Love from Hell

Valentine’s Day — a highly commercialized expression of love, some would say. Not the most wonderful time of the year for those who don’t have someone to love (worse for those who have someone who doesn’t return their love).

But for our kiddos, it’s another way to show their affections for friends and even teachers. During the evenings this week our oldest has been spending his time carefully writing out Valentine cards to his classmates. Our youngest has been drooling over the Valentine cards we’ve been writing on her behalf. Treats were attached to each card – Ninja Turtle candies for the Kindergarteners, Cheddar Bunnies for the infants – and packed to go off to school and daycare.

The teachers, though: we knew (or hoped) they would get candies and cards from other kids and their families. All richly deserved. But in thinking of a gift that would stand out and last longer than a quick sugar high, a brilliant idea hit.

We’d give them a little love from Hell.

IMG_4834Hell’s Kitchen peanut butter, that is.

The recipe, from Hell’s Kitchen Restaurant in Minneapolis, was published in the food section of our local paper a few years back. It’s also available in a cookbook sold at the restaurant. But this peanut butter is unlike any jar one gets at their grocery store. Big chunks of peanuts, a blend of honey, brown sugar and kosher salt to bring a sweet but bitter bite to the palate. Perfect just spooned atop a slice of apple, smeared over a chocolate bar, or even sandwiched between two slices of banana. Oh, and sandwiches and toast too.

Packed in a gift set of grape jelly, with a witty jar label that’s more seasonally appropriate, it was a no-brainer. The gift that would keep on giving until the jars were empty. A little love felt at breakfast, lunch, or snacktime.

IMG_4835It’s a little process-heavy, but not a long time making. You definitely need a food processor for this recipe, though. But so, so worth it…

Hell’s Kitchen Peanut Butter

(Found in “Damn Good Food” by Mitch Omer)

  • 3 cups Spanish peanuts (skin on)
  • 5 tablespoons honey
  • 4 tablespoons light brown sugar
  • 2.5 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 7 tablespoons peanut oil
  • 5 tablespoons unsalted butter
  1. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Place nuts onto a rimmed baking sheet, and place on the center rack of the oven. Roast 10 minutes, rotate the pan 180 degrees, and roast another 10 minutes or so until the peanuts are a dark brown. Remove from the oven, and bring to room temperature.
  2. Place peanuts in a food processor with a steel chopping blade, and process on low until finely ground, about 30 seconds. Do not overblend; you want the peanut butter to be chunky, not grainy.
  3. Dump ground nuts into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle. Add honey, brown sugar and salt. Blend on low speed until thickened, about 1 minute.
  4. Back over in the food processor, combine peanut oil and butter and blend on low until completely emulsified, about 11 seconds. Scrape oil and butter into the peanut mixture and mix on low until smoother and creamy. Place in container with tight-fitting lid and refrigerate. After setting a while, some of the oil may rise to the surface. Simply mix this back in.

While you store it in the fridge, it tastes and spreads best if you let it warm to room temperature. Better still – take the mini ice cream scoop you use for cookie dough, scoop out a tiny ball of peanut butter and let that warm on your plate while you make your coffee and toast your bread. It will spread perfectly then.

…And then turkey feet appeared on the mantel.

There was much to be thankful for last week: a roof over our heads, relative good health of loved ones, food on the table.

We were thankful that we could bring a grand crowd over to fill the house and share many delicious things to eat. And that’s what I perhaps love the most about Thanksgiving: we all bring together a little something and the next thing you know you’ve got a veritable feast on your hands.

There wasn’t a line for the food, per se. Just controlled chaos.

There’s also built-in prudence measures. Example: I really, really didn’t want to share the peanut butter and chocolate dessert my niece made. I even asked her if I had to. Fortunately for the rest of the guests, she said I did. (Still deciding if I’m thankful for that or not.)

Eating happened in just about every room of the first floor. I’m thankful we had the space for that.

The living room was set up for overflow seating as well as appetizer grazing.

There was some extra thankfulness for celebrating a birthday the same day. As the guest of honor loves a brandy Manhattan, we made sure we had the ingredients on hand.

