Monday, December 20, 2010

Arthur's Christmas Cookies - Salt Dough Ornaments

"'Maybe I could still use my cookies,' said Arthur. 'Maybe I could paint them all different colors.'" - Arthur's Christmas Cookies, Lillian Hoban

Arthur's Christmas Cookies (I Can Read Book 2)

There are a lot of seasonal treats I enjoy (Gingerbread latte, anyone?) this time of year but if I could choose only one Christmas treat to indulge in it would have to be, without a doubt, the frosted sugar cookie. Oh, you can keep your peanut butter kisses and candy cane twists. When I think Christmas cookies, I think sugar cookies (thanks, Aunt Sue). There is just no other acceptable choice.

Arthur's Christmas Cookies is not a book about sugar cookies though, not really. While it starts out that way it actually ends up being a book about a recipe gone wrong and the surprising result. Arthur is frustrated because he's trying to make Christmas presents for his parents but nothing is turning out. Finally, he decides to make Christmas cookies in his sister Violet's Bake-E-Z oven. What initially begins as a solo effort turns into mass chaos as his friends and sister get involved. Once the cookies have been baked and they are about to snack on a few, they realize that Arthur hasn't made sugar cookies. Due to a mixup, he's used salt instead of sugar and he's actually made clay cookies. At first Arthur is upset that yet another present has been ruined . . . until he realizes he can paint his clay cookies and give them to his parents as ornaments.

One of the things I like about this book is that it acknowledges that mistakes in the kitchen do happen, and that it's okay. We might not always be able to salvage our mistakes the way Arthur does, but it's nice to know that we aren't alone when we put too much salt in the cookie dough (or baking soda, as the case may be--not that my 14-year old self would know anything about that).

Arthur's Christmas Cookies is written and illustrated by Lillian Hoban, half of the duo responsible for the popular Frances books. There are a lot of similarities here, not just in the illustrations but in the storyline and even the writing style. I remember reading the Arthur books as a child and though my kids are big fans of Frances I had kind of forgotten about Arthur. Picking this book up was like being reunited with an old friend. My kids enjoyed it too; even though it was published in 1972 it still feels fresh and relevant. Salt dough ornaments are still a great Christmas craft.

Salt Dough Ornaments


  • 1 cup salt
  • 1 1/4 cups warm water
  • 3 cups flour*
*Because we were not eating these ornaments, I made them using regular old all-purpose flour. 

1. Dissolve salt in warm water.

2. Add flour to the salt water.

3. Mix flour and water thoroughly and knead for several minutes. This will help work out air bubbles.

4. Roll dough out and cut shapes out using cookie cutters.

5. Bake dough in a 200* oven for 1,5 to 2.5 hours, or however long it takes to bake out all of the moisture. If your dough is thicker it will take longer. (I lined my cookie sheets with parchment paper.)

6. When ornaments are completely cool, paint using acrylic paints. After the last coat of paint dries, "seal" using varnish (we used a paint-on varnish).

My rocket.

Some finished ornaments some lucky friends and relatives will receive as gifts.

My kids enjoyed this craft a lot. However, at 5 and 7 they haven't quite developed the patience necessary for a project that involves waiting for various coats of paint to dry. If you plan on using several colors and layers, it can be an all day project (especially if you paint both sides of the ornament). What they lack in patience, though, they make up for in creativity. I was impressed with the way they chose their colors and executed their artistic visions. On this level, it was far more successful than the first time we tried this three years ago. We definitely plan to do it again next year, perhaps getting a little more creative with the shapes we choose.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

How the Grinch Stole Christmas - Roast Beast

"They would feat on Who-pudding, and rare Who-roast-beast
Which was something the Grinch couldn't stand in the least!" - How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Dr. Seuss

How the Grinch Stole Christmas!

That's right. I made a roast. I really had to ask myself: does the novelty of making something called "roast beast" make up for the fact that making it is an elaborate and time consuming affair? And the answer is yes. I make a roast like twice a year so I might as well make it now.

I hope everyone is familiar with Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas. If you aren't familiar with the book then surely you are familiar with the animated cartoon version that airs on television every year around this time. It's a holiday classic. But if you need a refresher...

The Grinch is a surly kind of guy who hates Christmas and all of the happy citizens in Who-ville who love it. (Clearly, he is just lonely and misunderstood and only acts out to mask his pain.) While grousing about how much he hates the season he is struck with inspiration: he will prevent Christmas from coming! He puts his plan into action and soon is sneaking into each home on Christmas Eve to make off with all of the Christmas trappings. But something goes wrong. As the Grinch is congratulating himself on Christmas morning, he realizes he can hear singing coming from Who-ville. Despite his best efforts, he hasn't ruined Christmas at all. The Whos may not have presents or decorations but they have each other and the Grinch is stunned to realize spirit of Christmas comes from within. He begins to have second thoughts about what he has done. Filled with the Christmas spirit, his heart grows "three sizes" and he returns to town to return all of the things he has stolen. He even presides over Christmas dinner, where he carves the roast beast. Awwww.

