Getting Better all the Time

I’m trying a new thing. It’s called Let’s Try Not to Waste So Much Time Doing Dumb, Useless Stuff.

I started a new job a couple months ago and one of the many wonderful things about it is the renewed sense of productivity I seem to have gained. When I walk out of the office at the end of the day, I don’t feel like collapsing on the couch as soon as I get home and only getting up to relocate to my bed. Considering I get up insanely early AND have a 40 minute commute, this new development is indeed headline worthy in my little corner of the world.

I’ve been running the errands that typically cut into my weekend. I’ve been cleaning. And exercising! Exercising, people! As in moving around in a healthy-like way. More than that, I’ve been taking the time to do a few things that just make me happy. Enjoying a little retail therapy at the end of the week. Browsing the library, cracking the spines on musty books and discovering new worlds. Sitting at the kitchen table carefully painting my fingernails with my favorite tunes or podcasts on in the background. Snuggling up with Eric on the couch and watching movies we both enjoy. I know that stuff doesn’t sound particularly productive, but seriously, I don’t think I’ve felt this all around awesome in a long time. I think it’s because I’m pushing myself a little harder, but rewarding myself at the same time. Balance. That’s the word.

The most surprising side effects of this new found productivity, aside from feeling like a rock star, is the way I’ve unplugged. Instead of picking up the remote, I’m picking up a book. Instead of the two us in different rooms on different laptops, we talk and laugh and spend time together. Instead facebooking and tweeting and email checking, I’m leaving my computer closed. For hours at a time. This is unheard of!

Unfortunately, unplugging is not so good for blogging. It’s the one area I haven’t quite figured out how to work into this new balance. I get distracted by all the things I’ve spent hours not looking at when I’m trying to post and while I’m off doing other things my Google Reader is exploding. My twitter handle is silent. I’m not commenting enough. I’m not pinning enough. I’m not engaging in the blogging community I love so much which is, by nature, ummm…plugged. Yes. This has put a slight damper on my productivity excitement.

So how do you guys do it? How do you balance your blog and everything that comes along with it? Tell me about how blogging fits into your busy life because I desperately need the advice of experts! That’s YOU! I’ve been doing this for almost four years and I still do it wrong most of the time ๐Ÿ˜‰ So give me your secrets. Just don’t say give up watching Parenthood. I mean, I can let Pan Am and possibly The Office go, but I gotta draw the line somewhere. ๐Ÿ˜‰

While you mull that over, let’s eat! Here’s a simple pasta dish fitting for any productive person who needs to get that silly dinner thing out of the way so she can move on to more important things – like painting her nails. ๐Ÿ˜‰

I’m a big fan of sauce-less pasta. If the pasta has enough flavor, it really doesn’t need a thick, goopy sauce masking all the deliciousness. Here we have quite a few textures and flavor profiles combing into something truly outstanding. The broccoli lends a fresh, earthy flavor. The jarred roasted red peppers, a bright, briney tang. Spicy sausage brings meatiness and sustenance and Romano cheese, a salty, nutty bite. Tossed together with chewy orecchiette pasta, it is so completely satisfying. So satisfying, I must say, that I made the entire recipe and ate it for lunch and dinner in one day not once but TWICE before it was all gone. That’s good eating people. And so simple and quick. Add a loaded green salad to up your veggie intake and put this entire meal on the table in 30.

On to more productive things!

ORECCHIETTE WITH BROCCOLI, SAUSAGE AND ROASTED PEPPERS (Recipe adapted from: America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook)

INGREDIENTS:

  • 4 ounces hot Italian sausage, casings removed
  • 1 cup jarred roasted red peppers, rinsed and chopped (about one 12-oz jar)
  • 6 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 bunch of broccoli (about 1 1/2 pounds), cut into 1 inch florets
  • Salt
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1 pound orecchiette pasta
  • 2 ounces Pecorino Romano cheese, grated (about 1 cup)
  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • Fresh basil, for garnish (optional)

DIRECTIONS:

  1. Bring 4 quarts of water to boil in a large pot for the pasta.
  2. Meanwhile, cook the sausage in a large non-stick skillet over medium-high heat, breaking it up as it cooks, until browned, about 5 minutes. Stir in the peppers and garlic and cook until just fragrant, about 15 seconds.
  3. Stir in the broccoli, 1/2 teaspoon salt and water. Cover the skillet, increase the heat to high and cook until the broccoli begins to turn bright green, about 2 minutes. Uncover the skillet and continue to cook, stirring frequently, until the liquid has evaporated and the broccoli is tender, about 5 minutes.
  4. When the water is boiling, stir in 1 tablespoon of salt and the orecchiette. Cook, stirring often, until the pasta is almost tender but still a little firm.
  5. Reserve 1/2 cup of the pasta cooking water, then drain the pasta and return it to the pot. Site in the sausage mixture, cheese and oil, tossing to coat. Add the reserved pasta water as needed to loosen before serving. Serve with chopped fresh basil and additional cheese, if desired. Serves 4 to 6.

ENJOY! ๐Ÿ™‚

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Filed under pasta, sausage, veggies

Heart to Heart

I’ve never been the type to get really into Valentine’s Day. I don’t dress myself in head to toe red and pink or hand out foil-wrapped chocolate hearts to all my coworkers. It’s just another day. Another cold, wintery February day right smack dab in the middle of a busy work week. Our alarm will sound at 10 after 5 and there will be no breakfast in bed. We will both work all day. Eric will trudge home after 6 dog tired. There will be no fancy dinner. Just a couple of old marrieds, sitting on the same side of the kitchen table so they can both see the Seinfeld rerun on TV while they eat their taco casserole.

