Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Pizza Story (4) - The Trials and Tribulations of Making Pizza!

If you are just joining this story and interested in reading my previous ramblings, check here :)

After wrestling with my food processor and struggling with an incredibly sticky dough, it was finally time to try to make pizza. After an overnight rest, I pulled out my dough balls from the fridge when the munchkin ate dinner at about 5:30. After her 6:30 bedtime I got to work stretching out the first pizza while the stone preheated in the oven. The stickiness was a factor yet again, but after a little work I was able to create a sort-of round base for my pizza. The recipe recommended using the back of a sheet pan in the absence of a pizza peel (definitely no room for that in my apartment!), but I only had one with low sides, and I think that was not an appriate substitution. I also didn't use nearly enough corn meal so when it was time to get my pizza on the stone it stuck, which meant the pizza became totally lopsided and the cheese slid off onto the pizza stone while cooking. This led to a complete mess to clean up - notice the cheese boiling on the pizza stone at the top left:

Ugh.  The second pizza I made that night didn't stick quite as badly, but still wasn't a particularly exciting outcome. 

I had frozen 4 of the 6 dough balls I made, so when it came time to pull 2 from the freezer, things went a little more smoothly.  I got better at managing the stickiness and developed my skills at stretching the dough, and came out with some pretty decent pies!  Here's one from week 2 - hubby requested his half with olives:

It looks like pizza!  And tasted like pizza!  And didn't make a mess of my pizza stone! 

I thought I was quickly getting the hang of things until it was time to try making dough again.  I was very excited to find that the second time around I didn't have nearly the same issues with the dough sticking to everything, but unfortunately that translated into it not tasting very good, either.  Instead of being springy and sticky, it tore very easily and tasted very bready when cooked, instead of the chewy/crunchy combination you'd expect from pizza.  The dough kept climbing up the center shaft while it was mixing, so I'm wondering if I didn't get a good enough knead?  Made me think that maybe the dough shouldn't have been quite so sticky the first time around, though.

One more try in the food processor, and this time not only was the machine bouncing all over the counter, but dough got into the center shaft, slowed down my motor, and caused a burning smell because it was working so hard.  Very scary!  The dough that time came out tasty again, but I started to think pizza making should be put on hold until I had access to a stand mixer. 

That opportunity came as soon as I moved in with my parents this summer.  I pulled out my mom's mixer so I could make pizza for everyone and was very disappointed to see the heavy mixer bouncing all over the counter, too - I felt like I couldn't let go of it for a second!  I tried one more time with my newer mixer when we got to the new house.  This was a little less scary; I think my mixer might be a little more sturdy, and the resulting dough was really good.  Plus, I also had a chance to try out a new cooking method - we made pizzas on the grill, which were delicious!

But with the new house I also got a bread machine, which people have been telling me for months would be great for making dough - I had to check it out!  This has turned out to be the best option yet.  I will be telling you more about my love for my bread machine in other posts, but for now let's just say that 10 minutes in the bread machine has yielded delicious dough with no kitchen appliances bouncing around my counters, and the easiest clean-up - a few measuring cups/spoons and the non-stick loaf pan and beaters.  I am totally sold on this approach, but will post the stand mixer option as well for those of you who I don't manage to convince to invest in a bread machine :)  Detailed pizza recipes will hopefully be on their way soon, including how to make dough in the stand mixer or bread machine, and how to cook pizza using a pizza stone in the oven or directly on the grill.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Butternut Squash Soup

A few years ago, I hosted Thanksgiving for the first time for a very small group - just my parents, hubby's parents, and the 2 of us.  At the time I was in a small apartment and just starting to practice my cooking skills, which led to a menu including an overcooked turkey breast, stuffing made from store-bought cornbread that was not much of a hit, and my basic smashed potatoes.  But the star of the evening was a recipe I found for butternut squash soup on Epicurious that tasted so decadent and yet was so easy and healthy!  Everyone was amazed that this soup wasn't loaded with butter and cream.  When I made it that first time for the holiday, I also made the fried sage leaves that Epicurious recommends, but have since decided that they're not really worth the effort. 

The only hard part of this recipe is peeling and cutting a butternut squash, so my solution has been to wait until I see pre-cut organic butternut squash at Trader Joe's or Whole Foods and seize the opportunity!  But this is also a great option if you have a butternut squash sitting on your counter that you don't know what to do with.  I have made it twice already this year and am hoping to make one more batch before the squash are out of season, although I also bought some canned squash puree and plan to experiment substituting it for the fresh.  I will keep you posted on how that goes, but in the mean time, if you see that pre-cut squash, pick up a couple of packages and make this soup!

Butternut Squash Soup
adapted from Epicurious

1 tablespoon butter
1 onion, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage
1 2 3/4-pound butternut squash, halved, peeled, seeded, chopped (or about 2 lbs pre-cut)
5 cups low-salt chicken broth
1/3 cup freshly grated parmesan or romano cheese
Salt and pepper

Melt butter in heavy large pot over medium heat. Add onion; cook until soft, stirring occasionally, about 7 minutes. Add chopped sage; stir 1 minute. Add squash and broth. Increase heat to high and bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer until squash is tender, about 25 minutes. Puree soup right in the pot using an immersion blender, or cool slightly and puree in batches in blender until smooth. Mix in cheese and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Do ahead: Can be made 1-2 days ahead and refrigerated, or frozen well in advance.

Makes 8 bowls

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Mini Chocolate Cupcakes with Chocolate Fudge Frosting

Hi everyone!  I started the story of the munchkin's birthday cupcakes in this post, but decided the chocolate cupcakes needed a post of their own!

Whereas I was happy with a modified muffin for the vanilla version, I needed to try 2 chocolate recipes to find a winner.  The first one was from Weelicious (with whole wheat pastry flour subbed for the all-purpose).  They looked great when they came out, but were a little dry (definitely could be the result of my whole wheat substitution) and didn't have quite the chocolatey taste I was hoping for.  The second recipe from Sweet + Natural, however, was delicious, even without frosting!  They came out moist, light, and really chocolatey - almost like a souffle consistency, which makes sense given that the recipe has 3 eggs in it!  As an added bonus for some of you out there, this recipe is also gluten-free.  I am not concerned about gluten, but I did like that these muffins used high protein and high fiber coconut flour instead of whole wheat for a change.

I used the coordinating chocolate frosting recipe from the same site, but with a few modifications (see my rant on frosting here for more details!).  First, I eliminated the peppermint since I was going for a more traditional flavor.  I also decided to lighten it a bit by reducing the sugar and using neufchatel cheese (already in my fridge from the vanilla version!) in place of half of the buter.  I don't generally harp on nutrition calculations, but I think it's noteworthy that neufchatel cheese has less than half the calories and 1/4 the fat of butter, so this makes a big difference with what I would consider no compromise in taste or texture!  Let me tell you, this frosting is delicious, and so easy.  I generally don't like chocolate frosting altogether, but I could not get enough of this one, and the feedback from others was just as positive!  As some final inspiration for the skeptics out there, I'll share a conversation between two of the mommies at the party, which was overheard by hubby:

Mommy 1: Did Alissa make these cupcakes?
Mommy 2: Yeah, which probably means they're all organic and healthy...
Mommy 1: I don't care what's in them, they're delicious!

Which is exactly the reaction I was going for :)

Mini Chocolate Cupcakes with Chocolate Fudge Frosting
adapted from Sweet + Natural

1/4 cup coconut flour
1/4 cup cocoa powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3 eggs
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup agave nectar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 375.  Spray mini cupcake pan with cooking spray or line with mini-cupcake papers and set aside.

In a large bowl, mix together coconut flour, cocoa powder, salt and baking soda. In a separate bowl, mix together eggs, oil, agave and vanilla extract until well-combined. Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients and mix until well blended.  Pour or scoop 1 tablespoon batter into each muffin cup and bake for about 10 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean (note: the first time I made these 10 minutes was perfect, the second time I needed 15 - no idea why, so be sure to test for doneness!).

1/4 cup butter, softened (1/2 stick)
2 oz neufchatel cheese
1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
3 tablespoons milk (any kind, dairy or non-dairy, should work)
1/4 cup cocoa powder
dash of salt

While cupcakes are cooling, prepare frosting by blending together all ingredients with an electric hand mixer until smooth. 

Once cupcakes cool, spread frosting on top.

Do ahead: I made the cupcakes a couple of days in advance and froze them in a plastic bag until the day of the party.  I also made the frosting the day before, covered it tightly with plastic wrap, and left it in the refrigerator.  Right before the party, I frosted the cupcakes straight from the freezer - they were defrosted by the time I got through the batch and everything tasted perfect!

