Friday, December 30, 2011

The 12 Sweets of Christmas

I hope everyone has enjoyed their holidays, with safe travels, fun with family and friends, and of course, good food!

The 12 days of Christmas, despite what many people think, actually begins on Christmas Day and ends on Epiphany (January 6th).  So I've decided to compile the complete list of the 12 sweets of Christmas for you, just in case you haven't had a chance to try one of the recipes or need an idea for your New Year's Eve party or New Year's Day dinner.

The 12 Sweets of Christmas
(you can sing along if you want to, but it's not required)
  1. Caramel Banana Cake
  2. Quick Sugar Cookies
  3. Chocolate Whiskey Cookies
  4. Easy Peanut Brittle
  5. Grape-Filled Cookies
  6. Almond Paste Cookies
  7. Peanut Butter Cups
  8. Italian Nut Chews
  9. Carrot Cake
  10. Italian Purple Grape Cake
  11. Iced Italian White Cookies
  12. Coconut Cream Pie

See you all in 2012!

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Coconut Cream Pie (The 12th Sweet of Christmas)

Merry Christmas, everyone!  Here's the last installment in my special holiday series, "The 12 Sweets of Christmas."  And today we have....


Coconut cream pie!

Meet my Waterloo.

This is the most difficult pie I make.  It's time consuming.  It's fussy.  It requires constant vigilance. It has the potential to be completely disastrous.   But if it comes out right, it's oh so good!

Normally I make this for New Year's dinner, but my cousin (the same one who wanted the 12-layer cake for his birthday) is getting his wisdom teeth out on Tuesday and won't be able to eat much of anything on New Year's.

A few "musts" up front.  Allot yourself close to an hour to make this pie, all hands on time.  Use whole milk.  No not leave the filling unattended.  Adhere to the bold typed directions if you want to be successful.  If you don't have a double boiler, go buy one.  They really aren't that expensive, and even though you might only use the top part a couple times a year, the bottom of a double boiler is just a sauce pan that can be used whenever.  Trying to rig up a double boiler with two saucepans is tricky, irritating, and can lead to messes, burns, and a pie-fail.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Iced Italian White Cookies (The 11th Sweet of Christmas)

Ah!  The bread and butter of an Italian cookie tray, the cookie that, for my entire life (and the lives of my mother, aunt, grandmother, and all who went before me), meant, "Christmas is coming!"  The simplest of Italian cookies!

We called them "biscottis", even though true biscotti are the crunchy, twice baked delights you often find in coffee shops and specialty bakeries.  But the word biscotti in Italian can be used to refer to any type of cookie, which is probably why that's what my great-grandmother called them.

But in perfect honesty, even though my family persists in calling them biscottis (with the predictable flat, short o sound inherent to most American speech patterns), they're really iced Italian white cookies.  There are a gazillion variations on this type of cookie, because it really is the quintessential family recipe.  No two Italian white cookies are exactly the same, but they are all beautiful things.  You can use just the basic vanilla flavoring and call it a day, or make it your own by using other flavor extracts like lemon, orange, cherry, peppermint, anise, almond... the list goes on.

What's particularly great about these cookies is the fact that even little kids can get their hands in the action.  With a consistency similar to Play-Doh, they can be shaped in countless ways.  Letters, circles, loops, and so on.  Or just roll them into balls or, if you're like me and want to get the whole job done quickly (because you realized on December 23rd that you were totally out of biscottis already and decided to make more that very night), you can use a cookie scoop.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Italian Purple Grape Cake (The 10th Sweet of Christmas)

I stumbled on this recipe a couple years ago out of necessity.  My mother-in-law had bought some little purple grapes (which I now know are seedless Concord grapes) at our local farm market.  But they were very ripe, and I had too many left to eat before they spoiled.

Enter Italian fresh purple grape cake.

This is awesome at any time of year, but the seedless Concord grapes are only available in the fall (at least in my area).  However, if you wash and dry the grapes off the vines, they freeze very well in containers or ziplock bags.  Just measure and defrost when you need them.

With some fresh homemade whipped cream on top, and perhaps a sprig of fresh mint, this can be a very festive and different dessert for your holiday table.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Carrot Cake for Christmas? Why not? (The 9th Sweet of Christmas)

You probably don't think of carrot cake when you think about holiday sweets, but this particular recipe definitely has its place.  Think about it - spice cake is sort of a fall/winter cake flavor, and that's essentially what this cake is.

Just with some carrots thrown in.

Smear some cream cheese frosting on it and you've got something totally delicious, even though it does happen to have vegetables in it.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Italian Nut Chews (The 8th Sweet of Christmas)

Ah, Italian nut chews!  This is another family favorite that has been passed down from my great-grandmother. Turns out it wasn't one of her "original" recipes brought from Sicily, but rather one she clipped out of a newspaper before my grandmother was born.

Even though it looks daunting at first, it's really very easy and quick to make.  The longest part of the process is waiting for these cookies to cool.

Peanut Butter Cups (The 7th Sweet of Christmas)

My family isn't going to get to enjoy the 7th sweet of Christmas, because this particular sweet was made to brighten the day of a very good friend of mine who is currently serving our country in Afghanistan.  My homemade peanut butter cups have been a favorite treat of his since he first tasted them back when we were in seventh grade.

My understanding is that the peanut butter cups arrived at his base overseas rather quickly, given the time of year, and have been sampled by all and sundry with big thumbs up all around.

I intended to brighten my friend's holiday, of course, but I'm glad some of the other servicemen and women who are stationed with him were also able to get some cheer from my festive box-o-goodies.