Wow. We sound lame. But honestly, it’s a special, cozy, wonderful kind of normal. After nine (NINE! What the what?!) Valentine’s Days together there may not be grand gestures and rose petals and frosty diamonds nestled in red velvet, but there is love. Pure and simple and true. The kind that only gets stronger as each year passes. Valentine’s Day is a good reminder of just how lucky I am to have my Snuggly-Wuggly-Pookie-Boo-Boo-Bear (is that gushy enough for ya?) in my life. ๐Ÿ˜‰

Did you know my heart still flutters when I hear the garage door open and see his truck pull into the driveway every evening? After all this time, my favorite moment of the day is still the moment when he walks in. I’ll never tire of seeing him smile, hearing him laugh. He says thank you when I make him dinner. He helps me empty the dishwasher without me even asking! He brings home candy I like when he’s been at Menard’s buying screws or bolts and goes to pick up the pizza when it’s raining so I don’t have to go out. He’s so thoughtful. And kind. So smart. Like seriously brilliant. And funny! So funny. He makes me laugh every single day. Even when I don’t feel like laughing. Especially then.

He says he’s pretty much the luckiest guy ever to have me around but I say *I’m* the lucky one. How he puts up with all this crazy, I’ll never know. Maybe Valentine’s Day is just another day, but it’s another day in a pretty fantastic life together.

Eric was out of town this past weekend seeing his family so I decided to surprise him with some lovey-dovey cookies upon his return. These deep, dark chocolate hearts layered with sweet and succulent cherry preserves just scream “come on baby light my fire.” ๐Ÿ˜‰ Deb at Smitten Kitchen calls theseย  Brownie Roll-Out Cookies which is a spot on description. They’re tender and sweet and surprisingly chocolately and fudgey-flavored. Chocolate cookies can be kind of flat and boring, in my opinion, but these hold their own. I munched on an insane number of the tiny hearts I cut out of the center of these to make the windows. They are the perfect all purpose chocolate cookie – sandwich them with a layer of peanut butter cream, dip them in white chocolate and sprinkle with colored sugar, top ’em with a generous smear of buttercream. You cannot go wrong. When stuffed with preserves and dusted with powdered sugar, they are a Valentine’s Day treat worthy of someone special.

I went back and forth debating whether to use strawberry or cherry preserves here. I knew both would compliment the chocolate cookies well, but I wanted these to be special. Let’s face it, strawberry is sweet and innocent. Cherry is…so much more. Dark and passionate, cherries leave their mark. Strawberry is for your crush. Cherry is for your true love.

CHOCOLATE CHERRY HEARTS (Cookie recipe from: Smitten Kitchen)

INGREDIENTS:

  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 cup unsalted salted butter, softened
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2/3 cup unsweetened cocoa (I used dutch-process)
  • 1 12-oz jar cherry preserves
  • Powdered sugar for dusting

DIRECTIONS:

  1. In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, and baking powder. Add the butter, sugar, eggs, vanilla and cocoa to the bowl of an electric mixer and beat until fully combined and fluffy. Gradually add the flour mixture, beating until incorporated after each addition. Turn the dough out onto a sheet of plastic wrap and wrap tightly. Refrigerate until firm, at least one hour.
  2. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly flour a work surface and rolling pin and roll out the the dough to a quarter inch thickness. Cut the dough into hearts using a medium size cookie cutter. Using a smaller heart cutter, cut a second heart out of the center of half the cookies. Bake on a parchment lined baking sheet for 6 to 8 minutes. Remove to a wire rack to cool completely.
  3. Separate the solid cookies from the ones with the heart cutout. Dust the cutout cookies with powdered sugar. Spread a thin layer of preserves* on the flat side of a solid heart and top with a sugared cutout heart. Makes about 2 dozen sandwich cookies.

*Note: You may want to nuke the preserves for 10 to 15 seconds to loosen it a bit for easier spreading.

ENJOY! ๐Ÿ™‚

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Filed under chocolate, cookies, fruit

Cowboys like Us.

Oh, hey there. Hi.

The following story leans toward the 13 in PG-13. Parental guidance is suggested. The unsavory language has been censored but you’ll likely be able to figure it out. I’m warning you because I’m cool like that and I’m giving you a chance to quietly file out of here and find more appropriate reading elsewhere. I do not mean to offend, but apologies in advance if that happens. You know what they say…

Haters gonna hate.

Anyway. This story is based on actual events. Actually, it’s 100% true. I know. I was there. ๐Ÿ˜‰

The 10 a.m. section of Principals of Accountancy 1 had to be, without a doubt, the most well-attended large lecture on campus. In the fall of 2001, it took all of about 3 weeks for about 750 cocky college sophomores to realize – skip lecture, FAIL Professor C’s exams. There was no all-nighter too exhausting, no hangover too brutal, no snooze button too tempting to keep us away from that lecture. Like a dangling a carrot on a string in front of a pony, my friends.

And so, every Tuesday and Thursday morning, we filed into Foellinger Auditorium to PACK the joint, main floor to balcony. We scribbled feverishly to keep up, bent over our tiny desks, pens flying. There was no time to even look up. Every class ended with a stiff neck and a hand cramp.

One sleepy morning closing in on midterms and deep in through of debits and credits and journals and ledgers, the sound of large, heavy doors banging open in the back of the auditorium caused a collective jump in every seat. Professor C. stopped mid-sentence. Pens halted. Every head turned, every neck stretched like a rubber band as a whooping and hollering stranger rushed down the center aisle.

An audible gasp rippled through the crowd, followed by low, muffled laughter. With his arms up and fists pumping in a blaze of enthusiastic victory, this sudden mid-class distraction was skinny, pale…and practically naked. He sported nothing but a cowboy hat, a red bandana and, wait for it, leopard print thong underwear. Every pair of eyes grew wide in surprise, mouths hung open in stunned silence. Everyone looked around in do-you-see what-I-see? disbelief.

The naked stranger jumped up on stage and shook his bare little bottom for his newly captive audience. All at once the crowd began to clap and cheer wildly. Whistles bounced off the towering ceiling, echoing and piercing through the room. A group in the balcony, no doubt the recently activated frat boys who put the poor pledge up to this, were on their feet, stomping and shouting like the entire thing was a spectator sport.