Makes 22 teeny tiny cupcakes with extra frosting for snacking after the party another use :)

Birthday Cupcakes

I'd like to start this post by wishing my little munchkin a very happy birthday! I cannot believe it's been 2 years already, and at the same time I can't believe how grown up she is - talking and singing, jumping and climbing, and even knowing enough to get excited about her own birthday party :)

In honor of the munchkin's birthday, we hosted a small party with some of her friends at a local play space. Rather than have the party during a meal time, I decided to just serve a snack - cupcakes, pretzels, animal crackers, and water. The party place would provide all the food if we wanted, but I couldn't resist the opportunity to make some cupcakes that were a little more wholesome than what's typically served. You may recall that I also decided to make cupcakes for the muchkin's first birthday last year, but fortunately I've learned a lot about healthier baking in the past year, and was able to spare my guests hidden blueberries and spinach hidden this time ;).  After a lot of internet searching and thinking, I decided to make 2 kinds - vanilla cupcakes with vanilla frosting, and chocolate cupcakes with chocolate frosting. 

But before I get to the recipes, I wanted to share some thoughts on frosting - did you all know that frosting is actually really easy to make??  I didn't!  For most of my life, I was convinced by Duncan Hines and Betty Crocker that frosting only comes in a round container with scary ingredients.  If you don't believe me, see for yourself - here is the ingredient list for some "home-style" vanilla frosting:

Sugar, Vegetable Oil Shortening (Partially Hydrogenated Soybean And Cottonseed Oils, Mon-And Diglycerides, Polysorbate 60), Water, Corn Syrup. Contains 2% Or Less Of: Corn Starch, Salt, Colored With (Titanium Dioxide, Yellow 5, Red 40), Natural And Artificial Flavors, Rum, Caramel Color, Preservatives (Potassium Sorbate), Sodium Acid Pyrophosphate, Citric Acid, Sodium Citrate.

Ack!  How many of you have those ingredients in your home??  Impressively, this includes every ingredient category I try to avoid...trans fats (a.k.a. partially hydrogenated oils), artificial flavors, artificial colors, and preservatives.  But I believed that you have to be an expert baker to actually make frosting at home, and that it required a lot of effort.  I was SO wrong and will never go back...even without efforts to lower the fat and sugar, home-made frosting is way more wholesome in that it will include real ingredients like butter, sugar, and pure vanilla extract, and can be made in minutes by anyone who owns a mixing bowl and a hand mixer.  Plus, I have also discovered that a few tweaks can help the fat and sugar content quite a bit without sacrificing taste. 

The first trick is to use cream cheese!  Cream cheese is not exactly a low fat food, but tablespoon for tablespoon, even the full fat variety has half the fat and calories as butter, which is the traditional base for frosting.  Sub a low-fat variety (like Neufchatel) and you're now at less than half the calories and one quarter the fat of butter.  As you'll see in the cupcake recipes, I actually used a combination of cream cheese and butter so that the frosting would taste a little more traditional, but would have some of the benefit of the substitution.  The second trick is to add sugar slowly.  I found I was able to reduce the sugar in both recipes I found and still have a frosting that was plenty sweet by starting with about 1/2 to 2/3 the recommended amount and increasing only as needed.

For the vanilla cupcakes I actually just adapted 2 recipes I already have - for the base, I made my Whole Wheat Apple Muffins, eliminating the apples and cinnamon, upping the sugar to about 3/4 cup, and adding 2 teaspoons of vanilla. And for the frosting, I used the Cream Cheese Frosting from my Pumpkin Cake, but replaced 4 ounces of the neufchatel cheese with 1/2 cup of softened butter to tone down the cream cheese flavor for the little ones. Both parts of the cupcake were delicious and went over really well, but next time I will probably look for a different recipe for the base - I loved the buttery vanilla flavor, but the texture is dense and, well, muffin-y! Until they were frosted, I didn't realize how much lighter cupcakes generally are.

The chocolate cupcakes required a little more research and testing, but were a huge success!  Check this post for the complete story and recipe :)

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Pumpkin Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting

---This post is part of my Canadian Thanksgiving series---

I have to apologize, I failed as a food blogger and didn't manage to get my pumpkin cake recipe posted before Thanksgiving!  But even if you didn't have the opportunity to make this for Thanksgiving, it is still a great all-purpose recipe.  I originally got this recipe after freaking out that my frozen apple crisp was going to be inedible when I reheated it, and therefore I wouldn't have enough dessert (both of which, in hindsight, are ridiculous thoughts - how bad could apple crisp be, really, and even without it we would have had MORE than enough dessert on the table). 

In any case, I was complaining to my friend who offered up this pumpkin cake recipe which could not possibly be easier to make.  It requires one mixing bowl, a 1 cup and a 1 tsp measure, and a mixing instrument.  You seriously can't mess it up, and, while not the most healthy recipe out there, it is simple and tasty.  In the future I'd like to try lightening it up with less sugar, some whole wheat flour, and possibly some applesauce in place of some of the oil - I will let you know how it goes when I do!  But for Thanksgiving, of course, I decided to make it even more decadent by adding some cream cheese frosting, which was absolutely delicious, but not at all necessary to make the cake enjoyable.  As a side note, this frosting is incredibly easy, too.  I will have more info on frosting in a future post (my little munchkin is turning 2 and it's cupcake time!), but in the mean time, please know that it is not difficult to make frosting that is tastier and way more wholesome than anything you can buy in a tub :)

Pumpkin Cake
adapted from a friend

2 cups all purpose flour
1 2/3 cup sugar
1 cup canola oil
1 14 oz can pumpkin
4 eggs
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350.  Butter or spray a bundt pan or 9x13 baking dish.

Mix all ingredients in a large bowl.  Pour into prepared baking dish.  Bake for approximately 35 minutes until lightly brown on top and a toothpick comes out clean.  Remove from pan and cool completely before frosting (optional; see recipe below).

Do ahead: This cake was perfect made a few days in advance and frozen, wrapped tightly with foil.  Just defrost at room temperature, frost (if you want), and serve!

Cream Cheese Frosting
adapted from Sweet + Natural

12 ounces Neufchatel cheese
2-2 1/2 cups unrefined powdered sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract

Blend ingredients with an electric hand mixer until smooth, starting with 2 cups of sugar and adding more as needed to get to your desired sweetness level.  Note that you do NOT have to soften the cheese, it works just fine straight from the fridge.

Do ahead: The frosting holds up perfectly made 1-2 days in advance and refrigerated with a piece of plastic wrap on the surface of the frosting.  If you have a sturdy bowl with a lid, even better - just mix it up in that bowl, throw some plastic wrap on before putting on the lid, and refrigerate until you're ready to use!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Apple Crisp

---This post is part of my Canadian Thanksgiving series---

Well friends, we have finally made it to dessert in my Canadian Thanksgiving feast!  Sorry for cutting this so close to our American Thanksgiving; it's become harder and harder to carve out time to get through my blog backlog.  But even if this doesn't make it into your holiday menu, it is a great, all purpose recipe to file away.  Back when I was in college, one of my roommates made a delicious apple crisp.  I can't remember anymore whether my mom actually tasted it or I just told her about it, but somewhere along the line the recipe was passed on.  My mom has since made this tons of times and when I asked my friend about it recently, she could barely remember making it!  So I think it's safe to say my mom now gets the credit for the current version, as who knows how many changes have been made in the last decade.

I love apple crisp as a dessert option, especially when trying to come up with a non-chocolate addition to the table.  In my opinion, pie crust is a bit of a waste of calories - I certainly don't mind it, but I don't love it either.  If it were healthy that would be great, but generally it's not worth eating something so unhealthy if I'm not getting a lot of enjoyment out of it.  Crumb topping, on the other hand, gives me LOTS of enjoyment!  And it even has some redeeming qualities with the oats :).  I'm not trying to say this is healthfood, but all things considered, fruit is good for you, oats are good for you, and there is not a crazy amount of sugar or butter in this recipe, making it quite a wholesome choice as far as desserts go. 

It is also fairly simple to make, although I will warn that peeling and chopping apples always takes longer than I think it should, which is why I wanted to make this dessert ahead.  I knew I had bought a frozen apple crumb pie once that came with directions on how to bake in the oven at home, but when asking around and searching the internet, everyone seemed to have a different opinion on the best way, if at all, to make a crisp ahead of time.  Should I refrigerate or freeze?  Cook it completely or freeze the apples raw and then cook that day?  Thaw before heating up or put in the oven frozen?  In the end, I decided to go against much of the advice and just cook it through, freeze, and reheat in the oven after letting it thaw a bit (mainly because I was scared my baking dish would crack if I put it right from the freezer into a hot oven).  And guess what - it worked perfectly!  So in case you were wondering, YES, you can make apple crisp ahead and freeze it!  I include some more detail below on how to do this.

One caveat before I go on - some of my measurements are estimates or missing.  Please bear with me and rest assured that there is a LOT of leeway in this recipe and I think your judgment will be just fine :)

Apple Crisp
from my mom!

