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Category Archives: Cheese

Thanksgiving Menu Ideas

Hey, folks…

Reposting last year’s round-up of Thanksgiving ideas for a little menu-planning inspiration!

~Amy

APPETIZERS

Cranberry Chipotle Meatballs

Corn and Bacon Fritters with Smoked Salmon

Bacon-Wrapped Dates stuffed with Bleu Cheese

THE MAIN EVENT

Herb-Roasted Turkey Breast with Pan Gravy (and tips for roasting a whole turkey)

Bacon and Cider Braised Turkey Drumsticks (and garlicky creamed spinach)

Spiced Sweet Potato Puree with Pecan Streusel

Sausage, Apple, and Leek Stuffing

Cranberry-Orange Sauce

Green Beans Almondine

Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Bacon and Walnuts

Hot Doughy Buns

DESSERTS

Chocolate Pecan Pie

Pumpkin Coconut Pie

A Few Variations on Apple Pie (in an all butter pie crust)

Caramel Apple Cake

Turkey-Shaped Sugar Cookies

Caramel Apple Tartlets

Spiced Mango Upside Down Cake

Cannoli Cheesecake

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Easy Indoor Slider Burgers with Spicy-As-You-Like-It Special Sauce

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It’s burger season. It’s also unpredictable, chance-of-rain just about everyday season, which might just foil your grilling burgers plan, unless you’re like my dad who grills in snow, sleet, and rain. Weather is no more a deterrent for my father than it is for the mail man. I guarantee he’ll have ribs on the grill during the apocalypse. I like that about him.

I, however, am a fair-weather griller. Thankfully, burgers can still be enjoyed on rainy days with these simple, indoor burger sliders. The kids love these tiny tasty burgers. Who am I kidding? We all love these burgers. Hot dog buns, split into thirds make the perfect little slider buns. A dill pickle slice and spoonful of my spicy-as-you-like-it special sauce complete each perfect mini burger.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to making these tasty burgers, which may quickly become one of your easy go-to weeknight meals!

Step 1: Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Scatter 1/2 finely diced onion in an even layer at the bottom of a 9×13 baking dish or half-sheet pan. **Click HERE  for a step-by-step photo guide for dicing onions.

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Step 2: Crumble 1 pound of ground beef over the onion. **Use 80/20 ground beef. It makes a difference!

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Step 3: Press the meat into an even layer. Sprinkle with seasoned salt. (I used Old Bay seasoning.)

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Step 4: Bake for 18-20 minutes. While the burgers are cooking, divide 7-8 hot dog buns in half. Cut the bottom halves into thirds. Top each piece with a spoonful of special sauce and a dill pickle slice.

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Step 5: Once the meat has cooked, remove it from the oven. Pour off any excess juices. Top the meat with slices of American cheese. Place in the oven for another few seconds to melt the cheese.

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Step 6: Arrange the tops of the hot dogs buns on top of the meat. Cut through the buns and meat so that each bun is cut into thirds. **A pizza cutter makes a convenient cutting tool.

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Step 7: Pick up each bun and burger portion and place it on top of the prepared bottom buns. Enjoy!

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Spicy-As-You-Like-It Special Sauce

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup mayonaisse
  • 1/2 cup ketchup
  • 1 tablespoon dill relish
  • 1/4 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
  • Tabasco, to taste
  • Salt and Pepper, to taste

Directions

Combine the mayo, ketchup, dill relish, onion powder, and garlic powder until well blended. Add a few dashes of tabasco sauce, then stir and taste. Continue adding tabasco, as desired. Season with salt and pepper, to taste.

Chipotle Shredded Beef Flatbread Sandwiches

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My husband’s band was out of town for a gig on Saturday night, leaving me to get up early with the kids on Mother’s Day, as they eagerly attempted to prepare me my traditional, once-a-year breakfast-in-bed. My breakfast tray featured a half-eaten chocolate donut, sitting on top of a frozen pancake, which was elegantly placed on the foil wrapper from the plastic tub of the Frosted Flakes they prepared for me. (My boys prepare a classy breakfast tray.) They decided to toast only half of the bagel and gave up on spreading the too-thick cream cheese. The baby stayed occupied during the breakfast preparation by dipping an Elmo spoon into my cup of orange juice, taking small sips, then repeating. I enthusiastically ate all of my perfectly imperfect breakfast, of course.

