Friday, December 18, 2009

Quick and Easy Bread Pudding

I have a huge backlog of recipes I have cooked, baked, eaten, photographed and just not found the time to blog about yet. In addition to being a bit busy with the holidays coming, I also found myself on an unexpected visit to the hospital for a few days. I am recovered and I am fine now, and actually in quite good health, but I sure haven't been up to much writing and cooking over the past week or so. So what I bring you today is actually something I made fairly recently, but never got a chance to write about, a really quick and tasty version of Bread Pudding with Vanilla Sauce I found on Amy's Kitchen.

Bread pudding is a great credit crunching type recipe, as it uses up stale bread, turning it into a really delicious dessert. The bread gets torn up and soaked in a custard, then baked until puffed and golden. Typically, a sweet, rich, creamy sauce is ladled over the top of the baked pudding, often with brandy or some other liqueur added. However in this version, there is no alcohol used at all, making this very kid friendly. It may not be the fanciest bread pudding you have ever made, but it is a nice simple recipe to turn to when you just want a quick and easy dessert fast.

Amy's Kid Friendly Bread Pudding (adapted from a recipe found here)
(about 4-6 servings)

6 slices stale (but still a little soft) bread, torn into cubes
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 tsp cinnamon or mixed spice
1 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 1/2 cups milk (I used either skim milk or 2%), divided
1 package instant vanilla pudding mix (4 serving size)*, divided in half

Preheat oven to 350 F and grease a small 9" square glass baking dish. Fill a kettle with some water and set it to boil. Tear up the bread and place into the dish. Measure out just 1 cup of the milk, add the egg, sugar, and spice and whisk together until blended. Measure out just half of the dry pudding mix and add to the milk mixture. Pour over the bread.

Set the filled baking dish inside a 9x13" metal baking dish. Set the nestled pans onto the center rack of your preheated oven (you may want to pull the rack out a bit). Go grab your kettle of recently boiled water and carefully pour enough water into the METAL PAN to surround the glass baking dish with about 1" high water. DO NOT pour any water into the glass baking dish.

Bake for about 40 minutes or until the pudding is puffed and golden and is no longer soupy. Remove the glass pan from the water filled metal pan. Allow to cool a few minutes while you prepare the simple sauce, which is just a matter of mixing up the remaining half packet of pudding mix with the remaining 1 1/2 cups of milk. You may pour the sauce over the entire casserole or serve on the side to ladle over individual portions. Allow the sauced pudding to rest 15 minutes so the sauce can soak in a bit. This tastes great warm, but also quite good after it has been chilled.

*If you don't live in the US, then I think you can instead try using Bird's custard powder, although a few adjustments may need to be made. I would use enough powder for 2 portions when adding it to baked pudding itself, but for the sauce, I would recommend preparing a small amount of the custard as directed on the package.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Something to be Thankful For: Part 4, Turkey Leftovers

I realize my Thanksgiving posts have all run just a bit is halfway to Christmas already and I am still writing about my turkey. Last post on this for a year, I promise! I had a lot of leftover turkey this year, since I was only serving 2 people but still wanted to make a full roasted bird for the holiday. Since I am always very big on credit crunching, having leftover meat to use throughout the next week is a positive in my mind. I unfortunately did not get all of my creations on film this year, but at least a few of them did manage to get snapped in time.

There are a few specific dishes I try to make every year to use up the seemingly endless supply of leftover turkey meat. Usually, some of my leftovers find their way into a turkey sandwich. This year I made some paninis using my indoor grill. I used some nice hearty bread, layered with slices of turkey breast meat, roasted red peppers, avocado slices, Emeril's NY Style Brown Deli mustard, and Swiss Cheese. They turned out pretty tasty, very cafe-like.

I also made a Lazy Turkey Dinner in a Bowl, which was just some leftover mashed potatoes and corn mixed together and mounded in a bowl, topped with chunks of cooked turkey, with some maple gravy on top and heated all together. Not exactly the fanciest of meals, but I was tired and far more interested in spending time with my best friend than cooking endless meals. On another night, I tried out this version of Turkey Tetrazinni (pictured above), a pasta dish with a creamy white sauce which I topped with panko crumbs and a bit of Parmesan cheese. It turned out fairly well, although not quite as flavorful as some different versions I had made in the past.

One of the new things I tried out this year was a really great recipe for Turkey Enchiladas. I decided to use my dark meat in this, mixing it with some mild Tequila & Lime flavor salsa, a bit of cheese, some of my leftover corn, and just a tiny bit of diced jalapenos (enough to give it some flavor but not enough to make the enchiladas too hot). These were really good and so very fast and easy to throw together at the last minute. I will likely make these again with chicken leftovers as well.

I usually make some form of a turkey soup. This year, I made some wonderful Turkey Chowder, which was so simple and was perfect for my remaining white meat. I used the rest of my evaporated milk in place of some of the half & half cream called for in the recipe. It came out so luscious, smooth and creamy. This chowder had me wishing I had more leftovers, even after eating turkey all week. It was a great find and will definitely be making a return to my table next year when I am faced with more leftovers.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Something to be Thankful For: Part 3, Holiday Pies

I think pie has to be one of my all time favorite dessert categories. I am a huge fan of desserts in general, but if I had to choose between a cake, ice cream, or pie, I usually will choose the pie hands down. In fact, I'd rather have a pie instead of a birthday cake. Since my birthday always fell very close to (or sometimes on) Thanksgiving, my family birthday "cake" was actually a Thanksgiving pie with a candle stuck in the center, while everyone gathered around the table and sang in harmony. My Grandma Dolores always remembered to make me a special lemon meringue pie for my birthday, which is still one of my favorite pie flavors.

My mom made (and still makes) fabulous pies. Her crust was always so crisp and light and she always managed to make them look so perfect. It took me a long time to get my pie crusts to taste right, and although I can get them to look nice enough, Mom is still the champion when it comes to an artful looking pie crust.

This year, I decided to make Betty's Pecan Pie, which I tried for the first time. I have made quite a few different versions of pecan pie through the years, and while I liked all of them, I hadn't found that special recipe yet, the one that would make me stop seeking new pecan pie recipes. Pretty sure this one will be my new favorite for now. It turned out so moist and nutty, plus it looked beautiful.

I also made my trusty Thanksgiving Pumpkin Pie using fresh pumpkin, which I have been making ever since I first obtained the recipe from a friend. She didn't use fresh pumpkin in hers, but for me the fresh pumpkin is what makes this pie so special. It hardly takes any time at all to make fresh pumpkin puree. Simply wash and cut a small pie pumpkin into about 4 wedges, scoop out the seeds, pop into a steamer basket and let steam over boiling water, covered, until tender. The time varies depending on how big your pumpkin is, but generally 15-20 minutes should do the trick. The skin peels off so easily once the pumpkin is cooked, and a simple whirl with a stick blender creates a perfectly smooth, stringless puree.

The pie itself is a snap to throw together once you have your puree cooked and cooled. I actually like it better using skim versions of the milks, as it comes out less heavy, although you can use regular whole milk if you prefer. I have a deep dish pie plate that just barely holds all of the filling, but you could also use two smaller pie plates and just make an extra pastry shell.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Something to be Thankful For: Part 2, The Rolls

Mmmm soft fresh hot rolls. My holiday meal would not ever be complete without some fresh hot homemade bread. I can always remember my mother baking bread, watching the dough rise in pans she set in a sunny windowsill. My Aunt Marg also made a killer bread that she served at Thanksgiving and I can still remember the delicious taste and aroma (hopefully I will someday get my hands on her wonderful recipe). I grew up with zero fear of making bread dough, since from my earliest recollections of any sort of kitchen activity, I can remember someone in my family baking bread, and I often helped out with the kneading process. I always found it soothing and quite fun really to squash the dough between my fingers and push and pull at it until it became a soft, pliable ball of yeasty smelling dough.

