Everyone is up earlier than any other day of the year to see what’s under the tree. Wrapping paper ripping, bows flying, boxes everywhere. And somewhere in there, folks get hungry. Just a nibble before the big celebration. Something special, but simple. There’s just too much going on to whip up a gourmet feast. And the cookies Santa left behind just won’t do.
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I’ve been making versions of this type of muffin for years, and decided it was finally time to work out a Christmas version. Because these are the perfect treat for a crazy, busy morning. Make the batter a day or two ahead, then simply scoop them out in the morning and bake. The deep ginger and molasses flavor sings of Christmas and the tart, sweet cranberries add to the festive flavor. I love the added hit of candied ginger, but feel free to leave them out or substitute raisins or nuts.
These muffins are delicious straight up, spread with a little plain butter or some cranberry jam if you happen to have any around. But add this nutmeg-y butter with the flavor of eggnog to add to the holiday spirit. Make it ahead, too, even a double batch for toast or waffles.
Merry Morning Muffins with Eggnog Butter (Overnight Gingerbread and Cranberry Muffins)
Makes 12 muffins
1/2 cup butter, room temperature
1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 cup molasses
1-3/4 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon warm water
1 cup dried cranberries
1/4 cup crystallized ginger pieces
Cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy using an electric mixer. Beat in the molasses, then add the eggs one at a time, beating until combined.
Sift the flour and spices together and beat into the batter, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed, until the batter is just mixed. Dissolve the baking soda in the warm water in a small dish, then mix into the batter. Stir in the cranberries and ginger until they are distributed throughout.
At this point, the batter can be refrigerated for up to two days, tightly covered.
When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease 12 muffin cups and divide the batter among them equally. Bake for 15 – 20 minutes until a tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool in the pan for a few minutes, then turn out on to a wire rack to cool.
For the Butter:
Makes 1/2 cup
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened
2 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
Beat the butter and confectioners’ sugar together until light and fluffy. Beat in the vanilla and nutmeg until combined and smooth. Scoop into a small bowl, cover and refrigerate until firm.
The butter can be made up to a week ahead.
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Prime rib roast is a special meal, and what better occasion to make this fine dish than Christmas Eve or Christmas dinner?
Merry Christmas, however you choose to set at your table, and best wishes for safe and warm holiday.
See our "Related Links" for more ideas for side dishes.
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Prime rib roast
Serves 10 to 12
1 Whole frenched rib bone in (10-12 lbs.)
2 tablespoon olive oil
1/4 cup tricolor peppercorns
1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme
2 tablespoons minced fresh rosemary
1/2 cup salt
1/2 cup minced garlic
4 cups of water
1. Preheat oven at 400 degrees F.
2. Place peppercorns in a plastic bag and crush them with a rolling pin.
3. In a small bowl add thyme, rosemary, salt, crushed mixed peppers, minced garlic, and olive oil. This mixture will be used for seasoning.
4. Using your clean hands, smother the rib with the seasoning; make sure the bottom and sides are also covered with the seasoning.
5. Place the seasoned rib into a large roasting pan, add the water.
6. Put the roasting pan into the preheated oven and roast for about 3 hours, or until the roast has reached an internal temperature of 120 degrees F.
The idea behind FEED is simple: fight hunger and malnutrition around the world by providing free lunches at school. Through the United Nations World Food Programme and UNICEF, FEED does just that – and more. School feeding is one of the most effective solutions to stopping hunger and helping children break out of the poverty cycle they were born into. When boys and girls are given a free, nutritious meal in school, research has shown that attendance and performance greatly increase.
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To raise funds, FEED sells a wide array of stylish gifts, from tote bags to toys, apparel, accessories and more. And each gift tells you exactly how many meals you’ll be providing and where. You’ll find great gift ideas for everyone on your list at the FEED website.
Cheery Le Creuset stoneware Mini Cocottes are perfect for making and serving individual servings of mac and cheese or other sides or desserts. And for every set purchased, Le Creuset will donate $20 to Share Our Strength and its No Kid Hungry campaign. Share Our Strength began in 1984 with a mission to fight hunger around the world. In 2004, it turned its focus on ending childhood hunger in America. You can order these Mini Cocottes at the Le Creuset website. (Thanks to Lydia over at The Perfect Pantry for turning me on to this one.)
