Wednesday, January 6, 2010

- Crafting Christmas eggs

“So how’d you do that?” was the gist of a question about my ornamental Hill Country Christmas eggs. Herewith a recipe of sorts for how to make your own …

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Egg Ornaments

One old school compass
Turkey brining needle (not pictured)
Eggs (more than you think you need … some won’t make it)
Wrapping paper scraps (thinner is better … old Paper Factory Christmas paper was my go-to)
Decorative edge-cutting scissors (a scrapbooker’s delight)
Fine cuticle scissors
White glue (with a little water added) or Mod Podge
Foil wrapped plastic cord, or other flexible wire (make sure it will fit into the button holes)
Hair spray (for a slight gloss)

The hardest part is blowing the insides out of the eggs. Using the compass, poke a small hole in one end of the egg, a larger hole in the other end. Blow through the smaller hole, forcing the eggs out of the larger hole. Be careful not to burst your eardrums (easier said than done).

To clean the inside of the eggshell, fill a turkey brining needle with warm water, inject the water into the eggshell, shake gently, and blow out the water. Let the egg dry thoroughly for at least a day or two. I actually stored up several dozen eggs over the course of two months.

Cut out pieces of wrapping paper using decorative or cuticle scissors (depending on what kind of edge you want). Snip ¼ -½” cuts around the edges of each design so it will flex around the egg without buckling.

Mix a little white glue with water. Coat the back of a design, carefully mold the design onto the egg, and smooth the paper down along the edges. Your fingers will get sticky, so be prepared to wash up as you go.

Once the glue is dry, probe for the hole at the top of the egg with the compass. Then gently create a second hole close to the first hole (the paper you have glued onto the egg should provide enough support for the egg to sustain two holes … trust me, it’s hard to punch two holes in the top of an eggshell before you glue down the design, so don’t try to create two holes in advance).

Thread a 3” piece of cord/wire through two holes of a button, then poke the cord/wire through the two holes on top of the egg. Put a dab of glue on the side of the button facing the egg, then push the button down until the glue holds the button onto the egg. Adjust the length of the wire to create a loop.

Once the glue is completely dry (preferably once you have made a bunch of eggs), hang the eggs on a branch, drying rack, or clothes line and spray with hairspray.

Metaphorical moment: When an egg breaks (and this is inevitable), do not despair. Simply cut out a design to fit over the hole, glue the design on, and continue. Unless of course the break is beyond repair. In which case, chalk it up to experience and try, try again.

And while I had high hopes for embellishing the eggs with rubber stamps and embossing powder, I wouldn’t recommend it. Some ideas just don’t pan out (pun intended).

Last, but not least: you might have noticed that one of the finished eggs has a scallop shell motif on it. The image, taken from the Internet, was printed on Staples double-sided matte photo paper. I’m going to be experimenting with photographs next to see if I can create some “wedding eggs.” Hope they work out better than the embossing powder idea did.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

- ROMHT: My cookie dough obsession started early

I recently received a Facebook friend request from my niece in New York. I was flattered, actually. But of course, most of her posts are in a code I can’t decipher. Which is as it should be.

Back in the day, we had our own code. Finding a Wheatley High School (class of 1974) cohort on Facebook I dropped her a line and wondered if she remembers ROHMT and Molasses Cookie dough.

Pro’ly, I'm thinking.

Molasses Cookie Dough

¾ cup butter
1 cup sugar
¼ cup molasses
1 egg (or ¼ cup Better ‘n Eggs if you’re salmonella/E.coli risk averse)
2 cups flour
2 tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. each of cloves and ginger
1 tsp. cinnamon

Melt butter. Cool and mix in other ingredients. Chill in the fridge. Really, that’s all you need to do, as this is the best raw cookie dough ever. However, if you insist on baking it into cookies, roll small balls of dough in sugar and bake on greased cookie sheets at 375 for 8 minutes.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

- A Midwinter Night’s Dream: Christmas in Austin

I made the mistake of saying that moving to Texas had gotten us out of the house more than we used to in Williamsburg. “So you want to go to the free concert in Zilker Park tomorrow night?” Don asked.