First, I know you're going to say that these look nothing like peanut butter cups.  And you're right.  They should probably be called peanut butter bars.  But they taste almost exactly like Reese's peanut butter cups, so you'll forgive the fact that they are not in "cup" form.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Almond Paste Cookies (The 6th Sweet of Christmas)

When people think of Italian cookies, I bet a lot of people picture the delicate, chewy cookies kissed with almond flavor and topped with a jewel of a candied cherry.

That's right, I'm talking about almond paste cookies.

My husband had never tasted almond pastes until he met me.  (He's not Italian.  But nobody's perfect.)  I think they're now his favorite Christmas cookie.

The number of ways to make almond paste cookies is great and varied, but I'm going to share an extremely simple recipe passed down from my Nana Savona.  It's so simple, in fact, that when I first got the recipe from my great aunt, we thought she'd forgotten to write down some of the ingredients.  But then we were perusing my nana's recipe box at my grandmother's one day and discovered her original recipe card.  And after some trial and error in preparation and storage, we discovered the secret to making these almond paste cookies the way my mom remembers from her childhood.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Grape-Filled Cookies (The 5th Sweet of Christmas)

Are you ready for possibly the most challenging cookie ever?  This is my Everest.  This is my Waterloo.  This is my "coconut cream pie of cookies."  (I'll get to that reference in a later post.)

But, if you take the challenge and are willing to deal with the possibility of crazy gooey oozy grape mess on your cookie sheets, you'll be delighted with the final result.  I promise.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Peanut Brittle from the Microwave! (The 4th Sweet of Christmas)

That's right, you heard me.  You can make peanut brittle in the microwave.  Your hands-on time is something like 15 minutes or less.  And it's delicious.

To be fair and honest, I can't take the credit for this particular batch of peanut brittle.  My mom made it and gave me a generous share.

That share happens to be gone already, but we won't discuss it.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Chocolate Whiskey Cookies (The 3rd Sweet of Christmas)

I have to say this might be my favorite Christmas cookie out of all the Christmas cookies my family makes.  It's an old family recipe; I'm not exactly sure where it originated, but my Nana Savona's recipe box seems to be the origins of the delightful and slightly naughty chocolate whiskey cookies.

I will warn you ahead of time that you should not attempt to make these cookies unless you have at least one helper because they have to be frosted while they're still warm from the oven.  And you're going to have 5 to 6 trays, 20 cookies to a tray.  So expect to frost between 100 and 120 cookies.  Also be forewarned that you won't end up with 100 to 120 cookies at the end of the baking day - because you'll be "forced" to quality test at least one cookie from each batch.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Quick Sugar Cookies (The 2nd Sweet of Christmas)

"The second sweet of Christmas my true love made for me...."

This past Saturday morning, I rolled out of bed about forty-five minutes before I had to leave for my church's annual craft show and bake sale.  As a member of the choir, I was on "kitchen duty".  I also realized, to my chagrin, that I had nothing baked for the bake sale.

This really wasn't that big of a deal because we ended up with lots of donated goodies.  But I felt really bad because what if nobody brought anything?!?  I have a bad habit of worrying about these sorts of things and taking responsibility for stuff like this.  And I don't know if it's my upbringing or what, but I couldn't go empty handed.  It just would've felt.... wrong.  So I embarked on an early morning speed-baking adventure.

I knew I wouldn't have time to bake anything and have it be completely cool before I had to leave, but my husband would be showing up for kitchen duty (he's also a member of the choir) later in the morning and could bring my goodies with him.  But what can you make in a half hour?

You can make sugar cookies.

These cookies are exceedingly easy and quick to whip up. They're perfect for that evening when you get a phone call from those old friends who no longer live in town but happen to be around for the holidays and, "We'd like to stop by later and visit!"  But you have nothing sweet in the house to offer your guests.

I swear on my life, I had the first tray of cookies in the oven in about seven minutes flat.  That's how quick they are to make.  And if you have a cookie scoop (like me) it's even easier than if you're dropping them by teaspoon with actual, you know, teaspoons.

They're not an overly sweet cookie, either, and you can dress them up for company in a variety of ways.  You can make a glaze (and tint it festive colors) to drizzle over the top, with or without sprinkles.  You can dust them with powdered sugar.  You could melt some milk chocolate and pipe pretty designs on top.  Or just serve them up with coffee and tea and give your guests the option to dunk.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Caramel Banana Cake (The 1st Sweet of Christmas)

I'm starting a little "series of sweets" this month, which hopefully will give some of my readers ideas for holiday sweet treats for family and friends.  And the first sweet of Christmas is Caramel Banana Cake.

We do birthdays big time at my school.  Anytime somebody has a birthday, their grade level breaks out the metaphorical party hats and celebrates with the birthday girl's (or boy's) favorite baked treat.  A coworker of mine requested a banana cake for her birthday, because she loves banana cake and hasn't been able to find a recipe that really knocks her socks off.

I scented the challenge a mile away.  Especially since I was already primed to try out this caramel banana cake after Amanda at i am baker gave it a whirl (with her own buttercream twist).  My coworker's birthday proved the perfect opportunity.

I called dibs on making her birthday treat almost two months before her birthday rolled around.  It proved particularly delightful because my grade level happened to be participating in DIBELS Next training the afternoon we had chosen for the birthday lunch.  As much as we "love" training, having cake definitely made the afternoon much more enjoyable.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

I am Thankful For.... Chocolate Cookies

A couple weeks ago, Bakerella unveiled yet another recipe for some scrumptious cookies - Dark Chocolate Chip Comfort Cookies, to be precise.  I was hooked and simply HAD to make the attempt.

