Every year, I whip myself up into a frenzy trying to make/bake gifts for teachers, coworkers and neighbors. I like to give something consumable, because I know people get overwhelmed with stuff during the holidays. I think it’s also nice to give non-sweet gifts, since so many people receive cookies, fudge, chocolate, candy, etc. for Hanukkah/Christmas/Kwanzaa/Festivus. Last year I came up with a brilliant plan to make spice rubs for gifts. There was only one problem: I came up with this plan way too late, and by the time I ordered and finally received the little jars, there was no time to mix the spices, design and print labels, and deliver the gifts. So, this year, I had no excuse. The jars were in a box in the garage just waiting to be turned into darling little gifts.
I made two versions: Sweet ‘n Spicy and Sweet ‘n Smoky. My little kitchen assistant helped mix up the spices:
Then I designed, printed, cut out, and applied the labels. The finishing touch was shrink wrap, which I ordered from the place where I got the jars. Of course I’ve completely forgotten where I got the tins, because it was a year ago and I’m disorganized. It was very rewarding to shrink wrap the little tins with a hair dryer (I failed to document this part of the process). For the teacher gifts, the kiddos got to decorate plain kraft paper gift bags:
Here are the mixes I used:
Sweet and Smoky Spice Rub
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup kosher salt
1/4 cup smoked paprika
1/4 cup thyme
1/4 cup black pepper
1/8 cup mild chili powder
Sweet and Spicy Spice Rub
1/2 cup kosher salt
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup black pepper
1/4 cup ground cumin
1/4 cup ground chipotle pepper
1/4 cup mild chili powder
1/4 cup garlic powder
1/4 cup onion powder
1/8 cup cayenne pepper
1/8 cup ground cinnamon
Both of the above rubs are great on all manner of meat, fish, and veggies.
My daughter informed me that I really needed to make a special Christmas lunch since I had made a special Halloween lunch. Oh, the pressure! So, I thought about a Christmas-themed lunch and came up with the gingerbread man cristo sandwich. I had never even heard of a monte cristo sandwich until I was in my 20s and meet the amazing and talented Jason O’Malley. One day, he mentioned how much he loved the monte cristo sandwich. “Huh?,” I said. Then, he told me about the egg batter-dipped french toast style grilled ham and cheese sandwich. He blew my mind even further when he told me that the monte cristo sandwich is often served with grape jelly. What a flavor profile. Who came up with such an amazing concoction? For some reason, the monte cristo sandwich popped into my mind yesterday and here you have it: a gingerbread man shaped french toast sandwich with boysenberry jam on the inside (it’s not quite as complex as a true monte cristo, but I think the kiddos will still enjoy it). He has mini chocolate chip eyes and candy coated chocolate sunflower seed buttons (held on with royal icing, which may or may not make the trip to school). The Christmas gift is two graham crackers with sunflower seed butter in the middle and a fruit strip bow. The festive red and green dried apple rings from yesterday are making a reappearance. The rest of the lunch is pretty quotidian: sliced cucumbers and carrots.
I have two weeks off from school lunch making, so I won’t be documenting lunch everyday. However, I’ll be posting on various holiday foods we’re enjoying. Have a warm and happy holiday!
Last night we had fish tacos made with grilled sablefish. Have you heard of sablefish? It’s also called black cod. I discovered it in the frozen section of Trader Joe’s a few month ago: beautiful, long, skinny fillets with the skin on. I love crispy fish skin, so I snatched up a packet of sablefish for grilling. And, oh my sweet Lord, is this fish good. It’s oily and mild and perfect for fish tacos. A little salt and pepper, oil on the skin, grill it skin side down for a few minutes, and you’re done. Three hours before you grill the fish (or the day before), start cooking a big pot of pinto beans. If you’re especially organized (I wasn’t last night), you’ll also make fresh pico de gallo and guacamole to go with your delicious fish tacos. I planned to make fish quesadillas for lunch today, but there wasn’t a single piece of fish left over after my fish-loving monsters devoured all of it at dinner. So, today’s main lunch item is a pinto bean and feta cheese quesadilla. There’s also a little salsa in there. On the side we have carrots, grapes, and dried apples. The dried apples were an experiment yesterday. They actually turned out pretty good, but the drying process takes a long time in the oven and they shrink a ton. I made some dipped in lemon juice and cinnamon. The other batch was dipped in green and red jello. I got the crazy jello idea here.
