Monday, December 29, 2008

New Years Ideas

This will be our last post before new years. I hope everyone had a fabulous Christmas and/or Hanukkah.

If you're still struggling with what to do and.or what to serve on New Years Eve, I have some suggestions.

Lucky Foods to Serve on New Years

All around the world people eat specific foods on New Year's Eve to bring good luck and good fortune in the upcoming year. We've compiled a round-up garnered from our editors' experiences as world travelers, as well as submissions from our readers. For your convenience, we've included recipe links where we have them.

If you know of other New Year's food traditions that we have not covered in these pages, please post them to the comments sections below. So whether or not you're superstitious, what could it hurt? Eat these foods on New Years Eve to insure that you and yours will have the best year ever!

Click here for the International Lucky New Years Eve Foods List.

New Years Eve Effigy Burning Party

Looking for a unique idea for your next New Year's Party? Here's an activity that makes for a memorable and meaningful experience and also gives your guests the chance to let their creativity shine. The effigy party has been an annual tradition at my New Year's celebrations for some time now and never fails to be a big hit, with children as well as adults.

Here's the theme of the party:
Each person invited is instructed to create and bring to the party an effigy to burn. The doll represents the negative energy/traits/emotions etc. that the person wants to be rid of in the coming year. Sort of like a New Year's resolution in reverse. Making the dolls gives the guests something to bring to the party and they make great conversation pieces while on display before the ceremonial burning. If you host this party year after year, you'll find guests really start getting into it and try to outdo each other from year to year.

The dolls (see photos this page and at the link below) can be made from all kinds of materials. For instance my doll from last year was made of bread dough and sugar frosting as I was trying to curb my carbohydrate addiction. My niece Tracy fashioned her doll out of empty Coca-Cola cans as she wanted to break this habit.

The effigy ceremony can be as whimsical or as serious as each guest chooses and sharing the meaning behind the doll is optional. Most do, but some keep it personal.

Once you know where the party will be hosted, and the limitations of your fire pit, you can better instruct or give effigy creating tips to your guests. For instance, if you have a small indoor fireplace, it is important for guests to bring small sized offerings and to limit themselves to natural materials. This is a good idea in general. Nothing can ruin a successful party atmosphere like the stench of burning toxic plastic fumes.

In past years we have also held this party on the beach with a large bonfire, in which case guests were encouraged to bring life-sized effigies (photo at right).

Intrigued? Click this link for more tips, suggestions and precautions for hosting this party, along with photos of past dolls burned by our guests.

Happy New Year and see you all in 2009!


Monday, December 22, 2008

Yule Log Cake and Happy Holidays

I am doing some late night posting, just before leaving to visit family out of town for the holidays. So I want to take this opportunity to wish everyone a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Joyous Yule or whatever other holiday you might be celebrating. I'll see you back here before the New Year.

In the meantime, I thought I'd leave you with the link to photo instructions on making a traditional Yule Log Cake. Pastry Chef extraordinaire Jean Francois Houdre created this work of art for us. Follow along if you're ambitious, or keep your cake more simple.

Yule Log Cake Tutorial with Pastry Chef Jean Francois Houdre

Tamales -- The Ultimate Holiday Food

For cultures with Latin roots, tamales are perhaps the most important celebratory food in existence. Special tamales are regularly prepared for celebrations and feast days ranging from Christmas, New Years and Day of the Dead to Weddings, Christenings and Birthdays. Like many classic foods, tamales can be Zen-like in their simplicity -- a corn dough with or without a few flavorings and/or fillings wrapped up in a cute little package of corn husks or banana leaves (and occasionally other leaves as well) and steamed. But with those few basics, an infinite number of flavors and combinations are possible -- from sweet to savory, mild to spicy, simple to complex and everything in between.

Don't let the thought of making tamales scare you. People make it seem like a bigger deal than it really is. Yes, it takes a little time to set everything up, and you'll probably make a few messy attempts your first few tries. But it's not hard to get the knack, and the whole process really took much less time than I anticipated.

The reactions you'll get when you make tamales are well worth the effort. When I told people I was going to make over 300 homemade tamales for my New Year's party, they looked at me like I was crazy. Even the Latinas working the local Los Angeles Mexican markets claimed their grandmothers didn't even bother to make tamales anymore, preferring to buy them ready made.

