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.