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Following breakfast, the three boys proceeded to spin cyclones of chaos around the house in a flurry of special day excitement equivalent to that of Christmas morning. I spent a good part of the morning chasing after them, picking up garbage and toys from the floor, in a fruitless attempt at maintaining some semblance of order. At some point, caught between equal parts desire to live in a tidy house and lack of desire to pick up any more toys or fight with the kids to do it, compounded by my longing for a restful Mother’s Day, I fell apart. I sat on the stairs and had myself a good cry, equal parts disappointed that my day wasn’t going as I envisioned it would and angry at myself for being unable to just settle into the chaotic messiness of the morning.

Being a mom isn’t easy and it’s not always fun, not even on Mother’s Day, but what else can you do besides keep on keeping on. So, I stood up, waited for my eyes to be not so red, dressed the kids and brought them to Home Depot to purchase gardening supplies. When we got home, we planted a small fruit and vegetable garden in the backyard. We needed something to do to keep busy and the boys like dirt, plain and simple. I took a picture of our new little garden.

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The nature of the moments we capture on film lend themselves towards the good times: achievements, celebrations, vacations, something beautiful, or something funny; a graduation from school, a birthday party, an escape to Barbados, a stunning rainbow, a hand-made quilt, smiling faces, evidence of loving and of being loved, a garden. We share these images and it paints a portrait of an idyllic life, filled with joyful events and beautiful moments.

And life is beautiful, but it is far from the perpetually blissful existence that any one person’s photo album might suggest. We just don’t capture the ugly, frustrating, tearful moments on film, because those are the moments we are simply getting through. We’re not picking up the camera when the kids are fighting, because we’re busy playing referee. We’re not picking up the camera when the baby is smearing yogurt on the wall, because we’re busy grabbing paper towels. We’re not picking up the camera when the entire load of folded laundry has just been dumped on the floor, because we’re busy refolding it. We’re not picking up the camera when the house is covered in toys and the kids are all in time-out for refusing to pick them up, because we’re sitting on the stairs crying in frustration over something that shouldn’t be nearly as frustrating as it somehow feels in that moment.

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The experience of being a mom is a lot like planting that little fruit and vegetable garden. Successfully done, the plants will grow and thrive and produce photo-worthy, sweet fruits and nourishing veggies. I’ll proudly share those photos with family and friends, evidence of my gardening prowess. What the photos will not show however, are my tears of frustration that led to the trip to Home Depot, my dirt stained knees, the sun burn on the back of my neck, the muscle aches from cutting through the roots of an old tree as I prepared the garden bed, or the dirt collected under my fingernails. Yet all of those things were part of the experience.

My point is this… We share the fruit. We don’t often share the pains it took to get there. Being a mom can be messy and ugly. Like planting a garden, it’s hard work, but every so often, we get to harvest our fruit. Those are the moments we capture on film to remember why we do what we do, day in and day out. In between those moments, we’ve got tears on our face and dirt under our nails. As moms, we have a tendency to look at photos of other mom’s gardens and wonder why our own garden doesn’t seem as bountiful, forgetting that in between harvesting their fruit, that mom has got tears on her face and dirt under her nails too. We’re all living this perfectly imperfect life together.

I hope every mom out there had a beautiful Mother’s Day with a few perfect moments of bliss. Keep on keeping on. Your garden is growing and thriving as a result of everything you do in all of the moments between the photo-worthy ones.

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I’ve been hanging on to this recipe for a while and now seems like the right time to share this tasty treat. This is a multi-component recipe which takes a bit of time to assemble, but everything can be prepared ahead of time. The best part about the components of this dish is that you can mix and match the pieces in a million ways. Enjoy the corn and bean relish as part of this sandwich or with a bowl of tortilla chips or used as a bed for shrimp burgers. Enjoy the queso drizzled over a hamburger, tossed with macaroni or straight-up with chips. The tender, spicy beef is fantastic on this sandwich, but would stand alone beautifully too, served with a side of mashed potatoes.