For these particular rolls, the kneading is actually done in my bread machine, which is a huge time-saver on busy holidays, especially when you have guests and about a million other things to be doing besides taking up an entire counter for kneading and rolling out dough. So for those of you who did not have quite such an idyllic bread baking childhood experience, you might want to give this recipe for Whole Wheat Honey Rolls a try. The flavor and texture of these rolls is so tender and delicious, I have yet to find a usually-a-wheat-bread-hater type who has refused to eat them. You still get the pleasure of rolling the dough into balls for the rolls, but the mess and the work of the mixing and kneading is all neatly handled inside the bread machine. They bake very quickly, so you can pop these into your oven right before serving and have a delicious basket of freshly made rolls on your holiday table by the time your gravy is ready and the turkey carved.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Something to be Thankful For: Part 1, the Turkey

I had a really great Thanksgiving holiday and I hope you all had just as enjoyable a time as I did. My best friend, Josh, came to visit and I cooked a nice big Thanksgiving dinner, even though it was just the two of us eating. I think I am pretty much incapable of making a tiny holiday meal. As a kid, my family holiday meals were true feasts, always plentiful with an array of delicious side dishes and desserts, homemade bread, and of course a huge juicy turkey and gravy. Since we couldn't possibly eat everything, I did cut out a few of the usual dishes I might typically make, but it was still a pretty hearty table of food once it was all prepared.

I was very happy that for once in my life the turkey was actually almost fully thawed by the time I was ready to prepare it for the oven. I can't even count how many times I have stood around in the past changing out water in a metal sink every 30 minutes, trying to quick thaw a bird at the last minute. Luckily, this year I had remembered to allow for an extra thawing day and it made all the difference in the world. 4 full nights for my nearly 13 pound turkey did the trick.

As luck would have it, despite having a very accomodating thawed bird ready to go, my turkey preparation was still heavily delayed by two rather unfortunate events. The first was forgetting to make the special maple butter in advance, which I use to rub all over the turkey, giving it a a gorgeous shiny skin and a delicious flavor. I was supposed to prepare the butter mixture the night before, so that it could be chilled and spreadable the next day. But...I...forgot.

So...early in the morning I had to stand around reducing apple cider and maple syrup for what always seems like ages, and then mix it with the herbs and butter... and then once that rather time consuming step is finished, let the butter mixture chill enough to be able to gob it all over the skin of the bird and rub some under the skin too. Pant pant gasp gasp. Every year while making this butter I have sworn I will have to find another recipe next year that does not make me slave away just to make a butter rub... and every year after tasting my turkey and its wonderful herbally, slightly sweet and buttery gravy I remember exactly why I keep returning to this recipe year after year after year.

The second issue arose from the same procedure. While I was waiting for the cider-syrup mixture to reduce, I got some phone calls and well... talking on the phone while I am cooking always seems to get me into trouble. I do it all the time and really should have learned my lesson by now, but alas, such was not the case this time. While chattering away, I failed to notice the mixture boiling and oozing over the edges of the saucepan, leaving a bubbling sticky caramelized :cough: burnt mess all over my stovetop. I was actually able to salvage what remained in the pan, which had remarkably not burned at all and was finally at the exact 1/2 cup mark I had been waiting for so anxiously. I cleaned up the mess, buttered up my Tom Turkey and finally Thanksgiving dinner was underway.

Now wouldn't you know it, my silly turkey was done early this year. I stared at my digital thermometer with great distrust when my timer went off at the 2 hour mark. I glared at the pop up turkey button that had also decided to point out to me that, yes, somehow my turkey was already done before I had even peeled a single potato or heated up my freshly cut corn. I gave the legs a wiggle and poked at a thigh with a knife, using a spoon to catch the drippings to detect any hint of pink juices. I wasn't quite sure the juices were clear enough, and so I let Tom roast another 30 minutes longer while I quickly threw my side dishes together. I felt much better after the extra 30 minutes of cooking time and at this point, the legs were not just wiggly, they pried free easily. I covered the whole bird in foil and let it rest for another 30 minutes while I made some gravy from the pan drippings and a small amount of the maple butter mixture I had set aside before rubbing the skin earlier.

To accompany the Maple Roast Turkey and Gravy, I served corn scraped fresh from the cob and sauteed in butter and some cornstarch, freshly boiled and mashed potatoes, crock pot stuffing, and some chunks of butternut squash tossed in a little butter, oil and cinnamon and roasted for about 30 minutes while the turkey was resting and the gravy was bubbling away. I also made some delicious whole wheat honey rolls (more about those later). Everything turned out very tasty and we had a great time.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

My breakfast at Cracker Barrel and a poll

In case you haven't noticed my new feature yet, off to the right hand side of my blog is a little "choose my next recipe" poll. For my first topic, I chose a selection of menu items from Cracker Barrel restaurant, since I enjoy their food so much. I ate there again this morning for breakfast and snapped a few quick and somewhat blurry shots of three of the items in the poll. I meant to get a picture of the cake too, but I forgot to order a piece to take home.

The apples are a regular side dish staple at the restaurant. Generously sized wedges of soft, tender Golden Delicious apples, sauteed in a brown sugary buttery glaze. I get them nearly every time I have breakfast there. They are so popular that they even started selling them in jars to take home. I do have a nice version of something very similar that I have served alongside steak and ham that is really yummy.

The cranberry orange pecan muffins are a special item they have on their holiday menu right now. It is a luscious orange juice-drenched fluffy muffin, full of cranberries, and encrusted with oats, chopped pecans and brown sugar. I kind of hope they let this one stick around as a regular part of the menu.

The pecan pancakes are really scrumptious. Chock full of nuts and light and airy... with a crispness around the edges and an almost lacy appearance. I know they use buttermilk pancakes as their base, but I am not totally certain about how they make them so lacy. I have a few ideas that I could test out though.

The missing cola cake is a nice big square of moist warm dark chocolate cake with a thin layer of gooey fudge icing on top, which they serve with a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream on the side. They bring this menu item out only during their anniversary or perhaps during other special occasions.

I might end up making them all at some point, but right now, your votes will determine which I try to tackle first. Hope you enjoy my new feature and I look forward to seeing which recipe wins :)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Copycat Recipe: Attempting Cracker Barrel's Applefest Grilled Chicken Salad

This past fall, Cracker Barrel restaurant introduced a limited time menu called Applefest. All of the dishes featured apples in some form, and all of them looked really good. I was able to sample a few of the dishes from this special menu, since I tend to eat at Cracker Barrel a couple of times a month. One of the items I enjoyed most was their Applefest Grilled Chicken Salad, which was a marinated grilled chicken breast served atop a bed of lettuce, with chunks of gorgeous red crisp Gala apples, crisp bacon, candied pecans, a generous sprinkling of blue cheese crumbles, and served with a sweet and tangy apple cider vinaigrette on the side. It was absolutely delicious and a refreshing dinner. It also looked beautiful when they presented it, with the little chunks of apples all around the rim of the plate.