The liquor store sold everything but a Don Draper look-alike to serve them.

Carrot cake and a brandy Manhattan: the makings for a happy birthday.

I was thankful that my husband brought home a wild turkey from the Spring hunt; it meant that we had plenty of bird to go around. We prepared it almost exactly the same as the farm-raised bird that we also served up, with a couple of departures to accommodate the lower-fat and potential gamey taste. Turned out delicious.

In addition to the table fare, that turkey provided something I wasn’t expecting. Until I heard my husband muttering under his breath “I forgot the feet” as he walked towards the door to the basement. Nothing really registered in my subconscious until I went to set a few things on the table in the dining room. And saw this.

No. Words.

Now and forever, as my mind retains a picture of what Thanksgiving 2012 looked like, there’s a Dali-esque framing around Manhattans, carrot cake, and turkey feet. That’s a memory, for sure!

Here’s hoping your Thanksgiving was filled with its own wonderful, quirky memories.

Weekend treat: Apple Pie Dip

Happy Friday!

Here’s a quick little treat that is so fast to make it’s almost a sin not to treat yourself to a batch of this at some point over the weekend. Whether you’ve got friends coming over or are planning a movie marathon for 1, this is a seasonal must: Apple Pie Dip with cinnamon sugar pita chips.

Apple Pie Dip (Originally published at http://www.thepeachkitchen.com)

Ingredients

  • 2 cups apple, peeled, cored, and diced
  • 2 tbsp fresh lemon juice
  • 3 tbsp brown sugar
  • 1/4 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp cornstarch, dissolved in 1 tsp water

Directions

  1. Combine all the ingredients except the cornstarch-water mixture in a small pan (or microwaveable bowl, if you want to do this in the microwave).
  2. Heat for a few minutes until it’s boiling and the apple has released its juices
  3. Remove from heat and add the cornstarch-water mixture
  4. Return to heat (or microwave) and return to boiling, stirring often, until the sauce has thickened. It doesn’t take very long.
  5. Pour into a serving bowl and set aside. This can be served warm, or chilled, and is delicious either way. When you’re ready to dive in, open that bag of cinnamon-sugar pita chips and enjoy!

After we inhaled the first batch, I realized this could also be good spread on top of cinnamon-sugar graham crackers. You know, if you wanted to go all wild like that.

Hope your first weekend of October is a good one!

In lieu of flowers.

It was a bright, clear Summery sort of Sunday recently when the phone rang and my mom told me that one of my great-aunts had passed away.

She was 87 years old, and had lived a long, full life.

While she never married, or had kids of her own, her many nieces and nephews gave her lots of experience with kiddos. My sister and I got to know her when she moved from her home state of Massachusetts out to our little corner of the prairie for a while. I can remember the sharp smells in the hallway outside her apartment, the furnishings that were comfortable but not too nice that the owner would worry about kids horsing around on them. She loved dachshunds, and had one named Tinsel; with endearing early childhood speech impediments, the best we could manage was “Tinnel.”

Most clearly, though, I can remember her laugh. How she seemed to laugh with her entire body. It was a great laugh – that’s what I’ll miss the most about her. As my Mom and I talked briefly about my great-aunt’s passing, she asked, “do you remember the s’mores story?” Those words opened up a often-told scene in my mind. Or so I thought. (That’s foreshadowing, folks. Set that aside for later on in the post.)

I remember a story of myself and my sister with our great aunt and parents on a picnic by the river. It was fall, and we made s’mores to finish off the meal. My sister was old enough to have her own s’more, but little enough to still sit in her car seat that my parents had toted out of the car for her to comfortably sit in on the picnic. In her attempts to eat that s’more, she wound up pretty much gluing herself into her car seat with the s’more and its melted marshmallow gooiness — a sight so comical that our great-aunt got a tremendous belly laugh out of the whole experience. And a memory was born.

Inspired by this memory, I put together a gift basket full of ingredients to make the s’mores. I added some colorful roasting forks to the box, wrote a letter telling the story and explaining why I wanted to send this in lieu of flowers, and dropped the box off at the local post office. On its way, out of my hands to the family back East who were settling her estate and arranging her memorial according to her wishes.

