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Thursday, December 31, 2009

Chai Shortbread

Shortbread is a perfect treat for the holiday season - quick to put together, but buttery and rich. It also stores and travels well for sending to out-of-town friends.

And what can't be improved with some cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, and ginger?

Chai Shortbread
Base recipe adapted from Williams-Sonoma Cookies. Chai spices inspired by these Chocolate Covered Vanilla Chai Shortbread Cookies, but without, you know, the chocolate.

1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/4 cup powdered sugar
1/4 cup white sugar, plus more for sprinkling
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, plus more for sprinkling
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
a pinch of black pepper

1. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Take out an ungreased 9-inch square baking pan.
2. Use a mixer to cream the butter until fluffy and pale yellow, or do it by hand with a whisk. Add the sugars and continue beating until the mixture is no longer gritty. Beat in the vanilla and spices.
3. In a separate bowl, mix the flour and salt together (or, if you're lazy like me, just measure it out into the bowl of butter and sugar). Gradually add the flour mixture to the butter mixture while mixing on low speed or by hand until just blended.
4. Press the dough evenly into the pan. Sprinkle with about a tablespoon of white sugar and some cinnamon.
5. Bake the shortbread until the edges are golden, about 50 minutes to an hour. Remove the pan from the oven and immediately use a thin, sharp knife to cut the shortbread into strips or squares (if you let it cool first, the shortbread will crumble when you try to cut it). Let the strips cool in the pan on a wire rack for about 30 minutes before moving them to the rack to cool completely.

Monday, December 14, 2009

What do you get for the puppies who have everything?

My parents have two puppies. They figured that two puppies would be easier than one puppy. And it's not hard to see why they were able to convince themselves of that.

See? Incredible cuteness, right?

Except now, they're not really puppies anymore - at a little over a year old, each one weighs about 75 pounds, but they still think they're puppies. And want to, you know, crawl all over you and lick your face. Sort of endearing, sort of terrifying.

They also have a pretty sweet life. My parents explicitly think of them as their second set of children. They get baths and car rides and new down comforters to lay on. And, of course, they love treats.

So what do I get my furry sisters for Christmas?

I make them homemade squirrel-shaped dog treats, of course.

I sent them to my parents along with cookies for, you know, people. My mom thought the dog treats were the best part of the package. (No, I don't think she ate them.)

What better way to prove that you're definitely not jealous that your parents' new daughters have graduated from sleeping on your favorite childhood blanket to new fleeces and down comforters?

I hear they give them two paws up.

Apple Pie Dog Biscuits
Adapted from Culinary in the Desert

I took out the applesauce because I specifically wanted a dry cracker-like treat that would travel well and wouldn't need to be refrigerated. These are very dry, but the dogs don't seem to mind. If your pup has a more refined palate, feel free to add the applesauce back in for a less brittle treat.

3 cups whole-wheat flour
1 cup rye flour
1/2 cup cornmeal
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon cardamom
1/4 teaspoon ginger
2 small apples, food processed until chopped
1 1/3 cups water
2 tablespoons oil

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

In a large bowl, whisk together flours, cornmeal, cinnamon, cardamom and ginger.

In a small bowl, whisk together shredded apple, water and oil. Pour into the dry ingredients and stir together until a dough forms. Scoop out onto a lightly floured surface and knead, adding as much additional whole wheat flour as needed, to make a dough that is smooth and not sticky. (I needed a lot - probably another cup or cup and a half. At some point I switched to white flour because I figured that too much whole wheat flour might be intense, even for dogs.)

Roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface until it is about 1/4" thick. Cut out as many treats as you can, re-rolling the dough as necessary. Place onto parchment-lined baking sheets and bake until firm, about 35 to 45 minutes. Remove and transfer the treats to a wire rack to cool completely.

I'm a terrible estimator, but I think these made about 4-dozen squirrel-shaped cookies.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Holiday Biscotti, Three Ways

If you're sending holiday cookies to friends and family, biscotti is a great option. These twice-baked cookies ship well and keep well. Toss in some festive ingredients - peppermint, say, or pistachio and dried cranberries - and these make perfect holiday gifts.

I've used this Biscotti Toscani recipe from AllRecipes many times, and people seem to love it, though I tend to tinker with it a bit.

For this batch, not satisfied with just making one type of biscotti, I made the base dough and separated it into three bowls. One bowl got chopped bittersweet chocolate, chopped almonds, and almond extract. Another bowl got dried orange-flavored cranberries, chopped pistachio, and almond extract. The third got chopped white chocolate chips, crushed peppermint candy, and peppermint extract.

The result?

Holiday deliciousness that should please even those hard-to-shop-for folks on your list. Because who doesn't like biscotti?

Biscotti Base

Adapted from AllRecipes
(I tripled this to make enough for three different flavors)

* 1/3 cup butter
* 3/4 cup white sugar
* 2 eggs
* 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
* 2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
* 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
* 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
* 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
* 1/4 teaspoon salt

1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F (165 degrees C). Grease and flour a large baking sheet.
2. In a large bowl, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in eggs and vanilla. Combine flour, baking powder, nutmeg, and salt. Stir into the creamed mixture until just blended.
3. Divide dough into different bowls if making different types of biscotti. Stir in mix-ins (see below for ideas, or invent your own!).
4. Divide dough into two pieces. Form into long flat loaves about 1/2 inch tall and 12 inches long. Place the loaves 2 inches apart on the prepared baking sheet.
5. Bake in preheated oven for 25 minutes, or until a light golden brown. Cool on a wire rack for 5 minutes.
6. With a serrated knife, cut diagonally into slices about 1/2 inch thick. Lay the slices flat on the baking sheet. Bake for 10 minutes, turning over once. Transfer to a wire rack to cool.



