Happy New Year

Now is the time to free the heart,
Let all intentions and worries stop,
Free the joy inside the self,
Awaken to the wonder of your life.

Open your eyes and see the friends
Whose hearts recognize your face as kin,
Those whose kindness watchful and near,
Encourages you to live everything here.

See the gifts the years have given,
Things your effort could never earn,
The health to enjoy who you want to be
And the mind to mirror- mystery.
A good beginning is half the work.
- Fr. John O'Donohue

Wishing you a blessed and joy filled New Year!

Leaving with Gratitude

Prague is a gorgeous city. That sentence does not adequately describe the beauty of the place. It is near picture perfect on every turn. I quickly ran out of words to describe its grandeur.

Lovely, stunning, magnificent, enchanting, charming, beautiful.....Next time I'm out for a walk I need to bring my thesaurus.
A candle light memorial to Vaclav Havel, the former President of the Czech Republic, who passed away our first evening in Prague

A view from St. Charles Bridge. Absolute charm.

The Astronomical Clock. An absolute must see. Sit in the cafe, drink a little gluhwien 
and watch the show.

St. Vitus Cathedral. I never grow tired of this cathedral and see new details with every visit.

And as beautiful as the city is, it is all the richer for the friends we shared the holiday with.

Tomorrow morning we leave Prague and will be meeting some friends in France. It has only been four months since we've seen them, but it feels much, much longer. We are just chomping at the bit to get there, squeeze them tight, and talk long into the night. I can't wait to hear our kids in the next room laughing and falling into the comfortable banter that comes when you are with people you love.

I would however be remiss in moving on without saying thank you to our Prague hosts. This may seem unusual to many of you, but we don't know them. We've never even met them. They are the neighbor of friends of ours who live here. Our friends asked if we could possibly stay in their apartment while were visiting and they were quite happy for us to do so. Their only request was that we water their plants. This is an act of hospitality that I do hope we can return, so BB, if you are reading this, I do hope that you and your husband will come to Tunisia so that we may repay the favor!

As we leave, amidst the cleaning and the packing, we made some muffins to leave in their freezer. We have other gifts too, none of it very extravagant, but things that are given with a lot of gratitude.

Oatmeal Muffins with Crystallized Ginger and Dried Cherries
makes 18 muffins
1 cup oatmeal
1 cup plain yogurt
¼ cup granulated sugar
¾ cup dark brown sugar
2 eggs
½ cup vegetable oil
1 ½ teaspoons vanilla extract
1 ½ teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice
2 cups all purpose flour
½ cup desiccated coconut
¼ cup finely chopped crystallized ginger
½ cup finely chopped dried cherries
coarse sugar or granola for topping

Preheat oven to 350. Line muffin pan with paper liners.

In a large mixing bowl combine the oatmeal and yogurt and set aside for 30 minutes.
To the oatmeal mixture add the sugars, eggs, vegetable oil, vanilla extract and mix thoroughly.
Add the flour, baking soda, salt, pumpkin pie spice, and coconut and stir until just combined, there may be some lumps and streaks of flour still.  Gently fold in the ginger and cherries.
Fill muffin cups 2/3 full, top with a generous sprinkling of sugar or granola and bake for 20 minutes or until the tops are lightly browned and they spring back when touched.

If you give a mousse a cookie

Your life will be forever changed.

On Christmas Day I was a little melancholy. I don't think that I am alone in that feeling. There was a wistful nostalgia for Christmas past, a feeling that I could never really get traction on the holiday spirit this year, and well, we are just exhausted from the past few months.

After trekking across Eastern Europe for the past week, yesterday we just stayed put. We relaxed, caught up on reading, napped, and watched a few Christmas movies. We checked in with family far away and snuggled up to the ones nearby. And then after dinner we laughed great rumbling belly laughs which is the best medicine!