What you see pictured above is my attempt to recreate the recipe at home. The salad was very easy to get right, since the basic elements were pretty standard. I did try to make an apple cider vinaigrette clone, but my first attempt was not very successful. I tried mixing up some canola oil, apple cider, lemon juice, apple cider vinegar, salt and pepper, and a bit of cinnamon. This sounded like a good plan to me, but unfortunately I got my proportions a bit off as I was paying more attention to the grumbling in my tummy than I was to careful dressing concoctions. The dressing tasted good, but was not quite what I had tasted at the restaurant. Hopefully I will be able to nail the recipe and update this in the future. However, in the meantime, the raspberry walnut salad dressing tasted really nice with this salad. I think any of the fruitier, sweeter salad dressings would go equally well.

I also added a new feature on my blog... off to the top right side there is now a weekly poll. This week it is about Cracker Barrel recipes, but the topics will change as the mood strikes me. I will try to prepare the selection with the highest votes.

Copycat Cracker Barrel Applefest Grilled Chicken Salad
(serves 2)

2 skinless boneless chicken breasts
1/2 cup raspberry walnut salad dressing (roughly, I didn't measure)
1 bag mixed salad greens (iceberg, radish, carrot, romaine)
2 firm Gala apples (or another crisp sweet-tart red eating apple), cut into chunks
lemon juice, to keep apples from turning brown
4 strips bacon, cooked crisp, drained
2 tbsp blue cheese, crumbled
2 tbsp Maple Glazed pecans, chopped (or any glazed/candied pecan)
apple cider vinaigrette or raspberry walnut salad dressing, to taste

Place about 1/2 cup or so of salad dressing into a ziptop type plastic bag along with the chicken, seal, and smoosh the sealed bag to coat chicken pieces evenly. Marinate in the fridge overnight. Grill until cooked all the way through on an indoor grill, thin slice and set aside, keeping warm.

Divide salad greens between two plates. Set the apple chunks in a ring all around the outer edges of each plate, red skin side facing outward. Sprinkle nuts over the salad. Place the chicken slices in the center, then sprinkle blue cheese crumbles over the top (I had this backwards in the photo). Break each piece of crispy bacon in half or crumble it up if you prefer, and place over the top of the salad. Serve with apple cider vinaigrette or another fruity, sweet salad dressing of your choice on the side.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Moist & Tender Whole Wheat Zucchini Bread

Yes, I know, I have already blogged about zucchini bread previously. I'm sorry to be a bit repetitive here, but zucchini bread is, after all, one of my all time favorites and I make a lot of it. It isn't even because it is "healthy" or that I am trying to pass off vegetables to my kid through baked goods (although those are quite pleasant side perks). I simply love the taste, the scent, the glorious smell of zucchini bread baking. It is delicious, moist, wonderful. If you have avoided eating it because you fear veggies in your baked goods, time to dig into your courage box and give some a try.

Last time I shared with you a recipe that came from one of my good friends. You can find that scrumptious and very different version here. This is yet another recipe I begged off of a former neighbor shortly after devouring several slices that she happily handed out to everyone who happened to be standing outside in the courtyard one fall day. She didn't say one peep about what was in it, or as it turns out... what was not in it. She just smiled and passed her plates around. Men, women, children, picky teens, all took a slice and came back for more. Not one single word about it being a whole wheat bread. And no one at all could have dreamed that this bread contains not one drop of butter, oil, margarine or shortening.

I had always thought of "diet" baking to be the sort of thing you suffered through if you had to cut something out for a sick relative or a person trying to lose a few inches. Diet baked goods usually taste rubbery or gummy or flat or well....just plain awful. I avoid them. I would rather just eat less of the real thing. This recipe doesn't taste remotely healthy or "dietized." It tastes like there is a heap of butter or something in there to make it taste so good. That would be the zucchini folks. Try it, it is really quite amazing.

Carol's Whole Wheat Zucchini Bread (you can see my printable version here)
(makes 1 round 9" cake layer sized loaf)

dry ingredients:
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 cup all purpose flour
1 cup granulated sugar
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp ground cloves

wet ingredients:
6 egg whites
1/2 cup applesauce
1/2 cup buttermilk (or use milk soured with some lemon juice)
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups fresh shredded zucchini, unpeeled, about 1 medium (measured by volume not weight)

Spray a 9" round baking pan with nonstick spray and preheat your oven to 350F. Mix together the dry ingredients in a large bowl. Make a well in the center of this mixture.

In a separate bowl, beat egg whites just until foamy, but still liquidy. To the beaten egg whites, gently stir in the buttermilk, applesauce, vanilla, using a wooden spoon not a mixer. Stir in the zucchini. Pour this wet mixture into the well you made int he dry ingredients. Using a wooden spoon, gently stir together the wet and dry ingredients into a wet batter, just until there are no more dry patches.

Pour the batter into your prepared cake pan and bake in the center of your preheated oven for about 40-50 minutes, or until a tothpick tests clean. Allow to cool at least 10 minutes in the pan before attempting to remove to a wire rack to cool fully.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

My attempt at the California Salad from The Melting Pot

One night fairly recently, my daughter and I stopped in at The Melting Pot, a restaurant that serves nothing but fondue in various forms. I knew nothing at all about the place, only that the idea of fondue for dinner sounded fun and delicious. I also had some vague recollection of some tv chef like Rachel Ray stopping at a similar place (for all I know it may very well have been another branch of the same chain) and chatting it up with a family who was having a blast dipping their meal. A hasty glance at the menu reassured me that if we shared our meal, it was going to be somewhat affordable, so we took the plunge and gave it a try.

I have to say the prices are a bit steep. Ok, perhaps more than just a bit. Out of touch with reality steep, so much so that there was no question we would not be ordering a fondue that included any form of meat. Just the cheese fondue starter alone was $15 and that was only cheese and some veggie dippers! Our waiter was very nice and said that many people share the orders and recommended we start small. We could always order more things if we found our tummies still grumbling. We ordered their famous Swiss fondue, which was a mix of Swiss cheese, flavored with some garlic, wine, and Kirschwasser. Then the waiter proceeded to make the fondue right at the table (each table is equipped with a hot plate). Me being me, I watched carefully and took notes on how this was made, so that I could make my own version at home. You will have to wait for that recipe, but it is definitely on my menu - it seemed very easy to prepare and I am certain I can make it for less money at home.

Since a meal of melted cheese didn't sound terribly filling, and it was not, we also ordered two of their salads. Unlike most restaurants that only have a small selection of side salad choices, The Melting Pot had quite a few different and tasty sounding options. My daughter stuck to the familiar, a Caesar Salad, while I chose the California Salad, which was described as a mixture of greens with walnuts and a raspberry vinaigrette. It was served with a shaker of their own brand of Garlic & Wine seasoning that you can sprinkle over the top if you like. It was really good and I was happy to discover that they sell their seasoning at the restaurant.

With the taste of the salad fresh on my mind, I wrote down what I could remember about it and on my next trip to the grocery store, bought the ingredients. I originally planned to make my own dressing, but the cost of the ingredients I had been planning to use were a bit steep, so I decided instead to buy a bottle of Paul Newman's Raspberry Walnut Vinaigrette, which sounded exactly like what I had been served at the restaurant anyway. The rest of the ingredients were very basic, fresh ripe plum tomatoes, Gorgonzola cheese, a mixture of salad greens, and chopped walnuts.

