Sunday, November 29, 2009

Oh Pumpkin Bread, Oh Pumpkin Bread!

The past month has been a busy one. It hasn't left me much time for blogging, but I promise to do better. I have been meaning to post this note for a bit now...there is always time for chocolate chip pumpkin bread. This recipe is a favorite of mine and adds a little bit of chocolatey goodness in each bite. I took the bread to our annual company Thanksgiving celebration, and it was gone in a flash.

The recipe is from the December 2004 issue of Cooking Light and has splattered pumpkin and flour all over it, but I pull it out every year. Enjoy!

Chocolate Chip Pumpkin Bread

2 cups sugar
2 cups canned pumpkin
1/2 cup canola oil
1/2 cup fat-free vanilla pudding
4 large egg whites
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips
Cooking spray

Preheat oven to 350°. Combine first 5 ingredients in a large bowl, stirring well with a whisk. Lightly spoon flour into dry measuring cups; level with a knife. Combine flour, cinnamon, salt, and baking soda in a medium bowl, stirring well with a whisk. Add flour mixture to pumpkin mixture, stirring just until moist. Stir in chocolate chips. Spoon batter into 2 (8 x 4-inch) loaf pans coated with cooking spray.

Bake at 350° for 1 hour and 15 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool 10 minutes in pans on a wire rack, and remove from pans. Cool completely on wire rack.

Showering Baby G

A couple weekends ago, some girlfriends and I showered our friend Kristy, who is expecting her first child in early January.

My girlfriend Shana wrapped the silverware in the cutest blue napkins and tied them with adorable bows. She set them out for guests in this precious wire stork basket!

Now, these girls cook and bake like nobody's business. We had everything from olive and cream cheese filled pecans... chicken salad croissants... strawberry pretzel salad... chocolate covered strawberries and pumpkin bread !

Check out the full spread. Delish!

No shower - baby or wedding - is complete without a proper quiche. I made my favorite smoked turkey sausage and spinach quiche. So easy. So yummy.

A fantastic Cooking Light recipe from the June 2008 issue.

Crustless Smoked Turkey and Spinach Quiche

Cooking spray
3/4 cup (4 ounces) cubed smoked turkey ham or sausage
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3/4 cup (3 ounces) shredded Swiss cheese, divided
1 cup fresh baby spinach leaves
1 cup fat-free cottage cheese
1/2 cup evaporated fat-free milk
1/4 cup (1 ounce) shredded reduced-fat cheddar cheese
2 large eggs
2 large egg whites
1/2 cup all-purpose flour (about 2 1/4 ounces)
1 teaspoon baking powder

1. Preheat oven to 350°.

2. Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Coat pan with cooking spray. Add ham, onion, and pepper to pan; sauté 4 minutes or until ham is lightly browned.

3. Sprinkle 1/4 cup shredded Swiss cheese in a 9-inch pie plate coated with cooking spray. Top with ham mixture. (I use a deep dish pie plate.)

4. Combine remaining 1/2 cup Swiss cheese, spinach, and next 5 ingredients (through egg whites) in a large bowl; stir with a whisk.

5. Lightly spoon flour into a dry measuring cup; level with a knife. Combine flour and baking powder in a small bowl, stirring with a whisk. Add flour mixture to egg mixture, stirring with a whisk until blended. Pour egg mixture over ham mixture. Bake at 350° for 45 minutes or until a knife inserted in center of quiche comes out clean.

This picture just might be my favorite of the day. I caught Shana's daughter sneaking a taste of the dip while her mommy was looking the other way. Priceless.

Had to get a bite for the road...she headed off to Monkey Joe's for a birthday party after this nibble.

I Give Thanks

It's 3:20 on a sunny Sunday afternoon, and I am sitting at my kitchen table listening to Christmas carols and smelling beef and barley soup simmering on the stove.

The Christmas tree is trimmed, the garland and stockings are hung, and the poinsettias are in full bloom on the hearth. My sweet pup, Max, is lazing around napping from corner to corner in the living room.

For this - and so much more - I give thanks.

Thanksgiving is probably my favorite holiday (with the exception of Halloween - for obvious reasons if you know me; um, it's my birthday!) because it signals the beginning of a season of hope and joy and faith. The days ahead are filled with red and green, twinkle lights, cookie-baking and shopping for that perfect gift to wrap and place under the tree for someone special. But, all must go through the turkey and stuffing first.

My family traditions begin with watching the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade from start to finish - something I've done since I was a little girl. The Radio City Rockettes, the marching bands, the huge balloons and of course, Tom the Turkey!

This is our version of Tom the Turkey at home:

As the parade marches through New York City, the house fills with the smells of a juicy turkey roasting in the oven and permeated by fresh sage, lemons and onions.

While the turkey rests and awaits it's carving, the delicious smells of my mother's stuffing made with celery, onions and autumn herbs come from the oven.