You don’t always have to get something to give something. Your favorite charities are always in need – and the need is particularly great as economies around the world struggle. So be generous with the organizations of your choice, from local food pantries, to homeless shelters, animal rescue centers and even the valiant Salvation Army bell ringers braving the elements on street corners.
One of our favorites is the Greater Chicago Food Depository, a nonprofit that distributes donated food to pantries, soup kitchens and shelters throughout the area. They also offer training programs that help men and women find jobs in the food industry to break the cycle of poverty. Another is Heifer International, a global nonprofit that fights hunger by supplying training and animal gifts to families to help them become self-reliant. You can give heifers, as the name implies, but their list has expanded to 30 types of animals it now provides – from goats, geese and guinea pigs to bees, silkworms and water buffalo. So give to the charity of your choice. When you do, you will get something in return – a really good feeling inside.
I don’t know that I have ever attended a holiday party where there wasn’t a pretty little bowl full of seasoned nuts. Sometimes a silver or cut crystal bowl, sometimes shaped like Santa or a Christmas tree, usually on the bar or an end table. And there are always people hovering around, picking up one or two nuts, but eyeing the bowl like they want to plunge their hand in and scoop up every last one.
A lovely bag of flavored nuts makes a wonderful gift, and they are handy to have around during the busy holidays. And this little nibble combines the best of the South, abundant pecans and our favorite refreshment. Sweet, with a hint of salty finish, these nuts are a unique rendition of the classic treat. Make multiple batches to have around during the busy season – they will last in an airtight container for a week or freeze beautifully.
Sweet Tea Pecans
Makes 12 ounces
1 cup sugar
2 cups water
3 black tea bags
12 ounces pecan halves
Stir the sugar and water together in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil, reduce the temperature to medium and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Remove from the heat, drop in the teabags and leave to steep for 10 minutes. Remove the teabags and stir in the pecans. Leave to soak for 45 minutes, stirring several times.
Heat the oven to 400 degrees F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with non-stick foil or parchment paper. Drain the pecans through a strainer, then spread in a single layer on the baking sheet. Sprinkle lightly with salt. Bake the pecans for 13 – 15 minutes, until golden brown. Watch carefully, nuts burn easily.
Cool the nuts on the baking sheet.
The nuts will keep in an airtight container for a week, or can be frozen.
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I considered calling this Christmas Panic Pie. It is the perfect recipe to have in your pocket for the busy holidays. It is simple, requires a few ingredients you can easily have on hand, and can be dressed up elegantly or served simply.
During the holidays, I always have a carton of eggnog in the fridge. It is one of my favorite holiday flavors and ingredients, and stashing some store bought pie crust rolls in the fridge or freezer means a delicious dessert is minutes away. Serve it for dessert at an impromptu family dinner, take it to the office party you forgot about, make it in a disposable pan, wrap it in cellophane tied with a ribbon and instant hostess gift. And if you are tasked with providing dessert for a huge crowd, it is easy to make pie after pie in a flash.
Serve this pie straight up, or pipe a decorative trim of whipped cream around the edges. Sugared cranberries would be a beautiful garnish. I say this serves 8, but when there are other sweets on offer, slender slices are enough.
Pastry for one 9-inch pie, homemade or store bought ready-to-roll
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
3 tablespoons flour
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg, plus more for sprinkling
1-1/2 cups refrigerated dairy eggnog
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Fit the pastry into a 9-inch pie plate.
Melt the butter and set aside to cool to room temperature. When the butter is cool, whisk the eggs in a large bowl until lightly beaten. Add the flour, sugar, vanilla and nutmeg and whisk until combined. Pour in the butter and whisk thoroughly. Add the eggnog in a drizzle while whisking until the filling is smooth and everything is fully incorporated.
Pour the filling into the crust and use a sharp pointed knife to pop any large air bubbles that form. Shape a piece of aluminum foil to fit over the pie before you transfer it to the oven, but put the pie in the oven uncovered at first. Sprinkle a little nutmeg over the top of the filling.
Bake the pie at 425 degrees F. for 12 – 15 minutes, then cover the pie with the prepared foil and lower the heat to 325 degrees F. Continue baking until the filling is set, 30 – 35 minutes.
