Congo Squares don’t immediately scream “CHRISTMAS!” Yet for me, they are a big part of the season, along with rum balls, fudge, cranberry-orange cookies and the fruitcake recipe that has been in my family for at least 7 generations now (mine being the fifth).

I’ve only seen the recipe a couple of other places, but it has been a favorite of my family, and one of the few things my mom enjoyed baking. Here is her recipe:

Congo Squares

2/3 cup shortening (I use butter)

2-1/4 cups brown sugar (not packed)                       

Melt butter and stir in sugar. Cool.
3 eggs

1 cup nuts (walnuts, pecans, etc)

12 oz. chocolate chips

1tsp vanilla                                                                         

Beat in eggs, one at a time. Add nuts, chips and vanilla.
2-3/4 cups all-purpose flour

2-1/4 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp salt                                                                           

Combine dry ingredients. Add to creamed mixture, blending well. Pat into greased 9″ x 13″ pan or 2- 8″ x 8″ pans. Bake large pan in 350°f oven for 30 minutes. Bake smaller pans for 25 minutes.

Cool and cut into 1 inch squares. These are gooey and rich, so smaller portions are perfect.

Congo Squares

Whole Wheat Pasta with Sardines

3 pounds Roma tomatoes, blanched, skinned and chopped

Olive oil

1/4 cup yellow onion, finely diced

1 small sweet pepper, finely diced

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/4 cup finely chopped fennel fronds

1 Tbslp finely chopped preserved lemon rind

1 tin unsalted sardines (I used Trader Joe’s brand), spines removed and fillets roughly broken into pieces

8 ounces whole wheat pasta

Feta cheese, for garnish

Capers, for garnish
Sauté onion, sweet pepper and garlic on olive oil. Add diced tomatoes and simmer until tomatoes are tender and sauce has thickened slightly. Add fennel and continue to simmer while pasta is cooking.

Cook pasta and drain. Toss pasta with sauce and add the sardine fillets. Garnish with crumbled feta cheese and capers.

Makes four servings.

Blueberry Cheesecake Bars

 

SHORT CRUST

2 cups flour

1 cup unsalted butter, slightly softened

1/2 cup powdered sugar

Preheat oven to 350°F. Place powdered sugar and flour in bowl of food processor. Cut softened butter into 1 inch pieces and add to bowl. Process until butter is well- mixed and dough is fine and crumbly. Pat into greased 9×13″ pan. Press firmly. Bake for 20 minutes.

CHEESECAKE FILLING

1 pound cream cheese, softened

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1 cup melted white chocolate (or even better, caramelized white chocolate*)

2 eggs

1 tsp vanilla extract

Using the same food processor bowl, place cream cheese and sugar in bowl. Process until creamed. Add white chocolate and process again, scraping sides of the bowl a couple of times to get the batter as smooth as possible. Add eggs, then vanilla. Process until smooth.

Remove crust from the oven. Pour batter over the crust and smooth, being sure the batter goes to the edges and corners. Return to the oven and bake for an additional 25 minutes, or until the cheesecake is set in the center.

TOPPING

4 cups of fresh blueberries, separated

1/4 cup orange juice

1/2 cup granulated sugar

2 Tbls born starch

1/4 cup water

Place 2 cups of blueberries, juice and sugar in heavy saucepan. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally, and cook until the berries burst. Remove from heat. Mix cornstarch and water and add to the berries, returning the mixture to the heat after the cornstarch is stirred in completely. This prevents lumping. Cook another minute or so to thicken the mixture and cook the star chinless out of the cornstarch. Remove from heat, then stir in the remaining 2 cups of berries.

Remove the baked bars from the oven and let cool 10 minutes or so before topping with the berries. Chill completely before cutting and serving.

Makes 12-18 bars, depending on how large or small you cut them.

 

* I had ordered 5 pounds of dark chocolate last Novemeber, and only realized after I had opened the bag that they were white chocolate pastilles. I don’t like white chocolate, and no one I know likes white chocolate. What to do? What to do? Then one day, as I was making dinner and watching YouTube videos of the Great Australian Bake Off, one of the contestants mentioned caramelized white chocolate. What ho!?