The day after my visit to the post office, at a wedding my parents and sister and I were attending, my mother – who I had shared my idea with – started telling the story during the reception to some of the other people at our table. The funny thing was, the story she shared differed in a few details. Like who the baby was in the car seat, and the fact that my sister was not yet born. This seemed affirmed by my sister’s pointing across the table to me and loudly exclaiming, “I remember hearing this!” And right there, at that table, a nasty knot of dread began forming in my gut. Had I told the wrong story? Did I mix up food disaster stories involving small children? (There’s a great one involving an attempt at blueberry picking. Another story for another time.) How did I screw this up in my brain? What kind of awkwardness have I just set up for my poor parents, who would be traveling out East for the memorial?

Oy.

That box, with all the chocolate bars, graham crackers, marshmallows, and letter containing a possibly false story was already en route. No way to stop it.

Memories are funny things. They can shift and blur over time. Every now and then, my sister or myself will correct our parents on some random memory of an event assigned to one child that was actually experienced by the other. But given my sister’s enthusiastic endorsement of my mother’s story, I figured that either she was covering for our mom or I had totally botched the recall on that old story.

Then it hit me: regardless of who the baby was in the car seat, marshmallow-glued in place, it did not change the fact that it made a beautiful memory. It would not have dampened my desire to send the makings of more memories with another generation of our family as a way to honor that great lady’s laugh. It was the spirit of that memory, not the nitty-gritty, that moved me to do what I did.

I got word from the recipient that the basket had arrived, and plans were afoot for a family cookout and s’mores feast to enjoy and remember my great-aunt. So, as I drove them to the airport to catch their flight out east to the memorial, I shared the gaffe with my parents, who pretty much waved it off with a “doesn’t matter, does it? You’re a good storyteller, so your version probably sounds much better anyway.”

The lesson learned? The heart can motivate more accurately than most memories. And create more endearing moments than any memory can.

How I learned to “stick” it to the birthday cake

When we last left off, the Party on a Stick was coming together pretty well. Menu was set, agenda was loose – because we’re talking about a 4-year-old, folks; his attention span is no longer than a twig in many matters – but the cake was a new issue.

Our kiddo loves cake pops, so “on a stick” criteria would have been easily met, if not a little too cliche. But then he started talking about cake. As in “cake” cake. Not on a stick. Technically, making a “cake” cake would be less time-consuming than the cake pops. And there’s something about having a cake, with candles to blow out, that really caps off a birthday celebration.

So, let’s review his minimum standards for a fourth birthday cake: chocolate cake. Vanilla cream in between the cake layers. And purple frosting.

That left me wondering how to work a stick-like element into the cake. Until I remembered my husband’s witty “Blair Witch” reference one morning after finding an artfully-arranged pile of sticks next to his side of the bed. And in a weird firing of synapses in my brain, raced back to those little bird nests I built for Easter place settings using melted chocolate and…chow mein noodles!

The Type-A wheels started spinning. I did have an unopened bag of chow mein noodles sitting in the pantry. It wouldn’t be too weird to just pour them out onto a cookie sheet and see if I could pair together random noodle shapes to make letters that spell “happy birthday,” would it?

Nah.

Bazinga.

Then, borrowing from the recipe for Betty Crocker’s “ting-a-lings,” I melted a little dish of white chocolate chips, added some butter and then a little vegetable oil to smooth out the texture and provide the perfect little glue/bath for the noodles to hold their shape and deliver the message.

A little ramekin was all it took to dip each noodle in and set up the letters.

Note: I used wax paper to make release easier, and leveraged the old trick of using some refrigerator magnets to hold the wax paper flat to the cookie sheet. The kazoo was supplied by the Birthday Boy, bringing a little background music to the kitchen work.

Once the cake was frosted with the fondant layer, all it took was a light spray of water on the icing to set and hold the letters in place. Contrasting with that vivid purple and fun striped birthday candles, this was a cake that my four-year-old loved:

A little wacky, a little wild, totally perfect for our birthday party.