So in addition to that super easy cheesy cornbread and a chili recipe (still in the "tweaking" stage), I decided to whip up a double batch of these super delicious cookies to take to a chili cook-off a friend of ours was hosting.  I didn't have any dark chocolate chips, because I'd used my bag to make a batch of triple chocolate chip cookies for my brother-in-law's birthday, so I substituted half a bag of white chocolate chips and half a bag of semi-sweet chocolate chips.

They were still positively awesome, and I followed it up a week later by making another double batch, WITH dark chocolate chips, for my staff's "pig out day" - our big pot luck lunch we do on our second day of parent/teacher conferences.

Before I continue with the awesome pictures of these cookies in process, I must give you all a word of warning.  This cookie dough is THICK.  How thick, you ask?  Well, between these cookies and the triple chocolate chip cookies I made in October, I now have no more rubber spatulas.  Because the acrylic handles snapped when I was trying to scrape the bowls and fold in the chocolate chips.

That's right.  Both my spatulas are cookie casualties.  So I suggest you skip the heartache and just use a big sturdy metal spoon instead.

Anyway, on to the awesomeness.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Brussels Sprouts Braised in White Wine and Lemon Juice

Brussels sprouts are a strange little vegetable.  They're like little miniature cabbages - and when cooked improperly, can take on a very cabbage-y taste and smell that forces many people to turn up their noses.  I used to be one of those people - not out of personal experience, mind you, just from horror stories of people required to eat Brussels sprouts under duress ("No dessert unless you eat your Brussels sprouts!").

Brussels sprouts actually have quite a bit to do with with Brussels, Belgium, where they were first grown in the 16th century.  They're extremely good for you, but most people don't know how to cook them the right way, so the eating of said sprouts is, for many, akin to culinary torture.  In fact, I never had a Brussels sprout pass my lips until last Thanksgiving, when my brother-in-law attempted a very tasty recipe.  Then I started experimenting and came up with a lovely way to prepare these cabbage-ettes that even my husband, who doesn't normally like a variety of vegetables, will eat.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Easy Cheesy Cornbread

I've always been a fan of cornbread, but other than a handful of times when I've opened a boxed mix, I haven't made it very often.

All that changed when my sister-in-law (who lives in San Antonio - beautiful city, by the way) gave us Classic Tex Mex and Texas Cooking for Christmas a couple years ago.  I haven't had a chance to dive too far into these regional recipes, but the "Plain Ole Cornbread" recipe has become something of a standby.

I decided to give it a little bit of a cheesy twist.  It came out moist and so very cornbread-y.

It's really a very basic recipe, and you could probably add any flavors you like - chili powder, garlic, maybe drizzle with honey or maple syrup.  (Incidentally, the basic cornbread - sans cheese - is amazing with homemade sugar plum jam.)

I apologize in advance for most of these pictures.  The sun decided to shine directly into my kitchen window when I was making this.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Trying Out Gluten-Free Products with Schar Brand Foods

This is a Sponsored post written by me on behalf of Schar. All opinions are 100% mine.

There's been a lot of hype lately about gluten-free diets, gluten intolerance, and so on.  All you need to do is Google "gluten allergy" and you'll come up with tons of hits relating to the diagnosis and treatment of gluten allergies and intolerance, as well as suggestions for gluten-free diets and recipes.  I did a little reading up on Wikipedia to get the general gist of what causes gluten intolerance.

Because of the seemingly sudden surge in the number of people with gluten intolerance, many brands out there are starting to offer gluten free foods.  One such brand is Schar, a food company that is a leader in offering gluten free breads, pastas, cookies, and so on.  They've recently relaunched a lot of products and are now offering gluten-free sub sandwich rolls, baguettes, and ciabatta rolls.

By joining the Schar Club, you can get access to hundreds of gluten-free recipes, as well as read up on the products themselves and get tips for living a healthy, gluten-free lifestyle.  

Because I'm a total bread fiend (I really love carbohydrates), I'm most interested in trying the baguettes and ciabatta rolls.  They're made with awesome natural ingredients like rice flour, soy protein, and sunflower oil.  I'm not gluten-intolerant, but for those among you who are, and who are dealing with the effects of celiac disease, these products allow such individuals to enjoy bread (and pasta, and cookies) again.

What can I do with these baguettes and ciabatta rolls I'm so curious about trying? Well, just about anything you can do with any other such bread products!  Baguettes are amazing when paired with hearty soups, or when dipped in sauce (both tomato and the delicious sauces that come about with dishes like bouef bourguignon).  Baguettes and ciabatta rolls also make fantastic incarnations of garlic breads, and of course, just making a giant, crusty sandwich for a weekend lunch works too!

You can look for Schar gluten-free products in their store (use their store locator to find a retailer near you), or you can order right through their website.  I also found some products available on Amazon, which surprised me but is very convenient. (I can order "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" along with my gluten free Schar spaghetti!) Curious, but not ready to search the grocery shelves quite yet?  You can get a Schar free sample through their website as well when you sign up for the Schar Club.


To decide if these products are for you and your family, you'll have to check out Schar gluten-free breads, pastas, and other products to see for yourself - especially if you've been lamenting the exclusion of these foods from your diet due to gluten intolerance.  And leave me some comments with your "wish list" of things to try and your ideas for using these products - maybe I'll create a recipe or two from your ideas and suggestions!

Visit Sponsor's Site

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Baked Tilapia with Roasted Zucchini, Penne, and White Wine Cream Sauce

Prepare to drool a little bit, oh ye fish lovers out there....

I find tilapia to be a relatively versatile fish, as it's on the mild end of fishiness and there are a gazillion different ways to prepare it.

Of course, I generally just make lemon pepper tilapia.  Which is delicious, and we love it, but it's not very glamorous.

I got a little bit adventurous last night, despite the fact that it was a Monday, I was tired, my brain was still fried from having done 24 report cards in about three and a half hours straight over the weekend, and I was trying to get the house straightened out for a dinner party I'm hosting Thursday night.