We traveled to Prague with friends and Julie has been feeding us well this week. Yesterday she made a variation of some short ribs that she had made for her husbands birthday a while back. Instead of the ribs we picked out a pork shoulder and it was excellent. We also ate potatoes mashed with celery root and Emmenthaler, green beans and roasted radicchio. Those were separate dishes by the way, that would be some sort of funky mashed potatoes if you included the beans and the radicchio. It was as always a lovely meal. To finish, I made a chocolate mousse. I wanted something crunchy to offset the mousse and while Julie and I were closing out Marks and Spencer I found some Dark Chocolate and Ginger Florentines. They were perfect, the almonds paired well with the Amaretto liqueur in the mousse and I just think that ginger and chocolate play nicely together.

I followed the recipe from Jamie Oliver's website but didn't serve the mousse with the cherries and sesame cookies. Other than an unfortunate, but not disastrous, mishap with what I thought was whipping cream (It was half and half which does not whip, and the grocery was closed. In my defense I don't read Czech) the mousse came together easily and with out a lot of fuss.

Life changing? Well I think that may be asking a lot of the mousse, but it was really, really, very scrumptious. Now if you are game to make your own Florentines I'd give this recipe from The Curious Baker a whirl. In fact, I'm planning on it.

Delicious Chocolate Mousse
From Jamie Oliver

300g good quality dark chocolate (70% cocoa solids), broken into small pieces
Sea salt
8 large eggs, preferably free-range or organic
100g caster sugar (4½ heaped tablespoons)
300ml double cream
2 tablespoons good-quality cocoa powder, plus extra for dusting
2 packs of sesame snaps
400 grams of dried sour cherries

1. Place the dark chocolate and a tiny pinch of salt in a heatproof bowl and sit it over a pan of gently simmering water, making sure the water doesn’t touch the base of the bowl. Leave to slowly melt, stirring occasionally.
2. Meanwhile, separate your eggs so you have the whites in one bowl and the yolks in another. Add the sugar to the bowl of yolks and beat until the sugar has dissolved and its silky and smooth. Whisk the whites with a tiny pinch of salt until they form soft peaks – you should be able to hold the bowl upside down over your head without them falling out! In a third bowl, beat the cream until slightly thick and just whipped.
3. Once the chocolate has melted, carefully lift the bowl out of the pan. Add 75ml (3 shots) of amaretto and the cocoa powder to your bowl of yolks and mix well. (I did not have cocoa powder, I used an additional 200 grams of dark chocolate melted to the egg yolks) Tip in the cream and mix again, then fold through the melted chocolate until it’s well combined and a gorgeous colour. Finish by tipping in the egg whites, and then keep folding, from the outside in in a figure-of-eight until the mix is smooth and evenly coloured. It will look a bit dodgy at first, but trust me it will come together. Spoon or ladle the mousse into a big serving bowl or divide between little glasses or cappuccino cups and pop in the fridge for an hour or two until set.
4. Just before you’re ready to serve, give the mousse a lovely dusting of cocoa. Pop your dried cherries in a small pan, add a wineglass of amaretto then top with enough water to cover. Put on the heat and bring to the boil, then turn the heat off and leave to stand for a bit. This will bring the cherries back to life. Leaving them in the packet, bash up your sesame snaps in a pestle and mortar. Tip them out, and break up any larger bits that are left so its nutty with a caramelly kick and a bit of a crunch. Serve this in the mortar next to your chocolate mousse with a bowl of those beautiful cherries on the side so everyone can dig in and help themselves. It may look a bit rustic, but honestly, it’s the best chocolate mousse I’ve ever tasted!

Cooks note: The only changes I made were as follows. I did not have cocoa powder, I used an extra 200grams of dark chocolate (70% Lindt) and I did not serve this with cherries and the sesame snaps. I garnished the mousse with Dark Chocolate and Ginger Florentines from Marks and Spencer, but make your own, you'll be glad you did.

For Ever Let This Place Be

We went to Auschwitz and Birkenau, the infamous Nazi concentration/extermination camps. I have been before but still find myself caught off guard and startled by the barbarity and anguish of the place.