I just noticed the pinkness of the lunch, which includes three things pink: plain Greek yogurt with boysenberry jam, an apple strawberry fruit crusher, and the Canadian bacon in the the mini ham and pineapple shish kabob. Those packaged applesauce fruit thingies are quite convenient, but they’re really expensive compared to actual fruit. Younger kids also need a little help twisting off the lids. Why did I even buy them? Oh yeah, stuff like this always finds its way into my cart when I’m shopping with Lily. Next to the fruit crusher is a little homemade granola bar wrapped in waxed paper, which is how I store them when I make a big batch for snacks. The little cake in the top left compartment is Marian Bantjes’s mom’s hot milk cake. Marian Bantjes is an amazing designer/artist/letterer/illustrator/writer. Several years ago—actually, shortly after my daughter was born—she had an exhibition in our gallery at Cal Poly. While she was here, we randomly got to talking about cake (among other things) and how the typical birthday cake is way too sweet and not at all appealing. She mentioned that her mom used to make a nice, light, not-too-sweet hot milk cake. Then she generously found the recipe for me on her iPod. I wrote it down and have been making it ever since. My lucky kids both got a small piece today.
Last night we had a little Monday night feast of grilled pork loin (done smoky style like we did the turkey for Thanksgiving), mashed potatoes, mushroom gravy, sliced big ol’ farmers market tomatoes (still sweet!), and winter wheat berry salad with figs. Grandma and Grandpa are heading up to Seattle for ten days, so we wanted to send them off in style with a good California meal. Ironically, it was cold and rainy yesterday—not exactly ideal grilling conditions. But, no matter, inclement weather never disrupts a meal plan that includes a big grilled hunk of meat. Today’s sandwich has thin slices of yummy leftover grilled pork and swiss cheese. Since a meat and cheese sandwich is pretty heavy for the kiddo’s lunches, the sides are all light and fresh: cucumbers, applesauce with cinnamon, satsuma slices, and grapes.
On Saturdays, we frequently have Salad Night for dinner. I know this sounds incredibly lame, but we always have tons of gorgeous produce from the farmers market and I tend to be lazy on Saturdays. Salad Night is all about the presentation and the options: lots of little things in little bowls. Lettuce is even optional for the kids if they’re not in a lettuce mood. As long as they eat some vegetables, and not just cheese and nuts, I’m okay with that. Salad Night also usually includes some sort of delicious bread. This time it was fresh baked pumpkin rolls—the same ones I made for Thanksgiving, twice. By Sunday night, only two of the 24 rolls were left: perfect for today’s lunch. I made little Canadian bacon and swiss cheese sandwiches on the pumpkin rolls. I don’t think that “Canadian” bacon is actually Canadian. The last time I was in Canada, bacon was, well, regular bacon. I think I need to do a little Canadian bacon research one of these days. On the side of the sandwich, we have an Archer Farms mixed fruit strip, carrots, cucumbers and half a banana.
Today was a special Mommy and Lily day. We went to a morning ballet performance of The Velveteen Rabbit, one of my all time favorite stories. True confession: I can’t read The Velveteen Rabbit without getting completely weepy. It gets me every time. I also can’t watch most ballet performances without getting completely weepy. Dance just does that to me. I love it, I love it, I love it. Lunch was Lily’s choice, and she wanted to try a Japanese restaurant we hadn’t been to yet. Here she is getting ready to eat that big pile of salted edamame. And, don’t tell, but at special mommy-daughter lunches, you get to have ice cream: super delicious green tea and mango ice cream:
Isn’t today’s lunch pretty? I made some fruit dip with sunflower seed butter, plain Greek yogurt, honey, and cinnamon. The dip is so good that I almost ate it all while making the lunch. Fruit dippers are sliced apples and persimmons. The sandwich is filled with ricotta cheese, thin apple slices, honey and cinnamon. Clearly, I was feeling creative with apples, honey and cinnamon last night. Crunchies today are pretzels and veggie crackers. The treat is a chocolate coin. I’ll have to remember this lunch and make it for myself someday, because it looks so fresh and yummy.
Today’s lunch is a protein and potassium extravaganza featuring a shredded barbecue chicken sandwich, a hard boiled egg, and half a banana. The chicken is left over from dinner last night: chicken thighs oven roasted in homemade barbecue sauce. This was the first time I used my new bento egg shaper. Adorable, no?
I recently ordered some bento egg shapers from allthingsforsale.com. I feel like only the Japanese could come up with such a concept. For the record, I’m a complete Japanophile and lover of all things kawaii: Murakami’s art, Hello Kitty, Harajuku street style, and cute food. And, my lord, aren’t these shaped eggs almost too cute to eat? My kids didn’t think so, as they gobbled them up immediately after I took this photo, which meant I had to boil more eggs for today’s lunch. Making shaped eggs is actually surprisingly simple. You boil eggs as you normally would, then you peel them while they’re still hot (run them under cold water, so you can handle them), press them into the egg mold, and let them chill in the fridge. Open the egg mold and behold the cuteness.