8-10 medium granny smith apples (or your favorite baking apple)

1 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/3 cups quick oats
1 1/2 cups packed brown sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) melted butter
Pinch of salt

Preheat oven to 375.  Butter a 9x13 (or equivalent) baking pan.

Peel, core, and slice apples into 8 wedges each.  Mound in baking pan and toss with cinnamon - they should be piled pretty high as they will cook down a lot.

Mix all topping ingredients together.  There should be enough butter so that mixture is all "wet".  Sprinkle over apples and shove into crevices between apples as well.

Bake for about 50 minutes or until apples are soft to your liking (I like my crisp to resemble applesauce with crumb topping, so check sooner if you prefer crunchier apples).  Don't worry if the crisp is still piled up high when you take it out; it will "deflate" as it cools.

Serve warm, either right after baking, by refrigerating for 1-2 days and reheating in oven, or freezing and reheating in oven after letting it thaw for a couple of hours.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Silky Smooth Mashed Potatoes

---This post is part of my Canadian Thanksgiving series---

I'm easy when it comes to mashed potatoes - I've pretty much never met a mashed potato I didn't love, from super-buttery, creamy restaurant style to my healthier, minimal butter, skins-included Smashed Potatoes.  I really am telling the truth when I say that I enjoy my healthier version just as much, but I've been told (by hubby of course) that most people prefer the smoother, more buttery variety.  So for our Thanksgiving meal, I tried to find a middle ground - I was not about to pour a carton of heavy cream into my potatoes, but I thought a little extra butter could be nice, and decided we could leave the skins off this time. 

I ended up finding a recipe on Epicurious promising a silky texture that got fabulous reviews.  I was sold on this recipe after reading the instructions to use a food mill or potato ricer instead of a masher.  You see, over the summer, in preparation for our big move out of the city to a home with an actual back deck and grill, hubby and I signed up for a grilling class at the Institute of Culinary Education (which has great recreational classes, by the way).  The class didn't quite give us the foundation we were looking for in how to grill, but we did make an amazing "mashed potato salad" that required cooking potatoes, skin on, simply cut in half, and then pressed through a potato ricer to remove the skin and "mash" all in one go.  This method really did produce amazingly smooth results, and I loved the idea of not having to peel raw potatoes or chop into small pieces Thanksgiving day.

These potatoes came out fabulous.  I was happy because they had what I considered a reasonable amount of butter, and called for milk instead of cream, but I don't think even the most die-hard mashed potato fanatics could have complained that they weren't luscious enough.  Using a ricer instead of mashing really does produce an amazing texture, and the ratio of added fat/liquid was perfect, although I think if you're not making these for a special occasion you could easily use less butter and/or low fat milk with great results.  As I hoped, it was nice not having to peel potatoes or do more than cut them in half in advance, but I will give one warning - try to find the biggest Yukon Gold potatoes you can find - I ended up buying a 5 lb bag that had tiny little ones, and ricing each little half was a bit of a painful job (for hubby).  With bigger potatoes, it would have been half as much work!

Silky Smooth Mashed Potatoes
adapted from Epicurious

2 lb Yukon Gold potatoes (preferably large)
2/3 cup whole milk
1/2 stick (1/4 cup) unsalted butter
1 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoon black or white pepper

Special equipment: a potato ricer*

Wash potatoes and cut in half across the equator.  Place in a large pot and add cold water up to 1 inch above potatoes.  Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer until potatoes are tender when pierced with a fork, approx 10 to 15 minutes (but this will vary based on the size of your potatoes, so check every few minutes - overcooked potatoes will become waterlogged).

Drain potatoes in a colander, shaking to dry as thoroughly as possible (alternatively, you could return them to the hot pot to dry and then transfer to a bowl, but I didn't find this step necessary).  While potatoes are draining, add milk, butter, salt, and pepper to pot and warm over moderate heat until butter is melted.

Place each potato half in the ricer with the cut side towards the holes and squeeze into the hot milk mixture - the skin will simply stay in the ricer and only the insides of the potato will go through.  Remove skin from ricer and repeat until you've finished all of the potatoes.  Gently stir with a large heatproof rubber spatula just until combined.  Taste and season with additional salt and/or pepper as needed.

Do ahead: Potatoes can be cut and sit in cold water for an hour or so before cooking.  They are best served immediately, but this recipe on Epicurious suggests a reheating process (which I have not tested!) if you just have too much else going on at the last minute.

Serves 4**

* I think the ricer is important to the texture achieved with this recipe, but if you don't have one and don't want to buy one (like I did for this meal!) reviews on Epicurious suggest that just peeling and mashing the potatoes as you normally would will still yield great results.

** I tripled this recipe for my Thanksgiving crowd of 10 adults and 5 kids/toddlers and had plenty of leftovers; if not serving for a holiday meal with lots of other sides, there would probably not be much leftover.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Traditional White Bread Stuffing

---This post is part of my Canadian Thanksgiving series---

Obviously, stuffing is a key component of any Thanksgiving table, but I had a really hard time finding a simple, classic recipe.  Most of the recipes I came across included things like sausage, chestnuts, cornbread, etc., all of which are wonderful ingredients, but just not what I had in mind.  I wanted just a basic recipe, with nothing in it that anyone could possibly find offensive.  What I wanted, really, was my brother's mother-in-law's recipe.  Hers was the first stuffing I ever really enjoyed, and is talked about by everyone who's tasted it.  So I went straight to the source and was happy to hear that she was willing to share!

The ingredient list was short - bread, butter, onion, and thyme.  Perfect!  The only problem was that the recipe called for wonder bread.  I was willing to compromise some of my everyday standards for the holiday (I lost track of how much butter I went through that week!), but I just couldn't see any reason why a better quality white bread wouldn't produce a delicious stuffing, even if it was not exactly the same as the original version.  And while I was upgrading the quality of the bread, why not go all the way and get more use out of my new favorite toy, my breadmaker?  But with such a big change, I thought a test run was in order. 

I made up a loaf and gave the recipe a go, with yummy, but not ideal results.  The test stuffing was a little bland, and didn't remind hubby enough of his mom's stuffing.  After a quick call to my mother-in-law, I planned a few changes to the final version to add flavor and make it more closely resemble stuffing cooked inside a turkey: I planned to use more liquid and substitute chicken broth for the water.  I also decided to add salt, and I cut the bread into cubes (instead of tearing slices into pieces).  By the time I was done tweaking, I have no idea how closely it resembled the original but I thought it was delicious!  I mean really, how can you go wrong with bread soaked in butter and seasoned with thyme and salt?  My two most honest reviewers, hubby and my mom, also seemed to agree, so I think this version is a keeper :)

Traditional White Bread Stuffing
adapted from a family recipe

Note - this recipe can be multiplied indefinitely, so I'm giving directions for the smallest amount, which should be plenty for 4-5 people (with leftovers).  Additional batches can be done in exactly the same manner, so this is a recipe that is not complicated, but can take a long time if you are making a large amount.

1/2 of a large loaf of day old white bread (my loaf was 2 lbs)
1 cup chicken broth (approx)
1 stick butter
1 cup chopped yellow onion (approx 1 small or 1/2 large onion)
1 rounded tablespoon dried thyme

Cut bread into 1/2-3/4 inch cubes.  Place bread in a large bowl and sprinkle with chicken broth (bread should be moist, but not soggy - feel free to use more broth if you like moister stuffing, or less if you'd like it to get more crunchy).

Meanwhile, melt butter in a very large frying pan (I used a 14" non-stick for this).  Sautee onions until translucent (there should be enough onion to just cover the bottom of the pan), and then add bread.  Sprinkle with thyme and a generous seasoning with salt.  Toss and sautee until bread is golden on the edges.  Taste and add additional salt if needed.

If doing multiple batches, start soaking bread and chopping onion as the first batch is cooking, and repeat as needed until you have made enough.  Alternatively, having 2 pans going at the same time would speed up the process.

Can be made 1-2 days in advance.  Store covered in the fridge (do not freeze), and when ready to reheat, bring to room temperature and warm in the oven, adding a bit more broth if you'd like to keep it especially moist.

1/2 loaf recipe makes 4-5 side dish servings plus leftovers (This is assuming you have a typical array of a side dishes with for your meal - I made 2.5 2-pound loaves of bread for 15 people and had more stuffing than we could possibly eat with company in a week, so I'm scaling back the recommendation from what I did!).

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Candied Walnuts

---This post is part of my Canadian Thanksgiving series---

When planning my menu, I looked at many ideas for appetizer soups involving pumpkin or other winter squash, but when I looked at all of the other dishes I had planned, they just seemed like too much food.  Plus, carrying bowls of hot soup around a big table with a bunch of kids seemed like a bad idea!  Instead, I decided a light spinach salad would be a good way to start the meal.  I am a big fan of salads with some kind of cheese, fruit, and nut.  Salads are so often served with goat or blue cheese, neither of which I like.  However, I've recently discovered Ricotta Salata, a salty, hard, crumbly cheese (not unlike feta) that creates a similar effect to more traditional salad cheeses but I much prefer.  As for fruit, normally dried cranberries are my go-to in salads, but with cranberry sauce coming later in the meal, I replaced that idea with sliced apples.  And apples go really nicely with walnuts - thus my salad was created.  Of course, I couldn't just throw plain old walnuts on top - this was my first big holiday, after all, and I wanted a little extra something.  Like candied walnuts!