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Chipotle Shredded Beef Flatbread Sandwiches

Ingredients

  • 4-6 flatbreads
  • 1 ripe avocado, sliced (Click here for a photo guide on slicing avocado)

For the Chipotle Braised Beef

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Approximately 3-lb beef chuck roast
  • 1 can chipotles in adobo (only use a few for a less spicy result)
  • 1/2 red onion, coarse chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, smashed
  • 2-3 cups beef broth
  • Salt

For the Corn and Bean Relish

  • 1 1/2 cups sweet corn kernels  (defrosted frozen corn kernels will do the trick)
  • 1 15-ounce can black beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1/2 red onion, finely diced (Click here for a photo guide on dicing onions)
  • 1 red bell pepper, ribs and seeds removed, finely diced
  • 1 teaspoon garlic, minced
  • 2-3 green onions, chopped
  • 1/4 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
  • Juice from 1/2 lime
  • Salt and pepper, to taste

For the Homemade Queso

  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 poblano pepper, ribs and seeds removed, finely diced
  • 1 jalapeno peppers, ribs and seeds removed, finely diced
  • 1/2 red onion, finely diced
  • 1 teaspoon garlic
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons flour
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 cup Mexican cheese blend, shredded
  • 1 tomato, finely diced
  • Salt and cayenne pepper, to taste

Directions

For the Chipotle Braised Beef - Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Trim the chuck roast of any excess exterior fat. Season generously with salt. In a large dutch oven or oven safe pan, heat olive oil over medium/medium-high heat. Place the meat in the pan and brown on all sides, about 2-3 minutes per side. Add the beef broth, red onion, garlic, and as many chipotles as desired (I used all of them). The beef broth should come almost to the top of the meat, but not cover it. Bring the liquid to a simmer, then cover the pan and place it in the oven. Cook for 3.5 hours. Remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly. Using your fingers or a fork, pull the tender beef into small pieces, discarding any fatty bits.

For the Corn and Bean Relish – Combine  the corn, black beans, red pepper, green onions, red onion, garlic, and cilantro in a medium sized container. Squeeze half a lime over the mixture and toss to combine. Season with salt and pepper, as desired.

For the Queso - In a saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the peppers, onion, and garlic. Cook for about 5 minutes, until tender. Sprinkle the flour over the mixture and stir to coat. Cook for another minute or two. Gradually add the milk and whisk to combine. Bring the mixture to a gentle simmer and cook for a few minutes until the milk thickens. Turn the heat down to low and add the cheese. Stir until the cheese has melted into the sauce. Stir in the chopped tomato. Season with salt and cayenne pepper, to taste.

To Assemble the Sandwiches – Warm the flatbreads for a few minutes in a 350 degrees oven. In the center of each flatbread, place a generous mound of the braised beef. Drizzle the beef with warm queso. Top with the corn salsa and slices of fresh avocado.

Makes 4-6 Sandwiches

Cheesecake-Swirled Carrot Cake

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Every so often, I get an idea for a recipe which I’m certain is so genius that no home cook or master chef has thought of it yet. 99.9999% of the time, it turns out that someone else has already covered that ground. It’s really challenging to come up with something truly novel and unique in the culinary field…at least for me it is.

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Such is the case with this cheesecake-swirled carrot cake. The idea came to me as I was brainstorming for some interesting twist on carrot cake to share as Easter approaches. The way I figured it, if carrot cake and sweet vanilla cream cheese frosting are delicious together (and they are), and cheesecake is also made with cream cheese, sugar, and vanilla (which it is), then carrot cake and cheesecake would be delicious together. If A and B, then C sort of logic…or something like that anyway.

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I initially contemplated stacking layers of carrot cake with cheesecake, but the idea seemed too similar to a basic carrot cake with cream cheese frosting. That was the point where I decided I’d bake the two cakes together in one pan, intermingled to create one grand cheesecake-swirled carrot cake. It was in my research phase of concocting this delicious confection that I discovered The Cheesecake Factory already beat me to the punch. Having been to The Cheesecake Factory a grand total of one, maybe two times in my life, probably about ten years ago, this was news to me. Perhaps you’ve already had theirs??

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So, turns out my grand idea isn’t nearly as revolutionary as I’d initially thought, but it is spectacularly delicious, nonetheless. Rich, moist carrot cake gets twisted with a creamy classic cheesecake to create a treat which is sure to be the hit of the Easter dessert buffet. Ol’ Peter Rabbit might even forego his basket of candy in favor of a slice of this carroty beauty.