“Umm, well … I guess so,” was my lukewarm reply. After all, it was Sunday night and we had just returned from Austin, where Meg and I had taken in Ballet Austin’s Nutcracker matinee. Christmas was only five days away and I had a long list of things to do.

None-the-less we called Meg and Paul to see if we could bring dinner in exchange for use of their guest room the following night, and invited them to join us at the concert … on a work night, no less. “You don’t really have to come,” I offered. But come they did, with Meg observing that they probably wouldn’t have made it of their own volition (such is the power of newcomers to inspire a reawakened awareness of one’s environs).

On a cool Austin evening, we joined the long line of cars queuing into Zilker Park, drawn by the tree of lights and the promise of free entertainment by Asleep at the Wheel, with a hoped-for guest appearance by Shawn Colvin.

There were throngs of people and a festive air, enlivened by the heady aroma of kettle corn and the flickering lights of toy swords purchased from vendors and wielded by tiny hands. After listening to the music for awhile, Meg suggested we walk through the light displays, which were scaled back from years past.  Not that I would have known. It was a Grand Illumination, Texas style.

We walked into a wonderland, greeted by Maurice Sendak’s Max,

an armadillo rodeo,


Mother Goose's cow jumping over the moon,

 and a vision of the Austin skyline straight out of the Jetsons.

I'm thinking Logan would have loved every bit of it.

Wearied at last, we trekked back to the car as the Frost Tower glimmered in the distance ... making our way to warm beds, to sleep, perchance to dream.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

- Let's do brunch ... Hill Country style

The breakfast taco is a wonderfully civilized way to put a lot of great flavors and textures together. The palate is as varied as you choose to make it, and with a little advance planning, can make for a simple brunch where you actually get to sit down and enjoy your company.

Of course, in Texas we have the distinct advantage of having access to amazingly fresh food, even in the middle of winter. It’s one of the things I hoped would be true when we headed west, and we’re endlessly delighted by what makes it onto the table every day.

Freshly made flour tortillas are readily available at some of our grocery stores and are the basis for any good taco. However, refrigerated flour tortillas come close, with shelf-stable tortillas a distant third. Or you can make your own (just check the blog index for the recipe).

Fresh chorizo sausage is another Texas joy, found at the HEB (they don’t lie when they say “Here Everything’s Better”). Dried chorizo is a reasonable substitute, just remove the casings and dice it fine. Then there’s the Cotija cheese, (pronounced co-tee-ah). We found a "vaca rica" version that translates as “rich cow.” Ha! Wonder how much fat that has in it? It’s a lick better than the Cotija I used to buy at the Food Lion in Williamsburg, but that will do in a pinch.

Of course my favorite ingredients are the green, tan, and brown eggs from the Dripping Springs Farmers Market. Lucky us, even though the market has closed for the winter, the farmer gives us a call every couple of weeks asking if we want some eggs. It has a slightly illicit feel to it, but we happily go to pick up our stash whenever the opportunity presents itself.

By the way, the eggs were so beautiful that I couldn’t bear to crack them open and throw out the shells. So I carefully blew the insides out and several dozen ended up as Christmas ornaments on our tree this year.

Last, but not least, the produce doesn’t have to travel far to reach us, so Campari tomatoes, jalapenos, organic cilantro, and blissfully ripe avocados are standard occupants in the fridge. Life is good indeed.

Sadly, no pictures were taken the day we had everyone over for breakfast tacos, but since Meliss requested the frittata recipe I figured it was worth a blog. We regret that the Walkers are currently shivering through 6 degree weather in St. Louis. Maybe a Sunday brunch will banish the chilblains and bring back warm memories of the day we played Bagg-o and got sunburned … in December!