Remove the pie from the oven and cool completely. I prefer to chill the pie overnight, but it can be eaten at room temperature.
There is a lot of talk about the Mayan calendar rolling over to Dec. 21, 2012 and simply coming to end, which has been translated by some as, that's it, folks. No more time, no more us. I can't say that I agree, since I've already received my 2013 work calendar and everything there seems to be in order just fine. For a more reasoned, scientific explanation, you might want to check out NPR's report, "A Guarantee: The world will not end on Friday."
My first brush with Mayan culture was when I hopped off a cruise ship in Cozumel in 2006 and explored the Chacchoben Mayan ruins. That's where I found a rather modest exhibit sign next to one of the many-stepped pyramid temples indicating that the Mayan calendar would finish up in six years. It tried to be reassuring that while some people interpreted this to mean the end of time, it could also be seen as a restart. A clean slate for all of us.
I'd like to suggest that you give both theories a rest and instead actually learn something about Mayan culture. A good place to start would be with Flavors of Belize: The cookbook created by Tanya McNab and Shelley Bowen Stonesifer. First of all, the Mayans haven't vanished. There are by some estimates some 7 million Mayans alive and well living throughout Guatemala, southern Mexico and the Yucatán Peninsula, Belize, El Salvador, and western Honduras.
In "Flavors of Belize," Mayan culinary traditions are explored alongside those of the British, Mestizo, Creole, Chinese, Lebanese, Garifuna, and more. Belize is a melting pot of all these cultures and this cookbook is an attempt to showcase the best of them, relying on renowned chefs and cooks to share their recipes.
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My own second brush with Mayan culture came when I spent a week in Belize learning about the chocolatemaking process – from cacao bean to chocolate bar. After spending one morning tromping around 30-acre cacao farm in the rainforest, we headed to the farmer's homestead for lunch. Afterward we huddled under a pavilion with a rustic, knee-high stove. Some of us perched on plastic lawn chairs, others leaned against the smooth posts that rimmed the edge, and watched as the farmer's adult daughter made us a traditional Mayan chocolate drink.
First, she scooped dried cacao beans onto large sheets of metal balanced over the open flame. She used a dried corn cob to stir the beans to ensure each one felt the heat from the metal to draw out the base, earthy flavors of chocolate.
When the beans were fully roasted she dumped them out on a squat table and used a small round stone to crack the shells off the beans leaving behind cacao nibs. We all took a turn pounding the pile of beans.
Next came the winnowing process, sifting the exposed beans through a mesh pan to allow the lighter outer shells to blow away, leaving behind the meaty nibs. The nibs were then passed through a hand-cranked grinder. This is hard work. The warm jungle air felt even hotter with the heat from the nearby fire and beads of sweat flew as we ground the cacao into chocolate paste.
The smooth paste was shaped into round patties. These were stirred with water, raw sugar, and pepper in large colorful plastic jugs to make the famous Maya chocolate drink.
“Chocolate” is derived from the Mayan word “xocoatl.” Many of us know chocolate as solid bars, but for most of its history – back to 500 B.C. – chocolate has been consumed as a drink. It was revered by Mayan priests and used in ceremonies by royalty. The valuable cacao seeds were traded as a form of currency to barter for corn and other commodities. Spaniard Hernando Cortés discovered storerooms of cacao when he arrived in 1512 to conquer the Aztec.
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Expanding trade routes brought cacao to Europe where the Europeans added sugar, a sweetner unknown in Central America. By the 1700s, elite Europeans enjoyed sweetened chocolate drinks, sipping from elaborate cups and discussing politics in “chocolate houses.” The demand for both chocolate and sugar took off, eventually forming the powerful, global industry that it is today.
But Mayans have much more to offer than just chocolate. "Interestingly, many of the recipes we feature in 'Flavors of Belize' can be traced to Maya origins," note the cookbook authors.
Among these are kack'ick soup, panades with hot pepper onion sauce, and a Maya chocolate cake. While Mayans most likely did not eat chocolate cake, it would be easy to agree that all chocolate recipes could be traced to their Maya origins, and as the authors say, chocolate could be considered "among the greatest gifts the ancient world provided to modern-day civilization."
The authors have shared their recipes here, so you can host your own Mayan-themed dinner party on Dec. 21, 2012, ease those ancient-modern worries away with a piece of chocolate cake, and welcome the return of longer days.