Melting Pot's California Side Salad
(serves 1)

1-2 handfuls of mixed salad greens (red oak lettuce, romaine, Bibb, endive, etc), torn
1-2 plum tomatoes, diced into cubes or sliced
1 Tbsp chopped black walnuts
1-2 Tbsp Gorgonzola cheese, crumbled (I went a bit too heavy on mine)
1-2 tsp red onion, finely chopped (I am not sure if they actually included this, but I thought it added a nice burst of color and flavor), optional
2 tsp Paul Newman's raspberry walnut vinaigrette, to taste
1/4 tsp Melting Pot's Garlic & Wine Seasoning, to taste
freshly ground black pepper, optional

Place tossed salad greens on a serving plate, and then sprinkle on the tomatoes, cheese, and nuts. Drizzle with a bit of salad dressing to taste, and a sprinkle of salad seasoning and some freshly ground black pepper, if desired.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Happy Halloween: Caramel Apples

Happy Halloween everyone! I made some simple caramel apples by dipping firm Granny Smiths into melted caramel squares thinned with a little water. Taking a suggestion from Betty over at Betty's Kitchen, who recently made the same recipe, I rolled mine in some butter toffee candied peanuts. These are easy, messy, and oh so rich and gooey. These need to be chilled to firm up, but you will want to remove them from the fridge about 10-15 minutes before you want to eat them, as they get rock hard when cold. I personally like to slice mine into wedges rather than try to chomp into the huge gooey apple.

Simple Caramel Apples (adapted from Kraft)
(makes 3-4 large apples)

50 squares soft caramel candies, unwrapped (one 12 oz. bag) or soft toffee (such as Thornton's)*
1 Tbsp water (or use 2 Tbsp if melting on the stovetop)
3-4 popsicle sticks
candied nuts or or raisins or chocolate chips or coconut

Place caramels and water into a glass dish and melt in the microwave for about 2 minutes, or until melted thoroughly. Meanwhile, jab a popsicle stick firmly into each apple. Dunk apples in the melted caramel, then roll the bottom of the coated apple in nuts or whatever other crunchy decoration you prefer. The decorating step is optional; however, rolling the bottom in something crunchy helps make a nice base for the apples to stand upright. Place on a wax paper lined plate and pop in the fridge to chill until firm, about 30 minutes to an hour.

Remove from fridge about 10-15 minutes before serving. If you wish to slice them, use a big butcher's knife to cut the sides off of each apple, then slice the sides into smaller pieces. This makes the apples a lot easier to eat and share.

*American caramels come in tiny 1" cubes, so if you plan to use Thorton's soft toffee instead, you will probably not need 50, since their toffee is sold in somewhat larger pieces.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Baking the Bake-Off: Project #3 Chocolate Starlight Cake

Well it has been some time now since my last Pillsbury Bake-Off project. I actually was pretty certain that I had made the Double-Delight Starlight Cake years ago, back when I first picked up my old copy of the Pillsbury Bake-Off Cookbook. It sounded and looked like something I would really enjoy - a rich, creamy, homemade chocolate layer cake with a luscious sounding chocolate cream cheese mint icing.

The basic idea for the cake is very clever: prepare a batch of icing, using some in the cake batter and the rest to decorate the finished cake. The idea is supposed to make the cake very moist and tender. Unfortunately, both times that I have tried this cake, I was a little disappointed. It is indeed a good cake, and the icing has a great creamy texture and nice minty flavor. However, while I wouldn't go so far as to say this cake is dry, it isn't at all, it is not quite as moist as some more modern chocolate cakes that I have tried.

This cake was very easy to make, and I am certain you could adapt the basic concept to any type of frosting and cake flavor. I think I prefer a richer chocolate flavor in my chocolate cakes; there just wasn't enough choco punch in this to really satisfy me. The icing is very good and worth trying.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Cucumber Salad and Swedish Meatballs the Easy Way

One of my favorite quick and easy no fuss meals when I have about zero time to cook but don't want to just grab some take-out is to make Swedish Meatballs. I have made homemade versions, albeit Americanized attempts that never quite matched the luscious versions I tasted in Europe. Eventually I will find that perfect match of meatball and sauce that screams "I am really Swedish!" but for now, I have to satisfy my cravings with something that is at least really yummy to eat, if not homemade. Ikea, if you are lucky enough to live near one, not only sells home furnishings, but has a small section of imported Swedish foods, to include all the fixings for a nice meatball meal: packets of cream sauce seasoning, jars of lingonberry jam, and even bags of meatballs in the freezer case.

The meatballs can be baked in the oven in about 15-20 minutes (or microwaved if you must, but I like them better baked), during which time I whisk together the cream sauce seasoning with some half & half instead of the directed cream, and toss together a simple Swedish style cucumber salad. I serve a nice spoonful of the jam on the side, to eat along with the meatballs. I suppose you could use whole berry cranberry sauce if you needed to, but cranberry is much more tart and the berries are bigger. If you can get your hands on some real lingonberry jam, it is really worth it. You can use the extra jam to serve with Swedish style pancakes (similar to crepes).

Swedish Style Cucumber Salad

(serves 4-6)

1 English cucumber, sliced thinly
finely diced red onion, optional, to taste
sour cream, to taste
apple cider vinegar, a splash to taste
a pinch or two of sugar
salt and pepper, to taste
a pinch of dill

I am sorry to be so vague here but I really don't measure this at all. I slice the cucumber and toss it in a small bowl with a bit of onion (which makes it look pretty but can definitely be left out if you are a purist or just hate onion). I add a bit of salt and pepper, a pinch of sugar and some dill, a splash of vinegar and then a few spoonfuls of sour cream and stir. I go very, very light on the sour cream as a little really can go a long way. After everything has a very light coating of dressing, I throw the bowl into the fridge to chill while I finish preparing the meatballs and the cream sauce.

Monday, October 19, 2009

A Few Meals with Betty

It feels like ages since my last post, even though it has been less than a week. I have actually been cooking, but I have been so busy, that I just haven't had much time to blog about what I have been preparing. Since the recipes over at Betty's Kitchen are so economical and easy, I have been turning to her collection a lot lately for inspiration. She seems to choose recipes that are often similar to things I typically like to prepare at home, but with a simpler and slightly different twist. Her recipes are also often somewhat healthier versions of some old favorites, which I really appreciate.

One night I made her Cajun Style Shrimp, which was the simplest thing to prepare and tasted so rich and delicious. I actually make something similar for parties using Cajun seasoning and butter, but this was a nice change and really was delicious. I served the shrimp with rye toast, some sliced tomatoes, and Betty's Lima Bean Casserole.

The shrimp turned out great and I will definitely make it again. I used precooked peeled shrimp and only let them marinate for 15 minutes. Then I heated the shrimp only until they were warmed through. The lima bean casserole was good, although my daughter wasn't terribly pleased to see one of her least favorite vegetables on her plate. She did end up eating it, partly because I snuck some broccoli in as well, which she really enjoys. I also substituted cream of celery soup for the mushroom soup. It was a nice casserole, but probably not something that I will make regularly.

On another night I tried out Betty's Chicken Nuggets, which I think has just been crowned my new standard nuggets recipe. The chicken is cut into chunks, coated in some butter and then dredged in crushed Ritz crackers. I used Roasted Vegetable flavor Ritz which really gave them a nice flavor. The nuggets came out nice and crispy and were moist and tender on the inside. Really, really good. I served them with her Loaded Baked Potatoes and some honey mustard, which was simply some Dijon mustard mixed with a bit of honey.

I also tried out Crazy Eight Can Soup, which turned out great. This very easy recipe doctors up ordinary minestrone soup with corn, fire roasted tomatoes, and chili beans, mixed with a pound of browned lean ground beef. I am sure you could leave out the meat or use ground turkey instead if you prefer. Next time I will use Progresso's minestrone, which is not condensed, in place of the condensed version called for in the recipe, as I prefer the flavor and I find it to be less salty. This made a huge pot of soup, enough to enjoy for lunch all week long and plenty extra to store in the freezer.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Achieving Cracker Barrel's Chicken Salad

If you have ever eaten at a Cracker Barrel restaurant, you might have tried their wonderful chicken salad plate. For a while, when I first got back to the US after living abroad, every time I went to Cracker Barrel I only ordered their chicken salad plate. It is so very scrumptious that I could not bring myself to order anything else. There was something different about it that I just could not easily place, which is odd because I make lots of chicken salads at home. After making numerous different versions, I was sure I would have hit on that hidden taste.

