Thursday, December 13, 2012

Christmas Holiday Baking: Extra Crunchy Peanut Butter Balls

This is the first year in a while that I will be staying home for Christmas. I decided to start off my holiday baking with ironically a no-bake cookie. This recipe for Peanut Butter Balls came from one of the cookbooks I got this year for my birthday, Home Cooking with Trisha Yearwood.

This recipe couldn't be easier - you just heat some sugar and corn syrup together until blended, add gobs of crunchy peanut butter (or in my case, extra crunchy peanut butter) and some Rice Krispies cereal, form into balls and chill. Easy, addictively tasty, and I didn't even have to turn the oven on.

Extra Crunchy Peanut Butter Balls, slightly adapted from Home Cooking with Trisha Yearwood

makes about 35-40 pieces

1/2 cup dark corn syup
1/2 cup light corn syrup
1 cup granulated sugar
2 cups extra crunchy peanut butter (this was an entire medium jar)
4 cups Rice Krispies cereal

In a large pot, heat together sugar and both syrups over medium heat just until blended and smooth. Remove from the heat and stir in the peanut butter until blended. Add the Rice Krispies next and be ready to work out your arm muscles - this will get very stiff.

Once the cereal is well coated with the peanut butter mixture, lightly grease your hands and start forming balls about the size of a ping pong ball. Place the peanut butter balls on wax paper. Place inside an airtight container and set in a cool place to firm up. 

*NOTE: These may be left at room temperature, but if your house is as hot as mine, I recommend storing them in the fridge.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Organizing Re-usable Grocery Bags

I got into the habit of using re-usable shopping bags when I lived in Europe, where I was often expected to not only pack up my own groceries, but provide my own bags. Usually, my only method of transportation was either riding a bike, the local bus, or my own two feet.

Can you imagine having to carry all your groceries home using those horrible plastic bags with the tiny, thin straps that cut into your fingers? Or paper sacks that tend to tear?

I learned pretty quickly that having several sizes and types of sturdy bags was the most efficient way to not only fit all of my food into a compact space, but that would also keep my cold foods from melting on the way home.

I know a huge problem many people have with using re-usable grocery bags is that you buy them, and then forget about them next time you go to the store. I can't tell you how many times I would show up at the store and groan, realizing I'd once again forgotten the bags at home.

I keep a large trunk organizer in the back of my car at all times. It was designed to hold several bags upright so they don't fall over when you come to a quick stop. I found mine at either Walmart or Target in the automotive department.  I stash most of my grocery bags in the organizer, so that they are easy to grab when I get to the store.

Inside the organizer, I keep one large fabric cooler bag, which also contains two smaller cooler bags that are designated for specific items. The larger dark blue cooler bag is handy when I buy a lot of frozen foods or something bulky like a turkey or a huge bag of ice.  I don't bring these bags into the store with me - I just load the food inside them when I get back to the parking lot with my cart.

The large blue shiny bag is the only one I have found yet that is large enough to hold a frozen pizza.

The light green bag is for ice cream and other frozen treats, or sometimes candy that might otherwise melt in the Florida heat. Of course they sometimes get used for other foods too, if needed.

Next to the cooler bags is where I keep my large shopping totes, each filled with more bags. I actually have two identical grocery bag "kits" (one hangs in the garage near the door, easy to grab on the way out), the other goes into the trunk. This way I always have a spare set, clean and ready to go, just in case I need more bags or if my regular set is dirty. The large orange bag contains one compact freezer bag with a shoulder strap, as well as two more regular bags folded up. I only drag a grocery kit into the store when I am planning to do a full grocery run.

The last bag is my fabric tote, strong enough to store my heavy coupon binder, as well as a few of the smaller size shopping bags. I always try to remember to bring this tote into the store with me, even if I am not buying a lot of food. This way I still have some re-usable bags with me, and I feel less like a crazy coupon lady with my binder hidden neatly inside the tote.