The result was this:

What was particularly beautiful is the fact that it was a three-pan meal (a baking sheet, a sauce pan, and my melting pot).  And it only took 40 minutes start to finish, and only about 15 of that was hands-on work.  And I also managed to make this entire dish without using a single grain of salt.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Homemade Fiber Bars

People often run screaming when you start talking about fiber. They think it'll taste bad.  They think it'll be endless hours of chewing.  They think of Metamucil.

But the fact is that Americans aren't getting enough dietary fiber - the fiber naturally found in foods (including yummy fruits and veggies!).  And we need that dietary fiber.  Aside from our overall digestive health, fiber helps us maintain our weight or lose weight.  Don't believe me?

Okay, so fiber isn't glamorous.  Nobody's going to look at a high fiber food and go, "Wow!  Look at that!  It's just amazing - the presentation is impeccable!" the way they would with a three-tier chocolate cake piped with intricate flowers and frosting designs.

Or would they?

Perhaps, if fiber looked a little something like this:

A coworker recently shared her recipe for homemade fiber bars, and I finally got around to making them.  Take my word for it - there's tons of fiber-filled ingredients, but they taste awesome!  And they're so easily personalized to your taste preferences.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Bleu Cheese Alfredo with Chicken and Spinach

A few years ago, I developed an alfredo sauce recipe from a couple recipes I found in books and online, and last weekend I decided to give it a go, with a little twist.

A bleu cheese twist.

It was incredibly quick to prepare, and I decided to mix in some cooked chicken and baby spinach to give it some extra nutrition, and to use up some chicken I'd cooked the day before.

The result was beautiful, and my husband, who isn't particularly a fan of alfredo, loved it.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Peach Cobbler Pie

A few years ago, I sort of created my own recipe for peach cobbler pie, based on pieces and parts of other recipes I'd found online and in cookbooks.

Since the peaches were so amazing this year, I couldn't help but make a peach cobbler pie.

Peach pie (really any peach treat) is rather time consuming, only because you have to peel, slice, and pit the peaches.  It's also a rather messy process.  But it's definitely worth the time and effort.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Triple Chocolate Chip Cookies

Just a quick post tonight to report on a cookie triumph.

My brother-in-law's birthday is this Thursday, and I know he's got a big weak spot for chocolate chip cookies (as does my husband.... and father-in-law... must be genetic).  So I decided to pull out all the stops and make some triple chocolate chip cookies, based on this recipe for Triple Chip Cookies from Bakerella.

Bakerella's recipe calls for white chocolate, milk chocolate, and butterscotch chips.  I went with white, milk and dark chocolate, only because I sadly discovered that I had less than a 1/3 of a cup of butterscotch chips in my pantry.

This is probably due to the fact that I'd gotten into the habit of sprinkling a handful on my ice cream this summer, in spite of the fact that I'd purchased said butterscotch chips specifically for these cookies.

In any case, I substituted the dark chocolate chips for the butterscotch and kept everything else in Bakerella's recipe the same.

The hubby and I did some quality control.

They met with our exacting standards of quality.

The only thing I did slightly different from Bakerella, other than the chip substitution, was use a smaller cookie scoop.  Mine has only a 1-inch diameter, so I actually ended up with 5 1/2 dozen cookies.  Two dozen are slated (after a little bit of pleading and some puppy dog eyes) for my husband's project meeting at work tomorrow.  I'll probably save the extra six for us to munch on.  The rest are heading to my bro-in-law's and will hopefully arrive on time for his birthday.

I leave it up to him if he wants to share with his roommates.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Great Grape Pie Experiment

The New York State Finger Lakes region is rather well known for it's wineries, grapes, and treats related to grapes.  One of the baked items I've long thought about making is the "famous" Naples grape pie.  It sounds sort of odd, but interesting and good at the same time.

So armed with some fresh NYS concord grapes, and this recipe for "the world's greatest grape pie", I set out to see what all the fuss is about.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Chunky Vegetable Beef Soup

We had a little cold snap a couple weeks ago, so I came home from work and decided to try my hand at making vegetable beef soup.  I'd never done it before and didn't really have a recipe, but it's one of my husband's favorites and it sounded really delicious.

Campbell's Chunky Soups has nothing on me.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Coneflower Spice Cupcakes with Maple Apple Butter

My aunt celebrated her birthday a couple weeks ago, and I decided to do cupcakes for her.  I had some regular old Duncan Hines spice cake mix in my pantry, so I used that and "spiced" it up a bit.

I decided to take a really pretty technique created by Amanda at i am baker for a large daisy design and downsize it for cupcakes.  But my aunt wanted pink frosting, so I couldn't do daisies.  Then I realized if I did the same design in pink, I would essentially have coneflowers.

And because I've come to love filling cupcakes with yummy surprise flavors, I filled them with maple apple butter we got from a local "jam expert" at our farmer's market.

Now on Twitter!

It's official - I'm on Twitter!

Feel free to follow me, if you're a Twitter user.

I'm planning to get a new recipe up tonight or tomorrow, in case you're salivating all over your keyboard.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Easy Healthy Eggplant Parmigiana

Did you know eggplants are technically berries?

I found an adorable little eggplant at the local farm market last week when I was out getting fruits and veggies, and it just cried out, "Turn me into eggplant parmigiana!" in its little purple eggplant voice.

Okay, maybe I was just wiped out from a busy day with 24 second graders....

But I did make this into a small batch of eggplant parmigiana.  Normally this is a recipe I serve up as a side dish, but with some rolls and a side salad, this was a perfect meal for my husband and me.