Mariposa Restaurant, Chaa Creek, Cayo
The name, translated from the queck’chi Mayan language, means "Spicy Red Soup."
4 pounds chicken, cut into serving sizes
2 inch piece of ginger root, peeled, diced
6 to 8 cloves garlic
1/2 cup cilantro, diced
6 medium tomatoes, deseeded
4 medium green bell peppers, deseeded
1 teaspoon dried chilies, to taste
1 tablespoon red recado*
1 cube chicken bouillon, optional
Spicy red chili powder, to taste
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons cilantro, minced, for garnish
1 ripe avocado, diced, for garnish
Place chicken, salt, ginger root, 3 cloves garlic and 1/4 cup cilantro in a large pot with enough water to cover the chicken.
Bring to a boil then reduce heat to simmer until chicken is cooked. Grill the remaining garlic, tomatoes and green peppers. Soak the dried chilies in broth until tender.
Purée all grilled vegetables, red recado, the remaining cilantro and the soaked chilies. Sieve the purée, pour into the broth, add chicken bouillon, spicy red chili powder, black pepper and simmer forapproximately 15 to 20 minutes.
Serve with coconut white rice and garnish with cilantro and avocado.
*Red recado paste
Red recado is a Maya spice paste particularly popular in the Yucatan region of Mexico. A deep brick red, racado rojo is the most common, and is an essential ingredient of the region's famous slow-roasted pork dish, cochinita pibil. Use it as a flavoring rub for pork, chicken, and fish. Recado rojo can be bought at Latin markets in brick-shaped packages.
5 tablespoons annatto seeds
6 to 7 allspice seeds
1/4 teaspoon whole cloves
1/4 cup sour orange
1/4 cup vinegar
Grind annatto seeds, allspice seeds and whole cloves to a powder. Combine annatto powder with sour orange and 1/4 cup of vinegar and process to a paste. May add more sour orange and vinegar if necessary to achieve a thick paste. Store in refrigerator.
Serves 4 to 6
You may also fill with refried beans. When using refried beans, eliminate red recado paste from the recipe. Locally, cooks use red recado to differentiate between panades fillings. The red color from the recado paste, represents the fish, and the plain masa is for the beans.
1-1/2 pounds corn masa or 2 cups Quaker® Masa Harina de Maiz mix
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon red recado paste (see below)
1/4 cup water
1-1/2 cups fish filet, cooked, flaked
Vegetable oil for frying
2 pounds fish filet
6 epazote leaves, minced
2 to 3 tablespoons cilantro leaves, minced
1-1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons onion, minced
1 teaspoon garlic, minced
Place fish, epazote and cilantro in a pot with enough water to cover, boil until fish is cooked. Approximately 15 minutes Remove fish from pot and cool. Flake fish, combine with salt, black pepper, onion and garlic.
Mix masa, baking powder and salt. Dissolve recado in water and add to masa until soft and masa holds. If using Masa harina, follow instructions on package. Form into 1-1/2 inch balls. Place ball of masa in between 2 sheets of parchment paper in the center of a tortilla press and flatten. Place approximately 1 teaspoon of fish in the middle and fold over to form a patty, press edges to seal. Do not overfill.
Heat oil in a large frying pan and fry panades until it floats, turn and cook until slightly crisp. Serve with hot pepper onion sauce (recipe below).
Hot pepper onion sauce
2 cups onions, minced
2 habanero peppers, deseeded, sliced
2 tablespoons cilantro, minced
6 allspice seeds
1-1/2 cups vinegar
1/2 cup water
1 teaspoon salt
Combine all ingredients and marinate for 2 hours or overnight. Will keep for several weeks in refrigerator.
Maya Chocolate Cake
Chan Chich Lodge, Gallon Jug, Orange Walk
1-1/2 cups buttermilk
1-1/2 cups canola oil
1-1/2 teaspoons vanilla
2-1/2 cups sugar
2-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking soda
1 cup cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1-1/2 cups boiling water
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease two 9-inch round cake pans. Dust with flour and line withparchment paper. Combine buttermilk, oil, vanilla and sugar in a bowl. Add eggs oneat a time, blending thoroughly. In a separate bowl, sift the dry ingredients.