I started my recipe search and learned that making candied nuts is not so simple - most of the recipes either involved making a sticky sugar mixture requiring a candy thermometer or very careful monitoring, or else were deep fried.  Both of those methods were entirely too complicated and messy for me, not to mention unhealthy - who needs deep fried sugared nuts??  I finally found one on Epicurious that seemed really simple, and it turned out great.  The sugar mixture just needed to come to a boil, but was watered down so it didn't get too sticky or risk burning, and the nuts were baked instead of fried.  The resulting walnuts were just a tad sweet with great flavor from the roasting process, and added the perfect special touch to my salad.

In the chaos of getting dinner on the table for Thanksgiving, many of my dishes didn't quite get photographed.  But since then I've made these walnuts again and added them to a mixed green salad, this time with my dried cranberries!  So the photo is from round 2, when they were equally delicious :)

Candied Walnuts
adapted from Epicurious

2-3 cups walnuts (or mixed nuts - see original recipe for ideas)
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
1 1/2 tablespoons honey
Pinch salt

Preheat oven to 350°F.  Line baking pan with foil and spray lightly with oil.

Place walnuts in a mixing bowl.

Bring sugar, water, and honey to a boil in a small saucepan over moderate heat, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Pour over nuts and stir until nuts are well coated. Transfer nuts with a slotted spoon to baking pan (discarding syrup), sprinkle with a pinch of salt, and roast in 1 layer in middle of oven, stirring and redistributing nuts occasionally, until golden brown, 20-25 minutes.

Carefully remove foil with walnuts on it from baking pan and put on a rack to cool completely.  Break apart any nuts that are stuck together (they will get more sticky as they cool).

Do ahead: store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to a week.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Cornbread (Muffins)

---This post is part of my Canadian Thanksgiving series---

I've already told you about the Classic Lasagna I made to serve upon arrival for our Thanksgiving weekend guests, but I thought one more home-cooked meal (in addition to the big Thanksgiving feast!) was warranted that weekend.  Lunch the day after our big meal seemed like a good time to have something I made, but again, it had to be freezable in advance since there was no way I was going to feel like cooking anything that day!  I looked through my Recipe Index and decided that Chili was a good option - freezes beautifully, and pretty much everyone likes it. 

As an added touch, I decided to make some cornbread to go along with it.  I've made cornbread muffins in the past, but I was not blown away - they were tasty in chili but a little dry, so I thought it was worth trying out a new recipe.  Plus, hubby had requested cornbread that had actual pieces of corn in it, so I had to do some digging to see if it was as simple as throwing in some frozen corn, or if I needed to make any other modifications.  After going in a lot of circles, I ended up being inspired by 2 posts from Smitten Kitchen.  The primary one my creation was based on is intended as more of a breakfast muffin, but she recommended cutting the sugar a bit which I thought would make it more chili appropriate.  The other post inspired the cheese and jalepeno I ended up adding, although she doesn't even seem to like the base recipe herself, so I thought a combo was in order!

I ended up making 2 versions - a cornbread muffin with cheddar and jalepeno, and then, because I'm a wimp and really can't handle jalepeno at all, a plain cornbread with just the frozen corn.  In the plain version, I also experimented with replacing the all-purpose flour with whole wheat pastry flour.  In both cases I did not have buttermilk, so I used a combination of plain whole milk yogurt and 1% milk mixed with a little vinegar to make a sort of homemade buttermilk (see note below).  The texture and moisture in the muffins was definitely better, but it's hard to say whether it was because of the cheese, the all-purpose flour, or the fact that I had no idea how long to bake the cornbread and may have overdone it a bit (I adjusted the directions below accordingly!).  That being said, I thought the plain whole wheat version was great, and if I hadn't been doing a side-by-side comparison I would have had no complaints.  Next time I make this I'll probably use the whole wheat flour, but also add cheese and leave out the jalepenos :)   

Cornbread (Muffins)
adapted from Smitten Kitchen

1 cup all-purpose flour or whole wheat pastry flour
1 cup yellow cornmeal, preferably stone-ground
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup buttermilk (or 1/2 cup plain yogurt + 1/2 cup milk or "homemade buttermilk"*)
1/4 cup honey
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
3 tablespoons canola oil
1 large egg

Optional add-ins
1 cup corn kernels – fresh, frozen or canned (in which case they should be drained and patted dry)
1 cup shredded cheddar (approx 4 oz)
1 small jalepeno, diced very fine

Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Butter or spray the 12 molds in a regular-size muffin pan or fit the molds with paper muffin cups (or grease an 8x8 baking pan).

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.  In a small bowl, whisk the buttermilk (or equivalent), honey, melted butter, oil, egg and yolk together until well blended. Pour the liquid ingredients over the dry ingredients and, with the whisk or a rubber spatula, gently but quickly stir to blend.  Gently fold in optional add-ins.

Divide the batter evenly among the muffin cups or pour into baking pan.

Bake for 15 to 18 minutes for regular muffins, 12 minutes for mini muffins, or 20-25 minutes for an 8x8 pan, or until the tops are golden and a thin knife inserted into the center of the muffins comes out clean.  Transfer the pan to a rack and cool for 5 minutes before carefully removing muffins/bread.

Makes 12 regular muffins, 24 minis, or 16 pieces of cornbread

* To make "homemade buttermilk", mix 1 tablespoon vinegar with enough low-fat milk to make a cup, and let sit for about 10 minutes.  In this recipe, I think just a yogurt/milk combo would work just fine, too!

Friday, October 15, 2010

Classic Lasagna

---This meal is part of my Canadian Thanksgiving series---

Hubby's family had a long trip to our house for Canadian Thanksgiving - about 8-10 hours.  So before I could worry about the Thanksgiving feast itself, I wanted to have a nice meal for them when they arrived.  I decided that I needed something that could be made and frozen in advance but could also be reheated multiple times in case hubby's parents and sister arrived at different times.  My first thought was baked ziti, until a friend recommended a Barefoot Contessa recipe for lasagna that she's had great success with in the past.  After a few failed veggie lasagna attempts recently I've been kind of avoiding it, but this recipe sounded very safe and not complicated at all to make.

I got to work, making a couple of changes - the original recipe calls for chicken sausage and goat cheese, both of which would make this dish very special but also not as universally liked, so I wanted to stick to more classic flavors.  If those ingredients sound good to you, though, please check out the original as it gets amazing reviews from my friend and reviewers over at the Food Network website!

I have to admit, making lasagna is a pain in the neck - every step was simple and the components were easy to pull together, but it took me a solid 20 minutes just to layer everything in the pan!  The result, however, was delicious, and accomplished my goal of still tasting good even after being reheated several times.  I was especially excited to get rave reviews from my mother-in-law who makes a great lasagna herself!  The proportions were great - cheesy but not too much cheese with plenty of sauce, and I think the fresh mozzarella adds a really special touch - I got several comments about it.  I served this with caesar salad and home-made whole wheat rolls, but I ran into some issues with those so the recipe on that will have to wait until I get it right :)

Classic Lasagna
adapted from Ina Garten

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 1/2 pounds lean ground beef
1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes in tomato puree
1 (6-ounce) can tomato paste
1/2 cup chopped fresh basil leaves
2 teaspoons kosher salt, divided
3/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, divided
1/2 pound whole wheat (or regular) lasagna noodles
15 ounces ricotta cheese
1 cup grated Romano or Parmesan, plus 1/4 cup for sprinkling
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 pound fresh mozzarella, thinly sliced

Preheat the oven to 400 F.  Take out a 9x13 baking dish (I used a disposable foil pan so as to not tie up one of my others while the lasagna was in the freezer).

Heat the olive oil in a large, deep skillet. Add the onion and cook for 5 minutes over medium-low heat, until translucent. Add the garlic and cook for 1 more minute. Add the beef over medium-low heat, breaking it up as it cooks, until no longer pink. Add the tomatoes, tomato paste, basil, 1 1/2 teaspoons of the salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Simmer, uncovered, over medium-low heat, for 15 to 20 minutes, until thickened.

Meanwhile, fill a large bowl or dish with the hottest tap water (I used instant hot). Add the noodles and allow them to sit in the water for 20 minutes. Drain. (If you are using no-cook noodles, follow directions on the box - you may be able to skip this step.)

In a medium bowl, combine the ricotta, 1 cup of romano cheese, the egg, the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Set aside.