Now, if you've done any research into the making of eggplant parmigiana, you'll find that the instructions call for breading the eggplant, frying it in hot oil, then baking it.  Well, that's all fine and good and very traditional, but it's also a lot more time consuming than I think is necessary, especially for a weeknight meal. And all that frying can't be good for you.

And honestly, my mother has never fried her eggplant parmigiana.  So I don't either.  My way is a lot easier, a lot quicker, and, I think, a lot healthier overall.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Chicken Marbella

I recently tried out a slow cooker recipe I snagged out of Woman's Day for chicken marbella.  It was really easy and an interesting combination of flavors.  I followed the recipe pretty closely, though I did make a couple minor adjustments and discovered a couple things I'd do the next time I make it.

I apologize for some of the lower quality photos.  The light in my kitchen was a little off the day I made this.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Garden Vegetable Minestrone

I'm a little bit of a quest to create a recipe for minestrone that matches up to the minestrone served at Olive Garden.  I've gotten close, but still no definitive success.

Still, I have discovered that the best time to make minestrone is in late summer when garden vegetables are at their peak.  It helps to make it on a day that's rather cool, and I recently had such a day with time to get some soup on.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Small Request

Pearl Harbor.  JFK.  Martin Luther King, Jr.  The Challenger.  The space shuttle Columbia.  The 2009 tsunami.

September 11, 2001.

There are certain dates in our history, days "that will live in infamy", that we will never forget.  Those who witnessed these events, who lived through them, will always be able to recall where they were, what they were doing, and who they were with, when they first heard the news or saw it happen first hand.

Ten years ago, our nation witnessed a tragedy, an act of pure aggression and hatred against innocent people.

We were afraid.  We were confused.  Nothing was certain anymore.

From it, a new sense of unity and what it means to be an American rose from the destruction.  People came together to help each other, comfort each other, to pray, and then to rebuild.

In the ensuing years, I think we've forgotten a little bit of what we felt that morning.  We've reverted to our old ways, our old prejudices.  We've forgotten some of the sacrifices made that day, and we've forgotten many of the heroes.  And many people, I think, have forgotten to be thankful for the small blessings we have, to take pleasure and pride in our little victories and the beautiful things in the world.

While I don't want to turn this blog into anything too overtly personal, and certainly not something preachy, I hope all Americans will take a few moments today to do some or all of the following:

  • consider your blessings and say a prayer for those who've forgotten theirs
  • remember the wonderful things in life, big and small
  • hug your mom, dad, brother, sister, husband, wife, child, best friend
  • admire a blue sky, a blooming flower
  • eat chocolate without feeling guilty
  • listen to a child laugh
  • tell someone you love how much they mean to you
  • be proud, be strong, be kind
  • remember those who are gone, celebrate those who remain
  • think about what our country was founded on, and what being an American means to you today
Thanks for your time.

I've also written my memories of September 11, 2001, on Acts of Literature, Acts of Life.  Where were you, and what were you doing that morning?  What do you remember?

Friday, September 9, 2011

Tart Cherry Pie

I've been on a search for a totally awesome tart cherry pie filling recipe for several years now. Once upon a time, I attempted the recipe found in the Betty Crocker cookbook.  It was delicious, but all the sugar separated from the cherries and formed a sugar-sludge on the bottom of the pie.

Since then, I've sadly opened can after can of cherry pie filling, searching and hoping for a homemade filling recipe that would be as gooey and thick as the canned stuff.

Now, success!

My friend Holly, who is also an amazing amateur baker and cook, sent me a recipe she tried out from Food Network.  It was perfect and simple. All I needed to do was procure the tart cherries.

Which I had done the weekend before I went to Florida.  I froze the cherries, since I didn't have time to bake the pie right then and there (and tart cherries really only keep well under refrigeration for a couple days).  I steadfastly pitted two quarts of tart cherries, dumped them in a giant Ziploc container, and mixed in 1 and 1/2 cups of sugar (3/4 of a cup for each quart).  Then I popped the whole container in the freezer.

These darling, beautiful cherries were "pied" this past Sunday while my in-laws were up visiting.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Bruschetta, or, My Favorite Thing to Do With Tomatoes

My husband and I went to Italy for a week in April of 2007, and one of our "goals" was to find the best tasting bruschetta.  I'm not sure if we succeeded or not, but our search did spark our lingering love for the dish.

According to Wikipedia, bruschetta (pronounced "broos-ketta", not "broo-shetta" as is common in the US), is an antipasto dish from central Italy.  There are several variations of it, but its most common incarnation in the United States involves four very simple ingredients:

It amazes me, stupefies me even, that "bruschetta" is sold in jars at the supermarket.  It's such a ridiculously easy thing to make, and is so much better when prepared with fresh ingredients.  Really, if you've been buying jarred "bruschetta" at the grocery store all these years, I'm going to convert you right now.


Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Peach Jam That Wasn't

Remember how I bought eight quarts of peaches a couple weeks ago?

Yeah, these peaches.

I made jam out of one quart's worth.  Or at least, I tried.  It didn't work so well.  It ended up being more like super sweet peach chunks in syrup.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Buffalo Chicken Wing Pizza

I like pizza. I like chicken wings.  I like to put the two together.

My husband requested pizza the other night, as I hadn't made it in a while.  It's really very easy and takes about an hour and fifteen minutes start to finish, including bake time and the time it take to let the pizza dough rise.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Canning Peaches

I was very pleased to find the first of the local peaches when I went to my local farm market on Thursday.  Of course, the smallest amount I could find was an 8-quart box.

Oh well!

I set some aside for eating (because my husband loves peaches) and some aside for a pie, and the rest I decided to can!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Disney World Dining Review

I just got home from a fantastic trip to Walt Disney World in sunny (hot) Florida, which was a Grand Gathering of 11 people from the maternal side of my family.  (Holy cow.)