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Cheesecake-Swirled Carrot Cake

Ingredients

For the Carrot Cake

  • 1 3/4 cups flour
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ginger
  • Pinch of nutmeg
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 sticks unsalted butter, softened to room temperature (plus more for greasing pan)
  • 2/3 cup dark brown sugar
  • 1/3 cup white sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/3 cup water
  • 2 cups finely grated carrots (approximately 4 medium-sized carrots)
  • 3/4 cup golden raisins (optional, but recommended)

For the Cheesecake

  • 3 8-ounce bars of cream cheese, softened to room temperature
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla

Directions

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 10″ springform pan with butter.

For the Carrot Cake: In a large bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and salt. In a separate bowl, beat together the butter and sugars until light and fluffy. Add the vanilla and the eggs, one at a time, beating between each addition. Add the water, then beat for another minute. Add the carrots, then beat for another minute. On low speed, gradually beat in the dry mixture until well blended. Stir in the raisins.

For the Cheesecake: Using an electric mixer, beat together the cream cheese and sugar until well blended. Add the vanilla and the eggs one at a time, beating until well blended.

To Assemble the Cake: Spread about 1/2 of the carrot cake batter over the bottom of the prepared springform pan. Drop large spoonfuls of about 1/2 of the cheesecake mixture on top of the carrot cake. Drop large spoonfuls of the remaining carrot cake mixture on top of and around the cheesecake. Pour the remaining cheesecake mixture over the top. Use a spatula to smooth the cheesecake on the top. Bake for about 55-65 minutes, until set.

Cool at room temperature for about an hour, then refrigerate for a few hours until completely chilled.

** Carrot cake portion of the recipe is adapted from Martha Stewart’s Carrot Cake recipe, found HERE.

Huevos Rancheros Pizza

Back in the spring, I strong-armed a couple of my friends into taking Irish step dancing lessons with me. (I actually didn’t need to twist their arms too hard.) We three became the unlikeliest bunch of dancers you could imagine. It was a blast. We clobbered away through a few classes, along with an (almost) equally novice classmate, before the weather became too hot to continue in our dance space. At that point, we broke for the summer, with the intention of resuming classes come fall.

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Well, fall rolled around and I sent an email to our instructor expressing our eagerness to continue. But we never heard back. After a few months with no reply, we’d become fully convinced that we’d been silently dumped as a result of our utter hopelessness in the field of Irish dancing. We couldn’t really blame her. We truly are a hopeless bunch. But then, just as we were about to pack away our dancing shoes, I received a message explaining an email switch, along with an invitation to resume classes. We accepted, of course.

This time though, there are a few other adults in our class and a second instructor. Apparently, our new classmates danced all throughout their childhood and teen years. They’re just picking up where they left off, which is someplace lightyears ahead of the rest of us. While we practiced basic skips, intently concentrating on not running into each other, one of our new classmates gracefully danced circles around us, quite literally. It feels oddly like being stuck in the ‘guppies’ group, aside out advanced classmates in the ‘shark’ group. They’re reading War and Peace, while we struggle through Ted in a Red Bed. Us four clumsy guppies stick as close together as we can without kicking each other. It’s a level of comfort thing. We huddle close together, executing every drill as a unified group, in a fruitless attempt not to draw too much attention to ourselves.

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It’s a ridiculously fun time, swimming in our guppy group. I haven’t laughed so hard in a long while. Graceful, we are not. Skillful, we are not. Coordinated, we most definitely are not. But for all we lack in ability, we more than make up for it with enthusiasm. We will probably never have the graceful, swift-footed skills of our river-dancing role models, but we’re certainly having fun with it. And that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it??

The added bonus is that our weekly lesson and all the practice in between burns a bucketload of calories. Now, if I were smart, I’d save those burned calories and let them work their magic on a bit of weight loss. Oh, but I love food too much and the dancing leaves me ravenously hungry. So, I choose to ‘spend’ my burned calories on fun food, like this Mexican-inspired huevos rancheros pizza. Truth be told, this pizza is fully inspired by nothing more than my desire to cook a pizza with eggs baked into it. It starts with a cornmeal crust, in place of the corn tortillas which would typically be used in huevos rancheros. The homemade crust is then topped with beans, taco sauce, Mexican cheese, chiles, and tomatoes. Fresh eggs are then carefully cracked on top of the pizza before baking for a stunning and unique twist on pizza.

