Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Good Night, Spongebob!

So, today I am frantically finishing up a rough draft for my environmental science paper.  Just as I get it submitted and am ready to shut down the computer for the rest of the day, Sophie has a fashion emergency.
She's been sitting quietly next to me watching Spongebob Squarepants until Spongebob shows up in his night cap and bunny slippers.  Of course, she doesn't want something easy to find, like bunny slippers.  She wants the night cap.
I pulled the laptop back over to me and we began the search.  There are a few for sale online, but they all had tails that hang down to the model's shoulders, and some with pom-poms.  Sophie insisted that she needed the "Spongebob kind", which has a short tail.
I decided that I was going to have to either try sewing one myself, or call Mana and place an order.  During my "night cap pattern" search, I found the easiest and cutest night cap on This Simple Home Blog.  I can quilt, but I cannot sew clothing, yet here we are, 20 minutes later and Sophie has an adorable Spongebobie night cap out of a pair of leggings.  I did run a straight stitch around the brim, and then went over that with a decorative zig-zag stitch.  I put a little knot in the end and she's been wearing it ever since, acting out Spongebob's bedtime and morning routines.  Right now I'm listening to her pretend she is having a sleepover with Patrick and Gary.  Uh oh... I just heard her say, "You mean you don't have a night cap, Gary?!"
I'd better pack up the sewing machine before she gets any more ideas.  ;)

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Ooey-Gooey Marshmallow Brownies



These brownies are my new favorite recipe.  I love brownies almost as much as donuts, so when my mom told me about this Ooey-Gooey Marshmallow Brownies recipe from the book Bakin' Brownies by Susan Devins, I had to try it.  Brownies are one of those divisive foods.  Like chocolate chip cookies.  There are usually two camps, the fudgy brownies and the cakey brownies.  Consider me a fudgy brownie lover.  This recipe makes a perfect fudgy brownie.  Unfortunately, I made a mistake by using the Perfect Brownie Pan, which is great for brownies, but far from perfect for brownies with things like marshmallows or bits of fruit in them.  Regardless of how they looked after I got them out of the pan, they tasted divine.  They rose up in the oven and baked into a fudgy-bottomed brownie with a thin, glossy, top.  With the addition of marshmallows in this recipe, I half expected the brownies to look like S'mores, but the marshmallows puffed up and then mostly melted away. The good news was they were not a big mess for two goofy kindergarteners to eat.
These are by far the fudgiest brownies I've ever made, and it will be my go-to recipe from now on.  I stored them in a tightly sealed container on the counter top, and I'm quite proud that I did not eat them all in one day, so I can tell you that they are still soft and moist four days after baking. Go ahead, try these ones.  You will not be sorry! 

Friday, August 9, 2013

Ahh, Sweet Potata!





The humble and healthy sweet potato is the oldest vegetable known.  Dating back to Peruvian caves 10,000 years ago, this flowering tuber from the morning-glory family can be found in over 400 varieties, ranging in color from white, yellow, pink, purple, and the familiar orange (Harbster, 2009).  Often mistaken and even mislabeled for yams, they are botanically different from the firmer, starchier yam, which is related to lilies and grasses (2009).
The firm, white, varieties of sweet potato were first introduced to Europe by Christopher Columbus, and by the 16th century, sweet potatoes were being enjoyed in Africa, India, the Philippines, and the southern United States.  Around the mid 1900’s, the orange sweet potato began to be cultivated in the US.  This softer variety of sweet potato resembled the orange-colored African yam, so the southern slaves began referring to them as yams (Harbster, 2009).  The name caught on because it also helped distinguish the new, soft variety from the firmer varieties previously cultivated in the US.  True yams are also from a flowering plant, but they are from the yam family, and are starchier, drier, and less sweet than the sweet potato (2009).
The sweet potato's yellow or orange colored flesh is directly related to the amount of beta-carotene it contains (Evert, 2013).  Although as children we were all told to eat our carrots to help our eyesight, sweet potatoes would have had the same effect.  Beta-carotene is an antioxidant; protecting our cells from free radical damage, but the benefit does not stop there.  Our body also uses the beta-carotene to produce vitamin A, which promotes better low-light vision, and helps us maintain healthy teeth and skin.  We get preformed vitamin A from animal products like eggs, meat, fish, cheese, and milk, but those are usually high in saturated fat and cholesterol as well.  The vitamin A derived from plant-based foods starts out as beta-carotene, and since it is produced in our body, it is referred to as pro-vitamin A.  Sweet potatoes have anti-inflammatory properties, along with extracts that help regulate blood sugar in persons with type-2 diabetes (2013).  Sweet potatoes are cultivated in many countries, and are available year-round, so we do not have to wait until the holidays to enjoy them.
Interestingly enough, studies have shown that the beta-carotene is better absorbed from sweet potatoes when it is consumed along with fat-containing foods (Evert, 2013).  This is not a license to pig out however, as it only takes a small amount of fat, which can be derived from healthy sources, like just a sprinkle of nuts atop your sweet potato.  Below is the recipe that made me a sweet potato-lover.  I had never liked the marshmallow-covered sweet potatoes (often mistakenly called yams) commonly served at holiday meals, but this baked sweet potato with a sweet and nutty topping is perfect.  This recipe was inspired by one posted to Food.com by MommyMakes.  My version has more topping and I do not toast the nuts in it.  My entire family, right down to the 6 year-old loves these potatoes.  I hope you do too!