But there's nothing like homemade, and the process of making the tamales turned out to be lots of fun. And, by the way, I knew what I was doing. Tamales are a perfect party food -- they are inexpensive to make, everyone loves them and ALL the work can be done well ahead of time.

Tamales are also a great way to bond with friends and family. Get a group together and make a project of it. Everyone will go home with great food and you'll all have a great time creating this classic culinary treasure. Since it takes a bit of time to prepare the doughs and filling for tamales, it's a good idea to make a lot. They freeze extremely well and can be reheated for quick snacks anytime by simply steaming the frozen tamales.

Anatomy of a Tamale
Between the different dough flavorings, fillings and regional styles, you can make endless variations of tamales, but all tamales have certain characteristics in common:

Masa Dough -- Most tamales are made with a masa or specially treated ground corn dough which has been mixed with some type of fat, such as lard, butter or oil and some sort of liquid, such as water or stock. Some nouvelle tamales might use other ingredients such as rice, potatoes or polenta as a base, but for the purposes of this article we will deal with traditional masa tamales. You can also substitute mashed potatoes or sweet potatoes for the fat or oil when making fat-free tamales.

Dough Flavorings --Some people like to keep their masa dough plain, others like to mix flavoring ingredients (such as corn, onions, peppers, etc.) right into the masa dough.

Fillings -- The fillings for tamales are literally infinite -- meats, vegetables, cheese, sauces, salsas, even fruit or chocolate. Use your imagination!

Dried cornhusks are the most common (and easy to find) tamale wrappers. Simply soak the wrappers in warm water for at least 30 minutes before using. Some cultures, especially those in tropical regions, like to use large banana or even avocado leaves to wrap their tamales.

Tamales as Gifts
So few bother to go to the trouble of making tamales these days, that they make an awesome gift from your kitchen. If you plan on shipping your homemade tamales, freeze them first, then pack in disposable ice packs in a Styrofoam® box or hard plastic cooler and ship via Priority Mail - they should (in theory anyway) still be plenty cool when they arrive. If you want a wrapped package of tamales for under the tree (or wherever else you might unwrap presents) get an inexpensive foam cooler and pack with ice pack and well wrapped tamales (I usually package mine in dozens). Wrap the whole box -- the tamales should be fine this way for about 18 hours or more (again, freeze them first to buy yourself more time).

You can easily make festive colored ties for wrapping your tamales by dying your types with food coloring diluted in water. Let dry thoroughly before using. The colors will run a bit if the tamales get very wet, but they still look pretty and festive.

Tamale By Any Other Name
Tamales can come disguised with other names, but they're still basically tamales. For instance in parts of Central and South America as well as Cuba they may be called tamals, in Bolivia and Ecuador you may find humitas, and Venezuelan markets and snack bars are often filled with halacas while tamales in Colombia can be called bollos. Depending on which parts of Mexico you travel to, you may be served tamales, corundas or zacahuiles.

Essential Tamale Tools

Tamale making doesn't really require much in the way of special tools, but you will need:

1. A large pot or container in which to steam the tamales. If you're only making a small amount, a large pot with a steamer insert will do. If, on the other hand, you plan on making a large amount (and why not, if you're going to go to the trouble of making tamales, make a lot and freeze them), a tamale steaming bucket is best. Check at Latin markets.

2. A heavy-duty electric mixer, such as a Kitchen Aid will make the job infinitely easier. The masa dough must really be beaten a lot in order to achieve the right consistency for good tamales -- while it's possible to do this without an electric mixer, I wouldn't want to tackle it.

There's a small plastic masa spreader gadget on the market. It's an inexpensive little trinket, but totally unnecessary. In our experience, it was easier to spread the masa with the back of a tablespoon than with the gadget. Maybe you'll have a different opinion, but we found it slowed us down.