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Today’s Focus on Technique – Cooking with Baker’s Yeast

Baker’s yeast is a single cell organism, commonly used as a leavening agent in many breads, pretzel doughs, and pizza doughs. As the yeast feeds on the sugars in the dough, it releases carbon dioxide, which becomes trapped within the dough, causing it to rise and expand. The most common types of yeast used in baked goods are active dry yeast and rapid rise yeast. Rapid rise yeast is made up of smaller particles, which touch a greater surface area of the dough and typically require half as much time to rise. Many people feel that the long rise time required for active dry yeast recipes results in a more flavorful dough.

Typically, many yeast dough recipes begin by proofing the yeast. Proofing is simply a process of dissolving the yeast in lukewarm water. After a few minutes, the yeast should begin to foam, proving that it is alive and ready to work its leavening magic. If the yeast doesn’t foam, it’s time to buy some new yeast. The magic temperature for proofing yeast is somewhere between 110-115°F. To assure you’ve got the right temperature, it’s helpful to use an instant-read thermometer. I usually stick the thermometer in hot water from the tap, then wait until it reduces to the right range before adding the yeast.

Yeast doughs rise best in a draft-free area, on the warmer side of room temperature (around 70°F). If your house is chillier than that, allow extra time for rising. If time is an issue, I sometimes find it helpful to preheat the oven for a bit, then place the bowl of rising dough on top of or near the oven. You don’t need to keep the oven on throughout the rise time; just long enough to release a little extra heat near the rising dough.

** Lots of other interesting information about yeast can be found HERE.


Huevos Rancheros Pizza

Ingredients

  • 2/3 cup refried beans
  • 1/3 cup taco sauce
  • 2 cups shredded Mexican blend cheese
  • 2-3 tablespoons red onion, finely diced
  • 2-3 tablespoons green chile (fresh or canned), finely diced
  • 5-6 grape tomatoes, thinly sliced
  • 1/3 cup chorizo, chopped (optional)
  • 3 eggs
  • Additional taco sauce or hot sauce for drizzling (optional)
  • Cornmeal Pizza Dough (recipe from www.marthastewart.com)

Directions

Preheat oven to 450°F.

Prepare the cornmeal pizza dough according to the recipe found HERE, except do not divide the dough into smaller portions. Roll the entire dough into one large (approximately 12″) crust. Transfer the rolled dough to a baking sheet, which has been sprinkled with a bit of cornmeal.

Spread the refried beans onto the crust, leaving a 1/2″-1″ lip around the edge. Drizzle the taco sauce over the beans. Scatter about 1/2 of the cheese over the sauce, then sprinkle with the onion, chile, tomatoes, and chorizo. Scatter with the remaining cheese.

Use your fingers to create three shallow wells in the pizza toppings. Carefully crack an egg into each well.

Bake for approximately 15 minutes, until the toppings are hot and melty and the eggs are cooked to your desired doneness.

**Be aware that the egg whites and yolks will maintain a bright, glossy appearance as they bake. In this case, touching the eggs to check for doneness is a more reliable indicator than their appearance. (I made the mistake of relying on appearance and cooked my eggs past the cooked white/runny yolk I was aiming for. The yolks in the photos with this post are actually fully cooked, even though they appear runny.)

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Eggplant Parmesan Pizza (and a Giveaway!)

Yikes! Where’d the past week go? Think I can blame my absence on a Thanksgiving tryptophan-induced coma?? Seriously though, once the dishes were cleaned from our Thanksgiving dessert, I felt myself melt into an unproductive pile of mush. I just needed a little time to recover from the rush of Thanksgiving and gear up for the holiday rush. I’m ready now. Mostly.

It wasn’t a completely unproductive week though. I decided to try my hand at making one of those adorable yarn wreaths I’ve seen pictured online. I made one, admired it for a bit, then got sucked into a major crafting time warp. I awoke covered in bits of yarn and a web of those stringy glue gun remnants. I made sixteen yarn wreaths, complete with handcrafted felt flowers and tiny green leaves, over the course of six days. I barely remember making them. They just sort of appeared in a pretty pile on my dining room table. It’s kinda weird. Almost everyone I know is getting a wreath for Christmas…even one of you!