Combine dry ingredients with wet ingredients 1/2 cup at a time, mixing with water as needed. Mix until well blended. Pour batter evenly into the two baking pans. Bake 40 minutes or until knife inserted in middle comes out clean. Cool in pans for 10 minutes, loosen sides, thencool to room temperature and remove from pan.
1/2 cup butter, room temperature
1-1/2 teaspoons vanilla
4 cups powdered sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup cocoa powder
1/2 cup boiling water, as needed
Beat butter and vanilla. Sift powdered sugar, salt, and cocoa powder. Add to butter, alternating with boiling water as needed. Beat at highest speed until creamy. If frosting is too thick, add water 1 teaspoon at a time. If the frosting is too soft, add powdered sugar, 1 teaspoon at a time.
Stuffed mushrooms are one of the first hors d’oeuvres I learned how to make as a youngster. I remember begging my mother for the opportunity to make the mushrooms for family gatherings. And boy did I beam with pride when they were served! There’s just something about that kind of positive recognition that is so encouraging. Those experiences are a large part of the reason I enjoy cooking as much as I do. It’s so much more than just the food.
My recipe is an adaptation of the recipe I made as a child. I’m not sure where the original recipe came from. It was just something my mom made. My husband is anti-mushroom, so I haven’t made stuffed mushrooms for years. I don’t remember the exact proportions and I’m not even sure I remember all of the ingredients. Had I the foresight, I might have called home to get the recipe, but I remember the taste, so we’ll figure it out.
The original recipe does not call for bacon, but since I have a bowl of cooked, crumbled bacon, leftover from my Baked Potato Soup, I’m throwing some in. Everything’s better with bacon, right? If you’d rather keep it a vegetarian dish, just omit the bacon. They will still be delicious!
Bacon Stuffed Mushrooms
1-1/2 pounds large Mushrooms (about 20 large mushrooms)
1/2 cup sour cream
1/2 small onion, finely diced
1 teaspoon garlic, minced
1/4 cup bread crumbs
1/2 cup bacon, cooked and crumbled
Leaves from 1-2 sprigs fresh parsley, chopped
4 tablespoons butter, melted
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 cup Parmesan cheese
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Clean mushrooms with a damp cloth and carefully remove the stems.
Place the mushroom caps in a single layer in a baking dish. Finely chop the mushrooms stems and place them in a bowl. Add the sour cream, diced onion, garlic, bread crumbs, parsley, and half of the melted butter. Mix to combine. Taste and season, as desired, with salt and pepper.
Generously stuff the mushrooms caps with the mixture. Drizzle a few drops of the remaining melted butter onto each mushroom. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese and paprika. Bake for 30-35 minutes until lightly browned and tender.
I made this salad for myself and my hubby for lunch a few days ago. It seemed like a perfect antidote to the dwindling sunlight and colder temps as we enter the final days of the countdown to the heart of darkness (aka the winter equinox).
I was feeling a little draggy after another night of not enough sleep so I decided to take a short hiatus from my usual lunchtime fare – something bread-based, followed by cookies – in favor of a fresher and lighter meal.
I love grated beet in salads – it's sweet and juicy and crunchy. And the color is so bright and beautiful, too, especially paired with the orange of the shredded carrot and tangerine slices – hence the "sunburst" name.
I also love citrus fruit in salad – juicy, tart and sweet. And the toasted nuts are deliciously crunchy and rich. I really like the baby spinach as a base for this salad – very tender and flavorful. Although I admit that I am mostly focused on the flavor, it's an added bonus that all these things really good for you, too.
I added some grain to give the salad a bit more substance. I used leftover couscous from a Moroccan themed potluck we hosted recently but you could use farro or quinoa or whatever you have on hand. I probably would have included some goat cheese but didn't have any in the house. Toss in a handful of currants, raisins or dried cherries, splash with a healthy dose of your favorite vinaigrette and you're in business. Eat well and stay well!
Sunburst spinach salad with grated beets, toasted pecans and couscous
Amounts vary based on how much you want to make
Baby spinach, washed and dried
Beet, peeled and grated
Carrot, peeled and grated
Pecans or walnuts, toasted
Dried currants, raisins, cherries or cranberries
Tangerine or orange, peeled and sliced
Vinaigrette (I used a simple balsamic one)
Couscous, farro, or quinoa, cooked and cooled
Lay down a thick bed of baby spinach, top with couscous or other grain, layer on the grated carrot and beet, and top with the toasted nuts and sliced citrus. Drizzle with your favorite vinaigrette and dig in.
