Friday, December 25, 2009

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Gingerbread face-off

old-fashioned (left) vs. vegan (right): which teddy bear tastes best?

I enjoyed Laura's blog entry on old-fashioned gingerbread men, although I have often made gingerbread vegans according to a recipe by Jennifer.

What's the difference, I wondered? The vegan version has no eggs, and the spices vary somewhat, but would anyone notice one way or the other?

I had a great plan for taking a tray of each to church and having folks vote on their favorite. To distinguish between them, I might put a little red bow tie on one batch and a little green bow tie on the other.

But as happens to many plans during the holiday season, this one unfortunately never came to pass. Still, the idea grew on me, until today I baked both Laura's old-fashioned version (stars) and Jennifer's vegan version (hearts) to see them side by side.

Jennifer tells you to add more water as needed, and although I added half a cup more, the dough still was very dry when I rolled it out. Lots of things seem dry in Montana, so I blame the altitude and winter weather.

The old-fashioned dough was softer and even a warmer color, although it too was drier than I expected (the altitude . . . the weather . . . ??).

I learned that you need to roll out both versions very, very thin . . . 1/8 of inch. I made some cookies that were 1/4 inch, and although they were tasty and cakey (some people prefer that type), the thinner ones looked better overall and were spicier.

Each recipe has a unique flavor due to its own spice combination, of course, so if you are adventurous (I'm not), you can alter them to your own taste.

There is no clear winner in this bake-off. Or rather, I should say, both versions are clear winners. If you don't have eggs on hand, or can't eat them, use the vegan version; no one but you will know.

You can also see from the photos here that cookies do not always turn out picture-perfect. Mine had cracks (from the dry dough), and I don't care. I once read in one of Martha Stewart's cookbooks that even she believes something homemade has every right to look homemade. Also remember, for cookies and cakes: frosting covers a lot of mistakes!

So please don't let imperfection stop you from baking and then sharing with friends, family, or neighbors.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Thanking the mailman

Do you take your mail carrier for granted? I sure don't. So this year I delivered a little treat to him.

A gal in town makes delightful packages filled with small candies, like M&Ms or Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. (She also makes her own amazing chocolate-covered toffee and puts pieces in much bigger packages, but that's for another blog entry.) When I saw them, I realized what a perfect gift they are for a mailman.

Last year I had wanted to give my mail carrier something, but just couldn't think what. I thought he might like something warm, but the logistics of putting a steaming mug of hot chocolate in the mailbox seemed insurmountable. How to keep it from freezing before he arrived, or what if he scalded himself opening the box?

He delivers mail for 3 hours on a 60-mile rural route. Apart from regular mail delivery, he can deliver stamps or take packages that need postage. Or he'll call before he begins his route to ask if I want an oversized package delivered to the house or will pick it up myself in town.

And he does this in all weather, 6 days a week. Without his faithful service, I wouldn't have any Christmas presents!

I can't thank my mail carrier enough.

Here is a closer look at the packaging; sweet, eh?

Friday, December 18, 2009

Cookies . . . with music

Today the American Bank held its open house, with handmade cookies by the talented cook at the senior center.

Every hour or half hour, music was provided by various groups around town. I stayed to listen to the Senior Center Kitchen Band.

This musical group is particularly relevant to my blog because their instruments are things they found around the kitchen: an old washboard, teakettles (brightened with kazoos stuck in the spouts), a plunger, a washtub, and -- clever Marian for thinking of it -- a handful of metal cookie cutters strung together and shaken.

The Kitchen Band began each song with an instrumental first verse. Then, the singing was hearty and often in tune. Just kidding -- they sounded great!

I think this idea could be carried into your own home. Set aside old pots and utensils to be picked up at whim and, when the mood strikes, start singing to the jingle jangle. Cooking dinner and then washing up afterward would be a whole lot more fun.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

More cookies!

a few sandwiches appeared alongside cookies
at the Congregational Tea

My question of why there are so many cookies in town during Christmas has not been completely answered. But I believe the place you can find the most cookies is at the annual Congregational Church Tea.