Suddenly, he turned to face us. He held up his hands and bowed his head to silence the crowd. Shhhhh. He’s gonna say something. A hush fell over the auditorium. He looked up, flashed a million dollar smile, raised his arms above his head once again and shouted to the rooftops at the top his lungs….

“I am Cowboy Dan and I am one bad- mother-!”

Cowboy Dan visiting my accounting lecture is about where my experience with cowboys ends. Now, I know a thing or two about farm boys, who really aren’t cowboys, and I happen to know they love cookies. Especially big, chunky cookies loaded with goodies. I don’t know if cowboys share the same affection, but I’m going to go ahead and say yes. Why not, ya know? And I gotta think a cowboy would love a cookie named especially for him.

These Cowboy Cookies from the Martha Stewart Cookies book are creeping up there as one of my favorite cookies to date. They’re loaded with chocolate chunks, toasted pecans, hearty oats and flaky coconut. They’re a little rugged, a little rough around the edges and probably aren’t going to win a beauty contest any time soon. They’re a bit unassuming, but strong in their silence. Very cowboy-like, if you ask me.

Oh, hey Coconut Haters? Fear not! These cookies are not at all coconut flavored, it’s just another pleasant textural profile to the final product. Try it, you’ll like it. Your cowboys will like them too.

COWBOY COOKIES (Recipe Source: Martha Stewart Cookies)

INGREDIENTS:

  • 3/4 cup pecans (3 ounces)
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 3/4 cup packed light-brown sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1 1/2 cups old-fashioned oats (not instant or quick-cooking)
  • 6 ounces semisweet chocolate, cut into 1/4-inch chunks
  • 1/2 cup shredded unsweetened coconut (unsweetened coconut is a specialty product that I’ve never found at my regular grocery store, I went ahead and used sweetened and it was fine. I reduced the sugar by about tablespoon)
  • Cooking spray

DIRECTIONS:

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spread pecans in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet. Toast in oven, tossing occasionally, until darkened and fragrant, 10 to 13 minutes. Let cool, then coarsely chop. Into a bowl, sift together flour, baking soda, salt, and baking powder.
  2. With an electric mixer cream butter and both sugars until pale and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in vanilla.
  3. With mixer on low speed, gradually add flour mixture, beating until just incorporated. Beat in oats, chocolate, pecans, and coconut until just combined. (Dough can be covered with plastic and refrigerated up to 3 days.)
  4. Coat baking sheets with cooking spray; line with parchment, and spray parchment. Using a 1 1/2-inch ice-cream scoop or a tablespoon, drop dough onto prepared sheets, about 3 inches apart.
  5. Bake, rotating sheets halfway through, until edges of cookies begin to brown, 16 to 18 minutes. Transfer sheets to wire racks to cool 5 minutes. Transfer cookies to racks to cool completely. Makes about 5 dozen.

ENJOY! ๐Ÿ™‚

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Filed under chocolate, cookies

Man’s Best Friend

This post is dedicated to a few of my neighbors.

This post is for the happy, loveable yellow lab across the street. She sits in her yard, head cocked to one side, staring longingly across the road when we pull up to our mailbox. Oh, she’s thinking, I want to come and see you SO bad, but there’s this electric fence in the way. Oh please, oh please, come say hi to me!

This post is for the bulldog next door. With his feet turned in slightly, I imagine the low, lumbering notes of a tuba playing in his head as he strolls about, sniffing the grass with his pudgy little nose.

This post is for the dynamic duo from two doors down. An inquisitive pair I have affectionately nicknamed the Tweedle Twins. Occasionally, the Tweedle Twins are seen wandering about, not afraid to explore beyond the boundaries of their own yard. Tweedle Dee is the clear leader – a small-but-fiesty, salt and pepper colored shih tzu. He’s always first to step off the curb and trot down the road en route to some mighty adventure in a neighbors yard. Trotting behind, as if playing a never ending game of follow the leader, is Tweedle Dum, a black lab mix with a rather empty but affectionate gaze. When Tweedle Dee chases a squirrel up a tree, Tweedle Dum does the same. When Tweedle Dee wanders the edge of the forest, Tweedle Dum follows closely behind, exploring each twig and weed as Dee did just seconds earlier. They are a couple of best friends out making neighborhood mischief. I love watching them through my windows.

It’s true we don’t have any pets of our own, but when my pal Branny put the call out for entries for her second Souper Bowl charity event, I just knew I had to participate this time around. See, Branny is a true animal lover and for every entry of a delightful bowl of soup she receives for this event, she will donate $1 to the ASPCA – a definite worthy cause and one I fully support. In the spirit of giving, this post is dedicated to all the furry, four-legged residents in our neighborhood. ๐Ÿ™‚ It’s not too late for you to participate too! All you gotta do is whip up some soup, which you totally had planned this week anyway, right? Being that it’s January and all that. Check out Branny’s blog for all the details. ๐Ÿ™‚

This Lasagna Soup is like a man’s best friend. Spicy sausage? Yes. Pasta? Of course! Cheesy goodness. Duh. See, totally man-friendly. My man, skeptical of soup most of the time, loved it. I did too. It really does mimic the flavor profile of lasagna. With chunks of spicy Italian sausage, juicy tomatoes and rich ricotta, it’s got all the goodies without the all the spreading and layering of a traditional lasagna. The best part is the generous dollop of ricotta that dots each serving. The ricotta is mixed with some freshly grated Parmesan and mozzarella, and when plopped into the steaming bowl, begins to melt almost instantly, creating a creamy richness in each bite. Oh, it is SO good. Best enjoyed on a cold, snowy January night, of course, where you can warm your hands on the side of the bowl. Maybe even with a furry friend asleep at your feet.

