deliver intense chocolate taste in each bite of cookie. So, try this recipe and see what you think. Can I make a biscotti fan of you?
Note: This recipe makes a small batch of biscotti--one cookie sheet's worth, which you can bake while you eat dinner. The biscotti are NOT dipped in or drizzled with chocolate, but if you want to do so, feel free. They'll be great. Just know that the biscotti also will taste good without all the extra chocolate gilding.
Chocolate-Pecan Biscotti -- Makes about 12
1/3 cup of sugar
2 T of brown sugar
1/4 cup of canola oil
1 teaspoon of vanilla
1/2 teaspoon of butter flavoring
1/2 cup of flour
3/4 cup of white whole wheat flour
1/4 cup of cocoa powder (unsweetened)
1 teaspoon of baking powder
1/4 teaspoon of baking soda
1/8 teaspoon of salt
1/4 teaspoon of cinnamon
1/4 cup of chopped, toasted pecans
1/4 cup of mini chocolate chips
About a teaspoon of sugar and 1/4 teaspoon of cinnamon, mixed together
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and line a cookie sheet with parchment paper or coat it with non-stick cooking spray. In a large bowl, whisk together the sugars, canola oil, eggs, vanilla, and butter flavoring until thick and well combined. In another bowl, whisk the flours, cocoa powder, salt, and 1/4 teaspoon of cinnamon together. Add the flour mixture, toasted pecans, and mini chips to the sugar mixture and stir the mixture with a wooden spoon until everything comes together and is just mixed. Spread the dough/batter out onto the prepared cookie sheet and, after wetting your hands with water, form the sticky dough/batter into a log roughly 10-12 inches long and 2-3 inches wide. Re-wet your hands, if necessary. Sprinkle the sugar-cinnamon mixture on top of the wet log. Bake the log for 25-30 minutes until firm, but not hard, on top. Let the log cool for 5-10 minutes and then cut it, crosswise, into 12-14 slices. Turn the slices cut sides down (flat) on the baking sheet and return them to the oven for about seven minutes. Remove the pieces from the oven and flip them over. Then return the cookies to the oven and bake them for another 7-8 minutes. As the biscotti cool, they'll harden up and become crunchier, so don't over-bake them unless you want really hard cookies. You can, of course, test the cookies before serving them by eating the small end pieces (besides, then you'll have an even dozen biscotti).