Storing, Freezing and Reheating Tamales
Tamales store very well, which makes them a perfect party food because you can do ALL the work, except for re-heating long before the party. Use a steamer to reheat cooked tamales, just until heated -- about 10 minutes for refrigerated tamales, about 25 minutes for frozen tamales. You can store cooked tamales, well wrapped, in the refrigerator for up to 5 days or the freezer for up to 6 months (longer if you have a vacuum sealer system). Pack your cooked tamales in water tight plastic bags before putting in ice chests for travel. Even better, use ice packs instead of ice, so there's no danger of the tamales getting wet.

Detailed Tamale Tutorials
The following links will take you to detailed photo tutorials that will take you through every step of tamale making.

Masa Recipes
Favorite Tamale Recipes
We've accumulated quite a collection of tamale recipes at I love making tamales, so I've included some of my personal favorite, plus we have some contributions from some of the world's best tamale makers. Check out the links below.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Polish Christmas - Pierogis and Chrusciki

I think nearly everyone has some type of food or foods they associate with Christmas. For me, it's my Polish grandmother's cheese pierogis (pronounced pier-oh-gees - hard G) and delicate fried chrusciki (pronounce kroos-cheeky) cookies (also known as Angel Wings).

Every Christmas while growing up in Massachusetts, my grandmother Katherine Komendecki would make tons of both. She always served them at the night before Christmas dinner -- traditionally a vegetarian meal. Another traditional touch to this meal is that there was always hay placed under the tablecloth -- to symbolize the hay in the manger when Jesus was born.

My grandmother (or Babci in Polish) never wrote her recipes down and she passed away over 30 years ago. Fortunately, my older sister had the foresight to watch her make these traditional favorites and take notes.

Cheese Pierogis
(Pictured Above) While variations of this recipe abound -- some are filled with potatoes, some with sauerkraut, others with meat fillings, this is the kind I remember most, especially at Christmas time. If you can't find farmer's cheese you can use cottage cheese, but drain it overnight.

It will help production immensely if at least 2 people make the dish together, although I have made them alone. The most important thing to remember when making the little turnovers is to make sure they are COMPLETELY sealed. If any gaps exists, they will break open and the filling will spill out during the cooking process. Th following link will give you the recipe and detailed photo instructions on how to make Pierogis.

Polish Chrusciki Cookies AKA Angel Wings

These light fried pastry cookies were a favorite of my family when I was growing up in Massachusetts. My Polish grandmother Katherine Komendecki made them for Christmas, Easter, weddings and any other extra special event that was celebrated. She made five huge wicker laundry baskets full of these delicate cookies for my sister Bambi's wedding.

While variations of this cookie recipe abound (my cousin's grandmother used sour cream and heavy cream in hers), my sisters and I agree that this Chrusciki recipe is closest to our grandmother's -- very light, delicate and flaky.

The dough for these cookies is not very sweet -- most of the sweetness comes from the powdered sugar sprinkled over the cookies. The cookies are ultra-delicate, so they, unfortunately, don't ship well, although if you pack very carefully it can be done (but not recommended).

Important Tips and Hints:
The eggs and the butter need to be at room temperature before beginning!

While you can mix this dough by hand, I recommend an electric mixer. It really needs a lot of beating and kneading. Nonetheless, my grandmother did it by hand, so if you don't have a mixer and are ambitious, it can be done.

Traditionally lard was used for frying the cookies. Of course, that was what was readily available in the days of my grandmother. My cousin Arlene still makes them this way. I personally like to use vegetable shortening. My sister Bambi prefers a neutral cooking oil, like canola oil. All three cooking mediums will do the job well, so take your choice.

While one person can make these cookies alone, it is much easier as a two person job -- that way one person is cutting and shaping the dough while the other is frying. If you are working alone, I would suggest rolling out, cutting and shaping all the cookies first, keeping them on a baking sheet, lightly covered with a barely damp clean kitchen towel, until you are ready to fry them.

Variation: Chrusciki Rosettes

Same dough recipe, but shaped differently, these jelly or preserve filled rosettes make a dramatic presentation. While they look like they;d be difficult to make, they're really easier than the traditional version.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Making Fabulous Latkes

Without a doubt, Hanukkah wouldn't be Hanukkah without latkes. But you don't have to be celebrating, or even Jewish to enjoy these crisp potato pancakes.