It is indeed the "most magical place on Earth."  You can forget about work, the laundry, how many weeds are growing in your flowerbeds, and just be a kid again.

And you can eat!

I could fill three posts with details about everything we did at Disney World, but this is a food blog, so I'll stick to discussing where we ate.  Now, everyone has different tastes, of course, and by no means am I suggesting that you follow my reviews to the letter.  You have to make food choices that work for you and  your family.  But here are the ups (and downs) of my Disney World dining experience.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Collecting Recipes

About a year or so ago, I decided to change my main magazine subscription from Cosmopolitan to Woman's Day, not because I think there's anything particularly wrong with Cosmo, but rather because I found myself flipping through the majority of the magazine without actually reading it.  I didn't feel that was getting my money's worth, so I stopped my subscription and started a new one for Woman's Day.

I've been pretty happy ever since.  There are still some things I flip past (okay, I'll give them a cursory skim), but I'm in love with Woman's Day primarily because of the recipes.

Around 8:30 last night, I decided to go through my almost-year's worth of issues that I'd tucked away so I could "try those recipes later" and cut out what I actually thought I'd try.

It turned out to be quite a lot more recipes that I'd thought.

Still, I made a nice little folder for them, and after several hours of perusing and cutting and tearing, I had a lovely stack tucked away in my folder, and the spent issues are in the recycling bin.

I probably could've gone onto the Woman's Day website and printed the recipes off from there, but I figured that would be a further waste of paper and ink.  My thought is that, when I feel like trying a new recipe out, I'll just pull it from the folder and give it a whirl.  If it's a keeper, I'll transfer it to my recipe book.  If it flops, into the recycling bin it goes.  No harm, no foul.

The trick, of course, will be actually weeding through the keepers and the weepers in due course so I don't end up with a folder of recipes to try that's the size of War and Peace because I kept adding and never get around to cooking any of it.  I figure next week I can start trying a couple recipes here and there, and that should help me keep on top of things.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Freezing Fresh Sweet Peas

I went to my local farm market this morning in search of homegrown tomatoes and tart cherries (successful on both accounts) and ended up with several other homegrown veggies, one of which happened to be about half a pound (if that) of fresh sweet peas in the pod.

I'm weird in that I like every fresh vegetable known to man, almost, except peas.  I'm weirder in that I really only like canned peas.

But last summer I discovered how awesome fresh sweet peas are in garden vegetable minestrone soup, so I had to snatch some up.

Of course, I won't be making said minestrone for another couple weeks, as we're leaving for Disney World on Thursday. And I can't leave my sweet peas in the hydrator drawer, because then they will shrivel up and dry out in the meantime.  And while I'm sure a long simmer in a pot of minestrone would help things immensely, it's just not right to do that to these poor, innocent peas.

So they needed to be frozen.

Of course, you can't just throw the peas in the freezer and say, "See you in a couple weeks!"  I'm not actually sure what would happen if you do that, but I imagine it's not what you'd want to have happen.

It's actually really easy and quick to freeze fresh peas.  I originally found good step-by-step instructions here, but a really smart friend taught me an easy way to emulate a food-saver type vacuum seal, at least for short term storage, that works way better than the straw-and-ziploc-bag method.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Raspberry Pie

Yesterday was a chilly 79 degrees, and I decided to make a raspberry pie.

Let's face it, fresh raspberries are amazing and awesome.  And raspberry season only lasts, like, a week.  Blink and you miss it.

I bought two pints of raspberries at the farmer's market two Thursdays ago, but two pints of (extremely expensive) raspberries does not a batch of jam make.  So I decided to wash and freeze them, so later on I could either make a pie or possible acquire more berries and make jam.

I decided on pie.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Seriously Old-Fashioned Recipes

I haven't been doing much cooking this week - okay, let's be honest, I've done no cooking this week - due to the heatwave the northeast (and apparently the rest of the United States) has been experiencing.  When it's 95+ degrees out, and your house is not equipped with any sort of air conditioning, firing up the oven is the very last thing you want to do.

But just because it's not physically comfortable enough to cook doesn't mean you can't look at recipes.

I love looking at recipes.

I particularly like looking at old-fashioned recipes.  And I'm not talking about stuff from the 1950s.  I mean historical recipes.  In April, I went to a seminar about the War of 1812 and was thisclose to purchasing a cookbook with recipes dating from the early 1800s.  You know, back when recipes were called "receipts".

As I was attempting to stay cool yesterday, I was poking around the internet and stumbled across a website that I'm dying to dive into:  The Civil War Interactive Cookbook.  Okay, I didn't stumble.  I deliberately did a Google search for Civil War era recipes.

I should probably inform all of you that, aside from my love of cooking and baking, I am a ridiculous history geek.  And the Civil War is kind of my historical area of expertise, if amateur study can lead to any sort of expertise.

I literally went "OOOOOOO" when I clicked on the link.

Now, aside from the various recipes out there for military hardtack, there isn't much in the way of recipes Civil War era soldiers would cook.  All of these recipes are from the home front.  What's really cool is that the editors of the website include some explanations about what some of the historical ingredients are (for example, crushed loaf sugar is nothing more than today's granulated sugar), and they also give sources for the recipes too.

My sweet tooth must be acting up this week because I spent the majority of my time perusing the sections regarding baked goods.  As soon as this heat wave lets up, I might have to try to whip up some authentic Boston creme cakes.

It may take some financial planning, however, before attempting one of the sponge cake recipes calling for 15 eggs.  (And you thought the 12-layer cake called for an obscene amount of eggs!)