Obviously, we had to make roast beast in honor of the Grinch. Knowing Dr. Seuss the roast beast is probably some sort of moose or mammoth or something (the picture leaves it open to interpretation) but for our purposes I decided it was beef.

Roast Beast (really Ina Garten's Company Pot Roast)
(I did not follow Ina's recipe to the letter. What follows is my interpretation of the original recipe.)

(Ignore the tomato paste--I purchased it for a different meal and it somehow ended up in the picture)

  • 3 lb. (the recipe recommends 4-5 pounds) boneless beef chuck roast
  • Kosher salt and black pepper
  • flour (Pamela's gluten-free bread mix/flour blend)
  • olive oil
  • 2 cups chopped carrots
  • 2 cups chopped yellow onion
  • 2 cups chopped leeks
  • 5 large garlic cloves, crushed
  • 2 cups red wine
  • 2 tablespoons brandy
  • 1 can diced tomatoes
  • 1 cup chicken stock
  • 1 chicken bouillon cube, or equivalent
  • 3 branches fresh thyme
  • 2 branches fresh rosemary
  • a tablespoon unsalted butter, at room temperature
Additional equipment: French oven (sometimes called a Dutch oven), immersion blender (or food processor).

The first thing you should know is that this is a fairly elaborate undertaking. Be prepared to spend some time in the kitchen. The cook time alone is 2+ hours. Fortunately, once you have everything in the oven you can ignore it for awhile.

1. Preheat oven to 325*. While oven is heating chop your vegetables. I always chop mine and throw them in a large bowl, then set aside for later.

2. Season the beef with salt and pepper. Dredge in flour (making sure all sides are covered).

3. On the stovetop, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in the French oven. Sear meat on all sides, then remove and set aside.

The meat, mid-sear
4. Add 2 more tablespoons oil to the French oven. Add vegetables and garlic and cook until softened.

5. Add wine, brandy, tomatoes (with liquid), chicken stock, bouillon, rosemary, and thyme. Once boiling, place the meat in the French oven. Cover, remove from stovetop and place inside oven for about 2.5 hours, or until meat is fork tender. About an hour into the cook time turn heat down to 250*.

6. When meat is finished cooking, remove from oven. Place meat on a separate plate. Remove the herbs and discard. Remove about half of the liquid and veggies and place in a separate bowl. Puree using an immersion blender (or food processor) and return to French oven. Place on the stovetop and let simmer on low heat. While simmering, mix butter and 2 tablespoons of flour together and add to pot. Let sauce simmer until thickened.

7. Serve meat with sauce and veggies on top. I served toasted garlic parmesan bread alongside the meat.

This meal takes a long time to cook but the results are well worth it. While it was in the oven my kids complained that they just wanted something else for dinner, but as the aroma permeated the house they began to get excited about the "roast beast". I think they set a new record for the number of times "roast beast" can be uttered in one evening. "The roast beast smells good."  "I can't wait to try the roast beast." Obviously, changing the name of an old dish somehow makes it taste better; I can't imagine they would have been so excited over plain old pot roast.

And really, this is much better than plain old pot roast. The addition of the wine and adding the puree at the end really classes it up and gives it a rich, velvety flavor. I don't think I can go back to making pot roast in my crock pot after having it this way. Even if it does require a little more effort.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Latke Who Couldn't Stop Screaming - Sweet Potato Latkes

"'I'm not part of Christmas!' cried the latke. 'It's a totally different thing!'" - The Latke Who Couldn't Stop Screaming, Lemony Snicket

The Latke Who Couldn't Stop Screaming: A Christmas Story

I like the holidays. They may be my favorite time of year. I love holiday treats, holiday music and favorite holiday specials. I love the smell of California mornings on cold (but not too cold) days in December and all the ways my husband and I plot to surprise our kids on Christmas morning. As we head into December I plan to feature many of my favorite holiday books here on the blog. At this time of year "holidays" are usually synonymous with "Christmas" so yes, I will be writing about Christmas (as well as general winter) books. But tonight is the first night of Hanukah, so I find it only appropriate to acknowledge the holiday with one of the funniest holiday books I have ever read: The Latke Who Couldn't Stop Screaming.