Ladle 1/3 of the sauce into baking dish, spreading the sauce over the bottom of the dish. Then add the layers as follows: half the pasta (this should fit nicely in one layer), half the mozzarella, half the ricotta mixture, and 1/3 of the sauce. Add the rest of the pasta, mozzarella, ricotta, and finally, sauce. Sprinkle with 1/4 cup of romano. Bake for 30 minutes, until the sauce is bubbling.

Do ahead: Entire lasagna can be cooked according to directions above and frozen.  Place frozen lasagna covered in 350 degree oven for approximately 90 minutes, until lasagna is steamy when uncovered and knife inserted into the middle feels hot when removed.
Serves 8 for dinner, or 12 for lunch

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Thanksgiving in October!

So be honest, how many of you out there know that Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving about 6 weeks before we do in the US?  I'm not sure I would have ever learned this tidbit if I hadn't married a Canadian, but interestingly enough Canadian Thanksgiving coincides with our Columbus day, which means we all have a long weekend at the same time.  That made it the perfect opportunity to invite hubby's entire family down to see our new house in the burbs and have a big holiday meal at the same time :)  To add to the fun, we decided to invite my family as well, since our families very rarely see each other.  The grand total for the feast would be 10 adults, 2 big kids, and 3 toddlers, not a huge crowd for experienced entertainers, but until a few months ago I lived in an apartment where 6 people for a sit-down meal was tight.  I was excited to host my big holiday meal as entertaining is always the perfect motivation for me to try out new recipes - who better to experiment on than family?

When I sat down to start planning, I realized there was a bit of a catch here - I didn't just need to plan a holiday menu, I needed to plan a long weekend meal plan since hubby's parents and sister + her hubby and 2 kids would be staying with us.  That certainly complicated things a little more, but really just added to the challenge!  I decided I would selectively cook meals and plan other meals to bring in food (e.g., bagels, sandwiches, etc) or have people fend for themselves in a well-stocked kitchen (e.g., eggs, cereal, frozen muffins, and home-made bread for breakfast).  For this weekend I made EXCELLENT use of my extra fridge and freezer in the basement, planning a menu carefully so that I could get a lot of the work done in the weeks ahead.

Thought it might be helpful to share my ideas for do-ahead vs. freshly made options in case any of you find yourself in my shoes.  Most of the new recipes will be posted in the coming week or two, so stay tuned - I'll add links to this post as I do!

Dinner on arrival:

Traditional Lasagna (frozen in advance) - absolutely delicious!

Home-made Dinner Rolls (frozen in advance) - I made the dough in my bread machine and par-baked the rolls before freezing.  They were delicious, but required some troubleshooting so I will try these again before sharing the method.

Caesar Salad - I decided to save myself a task and bought caesar dressing from Trader Joe's, but did make home-made croutons a couple of days in advance.  That left chopping and washing some romaine hearts to be the only work for that evening.

Post Thanksgiving Lunch:

Chili (frozen in advance) - I've shared this one before, and I still love this recipe!

Cornbread (frozen in advance) - I tried a new recipe this time, and made both Cheddar Jalepeno Cornbread Muffins and Corny Whole Wheat Cornbread.

Thanksgiving Dinner:

Spinach Salad with Candied Walnuts, Crumbled Ricotta Salata, and Sliced Apples - I made the candied walnuts about a week in advance, and crumbled the cheese and sliced the apples in the morning so that the salad was ready to be plated by one of my wonderful assistants at dinner time.  Salad was drizzled with my standard balsamic vinaigrette (recipe to come!) that's always in my fridge.

Simplest Roast Turkey with Red Wine Gravy (made that day) - something went wrong with the cooking time and/or my thermometer and the turkey wasn't completely cooked when we cut into it.  Will need to test this one again before sharing.

Traditional White Bread Stuffing (made 2 days in advance and refrigerated) - there is nothing healthy about this recipe, but it is wholesome in that I made the bread myself and used all organic ingredients.  This method is a little labor intensive, but delicious and can be made ahead which is a big help!

Silky Smooth Mashed Potatoes (made that day) - I decided to go a little more decadent for the holiday than my typical Smashed Potatoes and tried out a new recipe that was a huge hit! 

Sweet Potato Pie (outsourced to my mom) - I don't even want to know what goes in this - rumor has it there's a lot of butter and sugar, and that's before you even get to the pie crust and toasted marshmallows on top, but for me Thanksgiving wouldn't be complete without it!

Waldorf Salad (outsourced to my mother-in-law) - this fruit & nut salad tossed with whipped cream is apparently a traditional side dish in hubby's family, so my mother-in-law threw this together Thanksgiving morning.

Cranberry Sauce (store-bought) - I served this from a can.  I have made this recipe in the past which I think is delicious and is also easy to make, but hubby insists that people prefer the canned stuff.  I can't really understand that; the stuff in the can grosses me out, but who am I to create more work for myself and have it not be appreciated at all?!?  In my defense, I did at least get the organic version at Whole Foods ;)

Thanksgiving Dessert:
oh, you thought there was enough at dinner??

One Bowl Brownies (made 2 days in advance) - still love this recipe, and I don't think they suffered at all from being made ahead.

"Baked Bars" (frozen in advance) - this recipe for 7-layer bars was from a cookbook written by the guys who own the Baked bakery in Brooklyn.  They were unbelievably delicious, but the recipe is neither simple nor wholesome, so I don't think I'll be posting that one here!

Apple Crisp (frozen in advance) - I finally made my mom's recipe myself, and it is delicious! 

Pumpkin Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting (cake frozen in advance; frosting made 1 day ahead) - this was a last minute addition to the menu when I got nervous about how well the apple crisp would freeze.  As it turns out, the crisp froze perfectly but the pumpkin cake was delicious anyway! 
Lemon Pound Cake (outsourced to my mother-in-law) - this cake is always a hit, and a special request for my dad who wouldn't have been excited about any of the other sweets.

Fruit Plate (outsourced to my mother) - putting some fruit on the table negates how unhealthy the rest of the meal is, right? :)

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Simplest Mac & Cheese

I know, I've already posted two mac & cheese recipes on this site, but I'm still on a quest for the perfect healthy recipe.  The Mac & Cheese (with Squash!) is yummy, and I love the Broccoli Mac & Cheese, but I have to admit pre-cooking pasta and making a cheese sauce is a bit of a pain.  It's not complicated, but inevitably requires lots of time and creates lots of dishwashing!  I had tried a recipe once before which didn't call for cooking the pasta or making a cheese sauce and it was pretty disappointing (greasy instead of creamy), but when my friend who is an excellent cook passed on a similar recipe, I was intrigued enough to try again.  As it turns out, the main differences in the recipes is that the new one called for 1/4 the amount of cheddar (!) and adding a bread crumb topping.  Less cheese could certainly solve the greasiness problem, but would it be good??

The first time I tried the recipe, I listened to her advice to just throw in an entire small onion instead of measuring 1/4 cup - big mistake!  I'm not sure if she really does this, but I found the resulting dish WAY too oniony (and I love onion!).  Plus, I thought I'd throw in some broccoli, which just complicated the results even more.  I decided to give it another try with no onion or broccoli so I could get a good baseline for the basic recipe. 

The result is a dish which is really tasty, although not particularly cheesy.  I'm not a fan of cottage cheese but couldn't detect it at all, and it really couldn't have been more simple to make.  The whole family gobbled it up as a great side dish to hot dogs (well, the munchkin had it as a side dish to her hot dog bun, but let's not split hairs!).  Next time I'm going to start playing with it again, possibly adding more cheddar since there's really not that much and I don't need the recipe to be quite THAT healthy!  A happy medium of 1:1 ratio cheddar to pasta might be right, instead of double or half.  Also might add in broccoli again (since the broccoli mac and cheese is the only way the munchkin will eat broccoli).  I will keep you posted on the variations, but in the mean time if you're looking for an easy and super healthy mac & cheese recipe, definitely give this one a try, and let me know if you make any changes that work (or not)!

(apologies, no pic again this time; we have gotten really bad at remembering to get out the camera while the food still looks good!  I promise an update at some point in the future! :)

Simplest Mac & Cheese
adapted from my friend

1½ cups cottage cheese (low fat or whole)
1½ cups milk (skim, low fat, or whole) or buttermilk
1 teaspoon dried mustard or 1 tablespoon prepared mustard
Pinch of cayenne
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
¼ cup grated onions (optional; I left this out and didn't miss it)
1 cup grated extra-sharp cheddar cheese (4 oz), or more if you want to experiment
½ pound uncooked elbow macaroni (I used whole wheat)
2 tablespoons finely grated pecorino or parmesan cheese
¼ cup bread crumbs

Preheat oven to 375. Prepare a 9x13 baking dish with a light coating of cooking spray or oil (this makes a very shallow mac & could also use a smaller dish , or double the recipe in the 9x13).

In a blender or food processor, combine the cottage cheese, skim milk or buttermilk, mustard, cayenne, nutmeg, salt and pepper and puree until smooth.