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I’ve tried making tofu several times now and the process never goes exactly the same.
I’m always surprised – the resulting tofu may turn out a little firmer or a wee bit spongier. I really can’t tell you why but that’s OK since it always tastes good. I just mix it up, using the tofu in different recipes. Keep in mind, the quality of your soymilk plays a huge part in how your tofu will turn out. In other words, keep experimenting until you’re satisfied!
As for equipment, I took out my stainless steel pot, a couple of wooden spoons, my recently-purchased cheesecloth (you can use a thin cotton non-terry dish towel or handkerchief), and I was ready to start tofu-making.
True to “no fancy equipment” form, I decided to convert an old plastic tofu container into a makeshift tofu press. I turned it upside down and started cutting into the nicks that were already molded into the plastic, making sure the slits were big enough to allow liquid to drain through. Clever, eh? You could also use a colander to press your tofu.
Homemade Momen Tofu
Time: 45 minutes to 1 hour
Makes: about 14 ounces of tofu
2 teaspoons Epsom salt
4 cups soymilk (storebought or homemade)
Stir the Epsom salt into 1/2 cup hot water until it completely dissolves.
In a large pot, bring the soymilk to a gentle boil over medium-high heat. When steam starts to appear and bubbles form around the edge of the pot, reduce the heat to medium. Simmer for about 3 minutes, stirring often to ensure the soymilk doesn’t burn. Remove any film that forms on the surface.
Reduce the heat to low. Pour the Epsom salt mixture into the hot soymilk a little at a time, stirring after each pour. The curds will soon start separating from the whey. As soon as obvious curds have formed and the whey turns from a milky white to a yellowish, translucent liquid, stop pouring. You want to use as little coagulant as possible because it might impart a bitter taste to the tofu. I usually use up about 1/4 to 1/3 cup of the Epsom salts mixture.
Take the pot off the heat and cover with a lid. Let it sit for about 15 minutes to allow the curds to separate even further. After 15 minutes, if the whey is still opaque, add more of the Epsom salts mixture, stirring after each pour. Don’t worry if the curds are no bigger than coarse breadcrumbs.
Set your “tofu press” over a colander in the sink. Line the press with the cheesecloth.
Pour the curds and whey into the “tofu press” in stages, waiting for the whey to drain into the sink. Wring as much liquid from the cheesecloth as possible.
Press the curds into the “tofu press,” filling out the corners. Or press into the bottom of a colander or sieve. Fold the cheesecloth neatly and place a folded towel on top to soak up excess liquid. Weigh down the tofu with two cans of food.
Allow the tofu to set for 15 to 20 minutes. Unwrap the cheesecloth and turn the tofu block out into a large bowl or plastic container. Fill with water, being careful not to hit the tofu directly with the stream of water, and rinse the tofu gently. Drain and the tofu is ready to be made into dinner.
To store, submerge the tofu in water in the refrigerator for 2 to 3 days, changing the water every day. Remember, this is fresh tofu and has no preservatives!
Note to Stir It Up! readers: This is an article from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) about a new book that delves into the state of artisnal cheesemakers in the United States. I found it interesting, as it reflects culinary themes and trends that we have explored at CSMonitor.com, and I trust that you will find it informative, too.
Crafting high-quality artisanal cheese is not complicated, but it’s also not easy. Basically, heat a lot of milk, add bacterial cultures and enzymes to thicken it into a curd, drain it, salt it, and let it ferment and age. Of course, to make cheese like this, you must first buy fresh milk or own a farm and stock it with cows or sheep or goats plus equipment, and spend endless strenuous hours carrying around heavy pails and obsessively cleaning equipment to make sure it’s sanitary. Do this day after day, until you have enough cheese to distribute, market and sell in a crowded marketplace. Then repeat the whole process.
Does this sound like a job you would enjoy? For a growing subculture of Americans, it does: The number of independent cheesemakers in the United States has doubled since 2000. Some of these people are rebelling against what they see as an overly corporatized, factory-scale system of food production in America. Others are trying to preserve local landscapes, jobs, and a traditional way of life.