LASAGNA SOUP (Recipe Source: Adapted from Closet Cooking)

INGREDIENTS:

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 pound hot Italian sausage, casings removed
  • 1 small onion, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds, crushed
  • 4 cups chicken broth
  • 1 28 ounce can diced tomatoes, undrained
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1 teaspoon oregano
  • 1 bay leaf
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1/2 pound curly pasta
  • 4 ounces low fat ricotta
  • 1/2 cup Parmesan, grated
  • 1/2 cup shredded mozzarella
  • 1 handful basil, chopped

DIRECTIONS:

  1. Heat the olive oil in a large stock pot over medium heat. Add the sausage and cook until lightly browned, about 10 minutes, breaking it apart as it browns. Remove sausage from the pot to drain. Discard all but about 1/2 tablespoon of the drippings in the pot.
  2. Add the onion to the reserved drippings and saute until tender and translucent, about 5 minutes.
  3. Add the garlic, red pepper flakes and fennel and saute until fragrant, about one minute. Return the sausage to the pot.
  4. Add the chicken broth, tomatoes, tomato paste, oregano, bay leaf, salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  5. Add the pasta and cook until al dente, about 7 to 10 minutes and remove from heat.*
  6. Meanwhile, combine the ricotta, Parmesan and mozzarella in a small bowl. Serve the soup garnished with a tablespoon of the cheese mixture and top with chopped basil. Serves 5 to 6.

*I always find myself conflicted when it comes to cooking pasta IN soup. On the one hand, I like it, because I think the pasta release just enough starch into the soup to give it a touch of silkiness. On the other hand, there’s Sponge Syndrome to deal with. You know, the next day rolls around and you’re ready to ladle yourself up a big bowl of soup leftovers (which are the best leftovers EVER) and, much to your dismay, you find you no longer have soup. The pasta has absorbed the liquid – just like a sponge! D’OH!

I will say, I DID cook the pasta in the soup this time around and I DID have a major case of Sponge Syndrome the next day. However, it is easily restored to it’s former soup glory by mixing a bit of chicken broth spiked with a shot of tomato base in a sauce pan, adding your leftover “soup” and reheating gently on the stove top. Good as new. You may also cook the pasta separate and add that to the soup at the end, if you prefer. ๐Ÿ™‚

ENJOY!

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Filed under pasta, sausage, soup

Daily Doldrums

As much as I love my kitchen, let’s be honest, it’s kind of boring in there. And standing in front of the counter peeling, dicing, chopping and what not tends to feel a lot like work. Sure the sharing and eating part is fun, but the prep can be tedious if you’re not in the mood. And the dreaded clean up! Ugh. Sometimes I don’t make an item not because it’s time consuming, not because I have to stand there and chop, but simply because I don’t want to clean up the mess I’m about to make. I hate the clean up part!

Cooking and baking is a lot of fun, but I often find I need a little help to make it…more fun.

Multitasking. It’s what I do.

There’s music, of course. I always have my laptop nearby so putting my entire iTunes library on shuffle is always an option. Sometimes a Christmas song plays in it’s entirety in the heat of summer because I’ve got raw chicken goop all over my hands and can’t switch it. It happens. What can ya do? Sometimes I wrinkled up my nose and think, why the heck is that on here? I don’t even like that song! I’ve got two thousand tracks, a stinker or two is bound to sneak in there. Sometimes I skip the iTunes all together and go for one of my highly embarrassing Pandora stations. (Ahem. Glee Cast. Cough, cough. NKOTB. Throat clear.) Two things: 1. The music from Rent will never go out of style. 2. I still know every single word to The Right Stuff. You do too. ๐Ÿ˜‰

When my awful, off-key singing gets so bad even I can’t stand it anymore, listening to other people talk is a nice distraction. Nothing makes a mundane kitchen task (dishes, anyone?) go faster than an episode or two of This American Life. Joy and Tracy keep me company once a week. Even audiobooks have found their way into the kitchen! I’ve only recently discovered books on CD, because, apparently, I was absent from real-life for the majority of the 1990s. My library has a great selection, likely because no one listens to books on CDs anymore. ๐Ÿ˜‰

The right entertainment can get me totally psyched up to be in the kitchen even when I normally wouldn’t feel like it. I have great admiration for those who get up on a weekend morning and head straight into the kitchen to whip up a delicious breakfast. I am not one of those people. Weekend mornings are for eating cereal and lounging. I like to putz around on the interwebs for hours in my pajamas. Eric sits and watches guys on ESPN yell about football. Very little, if anything, gets done before 11:00 a.m. Then we grumble our way through our chores until well into the afternoon, cursing ourselves for not getting a move on a little quicker in the morning. It’s kind of a ritual.

I had an audiobook on loan from the library that I really wanted to finish before it was due back, so I decided to finish it up this morning while I whipped up some fresh baked donuts. What a great start to the day. There was nothing but relaxation, chuckles (it wasn’t a very serious book*) and good eats, everything a Sunday morning should be and more. Maybe this making breakfast thing isn’t so bad after all.

*It was Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret. ๐Ÿ˜‰ Judy Blume, I will love you always and forever. I don’t care if it has been exactly 17 years since I was 12. That is all.

These little treats were like a burst of fresh, fruity sunshine on a winter’s morning. (Although…what winter, right? Heh. I’m not complaining! Also don’t want to jinx it so I best just shut up about it.) I just adore winter citrus and when paired with frozen berries, you can almost feel the sand between your toes. I’ve had my eye on these Blueberry Donuts with Orange Glaze ever since Nicole posted them (please, please check her out! Her blog is seriously OUTSTANDING! She posts such a great variety healthified dishes, I find myself bookmarking something from her blog at least once a week. She rocks!) and I’m kicking myself for not getting around to making them sooner. I thought the little chocolate donuts were king, but these may bump those from the top spot. They are soft, delicately orange flavored and bursting with berry goodness. The glaze is a great sweet contrast to the tart berries, everything works together in perfect harmony. I scarfed two in about 3.7 seconds. Then later I had another. Say goodbye to the daily kitchen doldrums and make these quick!