We were the first visitors of the day. Snow had fallen the night before. It was cold, a cold that takes your breath away and moves quickly to your bones. Polish winters are unforgiving. The morning's fog had not lifted making the camp feel ghostlike and invisible. The atmosphere was eerie, frightening, despairing.  In the distance we could hear dogs barking and gun shots from hunters.

I asked my friend how a place like this could ever be redeemed. It can't she said. It is to be forever a place of wailing and lament.

Christmas Spirit

I found my Christmas Spirit. It was hiding in Eastern Europe. Who knew.

Christmas while living overseas is always a little bit complicated. It is nearly impossible to conjure up the sentiment and traditions of your past, try as you may. When we lived in Singapore there was no change of seasons to set the mood. There were still decorations around the city and Christmas carols playing at the malls, but there weren't any cedar boughs, fires giving off their warmth, or the scent of mulling spices filling the house with their friendly inviting scent. You learned to trade in the pine trees and snow for palm trees and surfing. You learned to find some new traditions to incorporate with the old. Now we live in a country that does not celebrate Christmas, and the lack of acknowledgment of the holiday has left me feeling a little disjointed.

All the more reason to get back to the real meaning of Christmas. Christmas is not found in the cedar boughs, the carols, or the external trappings of the holiday that we surround ourselves with. It is the culmination of Advent, the celebration that God did indeed come near.
"God came to us because he wanted to join us on the road, to listen to our story, and to help us realize that we are not walking in circles but moving towards the house of peace and joy.  This is the great mystery of Christmas that continues to give us comfort and consolation: we are not alone on our journey.  The God of love who gave us life sent his only Son to be with us at all times and in all places, so that we never have to feel lost but always can trust that he walks with us.
Christmas is the renewed invitation not to be afraid and to let him-whose love is greater than our own hearts and minds can comprehend-be our companion"
- Henri Nouwen, Gracias
And so, in the Christmas Markets of Europe, strolling arm and arm with my husband, breaking bread and sharing a glass of wine with friends I found my Christmas Spirit. I have friends for the journey, a family that fills my heart with immense comfort and affection, and a God who is audacious in His love for me. 

Merry Christmas!

Time for a little travel......

I'm heading out with my family in the morning. We are in search of a white Christmas! After lots of Christmases spent in the tropics, on beaches, and swatting mosquitoes, we are headed north to colder weather and with our fingers (and toes) crossed that we'll see a little snow.

We are flying in to Vienna tomorrow morning then we are planning to catch up with friends in Prague and Strasbourg. We will see the sights and of course sample some great food. We will be searching out the best pierogis, sausages, hot chocolate and mulled wine that can be found. To round it all out of course will be some pastries, those multi layered, sinfully creamy confections that you mean to share with someone, but really you end up eating the whole thing yourself.

Thank goodness there will be lots of walking involved.

This morning I made some muffins for the girls and their friends. I planned to snap a few photos but they were all eaten before I could get my camera. I believe that to be a resounding endorsement! The LA Times posted their best recipes from the past 26 years, this little gem was among them.

Winery's Oatmeal-Coconut Muffins
1 cup rolled oats
1 cup buttermilk
1 cup flour
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
½ cup vegetable oil
½ cup dark brown sugar, packed
1 egg
¾ cup shredded coconut, toasted, see note*
Raspberry preserves

In a medium mixing bowl combine the oats and buttermilk. Let them soak for at least 30 minutes. Meanwhile toast the coconut, see note*. Into another medium mixing bowl place the flour, salt, baking soda and baking powder. Whisk together well and set aside. Into the oatmeal mixture add the vegetable oil, brown sugar, egg and coconut, and stir well to combine. Blend in the dry ingredients, mixing only enough to moisten. Spoon the batter into a muffin tin that has been lined with papers. Using small teaspoon, place preserves in center of each muffin and cover with a bit of the batter.  Bake at 350 degrees 20 minutes. Makes 1 dozen.

*Toasting coconut: Place the coconut in a dry sauté pan over medium high heat and stir constantly. As the coconut begins to brown continue cooking until it reaches the desired color. I like mine pretty dark, I toasted my coconut for about 8 minutes.