Right before the big event, in the kitchen were piles of cookies, tins of cookies, platters of cookies, all homemade by generous members of the congregation. "How many cookies are there?" I asked. "Oh, maybe thousands," came the cheerful reply.

Upstairs in the sanctuary, guests enjoyed a Christmas program of stories, Scripture readings, and song. A preschool group exuberantly sang off-key, Silent Night was strummed on a guitar, and a dulcimer brought life to other carols.

Then the crowd eagerly gathered along a table where an endless supply of cookies and elegant cups filled with tea or coffee from silver pots brought much joy.

And a special thank-you to those who washed up afterward . . .

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Pumpkin soup

enjoy hot soup in a fun mug

I wanted something light to eat for lunch and for some reason pumpkin soup came to mind. I've never had pumpkin soup and wasn't sure where to find a recipe. But then another thought enlightened me: look in Elizabeth David's French Provincial Cooking.

Rural French cooking is much like Montana cooking in that it uses what's available. If you can find something fancy to brighten a dish, grab it and rejoice. But often exotic ingredients just can't be found within arm's reach here on the ranch. The IGA in town does its best, but they won't sell anything that isn't widely popular and will simply spoil on the shelf.

Cookbooks by Elizabeth David are fun to read, but the recipes tend to be squashed together, and you won't find lavish mouthwatering photos of any, let alone every, dish.

You will find practical recipes that often use plain ingredients. Although I haven't done the research to verify this, I suspect that for any ingredient you have on hand, you can find a recipe in one of her books.

Pumpkin Soup
To make a thick, creamy soup, I simmered a pound of home-grown pumpkin pulp (it was frozen, so I just dumped the chunk into the pot), a chopped celery stalk, a cup and a half of 2 percent milk, and a cup of chicken stock. After half an hour, I pureed it with my hand blender and seasoned it.

Elizabeth David went on to add shrimp, but I stirred in a bit of cooked chicken that was on hand.

The photo shows the soup with freshly ground black pepper and nutmeg sprinkled on top. (Sorry for the blurry photo!)

A tasty lunch, with, I'd say, 98 percent of the ingredients (I don't know where the celery came from) produced in Montana.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Time to deliver cookies

It's that time of year when some of us bake and bake, give other people treats, and hope we get lots in return.

I say that with humor, because this time of year we know we'll all be getting lots of goodies one way or another, even if we have to hang around the bank lobby until they put out store-bought Lorna Doones.

Yesterday I spent the entire day in the kitchen. There are so many people I wanted to thank for being kind to me, or else to cheer up because they had a rough year.

I didn't get photos of the trays because I was so busy wondering how I would deliver them all on icy roads today, but in the photo above you get an idea. That plate is going to a neighbor who lives alone. Some of the people have 3 and 4 kids, so their gifts were more like Christmas bags.

I also hoped to get more photos of the process, but what with one thing and another . . . My kitchen resembled one of those sitcoms where a budding entrepreneur tries to make enough cupcakes to fill an unexpected order for 5,000 -- inevitably the family starts throwing things at each other, although the order does get filled. I can attest that this is a tiring process, even without throwing things around, so not many photos.

I did finish off a 5-pound bag of flour.

I also enjoyed melting chocolate and peanut-butter chips together and adding chopped peanuts to fill some truly delicious Chocolate Peanut-Butter Snowballs.

I was briefly tempted to eat the stuff right out of the pan. But I remembered my friends and controlled myself. Instead I followed the recipe directions and formed them into balls and wrapped them in shortbread dough. The snowballs were then rolled in powdered sugar and baked. (See upper left corner in top photo.)

I also made Fruitcake Bars, which are really, really tasty, but I would call them Fruit and Nut Bars myself. "Fruitcake" definitely gives you the wrong impression here. These are mostly nuts (your choice), dried apricots, and dates. With only 6 tablespoons of flour, you can use a substitute and make them gluten-free.