The cheesy, creamy goodness of Grandma's famous cornbake wafts through every room, calling to me like a long-lost sibling. (Ok, that's a bit dramatic, but this stuff is GOOD.)

Cornbake = bliss. No corn bake = no Thanksgiving. Sorry, it's a secret family recipe.

Dad always whips up his mother's cranberry-grape salad that I only recently realized was divine (leftover hangups from my picky-eater childhood precluded me from indulging in years past). Red grapes, pecans, cranberries, Cool Whip; I'm not sure why I don't have this recipe...

This year, instead of my usual streuseled sweet potato casserole, I contributed smoked gouda macaroni and cheese to the menu. We finished the table off with fresh green beans and "smashed" potatoes as my brother used to call them. Oh, and a relish platter of cranberry sauce, sweet pickles and whole black olives (no, I no longer put them on my fingers and eat them like I did as a kid).

And of course, pumpkin pie for dessert.

Man, I need a walk.

The days following this great day of thanks will be hectic, and I know that at times (e.g., when I'm standing in long shopping lines or sitting in holiday traffic) it will be hard to remember the true reason for the Christmas season.

That's when I will channel my Thanksgiving Day memories and remember how grateful I am for my family, my friends, a job, a warm home and food on my table. I have been richly blessed. For that, I give thanks.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Not Just for "The Birds"

For many of you, the mention of Bodega Bay conjures up memories of creepy seagulls and Tippi Hedren in Alfred Hitchcock's classic thriller "The Birds." I'm here to tell you that this quiet little California seaside town is much more than just a movie set from the 1960s.

On our final full day in California, Dad and I headed out to Bodega Bay, and drove up the Pacific Coast Highway (the famed Hwy. 1) to see some of the most breathtaking (could I possibly use that word one more time?) views of the Pacific Ocean.

With the warm sun shining on the crashing waves, and a few sea lions spotted here and there sunning themselves, we wound our way up to the tiny town of Jenner to see where the Russian River meets the mouth of the Pacific. I think we were expecting some grandiose vision, but instead, there is an inlet of about six feet across (give or take a few depending on the tide) where the water gently laps together.

After an afternoon of taking in the salty sea air, we stopped at one final winery, DeLoach, to sample some of the most delicious wines yet. For a little bit of nothing, we were sampling wines that you'd find on the tables of the rich and famous (well, I may be exaggerating, but they were delish let me tell you).

To end our time in wine country with one final hurrah, we got gussied up and headed back into downtown Healdsburg for a nice dinner and dessert on the square. We went casual for dinner at the Healdsburg Bar and Grill, where we finally actually purchased a full glass of wine with our meal. The mac and cheese at this place was to die for.

After dinner, we strolled a few doors down to the posh Dry Creek Kitchen restaurant to cap off the night with warm coffee and sweet dessert. I chose the sugar pie pumpkin cheesecake with mascarpone mousse while Dad had the chocolate baba cake with kahlua ice cream. The description on the menu had my mouth watering from the moment my eyes laid eyes on the page. But...the presentation. Oh, the presentation. It was nearly too fabulous to devour.

Although, I did not seem to have one bit of difficulty.

The final stop on our West Coast Birthday Excursion was to see the Golden Gate bridge (sans fog) in all its glory. It really is quite an amazing site to see.

This trip was so special for so many reasons.

1. San Francisco is just a cool city.
2. Williams Sonoma: need I say more?
3. The food and wine were amazing.
4. I got to see some of the most beautiful parts of our country.

But, I think the best part was being able to share all of this with my sweet Daddy. We've always shared birthdays close to each other, but taking a trip like this - just the two of us - was the best birthday gift that I could have asked for. I'll remember it always!

I hope you are blessed enough to have shared or to one day share such a special adventure with a dear one of your own.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Red, White and Blush

If I had known wine was this much fun to drink, I would have started a lot earlier. A little red, a little white and throw in a blush here and there. How patriotic!

Day 2 began with a trip to the Rodney Strong vineyard and included a self-guided tour of the barrel rooms. Very cool stuff. It was so interesting to learn about how they pick the grapes, crush them, age them and then voila! Vino! I had been told by many an expert (i.e., friends that have gone to wine country before me) that a tour of a vineyard is a must to get the "full" experience. Definitely very cool to see the science behind the bottle. We even saw some kind of aeration process (very technical terminology) they use to filter the grape juice in and out of the barrels.

I will admit, that never before in my life have I been drinking alcohol at 10:30 a.m on a Sunday. But, one thing is clear out here, grape growing and wine making is a way of life; not just a vocation, but a profession.

We headed north to the adorable town of Healdsburg for another afternoon of tasting rooms and yummy snacks on the square. We took time out for some coffee and a sticky bun from the Downtown Bakery and Creamery. These sticky buns are the things of legends...buttery, flaky crust rolled in gooey butter and sugar and sprinkled with a hint of cinnamon. Yum (cue eyes rolling back in your head and tongue licking your lips).

