I was looking for something different for the Christmas season last year.
Inspiration struck in the form of the Cookie Advent Calendar provided to me by Saveur magazine. Yes, it really was just that: 24 days and 24 cookie recipes. And we made every single recipe.*
As if baking a new batch of cookies every day for 3 1/2 weeks (or just HAVING that many cookies in harm’s way) wasn’t foolish enough, I also converted them to gluten-free versions (my husband is gluten intolerant). If you’re thinking what I think you’re thinking, no, I don’t have too much time on my hands. I DO have a splendid assistant in the person of my 13 year old daughter-with-aspirations-to-be-a-chef, so between the two of us:
And the effort, while significant, was manageable.
Without a doubt best part – really truly even better than eating them – was the immense pleasure I found in knowing that at some point in the day, every day, we’d be dropping everything…and baking cookies.
Another treat: Each recipe would be posted at midnight, but as the mag is in Eastern Standard Time my girl and I would check every evening at 9 pm here on the West Coast and find our next day’s offering ready and waiting.
All the cookies were good, but there was indeed a range of results that traveled from, “hmm, tasty sand, that one,” to “wow! oh wow! greatgreatgreat!” Many (though not all) were of a European lineage, and they were the most interesting. We all agreed that traditionally American cookies, while good, are by comparison pretty bland, generally being dominated by one flavor: peanut butter, or cinnamon, or chocolate, for example.
The down sides:
We did our best to be true to the original recipe (gluten-free conversions notwithstanding), but at times the ingredients were challenging. Among other things I now have all but a few ounces of a rather expensive, very strong, very weird liqeuer which as far as I can tell will only go for future batches of those specific cookies they’re used in…which is, thankfully, a pretty darn good cookie. If you’re in the Eugene area and want to give them a try, call me. I’ll share. I also bailed out when the recipe called for a cookie mold that I could only find on eBay for $40. THAT crossed deep into “well this is just silly” territory.
There were too dang many versions of shortbread cookies. How may riffs on a theme can there be for butter, sugar, flour, eggs, vanilla? Quite a few, we found. On that note, and on the upside…
Converting all the recipes to gluten free might be considered ‘above and beyond the call’ but it wasn’t impossible, and I’d been on the hunt for a really great shortbread cookie that worked in GF flour. I’m pleased to report that I found one! Mention in the comments if you’d like to know how I converted it. It turned out crisp, tasty, and didn’t spread a whit, which had been the recurring issue with all the other GF cookie-cutter cookies I’d tried.
After the best part, above, the next best part was that we always had something to bring to friends’ houses all month long: “What’s that you say? Laura’s having a few people over tonight? Hey, we’ll bring cookies!!” In fact, I think that’s where most of them went, in the final tally.
The last best part: We still have a freezer full of cookies. Only a few remain of each of maybe half the cookie recipes, but it’s enough to know that a sweet treat – not much, but just enough – is only a few steps away.
Stay tuned: Next Tuesday I’ll post the hands-down favorite cookie of the whole season.
*Disclaimer: Okay, fine. There were actually 25 recipes. We didn’t make the last one. It was yet another shortbread cookie, and we didn’t have the right ingredients, and it was CHRISTMAS DAY, for cryin’ out loud. We all agreed that all the Advent Calendars we knew had 24 days, not 25, so we called it a wrap at 9:15pm on Christmas Eve. Mea culpa.
Oh, my United States Postal Service. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I seriously do love the USPS, and although it’s a little embarrassing, and I occasionally feel a bit coy about this affection, it’s high time I step forth and proclaim it.
I run an internet-based business, which means I spend (as do all the rest of the internet businesses, from me up to Amazon.com) a very large chunk of my time and attention into the logistics of getting your order from my warehouse to your doorstep. After we select and fill the appropriate carton with the ordered items, we all have to consider the need for packing materials; the size; the weight; the distance to travel; the desired speed of travel; whether the recipient will be present when the order arrives, and what to do if he/she is not; whether to insure the shipment; how to track the shipment; what to do if it doesn’t arrive. It’s really pretty breathtaking, when you think about it, what goes on between that “click here to complete your order” and finding a box on your doorstep.
The USPS has been going through a rough patch lately, I know, and if it’s been difficult to understand why, I’ll try to summarize the issues, which were also mentioned here. You might have heard that the PO is looking squarely at an almost $10 billion deficit. It has come about in part because of the drop in First Class mail service thanks to the increasing popularity of online bill-paying services, the weakened economy, and competition among package delivery services. However, some of that deficit is the result of a 2006 law that required the Postal Service to prepay retiree health benefits. It is the only agency, public or private, that has been required to do so at this level – the Postal Service was required to prepay 75 years of health care coverage in 10 years’ time. Further, the USPS overpaid the pension obligations from 1972 to 2009 and has requested (but not received) a refund on their overpayment. Their deficit would become a $1.5 billion surplus if these issues would corrected; Congress is looking at bills to address them. In the meantime we face the prospect of slower service, shuttered facilities, and thousands of layoffs.