As luck would have it, I happened to land on this recipe one day. It sounded very promising and I noticed right away that there were two ingredients that stood out to me as different. The first was the use of two types of chicken - both home cooked poached chicken along with some canned chicken. I had always just used home cooked chicken, or a rotisserie chicken at least. But canned? I don't even typically buy canned chicken meat. The other ingredient that caught my eye was the use of a bit of sour cream in the dressing. That instantly made sense to me, I could almost taste the difference that would make just thinking about it.

I did not follow the recipe exactly, but I did use it as a guide to capture that taste I was longing for. I started off with just one pound of my own micro-poached chicken breasts, which I chilled and diced. I also used one large can of chicken meat, which I broke up into shreds with a fork. This was quite a bit more canned chicken meat than the recipe had called for, but I really didn't want to measure out just half. As for the dressing ingredients, I used a bit more sour cream and added some salt and white pepper. Since I really only cared about the chicken salad itself, I did not make up the salad plate the way it would be served in the restaurant, which is with lettuce, tomato, hard boiled eggs, and a wedge of cheese. I simply scooped out a portion onto a bed of torn romaine lettuce leaves, and garnished it with some pecan halves.

The taste was really spot on. I was shocked, and I was delighted. I had finally found a version I loved and that really captured the flavors of the Cracker Barrel version. The sour cream definitely seemed to make the dressing work perfectly, and the mixture of the shredded and chunked chicken gave the salad the correct texture.

Here is my adapted version, based on the recipe linked above:

Just Like Cracker Barrel's Chicken Salad
(serves about 6)

1 pound poached chicken breast meat (about 4 skinless boneless halves), cut into chunks
1 large can (12.5 ounces) canned chicken meat (I used a reduced fat/salt version), drained
1 small celery rib, diced very finely
1 Tbsp red onion, diced very finely
1 Tbsp sweet pickle relish

1/3 cup mayonnaise
1/4-1/3 cup sour cream
1 Tbsp Miracle Whip salad dressing
salt and white pepper, to taste

Combine salad ingredients together in a large bowl. Mix together dressing ingredients, then toss with the chicken mixture to coat. Chill well and then taste and adjust seasonings, adding more dressing ingredients as needed.

Serve atop a bed of lettuce, garnished with either pecan halves or the Cracker Barrel way, with tomato, hard boiled eggs, and cheese.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

A Classic Blueberry Muffin

For some reason lately, I have been really in the mood for muffins for breakfast. Baking muffins is a wonderful way to start your weekend. Most muffin recipes are very easy to make, as long as you remember to not stir the batter to death (more on that later), and the ingredients are usually simple things most people who like to bake have on hand anyway. In about 10 minutes, you can usually whip up the batter, add in your fruits or other flavorings, and bake. In a half hour or so you have a lovely batch of warm, tender, fluffy, delicious muffins and your house smells like a coffee shop.

Since my waistline would not be happy with me if I ate the entire batch, I usually set aside however many I plan to serve and eat over the next few days, then give a few away and freeze the rest. My neighbors are usually quite appreciative of my excess baking treats and the rest that do make their way into my freezer sit there quite happily for up to one month. I freeze them in individual portions, so that I can take one out while I am getting ready in the morning. They keep really well frozen and thaw out quickly.

One of my favorite blueberry muffin recipes came out of an old community cookbook published in the 1980s, and the recipe supposedly came from Jordan Marsh's cafe, which was known for its sugar topped blueberry muffins. Jordan Marsh used to be a big department store, but eventually got gobbled up by the bigger Macy's. Luckily for the world of blueberry muffin eaters, one of their head bakers and holder of the cherished muffin recipe went into business on his own, selling bakery items for several years under the name The Jordan Marsh Muffin Company. Unfortunately, this shop eventually closed after the baker retired, and that icon of the 80s was gone for good.

I remember visiting a Jordan Marsh store years ago, although I sadly never got to sample one of their famed muffins. Therefore, I am not certain if these taste exactly like the originals, but they are quite scrumptious muffins. Versions of this muffin are all over the internet, but this particular version is a bit different because it particularly mentions crushing some of the fresh berries into the batter first, and also has the sugar coated tops. I also have this recipe posted here already if you would like an easy to print and less long-winded version.

Before you begin, I must tell you a few things about this recipe. First, you really must use cupcake liners or your muffins will stick like mad to the tins, even if you have fairly good quality nonstick pans that you have greased well. Trust me, I tried, and I offer my picture of a sadly torn muffin as evidence. Also, having made these with butter, margarine and shortening before, I have to say my current preference for this recipe is to use the margarine. It seems to make them a bit softer and puffier. I used butter this time and although they still tasted really yummy, for that coffee shop domed-top look, the margarine really does the trick best. You can also mix half butter and half margarine or shortening if you prefer.

The third and most important rule about this recipe is to use fresh berries only, frozen just make them soggy. Even if you thaw and drain the berries, which you would need to in order to mash some of them into the batter, they just come out subpar. If you can't get your hands on fresh blueberries, you can either use a different fresh berry or I am sorry to say, a different recipe.

Ok, lecture over, we can now begin ;)

Jordan Marsh Fresh Blueberry Muffins (as adapted from a recipe found in Enough to Feed an Army)

(12 large muffins)

2 1/2 cups fresh blueberries, washed and drained well (do not use frozen, sorry)
2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup margarine or butter or shortening, softened
1 1/4 cups sugar
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1/4 cup milk
coarse sugar, for topping the muffins (demerara works well, or sanding sugar)

Preheat your oven to 350 F and line 12 muffin tins with cupcake liners. You might also want to grease the tops of your tins around the edges of the holes, as these muffins will tend to grow out a bit.

Mash 1/2 cup of your berries and set them aside for now. Mix together your dry ingredients: the baking powder, salt, and flour. Sprinkle a few spoonfuls of the flour mixture over your remaining whole berries and toss them to coat. You don't need a lot - this is just to dust them with a little bit of the flour mixture so that they won't all sink to the bottom of the pans while baking.

Cream together the butter and sugar until it is well blended, then beat in the eggs one at a time, beating well after you add each. Beat in the mashed berries. Put your mixer away and grab a wooden spoon and stir in some of the flour mixture, some of the milk, and then some more of the flour mixture, alternating until it has all been mixed in. Remember when I mentioned earlier about not stirring your muffin batter to death? Overmixing muffin batter just makes it tough and makes your muffin tops flat. You just want to get everything blended, not beaten.

Gently stir in your flour dusted whole berries. Scoop the thick batter into your muffin tins. Sprinkle coarse sugar over the tops of each muffin. I was all out of demerara sugar when I made these for the picture, so they are missing their lovely, crunchy, sparkly tops.

Bake for about 25-35 minutes, testing with a toothpick to see if they are done. The toothpick might come out wet if you poke it into a berry, so don't be alarmed. If, however, you see wet batter sticking to your toothpick, the muffins are not quite ready yet. Allow the muffins to cool for about 10 minutes in the tins before removing them to wire racks to cool. These are best when still a little warm.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Blog Hopping: Pasta and Spinach Salad at Betty's Kitchen

I wonder how many other bloggers and foodies out there do the same thing I do. I see a new cooking show or find a new blog and get so absorbed with the recipes that I have to try a bunch of them right away. I really enjoy seeing what others are making and trying out their new or at least new to me recipes, or their somewhat different variations on things I make all the time. Sometimes trying a slightly new version of your same old recipes brings them new life or in some cases offers a cheaper or faster alternative when you are credit crunching or just pressed for time.