BAKED BLUEBERRY DONUTS WITH ORANGE GLAZE (Recipe Source: As seen at Prevention RD)

INGREDIENTS:

For the donuts:

  • 2 cups cake flour (or 1 3/4 cup all-purpose flour + 1/4 cup cornstarch)
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • 1 tsp orange zest
  • 3/4 cup low-fat buttermilk, at room temperature
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten, at room temperature
  • 2 Tbsp unsweetened applesauce (I used canola oil – the applesauce I had in the fridge had gone fuzzy. Ewwww!)
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup frozen blueberries (no need to thaw!)

For the orange glaze:

  • 1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
  • 1 Tbsp whole milk
  • 1 Tbsp freshly squeezed orange juice + more to thin out, if desired
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract

DIRECTIONS:

  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
  2. Sift the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt into a large bowl and whisk together. Add the orange zest and mix it in.
  3. Add the buttermilk, eggs, applesauce or oil and vanilla extract. Gently mix until just combined, do not over-mix. Fold in blueberries
  4. Lightly grease a donut pan with non-stick spray. Spoon the batter into each cup, filling about half way. Bake 8-9 minutes or until the donuts spring back when lightly touched.
  5. To make the glaze, combine powdered sugar, milk, orange juice and vanilla in a bowl. Add additional orange juice or milk, 1/2 teaspoon at a time until desired consistency is reached.
  6. Let the donuts cool in the pan for about 4 minutes. Then remove from pan to a wire rack to cool completely
  7. Dip one side of each doughnut in the glaze. Place on the wire rack and let the excess drip away. Allow the glaze to dry and serve immediately. Yield: about 21 doughnuts.

ENJOY! ๐Ÿ™‚

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Traditions

Christmas is all about traditions. Like footie pajamas from Santa and popsicle stick ornaments handmade with love by little hands. Traditions are what make the holidays special. Tattered recipe cards smudged with chocolate. A blizzard of colored sugar over spritz cookies. An old tune that makes you smile. Tradition must be what keeps us coming back to this crazy, stressful thing called Christmas year after year. Without all those tiny nostalgic moments, the story that goes along with that ornament, the first taste of that signature holiday dish, this time of year just wouldn’t be the same.

When I was much younger, one of my favorite holiday traditions was going “downtown.” Chicago, that is. The Saturday before Christmas, we’d bundle up in mittens and scarves and head in to the Windy City. I loved the way the skyline appeared, familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. Buildings blocked the already weakened winter sun, throwing cold shadows across miles of city sidewalks as we walked with a certain quickness in our step, trying to outrun the Jack Frost nipping at our noses.

After pausing for a photo op in front of the tree in Daley Plaza…

We’d walk another couple blocks to my favorite part of the trip – Marshall Fields and their fabulous holiday window displays. Tiny mechanized figures wove an intricate story behind glass that stretched an entire city block. When you’re 6, 7, 8…it was like pure magic.

When our noses where sniffly and our fingers and toes cold as ice, we’d push through the revolving glass doors under that famous clock and step inside to get warmed up. I loved going up to the higher floors and looking down on the Walnut Room with it’s beautiful towering tree, crisp white tablecloths and elegant place settings. It always made me want to trade my blue jeans and gym shoes for a red velvet dress, cream colored tights, and shiny black patent Mary Janes. And if you inhaled real deep, mingling among the sweet, powdery scent of perfume and the deep, earthy smell of leather there was a hint of something delicious in the air….

CHOCOLATE.

Boxes of Field’s famous Frango chocolates (handmade in the State Street store until well into the 90s) were always staple at holiday time. Just lifting the lid on that little green box smells like Christmas and memories. We all know what happened to Field’s (sad face) but luckily these little minty chocolate gems are still available at….that other store. I tend to snatch a box when they’re on sale. For nostalgia.

Another thing I tend to snatch up on sale is cookbooks. When I spotted this Marshall Field’s Cookbook in a used bookstore, I just couldn’t resist it. The best part? There’s an entire chapter devoted to treats featuring those tiny, tasty mints.

These Frango Mint Pots de Creme are like chocolate pudding all grown up. While I was a fan of simply stuffing chocolates in my mouth until I was ready to explode when I was younger, now I find it’s fun to take familiar flavors and turn them into something a bit more sophisticated. These creamy individual desserts are just the ticket.

What we have here is basically an ice cream base that’s baked instead of frozen. Milk. Yes. Cream. Of course. Egg yolks for extra richness and yumminess. Hells yes. Sometimes I find custards to be a bit too eggy for my tastes, but this….this is just creamy, minty, chocolatey, melt-in-your mouth perfection. With a generous dollop of fresh whipped cream and a few chocolate shavings, make these and you could have a new holiday tradition on your hands. You’ve been warned. ๐Ÿ™‚

FRANGO MINT POTS DE CRรˆME (Recipe Source: The Marshall Field’s Cookbook)

INGREDIENTS:

  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 16 Frango mint chocolates, chopped, plus extra for garnish
  • 1 1/2 cups heavy cream
  • 6 egg yolks
  • 1/3 cup granulated sugar
  • Fresh whipped cream, for serving

DIRECTIONS:

  1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees and place the rack in the center position. Bring milk to a simmer in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the chopped chocolates and stir until melted. Remove from heat and stir in the cream. Set aside to cool slightly.
  2. Whisk together the egg yolks and sugar until well combined but not foamy. Slowly pour the chocolate mixture into the egg mixture, stirring constantly. Strain through a fine mesh sieve. Let the mixture rest for ten minutes at room temperature.
  3. Divide the mixture among six 3/4-cup ramekins. Set the ramekins in a baking dish and place the dish in the oven. Pour hot water into the baking dish to reach about halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Cover the pan with foil and bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until just set at the edges but still soft in the center. Do not overbake.
  4. Remove from the oven and allow to cool. Serve warm, at room temperature, or chilled. The custards can be made up to two days in advance and covered and refrigerated until ready to serve. Serve with whipped cream and chocolate shavings. Serves 6.