This was a fun way to work in something that personalized our guy’s cake beyond what might be found in a bakery. He was more than tickled to see his vision for a birthday cake come to life.

In all honesty, it has me a little fearful of what he might dream up for birthday cake concepts next year.

It’s a party on a stick.

I realize that, not too long from now, my child will begin to make more and more suggestions for throwing his birthday party. Likely involving licensed characters that he’ll become enamored with.

But in his fourth year of life, while he’s interested in some of the characters he’ll see on a PBS station, or from a movie we watch at home, he’ll stop in his tracks and put all of life on pause for: sticks.

Yes, sticks.

As in those bits of branches that fall off of trees. And somehow wind up multiplying right in front of his car seat, on the floor of the car. And sneak into the house making random patterns that will lead the grown-ups in the household to wonder whether or not a sequel to The Blair Witch Project is perhaps in the works.

He loves sticks. So, without asking his permission (I am his mother, after all), I challenged myself to plan for my son a “party on a stick.”

Why is this a challenge, you ask? His birthday falls in the month of August, which around these parts is also known as State Fair time. That celebration of commerce, agriculture, and unique ways to eat plated foods on a stick or skewer of some sort. The risks of going way too cliche are high.

Audience is also somewhat of a challenge. This is a family gathering, meaning ages range from the birthday boy’s 4 up to a grandparents’ late 70s. And while our son has somewhat mature tastes – ask me sometime about his addiction to cherry tomatoes; or smoked salmon, for that matter – he’s still a kid. The offerings have to appeal to all ages, require minimum upkeep during the party so we could all enjoy the gathering, and not take a bunch of time ahead of the event to prepare.

Some menu items were pretty easy:

Vegetable sticks, with a choice of Ranch dip or hummus. Yes, there are tomatoes on the tray too. They’re not stick-shaped. But the Birthday Boy is addicted to them.

Pretzel sticks, with Salsa di Parma

Fruit kebabs with a creamy dip

Sides that people could pick and choose from. But, then we had to get down to entree. I opted to offer two items for guests:

Lemon Rosemary Chicken Skewers, with a dipping sauce made from leftover marinade.

Corn Dogs. Bought frozen at the grocery store, cooked in the oven, and made all grown-up and classy with the chafing dish keeping it warm.

Then, for a fun and fresh side…

All together on a table, this was a great spread for a little noshing, then some meal eating, and followed by post-birthday cake noshing. What surprised me the most was how much of a hit the corn dogs were among everyone. It added an unexpected element of fun to the gathering with many adults there reminiscing about the last time they had a corn dog. Too long, judging by some of the comments.

Then, as a treat for the kiddos who attended the party, we found a little more sugar on a stick for them:

That’s what we call a sugar overload.

What’s that? You saw a cake in the background of that photo? Why, yes you did. Our son is a huge fan of cake pops, and I was considering them for the party. Until he very specifically requested the cake. So, new challenge: how do we continue the stick theme on a decidedly non-stick item? That’s coming up next. Stay tuned.

The Easter Scramble

I like to obsess. That’s not news to anyone who’s stopped by and read even one post. So the opportunity to host an Easter gathering for some family with less than two weeks’ notice was one I was happy to let myself get a little absorbed in.

The mission: brunch. But not a ton of work to make it difficult to whip up a potato dish afterwards to bring to our next gathering later in the day. But not getting to “do” an Easter meal that often, I couldn’t resist the chance to pull out the china, do a little fussing, and have a little fun…

With the number of guests, it was a great chance to break out the wedding china.

And the colorful season gave me the perfect idea for a little treat at each place setting: nests made of chow mein noodles and chocolate, holding plastic beribboned eggs that contained more sweet surprises.

A "honey bunny" from Great Harvest Bread kept our decorated eggs company and guard the nest of chocolate truffle eggs.

The menu included a strata, home fries, asparagus with a parmesan lemon vinaigrette, hot cross buns, mini bagels and lox, and a berry trifle. Mimosas and coffee were also served.

There was a little food left at the end of the feast, just enough to put into care packages.

It was a treat for me to do this, even if it’s just for this year. Hope you had a wonderful Easter, too.