It’s pretty easy to make, although it does require your attention and a warm oven for several hours. I used this process, although I did not bake mine for quite as long as Joe did. What a transformation! It keeps well, so if you are going to go to the trouble, make a bunch of it and keep it on hand for adding to cheesecake, muffins, and so forth.

Cookie Party!

It’s our 11th Christmas in NE Tennessee, and our 11th year hosting my nephews and their friends for an afternoon of cookie decorating, followed by pizza, movies, sugar-fueled physical activity and, on occasion, sleep. I am thrilled that The Boys and their friends still enjoy this tradition (but then again, so do the several adults who find themselves here for the event, too).

I am fortunate to have the perfect sugar cookie recipe, thanks to friend – and newly named Director of the Blue Plum Festival – Deanna Hays. I will make 4 or more batches of this recipe over the next few days, will bake them off on Friday, and whip up about 5 pounds of icing to go on them. The icing will be divided, tinted, and put into squeeze bottles (restaurant supply stores sell them for about $1 apiece). The big box of assorted sprinkles will be put out, and the basement kitchen will be filled with kids, adults, sprinkles, music, and laughter.

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Sugar Cookies
Makes about 50, depending on the size of the cookie cutters used

2 sticks (8 ounces) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar
2 eggs, beaten
2 teaspoons vanilla (or half vanilla, half almond extract)
1/2 cup milled flax seed
3-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder (aluminum free)

Cream butter and sugar in stand mixer. Add eggs and vanilla and beat until fluffy.
In another bowl, combine flour, flax seed and baking powder. Slowly add dry ingredients to creamed mixture and beat at low speed until combined.

Chill dough for several hours.

Preheat the oven to 375°F.
Taking a quarter of the dough at a time so the remainder stays chilled, roll out dough on a lightly floured surface to about 1/4 inch thickness. Cut out shapes with your favorite cookie cutters. Carefully transfer cookies to lightly greased or parchment-lined (my preference) cookie sheets. Bake for about 14 minutes, until edges of dough just start to brown. Let them cool on a wire rack, stack them up, and get ready to decorate!

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Icing for Sugar Cookies
Make a lot. I use Wilton gel color tints. They have great, vibrant colors and don’t water down the icing. Also, they are much neater than those little squeeze bottles (argh!)

2-1/2 cups powdered sugar
2 Tbsp buttermilk
1 Tbsp unsalted butter, softened
1 Tbsp light corn syrup
1/2 tsp vanilla
Gel food tint assortment

Combine everything except the tints in the bowl of a mixer. Beat until smooth, adding a few drops of water of buttermilk as needed to make the icing spreadable.

Take a portion of icing out into a smaller bowl and tint to the desired color. Place the tinted icing in a clean, dry squeeze bottle for piping and/or a bowl for spreading.

I end up making 6 or 7 colors because I just don’t know when to quit.

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Mustard Mayhem

I started making mustard in 2012.  I had long ago fallen in love with Vilux Peppercorn Mustard.  I used it on roasted veggie sandwiches, in dressings, and to make a sauce for grilled salmon and just about anything else I could think of.  I loved it so much that I bought a case of it before we moved from Minneapolis to NE Tennessee – thinking that would tie me over long enough to find it in a grocery here.  Ha!

Not only could I never find it around here, but our favorite grocery in the world (and only place we could find it in Minneapolis) also stopped carrying it, citing difficulties with the distributor.  Yes, it is available online, but it’s already expensive enough without including shipping.

Mustard is ridiculously easy to make.  It also lasts a long time in the fridge, and can be made shelf-stable with a water-bath canner.  It’s cheap, too.  For the cost of one jar of Vilux or other “fancy” mustard, I can buy a pound of mustard seed – enough to make 14 half-pint jars, easily.

Last year I added homemade mustard to the list of goodies in the Christmas – or as is the case this year – MLK Day goodie basket.  In preparation, I purchased 5 pounds of yellow mustard seed from Penzey’s.

THE BASICS

The process for making mustard is simple.  Pour mustard seed into a large bowl.  Cover with apple cider vinegar.  Let it sit.  Keep adding vinegar until the mustard seed stops absorbing it.  You can add things to it at this point, as well: herbs, seeds (like cumin, caraway, etc.).  I wanted to make Green Peppercorn mustard, but I also knew I was going to make some other varieties, so I soaked 8 ounces of green peppercorns in vinegar in a separate bowl.

