Heather’s Hellfire Tequila + Killer Margaritas

At our belated Thanksgiving gathering Saturday, we finally tried margaritas made with some tequila I’d infused with jalapeno several weeks ago.  I wasn’t quite sure what the level of spiciness had turned out to be in the infusion, but wow, these margaritas were perfect!

I became interested in experimenting with infusions this summer after Tracy from Shutterbean posted about the fabulous strawberry-infused vodka she made.  I made some as well over the summer and then dreamed up concoctions like sparkling pink lemonade with strawberry vodka and a splash of lime juice.  After the success of the strawberry vodka, I began to wonder what other infusions I could make.  Tracy and Nathan gave me some pointers and a few warnings about how to tap into the power of peppers when infusing liquors.

Jalapenos can indeed be potent.  I would have cut up the jalapenos, filled the jar with them as you would do with strawberries, covered them with tequila, left them to sit for a week, and then died an infernal death sampling the infusion if it hadn’t been for Tracy and Nathan’s advice: be sparing in your pepper usage and don’t let the infusion go for too long.

One pepper for every cup of tequila did the trick.  I found that 48 hours was the perfect infusion time; you may want adjust this as well as the jalapeno-tequila ratio to suit your tastes.  My tequila was very spicy; you’ll need to decrease the amount of jalapeno and the infusion time if you only want a hint of that peppery flavor. You’ll find the recipe for Heather’s Hellfire Tequila (I can’t take credit for the name; my husband thought of it) and a killer margarita (also to my husband’s credit) below.

Margaritas may once have been a spring/summer drink with their citrus-y goodness (outside of Texas, that is; here we drink them year-round), but this peppery take on the beverage makes them perfect for a cold winter evening.  You’ll be warm in no time!  Next stop: jalapeno-infused vodka for Christmas morning Bloody Marys.  A sure way to spice up your holidays!

Jalapeno-Infused Tequila
makes about 4 cups

4 jalapenos
4 cups tequila (We used silver tequila.)

1. Slice jalapenos. Add to jar. Pour tequila over top of jalapenos.

2. Leave infusion for 1-2 days, checking after one day to see if desired level of flavor has been reached. Strain and serve!

Killer Margaritas
makes 1 margarita; I highly recommend doubling the recipe!

2 oz. Heather’s Hellfire Tequila
1 ¼ oz. Rose’s Sweet Lime Juice
½ oz. triple sec
1 splash orange Curacao or Cointreau
3 lime wedges

1. Pour liquid ingredients into shaker. Add the juice of two of the lime wedges.

2. Wet the rim of glass using one of the squeezed lime wedges. Rim glass with salt.

3. Add ice to shaker and shake thoroughly.

4. Strain over ice and squeeze the last lime wedge into glass, dropping the rind into the drink. Garnish with a fresh jalapeno!

Adapted from Jimmy Buffett’s Perfect Margarita

Brown Butter Butternut Squash Soup

Yesterday, we raised a glass (or two) to my husband to congratulate him on the completion of the second part of his big exam.  Two parts down, two to go!  We also had our dear friends Shawn and Sarah over last night for a little celebration and our belated Thanksgiving festivities.

I made this brown butter butternut squash soup yesterday afternoon once my husband had gotten home from his test.  He went out to grab a bottle of sparkling wine at the store, and when he returned, he asked, “Is that my house that smells so good?”  The aroma of crisp bacon sautéed with onion, garlic, carrots, and celery must have slipped through the screen door and permeated the air beyond the gate to our little backyard.  He was right: it smelled fabulous!

When I pulled the roasted squash out of the oven, I almost didn’t make the soup.  Its flesh was so sweet and tender that I just wanted to eat it.  Fortunately, I did manage to scrounge up enough patience and self-restraint to finish making the dish I’d planned.

We sampled a bowl of this delicious soup for lunch with our sparkling wine before our guests came over.  I served it again that evening as part of our Thanksgiving dinner, alongside Julia Child’s tarragon chicken and some carrots roasted simply with olive oil, sea salt, and cracked black pepper.  What a feast!

The couple of ounces of browned butter poured into the pot and the spoonful ladled over the top of a serving of the dish really add depth to it.  This was my first time browning butter, and I found these tips particularly helpful.  While I loved the addition of bacon and browned butter to this soup, I’m thinking about foregoing both and substituting vegetable broth for the chicken broth to serve it to a vegan guest next weekend.  I’ll be sure to report on how that experiment turns out!