ENJOY! ๐Ÿ™‚

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Crafty

If there’s one thing my mom and I can’t resist it’s a good craft fair. I can’t put my finger on what draws us to these hotel ballrooms and school gymnasiums filled with handcrafted wares, but if there’s one in the area, you better believe we’re ponying up the three bucks to get in and dropping our names into the box for a chance to win a door prize.

Maybe it’s the spicy scent of cinnamon potpourri. Or the catchy Christmas tunes being pumped in even when the calendar still reads October. Maybe it’s the tiny shred of hope that the snack mix lady, who hasn’t been seen since about 2003, will make a miraculous comeback and be there to share her sweet, crunchy Chex cereal/M&M goodness with the world once again. Whatever the reason, we just can’t seem to stay away.

But nowhere in either of our respective homes does a a smiling country snowman proclaiming ‘Let it Snow’ fit in. Crocheted coasters? My mom already has pile of those she made herself. In like 1978. Wine bottles stuffed with Christmas lights are played. That wreath that looks like Santa’s head complete with floppy arms and legs – uhhh…a little creepy, if we’re being honest.

The items seem to fall into one of two categories: 1) Try Not To Snicker Too Loud Because the Person who Made it is Sitting Right There and Will Feel Bad. 2) That Doesn’t Look Hard to Do At All. Fifty Bucks? Please. We Could SO Make That Ourselves.

If we were, you know, crafty.

We are not crafty. We hold out hope that one day we will be crafty, but that day has yet to arrive. Sad country snowman. ๐Ÿ˜ฆ

So when I find a recipe that’s really just an edible craft project in disguise, I don’t know why I think it will be easy. I fall for it every single time! Blast!

These little Christmas donut bites from Love From the Oven caught my eye in one of those That Doesn’t Look Hard At All, I Could So Do That Myself kind of moments.

A simple mini donut baked up in my trusty, handy-dandy mini donut pan (I don’t use this pan very often. I wonder why. Oh. It’s kind of a pain? Now I remember.), dipped in chocolate (Yup. That always goes super smooth with no trouble at all. Right.), and then decorated with simple edibles. Like candies! And pretzels that look like antlers! Breaking pretzels into antler shapes is not only genius, it’s super easy.

For everyone except for me, of course. Apparently, a soft touch is needed to break pretzels. Evidence would suggest I’m about as gentle as an angry caged lion. THESE PRETZELS ARE MAKING ME THIRSTY! ARGH!

In the end, they came out quite well. Of course, I learned that certain mini chocolate chips have the tendency to make snowman look a little crazed if not downright pissed off. So there’s that. I ate those. Any Christmas treat that gives me the stink eye ends up jammed into my mouth. So there.

These were, of course, a big hit with all that received them. Because, crafty or not, they are pretty darn cute. And pretty darn tasty. As with most crafty projects, they take a little time and a little patience, but the end result is sure to have you coming back for more.

CHRISTMAS DONUT BITES (Donut recipe adapted from Stephanie Cooks, decorations from Love from the Oven)

What you’ll need:

  • Mini donuts (I baked mine using my mini donut pan, the recipe appears below, you could also use plain store bought donuts or fry up some yeast donuts if you’re feeling really ambitious)
  • 5 to 6 ounces semi-sweet chocolate, melted
  • 5 to 6 ounces white chocolate, melted
  • Mini pretzel twists, broken in half to create antler shapes
  • M & M candies in red and orange
  • Large white pearl sprinkles (like these)
  • Mini chocolate chips

What you’ll do:

  • Make donuts cool completely before decorating.
  • For the reindeer, gently press the pretzels into the tops of the donuts and then remove (when you dip the donut in the chocolate, it will sink down into the holes so you can see where to place the antlers. This also acts as a little bit of ‘glue’ to hold them in place.)
  • Holding the donut by the bottom, dip the tops in the melted chocolate. Twist gently to remove the excess and allow it to drip back into the bowl. Turn right side up and reinsert pretzels if using. Place on a wire rack.
  • Gently drop an M&M (red for reindeer nose, orange for snowman nose) into the center of the donut. You may find that it sinks pretty far inside. If that happens, just place a second M&M on top so the nose is prominent.
  • Place two white pearl sprinkles above the nose to for the reindeer eyes. Use mini chocolate chips to make snowman eyes and mouths.
  • Allow the donuts to sit at room temp for the chocolate to set before packaging.

EGGNOG SPICE BAKED DONUTS

*You’ll never ever EVER find me drinking eggnog, but it is a fun holiday flavor to use in baking and one I’m warming up to as of late. These little donuts were a great way to use it!

INGREDIENTS:

  • 1 cup flour
  • Scant 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 tbsp baking powder
  • 2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp nutmeg
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 cup low fat eggnog
  • 1/2 tsp rum extract
  • 4 tbsp canola oil

DIRECTIONS:

  1. Preheat the oven to 450.
  2. Stir together the flour, sugar, baking powder, cinnamon and nutmeg. Add the egg, rum extract and eggnog then whisk for 1 minute. Add the oil and continue to whisk until well combined.
  3. Grease the mini donut pan liberally. Fill each with about 1 and 1/2 teaspoons of batter (do not overfill, they’ll puff up like cupcakes and not look like donuts anymore!). Bake for 3 to 5 minutes. Cool completely before decorating. Yields about 4 dozen.

ENJOY!

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Tidings of Comfort

Food blogging is like the ultimate dinner party. There’s great food, good conversation, a connection between people with similar interests. There’s a kind of sharing that you just don’t seem to find on other blogs. What better way to say “hey, I like you!” than with a heaping plateful of pasta or delectable layer cake. Food makes others feel welcome. In real spaces and virtual ones as well.