At this point you can process the mustard or do like I did and carry on with life for a day or two.  Or in my case, three weeks.  It’s all good.  When you are ready, grab your additions, more vinegar, maybe some wine, and a food processor.  Let the Mustard Mayhem begin!  1013363_10152128749128116_2117184311_n

SOME VARIATIONS

Each recipe below starts with 2 cups of soaked mustard seed.  That’s enough to keep normal people in mustard for quite  while.

Green Peppercorn: The One That Started it All

2 cups mustard seeds that have absorbed as much vinegar as possible.
1/2 c. soaked green peppercorns
1/2 c. white wine*

*I had some boxed chardonnay that needed to be used (no one seemed to want to drink it).  If you don’t have wine, use more vinegar.

Place the mustard and peppercorns in the bowl of a food processor.  Process.  Pour the wine through the feed tube and continue processing until it is the consistency you like.  I process mine for about 3 minutes.  That’s it!  Mustard!  Delicious, earthy, pungent, peppery mustard.  Add more peppercorns or fewer.  Whatever.  These proportions suit us nicely.

Red Pepper Mustard

2 cups mustard seeds that have absorbed as much vinegar as possible.
3 dried red peppers
1/2 c. White wine
1 Tbsp Turmeric^
1 tsp sea salt

Soak 3 dried red peppers in boiling water for 5 minutes.  Coarsely chop.  Add these, along with the mustard seed, turmeric and salt, to the bowl of a food processor.  Process.  Pour the wine through the feed tube and continue processing until it is the consistency you like.  I process mine for about 3 minutes.

^ Turmeric is the spice that gives good old French’s mustard that insane yellow color.  It is also good for you.  And it can be a bit bitter.  The salt balances the bitterness.

Rosemary Thyme Mustard

2 cups mustard seeds that have absorbed as much vinegar as possible.
2 Tbsp fresh rosemary, coarsely chopped
1 tsp ground thyme (or 2 Tbsp fresh, coarsely chopped)
1 c. white wine

You get the idea.  I used more wine in this one because I just wanted it to be a little thinner.  Sometime you just want to go crazy.

And Finally…

Black Gold

Look, I had to call it something.  It has more stuff in it than the others, so it needed it’s own name.  While it is sometimes fun to give recipes names like this,  it is after all, only mustard.  Still, I really like this stuff.

2 cups mustard
1/2 cup black sesame seeds
1/2 cup dried red shiso leaves, ground
3 ounces pickled sushi ginger
2 Tbsp ginger paste
1 tsp salt
1/2 cup umeboshi vinegar
2 cups apple cider vinegar

This is the kind of thing you can do when you make your own mustard.  It gives you something to do with the shiso that grew very well last year, as well as the open jar of pickled sushi ginger that you used once last year and would love to get out of the refrigerator.  Not to mention the half-quart of apple cider that no one drank last fall so you cultured it with some umeboshi vinegar, with this very day in mind.

CAN IT

Well of course, 5 pounds of mustard seed is a bit overboard.  But as I said, it is for gifts, and for long-term use.  And that means putting it in glass jars and sitting it on the shelf until I need it.

That is also quite simple.  Gently heat the mustard at a simmer, stirring often so it doesn’t burn.  Sterilize your jars.  My canner holds 14 half-pints or 10 pints.  A double batch of any of the recipes above will make enough to fill a canner with 1/2 pint jars.  It just so happens that 5 pounds will make about 10 batches of these recipes.  Woo hoo!

Fill the hot, sterilized jars, leaving 1/2 inch headspace.  Process in a water bath for 10 minutes.  Done.  Mustard for gifts, or to last you one very active grilling season.

Well, That Was Fun!

I volunteered to make dinner for our congregation again this year, as part of our Stewardship Pledge campaign.  It was the second year doing what we call our “Gratitude Dinner.”  Last year we did Mediterranean, including tzatziki, hummus, pita bread, meitzanasalata and Chicken and Feta pies – and lots and lots of baklava.