Baked Sweet Potatoes with Brown Sugar and Pecan Butter
4 Sweet potatoes
4 Tablespoons softened butter
4 Tablespoons brown sugar
4 Tablespoons chopped pecans (or walnuts)

Directions:  Wash and scrub the sweet potatoes, but do not peel them.  Using a fork, prick each potato several times to vent the steam.  Arrange potatoes on a microwave-safe plate and microwave on High power for 8-12 minutes, or until tender in the center, when pierced with a fork.  Meanwhile, combine butter, brown sugar, and nuts.  When the potatoes are cooked, slice each one lengthwise, just about 2/3 of the way down into the potato, but not cutting all the way through.  Carefully push the potato’s ends together to open the potato.  Top each opening with pecan butter and serve.

References:
Evert, A. (2013). U.S. National Library of Medicine. National Institutes of Health MedlinePlus. Vitamin A. Retrieved from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002400.htm
Harbster, J. (2009). Library of Congress. Retrieved from http://www.loc.gov/index.html

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Starbucks' Cranberry Bliss Bars



   


            I have many recipes on my To Do list, but this one has been there for years.  Cookin’Diva posted the original recipe on Food.com, and although it was good as posted, I have made a few tweaks to cut down on the sweetness and the time involved.  I made it for a casual dinner with friends at our house, but the recipe made enough to take the next night for dinner with another family.  Both families gave it rave reviews.  Copycat recipes are some of my favorites, because I like dining out as much as the next person, but I hate not knowing what ingredients are in my food.  That is what keeps me testing or creating new versions of take-out or dine-out recipes, especially when the item is a seasonal one.  Sure, pumpkin flavored shakes and pies are traditionally only served in the fall, but that does not mean I only crave them in October, so I experiment with pumpkin or other flavors all year round.  My husband’s craving for a certain rib-shaped, meat-like, drive-thru sandwich do not just happen one week out of the year either, but between you and me, I have my limits. 
                Today we are only raising the bar with these copycat Cranberry Bliss Bars from Starbucks.  A combination of white chocolate, cranberry, and orange makes them refreshing enough to transcend the holiday season.  They have a texture somewhere between a cake and a cookie, and are soft even when refrigerated, which makes them a great recipe for making a day ahead.  These bars are beautiful, citrusy, and sweet.  Just as perfect for a rainy spring day as they are the holidays.  Enjoy!

Cranberry Bliss Bars
Bars:
1 cup butter (softened)
2/3 cup brown sugar
1/3 cup granulated sugar
3 eggs
1 teaspoon orange extract (or use all vanilla)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon ground ginger
3/4 cup dried cranberries (I used both pomegranate and orange flavored Craisins)
3/4 cup white chocolate chips

Frosting:
3 ounces cream cheese, softened
2 tablespoons butter, softened
3 cups powdered sugar
1 teaspoon orange extract (or vanilla)
1/3 cup dried cranberries, chopped
3 tablespoons orange zest

Directions:  Preheat oven to 350° (325° for a glass or dark pan).  Prepare pan (10x15, 11x17, or 9x13) by lining it with parchment paper or non-stick cooking spray.  In mixer, cream butter and sugars together until light and fluffy.  Add eggs and extracts, beating slowly, and just until the eggs are combined.  Add flour, baking powder, and ginger, beating gently, and then add the cranberries and chips, stirring by hand, just until incorporated.  Batter will be thick.  Spread into prepared pan.  For 10x15 and 11x17 inch pans bake for 20-24 minutes.  For 9x13 pan bake for 26-28 minutes.  Do not over bake.  Remove bars when light brown at the edges and a toothpick tests clean.  Cool completely on baking rack.  When pan is completely cool, make three cuts lengthwise into four rows, and width-wise into five rows to form 20 large squares.  Now cut each square diagonally into two triangles.  FROSTING: Blend cream cheese and butter until fluffy.  Add orange extract and powdered sugar; beat until frosting is fluffy and spreadable (add 1 teaspoon of milk, if needed).  Spread frosting over each bar.  Sprinkle orange zest and chopped cranberries over frosted bars.  You can save time by frosting before cutting, but they do not cut cleanly due to the cranberries.  Store covered in the refrigerator. 