I’ve been reading some blogs for four years or more and I love describing them to people who’ve never seen them. “This is so-and-so’s blog,” I’ll say. “She lives here, does this and likes that. She makes the most amazing <layer cakes, Mexican food, meat-free eats, sugar cookies> ” The little details you glean from a few paragraphs, photos and recipes makes you feel like you’ve known someone forever, even if you’ve never met. Sharing in the excitements of accomplishments or the joys of new babies makes it feel like there’s always a friend celebrating. It’s great to share in those moments.

But sometimes, life gets tough. That’s when the blogging community really comes together.

One of my very favorite bloggers, Annie over at Annie’s Eats, posted over the holiday weekend that she lost her father suddenly and unexpectedly on Thanksgiving day. My heart just broke for her and her family. How devastating. Many times over the course of that weekend while in the company of family and friends, my thoughts turned to Annie and her family. I wished there was something I could do to help. Even though we’re strangers, I feel like I know Annie. I think that’s what makes her such a amazing blogger.

So I made a cake. To dedicate and share with a blogger who is restless and hurting. A cake filled with the simple goodness of sugar and butter and cinnamon. The kind of cake to eat in the morning when house is quiet but thoughts are noisy and raw, stinging like icy winter sleet. When the world is washed in the gray-blue shadows of dawn that just don’t seem to brighten. The kind of cake a friend would bring to the doorstep of another who needed it, complete with hot coffee, patience and time. The kind of cake to talk over. Or sit quietly over. To grieve over. Maybe even laugh over. The kind of cake that may taste like a happy memory.

If I could, I would bring a cake like this one to Annie and her family. It’s rich, warm and satisfying. It tastes like a hug with a thick layer of crunchy cinnamon crumbs blanketing a buttery yellow cake. There’s no intricate steps, no fancy ingredients, just plain good food. It’s the kind of cake that can be made quickly, delivered promptly and enjoyed while still warm from the oven. Perfect for a friend in need.

Annie, we’re all thinking of you, praying for you and wishing you peace and comfort during this time. Hugs and cakes to you.

NEW YORK STYLE CRUMB CAKE (Recipe Source: Baked Explorations: Classic American Desserts Reinvented by Matt Lewis & Renato Poliafito)

INGREDIENTS:

For the topping:

  • 1 cup packed golden brown sugar
  • ยฝ cup white granulated sugar
  • ยฝ teaspoon salt
  • 1 ยฝ tablespoons ground cinnamon
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted (oh yes, TWO STICKS. Faint)
  • 2 ยฝ cups unbleached all purpose flour

For the cake:

  • 2 ยฝ cups unbleached all purpose flour
  • ยพ teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • ยฝ teaspoon salt
  • 12 tablespoons (1 ยฝ stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1 ยฝ cups white granulated sugar
  • 2 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 1 ยผ cups sour cream

DIRECTIONS:

  1. Preheat oven to 350ยฐF and with the oven rack in the center. Grease the bottom and sides of a 9 x 13 glass baking dish.
  2. Make the topping: Combine sugars, salt and cinnamon in a medium bowl. Pour the melted butter and whisk until combined, crushing any large lumps. Stir in flour until mixture is uniform. Set aside until ready to use.
  3. Make the cake: Whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a medium bowl.
  4. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with paddle attachment, cream the butter on medium speed until smooth. Scrape down the bowl and add sugar, then continue to beat until light and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, beating for 30 secondsย  and scraping down the side of the bowl after each addition. Add sour cream and vanilla and beat until just combined. Stir in the flour in thirds, scraping the sides of the bowl before each addition, until fully incorporated. Batter will be thick.
  5. Pour the batter into buttered pan, level with a spatula. Scoop a handful of the topping mix into your hand, make a fist, and break off pieces to crumble the topping over the batter. Repeat until all the topping is used. Crumble topping will be very thick.
  6. Bake for 45-55 minutes or until a toothpick entered into center comes out clean, rotating the pan twice. Cool in the pan on a wire rack for 30 minutes before serving.

ENJOY! ๐Ÿ™‚

 

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Under the weather

Ugh. I’ve been sick. It’s one of those dreaded, lingering sicknesses that grabs on when you least expect it and just will not let go. For the last week, I’ve been sniffling, sneezing and coughing my way through germ filled haze. And due to a particularly intense, deadline-heavy, work week there’s been little rest for this weary soul. It’s Sunday night and I’m still exhausted. I still can’t breathe. My throat still hurts.

When the Cold from Hell comes a calling all I want is soup. Not fancy little shooters of creamed imported truffles garnished with foam. I want hearty, homey, soothing soup. A bold, spicy combination that tastes good even when you can’t taste anything at all. The kind that wraps you like a favorite blanket, that eases a raw, scratchy throat, that you pour into a giant mug and eat curled up on the couch with a full DVR.ย  The kind of soup you just fall into at the end of the day.

Soup like minestrone brimming with pasta, beans, meat and veggies swimming in a flavorful tomato broth. Oh yes. That’s comfort in a bowl.

I did not get to eat this minestrone this week as I made it months ago and all remnants are long, long gone. I just didn’t have the energy to put in the effort to make it. But I dreamed about it. I craved it something fierce as I lopped off the top of a boxed soup from the grocery store and dumped (squeezed?) the contents into a saucepan. It has that kind of slow cooked flavor you expect from your grandmother’s kitchen. I loved the use of Italian sausage here and the slight anise flavor that comes through from the fennel in it. The fresh herbs make it special. And the crusty, cheesy baguette slices? A must. Don’t skip them.

This recipe has a long list of ingredients but it’s really not difficult to make. Just get out your biggest stock pot and start simmering. I made a couple of changes to the original recipe. First, I skipped simmering a head of garlic in the chicken broth. I just pulsed 4 or 5 cloves in the food processor with the other veggies. Also, I had a Parmesan rind on hand, so I tossed that in while the soup simmered. It adds a great salty, cheesy flavor.