At preschool today, I put my MFA to good use with an edible art project: gingerbread cookie decorating. Christmas cookie decorating was big in my house, because my mother was The Most Amazing Christmas Cookie Baker Ever. I kid you not. Mom made cookies for days: Mexican wedding cakes, whiskey rum balls, lemon cornmeal wafers, raspberry oatmeal bars, peanut butter filled chocolate cookies, peanut butter blossoms, apricot hazelnut chocolate dipped bars, rugelach, Jan Hagels, these crazy Oreo cookie ball concoctions, and her signature chipotle gingerbread cookies. She sent Christmas cookie care packages to my closest college pals, my brother and I—long after we had all graduated from college and were gainfully employed in major metropolitan areas. She was amazing that way.
I will certainly never achieve my mother’s greatness in the holiday baking kitchen, nor would I ever attempt to. However, every Christmas I always make the most amazing gingerbread cookies ever:
Maureen’s Incredibly Amazing Chipotle Gingerbread Cookies
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup molasses
1/2 cup water
1 tablespoon ground ginger
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 1/2 teaspoon ground chipotle pepper (omit if you’re a wuss or if you have small children)
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
4 cups all purpose flour (or 2 cups all purpose flour and 2 cups white whole wheat flour)
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
In a large saucepan, combing the sugar with the molasses, water and spices. Bring to a boil, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Remove the pan from the heat. Add the butter and stir until melted. Let cool for 15 minutes.
In a large bowl, whisk the flour with the baking soda and salt. Add to the saucepan and mix with a wooden spoon until completely blended. Spoon the dough into a large resealable plastic bag, flatten, and seal. Refrigerate until the dough is firm and cold, at least 6 hours or overnight.
Preheat the oven to 375˚F. Cut the dough into quarters. Work with one piece of dough at a time and keep the rest chilled. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough to about 1/4 inch thick. Dip cutter in flour and stamp out cookies as close together as possible. Transfer the cookies to ungreased cookie sheets and bake for 10 to 12 minutes, or until risen, firm and dry. Let the cookies cool on the sheets for 5 minutes before transferring them to racks to cool completely. Repeat with the remaining dough. Gather any scraps, knead briefly and refrigerate dough before re-rolling.
The cookies can be stored in an airtight container for 2 weeks.
Yesterday I was in Christmas manic mode: baking gingerbread, making icing and furiously designing the annual family holiday card (late, as usual). By the end of the day, I didn’t have much energy for lunch making, so I went with the easiest thing ever: a big, glorious helping of greek yogurt. I added applesauce, some honey apple butter and cinnamon to the yogurt. Sliced persimmons, cucumbers and a single date complete the fruit and veggie portion of the lunch. I also threw in a small handful of pretzels and three mini gingerbread cookies. I have a couple of small cookie cutters that a perfect for using up small scraps of dough.
Today I was in charge of the preschool snack, so yesterday I whipped up a batch of mini vegan banana muffins. Once upon a time, I thought that vegan baked goods consisted of hard as a rock carob cookies and bran muffins that taste like cardboard. Then I became interested in food and nutrition and the environment and such things, which eventually lead me down a path to plants. And trying to eat more plants. I began experimenting with vegan baking and discovered that in many recipes, eggs and butter are totally unnecessary. This is especially true for muffins and quick breads. These super delicious vegan banana muffins use minimal sugar and oil, but they taste amazing.
*Cooking Tip:Super Delicious Vegan Banana Muffins
1 1/2 cups white whole wheat flour (I use Trader Joe’s brand, because it’s cheap and good)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 very ripe bananas, mashed
1/2 cup white sugar, or sweetener of your choice
1/4 cup unsweetened apple sauce
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extra
secret ingredient: the zest of one orange
Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Spray a 12 muffin pan (or two mini muffin pans) with oil.
In a large bowl, stir together all ingredients except the flour.*
Add the flour to the wet mix and stir until just incorporated.
Spoon batter into prepared muffin pans. Bake in preheated oven for 18-22 minutes (shorter for mini muffins), or until a toothpick inserted into center of muffin comes out clean. Or until the muffins look golden and delicious. Do not over bake.
*Recipes will always tell you to mix the dry ingredients together in a separate bowl from the wet ingredients. It’s the proper way to do things. However, when I’m making simple baked things like muffins, cookies and everyday cakes, I throw caution to the wind and mix everything in one bowl. It took me years to discover this time-saving measure, because I’m a type A direction follower. I was amazed to discover that most things turn out just fine when mixed in one bowl.