You Know You Got to Have Friends

Sing along with me......

You know you got to have friends
The feelings oh so strong
You got to have friends
To make that day last long
I had some friends, but they're gone
Something' came and took them away
And from the dusk 'til the dawn
Here is where I'll stay

Standing at the end of the road boys,
Waitin' for my new friends to come
I don't care if I'm hungry or cold
I got to get me some of them

When we made the decision to leave Singapore and move to Tunisia we left a lot of friends behind. I'm so grateful that we live in the day and age of Skype, and email. I'm also grateful that my friends are adventurous and like to travel. That means, I could leave with the assurance that there will be visitors.

We also left Singapore knowing that friends would be headed to Tunisia with us, and that we had dear friends waiting for us there. You feel much more confident having someones hand to hold whether that is a husband, a parent or a friend. The world isn't quite so big and scary with a friend by your side.

Tonight we are gathering with friends to celebrate a birthday, to congratulate each other on a job well done, to mark the beginning of a Merry and Bright Holiday. There will be new friends, old friends, friends who fit your hand like a worn glove, friends who we are just beginning to fold into our lives.
Like the song says.....You know you got to have friends.

For Lauren, Happy Birthday Friend!

Mexican Chocolate Cake
Gourmet | April 2004

For cake
2 sticks unsalted butter
½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
¾ cup water
2 cups granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1/2 cup well-shaken buttermilk
2 tablespoons vanilla
1 teaspoon coffee extract
½ teaspoon almond extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon salt
4 ounces chopped dark chocolate with chilies such as Lindt Au Piment Rouge
For glaze
½ stick unsalted butter
½ cup half-and-half
¾ cup confectioners sugar
5 ounces fine-quality bittersweet chocolate (not unsweetened), finely chopped
1/4 teaspoon salt

Make cake:
Preheat oven to 350°F and place oven rack in middle of oven. Grease and flour a 12 cup Bundt pan.
Melt the butter in a heavy saucepan over medium low heat. Once melted whisk in cocoa and then add the water and whisk until smooth. Remove from the heat and whisk in the sugar, eggs, buttermilk, vanilla, coffee and almond extracts.
In a medium size bowl sift or whisk together the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt, then add to the cocoa mixture and whisk until just combined (there may be a few lumps). Stir in the chopped chocolate.
Pour batter into prepared cake pan and bake until a wooden pick or skewer comes out with a few crumbs clinging to the skewer, 35-45 minutes.
Cool cake in pan on a rack 20 minutes, then loosen edges with a thin knife and invert onto a plate.

Make glaze:
Melt the butter in a saucepan over low heat, stir in half-and-half and confectioners sugar. Add chocolate and cook, stirring constantly, until smooth. Remove from heat and stir in salt. Cool glaze until slightly thickened, about 5 minutes.
Spoon glaze over top and sides of cooled cake and spread with a small offset spatula or knife to cover completely.

Christmas Cookies

I had not planned to make Christmas cookies this year. Many of  you are now probably calling my husband to inquire as to my well being.

During a typical holiday season I will make dozens of Christmas cookies. But this isn't a typical holiday season and we are having a difficult time summoning up some Holiday Cheer. I chalk it up to just moving and we've yet to find our groove. Maybe it's in one of those boxes we haven't unpacked. So... I am trying to do the things I usually do with the thought "if the body is moving the heart will follow". My friend Julie starting baking yesterday as a way to fill the time as she anxiously waited for her boys to arrive from the States, so I thought I would bake along with her. And so today, since the house is decorated, the candles are burning, and theres a nip in the air, I baked cookies to conjure up the spirit of Christmas past.

In the late 90's I purchased Rose's Christmas Cookies. It has become my Christmas Cookie Bible. I have literally made every single cookie in that book, cover to cover. I did stop myself though at the over the top excess that is a gingerbread replica of the Notre Dame Cathedral. You have to have boundaries people.