Pico de Gallo

Diced Campari tomatoes (or grape tomatoes if you can’t find Camparis)
Finely diced jalapeno (remove seeds and inner membrane with a spoon if you want to lessen the fire)
Finely diced red onion
Chopped cilantro
Lime juice
Kosher salt

I know … no amounts here, but you really can’t do this wrong,

Chorizo Frittata

8 oz. cream cheese (low fat works, ‘though it's sorta pointless here)
8-12 oz. Cotija
Chipotle chilies in adobo sauce (canned)
9 large eggs
¾ cup flour
1 ½ tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. salt
1 cup shredded cheese (Mexican mix, Colby, Monterey Jack, whatever)
12 oz. small curd cottage cheese (I used low fat, also sorta pointless)
¼ lb. chorizo sausage (bulk, or taken out of casings and diced)

The night before, melt cream cheese and shredded Cotija together with a couple of diced chipotle chilies and some adobo sauce. This will not make good queso (which is what I was originally trying to make), although it won’t hurt to dunk a few chips in to be sure it tastes okay. Put in a bowl and refrigerate overnight. Cut into cubes once it's firmed up.

Pan fry chorizo until cooked through and set aside.

Beat eggs, then whisk in flour, baking powder and salt. Fold in cottage cheese, shredded cheese, cubed Cotija/cream cheese, and chorizo. Pour into a 9” x 13” casserole sprayed with Baker’s Joy. Bake at 350 … start watching after 30 minutes and take out when set in the middle.

Breakfast Tacos

Flour tortillas (figure on two 6-8” tortillas per person, more if you’re really hungry)
Frittata sliced into tortilla-long fingers (or scrambled eggs if you want to keep it simple)
Shredded cheese
Sour cream
Pico de gallo
Avocado wedges
Optional: scallions, potatoes, bacon, sausage, leftover grilled meat or veggies, shrimp … the list is limited only by your imagination

Alternate tortillas with damp paper towels. Nuke in the microwave for 20 seconds on high to warm the tortillas. Flip the stack and repeat if necessary.

Put out the ingredients and let everyone build their own tacos to taste.

Friday, January 1, 2010

- Top (Cookie) Chef … or “Pack your butter and go” (gently revised in 2016)

This year was our first Christmas season in Texas, and I’ve decided I can definitely get into the spirit even when the temperature is in the 70s. Meliss and Jake flew in from St. Louis on a cool, clear Christmas afternoon … much better weather than their October venture. Meg and Paul hosted dinner at their house, serving us an amazing surf and turf of prime rib and lobster tails, with asparagus, horseradish potato cake, and salad with fig balsamic dressing, pine nuts, red grapes and feta.

We had Christmas cookies for dessert, a tradition from the many years we spent celebrating with the Laroche family. Don decided that a competition for Top Cookie would liven up the festivities, and designed a ballot for the four entrants which were to be judged on taste, texture and presentation.
First up, my Mom’s shortbread, which I’ve often imitated, but never duplicated. Though we made shortbread using a recipe from my Grandma Munson (born Scotswoman Jesse Watson, who surely knew what she was doing) when I was a child, Mom changed recipes once I left home, so I never got to watch her make it … she just brought it with her each year when she and Dad came to Williamsburg to celebrate Christmas with us. This time around my version wasn’t quite as crisp as hers, a bit thicker than it should have been and I dosed it with a too much sugar, but it was still recognizable and the sentimental favorite.

Next, a perennial entry: Greek Kourambiades, which I first made in high school as part of a social studies assignment to create a Middle Eastern dish. [A side note on my high school: it was different, to say the least. No substitute teachers, for one. Instead, we had a choice of guest speakers, open study halls, or Watergate hearings to watch. Even better, our teachers had virtually unlimited sick leave … and used it since they didn’t have to write sub plans. But I digress]. While others brought falafel and pita bread to the Middle East luncheon, my research focused on finding a dessert with lots of butter. Some things never change. The recipe replaced Aunt Yetta’s pinkie cookies as the go-to nut cookie recipe and came with me when I started making my own cookies as a young bride in Virginia (32 years ago this week).