How to Organize Your Re-Usable Shopping Bags

  • Gather up all of your bags from anywhere you have them stashed (check your kitchen pantry, garage, and car)
  • Clean them - empty out any old coupons and other stray bits of paper you may have left inside them, then wash using a non-toxic cleanser. I usually wash most of my bags inside out in the hand wash setting of my washing machine, then leave them on a drying rack overnight. The ones that can't go into the washer get hand washed with kitchen soap and hot water.
  • Throw out or recycle any excess bags or the ones you never use because they don't work for you.
  • Make a kit by stashing your coupon organizer, a cooler bag, and enough bags for one shopping trip inside a larger sized bag and keep it in your car or near the door.
  • You will be more likely to remember to use your bags if they are handy, clean, and are the right style and type for your needs.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Deliciously Simple Lemon Poppy Seed Muffins

I could have sworn that I already had a great lemon poppy seed muffin recipe lying around in my collection. I would have told you that I not only had a great recipe for them, but that I had made them many times. So one morning, I told my boyfriend that I would be baking him some.  I looked through my collected recipes, cookbooks, magazine clippings, and my computer recipe files. I found plenty of tried and true lemon muffins, cakes, and breads. But there was no lemon poppy seed combination at all. I was dumbfounded.

I pulled out one of my favorite community cookbooks, one that has been so well used that the back is missing entirely and the front is barely hanging on by a thread. I just knew the recipe had to be in there. Well, it was not ... but I did find my favorite poppy seed muffin recipe. I also noticed that on the very next page, there was a lemon pecan muffin recipe.

Then it dawned on me. Years ago, when I first had the urge to bake lemon and poppy seeds into a single muffin, I had turned to that favorite poppy seed muffin recipe and also used the lemon pecan muffin recipe for some suggestions, creating my own unique version. I just forgot to jot down my notes anywhere. You have no idea just how unlike me that is... most of my favorite cookbooks have writing all over them, indicating my personal tweaks and changes.

Studying the two different recipes, I tried to figure out what I must have done before, and slowly the recipe started to re-emerge in my mind. I remembered using lemon yogurt, and adding lemon zest and lemon flavored extract. I didn't happen to have any lemon yogurt in the house at the time, so I created some, sort of, by mixing some fresh lemon juice with some plain sour cream. I had almost no lemon extract left, so I mixed in both lemon and vanilla. They turned out essentially the same as I had remembered. My boyfriend loved them. This time, I am writing down what I did so I can bake them again and again.

Lemon Poppy Seed Muffins
(makes about 12 regular sized muffins)

2 cups plain all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp baking soda
3-4 tsp poppy seeds
4 ounces unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1 cup sour cream or plain yogurt or lemon yogurt (NOT fat free!!!!)
1/2 large lemon, juiced (add only if you don't have lemon yogurt)
2 Tbsp lemon zest
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp lemon flavored extract

Combine the flour, salt, baking soda, and poppy seeds in a mixing bowl with a whisk. In another bowl, beat sugar and butter together until creamy. Add in eggs, one at a time, beating well after adding each. Add sour cream or yogurt, lemon juice, and both extracts and blend well. Combine both the flour and creamy mixtures together using a wooden spoon, mixing just until there are no more dry patches, a few smallish lumps are fine. Spoon into greased muffin tins. Bake in a preheated 400 F oven for about 15-20 minutes, or until a toothpick tests clean.

Allow to cool about 10 minutes before removing from the tins.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

My Halloween Mantel and Amazingly Moist Pumpkin Bread


Fall is finally here, although looking around outside at the green grass and blooming tropical flowers, you'd hardly guess it was anywhere near October here in Florida. Even though it doesn't look much like fall outside, at least inside the house I can make it feel a little more like fall with some freshly baked pumpkin bread and a few Halloween decorations.

I am not all that into massive changes to my decor with each season, but I do change out some things. My living room mantel is the main area I focus on, since it is so easy to change out for the holidays.

