Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Filling the Cookie Jar

-- Take 14 sticks of butter, dozens of eggs, bags of sugar and flour, the occasional coconut flake, chocolate chip, dried cranberry or pistachio…

-- Combine with a free afternoon in a kitchen full of heated ovens, Christmas carols, and three generations of women from the same family

-- Mix, shake, stir, whip, blend, toss

-- Serve with plenty of belly laughs and glasses of chardonnay

Last weekend this recipe was put into full effect, and the results deemed itself worthy of a place in our ultimate recipe archives. Inspired by an article in the Boston Sunday Globe on the Joy of baking holiday cookies, my Gramma, Aunt Robin, cousin Julia, sister Sandra, and I set out on our own mission to find the Joy of Baking using both recipes from the article as well as our own family favorites.

Multiple hours, sugar over-doses, and sheets of parchment paper later, over 300 Christmas cookies were staring back at us from the kitchen table. We were left with tired feet, a hankering for something salty, shoeboxes of sweets, and most importantly, a great memory and plenty of reasons to make this an annual Butler women holiday event. Although not as tasty or satisfying, here are a few pictures of our creations. But just in case, you may need to grab a glass of milk.

A woman who knows the importance of quality control of ingredients.

Thumbprint Jam cookies. We started with raspberry jam, then thought to add a few with orange marmalade. Then, heck, why not make some with both! A classic buttery cookie with a satisfyingly sweet and fruity center.

Buon Natale! These italian inspired cookies (biscotti) were studded with pistachios, dried cranberries, and fresh orange zest. Not only festive looking, but with a heavenly sent scent! Shown in the pre-slice stage.

Nothing says the holidays like a nice block of peppermint bark. Chop it up and it's the perfect chocolate chip substitute. Pair it with the perfectly chocolatey cookie, and it is the perfect minty decadence!

Would you not know where to turn if you had to choose between an oatmeal cookie and a slice of carrot cake? Look no further! These oatmeal cookies are studded with raisins and shredded carrots that add great moisture and texture, and still obtains all of the warm spices of both treats. Phew! Crisis avoided.

A Gramma staple: There have been many a dessert platter with these goodies on them, and they never last long enough to become acquainted with any other accompanying treats. I was lucky enough to snag a picture of these Toffee Bars; crunchy, buttery crust, smooth chocolate topping, with a nutty walnut finish. The woman works wonders!

Simplicity is what makes these Date Balls so appealing. That, and the sweet dates, crunchy rice crispies, and tropical coconut...And maybe there's some butter in there too. Once you pop one you can't stop!

The smell wafting from your oven while baking these chocolate macaroons will have your knees buckling. The melted bittersweet chocolate added to the batter gives them that deep, rich, real chocolatey flavor you crave, all in a light macaroon cookie flighted with shredded coconut.

These almond florentines tested our limits and worked our brains. Dangerously thin but oh-so-satisfyingly crisp. The secret combination of almond and orange flavors cuts through the sweetness beautifully and the cookies with deeper caramelized edges quickly become coveted treasures.

Best served with ones you love.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Whoop Whoop!

Once upon a time…

...there was a girl, an afternoon, and a recipe. She had made Whoopie Pies before. Many times actually, many, many times before. This time was different though. A new recipe. An outsider. Butter, not oil. Buttermilk, not regular. Brown, not white sugar. Curiosity got the best of her and she decided to venture into the new. The old recipe would just have to turn its cheek and not look. It wasn’t cheating it was, just…experimentation. These things happen.

With a quick whisk, the flour, cocoa, baking soda, salt became more acquainted. They sat patiently as the butter and the brown sugar went for a complete whirlwind in the mixer. At first they resisted, and then surrendered to the persistent paddle, only to become a happier, fluffier pair.

They were shocked on how different their relationship became once introduced to the egg. And who was this vanilla character, so small but mighty? Even softer the batter became, as the brown sugar fully relaxed and its harsh granules were practically lost.

As cordial, to-be batter-mates, the flour mixture took turns with the buttermilk in joining the rest in the bowl. After you. No, no, after you! Together they were all as thick as thieves, but reserved in their sweetness and chocolaty undertones.

The batter was stubborn on the baking sheets, persisting on staying in the exact shape they were dropped in with jagged peaks and rugged curves. The whispers of the oven, though, convinced them to be otherwise, and after 15 minutes new, conformed cakes magically appeared. Round and smooth, they were perfectly prepped for their next role as frosting bookends.