I find this heartbreaking.
So: why do I love them?
First and foremost, they are the green team of shipping.
Think about it – the postal carrier comes to your address just about every day anyway, yes? Remember that the other services have to make a special trip to deliver your package. Besides that obvious green advantage, here are a few more:
As if that’s not enough, some other things you may not have known about them:
They hire more veterans than any other civilian employer: 135,800 of their 570,000+ person workforce, according the the American Postal Workers Union.
It is one of the few government agencies explicitly authorized by the US Constitution, and does not receive a cent of tax money – all its operations are funded by the revenues it generates. It is also obligated to deliver to every single U.S. Postal address, and in many rural areas the post office is the de facto community center.
Only the items shipped via the US Postal Service have federal law enforcement protection. If you are leery of online monetary transactions and banking, there’s no safer way to deliver your personal checks.
Their annual food drive, “Stamp Out Hunger,” surpassed 1 billion lbs. of food collected in 2010 after 18 years of this annual event. Held every year on the second Saturday in May (May 12 this year) it has become a major source of non-perishables for food banks across the country.
Personally, I like the US Postal Service because I like their website better than the website of those guys in brown shorts.
And the postal carriers are the underrated masters of navigation in your neighborhood. If I’m ever in a new part of town and I’m lost, or I’m unable to find a business or a house, or if I want to find the homes for sale in a particular neighborhood, or I want to know where I can get a cup of coffee, or my gas tank is about to hit empty, I KNOW that I can ask the postal carrier and he or she will set me straight, every single time.
How can you help remedy the sorry situation the Postal Service finds itself?
First of all, use the postal service to ship packages when you can. For cross-country shipping they may be a day or two slower than the other guys for the standard, every day, ground shipping option (parcel post in USPS parlance) but you’ll probably find they are cheaper in many cases. If you’re shipping within about a 500 mile radius, you might even find the faster service (Priority Mail) is cheaper, not to mention faster than the other ground services, and their flat-rate cartons are free!
Second, buy your postage online. Besides the fact that you’ll avoid the lines at the P.O., you’ll get a bit of a discount. What’s more, it’s really easy, and even kind of thrilling to see postage come out of the printer. Even though you’ve paid for it, it feels a bit like printing money, or at least what I think printing money would feel like if I did that. The down side of printing your postage is that you may get cold stares from the unfortunates that are waiting in line at the P.O. when you breeze past them to the counter and drop off your packages.
Third, contact your congressional representative and let them know that you do care to keep the Postal Service operating at its current level of service.
So, in honor of the mighty men and women in blue stripey shirts and black socks with shorts and whatnot, I’m offering free shipping all the time to orders of $80.00 or more. That’s two lunchboxes, in most cases (for two smalls you’d have to throw in a couple extra food containers, which is usually a good idea anyway – have one at work, have one in the dishwasher). It’s the least I can do to keep those fine men and women going!
Some days I just can’t do much.
‘Worked all weekend at the Good Earth Show (it was wonderful!) but I’m still trying to get my energy back.
Could it be that my achy, snuffly, feverish daughter has passed her bug over to me? ‘Hope not…time will tell. In the meantime, I need to power down, take it easy, recoup for a few days. But I’ve got the van to unload, inventory to check in, receipts to tally…and a turkey carcass in my fridge to deal with.
The turkey will be the easy part. While I tackle the rest of the post-show chores, I’ll make stock.
If you haven’t tried it before, I’d like to nudge you – gently – to try making your own stock. Really, it’s about as difficult as sorting, washing, drying and folding a load of laundry – you’ve pulled that off a few times, yes? – and the results are so very worth it. It’s the gastronomic equivalent of throwing a blanket over your shoulders, and given the season and our precarious health conditions this week it’s exactly what we all need.
You may ask, “what are you doing with a turkey in the fridge in January?” A fair question. Turkey is a cheap, healthy protein source, and if you have a large enough freezer I highly recommend buying a couple turkeys in November and cooking them up over the winter.
When you cook a turkey, toss the parts that you might not use – neck and giblets – in a container, and freeze them. When you have finished enjoying all the cooked parts of the bird, throw all the remaining stuff – bones, skin, whatever – in the container as well. NOTE WELL that you have raw and cooked pieces in this container. They will all eventually be cooked together, but until they land in the stockpot treat them as raw meat.
I usually wait to make stock until I have at least five or six pounds of parts and pieces. A single big turkey will provide this; if you’d like to make chicken stock this recipe will work nicely, but you may have to collect two or three chickens’ worth of goods to have enough to go to the trouble of making stock. However, if you don’t have a really big stock pot, this will all work fine with just a couple pounds of bird.
1. Weigh the frozen turkey pieces to the nearest pound or so, and put them (still frozen is fine) into the biggest pot in the house. Place the pot on the stove now; once everything is in the pot it will be pretty heavy!