A few people who were very, very good this year got homemade English muffins and Amish-made dandelion jelly that I bought at the Eureka farmers market. Its light, delicate flavor is quite nice.

I also made two longtime favorites: Apricot, Orange, Cranberry Bread from Secrets of Jesuit Breadmaking and Sparkling Citrus Triangles (shown in top photo) from a Land O'Lakes cookbook I picked up at the supermarket years ago. The latter were already in the freezer waiting to be sliced and baked. This is a handy make-ahead tip, by the way: almost any cookie dough can be rolled into a log, frozen for a month, and then sliced and baked.

I feel kind of tuckered out, as my dad used to say after a long day. Still, it was heart-warming to hear the surprised thank-yous. As I keep pointing out, people do a lot of baking around here, but they are just as pleased to be on the receiving end.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Pumpkin bread pudding

Thanks to a suggestion by discerning dots4eyes, I made the pumpkin bread pudding on the Smitten Kitchen blog.

It's really easy to make, and there are all sorts of variations possible. For example, I did not add bourbon; I don't have any and don't particularly like it -- certainly not enough to drive miles on an icy road to add it to this recipe.

I used my own pumpkin, which is a bit watery, so it wasn't the bright orange you might get using the commercially canned variety. But it was sooo tasty that I felt like doing handsprings. Unfortunately, I am so bundled up in sweaters and long-sleeved shirts that wasn't possible. Or maybe that was fortunate. I haven't done a handspring in many years, and there might have been sad consequences.

One thing I noticed in the comments to the original recipe is that many people are unsure of their cooking skills. One gal lamented that her bread wouldn't cut into squares. Mine didn't either, but in this recipe that doesn't matter.

crumbs being added to custard

One thing that does matter, I think, is to use unsalted butter. I rarely pay attention to this in recipe instructions, and I've never felt anything was too salty . . . except this time. The custard is quite subtle, so whatever is in the butter does shine through. I recommend using the finest butter you can afford. (I used the IGA brand on sale this week, so don't let that stop you.)

Also in the comments was a suggestion to top it off with whipped cream mixed with brown sugar and sour cream. I just used the whipped cream and sugar. The pudding definitely does not need anything added to it, but you really can't go wrong with whipped cream on anything. I sprinkled on some freshly grated nutmeg for an extra spark.

Many comments included something like: "I could eat the whole pan!" Yes, it's that good.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Baked beans

(click to enlarge)

There's something very warming about baked beans on a snowy day.

Today I cooked up products from Western Trails (see my blog entry about my factory visit, too), made and grown in Montana. Aren't the beans (above) lovely? Can you pick out the adzuki, black, great northern, navy, pink, and pinto beans?

Rustler BBQ Bean Sauce and Buckaroo BBQ Bean Mix

Moz admires the beautiful layering of beans

These products are tasty and easy to use. Also, they keep a long time in the cupboard, and all you need to do is add water. This is important for long Montana winters, where you might not go to the store -- or at least feel like you don't want to go to the store -- for weeks at a time. If the power goes out, simmer them on the wood stove.

Friday, December 4, 2009


In some ways, Tuesday was not such a good day for stroopwafels after all.

Lest you think eating in Montana is all joy and endless delight, I must insert a warning here that you should also take care of your teeth.

While biting into a chewy Caramel Cookie Waffle, I lost an inlay. Luckily, it was not a filling, which leaves a big hole in your tooth and must be taken care of immediately or you are in endless pain. An inlay leaves a big gap, but the tooth itself is covered with something that protects it and there is no pain at all, although there is the danger of infection.

A snow storm raged while I contemplated what to do about getting to a dentist. I'm still not comfortable driving icy roads, so the thought of having an emergency was daunting. It turns out, however, that I was able to make an appointment for today when the roads had cleared pretty much, and the intervening 3 days were endured with minimal unhappiness. (Though the sadness at giving up caramels will linger.)

My dentist in Columbus did a nice job replacing the inlay. All is well. But I won't be eating caramels again any time soon.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Good day for tea and stroopwafels

Another snow storm is stirring outside. Inside, it's tea and cookies for me.