Lately, Betty's Kitchen has caught my attention. She has a series of easy homestyle recipe videos that focus on simplicity and often are quite healthy renditions of some old favorites. All of her recipes contain very few ingredients, and the cost is often right on target with my current budget. I have already mentioned making her tasty muffins and chili cheese nachos previously. Last night I prepared Betty's Spinach Salad with Blueberries & Strawberries and her Baked Penne Rigate.

I love fruity spinach salads and often make my own versions, although I hadn't made one in a while. This easy version was the perfect thing on a night when I didn't really have time to be more elaborate, and it went over very well with my daughter, who was home sick with a bad cold and only wanted salad and fruit for dinner. I left out the cheese this time.

Italian Style pasta bakes are something I make a lot. They are very economical and are the type of dish that tends to please everyone. Baked Penne Rigate calls for ingredients I almost always have on hand ... pasta, spaghetti sauce, ground beef, Italian sausage .. and also would use up some of the cheese I had leftover from making lasagna last week, making this the perfect choice for me. For people who don't like tons of cheese in their pasta bakes, this is perfect, as it only calls for a few slices of mozzarella (I used leftover provolone instead) and a half cup of Parmesan. This was delicious and very meaty. I used Italian style turkey sausage and extra lean ground beef, and also added a bit of garlic.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Credit Crunch Dinners: Chili Three Ways

Considering how easy and inexpensive chili is to make, you would have thought I would make it much more often. Not only are beans extremely cheap, they also taste great and pack a huge nutritional punch. And chili has to be one of the ultimate credit crunching meals. It just stretches so far - I made a fairly small batch a few nights ago and had more than enough to enjoy it for several meals afterwards.

The first night, I simply served it as is, garnished with some shredded cheese and chopped raw red onions for a bit of color and crunch. I used a recipe I found here that called for a crockpot. What a great idea! Why had it never occurred to me to make chili in a slow cooker before? I think I am still on the hunt for the perfect chili recipe for my tastes, but the crockpot method was a real winner.

The next night, I transformed some of the leftover chili into Chili Cheese Nachos. Using a recipe I found here as a guide, I added some refried beans with mild green chilies to some of my crockpot chili leftovers and heated it up. I then poured that over some tortilla chips, sprinkled cheese over the top, and baked at 400F for about 5-10 minutes, until the cheese was fully melted. I then garnished the nachos with some jalapeno slices and sour cream.

Meal three was just Chili Dogs, steamed hotdogs with some of the chili-refried beans mixture spooned on top, and garnished with red onions and brown mustard.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Lasagna Dinner with Peach Cobbler for Dessert

My daughter had a friend sleep over this weekend, so I decided to make my standard, easy lasagna for dinner. This is one of those simple recipes I can make without really thinking about it, and it generally seems to please anyone who tastes it. It makes a ton of food, but the remaining servings freeze beautifully. I normally would have made my own sauce for this, but I wasn't feeling up to making it this time, so I tried some bottled sauce by Emeril Lagasse; about 1 full jar is plenty for this recipe.

I start by parboiling the noodles, which is simply dipping them into boiling water for a few minutes until they become pliable. I then set them out on cooling racks while I get the rest of the ingredients ready. It costs a lot more to buy the "no boil" lasagna noodles and I have found that if you simply use the ordinary dry lasagna sheets, they sometimes can rob too much moisture from the rest of the recipe. Parboiling them doesn't take very long at all, the noodles retain their shape enough to lay them straight in the pan without tearing, and the lasagna comes out with the correct balance of moisture.

This particular version of lasagna is more the Italian-American style, meaning there is no bechamel sauce as would be more typical in true European versions. The filling is simply a mixture of ricotta cheese (or in a pinch you can use well drained small curd cottage cheese), some chopped parsley, some freshly grated Parmesan cheese, and some shredded mozzarella, bound together with an egg or two and seasoned with some garlic, salt and pepper. I then layer the parboiled noodles, some meat sauce, and some of the filling, then top it all off with some slices of provolone or mozzarella cheese, cover tightly with foil, and bake for about 45 minutes. After baking, I allow the lasagna to rest while I heat up some garlic bread in the oven. The resting period allows the lasagna to settle and cool slightly, so you don't end up scalding your tongue or having gloppy cheese oozing all over when you cut into the slices. You can find my Lasagna recipe already posted here.

My local grocery store had huge, gorgeous Georgia peaches on sale this week, so I decided to try out Paula Deen's recipe for Fresh Peach Cobbler. There seems to be quite a difference in the types of cobblers you get, depending on where they are served and who makes them. Some versions have the filling on the bottom, and a cookie like dough is placed on top of the filling in small rounds. Other versions have a somewhat wetter batter-like topping that gets haphazardly dropped on top of the filling, almost like dumplings. Paula's version starts with the batter on the bottom, with the filling set on top. As the cobbler bakes, the filling sinks and the batter rises, producing an almost cake like topping. It was very good, not too rich, just right. And what a difference it makes using fresh peaches. This made just a small family sized cobbler, which was perfect.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

I was in the Mood for Muffins

I recently discovered Betty's Kitchen and her very nice collection of simple, easy recipes. When I saw her video demo of Cracklin' Oat Bran Muffins, I knew right away that I had to give them a try. Cracklin' Oat Bran cereal is very crunchy, as if you bashed up a crunchy honey & cinnamon granola bar. I've always kind of liked it, although I have never actually eaten it as a breakfast cereal, but rather as something to nibble on for energy in a snack mix. Using Cracklin' Oat Bran as an ingredient in a muffin sounded really clever and definitely something I wanted to test out.

In Betty's recipe, two cups of this cereal get soaked for about 20 minutes in milk. The softened mixture then gets stirred into a quick, extremely easy, and very tasty muffin batter of self-rising flour, a little sugar, an egg, and a very small amount of oil (the recipe is in the link above). They puffed up into nice tall, golden domes, making them look very appealing. The outside crisped up just a bit more than I would have personally liked, but the interior was soft and pillowy and oh so tasty. For a healthier muffin, these really worked out well.

They tasted so rich and buttery, but there is not actually any butter added to the recipe, just a little canola oil. If you don't have any Cracklin' Oat Bran, I think you could easily substitute crunchy granola or break up some granola bars. I will certainly be making these again. These even passed the I'm-getting-older-so-now-I'm-suddenly-picky daughter test, although she did suggest adding some chopped apples next time.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Zucchini Pineapple Tea Loaf

I have fond memories of eating zucchini bread as a child. I remember clearly the first time I ever tasted it, sitting outside in my neighbor's yard on a sunny day. I was handed a gorgeous slice of bread that tasted more like cake, with a cinnamony cookie-like scent, speckled with nuts. I can remember how the sunlight made the tiny green flecks of the zucchini look like emerald chips scattered across the bread. It was delicious and I was from that moment on, hooked. Zucchini bread had entered the ranks of my favorites foods on earth. Sadly, since I was very young at the time, I was not quite at the age where I was comfortable demanding recipes, and in fact, was probably not even cooking much yet without the assistance of my grandmother or mom. If mom ever pried the recipe out of my neighbor, it has probably been lost, as I can't remember mom ever making it.