Brown Butter Butternut Squash Soup
Serves 6

2 butternut squash (about 5-6 lbs.), halved and seeded
olive oil
salt and pepper
2 slices bacon, chopped
1/2 onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 small carrot, chopped
1 celery stalk, chopped
6-8 cups chicken broth
3 sprigs parsley
1 bay leaf
pinch of crushed red pepper
1 stick of unsalted butter
brown sugar (optional)

1. Preheat oven to 425°. Place halved and seeded squash on cookie sheet or in roasting pan. Drizzle with olive oil, then sprinkle with salt and pepper. (I used kosher salt and cracked black pepper.) Roast for 45 minutes-1 hour depending on size of squash. They are done with they are slightly brown and tender enough to scoop out their flesh with a spoon.

2. In a large pot over medium heat, add about a tablespoon of olive oil and cook the bacon until nearly crisp. Add the onions and garlic and sautée until browned. Then add the carrots and celery and continue to sautée for another 5 minutes. You may need to add additional olive oil while browning the vegetables if they get too dry.

3. Season with salt and pepper, then add 6 cups of chicken broth as well as the parsley, bay leaf, and red pepper. Let simmer for at least ten minutes.

4. Remove the parsley and bay leaf; scoop out the butternut squash into the soup. Stir, then simmer for another ten minutes. Using an immersion blender or regular blender, purée the soup until it reaches the desired consistency. Adjust seasoning. Add brown sugar if additional sweetness is desired. If the soup is too thick, add additional chicken broth.

5. Brown the butter (see link above). I strained out the dark milk solids with a wire mesh strainer and then again through a cheesecloth. Add all except 3-4 tablespoons of the browned butter to soup. Stir.

6. Serve, drizzling brown butter over the top of each bowl of soup.

Adapted from The Kitchy Kitchen.

Chicken Cacciatore

For the past few days, Food Blog Land has been atwitter with recipes for juicy brined turkey, vibrant red cranberry sauces, and festive pumpkin pie.  (I don’t know about you, but is anyone else sick of all of the pumpkin around here?  Okay, please don’t tell anyone I said that.  I’m going to Food Blogger Hell.)

Today I present you with a recipe featuring a much-neglected fowl this time of year, the chicken.  You see, I’m unfortunately just not that excited about Thanksgiving this year.  Heresy, you say!  Where’s my patriotism?  Where are my zeal for food and reverence for a day of totally sanctioned gluttony?  You see, life’s a bit crazy these days.  I have this little thing called a dissertation to write, and my husband has a huge exam he’s studying for, which he’ll be taking on Saturday.  So, I think we are just going take advantage of these next couple of days off to write and study.  Then, Saturday evening, after my husband’s exam, we’ll celebrate.  We’ll have a little belated Thanksgiving bash.  I haven’t finalized our menu yet, but it definitely won’t be your traditional turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, and gravy ordeal.

Until our post-holiday party, I present you with this hearty chicken cacciatore (pronounced Catch-A-Tory in English, which brings an entirely new meaning to this dish, now that I think about it…), a simple but delicious dish you can throw together in your Crock-Pot.  “Cacciatore” means “hunter” in Italian and can be used to describe a dish of chicken (or sometimes rabbit) braised in tomato sauce along with a variety of vegetables.  Given that my version is made in a slow cooker, this dish makes no claim to authenticity (I’m sure Crock-Pots were a staple in the homes of all Italian hunters back in the day), but it was passed down from my Italian family.  Regardless, this dish is comforting, filling, and sure to please!

For those of you who are frantically planning your Thanksgiving menus and know you’ll be spending hours in the kitchen today and tomorrow, here are a few tips from David Lebovitz that will make your holiday less hectic and more pleasant.  He writes about to deal with piles of dirty dishes, limited counter space, and culinary catastrophes.  Hope you find these as useful as I did!

Chicken Cacciatore
Serves 8-10

1 whole chicken
1 medium onion, chopped
4-5 stalks celery, chopped
5-6 cloves garlic, minced
14 oz. tomato sauce
10 oz. tomato paste
1 small can or 8 oz. fresh mushrooms, optional (I forgot to add them in this time but highly recommend them if you like mushrooms.)
fresh oregano and parsley, optional
salt and pepper to taste

1. Clean your chicken and place in slow cooker.

2. Add onion, celery, garlic, as well as mushrooms and herbs if using.

3. Add tomato sauce and tomato paste.

4. Stir to make sure vegetables and chicken are covered in sauce. Cook on high overnight, or approximately 6-8 hours, until chicken is cooked and starting to fall off bone.

5. Remove chicken and debone.  Return meat to sauce. Season to taste. Serve over pasta or rice with freshly grated parmesan.

Variations: Add chopped bell pepper, wine (red or white) when adding other ingredients.