This year, the Session requested Italian.  The first thought was lasagna.  Our ma made a killer lasagna, and my brother Mike has carried on that tradition quite nicely.  I can whip up a pretty good one, too.  But then I got to thinking…I’d have to come up with a vegetarian version, a meat version, and a – gulp – gluten free version, to satisfy all the dietary concerns of the members.  Easy enough to do, I suppose, but frankly, lasagna, even when paired with a salad just seemed a little heavy, a little dull, and a little too, well, average.  It’s also not something that I felt could be served family-style.  That was a big deal.  We served the 2011 dinner family-style, which was not done before at FPCe, and people loved it.  It added to the festive, communal feeling we wanted.  Lasagna is fantastic – don’t get me wrong.  But by the time the dish got to the third or fourth person out of the eight in each serving section, it would look like roadkill, frankly.

Some other kind of pasta?  Forget it.  Spaghetti dinners are like Bibles in a church – there are a bunch of them in each one.  It’s a toss-off way to make a quick and cheap bit of money.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but the Gratitude Dinner is different.  So, I set a few challenges for myself: no pasta, gluten-free as much as possible, and, just for fun, with a focus on seasonal, locally available, and relatively healthy dishes, and oh yeah, mascarpone.  I wanted some desserts made with mascarpone because, well, mascarpone.

The first challenge, I knew, would be the mascarpone.  Northeast Tennessee is not known as a paragon of culinary opportunity.  After all, this is the place where I encountered a sweet but parochial deli employee at the local grocery who shared with me her excitement at having figured out – after three years – how to make a beef sandwich that “tastes just like Arby’s!”  I am not going there, folks.  I did find mascarpone at the Earth Fare in Johnson City, but at about $5.50 for 8 ounces, it would have taken about my whole budget just for dessert.  We’re talking 100 people, here, after all.

So why not just make my own?  Challenge accepted.  After plugging around the internet for several hours, I learned a couple of things:
1) Restaurants cheat.  A lot.  While looking through forum posts, I learned that many restaurants make tiramisu with cream cheese, and one even admitted to using Cool Whip!
2) Tiramisu is sort of like “Cappuccino.”  If the only cappuccino you’ve ever tasted is the kind you get at a Kwik E Mart, then you have no clue what cappuccino really is.  Likewise tiramisu.  It may still be tasty, but if all you’ve had was stuff made with Cool Whip and graham crackers, you just don’t need to be giving me advice on how to make it, much less mascarpone.

Most people said “boil whole milk and curdle it with lemon juice, then strain it.”  That wasn’t good enough.  First of all, that is paneer.  I love paneer, and enjoy making it.  But it isn’t creamy and luscious.  I did find an interesting research paper, published through the California Polytechnic State University, or Cal Poly.  It was written with great details.  The researchers measured the moisture and fat content of various commercially available mascarpone brands.  They worked on mouth-feel, texture, proportions of cream to milk, and more, as well as tests using various curdling agents.  Interestingly, they did not use the one curdling agent I knew was most traditionally used when making mascarpone – tartaric acid.  But, since I already knew I would not be able to find any here (and did not have time and money to order online), I was looking for alternatives, anyway.  This paper included lemon juice, citric acid, and lactic acid.  It looked like the perfect road map to mascarpone.  I read it three times, meticulously calculated the ingredients, and decided to make a sample run, using citric acid.  I was happy to find it in the aisle with canning supplies at my local grocery store.

Following the process to the “T”, I made a test batch that looked gorgeous; creamy, silky, even, dense and luscious.  And then I tasted it.  The best description I could come up with was “creamed aspirin.”  What a letdown!  Back to the research paper, to see what I did wrong.  I could find no errors.  No miscalculations, no missed steps.  As far as I can tell, the only variable was the citric acid.  It is possible that commercially available citric acid is different from what the laboratory at the Agricultural College at Cal Poly was using.  I may never know.