I tried a lot of zucchini bread recipes, enjoying many of them, even though none quite matched that first slice in taste. I had finally found a recipe I liked a lot, enough to repeat making, and for a while, that was "my" zucchini bread recipe. But then I moved next door to a bubbly, friendly decorating student named Tobi. She also loved to bake and offered me a zucchini bread baking challenge. She bet me that hers was better, and I was up for it. I was a winner either way, with two loaves of a favorite treat to test out. I baked my then favorite recipe, she baked hers. And well, one bite into hers and I knew she had a real winner. It was so moist and tender, and the color was beautiful. The secret to its moistness and flavor was crushed pineapple. She very kindly shared the recipe, and a long-standing friendship was started.

So here I give you Tobi's Fabulous Zucchini-Pineapple bread:
(makes 2 loaves)

wet mixture:
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 cups shredded zucchini (leave the skin on)
1 cup canola or sunflower oil
2 tsp vanilla
2 cups sugar
1 (8 ounce) can crushed pineapple, drained

dry mixture:
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking powder
1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
3/4 tsp nutmeg
1 cup chopped walnuts

Preheat oven to 350 F and have ready two 9x5" sized loaf tins, lined with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, thoroughly mix together the wet ingredients. In a small bowl, mix together the dry ingredients and the nuts. Combine the two mixtures together, stirring with a wooden spoon only long enough to combine everything together, leaving no dry patches. Overmixing will make the bread flat and tough. Pour the bread batter into the prepared pans and bake for about 1 hour to 1 hour and 10 minutes, or until a toothpick tests clean when poked into the center. If the bread is browning too much, tent with foil.

Allow the loaves to cool completely in the tins. If you try to take them out too soon, they will fall apart into a pile of moist crumbs. If you can stand to wait even longer, this bread tastes better after being chilled overnight.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Cooking with Melissa: Yummy Shrimp Linguine with Roasted Broccoli

Since moving back to the US, I have had a dire lack of really good and fresh seafood, which strikes me as highly ironic. Florida is so very much in contact with huge bodies of water, it just seemed natural to me that fresh seafood would not be hard at all to come by. Unfortunately, at least in this area of Florida, I haven't found a great source for fresh fish yet. I am still on the hunt, and I am certain I will track down something, I am even keeping cooler bags in my trunk just in case I spy something while out exploring. Shrimp, at least, is one of the few fish items I have always found acceptable after freezing, so Melissa's Lemony Shrimp Scampi and Linguine jumped out at me and cried make me, make me!

Shrimp was even on sale, for $4.99/pound, and her recipe only required 3/4 lb, so I was already off to a good start. As luck would have it, broccoli, lemons, and linguine were also all on sale, so this meal was definitely not only fitting the theme of her "10 dollar promise" on the show, but my budget was pretty happy about it too ;) All of the remaining ingredients were kitchen staples, so I was in and out of the store very quickly.

I started heating the water for my pasta while I prepped my ingredients. I can tell you right now that "easy peel" on a package of frozen shrimp is a slight misnomer. The shells have a slit cut into them, so that you can peel it apart and remove it faster than if you had to make the slits yourself. This only ended up saving a minimal amount of my time, as every single shrimp still had a nasty black sandy vein. This has to be one of the most tedious and miserable tasks in cleaning shrimp. It took ages. AGES. And I still had to butterfly each shrimp afterwards! Grr. Needless to say, my pasta was completely cooked and waiting for me by the time I even started the shrimp stock.

While the shrimp stock was bubbling away, I decided to get my broccoli in the oven. It was very simple - drizzle each stalk with olive oil, add some seasoning, then roast for 15 minutes, flip over, sprinkle on a touch of Parmesan and roast a little longer. (Melissa's recipe said another 5 minutes, next time I am going with 10). I have to say that this part of the meal was its shining star. What a wonderful, delicious, easy to make side dish. The broccoli stalks looked gorgeous and roasting them made them taste like a snack, something you want to pick up with your fingers and nibble on the sly. I think I have a new favorite way to serve broccoli. The recipe can be found here.

The shrimp and sauce took almost no time at all to cook. Once the stock was finished, it was just a matter of sauteeing the shrimp briefly, removing them from pan, adding the sauce ingredients and letting the sauce reduce down. I refreshed my slightly dried out linguine with some boiling water and added it to the sauce, which it happily drank up. The shrimp, sauce, and pasta all get tossed together and then it is finally ready.

It turned out delicious, although I think the shrimp would have been better served if they had been cooked at the very last minute in a separate pan, as they were perfect when I first removed them, but got cold and almost overcooked while sitting in their own steam waiting on the sauce reduction. This is a good recipe with great flavor, but I think I will still go back to my usual and much simpler go-to scampi recipe, which is every bit as good and does not require quite as many messy and time-consuming steps.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Putting my own spin on traditional Manx Bonnag

I have been hosting a two month long culinary tour of the British Islands & Ireland over on and this week's stop is the Isle of Man. Not the most well known of the islands, recipes for Manx cuisine are pretty hard to track down. One of the more famous and traditional dishes Manx food is known for is the Bonnag, a sweet bread that although it may resemble an Irish Soda bread, really tastes nothing like it. It has a smooth, crisp crust with a light, soft interior. This is a true slicing bread, and it tastes great toasted and served with some whipped butter and jam.

I researched quite a few different recipes floating around the internet on various Isle of Man websites, and decided to come up with my own version, which I tested using American measuring cups (which measure by volume not weight). I had noticed a bit of disparity from recipe to recipe in the amount of flour to use, which I suspect had a lot to do with people confusing the amount of ounces to use when converting from Metric to Imperial.

Some recipes call for just a plain bread, without fruit or spice, but I had some dried cranberries I needed to use up, so I opted for a berry studded version. It turned out really nice, tender and delicious. Sweet without being too cakey sweet. Perfect with a cup of tea.

Manx Style Berry Bonnag (somewhat based on a version found here)
(makes 1 loaf)

2 tsp lemon juice
1 cup milk (I used skim milk, any is fine), scant, plus a bit extra for brushing the top later
3 cups all purpose flour (plain flour), plus extra for kneading
1 cup sugar
1 tsp baking soda
1 pinch salt
2 Tbsp unsalted butter
1 cup dried cranberries (or any dried berry)
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350 F (175 C)

Pour lemon juice into a measuring cup, then fill to the 1 cup line with milk. Do not stir! Allow to rest for 10-15 minutes. It should thicken a bit. Meanwhile, mix together the dry ingredients (except the dried berries), then rub in the butter until it has been fully incorporated. Stir in the berries. Make a well, then pour in the vanilla and the milk mixture, stirring just enough to combine everything, leaving no dry patches. If you overmix, the dough will get pretty tough, so try to be gentle.

Take a look at your dough.. it should be still quite soft and a bit wet, but it should not still be a gloppy batter. If it is, then add a bit more flour until you do have a mass you can actually scrape out of the bowl into a ball. Drop the dough ball onto a lightly floured surface, then sprinkle a bit more flour over the top of the dough. Dust your hands with some flour while you are at it. Knead very, very gently - just a few times - over handling the dough will make it terribly chewy and dense. Put the dough into a greased 8" round cake tin and slash the top with a knife, making an X. Brush the top with a tiny bit of milk.