So to help insure your latkes live up to the dish's full culinary potential, we consulted expert Jayne Cohen, author of Jewish Holiday Cooking: A Food Lover's Treasury of Classics and Improvisations for her top latke making tips, including how to prep ahead and freeze latkes. Jayne also shared some terrific latke recipes with us, but be sure to read her tips first to insure that any latkes you make come out perfectly!

Jayne Cohen's Top 8 Tips for Making Perfect Latkes

Lots of Latke Recipes
We have lots of latke recipes at, from the traditional to the creative. After reading Jayne's latke making tips, click the recipe links below for the exact formulas.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

December Cooking Club Challenge -- Your Favorite Kitchen Gadgets

We have an easy Cooking Club event for December!

Since everyone is so busy this time of year anyway, we didn't want to add to the burden with a cooking assignment. So this month's challenge is ultra easy to enter. We just want you to tell us about your favorite cooking gadgets. What are the tools that you can't live without? If you had to get rid of all the gadgets in your kitchen except 3 or 4 of them, what would those essentials be?

How to Participate
All you need to do join in the discussion and be eligible to win this month's prize giveaway is to post to the comments section at this link and tell us about the important tools and gadgets in your kitchen and why you like them.

One winner will be drawn randomly from everyone who posts (you must be registered and logged in at in order to post, registration is quick and easy). To be eligible for the prize, you must post by midnight Pacific time December 31st, 2008.
So share your thoughts on kitchen tools and gadgets. You just might win!

This Month's Prize Giveaway! (pictured at right)
A library of cookbook compendiums from Ronnie Sellers Productions that includes 2000 recipes! Four books in all:
500 Cookies; 500 Cupcakes; 500 Appetizers and 500 Soups are included in this package (over a $63.00 value)!

That's not all, you'll also get a:

Watkins Gold Medal Assortment

Watkins made its reputation—at least in the area of food—on three products: Vanilla, Cinnamon and Black Pepper. They’ve been making them since 1895, and they were the products that earned Watkins the Gold in Paris in 1928. You'll get the classic assortment of the three products that made Watkins a household name! The set includes award-winning Original Double-Strength Vanilla in the Trial MarkTM Bottle(325 mL/11 fl oz), plus traditional tins of Cinnamon (170 g/6 oz) and Black Pepper. A $30.99 value!

Again, click here to read the posts or to post about your own favorite cooking gadgets!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Eggnog - History, Trivia and Recipes

While the exact origin of the eggnog we know and love today remains hazy, it is clear that the drink evolved from milk and alcohol punches dating back to renaissance Europe. In the days before refrigeration, it made sense to mix perishable dairy products with alcohol -- not that you should ever rely on booze rather than refrigeration to keep your eggnog fresh.

The alcohol of choice during the renaissance was wine or ale. It was the American colonists who brought rum and brandy to the eggnog mix.

As far as the name, there seems to be many theories, so it all depends on who you believe. Grog was a slang term for rum in Colonial times; one theory has the "gr" morphing into an "n." Similarly, Nog was an English word for ale, so it might have to do with that. Yet another hypothesis attributes the name to the small wooden cups called noggins that were originally used for serving the drink.

In the 1800's eggnog was nearly always made in large quantities, much like it usually is today. After all this is a party drink and is most closely associated with the Christmas and New Year's holidays.

Eggnog Trivia

  • Captain John Smith reported that eggnog was consumed in 1607 in Jamestown, Virginia.
  • George Washington was an aficionado.
  • At various times and places in history, eggnog was also known as Egg Flip.
  • A Tom and Jerry is a popular eggnog variation that includes brandy.
Look for cool vintage Eggnog and/or Tom and Jerry punchbowl sets at

Eggnog Recipes
Eggnog Flavored Recipes

Monday, December 8, 2008

Gifts From Your Kitchen - Flavored Gourmet Vinegars

Flavored vinegars are ultra-easy to make. They make elegant gifts, but why stop there? Make several varieties to keep in your own kitchen as well. Simply substitute your flavored vinegars for any recipes calling for the plain variety, to add an extra zip of flavor to your cooking.

You can use all kinds of bottles for your vinegars, from fancy ones that you buy, to old wine bottles (get new corks). I like to give a set of several flavors of vinegar packaged in small shaker topped bottles like you find oil and vinegar served in at Italian Restaurant (simply cover the top with plastic wrap before screwing on the shaker, in order to avoid spillage).