This recipe makes a ton (as most soup recipes do) but the flavor only improves over time (again, as most soup recipes do!) It’s the perfect feel better meal. You know, if someone else is making it. ๐Ÿ˜‰

HUNTER’S MINESTRONE (Recipe Source: Tyler Florence via FoodNetwork.com)

INGREDIENTS:

  • 2 quarts chicken stock
  • 1/2 pound small pasta (I used shells)
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • 8 fresh sage leaves
  • 1 sprig fresh rosemary
  • 1 sprig fresh thyme
  • 3/4 pound loose sweet Italian pork sausage
  • 2 medium carrots, roughly chopped
  • 2 celery ribs, roughly chopped
  • 1 onion, roughly chopped
  • 4 to 5 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
  • 1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
  • 1 Parmesan rind (optional)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 (15-ounce) cans cannelloni beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1/2 bunch fresh parsley leaves, finely minced
  • Coarsely ground black pepper
  • 12 slices baguette
  • 1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

DIRECTIONS:

  1. Bring a pot of salted water to boil for the pasta.
  2. Chop the carrots, celery, onion and garlic in the food processor. Set aside.
  3. Pour 1/4 cup olive oil in a large saucepan. Add the fresh herbs and heat the oil over medium heat to infuse it with the flavor of the herbs, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the sausage and cook, breaking it up until well browned.ย  Add to the saucepan and cook for 3 to 4 minutes, until the vegetables are softened but not browned.
  4. ย Stir in the crushed tomatoes, bay leaf beans, chicken stock and cheese rind. Bring to a simmer and cook for 15 minutes stirring occasionally.
  5. ย Cook the pasta in the boiling water until just tender, it should be slightly underdone. Drain and stir into the simmering soup. Add the parsley, and salt and coarsely ground black pepper, to taste. Discard the bay leaf and herb sprigs.
  6. ย To serve, preheat the broiler. Put the baguette slices in a single layer on a baking sheet. Sprinkle with the Parmigiano and broil until the cheese is bubbly and golden brown, about 3 minutes. Ladle the soup into bowls and float a couple of the baguette slices on top.
    Serves 6 to 8.

*Note*: This soup freezes great! If planning to freeze, I recommend only making enough pasta for the servings you plan to eat so that the cooked pasta doesn’t turn to mush. While reheating from the freezer, just cook up a bit more pasta and it will taste just as good as it did the first time around.

ENJOY! ๐Ÿ™‚

 

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Love it or hate it.

Here’s the thing. My husband did not like this meal. At all.

He did not like it in his bowl, he will not touch it with a pole. He didn’t come right out and say he didn’t like it, but I could tell. I dig.

He was quiet. Ate slowly. Pushing food around with his spoon hoping it would magically disappear. He took giant sips of his drink after every bite. Eventually he told me to stop looking at him. It got awkward real quick. At the end of a silent 15 minutes, he brought picked over his bowl to the kitchen sink and apologized.

For what, I’m not sure. Hey, not everyone likes the same things. It’s cool. Different strokes for different folks, as they say. If anything *I* should have been the one apologizing. Contrary to what he might think sometimes, I don’t set out to feed him things I know he won’t like. Sure, I push the envelope every now and then, that’s just plain fun. But if I seriously think he won’t like a dish, I save it for a night he’s not around.

But, you know what? I’m not apologizing. Because I didn’t think he’d dislike this as much as he did. It was a fluke, I tell ya! There is nothing to be sorry about with this meal. I absolutely loved it. More for me.

I’m usually a purist when it comes to chili – thick, beefy and bursting with beans. A good kick of spice but not melt your face hot. And cheese! Lots of that, please and thank you.

This recipe is so different. It takes all that familiar chili heat and adds a bit of sweet to the mix with tender sweet potatoes and apples The gobs of cheese are swapped for crunchy, healthy pepitas. It’s not as thick as a traditional chili (I actually added a bit of cornstarch slurry at the end to tighten it up) but the flavorful broth of beer and a pepper puree makes the perfect vehicle for dunking a sweet cornbread muffin. It’s delightfully different.

Be brave. Try it. You’ll love it. Or you won’t. ๐Ÿ˜‰

HARVEST CHIPOTLE CHILI (Recipe Source: Midwest Living)

INGREDIENTS:

  • 3 medium orange sweet peppers, halved and seeded
  • 2 canned chipotle peppers in adobo sauce
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1 1/2 pounds ground pork, ground beef or uncooked ground turkey or chicken
  • 1 large onion, chopped (1 cup)
  • 1 pound sweet potato, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 1 15 ounce can reduced-sodium pinto beans, rinsed and drained
  • 1 14 1/2 ounce can hominy or one 15.5-ounce can butter beans, rinsed and drained
  • 1 14 1/2 ounce can chunky chili-style tomatoes or stewed tomatoes, undrained
  • 1 12 ounce can beer or one 14.5-ounce can reduced-sodium chicken broth
  • 1 14 1/2 ounce can reduced-sodium chicken broth
  • 2 medium Granny Smith or tart red apples, peeled, cored and coarsely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • Roasted, salted pepitas and chopped green onions, for serving. (optional)

DIRECTIONS:

  1. In a food processor, combine process sweet peppers, chipotle peppers and garlic and pulse with on/off turns until very finely chopped. Set aside.
  2. In a large Dutch oven, cook ground pork and onion over medium-high heat until meat is brown and onion is tender. Drain off fat and return to the pot. Add pepper mixture; cook and for 5 minutes, stirring constantly.
  3. Stir in the sweet potato, pinto beans, drained hominy, undrained tomatoes, beer, chicken broth, apples and salt. Bring to a boil; reduce heat to low. Simmer, covered, for 25 to 30 minutes or until sweet potato is tender.
  4. Top each serving with pepitas and green onions. Makes 8 servings.

ENJOY! ๐Ÿ™‚

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