Now you would think that with all the homemade cookies available that I would have a stockpile of them. Unfortunately, any I find, I eat right away. So today I unwrapped a package of Caramel Cookie Waffles from Dutch Brothers Bakery Goods in Billings.

I know many people who go gaga over chocolate. And it's fine stuff, I admit, but I'm a caramel person myself. Chocolate and caramel is swell, but I really, really enjoy caramel by itself, and these cookies make me very happy. They taste like caramel wrapped in crispy caramel. You can go to the Dutch Brothers Web site to see how they are made. There you will also learn that although in Montana they are called "Caramel Cookie Waffles," the Dutch word is stroopwafels.

Somewhere I read that these cookies are meant to be put on top of the tea or coffee cup, to be warmed to an enticing melty goodness. Try it, you'll like it, too!

The people who bake these exclusive cookies (apparently the recipe is known by a select few) are enthusiastic about their product. You can bet they put a lot of love into their job.

The tea I am drinking today to accompany these caramel delights is Nature's Peace Melody of Mint, which I bought at the farmers market in Eureka.

It's difficult to get a good photo of the label, but the serene picture of mountains and water in the Tobacco Valley in Northwest Montana is painted by Montana artist Randy McIntyre.

So although the temperature is expected to drop down to 10 degrees tonight, I am cozy inside with plenty of tea. Sadly, I ate all my stroopwafels. But I'll go get more when they clear the road.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Why cookies?

Today is Crazy Mountain Christmas in Big Timber, an open house for most businesses, who are trying to get people to stay in town instead of going to the big after-Thanksgiving sales in Bozeman and Billings. I took this opportunity to walk around asking people why there are so many cookies in town this time of year . . . homemade ones at that.

The most common answer was: the Norwegians. Apparently, Norwegians love their cookies. And who wouldn't: many are fried puffs of stuff sprinkled with powdered sugar. You can eat a whole lot without really knowing you've swallowed anything. The rosettes you see here were for sale to raise money for Rad Grad, a big graduation party for high school seniors.

The seniors were also selling other types of cookies, wrapped nicely for giving as gifts, or to treat yourself as a special person.

Another thought as to why cookies are popular was: they are easy to make to serve to big crowds. Cake might be nice, but it can get messy, said my informant, who was overseeing the cookie table in Gust's department store. Space is always at a premium in Gust's, but today lucky shoppers were able to squeeze in to taste many delicious cookies made by the employees.

Across the street at Cinnabar Creek, a shop overflowing with ceramic ware, jewelry, fancy socks and gloves, and lots of books, they were a bit slow in getting cookies out. On my first visit, I stared forlornly at an empty tray. "When are the cookies coming?" I asked. "Soon," was the answer, but not the one I wanted to hear.

Later, after hearing a rumor the cookies had arrived, I checked in again. Yes! Lovely treats! "Why are cookies so popular in Big Timber?" I asked once more. "I don't know," said the barista steaming lattes. "Maybe because they go good with a cup of coffee?"

Next door, at an improvised bazaar in the Old Firehouse, Tumbleweed Teas had an enticing display of shortbread along with many tea blends to sample. Tea was the focus, and it was obvious that the cookies were an excellent accompaniment. In fact, they are used to cleanse the palate between sips.

Some businesses did not have any cookies. I remember big plates of amazing goodies at the drug store last year, but today no one there knew anything special was going on in town. They thought they might have some cookies to hand out during the lighted Christmas parade on December 11, but that is too far away for me to get excited about right now.

I was told the 3 banks in town will soon have open houses with treats, so I may get some answers there. I know these banks have employees whom I consider smart cookies indeed.

For my last visit, I returned to Gust's to make sure I had sampled the very best they had to offer. A small boy shyly took a cookie and then handed one to his brother in a stroller.

"Why do you think cookies are so popular?" I asked him.

"Because they taste good," he said.

"Because they taste good," echoed his little brother.

Well, duh. Why didn't I think of that?