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Pineapple Pie





I was making a couple test recipes for pineapple vinegar last week.  Both are recipes I’ve wanted to make for about a year now, but every time I used fresh pineapple, I didn’t have time to use the peel for the vinegars.  Suddenly, it felt like wasting food every time I threw out pineapple peel.  Last weekend I needed to test the vinegar recipes, so I bought the pineapples, trimmed off the peel, put all the fruit in a large Ziplock bag, and tried to convince my family that pineapple goes with every meal.
When that approach didn’t work, I searched recipes to use up the fruit and stumbled on a recipe for pineapple pie.  It was posted to Food.com by chef mailbelle, who says that her husband was Johnny Cash’s cousin, and this recipe comes from the Favorite Recipes from Mama Cash’s Kitchen cookbook.  The recipe is written in that sparse way that implies it’s a family recipe, made from memory, and only written down when it was requested.  Sometimes details are forgotten, or left out because we’ve done it so many times we start assuming that everyone else has too.  The recipe is simple, yet delicious, and now holds the record for the fastest disappearing pie ever in my household.
Instead of canned, I used the fresh pineapple I had leftover from the vinegar peels, so I put a cup or so of that through the Ninja blender to crush it.  The instructions did not say to drain the pineapple, so I drained 3/4 of the cup by pushing it through a sieve, which also mashes the fruit into a near puree.  I left the last 1/4 cup un-drained and in small bits.  I also made a homemade crust, and I would suggest using an 8 or 9-inch pie dish for this recipe.  Although the filling rises and puffs up nicely, it won’t completely fill out a deep-dish pie plate.  The end result is a slightly crunchy, lightly browned topping, with a custard-like filling.  I liked the contrast between finely strained pineapple puree making up the custard, with the small bits of pineapple for texture.  There’s just something about old southern comfort food, and I think this one is going to become a family favorite around my house.


1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup butter
1 cup crushed pineapple
3 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 eggs
1 unbaked pie shell

Preheat oven to 350°.  In medium bowl, beat together everything except pie crust.  Pour filling into unbaked pie shell and bake for 50 minutes, or until the top is slightly brown and set up.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Homemade Chicken & Noodles


Some of the best comfort food I remember growing up is my Mom's Easy Chicken & Homemade Noodles.

Gramma used to make these for my mom and her sisters when they were growing up.
My favorite part of mom making this recipe is when the noodles were laying out on a tea towel to dry. My sister and I couldn't resist the slightly soft, floury, noodles laying about. We would always sneak through the kitchen and steal a noodle. Of course, these days we know better and I don't let my kids do that because of the raw egg in the dough, but it is one of my favorite memories surrounding this meal.

These days I make chicken and noodles whenever someone is ill, when the weather turns cold, when I have leftover chicken or turkey, and even when I just have very little in the house to cook with. It's a great way to stretch a small amount of chicken.

I sometimes add veggies to the broth, whatever I have on hand, and often I'll use homemade chicken stock or broth. When I make the broth homemade as well, I really feel like this comfort food is taken to another level.
It doesn't take much effort to make your own broth and the extra nutrients and flavor you'll get out of it are definitely worth the time! There are some really excellent recipes posted on Food.com. These are a few I've tried and keep coming back to:

Herb and Garlic Broth-Aigo Bouido

Homemade Chicken Stock for Cooking

Crock Pot Chicken or Turkey Stock

The noodles can be rolled and cut thick or thin. I use a pizza cutter to slice them quickly. Personally, I like a little thicker, chewier noodle, but sometimes I'll cut them spaghetti thin because it makes a lot more for serving to a crowd or for sharing with a sick friend.

I've also tried a variation of homemade egg noodles, posted to Food.com by kindcook, and found that I liked the richness of using egg yolks instead of whole eggs.
Delicious Homemade Egg Noodles

Regardless of the broth or noodles you use, the best way to serve this recipe is over a big mound of mashed potatoes!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

La Cotta Steak Maker ~ Review & Demo


After having a question posted in the Kitchen Gadgets and Appliances forum on Food.com inquiring about recipes for the La Cotta pan I was intrigued.  It was a pan I'd never heard of before, and finding information about it online was difficult.
Probably because it was such a unique item, I got sucked into buying one off of Ebay. 