I found these cute Halloween candle holders at a yard sale last spring. They were part of a huge plastic tub jam-packed with assorted Halloween and Easter themed decorations. I came late in the day, so the lady having the sale told me I could have everything for $5. The pumpkin platter my bread slices are on was also from the same tub of Halloween goodies.

This is another lovely scented candle I found at different yard sale for just 25 cents. It has dried apple slices embedded in the wax. The crystal candle pedestal is one I bought from a Partylite candle party years ago.

A cute snow globe I bought when my daughter was a baby. Instead of the usual white "snow," this globe has tiny black bats that fly up and swirl around when you shake it. It also has glowing eyes that light up and makes noises when motion is detected (and thankfully, has a very short range so it isn't going off every second).

My favorite thing to bake when fall arrives is this amazing pumpkin bread recipe. It is very, very moist and has a lovely golden amber color. When I once brought this to a work potluck, both loaves vanished so fast and I had several requests for the recipe. I have tried many different versions of pumpkin bread that I also love, but this is definitely one of my favorites. The secret to this recipe is the use of both lemon and Pumpkin Spice pudding mixes, which gives it a unique flavor and makes the texture extra soft and tender. Pumpkin Spice pudding mix is only available seasonally, so I try to hit the local stores early and buy up a bunch to last me the year. If you can't find any in your area, butterscotch pudding mix also works very well.

Pumpkin Spice Bread (as adapted from a recipe found in the Best of the Best cookbook series)
(makes 2 loaves)

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1 package instant Pumpkin Spice pudding mix (or butterscotch), (4 serving size)
1 package instant lemon pudding mix, (4 serving size)
5 large eggs
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 1/2 cups canola oil (or any flavorless cooking oil)
2 cups fresh cooked pumpkin, mashed without any seasonings (or use canned puree)
1 tablespoon real vanilla extract (really that much!)

Preheat oven to 350 F and grease and flour two 9x5" loaf pans. Sift together first 8 ingredients (flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, dry pudding mixes).

Beat eggs well in another bowl. Add oil, sugar, pumpkin, and vanilla to the eggs and mix well.

Combine wet mixture with flour mixture gently with a wooden spoon, pressing out any large lumps with your spoon, just until ingredients are moistened- do not overmix.

Pour evenly into the two prepared loaf pans and bake at 350 F for 1 hour to 1 hour and 15 minutes, or until a toothpick tests clean when poked into the center. Allow to cool in pans for 10 minutes, then remove from pans and let cool fully before slicing. If you cut into them before they cool, they will fall apart, so try to be patient, no matter how difficult it is!

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Golden Zucchini Tea Loaves aka "Shh! Don't Tell Them It's Squash Bread"

One of the things I treasure most is my box of collected family recipes. I love looking through the recipe cards and letters shared by my family and friends, especially the ones written in their own handwriting. Whenever I read them, memories come spilling out about the person and the fun times we had together. I was lucky enough to have inherited a lovely collection of recipes from my mother's elderly Aunt Alta when she passed away. Each time I cook one of her recipes, I get to bring her back for a moment. She was a great woman and a wonderful cook.

This recipe is from one of the newspaper clippings from Aunt Alta's collection. She used to live in Illinois, so many of her clippings came from The Chicago Tribune. This wonderful tea cake recipe, originally from a 1978 issue, doctors up a boxed cake mix with some instant pudding mix and yellow crookneck squash or "golden zucchini." The squash completely disappears into the cake once baked, and most people who taste this will not have any clue there is squash in the loaf unless you tell them. It is a wonderful and unique twist on the typical zucchini bread. This recipe works equally well with a mixture of zucchini and yellow squash, although you will notice green flecks in the finished loaves.

Golden Zucchini Tea Loaves (aka Shh! Don't Tell Them It's Squash Bread), adapted from The Chicago Tribune

makes 2 loaves

1 (2 layer size) box yellow cake mix or butter cake mix
1 (4 serving size) small box instant vanilla pudding mix
4 large eggs
1/4 cup canola oil
3 cups grated yellow crookneck squash (or a mix of green zucchini & yellow squash)
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
1-1 1/2 cups chopped walnuts, divided (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease and flour two loaf pans. Combine all ingredients except for the nuts in a large mixing bowl. Using an electric mixer, beat for 4 minutes exactly. If you like nuts, stir in just 1/2 cup of the nuts, reserving the remaining nuts for later.