Monday, July 18, 2011

Grilled Steak with Orange Teriyaki Sauce

Summer means grilling, and in my house, grilling, much of the time, means steak.

I like me some steak.

Recently, I pulled out an "old favorite" recipe and gave it a little bit of a change up.  I came up with my recipe for orange teriyaki steak last fall when I discovered some steak in my freezer that had been there about three months.  The steak I made recently with this recipe didn't require as much help as the deep-freeze steak.  And I happened to have some mushrooms (I'm on a bit of a mushroom kick), so I added those to the mix.  Pair it with some fresh sweet corn - oh wow!

Now, I will share the marinade for the steak, but the process I want to go through with you specifically is for the sauce.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Red Velvet Cake Balls

I don't know if any of you have heard of cake balls before.  If you haven't, you should.  They're amazing.  They taste so rich, and are always impressive.

We had a reception on Sunday to welcome the new pastor at my church, and I wanted to make something a little different from the standard fare.  Of course, I needed to figure out how to give it an Italian flare.  So I decided on red velvet cake balls coated with vanilla almond bark coating with a dab of green on top.

This is another of those recipes that seems like it would be really challenging, but it's surprisingly easy.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Fresh Strawberry Tart

Sometimes you just need to do something amazing with fresh strawberries, especially when strawberries are in season (as they are this time of year in my neck of the woods).  And what could be more amazing than a fresh strawberry tart, straight out of Mastering the Art of French Cooking?

Honestly, can you think of anything more amazing for your 4th of July picnic?  I can't.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Cakes for a Good Cause

Every Father's Day weekend, my church holds its annual summer bazaar (or Festivale Italiano, if you will), and for the past couple years I've done my part by making cakes for the cake booth.

I love our summer festival, because aside from getting to see people and eat really good chicken barbeque, it's for a good cause - the proceeds go towards our town's Catholic school, which serves kids from all over the county (as it's the only Catholic school in the county).

This year, I made a lemon Bundt cake with lemon icing, a dark chocolate fudge Bundt cake with chocolate frosting, and devil's food chocolate cupcakes with chocolate frosting and caramel frosting with chocolate sprinkles.

I apologize for the beyond bizarre way these cakes seem to have anti-gravity properties in this picture.  Their only superpower is deliciousness.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Kitchen Gadgets ~ A Few of My Favorite Things

Every cook and baker, whether professional or amateur, probably has certain tools and gadgets they simply couldn't live without.  These are tools and kitchen gadgets that make life in the kitchen easy and enjoyable.  They help get the job done right, whether the job is Thanksgiving dinner or pizza night.

Here are my kitchen essentials.  My forays into food would be far more challenging without them.

  1. Farberware Classic Forged 22-Piece Knife Block Set - This knife set is amazing. It comes with eight steak knives, 6-inch and 8-inch chef's knives, 7-inch Santoku knife, 6-inch cleaver, 3 and 1/4-inch paring and bird's-beak paring knives, a 5-inch serrated utility knife, a 6-inch boning knife, kitchen shears, 6-inch fork, and an 8-inch sharpening steel.  The only two knives in this set I haven't used are the boning knife and the cleaver.  But they're awesome.  Amazing.  And the wood block makes for great storage.
  2. Calphalon Non-Stick 10-inch and 12-inch Skillets - I've mentioned these before, but they're worth mentioning again. They're the best skillets I've ever used.  They cook evenly, and are the correct shape for making omelets and sauteing vegetables, stir frying, and everything in between.
  3. Pampered Chef Pizza Stone - Okay, so the pizza stone I have is a couple years old and doesn't have the handy handles on it.  But I just leave it in my lower oven most of the time. The pizza I've made with this thing is the best pizza ever - the crust is so much crisper than on a standard pizza tin!  And if you're going to have a pizza stone, be smart and get a...
  4. Wooden Pizza Peel - The days before I got this item were fraught with danger when it came time to taking pizza out of the oven (and off the pizza stone).  This pizza peel is a life saver.
  5. Calphalon Wooden Utensils - This seems ridiculously simple, but the best tools in my kitchen are my three hefty wooden spoons.  What can I say... I'm Italian.
  6. Wilton Bakeware - Okay, I don't have every piece of bakeware from every category from Wilton, but I wish I did.  All of my metal bakeware is Wilton. It cooks evenly, and every cake I've ever make in a Wilton pan comes out perfect after the minimum baking time has passed.
  7. KitchenAid Artisan 5-Quart Stand Mixer - This is my mixer. Isn't it a beautiful thing?  Perfect batters, the stiffest egg whites I've ever seen - ever!  Any serious baker should have one of these.
  8. OXO Good Grips Chopper - This thing is fun, easy, and awesome to use.  A few good "smacks" and you've got minced garlic, onions, olives - whatever you need, as fine as you need.  Plus, it comes apart for easy cleaning.
  9. OXO Good Grips Wire Balloon Whisk - Okay, so it doesn't have to be OXO, or necessarily a balloon whisk in particular.  But if you want to make smooth sauces or batters by hand, you need a good wire whisk. The loops shouldn't touch each other, either, because food can get stuck in between, which makes cleaning a pain, and it should be sturdy enough to stand up to the sides of any bowl or pan you're cooking in.
  10. Cuisinart Mini-Prep Food Processor - I don't do a whole lot of food processing, at least not in large amounts, so this little food processor is perfect for my needs.  The blade orientation can be changed depending on whether you're processing soft foods or grinding nuts.  Plus the whole assembly comes apart for easy cleaning, and it doesn't take up much storage space.
I'm sure I have many more gadgets and tools in my kitchen that I simply "can't live without", but this is truly the short list.  Without these items, my cooking and baking adventures wouldn't go over nearly as well as they do.

Friday, June 24, 2011

A 12-Layer Cake ~ An Amazing Dessert!