I am a huge fan of cookbooks by Rose Levy Beranbaum. Her recipes are PRECISE, foolproof, and utterly delicious. They run the gamut from traditional favorites to cookies that require special equipment and skill. Her cookbooks are like taking a masterclass on baking, you'll learn a lot but you'll also have fun along the way.

This year I only made one from her cookbook, the rest were cookies that I had bookmarked while browsing around the internet.

From left to right: Rose's Crescents, Chocolate Chip Cherry Drops,
Fudge Drops, Halva Flapjacks, and Spiced Molasses Cookies.

Buckle your seatbelt kids, here we go....

To start, Fudge Drops. They are the bites of heaven smack dab in the middle of the platter above. If you closed your eyes you would think you were eating a fudgy brownie.

Fudge Drops
from King Arthurs Flour

8 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate
3 tablespoons (1 1/2 ounces) butter
1 cup (7 1/4 ounces) sugar

3 large eggs

1 teaspoon espresso powder

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 cup (4 1/4 ounces) All-Purpose Flour

¼ teaspoon baking powder

¼ teaspoon salt

1 cup (6 ounces) chocolate chips, optional

In a double boiler, or in the microwave, gently melt together the chocolate and butter. To avoid heating the chocolate too much and possibly burning it, the best method is to heat till the butter is melted and the chocolate has partially melted, then remove from the heat. Stir till all the chocolate melts.

In a separate bowl, beat together the sugar and eggs till they're thoroughly combined. Add the hot melted chocolate, then stir in the remaining ingredients, including the chocolate chips, if you're using them. Refrigerate the batter-like dough for 1 hour, to make it easier to handle.

Preheat the oven to 325°F. Lightly grease (or line with parchment) two baking sheets, three if you have them.

Drop the cookie dough by tablespoonful’s (about the size of a small ping pong ball) onto the prepared baking sheets. A tablespoon cookie scoop makes this task extremely simple. Leave about 2" between the dough balls, as they'll spread as they bake.

Bake the cookies for 11 to 12 minutes, until their tops are shiny and cracked. They won't crack until the very end, so keep a close eye on them; when they're cracked all the way across the top surface, they're just about done. The point is, you want these baked all the way through, but just barely; additional baking will make them crisp rather than chewy. Remove the cookies from the oven, and top each with a kiss-shaped chocolate, a nonpareil, or a bittersweet chocolate wafer, if desired. Wait 5 minutes, then transfer them to a rack to cool. 

Next, Rose's Crescents. They can be a bit fiddly and fragile but the almonds give them a wonderful texture and the cinnamon sugar topping is a nice change of pace from the usual coating of confectioners sugar. I would buy the Christmas Cookie book for this recipe alone. (But now you don't have to because I posted it below)

Rose’s Crescents
From Roses's Christmas Cookies

2/3 cup blanched sliced almonds
1/3 cup sugar
1 cup unsalted butter
1 2/3 cup all purpose flour
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup superfine sugar
½ teaspoon cinnamon

In a food processor with the metal blade, process the almonds and sugar until the almonds are ground very finely.
Cut the butter into a few pieces and add it with the motor running. Process until smooth and creamy. Scrape the sides of the bowl. Add the flour and sprinkle the salt on top. Pulse in just until the flour is incorporated.

Scrape the dough onto a piece of plastic wrap, press itinto a thick disc, wrap it tightly and refrigerate for 2 hours. Stir together the topping ingredients and set aside.

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. and line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. Divide the dough into 8 portions. Work with 1 section at a time, keeping the remainder of the dough refrigerated. Knead the dough between floured hands until malleable. Pinch off a portion of the dough and roll it into a ¾ inch round ball. On a lightly floured counter, roll each ball into a cylinder about 3 inches long. Form each cylinder into a crescent shape and place on the cookies sheet.

Bake for 14-16 minutes or until set but not brown. Cool the cookies on the sheets for 10 minutes. While they are still warm lift them from the cookie sheet with a small spatula and gently roll them one at a time in the cinnamon sugar mixture.
Finish cooling on wire racks. Store in an airtight container.