What I did know, was that I had to come up with something else.  I tried a smaller amount of the citric acid.  It still tasted bad and would not curdle.  Fine.  Lemon juice would have to do.  And that bucket of creamed aspirin would make a nice acidifier for the garden.  Using the same proportions of cream and milk, I went at it with lemon juice.  But I just could not get it to curdle.  Then I realized that I was using ultra-pastuerized milk and cream.  Ultra-pastuerized dairy products have no cultures – not an iota of bacteria to work with.  A thorough search of stores in the two neighboring towns turned up no dairy that was NOT ultra-pastuerized.  I would have to either find a raw milk supplier, or give up, it would seem.  The raw milk issue was more than I could manage.  $8 a gallon for whole milk, and no one had cream.  Grrr.  As a last-ditch effort, I decided to try something a little different: a combination of ultra-pastuerized cream and, instead of milk, cultured whole buttermilk from Homestead Creameries.  Their buttermilk is beyond anything I have ever had.  It is as thick as sour cream, and I often use it in the place of sour cream.  I have it on hand all the time.  I was thinking that the cultures in the buttermilk would be enough to react with the lemon juice to make a good curd.  It didn’t.  Brought to a simmer with the cream, it was luscious and thick, but it would not curdle.  Disgusted, I put the pot in the fridge and stomped to bed.

When I took it out of the fridge the next morning, though, I found that it has solidified into a beautiful cream, thicker than sour cream, but not quite as thick as cream cheese.  Into the cheesecloth-lined strainer it went, and by the end of the day, I had a bowl of mascarpone – perhaps slightly tangier than a true mascarpone, but it would do nicely for what I had in mind.  So, into mass production I went, until I had enough.  Here’s how I put it all together:

Mascarpone Crema with Honey-poached Autumn Fruits

4 parts mascarpone
4 parts cream cheese
1 part cream simmered with scraped vanilla beans and their seeds
1 part locally produced honey

Blend in the food processor and portion evenly into punch cups (I filled 65 punch cups just over half-way.  Refrigerate to set (overnight was great).  On the day of the dinner I poached a mixture of locally grown pears, figs, and plums in honey syrup.  These were drained and cooled, then placed on top of the creme.  The garnish was ricciarelli, a gluten-free (more on that, later*) almond cookie – perhaps one could call it a frangipane biscuit.

I decided that I wanted a chocolate option, too, so I made Mascarpone Chocolate Mousse with the rest.  Using 70% cacao chocolate chips, I made a ganache.  To six cups of ganache I added 12 egg yolks, then folded in the whipped whites from those eggs.  Garnish was a whirl of barely sweetened whipped cream and a ricciarelli.

*While the recipe I found claims these are gluten free, I was unable to find almond paste that did not have wheat starch as a binder.  So, I was forced to make my own, using pretty much equal parts blanched and skinned almonds, powdered sugar (making sure it was gluten free, also), bound with corn syrup and tapioca starch.

Having conquered mascarpone and thus dessert, I was free to go on to the rest of the menu.  Stay tuned….

Baked Sole with Spinach and Wild Mushrooms

This is an old one – we still lived in Minneapolis!  The Minneapolis Farmers Market is extraordinary.  You could buy everything you needed for a great meal there, and probably something to wear for it, as well.

Here in Tennessee, both the Jonesboro and Johnson City Farmers Markets include vendors who cultivate their own “wild” mushrooms – oyster, shiitake, and more.  Morels grow in the woods around here, too.  I’ve found a few up the hill, but never enough to do much with.  This is a nice way to use up what you have.  My notes say this is a variation of the Sole Bercy from La Technique, by Jacque Pepin.  It’s a great book.

  • Butter a glass baking dish
  • Layer with fresh or thawed sole filets
  • Sprinkle with thinly sliced onions or shallots, than layer with fresh spinach and sliced wild mushrooms, such as morels, cremini (or portabellas) chantrelles, etc.
  • Top with another layer of sole filets
  • Sprinkle with chopped parsley and white wine
  • Top with buttered parchment paper

Bake in 450ºF oven for 10 minutes.  Melt 1 Tablespoon butter in a small saucepan.  Add i Tablespoon flour to make a roux.  Pour baking liquid into saucepan and stir to make a nice veloute.  Add a little cream and lemon juice to add body.

Serve fish and top with veloute.  I served this with an herbed basmati rice and steamed broccoli.   My notes say that Mr. Dewey loved it.

This is a great example of why I started this blog!  I had completely forgotten about this recipe.  Guess what we’ll be having for dinner tomorrow night?