Bake for about 45-55 minutes or until a cake tester comes out clean and the loaf is golden brown and sounds hollow on the bottom if you tap it. Allow to cool for 30 minutes on a wire rack before slicing.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Baking the Bake-Off: Project 2 Kiss Me Cake

For the next installment in my Baking the Bake-Off project, I tackled the second winner, from way back in 1950, which was an orange coffeecake called "Orange Kiss Me Cake." This recipe sounded very promising, as I usually love coffeecakes (any excuse to dunk something into coffee...). When comparing my old thrift shop find Pillsbury Bake-Off cookbook and the online version of the recipe, I was very happy to see that this time, there had not been any changes to the ingredients (barring the suggestion to use butter or margarine instead of shortening). Pillsbury's site has assumed today's home cook will use both a food processor and an electric mixer, so they updated the instructions somewhat, which I did find both appropriate and helpful. The main change being that in the original version, you were instructed to hand grind a whole orange, nuts, and raisins together. Thank you Cuisinart for the 2 minutes this step took! I can't imagine having to hand grind those ingredients.

One part of the recipe that stuck out at me was the use of an entire orange. Many citrus based based recipes do call for using the zest and juice of a fruit, but in this recipe, after juicing the orange, the instructions in both versions say to grind up the entire remaining rind and pulp. I hesitated here. Haven't I always been instructed to be careful when zesting? To not dig too deeply down into the bitter white pith hiding beneath the luscious orange colored part of the peel? This recipe seemed to call for the entire thing, pith and all, the only suggestion was to remove the seeds. I decided I wanted to be true to the original recipe, and despite my strong inclination to just scrape off the zest and dig out the flesh, I did as instructed and dropped the whole thing into the bowl of my food processor, added the nuts and raisins, and hit the switch. The smell was wonderful, a strong earthy orangey aroma.

The rest of the cake was pretty straighforward - all of the batter ingredients get mixed together and poured into a large 9x13" pan, baked, then the warm cake is drizzled with the orange juice and liberally coated with cinnamon sugar and nuts. Then there was agonizing hour long wait for the cake to cool and for the juice to setttle into the cake. I plucked off a nut in anticipation. I brewed coffee. Tick Tick Tick.

Finally the hour was up and I could taste the cake. My daughter surprisingly loved it, which I had not expected since she had wrinkled her nose at the Chocolate Orange Drizzle Cake I had made a few months ago. I liked it, could see why it won.. it was a brilliantly economical recipe, and very very moist. Personally, this cake was a bit too orangey flavored for me, in the way orange soda is too orangey and sweet. I could have done with less potent orange and more cinnamon and nut. Or perhaps use grapefruit or lemon .. or maybe even key lime instead, with macadamia nuts.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Discovering a Classic: Red Beans & Rice

You would think that after having lived in several different states in the Southern US, I would have at least tasted the classic Red Beans & Rice before. Growing up in the Northeast, this was not a dish I had been familiar with as a kid. It was not served at home, and I can't recall ever seeing it on a menu. Even when I eventually moved and lived in the South, I still don't remember seeing this advertised on many restaurant menus, unless it perhaps was part of some horrible buffet line on a theme night. If I had tasted it at all, it had not left an imprint on my taste buds and certainly had not been homemade. I think this is more of a home-style dish anyway, not really the sort of thing you would normally even expect to find on a menu. It is inexpensive to make, comforting, and so very easy to prepare. And it is really very tasty. I honestly don't know how I spent my life without it until now.

There are several ways to make this dish, but here is the way I prepared it:

Red Beans & Rice (somewhat based on Goya's recipe)
(4 servings)

2 tsp olive oil, approximately (most versions call for more, but I was happy with this amount)
1 small onion, diced (about 1/2 cup)
2 stalks celery, diced
1 small red bell pepper, seeded, diced
1 pkg Hillshire Farms cooked smoked sausage (I used turkey sausage, as it is less greasy and I like the taste), sliced into rounds) or a few cups of diced ham chunks
1-2 (15 ounce size) cans red or pink beans, drained, rinsed well, and drained again
1 packet Sazon Goya seasoning (I used the Cilantro & Annato flavor) or about 2-3 Tbsp Creole or Cajun Seasoning
1/4-1/2 cup unseasoned tomato sauce or passata
1/4-1/2 cup water
3-4 cups hot cooked rice

Heat oil in a large skillet, then add the onions, peppers, and celery. Saute for about 5-10 minutes over about medium-low heat until the veggies have softened up somewhat. Add the sausage slices and allow to cook about 10 minutes, until the meat has fully heated through, or in the case of the sausage, until it looks like it is covered with droplets of water. Add the beans, tomato sauce, water, and your seasoning blend of choice. I like the Sazon Goya blend because it gives a nice color and flavor without making it taste too salty. Allow this to simmer over low heat for another 10 minutes. Mix the sauce with hot cooked rice and serve. Simple, easy, yummy.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Sometimes.... Cookies are Required

I believe there are certain times in one's life when cookies are required. One such time is when you miss someone you love, or that person is unwell and you want to give him or her a huge box of comfort. My grandma had a stroke recently, so she most certainly qualified for a gigantic box of home baked cookies on both counts. I had already been planning to make some cookies as a birthday gift for my best friend, so I decided to have a massive baking day to send them both some home baked hugs and cheer.

First on my baking list had to be some form of Chocolate Chip Cookies. I have a few favorite recipes I turn to for this quintessential and universally loved cookie, sometimes adding coffee for a mocha flavor, or peanut butter in place of some of the butter for a really rich nuttiness, or stirring in other crunchy bits such as dried cherries or walnuts. This time however, I stuck with a basic plain chocolate chip recipe I have made several times before, and just used really terrific chocolate, Ghirardelli 60% bittersweet baking chips. The recipe I used can be found here.

I also made a huge batch of my favorite Spice Cookies which are crispy on the outside like a gingersnap, and chewy on the inside. The scent of these cookies baking is so amazing! The dough is heavily laced with a mix of ginger, cloves, cardamon, cinnamon, and nutmeg. As these bake, your whole house smells as if you live inside a gingerbread castle. I have the recipe posted here.

My stepmom has a really good Oatmeal Raisin Cookie recipe, so I made a batch of those as well. It was only after tossing in a huge handful of nuts that it occurred to me that my grandmother might not want nuts in her cookies. I tried to recall ever being served anything at her house that contained nuts, and while my head was filled with images of pound cakes, rice pudding, and lemon meringue pie, I could not recall a single treat my grandmother has ever made for me that contained nuts.

Then again, perhaps she thinks I dislike nuts, and therefore never made anything that contained them for me. I used to have a slew of so-called childhood food allergies, which included nuts, although to be very honest I ate them on the sly all the time and never once got sick. I knew full well why the doctor thought I was "allergic to nuts" - my great grandma and I had polished off two massive bags of family-sized peanut M&Ms in one day and that would make any kid sick.

Anyway .... I decided at the last minute to leave out the oatmeal cookies from my Grandma's box and only sent them to my best friend, who as it turns out loves nuts in his cookies but isn't terribly fond of raisins in them. /sigh

Luckily, I also tried out a new recipe for Lemon Crinkle Cookies that made up for the whole raisin-nut faux pas. Like the spice cookies, these were crispy and crinkly on the outside, chewy on the inside ... only these have a soft ribbon of delicious lemony goodness in the center that magically appears while baking. You can't quite see it well in the photo, but the outside is covered in glistening coarse white sugar. These were incredibly scrumptious and I really wished I had made a double batch.

Oh, and in case you were all wondering, my dad sent word that my grandmother is doing quite well. The women in my gene pool are a bit like rubber bands - we tend to bounce back from medical adversity really well. She made a full recovery after her stroke, and is back to her usual self, with no loss of any of the things you normally would associate with such a traumatic event. I know it would be quite romantic to think the cookies had some special powers, but actually she made this recovery before a single cookie had been baked.

And as for my best friend.. he loved the birthday cookies, even polishing off all of the oatmeal cookies, raisins and all.