Divide the batter into the two pans evenly. Sprinkle each pan with 1/2 cup of nuts, completely covering the surface of the batter. Since my daughter doesn't always like nuts in baked goods, I usually only add nuts to the top of one of the loaves and leave the second plain.

Bake for 50-55 minutes, or until a toothpick tests clean and the edges begin to pull away from the sides. Cool in pans on wire racks for 10 minutes, then remove from pans and allow to cool completely. I chill the loaves before slicing, letting them come to room temperature again before eating.

NOTE: Did you know that cake mix package sizes have recently changed? Old cake mix boxes used to be 18.25 ounces, now they come in a slightly smaller size, 15.5-16.5 ounces. I tested this recipe using both sizes, and it comes out slightly less poofy with the newer cake mixes, but still works out very well without any adjustments.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Back to School Easy Slicing White Sandwich Bread

This is a very reliable, old fashioned knead it yourself, no bread machine required white sandwich bread recipe that I have had for ages. I had thought this recipe was gone forever, until my boyfriend was able to recover the data from an old file of recipes from one of my old computers. It takes a while to rise.. and needs to rise several times, but you will be rewarded with a couple of loaves of very easy to slice pure white bread with a thin, slightly crispy crust.

This bread is very simple - no complex or bold flavors or any weird bits to scare away a picky kid. It is just plain white sandwich bread that tastes quite a lot better than anything mass produced and stuffed into a plastic bag in your grocery store. It is great toasted with butter and jam, or makes a mean peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Easy Slicing White Sandwich Bread
makes 2 loaves, about 10 slices each

2 cups milk
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon butter flavor shortening (or lard)
2 1/4 teaspoon Rapid Rise yeast (or active dry yeast)
1/4 cup lukewarm water
5 1/2 to 6 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

Heat milk in a small saucepan until warmed through; remove from heat and stir in sugar and shortening; allow to cool to lukewarm. Sprinkle yeast over warm water; mix well to dissolve, then set aside to activate, about 5 minutes.

In a large mixing bowl, pour the milk mixture and stir in 3 cups of the flour, followed by the yeast mixture. Using an electric mixer, beat for 2 minutes (or stir with a wooden spoon until mixture is very smooth and batterlike). Add in enough of the remaining flour, a little at a time, until a shaggy dough forms, one that leaves the sides of the bowl as you mix. (The amount of flour needed will vary based on the humidity in your house that day).

Dump the dough onto a floured board, cover, and let rest for 10 minutes. Knead dough with floured hands, working in more of the remaining flour as needed to keep the dough from sticking, for about 8-10 minutes, or until the dough is smooth and elastic. Place ball of dough into a large greased bowl, flip over to grease the top; cover with plastic wrap and let rise until doubled in bulk (about 45 minutes for rapid rise yeast, and 1 1/2 hours for regular active dry yeast).

Punch the risen dough down, cover, and let rise until doubled again, about 23 minutes for rapid rise or 45 minutes for active dry yeast.

Divide dough into 2 balls and form each into a loaf shape; place each into a 9x5" greased loaf pan; cover with greased plastic wrap and let rise until the dough rises above the edges of the pan, about 30 minutes to 1 hour for rapid rise, 1- 1 1/2 hours for regular active dry yeast. As you get close to the end of this last rise, make sure you preheat your oven to 400 F.

Bake for 35 minutes until golden brown. Let bread cool on wire racks at least 15 minutes before attempting to slice.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Retro Recipes - a Lovely Fruity Frozen Jello Mold

I have been digging through my stacks of community cookbooks recently, weeding out the ones I want to keep and those I want to declutter. During this process, I have been testing out some old recipes I marked that I wanted to try out and save before I unload another stack of books. One recipe that caught my eye was a retro jello mold from a book called "Taste of Heaven" put out by a women's charity church group in North Carolina.