But for all the stress and strain of running a farm and selling a product, artisanal cheesemakers represent a new version of an old American dream: people who make a living doing what they want, where they want, on their own land.
“They get life out of it,” says Heather Paxson, an associate professor of anthropology at MIT, who has spent years studying artisanal cheesemakers. “They find joy in the alchemy of working with this fluid substance that becomes something glorious, and they don’t get tired of it.”
Now Ms. Paxson has turned her research into a new book, “The Life of Cheese” – published in December 2012 by the University of California Press – which delves into the ethos, methods and politics of artisanal cheese-making. At a time when the ethics of food is an important issue for many Americans, the work offers a unique glimpse of people who have taken foodmaking into their own hands.
A sense of where you are
The roots of America’s current artisanal cheese movement date to the back-to-the-land movement of the 1970s. Many of today’s cheese artisans, Paxson found, are well-educated former white-collar workers who either burned out in their previous jobs or are living a long-held dream of farming, often in a place that is meaningful to them. “They love where they live,” Paxson says.
Take, for instance, Vermont Shepherd cheese, made in Putney, Vt., and run by a Harvard University graduate, David Major, who sees cheesemaking as a way of keeping his family’s property intact and of remaining “directly engaged with the land.” Other cheesemakers Paxson visited see their businesses as a way of preventing their home areas from becoming suburbanized, or disused, and overgrown.
Many see their cheesemaking in distinctly political terms. Mateo Kehler, a maker of artisanal cheese at Jasper Hill Farm in Vermont, has said his enterprise was a “response to globalization,” adding, “at a time when the extractive efficiency of capitalism … threatens to collapse the planet’s natural systems, it is totally appropriate to remember that all capital originates with sunshine and soil.”
And while the traditional strongholds of artisanal cheesemaking are such places as Wisconsin, Vermont, and northern California, it is a national phenomenon. “There are people making good artisanal cheese in Alabama,” Paxson observes.
IN PICTURES: Exploring the Vermont cheese trail
In all, there are upward of 450 independent, artisanal cheese-producing farms and creameries in America; Paxson visited or interviewed the proprietors of about one-tenth of them in her research, going back to 2004, while conducting interviews with scores of other industry workers and regulators – and also spending a stint working on Major’s farm, to see the process from the inside.
Still, if artisanal cheesemakers are, in part, rebelling against the economic order, their scale is not large enough to scare companies that are major producers of food. Reliable aggregated statistics about artisanal cheesemakers’ revenues do not really exist, Paxson notes. A few have done well enough to have their brands sold in chain stores such as Whole Foods Market and Wegmans, and some have developed their own regional distribution networks. Others scratch out sales from local farmers’ markets.
“A lot of these people are in it not to make a lot of money,” Paxson says. “They need the money to keep going, but it’s not about making it big. It’s about keeping going.”
Where do-it-yourself cheese-makers have been most successful, however, is in propagating an ethos of craftsmanship, and in inventing new kinds of cheese. In both of these areas, the American artisans feel a kind of superiority even compared to the vaunted cheese-makers of France – where, because of European Union regulations, many famous cheeses are now mass-produced.
In the book, Paxson relates the account of one Wisconsin artisan, Myron Olson, visiting a cheesemaking museum in Switzerland, looking at a supposedly old-fashioned technique being displayed, and thinking “today’s Friday, and I did that Tuesday!”
Camembert and politics
The regulation of artisanal cheesemaking is, Paxson says, “a window into broader issues of politics,” raising the question of government intervention versus individual liberties. Some artisanal cheesemakers would prefer not to make pasteurized cheese – briefly heating milk intensely to kill potentially dangerous bacteria before beginning the cheesemaking process – and think doing so removes precious flavor. (US cheesemakers can also meet legal safety standards by letting cheese cure for an extended period of time.)
Artisanal cheesemaking may not be a revolution, but as Paxson makes clear, it is an important part of a larger shift in the way Americans value food – and in the way some enterprising farmers have quietly rebelled against a corporatized, globalized world by going back to the farm.
“They are really looking to make a life and a living that is defined on their own terms,” Paxson says.
– Peter Dizikes, MIT News Office