Use your creativity when making flavored vinegars. While I'll give you some suggestions here, don't feel you have to limit yourself to them. Also, you don't need to measure. Exact proportions of ingredients are not that important (although, once again, I'll give you guidelines).

You can buy wine vinegars inexpensively, by the gallon, in a restaurant supply houses or warehouse type food stores.

Some Flavor Suggestions

Basil, Lemon, Chive Vinegar:
1 cup white wine vinegar
3 large strips of lemon zest
3-4 whole leaves fresh basil
10 stalks fresh chives

Basil Peppercorn Vinegar:
1 cup white wine vinegar
4-5 leaves fresh basil
1/2 to 1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
3-4 whole peeled garlic cloves

Dill Peppercorn Vinegar:
1 cup red wine vinegar
4 sprigs fresh dill
1/2 to 1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns

Garlic Green Onion Vinegar:
1 cup red or white wine vinegar
4-5 peeled whole garlic cloves
2-3 stalks green onions

Rosemary Garlic Vinegar:
1 cup red or white wine vinegar
4-5 peeled whole garlic cloves
4 sprigs fresh rosemary

Spicy Chile Pepper Vinegar:
1 cup red or white wine vinegar
1 or 2 whole jalapeno peppers

OR -- use the following ingredients in any combination you see fit:
green onions
fresh mint
fresh oregano
fresh cilantro
whole peppercorns
lemon zest
lime zest
orange zest
grapefruit zest
orange zest
chile peppers
fresh tarragon
bay leaves

The process is simple. Cut your ingredients to a size that will be completely submerged in the liquid. Put ingredients into clean bottles and pour red or white wine vinegar over them. Cap the bottles and store in a cool dark place for at least three weeks. If you don't have that much time, you can speed the process up somewhat by heating the vinegar till it's lukewarm and pouring it over ingredients that have been chopped or crushed. Store this in a cool dry place for at least ten days, then strain and discard the chopped or crushed ingredients from the vinegar. Return the vinegar to a cleaned bottle and add new "whole" ingredients.

Related Recipes

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Gifts from Your Kitchen -- Nuts to You!

Nuts can feature in lots of easy to make gifts from your kitchen, and unlike many other holiday treats, they actually pack a powerful nutritional punch and have health giving properties (in fact walnuts are the ONLY whole food given a qualified health claim by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration).

The holidays are a great time to pick up fresh walnuts, almonds, pecans or other nuts, as most crops are fresh from the harvest.

For gift giving, try one of the following recipes. While a recipe may specify one type of nut over another, know that you can usually swap out for your favorites or what you happen to have on hand. Package in cute little ribbon tied bags or jar gussied up with ribbons or decorative lids. Or click here to check out's creative gift wrapping channel for lots of fun and creative ideas and projects for gift wrapping and packaging.

Gift-Worthy Nut Recipes:
  • Walnut Cluster Snack (pictured top of this post) -- Clusters of crunchy oats and walnuts baked with tender dried fruit make a great snack on the go.
  • Southwest Spiced Walnuts -- These walnuts have kick from spices and cayenne.
  • Indian Spiced Walnuts -- Curry and cumin add exotic flavor to these toasted walnuts.
  • Candied Pecans -- This nut recipe makes a perfect gift or nice element to your dessert spread.
  • Cinnamon Spiced Pecans -- Here is a tasty party snack that also makes a terrific gift, on its own or tucked into a gift basket.
  • Painkiller Nut Clusters -- These tasty snacks are great for the beginning of a meal or for dessert.
  • Louisiana Pecan Pralines (pictured at right) -- The flavor of these pecan pralines will take you back to old New Orleans.
  • Early Texas Pecan Pralines -- Wrap these pralines up for a homemade gift, serve them for company or enjoy with the family.
  • Candied Pecans -- This nut recipe makes a perfect gift or nice element to add to your dessert spread.
  • Sugar Free Glazed Almonds -- A treat for diabetics and those on low carb diets.
  • Coconut Pecan Granola -- This not too sweet granola adds a delicious crunch to yogurt, makes a delightful topping for fruit crisp and is also perfect on its own.
  • California Walnut Granola -- Making your own granola -- it's quick, easy, healthy, and tasty.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Gifts From the Kitchen Part I -- Jerky

Welcome to part I of our gifts from your kitchen series. While we will focus on the usual sweet stuff later in the season, the first few posts will deal with savory gifts. I think these make a lot of sense. After all, everyone is usually inundated with cookies and candies during the holidays. Something savory really stands out.