In a large bowl, combine the pureed mixture with onions (if using; or, if you use a food processor you can process them right in with the milk mixture and not pre-grate), cheddar cheese, and uncooked macaroni. Stir well.  Pour the mixture into the baking pan.

Combine the grated pecorino or parmesan cheese and the bread crumbs and sprinkle over the top.  Bake for about 45 minutes until the top is browned and the center is firm.

Makes 6-8 side dish servings

Monday, September 27, 2010

Crispy Baked Chicken Tenders

Since we started introducing solid foods to the munchkin about a year ago, she has pretty much been a vegetarian.  She was quick to like fruits, grains, dairy, and even eggs, but somehow none of the ways I prepared meat seemed to work for her.  Until I found this recipe for Chicken Teriyaki, which she gobbled up, but only if the chicken was cut into pieces barely bigger than the grains of rice it was mixed with!  And then recently, something changed, and she started becoming more open to different kinds of chicken, whether it be bigger pieces of the same Chicken Teriyaki, some chicken from a salad I ordered out, or chicken parmesan at an italian restaurant.  The theme seemed to be chicken was ok as long as it was really moist from a sauce or breading - fair enough!

So recently, I decided to try making some breaded chicken at home to see if she would really eat it, and boy did she - the first night she ate an entire chicken tender, which is quite a bit for a little munchkin!  I didn't do anything too fancy here; just followed a basic process for breading chicken and baking it in the oven.  The only thing I did to make it more kid friendly was to cut my chicken breasts into strips to make them like tenders, even though I wasn't just using the tender from the breast.  This helped with portioning for the munchkin, and had the added benefit of a higher breading to chicken ratio, but you could easily do the same thing with whole breasts - just adjust the cooking time accordingly.  You can also season your breadcrumbs however you want - I really like romano cheese and basil, but you could easily skip the cheese and use whatever seasoning makes you happy. 

I have to apologize in advance that the recipe may not be exactly right - I was improvising quite a bit and didn't pay attention to exact measurements, so please adjust the amounts as needed for your taste.  In the mean time I thought I'd share the basic idea and I will update if necessary the next time I make these!

Crispy Baked Chicken Tenders

1 lb chicken tenders, or boneless skinless chicken breasts cut into strips
1/4 cup all purpose flour
1 egg
3/4 cup plain panko or other dried breadcrumbs (please read ingredients here and find a brand that doesn't include partially hydrogenated oils!  Whole foods and Trader Joes both have good options)
2 tablespoons romano or parmesan cheese
Dried basil (enough so that it is visible throughout breadcrumb mixture)
Pinch of salt
Olive or canola oil spray

Preheat oven to 350 and line a large baking sheet with foil.  Spray baking sheet generously with oil.

Prepare 3 wide, shallow dishes (I used pasta bowls) as follows:  the first with flour, the second with egg beaten with a splash of water, and the third with breadcrumbs mixed with seasonings (in my case, cheese, basil, and salt).  Coat each piece of chicken with the flour, shaking off any excess.  Next, dip into the egg mixture, and finally into the breadcrumbs, ensuring that each piece is completely covered.  Place on prepared baking sheet.

Once all of the chicken is on the baking sheet, spray generously with oil.  Bake for 10-15 minutes until chicken is cooked through (it should be firm to the touch and easily pierced with a fork).  Try not to overbake!  Juicy with a very slight pink tinge is ok as long as you can see the fibers of the chicken are cooked and no longer has any raw texture when cut open.

Serve with the dipping sauce of your choosing - tomato sauce, ketchup, or bbq sauce would all work!

Serves 4

Monday, September 20, 2010

One Bowl Brownies

There is a debate in my family about brownies.  My mom thinks that Duncan Hines makes the best brownies, and I used to agree.  But once I started reading labels I just couldn't bring myself to make anything that includes ingredients like partially hydrogenated oil and artificial flavors.  Brownies shouldn't need factory processed chemicals to be delicious!  And to be honest, once I started thinking about what's in them, they stopped tasting as good to me...I don't know if my taste changed or my mind got in the way of my enjoyment, but I decided there has to be a better alternative. 

So I set out on the somewhat bizarre quest to make brownies that taste as "good" as the ones that come from the box!  I've tried out a few recipes that were promising, but none really blew me away, and my mother still won't let me make brownies for any family function based on my previous experiments.  So when I saw a recipe on Smitten Kitchen that Deb specifically said would appeal to those who love the boxed variety, I was intrigued!  I wanted to make brownies for my brother's family for the Yom Kippur break fast, which presented the perfect opportunity to test the new recipe out on my 5-year-old nephew who also loves brownies from a box.

I thought these brownies were absolutely delicious - dense, fudgy, and such a rich chocolate taste.  My nephew (and everyone else at the table) seemed to agree!  And the best part of this recipe is that it is made in just one bowl (plus a pot that just gets wet, not dirty), with one mixing utensil, and with ingredients that you may very well have in your kitchen already - I didn't have to buy a thing!

So while the holidays have not been the best opportunity to showcase healthy cooking, I feel good that through my experiments with spinach leek dip and brownies, I've proven to myself that we don't need chemicals in neat little packages to have tasty special occasion indulgences - good old wholesome ingredients still do the trick, and the effort involved does not need to be monumental.  Take that food manufacturers!  :)

Btw, how cool is this picture?  Thanks hubby!

One Bowl Brownies
adapted from Smitten Kitchen

10 tablespoons (1 1/4 sticks) unsalted butter
1 1/4 cups sugar
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons unsweetened natural or Dutch-process cocoa powder (this seems like an awfully fussy measurement to simply means 2 tablespoons short of a cup, which I'd call a scant cup - I just didn't fill my cup all the way and it worked fine!)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 large eggs, cold
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2/3 cup walnut or pecan pieces (optional)

Preheat the oven to 325°F. Line the bottom and sides of an 8×8-inch square baking pan with parchment paper or foil, leaving an overhang on two opposite sides.

Combine the butter, sugar, cocoa, and salt in a medium heatproof bowl and set the bowl on top of a pot of barely simmering water. Stir with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula from time to time until the butter is melted and the mixture is smooth and hot enough that you want to remove your finger fairly quickly after dipping it in to test. Remove the bowl from the pot and set aside briefly until the mixture is only warm, not hot. It looks fairly gritty at this point, but it smooths out once the eggs and flour are added.

Stir in the vanilla, and then add the eggs one at a time, stirring vigorously after each one. When the batter looks thick, shiny, and well blended, add the flour and stir until you cannot see it any longer, then beat vigorously for 40 strokes. Stir in the nuts, if using (I didn't). Spread evenly in the prepared pan.

Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center emerges slightly moist with batter, approximately 30 minutes.

Let cool completely on a rack. Lift up the ends of the parchment or foil liner, and transfer the brownies to a cutting board. Cut into 16 squares.

Makes 16 smallish brownies

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Easiest Noodle Kugel

For those of you who may not know what noodle kugel is, it's a dish traditionally served at Jewish holidays (at least in my family!).  It's basically a casserole made with a custard base and egg noodles, and is really yummy - it's almost like sweet mac & cheese with sour cream instead of cheese, and corn flakes on top instead of breadcrumbs :).  Not the most healthy dish - refined pasta loaded with butter, sour cream, and sugar, but hey, we're still talking about the holidays here!  But if it can't be a healthy side dish, can't it at least be easy?  Most noodle kugel recipes require cooking the pasta as a separate step (and creating another pot to clean), but I found one years ago that just requires putting uncooked pasta right in the baking dish.  Perfect. 

The resulting dish is soft, a little sweet, creamy, and delicious.  Everyone out there seems to have an idea of what kugel should be like - some will say there has to be raisins, or pineapple, or it should have cottage cheese, cinnamon, etc, but I really like this very simple recipe.  That being said, feel free to experiment - I think there's lots of room for playing here!

Btw, apologies for no picture on this post...forgot to take them while it was still fresh and didn't want to discourage anyone by taking pictures after it was already cold!  I promise to update when I make this again next year :)

Easiest Noodle Kugel
adapted from Epicurious

8 ounces wide egg noodles (feel free to try with whole wheat egg noodles if you can find them - I looked but didn't see any!)
1 cup raisins (optional)
5 large eggs
1 cup sour cream
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted, cooled
1/3 cup sugar (if you like a really sweet kugel you might want to increase this amount, but I like the lightly sweet version)
4 cups whole milk (or lowfat...I used half whole and half 1% with good results)
1 teaspoon vanilla

3 cups cornflakes, coarsely crushed (I used Nature's Path organic)
1/4 cup (packed) dark brown sugar

Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter a 13 x 9 x 2-inch glass baking dish.

Spread uncooked noodles over bottom of prepared dish and sprinkle with raisins, if using. Whisk together eggs, sour cream, butter, sugar, milk, and vanilla in large bowl until smooth. Pour mixture over noodles and let kugel stand 5 minutes.