Chocolate Chip Cherry Drops, because I have been told that chocolate and cherry should play together more often. This is my absolute favorite recipe for Chocolate Chip cookies and I just added 1/2 cup of chopped dried Montmorency cherries.

Chocolate Chip Cherry Drops
Adapted from Cooks Illustrated
Makes about 18 large cookies.

2 cups plus 2 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted and cooled until warm

1 cup packed light or dark brown sugar

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1 large egg plus 1 egg yolk

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1-1  1/2 cups semisweet chocolate chips
½ cup chopped dried Montmorency cherries

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper or spray them with nonstick cooking spray.
Whisk the flour, baking soda, and salt together in a medium bowl; set aside.
With an electric mixer, mix the butter and sugars until thoroughly blended. Beat in the egg, yolk, and vanilla until combined. Add the dry ingredients and beat at low speed just until combined. Stir in the chips and dried cherries.
Roll a scant 1/4 cup of the dough into a ball. Place the formed dough balls on the prepared baking sheets, spacing them 2 1/2 inches apart.
Bake until the cookies are light golden grown and the outer edges start to harden yet the centers are still soft and puffy, 8-12 minutes. Cool the cookies on the sheets. Remove the cooled cookies from the baking sheets with a side metal spatula.

The next cookie was a gamble, but I am pleased with how it turned out. I have a friend who loves Halva, a sesame paste candy, and I had wanted to make a cookie that featured either Halva or the deep sesame taste of Halva.  My attempts were epic fails and then I found this recipe. Halva Flapjacks, they are really rich, with a fudge like texture from the Tahini paste. Flapjacks are oat based bar cookies popular in the UK. You will need a scale, and might need to do some math, but don't be afraid, these will be worth your efforts.

Halva Flapjacks
Recipe by Dan Lepard

Tahini has a curious effect when warmed, because it turns sugar and syrup to a fudge-like state. This means that with these oat flapjacks, you can reduce the butter content considerably and still end up with a firm fudge consistency after baking.
100g unsalted butter
75g brown sugar
200g sweetened condensed milk
75g tahini
50g honey
100g chopped dried dates or figs (I used dried cranberries)
100g chopped walnuts
25g sesame seeds
175g-225g rolled oats
Heat the butter, brown sugar and condensed milk in a saucepan until hot and the sugar dissolved, then remove from the heat and stir in first the tahini and honey, and then the dried fruit, nuts and sesame seeds. Now stir in enough rolled oats until the mixture just holds its shape – the more oats you add to the mix, the firmer the finished flapjack will be.
Line a 20cm or 25cm square cake tin (or similar) with buttered foil and pack the flapjack mixture into the base. Heat the oven to 180C (160C fan-assisted)/350F/gas mark 4 and bake for 15-20 minutes, until the flapjack is just beginning to turn golden on top. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool.
When warm, cut the flapjack into squares and serve, or store in an airtight container.

And finally....Spiced Molasses Ginger Cookies. The scent of warm spices, a lovely chewy texture, the occasional heat from a bite of crystallized ginger. They remind me of my childhood Christmases. I chilled the dough and wished I hadn't as I like them to spread a bit more.

Spiced Molasses Ginger Cookies
From Epicurious

2 ½ cups all purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 ½ teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon salt
¼ cup finely chopped crystallized ginger
1 cup butter at room temperature
1 cup brown sugar
1 egg
¼ cup dark molasses
sugar for rolling

In a medium bowl whisk together the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and salt. Stir in the crystallized ginger and set aside.
In the bowl of a stand mixer cream together the butter and brown sugar until light and fluffy, approximately 5 minutes. Add the egg and molasses and mix well to combine.
On low speed add the flour mixture. Scrape down bowl, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate 1 hour or overnight.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line baking sheets with parchment paper.
Roll the dough into balls roughly the size of walnuts. Roll the dough in sugar to heavily coat and then place on baking sheet.
Bake 10 minutes.