Frosting. Back to the battle of butter + sugar vs. paddle. Paddle, undefeated, won easily, especially against the flirtatious flightiness of the confectioner’s sugar. Marshmallow fluff let the salt and vanilla be next, and finally flopped into the bowl as the guest celebrity. Thick but fluffy, smooth and sweet; but inoffensively so.

It took its final resting place on half of the flat-sided cakes, curled in a spiral like a sleeping puppy on its bed. As the other cake was placed on top, the smallest bit of pressure encouraged the frosting to slowly peer out beyond the circular edge from its new home.

Like a happy, new (sandwiched) couple, the cake and the frosting were even better together than they were apart. The sweet filling told the cake to be proud of and show off that cocoa flavor, and the cake made the frosting even more irresistible; leaving the tongue longing for its creamy consistency against the drier, crumby cake.

This newcomer was similar, but different. And, satisfyingly delicious, that was for sure. The girl was happy as she thoughtfully digested her new experience, reminding her that it is always good to explore the unknown, while keeping the trusted and familiar not far behind.

The End.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A Destination Dinner

I carefully sipped my mug of hot tea as the boat slowly swayed back and forth, back and forth. Try not to spill, try not to spill…okay…sip now! At least this mundane task was enough to distract me and keep me awake. Even though everyone in the boat had groggy ‘woke up at five in the morning’ eyes, the Alaskan summer sun had beaten us all having already been up for hours. The soft yellow rays shined through the small cabin windows and we were headed in the direction of their source on the outskirts of Kachemak Bay. Avery stood outside on the deck prepping all of our equipment and assigning group numbers to everyone on the boat. After about a two hour ride, it was finally time to catch some of that famous Alaskan Halibut.

I had envisioned a more or less peaceful morning of fishing; comfortably standing at the edge of the boat, taking in the scenery as I would casually reel in my line as we cruised through the water. There would be a gentle tug here and there when a fish became curious, and after a few assertive reels the halibut would practically jump into the boat with a happy smile saying “Thank goodness you’ve found me! I’ve always aspired to be your dinner!” Ha! What a daydreamer I was.

I quickly realized my false foresight when the rod took on a life of its own with my first bite. I was holding on with all of my strength; panting, grunting, even starting to sweat. You’d think I was trying to pull in a bucking wild stallion for goodness sake. I was determined to stay in the game though and any style or grace that was in me were the first things to go. I aggressively leaned back with all of my weight whilst fighting the not so willing or friendly halibut on the other end of my line. “We’ve got a fighter!” I exclaimed as the end of my rod gouged into my abdomen. This was said mostly to myself though, as everyone else on the boat was fighting the same fight. Apparently there was a lot more work ahead to win these ocean delicacies.

‘Ha! Ha! I win!’ I said as I pulled the fish over the side of the boat onto the deck floor. The newfound difficulty of reeling in the fish had of course become an instant challenge in my mind, and my competitive spirit drowned out any remorse for the innocent fish who had no idea what the heck just happened to him. “Ehh, I’d say around 20 pounds,” Avery estimated as he held the goofy looking flat fish upside down by its tail. “I would keep searchin’, plenty more out there that’ll be much bigger.” I wiped my brow and took a deep breath as the product of my hard work flew over the side of the boat and back into the ocean. Ding! Ding! New bait was hooked on the end of my line and Round 2 commenced.

Many rounds and many sea swells later, both Sandra and I, along with the rest of the people on the boat, had reached the 2-fish-each quota. Sandra had also won her own contest of turning the most unique shade of green towards the end of our time out in the open waters. “Just keep breathing that fresh air!” I told her, avoiding any comment hinting to her chameleon-like state (she thanked me later that day for not mentioning it in the moment). She held it together like a champ though, unlike the little boy also on board with us who unfortunately had to revisit his breakfast over the side of the boat. They weren’t lying when they said the afternoon would bring some large swells right into our fishing zone. That boat was rockin’!

As we rode back to Homer’s harbor into calmer water, Avery filleted each and every one of the 30 or so fish that we had reeled up onto the deck. I stood there in awe, watching him slice through each of the four filets and two cheeks of each fish as though it was with a table knife through a softened stick of butter. “Once you’ve done your 10,000th or so, it kind of becomes second nature,” he joked. “Your turn now, Lizzy.”