The Latke Who Couldn't Stop Screaming is written by Lemony Snicket (illustrated by Lisa Brown). If you are at all familiar with his Series of Unfortunate Events books, you know that this isn't going to be your typical heartwarming holiday yarn. If you were totally turned off by Pierre and Monsters Eat Whiny Children in my last post, this may not be the book for you. If you dig slightly deranged holiday tales, read on.

A latke is a potato pancake made from shredded potatoes and cooked in oil. It is commonly served as a part of Hanukah celebrations. As a holiday symbol, it is not as flashy as Christmas lights or as sweet as candy canes. And our titular latke, who has jumped out of a pan of boiling oil and run away, is frustrated--because none of the other holiday symbols he meets really understand what he is or how he fits into Christmas. He explains to each one, as he meets them, that he is not "hash browns" and not a part of Christmas. And that what he is a part of--Hanukah--is not Christmas. He relates the story of Hanukah to the Christmas lights, a candy cane and a pine tree as he encounters them (all the while growing increasingly--and hilariously--angry that they don't really get it). Finally, after he has slumped under a pine tree in frustration, he is found by a family. A Jewish family who recognize him immediately and want to make him a part of their Hanukah dinner.

This book is great because it works on two levels. I have Jewish friends who really do feel the way the latke does during the Christmas season: frustrated with the constant barrage of Christmas and the ignorance of some people who really don't understand that Hanukah isn't "Jewish Christmas" simply because it is celebrated during the same time of year. But it's also a book for those who want to learn more about Hanukah and understand, through the latke, why their Jewish friends might be so frustrated during this time of year.

Our angry latke, as illustrated by Lisa Brown
After reading the book together my kids, of course, wanted to make latkes. Which had always been my plan.

Sweet Potato Latkes with Applesauce and Eggs

Brown's illustrated latke-making instructions

This meal went through several revisions before it became what you see in the pictures. At first I had planned to make my latkes using frozen shredded potatoes. Not because I wanted to take the easy way out but because my husband is of the opinion that frozen potatoes fry up better than fresh. And I usually defer to him because he is the more skilled cook. Then my seven year old asked if I could make sweet potato latkes instead (he has a friend at school whose family makes them this way). I had not considered this at all. However, my seven year old has a deep hatred of shredded potato products. To the point that two nights ago he got himself so worked up over the apparent horror of tater tot casserole that he actually vomited. In my kitchen. Not wanting a repeat of this scenario, I acquiesced and resigned myself to the fact that I would be making sweet potato latkes from scratch. Though I did add in some frozen shredded potatoes to balance out the sweetness of the sweet potato.

Then I ran into the problem of what to serve with the latkes. Finally, buried deep on the third or fourth page of Google results (search term: "what to serve with latkes") was a Smitten Kitchen post in which fried or poached eggs were offered as a suggestion. Having just purchased eggs, I decided this sounded like a fabulous idea.

"But can we use the Mickey Mouse egg molds?" my seven year old asked.

So there you have it. Sweet potato latkes with applesauce and Mickey Mouse shaped fried eggs. I'm still not sure what Mickey Mouse has to do with Hanukah but seeing as how we aren't even Jewish to begin with I guess we'll let it go.

  • shredded sweet potatoes
  • shredded frozen potatoes
  • shredded yellow onion
  • olive oil for frying
  • applesauce
  • fresh eggs
  • 4 tablespoons flour (I used a gluten-free flour blend)
  • pinch of cayenne pepper
  • pinch of salt
1. Peel your sweet potatoes and grate using a box grater. I started with three potatoes and used two. Wrap shredded potatoes in paper towel to wring out the moisture. Put the shredded sweet potatoes in a large mixing bowl.

2. Add frozen shredded potatoes to the mixing bowl. About 2/3 of my mixture was sweet potato and 1/3 was the regular potatoes. Mix together.

3. Using the grater, grate the onion into the mixing bowl. Add two eggs, salt, cayenne pepper and flour and combine with the potatoes.

4. Heat your olive oil in (preferably) an iron skillet. When the oil is hot drop small scoops of potato mixture in the skillet. Use the back of a spatula to flatten the latkes. Let cook on medium heat for 5 minutes on each side. I got better at this with each batch. The first ones were kind of fell apart because I didn't cook them long enough.

5. As you remove your latkes from the skillet, place on paper towels to absorb the excess oil. I made stacks with paper towels in between each latke layer.

6. Either simultaneously or after the latkes are finished cooking, make the eggs. I had to wait until the latkes were done because we only have one iron skillet and the egg molds don't work well in our other pans.

7. Serve your latkes and eggs with applesauce and/or sour cream.

I thought my sweet potato latkes were delicious (my husband thought they were too sweet and would have preferred using regular potatoes) and I take it as a good sign that my kids asked if they could take the leftovers to school for lunch. 

Happy Hanukah, to those of you who are celebrating tonight!