(Modified from the same AllRecipes recipe)

Add 1/4 teaspoon almond extract, 1/2 cup toasted almond pieces, and 1/2 cup chopped chocolate. Orange zest is optional. If you're sending these somewhere that's cold, you could leave the chocolate out of the biscotti and dunk or drizzle the finished cookies in some melted chocolate for a prettier presentation. These were going to Paraguay, among other places, and therefore I wanted the chocolate safely ensconced in the cookie dough.


(Inspired by the recipe in the Williams-Sonoma Essentials of Baking Book, though I used the AllRecipes base purely for convenience)

Add 1/2 teaspoon almond extract, 1 cup chopped pistachios, and 1/2 cup dried cranberries. Orange zest is optional here too, and the orange-flavored cranberries (the one's from Trader Joe's are great) work well.

Peppermint-White Chocolate:

(I searched for a recipe for these, but didn't find any I liked, so I created my own)

Add 1/4 teaspoon peppermint extract, 1/2 cup chopped white chocolate chips, and 1/2 cup crushed peppermint candies. For days I would smell these cookies and tried to figure out what smelled so good. You'd think after the first day or so I'd remember what it was, but no...

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Cranberry-Pear Compote

There’s something particularly festive about fresh cranberries. Whether it’s their vibrant color or the way they pair perfectly with roasted turkey and apple pie, cranberries seem to herald the holidays.

Cranberries are one of only a few fruits native to North America, and were used by several Native American tribes for medicinal purposes and to dye clothing. They were also mixed with meat and fat to make pemmican, an early form of field rations. It’s possible that Natives shared their cranberries with pilgrims at the first Thanksgiving, while settlers in turn contributed the English name – “cranberry” is a corruption of “craneberry,” since cranberry blossoms look like the head and neck of a crane. Legend has it that cranberries became even more firmly associated with Thanksgiving when Ulysses S. Grant ordered his camp cooks to make cranberry sauce during the siege of Petersburg in 1864.

Modern consumers can appreciate more than just the taste – the cranberry has been designated a superfruit due to its high levels of antioxidants and vitamin C. Grown in sandy beds in the cooler areas of North America and Europe, cranberries are white when they start growing, and are only harvested in September and October once they turn their characteristic scarlet hue. Savvy cooks can buy extra bags of the abundant berries now and stash them in the freezer for sauces, muffins, and scones throughout the year.

Cranberries play well with various other fruits, including pears, apples, oranges, and mangoes. Sweetened, they bake nicely into pies or other sweet concoctions. Dried, they flirt appealingly with pecans and goat cheese in salads. Food-processed, they make a quick relish for turkey, chicken, or pork.

Perhaps the easiest way to enjoy cranberry flavor, however, is a simple fruit compote. Fresh cranberries bask in the low heat of your stove with other fruit, sugar, and spices for an incredibly versatile treat. Spoon some of the sauce alongside savory dishes like roast pork loin, or keep it sweet as a topping for vanilla ice cream. Toss a crisp or crumble topping over the compote for a simple baked dessert. Pour some compote over your morning pancakes, waffles, or oatmeal for a delicious kick of flavor. Stir some into Greek yogurt, or just eat it straight out of a bowl.

This compote is also almost endlessly variable. Try simmering the berries in orange juice and add orange zest for a citrusy flavor, or swap out the cinnamon and nutmeg for cardamom and ginger to add an exotic twist.

Best of all, it requires very little work – just rinse fresh cranberries, add accompanying fruit and spices, and simmer until the berries explode and then reduce. While it simmers slowly on the stove, you could bake a couple different pies to please your holiday guests – or serve them all cranberry compote and use that free time to take a nap instead.

Cranberry-Pear Compote
12 oz fresh cranberries, rinsed and picked over
2 pears, peeled and diced into half-inch cubes
1 cup water
2 tablespoons vanilla
3/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

Combine all ingredients in a saucepan. Simmer over low heat until most of the cranberries have burst and liquid is syrupy, about 45 minutes.

(Published in the Los Altos Town Crier)

Tuesday, December 1, 2009



Hi, I'm Megan. Welcome to Via Viands!

I live with Cary (boyfriend and dishwasher extraordinaire), Cori (roommate, sous chef, and Tornado of Clean), and Merry (vicious guard dog and fluffy WetVac) in the beautiful Santa Cruz Mountains of Northern California.

During a long year of teaching evil high schoolers, a former roommate wandered into the kitchen, where I was decorating a few dozen sugar cookies I'd made in a massive bout of stress-baking. She picked up a cookie and took a bite, then paused and turned to me thoughtfully.

"Megan," she said, "I hope your next job sucks this much."

Luckily for everyone involved, my new "job" (working as a personal chef and aspiring novelist) is way more fun, and I still get to make great food.

"Viands" is an archaic English word that means "food," so this blog is sort of my life through food.

Plus, as a former English teacher, how could I resist such a pretentious and wonderfully alliterative blog title?

Questions? Comments? Email me at viaviands [at] gmail [dot] com