Mix cornflakes and brown sugar in bowl and sprinkle evenly over kugel.

Bake kugel until set in center, about 1 hour. Cut into squares. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Serves 12

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Spinach Leek Dip

Last week, I was lucky enough to be invited to my parents' and bother's houses for Rosh Hashanah, which meant I got two great holiday meals that I didn't have to host!  Of course, my mom and sister-in-law each asked for a different contribution.  For night one I made chocolate cheesecake which came out delicious, but I'm thinking it's not really a simple or wholesome enough creation for this blog.  For night two, I was responsible for bringing some snacks to nosch on before dinner.  I decided I'd bring a spinach dip, home-made pita chips, carrot sticks, and some grapes.  Pita chips were easy - you might recall my recipe that went along with the edamame hummus?  Well, I followed the same method but seasoned the chips simply with salt.

As for spinach dip, it turns out almost every recipe on the internet involves either a powdered soup mix (partially hydrogenated soybean oil?  disodium inosinate? I think not!) or has cheese in it and is meant to be served hot, which would have meant bothering my sister-in-law in the kitchen as she prepared a meal for 11 people.  I finally found a recipe on the Cookstr blog for Spinach-Leek Dip that looked tasty.  I was a little nervous since it had no reviews and I've never tried any of their recipes, but in the absense of a better choice I decided to give it a try!

The resulting dip was delicious, and everyone seemed to enjoy it.  This is a recipe I'd really like to play with, though, potentially using frozen spinach instead of fresh (to skip the wilting step), onions instead of leeks and/or shallots (if I can't find organic leeks, onions always seem to be available! plus, I think a stronger oniony flavor would be nice), and a little less fat by replacing some of the mayo and sour cream with greek yogurt (I've seen this in other recipes as a way to reduce the fat while keeping the creaminess and tang).  If anyone out there decides to give these ideas a try, please let me know how it goes!  But overall, for a full-fat dip this one is certainly tasty and simple enough to make.

Spinach Leek Dip
adapted from Cookstr

4 teaspoons olive oil, divided
2 6-ounce bags baby spinach
1 cup thinly sliced leeks (white part only)
1/4 cup chopped shallots
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 cup sour cream
1 cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill or 1 teaspoon dried dill
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper (I used less because I'm scared of cayenne, but you couldn't really detect the heat to feel free to use this full amount or potentially more if you want a kick)

Heat 2 teaspoons of the oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. In batches, stir in the spinach, wilting each batch before adding more. Sprinkle the spinach with 1 tablespoon water, cover, and cook until the spinach is tender, about 5 minutes. Allow to cool and squeeze out excess liquid by placing in a clean kitchen towel, forming a pouch, and twisting the top so all the liquid comes out through the towel (I have a green-stained towel in my kitchen dedicated to this purpose - it is really much easier and more effective than the handful at a time squeezing approach). Chop coarsely, but don't go overboard - it's just going in the food processor later anyway :)

Heat the remaining 2 teaspoons oil in the skillet over medium heat. Add the leeks and cook, stirring often, until softened, about 3 minutes. Stir in the shallots and cook, stirring often, until softened, about 2 minutes. Cool completely.

Combine the spinach, cooled vegetables, sour cream, mayonnaise, dill, and cayenne in a food processor and process until blended. Season with salt and pepper. Transfer to a bowl and cover tightly. Refrigerate until chilled, at least 2 hours, or up to 2 days.

Serve chilled with pita chips, tortilla chips, veggies, or anything else you can think of!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Summer in review...I'm back!!

Hi everybody!!  Sorry for the long hiatus...I didn't plan to take the whole summer off, but, well, we've had a lot going on.  First of all, we moved!  After 9 years of city life and a year and a half entertaining a munchkin with a lot of energy in a 2 bedroom apartment, we finally decided leave the city in search of real space.  I am now officially a suburbanite and, despite initial mixed feelings about moving, absolutely loving it.  You might not think that moving justifies a 2 month vacation from blogging, but let me add that for about a month this summer we were homeless - apartment was sold but we didn't have our house yet, so we were crashing with my parents.  And despite the fact that my mom has a fabulous kitchen, somehow not being in my own home did not encourage a lot of cooking.

On top of the multiple moves (as if that wasn't enough!), the munchkin is going to become a big sister next March!  Very exciting, but unfortunately first trimester fatigue and food aversions took my already limited motivation to experiment in the kitchen down to approximately zero. 

I'm hoping you'll forgive my absence now that you know why!  Especially since now that the first trimester is over and I'm all settled into my new home with my own fabulous non-apartment sized kitchen, my motivation is back in full force!  I already have a backlog of recipes to post.  In the mean time, while it has taken me a while to start trying new recipes again, I have been referring back to this blog for cooking ideas while I got organized.  I thought I'd highlight some old favorites that I've retested and still love :)

Whole Wheat Oatmeal Pancakes: I have made these twice in the past few weeks, and they are really would never think they are so packed with whole grains, and the spices add enough flavor that I actually enjoy them without any syrup!  Talk about a healthy snack :)  I've updated the recipe since I've now had luck using a combination of milk and yogurt instead of buttermilk, which is not something I generally have on hand.

100% Whole Wheat Bread: Really yummy with way less effort than I would have ever imagined - amazing way impress everyone you know by making bread from scratch.  Although I just got a bread machine now that I have a real kitchen, so stay tuned for some bread machine specific recipes!

Salmon Cakes: Every time I make these I'm actually surprised how much I like them :)  I've updated the instructions with a tip on coating the patties with breadcrumbs without having them fall apart.

Lentil Soup: I have made this for company twice in the past few weeks and got rave reviews from visitors ranging from age 1 to 88!  This included the munchkin, who is generally not a fan of vegetables, as well as my very picky dad :).  I've updated the directions slightly based on my recent experiment with green lentils instead of red (the red give a prettier color and cook faster, but green turns out equally delicious!)  This is something I always like to have in my freezer for the perfect lunch or dinner any time.

Also, as a preview of what's to come, I think I'm finally ready to share the rest of my pizza story!  Plus, I made some really tasty chicken tenders and a wholesome spinach dip that did not require powdered seasoning from a packet :)  Stay tuned for more!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Carrot Coconut Muffins

Ok, I'll admit it right up front, this is the third time I'm posting a variation of this recipe - first as carrot cupcakes, and the second time as carrot zucchini muffins.  But I promise, these muffins keeps getting healthier AND better, so even if you're sick of hearing about them, I want to remember what I did! 

If you recall, one of my complaints about this recipe is that I found the muffins to be very sticky.  I thought maybe it was due to the agave, but substituting mostly granulated sugar didn't seem to help.  Then, when I re-read the recipe this time I had an epiphany - these muffins are practically fat free!  There is fat in the shredded coconut, but very little in the batter (only from the egg yolks) - no wonder they stuck!  I would have liked to replace the apple sauce with canola oil this time to see what would happen, but I am moving next week and trying to clear out my pantry, which meant I was down to about 1 tablespoon of canola oil.  Instead, I finished up my canola oil, filled up to 1/4 cup with olive oil, and then kept apple sauce for the other 1/4 cup.

I was also interested in cutting the sugar in this recipe, so since I am out of agave as well, I decided to use all brown sugar (pantry is really bare - I'm out of regular sugar, too!)  The third change was in the shredding of the carrots.  I tend to buy baby carrots, but have found they are basically impossible to grate by hand and a total pain in the tush to grate with the food processor (I end up with huge chunks of carrot in the bowl - anyone else have this problem??).  So instead, this time I just threw the carrots in with the chopping blade and processed until I practically had a puree.  And the final change was to cut back 3 eggs to 2 because, well, I just couldn't figure out how these muffins could possibly need 3 whole eggs!

And the outcome?  As you have probably already guessed, total success - muffins did not stick at all, even without liners, but still got nice and brown on the outside while maintaining a moist interior.  They are different from a carrot cake in that you can't see the shredded carrot, but I actually like that they have a more traditional muffin texture.  They are also definitely less sweet than the original, but again, I am ok with that given that I'm using these as a muffin instead of a cupcake (if I were making cupcakes with the glaze, I might keep the sugar at 3/4 cup while still using some oil in place of applesauce).  I hope you enjoy these - please let me know what you think!

Carrot Coconut Muffins
adapted from me!

2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon cloves
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 cups grated (or very finely processed) carrots (approximately 1 lb)
1/2 cup unsweetened shredded coconut
1/2 cup sugar (I used packed brown; regular granulated should work, too!)
2 eggs
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup unsweetened applesauce
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 350. Line a muffin tin with paper liners or spray with oil.

In a medium bowl, whisk together whole wheat pastry flour, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and salt. In a large bowl, mix together carrots, coconut, sugar, eggs, oil, applesauce and vanilla. Add dry ingredients to wet ingredients and stir just until well blended.