I was so excited to receive it, but life got in the way of trying it out until several months later.  I've now had a chance to use it twice, and hopefully my experience will help others looking to buy or trying to make use of the La Cotta pan.

I was able to dig up several years worth of advertisements for the pan; all from various magazines ranging from 1971 to 1977.  I found it interesting that the price of the pan never went above $9.95, and in particular that in the 1976 Popular Science magazine add, we were only asked to pay $1 per order to partially cover postage and handling.

After reading through the ads I started thinking that this pan was kinda like the original "As Seen On TV" product.  LOL

So what makes it so special?  The ads claim that it is made from volcanic rock found only in Northern Italy; that it is 5 different types of "lead-free" stones ground fine, and then formed into this revolutionary pan.  The porous nature of volcanic rock pulls out acidity, bitterness and fat from your meat, leaving you with nothing but the meat's natural flavor.

Ad from a 1971 issue of The Rotarian Magazine:

Ad from the September 1974 issue of Women's Weekly Magazine:

Ad from a 1976 issue of Popular Science Magazine:

Well, it's time for my official review of the product.
It's approximately 40 years old, and arrived with a rope tied around it to hang the pan on the wall.  It looked like it had never been used, based on my experience with other stoneware baking pans and pizza stones.

This is what mine looked like when I received it:


The online instructions I found at The Healthy from 25 to 100 Blog were the original instructions for the pan, but I quickly found that they weren't very specific on a very important step in preparing the pan for use. 

My first attempt at cooking a thick piece of flat-iron steak was somewhat of a disaster.  Since the pan is rather small, I cut my one large piece of meat into 4 equal pieces; cooked two the first night, and the rest two days later.
Sophie and I had created a basic marinade for the steak, but the pan's instructions say no seasoning other than salt and pepper are necessary, and not to use any oils or butter.  Just before putting a piece of steak into the pan, I blotted the marinade off with a paper towel.
To prepare for cooking the instructions tell you to rinse the pan, inside and out, in lukewarm water.  We did this, then sprinkled coarse sea salt into the bottom of the pan, put my steak in, and then closed the top, leaving a fork turned on its side hanging out of the pan to allow the steam to escape.


The house began to smell immediately.  Not a cooking meat smell, or even something burning in the oven smell, but one that can only be described by admitting to the world that I have forgotten laundry in the washer for more than a day, and then been assaulted with that mildewy smell when I next open the washer.
In the words of the immortal Cat in the Hat, "But that is not all, oh no, that is not all!"
Imagine taking those moldy clothes and stuffing them in the oven to dry them out.
Yep.  I'm quite sure my neighbors thought I was roasting sweaty gym socks. 
The steak was perfectly cooked in about 14 minutes, but the smell had pretty much knocked out any hunger pangs by then.  I ate a few bites and then stuffed it in the fridge.

I allowed the pan to cool before cleaning it, and then I tried the no soap, scraping only, method that the La Cotta ads suggest, and that Pampered Chef recommends for their pizza stone and baking dishes;  no good.  I tried the liquid dish soap, then I tried soaking it overnight in a heavy duty, all natural cleaner, and still nothing.  The next day I tried my favorite homemade cleaner recipe; still no luck, so then I made a simple paste of baking soda and vinegar to soak and scrub it with twice.  I scrubbed and soaked and nothing got the blackened stone to look clean again.  Even the bottom of the pan was blackened, and I have an electric stove. 

I'm not having a good experience, but I don't give up quite that easily.  The following day I start again.  This time I've done even more online digging, and found one mention of having to soak the pan in water, not just rinsing it, before using it.  So this time I soaked the pan for about 15 minutes and then I reduced the heat from medium high down to medium.  Hoping that the soaking and less heat would keep the pan from turning black; It didn't.  And I'm not sure how I'd tell anyway, considering how blackened it still was from the first use.  During the first steak the pan began to boil completely dry, so I started adding Tablespoons of water during cooking.  I've already lost one pan from letting it boil dry while making dulce de leche; I wasn't about to risk this new one!  I know the lower heat was a good idea.  I don't think this pan should be over any more than a medium fire, and definitely soaked for a good 20-30 minutes before use.  In the photo above you can actually see how the pan starts to dry out during cooking, and how the area along the crack soaked up more water originally, so it's staying wet longer.


Again, the end result was a very tender piece of meat... but the smell was just as bad as it was the first time.  Maybe it'll get better over time?  I don't know, but I do know that I can't think of steak without smelling that moldy laundry smell, and it was so bad it permeated the garage and into my sealed car, so now I get to enjoy it even when I'm away from home.
I may or may not try doing battle with this pan again... I haven't decided what kind of meat I want to ruin next.

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