My favorite experience of all was finally visiting the Rosenblum tasting room. A dear friend of mine has a family connection to Rosenblum, and their wines are absolutely incredible - they're known for their zinfandel, but let me tell you something...they do not make a bad wine. My personal favorite was the bottle of chocolate port that we brought home. It's like drinking smooth, silky melted chocolate with a kick.

We continued north to visit to the Simi winery to taste more delicious wines. Not only did each winery have its own distinct flavors of wine, but also its own unique ambiance. The quaint buildings and lush gardens at Simi were delightful. Kind of makes you just want to pack a picnic and enjoy a little sauvingnon blanc on a blanket under the trees, doesn't it?

We decided to take the scenic route back to the hotel, driving through the winding roads of the heart of the Russian River Valley. Roads lined with billowing redwoods and rolling vineyards, there must have been at least 120 wineries along the way. The vineyards are just amazingly beautiful. Everywhere you turn, there are hills and rows of beautiful grape vines with the most vibrantly colored leaves of rust, gold, caramel and pumpkin. So very autumnal. There are nearly no words to describe the way the sun peaks through the trees and glistens on the river, or how the hills look like pillows covered with soft amber leaves and deep purple grapes. Absolutely breathtaking scenery.

After all that wine, we needed some meat and a good beer before turning in. For all you Food Network fans, you'll appreciate this one: a burger and fries and Guy Fieri's Johnny Garlic's restaurant in Santa Rosa. Definitely hit the spot.

Only one full day left before it was back to the real world.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Just a Little Farm Town

Do you ever have moments when you want to pinch yourself? Just to make sure you are not dreaming? After coming down off the high of visiting the Williams Sonoma flagship store, I had a hard time envisioning what could top that. Clearly, I had not yet grasped what Highway 12 through Sonoma County had in store for us.

The next three days were so incredibly fabulous that I found myself wondering, "is this really happening?" I'm sure Dad wanted to slap me because I probably sounded like a broken record, but I have been dreaming of a trip to California wine country for two years (I even bought the guidebooks!), and now it was happening. Un-freakin-believable.

What can I say? Some girls want Paris or Rome, but just give me a little farm town with good wine and great food.

We headed out early Saturday morning. After crossing the Golden Gate bridge (sadly, it was too foggy to even tell we were on a bridge), we were headed north to the mecca (insert angelic voices and bright, shiny lights). We took a slight detour on the Pacific Coast's famous Highway 1 to visit Muir Woods and have our pictures taken in front of 1,200-year-old redwood trees (absolutely incredible, by the way). By early afternoon, we were finally on our way to the land of wine and honey.

First stop, the quaint square in Sonoma. I had read about the shops, restaurants and tasting rooms and couldn't wait to check it out myself. The weather was perfect for a leisurely day on the square - about 75 degrees, sunny with a slight breeze - and we strolled from tasting room to tasting room soaking in every sight, sound and smell.

And why haven't I ever considered moving out here?

Highway 12 winery was our inaugural watering hole, with its friendly staff and delicious wines, we had hit the jackpot right out of the gate. If this was just the first stop, the next three days were certainly going to be something. We tasted red, white, sweet and dry. It was all incredible.

After a few tastings, it became quite apparent that if we wanted to ensure arrival at our hotel (and actually be confident it was the correct hotel), Dad and I were definitely going to need a little something to munch on. Naturally, I had been scoping food options for weeks, so I knew we had to hit The Girl and the Fig. Definitely the right choice.

The menu was filled with mouth-watering wine country gems like dungeness crab salads, fresh salads with local fruit, magnificent sauces and spreads made of figs and much time do you have? Because I could go on.

Seated on a delightful patio outside, we shared a scrumptious cheese and sausage plate that came with the most divine selection of fresh and local cheeses, fresh fig fruit spread with a crisp apple and the most delectable marinated olives that I just couldn't stop devouring. Of course, I came away with a cookbook to recreate these fabulous creations in my own kitchen.

Our first official winery stop was just north of Sonoma at the Blackstone Winery.

Now, I'm a big fan of just about anything Blackstone, but the tasting menu at this winery was divine. Many of the wines we tasted were reserved for onsite availablity only and/or were in another socioeconomic hemisphere than my usual purchases. The $8.99 merlot I buy at Kroger is "what pays the bills" according to our host. Yep, I'm just that classy.

Seriously though, if I learned one thing on this trip, it's that the wine you like is the wine you like. There is no right, wrong, good or bad. Screwtop, box or cork, it's all about how a wine entices your tastebuds and the sweet dreams it leaves on your tongue.

After a hard first day on the job (hey, someone's gotta do it), we headed to the hotel and called it a day. If I were a betting woman, I'd have bet my favorite spatula that it just doesn't get any better than this. Good thing I don't gamble.