Pour batter into prepared muffin tins. Bake for approximately 20 minutes for mini-muffins (regular muffins will probably take about 25 minutes, although I didn't test this myself) until brown on top and a toothpick comes out clean. Let cool in pan for a few minutes and then remove to cool completely on a rack.

Makes 24 mini-muffins (should make 12 standard size)

Monday, July 5, 2010

Turkey Meatballs and Spaghetti

**This post has been updated since it's original posting date in December 2009**

My husband and I love pasta.  We could, and do, eat it several times a week, every week.  Usually we just make some pasta to toss with veggies and some chicken, but every once in a while we need to dress pasta up for company.  And that's where this recipe comes in.  It is a combination of recipes from 2 of my favorite Food Network chefs - Ellie Krieger, who makes healthier versions of traditional dishes, and Rachael Ray, who has great ideas for making quick meals.

The dish includes turkey meatballs, quick homemade tomato sauce, and whole wheat spaghetti - incredibly healthy, simple, and impressive and tasty enough for company, especially when served with a salad (e.g., caesar, or simple arugula) and some bread.  The sauce is also versatile - you can use it whenever you need a basic tomato sauce, since it comes together so quickly!

Turkey Meatballs and Spaghetti
adapted from Food Network (here and here)

Cooking spray
1 pound ground turkey meat
1 slice fresh whole-wheat bread
1/2 cup carrot
1/2 small onion
2 large cloves garlic
1/4 cup grated Parmesan
2 teaspoons minced fresh thyme leaves (or 1/2 teaspoon dried)
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/2 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
4 cloves garlic
1 small onion
1 cup chicken stock (or beef stock if using sauce with traditional meatballs or meatsauce)
1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
10 leaves fresh basil leaves, torn or thinly sliced
Splash of red wine (optional)

1 lb whole wheat spaghetti
Additional parmesan/romano cheese for passing at the table
Crusty bread
Put a large pot of water on the stove to boil.  Preheat the broiler on high.  Cover a baking sheet with foil and spray with a non-stick spray (olive or canola oil).
Place the ground turkey in a large bowl.  Remove the crust from a slice of wheat bread, pulse to crumbs in a food processor, and add to turkey.  Finely chop onion, garlic, and carrots in the food processor and add to turkey.  Add remaining ingredients (parmesan, egg, thyme, salt, and pepper) and mix well with clean hands.  Divide mixture into 12 lightly rolled balls and place on prepared baking sheet.
Place a saucepan over medium heat.  Wipe out the bowl of the food processor and add chop onion and garlic for sauce.  Add oil, onion, garlic and red pepper to pan and sautee.  (Note that this is half the red pepper from the original recipe, which I think is enough to add subtle heat - feel free to add more if you prefer).  Once onions are soft, add crushed tomatoes and stock and simmer.
At this point, place the meatballs under the broiler for approximately 8-10 minutes, until tops are brown and meatballs are almost entirely cooked through.  Take the meatballs out of the broiler, and add to the sauce along with the basil and wine (if using)*.  At this point, salt the boiling water and add spaghetti.  The meatballs will keep cooking in the sauce while the pasta cooks.
When the pasta is ready, drain and toss with a few ladles of sauce, and pour the rest of the sauce and meatballs on top.  Serve with salad, bread, and additional parmesan or romano cheese. 
Serves 4 hungry adults

*This sauce is somewhat chunky, with obvious pieces of tomato and onion.  If you prefer a smoother sauce, feel free to use an immersion (stick) blender to puree the sauce before adding the meatballs, basil, and wine.

Monday, June 28, 2010

100% Whole Wheat Bread

If you had asked me 2 years ago if I bake, I would have told you that I love cooking, but really don't enjoy baking - too annoying having to measure everything and be so precise.  Then I discovered that muffins are the perfect family snack and really don't require a ton of work, so if you had asked me the same question 6 months ago, I would have told you that I love making muffins and other baked goods that don't require complicated things like a stand mixer, or yeast, or kneading.  Then I read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and got inspired to make pizza dough, something that requires kneading (in a machine) AND yeast!  Well, I have now officially crossed the threshold into real baking with my crowning achievement - homemade bread, kneaded by hand :)

You might wonder why would I do such a thing when you can get perfectly good bread in the store or at a bakery?  Well, I've become quite picky with the ingredients in my food, and decided I really wanted to find an organic loaf that was 100% whole grain and didn't have preservatives.  This has turned out to be harder than I anticipated (at least in my markets), which is what led me to try making my own.  In keeping with my "simple" approach, I started out with Mark Bittman's no knead whole wheat bread which is certainly easy enough, but found the texture a little too crumby and the flavor too intense and salty. 

So I did a little more poking around and found a recipe on the King Arthur Flour website that got rave reviews, even by people who claimed to be new to bread making, just like me.  Adding to my motivation was an upcoming visit from my friends in Vermont who exclusively make their own bread, so I thought it would be nice to have some homemade bread to share with them while they were in town!  The ingredient list looked simple enough, the timing wasn't too bad, and how hard could 6-8 minutes of kneading really be??

Well, as it turns out, I ran into a few hiccups along the way.  First, I learned that kneading is hard work!  It requires a good amount of muscle to keep going for several minutes, but I have to admit I kind of enjoyed that aspect.  The second hiccup, though, was that I miscalculated how long it would take me to make and realized after I was done kneading that if I kept going I would be up past 11pm while home alone with the munchkin who wakes up at 5:30am.  Call me a wimp, but that is just not enough sleep for me!  I was torn between throwing away my hard work and being exhausted the next day, when I remembered references in the comments to the King Arthur Flour baking hotline.  Yes, you read that right - you can call a KAF representative until 9pm (eastern time) to ask for help with any of their recipes!  What an amazing service!  And lucky for me, I learned that I could leave the dough in the fridge overnight instead of having to bake that evening.  I've passed on this tidbit in the directions below, outlining both options for rising.

So, after a very longwinded story, those of you still reading might be wondering how it all turned out, and I am happy to report that this bread was absolutely delicious.  It was dense but not heavy, moist, flavorful, and a little sweet.  I would like to try this recipe using a stand mixer or a bread machine for the dough, but in the mean time I think it is worth a little elbow grease to provide my family with high quality, yummy bread for half the price of a loaf I'd buy in the store.

So yummy hubby couldn't resist taking a bite mid-photo shoot!

100% Whole Wheat Bread
adapted from King Arthur Flour

2 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast, or 1 packet active dry yeast dissolved in 2 tablespoons water
1 cup water
1/3 cup low fat or skim milk
1/4 cup vegetable oil (I used olive; I'm sure canola would work well too)
1/4 cup honey (or molasses or maple syrup)
3 1/2 cups whole wheat flour (bread or white whole wheat is ok, whole wheat pastry flour is not)
1 1/4 teaspoons salt

In a large bowl, combine all of the ingredients and stir until all of the flour has absorbed liquid and the dough starts to come together in the center of the bowl. Transfer the dough to a lightly greased surface (I used my counter top), oil your hands, and knead it for 6 to 8 minutes, or until it begins to become smooth and supple.

Notes on kneading: the dough will still be sticky when it's done, and this is a good thing - dough that is not sticky will yield a dry loaf, so you'll want to add a drop more water if this happens.  You just want good elasticity in the dough, so that when you fold it over to knead it stretches to form a smooth-ish surface and doesn't tear, as it will when you start.  According to KAF, you can also knead this dough in an electric mixer or food processor, or in a bread machine programmed for "dough" or "manual."  I haven't tried this yet, but will update if I do.

Transfer the dough to a lightly greased bowl, loosely cover the bowl, and allow the dough to rise till puffy though not necessarily doubled in bulk, about 60 minutes, depending on the warmth of your kitchen.

Transfer the dough to a lightly oiled work surface again, and shape it into an 8-inch log. Place the log in a lightly greased 8 1/2 x 4 1/2-inch loaf pan (this is a standard 1 lb loaf pan) and cover loosely with lightly greased plastic wrap. 

At this point you have two options: 1) allow the bread to rise at room temperature again for about 1 hour, or 2) refrigerate overnight (this is what I did).  The dough is ready when it has crowned about 1 inch above the edge of the pan and a finger pressed into the dough leaves a mark that rebounds very slowly.

Remove the plastic wrap and bake the bread in a preheated 350°F oven for about 40 minutes, tenting it lightly with aluminum foil after 20 minutes. (If you refrigerated the dough, leave it at room temperature while you preheat the oven, and bake for an extra 2-3 minutes if it was still cool when you put it in the oven).  Test it for doneness by removing it from the pan and thumping it on the bottom (it should sound hollow), or measuring its interior temperature with an instant-read thermometer (it should register 190°F at the center of the loaf). Remove the bread from the oven and let it cool on a wire rack before slicing. Store the bread in a plastic bag at room temperature.

Makes 1 loaf, 16 slices