When I was a kid, my mom used to take my sisters and I to a lot of church potlucks. One thing I vividly recall eating at those potlucks was jello salad in various forms. I always loved the fruity jello molds, but I tried my best to avoid the ones with vegetables suspended in the mix. I never really understood why someone felt the need to ruin my delicious jello with something like shredded cabbage or beets. I was fine with carrots or maybe even cucumbers, but really... cabbage??

I always loved the creamy, fruity jello salads best, the ones with suspended chunks of pineapple and bright red maraschino cherries or bananas. So when I came across a recipe for a creamy frozen fruit salad that called for mayonnaise, I was both drawn to it and also a bit scared to try it. I wondered how many of those jello salads I had eaten as a kid had secretly hidden mayonnaise and shuddered at the thought. Seriously, why, why , WHY would anyone think of putting mayo into a fruit salad?

Yet here I was, strongly considering making a recipe for a fruit studded frozen concoction that called for mayonnaise mixed into whipped cream. I hadn't detected anything afoul in such recipes as a kid, so perhaps I wouldn't notice as an adult. I considered skipping the mayo entirely and just adding extra whipped cream. Eventually, I gave in to my usual mantra of trying to stick to a recipe as directed the first time I try it, and went with the mayo. I mixed up my salad, stuck it in the freezer, and found myself worrying about it all night long.

I braced myself before the first bite...was I about to chomp down into a creamy, fruit deliciousness or had I somehow made mayo flavored ice cream? I bravely took a bite, and then another. I could detect a slight tang from the mayo, but it was not overwhelming. I took a few more bites. It was pretty good, actually quite good. Light and refreshing and so very pretty.

I used a jello mold I had picked up for a dollar at an estate sale. I am still not entirely sold on the mayo idea, but the salad was a real hit. I do think that for today's taste buds, I would from now on replace the mayo with sour cream or Greek yogurt, but the recipe as written did turn out quite well.

Alisa's Frozen Fruit Salad Mold, adapted from a recipe found in "Taste of Heaven" community cookbook

serves about 8-10

1 (15 ounce) can fruit cocktail, drained, reserving juices
1 (8 ounce) can crushed pineapple, drained, reserving juices
water, as needed
1 (4 serving size) small box lemon gelatin
1 pinch salt
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 cup mini marshmallows
1/2 cup Greek yogurt (plain or vanilla) or sour cream or mayonnaise
1 cup whipped cream, measured after whipping, plus extra for garnishing, if desired
3 to 4 drops red food coloring, or as needed to tint the salad light pink

You will need a medium-large sized gelatin mold or seal-able, freeze-able bowl. Spray lightly with unflavored nonstick spray.

Set a mesh strainer over a glass measuring cup and let the fruit drain, saving all of the juices from the cans. Chill the fruit in a covered container for now. Add enough water to the fruit juice to measure about 1 1/3 cups liquid. Pour into a small saucepan and bring to a boil.

Remove the saucepan from the heat and dissolve the lemon gelatin in the liquid. Whisk in a tiny pinch of salt and the lemon juice. Cover and chill until partially set, about 1 1/2-2 hours.

Once the gelatin has partially set, add the fruit and marshmallows and stir to combine. Fold in the yogurt, sour cream, or mayo if you dare (whichever you prefer), followed by the whipped cream and a few drops of red food coloring to tint the mixture a light pink color.

Pour into the prepared gelatin mold, cover, then freeze overnight or until firm. Loosen edges carefully, using a butter knife, before unmolding. I set my sealed container into a bowl of hot water for a couple of minutes to help loosen it, then placed a plate on top of the open container and flipped it over - it came out very easily.

Serve immediately, freezing any leftovers. Serve extra whipped cream on the side, if desired.

*NOTE: I found it easier to eat after I let the mold defrost a short time before unmolding; not long enough to have it start melting, just long enough to slice a bit easier).