I've included beef jerky as a gift basket component many times over the years and it always receives rave reviews.

I'm constantly amazed at the number of people who have no idea you can make delicious beef jerky (or turkey jerky, or salmon or any number of others) at home, without using any special tools or gadgets. Still others think the process is so time consuming and difficult, it isn't worth the bother. How wrong they are. Making jerky is really quite simple and can be done in any oven. While the meat does take between 5-12 hours to dry, it requires little to no attention during that period.

Drying meats has been used for centuries as a means of preserving it. Campers and backpackers like jerky because it packs small, requires no refrigeration and can be used in cooking as well as for snacks.

Unlike other marinades, those for jerky usually eliminate oil from the mix entirely. The marinade recipe below is a good all-purpose jerky marinade, but use it as a rough guideline. Experiment with your own concoctions. If you don't like things spicy, leave out the crushed red peppers. Like things sweet? Add honey. Let your imagination be your guide.

about 3 pounds of meat (see instructions below)
2/3 cup Worcestershire sauce
2/3 cup soy sauce
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon onion powder

Optional Ingredients:
1 teaspoon liquid smoke
2-3 teaspoons Tabasco sauce
2-3 teaspoons crushed red peppers
2-3 teaspoons sesame seeds

The recipe above is enough for about 3 pounds of meat, which will dehydrate down to about 16-18 ounces (Yow! Now you know why it's so expensive to buy Jerky.) While beef is what most people are familiar with, just about any firm meat can be made into jerky. If there are any hunters in your family, try venison. Turkey breast or firm fish such as salmon or ahi tuna also make excellent snacks. Simply slice your choice of meat thin (usually 1/8") with the grain (see photos). This is a bit more tricky with fish, so I highly recommend freezing it halfway first. In fact, partial freezing will make slicing all meats easier.

As for beef, my personal cut of choice is London Broil, although many people like to use brisket or flank steak as well. You can, however, regular find some super sales at the supermarket on London Broil, making it an especially frugal way to make a lot of jerky.

Note: You can also use ground meats for jerky in which case you can forego the marinade and use a dry spice rub instead, you can find instructions at the bottom of the page at this link.

Mix all marinade ingredients together in a large (gallon size or larger) plastic zipper bag. Add sliced meat and refrigerate, turning and mixing every hour or two. Hearty meats like beef and venison should be marinated overnight. For turkey, salmon or tuna, 3-4 hours is usually plenty.

When ready to begin drying, place a sheet of aluminum foil on the bottom of the oven to aid in cleanup. Drain meat in a colander and pat dry with paper towels (the drier the better at this point). Set oven at lowest temperature setting and carefully place meat slices directly onto oven racks. Leave the oven door open a crack to allow moisture to escape.

Drying times vary due to oven differences and meat size. Perfect jerky is firm and dry and not at all spongy. However, if your jerky is so dry it breaks in two easily, it's probably over-dried.

Jerky Making Tips:
  • It's easier to slice the meat thinly if it is slightly frozen.
  • Generally speaking, the leaner the meat, the better for jerky. Remove ALL visible fat!
  • For peppery jerky, sprinkle with pepper right after placing on the drying rack. This pepper will "stick" to the jerky.
Other Options
  • If you've ever been the proud recipient of one of those amazing Ronco Food Dehydrators you see touted on TV during the holidays, now is the time to haul it out. You can easily make jerky in it and avoid the oven.
  • You can also dry jerky in a meat smoker (in this case, definitely eliminate the liquid smoke from the marinade recipe or your meat will taste like it has been in a fire). Mesquite works well for most meats. Also, be sure NOT to fill the smoker bowl with water or any other liquid. The point of making jerky is to DRY the meat.