The Mocha Christmas Tree Cookies were also a high school find, from a New York Times cookbook that I read at our next door neighbor’s in East Williston. I’m not quite sure how I came to be reading a cookbook in the Presti’s kitchen, but the recipe has gone through a number of revisions over the years, all good. Meliss prefers her cookies sans chocolate (making them coffee cookies rather than mocha) … a plainer presentation to be sure, but toothsome just the same. And I used my grandmother’s Mirro cookie press, one of my favorite inheritances.

Last, but far from least, was a new entrant: LaCoursier family Nutmeg Logs courtesy of Meg’s husband Paul. I got a bit nervous as I made these, realizing I’d never actually seen or tasted the original cookies and was setting myself up by making substitutions in a recipe I never made before. But I bluffed my way through and hoped for the best. And best they were, winning the Top Cookie prize when all the ballots were counted. I’m guessing it was the Haitian Barbancourt Rhum substituted for the rum extract in the recipe that put them over the top. Of course, ¾ of a pound of butter didn’t hurt either. Whatever. Nutmeg Logs are destined to be part of the Ackert family Christmas cookie rotation in perpetuity.

Nana Ruth’s Shortbread

½ lb. butter (salted)
½ cup sugar
2 cups flour

Cream butter and sugar. Mix in flour. Divide into three parts, flattening each into a circle about ¼” thick on parchment paper. Score into 8 wedges and prick with a fork. Bake 25 minutes at 325. Sprinkle with sugar while still warm. Cut into wedges along the scored lines. Pack in an airtight container with wax paper.

Kourambiades (I have no idea how to pronounce this)

½ lb. melted butter (salted)
¼ cup sugar
½ cup chopped walnuts (I use the food processor)
2 cups flour
1 tsp. baking powder

Mix ingredients together. Shape into small balls (1 tsp.) Bake on parchment paper for 15-20 minutes at 350 until slightly golden on the bottom. Cool slightly, then sift confectioners on top (being very generous as some will fall off when the cookies are moved).

Mocha Cookies (but only if you include the chocolate ... otherwise they're Espresso Cookies)

8 ounces butter (salted, softened)
¾ cup sugar
1 small egg
1 tsp. vanilla
¼ cup espresso powder (the original recipe called for 1 Tbs. of instant coffee)
2 cups flour
1/8 tsp. baking powder
4-6 oz. Ghirardelli 60% or Guittard chocolate chips
Nonpareils (Mom also used chopped nuts on hers)

Beat egg in a cup with vanilla and espresso powder. Cream butter and sugar. Beat in egg mixture. Fold in flour and baking powder. Dough will be soft and may need a bit more flour to keep it from being sticky … but be careful not to overdo it. Use a Christmas tree or wreath template in a vintage Mirro cookie press … be assertive, quickly twisting the handle 180 degrees and rapidly lifting the press between cookies. If you use one of those new-fangled cookie presses you're on your own. Bake 9-10 minutes at 375 until crisp.

When cookies come out of the oven, carefully place a few chocolate chips on each one, spread the chocolate as it melts to cover each cookie, then sprinkle with whatever suits your fancy (or leave them plain … which is much easier, and Meliss would approve).

Joyce Levine's Nutmeg Cookies

½ lb. butter (salted, softened)
¾ cup sugar
1 egg
2 tsp. vanilla
1 Tbs. Barbancourt rum (this is non-negotiable … just ask the Laroche family)
2 ½ cups flour
1 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
¼ tsp. salt

Cream butter and sugar. Beat in egg, vanilla and rum. Fold in flour, nutmeg and salt. Roll into “snakes” about ½ inch in diameter. Cut into pieces about 2 inches long. Bake on parchment paper for 12-15 minutes at 350 until golden brown. Cool while making the frosting.


4 Tbs. butter (1/2 stick)
1/2 tsp. vanilla
2 Tbs. Barbancourt rum
1 cup confectioner’s sugar
Freshly grated nutmeg

Soften the butter in the microwave (30 seconds at 50% power). Beat in remaining ingredients. Spread over cookies and grate nutmeg over the top.