He extended the handle of the knife towards me. “Me? Really? Really??” I asked, pointing to myself in excitement and disbelief like an actor who had just unexpectedly won an Oscar. I stepped up to the fillet table and slowly sliced the prize meat off of one of my catches under Avery’s careful instruction. The knife was unbelievably sharp, and with an assertive slice at the perfect angle, the meat practically fell off the bone with one swift motion. There I was, breathing Alaskan air while filleting my own caught Halibut on a charter boat in the open ocean. Not bad I thought, not bad at all.

Once we arrived back to the harbor and finally got our land legs back, we headed straight for the packing company to have our fillets processed into individual one pound pieces. Some fillets were to be left whole to bring back to our Aunt and Uncle and cousins to have for some of our dinners in our remaining days of our trip, and the rest were to be immediately flash frozen and sent all the way to Massachusetts where we could share this northwestern treat with everyone back home.

That was early August. Now it is December. Really though, where does the time go? With our recent snow storms and drop in temperature, winter has definitely nestled in to stay and now I can only dream of those warmer days and long summer sun. Yet, the other night as I rummaged through our freezer trying to put something together for dinner, I spied a frozen pack of fish under a bag of peas in the bottom drawer. Jackpot! Through the wonders of freezer food preservation and our postal system, I was able to go back to August and to Alaska in one fell swoop.

Per usual, I browsed the web for any inspirations or ideas on how to justly prepare this delicious piece of fish. I became intrigued by a particular recipe named Thai-Style Halibut with Coconut-Curry Sauce. Heck, with Alaska already on my dinner itinerary, why not go to Thailand too!

The whole dinner came together quickly and easily. I stood at the cutting board delighted by the few ingredients and tasks that stood before me; chop a few shallots, boil rice, cook some spinach, simmer liquids in a pan and there was dinner! Can’t beat it. In some cases few ingredient recipes can equate to a dull dish, but here each one had such a powerful flavor that no other additions were necessary. It also meant fewer steps with still no sacrifice of flavor or dish complexity.

As the sautéed shallots simmered in the broth of chicken stock, curry powder, and coconut milk, I boiled the rice and heated the chopped spinach. I nestled the halibut fillets into the broth and covered the pot for about 7 minutes at a simmer, just enough time for me to set the table and chop the final touches of cilantro, scallion, and a squeeze of fresh lime juice. The aroma of the broth was intoxicating as I spooned it over my layered mountain of cooked spinach atop of brown rice, with a hearty piece of poached halibut at the summit.

With the first bite I was back in Alaska, tasting that subtle sweetness and melt-in-your-mouth texture of the white fish. That, paired with the punch of the curry, the creaminess of the coconut, and the brightness of the lime…my chopsticks were doing a little happy jig in my bowl! From the waters outside of Homer, Alaska to the inspired spices of Thailand to our kitchen table in Massachusetts, my dinner was a world tour in itself. Just another affirmation that you can eliminate miles, time, and space, all through the wonders of food and cooking. Happy Travels!

Thai-Style Halibut with Coconut-Curry Sauce


  • 2 teaspoons vegetable oil
  • 4 shallots, finely chopped (about 3/4 cup)
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons red curry paste*, or 2 teaspoons curry powder
  • 2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
  • 1/2 cup light coconut milk
  • 1/2 teaspoon, salt, plus 1/4 teaspoon, plus more for seasoning
  • 4 (6-ounce) pieces halibut fillet, skin removed
  • Steamed spinach**
  • 1/2 cup coarsely chopped fresh cilantro leaves
  • 2 scallions, green part only, thinly sliced
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 cups cooked brown rice, for serving


*Available in the Asian section of most supermarkets
**Steam or microwave 5 cups of washed baby spinach for 2 minutes
In a large saute pan, heat the oil over moderate heat. Add the shallots and cook, stirring occasionally, until beginning to brown, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the curry paste and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the chicken broth, coconut milk, 1/2 teaspoon salt and simmer until reduced to 2 cups, about 5 minutes.
Season the halibut with 1/4 teaspoon salt. Arrange the fish in the pan and gently shake the pan so the fish is coated with the sauce. Cover and cook until the fish flakes easily with a fork, about 7 minutes.
Arrange a pile of steamed spinach in the bottom of 4 soup plates. Top with the fish fillets. Stir the cilantro, scallions, and lime juice into the sauce and season, to taste, with salt and pepper. Ladle the sauce over the fish and serve with rice.

Ellie Krieger, 2006