Watch out for any tiny bones you may have missed!  Enjoy!

Adapted from my Mama with love

Toffee Crunch Cupcakes

I had a housewarming party to go to Saturday night, and I couldn’t decide what to bring. What does one take to a housewarming party?  Wine?  Wine is my go-to host or hostess gift, but honestly, I’m always nervous about picking out a bottle unless I’ve got a specific wine in mind that I’ve really been into lately.  Even if you know a wine is good, how do you know your host or hostess will like it?  And besides, you don’t want your wine to be one of seven bottles of lonely reds sitting on the bar that night, neglected for tangy margaritas or other liquor-filled concoctions packing much more punch.

What about flowers?  My friend had filled her beautiful new townhouse with fabulous floral arrangements, as I suspect many a housewarming party host or hostess would do to make his or her new home feel a little brighter and more welcoming.

So…what’s left to bring?

How about cupcakes?  Specifically, these toffee cupcakes.  Very chocolatey, decadent, but not too rich, with a bit of crunch.  They were a big hit Saturday night!

Check out the recipe below, and be sure to scroll all the way down to the bottom for some tips for making truly pretty cupcakes!

Toffee Crunch Cupcakes
Makes 30 cupcakes

2 cups all-purpose flour
¾ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 Tbsp espresso powder
1 tsp baking soda
½ tsp salt
2 cups sugar
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
4 large eggs, at room temperature
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup coffee (I used 1 tsp espresso powder dissolved in 1 cup hot water)
1 cup toffee bits

1.  Preheat oven to 350º.  Line cupcake tins with cupcake papers.  This is a large recipe, so you will need to fill up two and a half cupcake pans (that fit a dozen cupcakes each) and bake them in batches.

2.  Combine flour, cocoa power, espresso powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl.

3.  Cream the sugar and butter in a stand in mixer.  Beat on medium-high for 2-3 minutes or until light and fluffy.

4.  Beat in the eggs one at a time, then add vanilla.

5.  Add 1/3 of the dry ingredients, then one third of the coffee.  Repeat until you have added all of the dry mixture and coffee, beating just until combined after each addition.

6.  With a spatula, fold in toffee bits.  Then fill your cupcakes tins, using about ¼ cup of batter for each cupcake.

7.  Bake for 18-20 minutes.  You can test for doneness two ways.  If you insert a toothpick into the center, and it comes out clean, these babies are good to go!  OR, lightly touch the top of a cupcake, and if it springs right back up, you’re all set!

8.  Let cupcakes cool on a wire cooling rack while you start the ganache.

Ganache
8 oz bittersweet chocolate, chopped (I used 4 oz. semi-sweet and 4 oz. extra bittersweet)
1 cup heavy cream
3 Tbsp unsalted butter, cut into tablespoon-sized pieces
2-2 ½ cups toffee bits

1.  Place chopped chocolate into a heatproof bowl.  Heat your cream in a small saucepan until it comes to a simmer.

2.  Pour cream over chocolate and let sit for 1-2 minutes.  Be patient!  Whisk cream and milk together.

3.  Add the butter, a tablespoon at a time, stirring until it melts after each addition.

4.  Place bowl of ganache in bowl of ice water and whisk rapidly until it is thick enough to spread.  GANACHE TIP: I like to keep a small saucepan of simmering water on the stove and a bowl of ice water while working with ganache.  Since you will have to glaze 30 cupcakes, your ganache may get too hard while you are working with it.  If this happens, simply whisk the ganache again over the simmering water (as if you were using a double boiler).  If the ganache gets too thin, you can re-whisk it in the bowl of ice water.  Presto!

5.  To assemble cupcakes, first place toffee bits in a bowl.  Spread ganache onto cupcakes or dip cupcakes into ganache.  Dip cupcakes into toffee bits and press lightly, so they’ll stay on.

Adapted from Annie’s Eats, adapted from Bakers Royale, originally from Alice Medrich

Tips for making pretty cupcakes:

1.  Follow the directions!  Don’t do what I did and fill twenty-four cupcake tins with enough batter to make thirty cupcakes.  Your cupcakes will have muffin tops, and only muffins should have muffin tops!

2.  Fill your cupcake tins evenly using an ice cream scoop, cookie dough scoop, or measuring cup (1/4-1/3 cup).  Your cupcakes will all be close to the same size!

3.  Use two liners: a plain one for lining the cupcake tins and a pretty one to cover the plain one after baking.  If you bake your cupcakes in your pretty liners, the liners will stick to your cupcakes, and you won’t be able to see the cute designs!  Just add the second liner after cupcakes are cooled and before icing them.

What other tips to do you have for making pretty cupcakes?