My cousin's 19th birthday was a couple weeks ago, and after I showed him the completely awesome and amazing 14-layer cake made by the talented Bakerella, he asked me, "Can you make a 19 layer cake?"

I considered it for about a month before his birthday rolled around.  It was going to be a challenge, because I would have to double any recipe for such multi-layer cakes as this one.  Then he said just a 14-layer cake would be fine.  Then I got to thinking about it, and decided just to make a 12-layer cake.

Please wipe the drool off your keyboard.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Chicken Marsala with Oven Roasted Thyme Potatoes

I absolutely love Chicken Marsala.  I love it in restaurants, I love it at home.  I love that there are about a dozen different variations on the recipe.  It's a fantastic example of Italian cooking that wows just about anyone you serve it to.

Normally Chicken Marsala is served over pasta, either angel hair or linguini.  Last time I made it for dinner, I decided to deviate from the "norm" - probably because I was out of pasta. (A Sicilian out of pasta?  Sacrilege!)  Instead, I served it over oven roasted thyme potatoes.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Artichoke ~ One of Nature's Most Misunderstood Vegetables

Think you're an expert on vegetables?  

Have you ever eaten an artichoke?

As far as vegetables go, the globe artichoke is probably one of the weirdest ones people have ever eaten.  No one really knows where they came from, but once they found their way into Europe, they spread throughout the land - Italy, France, Holland, England....  And of course, they ended up coming to the New World.

Most of the artichokes you'll find in the produce section of your grocery store probably come from California.  They're a bit strange to eat, a little fussy to prepare, and many people shy away from this strangest of strange vegetables.  It's much more common to see people using canned artichoke hearts in cooking rather than attempting to eat the entire thing.   

However, I'm going to show you a very easy way to prepare artichokes, step by step. And all you need is a couple of these strange vegetables, a clove of garlic, pepper, olive oil, and a 3-quart saucepan.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Jen's Spicy Secret Stir Fry

I'm a big fan of stir fry for dinner as it tends to be a quick meal that can feed several people - or two people for several days.  I generally use various stir fry kits, but if I don't have one on hand, I get a little experimental.

I got experimental one evening and created my own stir fry recipe.   It's spicy. It's secret.

But I'm willing to share.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Have Some Dessert ~ Crème Plombières aux Chocolat

My aunt and uncle are up visiting from North Carolina this week, and as a big "Hey, we haven't seen you since December and you've never been to my house at all" celebration, we had my entire maternal extended family over for dinner Sunday.  I made teriyaki marinated kebabs with shrimp, chicken and beef, plus a couple vegetarian skewers for my aunt.  26 skewers in all, along with grill-roasted veggies, homemade cornbread (and the standard cookout fare of baked beans and pasta salad), accompanied by spicy orange teriyaki sauce.

The best part of the meal, not surprisingly, was dessert.

I love when I host family dinner at my house, because it gives me a really good excuse to make a new dessert (or an old favorite on occasion) because I'll have upwards of eight people to eat it.  It's very bad to make desserts for just me and Aaron.  Because we eat it.  All. Ourselves.  Like the brownies I randomly made on Friday night.  Because I wanted brownies.

I needed a dessert that was awesome, impressive, and easy, and made with stuff I already had on hand.  I pulled the "bible" off the shelf - Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child.

I love Julia.

I perused the dessert section for probably an hour or so, flipping back and forth.  I was torn between Crème Anglaise, Crème Pâstissière (which I've made before and is awesome, by the way), and Crème Plombières.  I also waffled with flavorings.  Julia often recommends rum, kirsch (whatever that is) or cognac as flavoring, but I had none of those.  Not even rum.

("Why's the rum always gone?")

It was going to be either chocolate or vanilla flavoring.  I even posted my dilemma on Facebook and had some friends weigh in on the decision.  Or rather, declare that all three sounded difficult, but delicious.

In the end, I decided to make Crème Plombières with chocolate flavoring, top it with a layer of sliced strawberries, and then whip up some Crème Chantilly (whipped cream, it's that simple) for the top.  I went to bed rather pleased with my decision.

It was light.  It was fluffy.  It was delicious.  It was gone in less than five seconds.  I've already had a coworker request it for his birthday next year, after viewing this photo on Facebook.

The total time it took to make the Crème Plombières was forty minutes, start to finish.  I even had time to curl my hair before heading off to church.  Here we go, step by step.  

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Once upon a time, in a kitchen far, far away....

Or maybe a little closer than that.

I'm not a true gourmet chef, not a trained baker.  Everything I know is based on practice and experimentation.  So here we go on some cooking adventures!

My husband and I got married in July 2009, and one of my aunts gave me a box of cookbooks for a wedding present.  I love cookbooks; I think the box from my aunt brought the number I own up to at least a dozen, maybe more.  I haven't counted.  There are general purpose cookbooks, dessert cookbooks, healthy cooking cookbooks, ethnic cookbooks...  I've got gazillions of recipes flagged in them.  Some I've tried, other's haven't made it past the wishful thinking stage.  And there have been some flops, either because I misjudged a flavor or a measurement, or the recipe itself just didn't strike us as more than, "Eh, it's okay."

Not surprisingly, most of the "winners" have been desserts.  I have a terrible sweet tooth.  I come by it honestly - both my grandfathers could sniff out sweets from a mile away.

I've got thirteen days of work left before school's out for the summer, and aside from some travel plans with my husband and some professional development midway through the summer, I've got plans for some major cooking and baking experiments.  I need to expand my repertoire; I seem to cook a lot of the same stuff during the week for dinner, especially when life gets busy and I don't have the time, energy or inclination to be creative.

Aside from that, it's just going to be fun.