2. For every POUND of parts and pieces, add:
3. Turn on the heat, bring to a boil, lower to a simmer, partially cover the pot with a lid, and leave it alone for an hour or two. If you are nosy you can give it a stir occasionally. Your house will smell heavenly.
4. If you wish to add parsley or basil, they are wonderful in stock but only need to be added in the last half hour or so.
5. I usually leave mine to simmer for about 3 hours, but there’s no rocket science to stock. The only guideline I’d offer is that it will need at least an hour.
6. When you think you’re ready to deal with the next step (after 1 to 3 hours of simmering), turn off the heat. Set a colander over the next-largest pot in the house, and place it next to the stockpot. Start moving everything solid – meat, bones, vegetables – with tongs or a large slotted spoon into the colander and let drain for a minute. The stuff in the colander, once it’s drained, can be pitched – I double bag these leftovers before they go in the garbage. It will be hot, messy work, but will make the stock pot a little easier to handle. Keep doing this until you have removed and drained a significant portion of the solids.
7. Now you’re ready to salt the stock. Starting by adding about a 1/2 t salt for every quart of water, stir, and taste the results. Keep going until you’re satisfied, but don’t overdo it – it’s easier to under-salt now and add more when you’re ready to use the stock.
8. Finally, drain the rest of the stock through the colander to remove the last of the solids, working in batches if necessary.
What you will now have is pot full of liquid gold. Divide it into freezer containers, label it, and stash it in the freezer, where it will last for at least 6 months. That which you refrigerate should be used within a week. I freeze pints and quarts, mostly, though some recommend freezing small quantities in ice cube trays to have them handy to chuck into sauces as needed. I’ve just never had occasion to use less than a half a cup at a time, and even then I don’t mind having extra stock in the fridge for a couple days. It makes a perfect rainy-day, low-energy light snack on days…just like today.
‘Ever get the feeling like the dinner-making well has run dry?
I’ve been trying to nudge that afternoon routine out of a rut lately. As the primary cook in the household I try, with all good intentions…
it’s all just tapped me out.
Did I forget to mention that my husband is gluten intolerant too, so I get to do all the above AND convert dishes as necessary to make them wheat, oats, barley and rye-free?
This is where the menu planning service Food on the Table has been a godsend. With some initial setup I can peruse a database of recipes and create menus for the upcoming days. Since Food on the Table uploads the circulars from my local grocery stores I can hone in on recipes that will use sale items. I can also enter my own recipes and family favorites – useful, that. Then Food on the Table generates a shopping list from my selections.
In my case I use the service less for every last detail of a meal and a shopping trip, and more for inspiration and organization. It’s become my palette for thinking through dinners for the week: I see what’s on sale, I recall what I have in the fridge to use up, I hone in on a cuisine category (vegetarian, pasta, etc. – they even let me indicate a gluten free dietary restriction), and without fail, something – and often something I’d never thought of trying – surfaces as the next couple days’ worth of dinner. What’s more, I can throw the leftovers in the lunchboxes the next day!
If inspiration is that missing piece to your meal planning efforts, I have great news: If you buy a lunchbox this weekend either at the website or at the Good Earth Home, Garden and Living Show, you will automatically be entered in a drawing to win A MONTH OF LUNCH. Here’s what you’d get:
The fine print: Contest runs from noon Friday January 20, 2012, and concludes midnight Sunday, January 22, 2012. To be entered in the drawing you must purchase a small, medium, or large complete lunchbox set while the contest is underway from the booth at the Good Earth Show or on the website. One entry per complete lunchbox set purchased. Winner will be drawn and contacted Monday, January 23, 2012.
By “month” we mean “a month of weekdays”, since most packed lunches are carried on weekdays, not weekends. Thus $75 / $3.75 a lunch = 20 lunches, or 4 weeks of 5 days each.
You may get gift certificates to more than one store, as long as the total of all gift certificates is no more than $75. Gift certificates will be mailed to the contest winner, and winner will be notified via email about how to sign up for the Food on the Table subscription.
Did I mention? Lunchsense will be staking out a booth (#1112) at the Good Earth Home, Garden and Living Show this weekend, so if you are in the Eugene area please stop by and say hello! It’s a fun show and a wonderful bunch of exhibitors and presenters, so you’ll be certain to find a new idea or two.
I wish I could show you her big smile too, but alas! I would rather protect her privacy.
I brought Lunchsense to a marvelous trade show in San Francisco a few Novembers ago. Lovely bunch of people there, and I think half the population stopped by to check out the lunchbox wares. This was the first show I had ever done solo, though, so I didn’t get many opportunities to take a break. This was fine, since everyone was just great…but I did get hungry.
Is this enough?”
I’m really hungry, but I can’t break away from the booth. Bring me something for dinner and the lunchbox is yours.”
What do you want? Here’s what I could find, and how much everything cost.”
Do want something to drink with that?”
I ordered up a beverage and she dashed off one more time through the crowd.