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On top of manic crafting, I’ve been overfilling my calendar with holiday events, shopping lists, and cookie baking schedules. Suffice it to say, this is gonna be a busy month. And busy months require easy dinners  - the sort of stuff you can easily prepare by throwing together a few basic ingredients, while still resulting in a tummy-warming winter meal. This eggplant parmesan pizza fits the bill perfectly. You could even make it with frozen pre-fried eggplant, if you wanted to keep it super, super simple, though frying your own eggplant takes minimal effort. That crisp fried eggplant gets scattered on a pizza shell (make your own or buy pre-made, like I did) along with pizza sauce, ricotta cheese, parmesan, and melty mozzarella for a simple, satisfying meal.

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Today’s Focus on Technique – Salting Eggplant

It is often recommended to salt eggplant prior to frying it. This technique is best applied to larger eggplants which have been sitting in the grocery case for a bit. Baby eggplants or those that have been freshly picked will most likely be wonderful without salting. The purpose of salting the eggplant is to draw out some of the bitter liquid which collects in larger, older eggplants. The end result is better tasting, firmer eggplant which will absorb less oil as it’s fried.

To salt your eggplant, start by cutting or slicing your eggplant, as desired. Arrange the pieces or slices in a single layer on a baking sheet. Sprinkle the eggplant slices with a good amount of salt. Allow it to rest for approximately 20-25 minutes. Beads of liquid will begin appearing on the surface. Thoroughly rinse the eggplant and pat dry.

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Eggplant Parmesan Pizza

Ingredients 

  • 1 eggplant, sliced into 1/4″ slices
  • Salt
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 2 cups seasoned bread crumbs
  • Vegetable or olive oil, for frying
  • 1 pizza crust (store-bought or homemade)
  • 1/2 cup ricotta cheese
  • 1/2 cup pizza sauce
  • 1/4 cup parmesan cheese
  • 1 cup mozzarella cheese, shredded

*All measurements are approximate. Actual measurements will vary depending on the size of your pizza crust. I used a 12″ store-bought crust.

Directions

Arrange the eggplant slices in a single layer. Sprinkle with a good amount of salt. Allow to rest for about 20 minutes. Rinse thoroughly, then pat dry.

Dredge each slice in the flour, then dip in egg, then dredge in the bread crumbs. Press the bread crumbs into the eggplant so that it is thoroughly covered. Heat a thin layer (about 1/8″) of oil in a large fry pan over medium/medium-high heat. Fry the eggplant slices for a minute or two on each side, until golden brown and crispy. Adjust the heat, as necessary, to prevent burning. Drain the fried slices on paper towels. Chop into small pieces.

To assemble the pizza: Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Spread the ricotta cheese in an even layer over the pizza crust. Spread the pizza sauce on top of the ricotta (I like to use a smooth and thick, tomato paste based pizza sauce.) Sprinkle about 1/2 of the mozzarella cheese over the sauce. Arrange some of the eggplant pieces around the pizza. (You may have extra eggplant remaining.) Sprinkle with the parmesan cheese and remaining mozzarella cheese. Bake for about 15-18 minutes, until hot and melty.

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I come bearing gifts… Want to win one of the 8″ wreaths I made? Keep it for yourself or cross someone off your shopping list! I’ll even try to match the winner up with a color scheme of your choice! If you’d like to enter to win a wreath, leave a comment about your favorite holiday tradition (any holiday) or your top tip for enjoying a stress-free holiday season. The contest will end at 12:00 noon EST on Saturday, December 8, 2012, when I will randomly select one winner. One entry per person. US mailing addresses only, please. Good luck!

Thanksgiving Inspiration

I learned something interesting about myself this week – I do not like corn bread stuffing. I love corn, corn muffins, corn bread, and corn fritters. I eat a ridiculous amount of corn when it’s in season. I even once made a sweet corn ice cream. But I do not like corn bread stuffing.

I guess it comes down to what you’re raised with – sort of how some families are the Crest kind of people and some families are the Colgate kind. Some families are loyal to Miracle Whip, while others will only use mayonnaise. Some families have corn bread stuffing at Thanksgiving and some families have white bread stuffing. Our family was always a Crest, mayonnaise, and white bread stuffing sort of family.

The four things I am most thankful for.

I didn’t realize how ingrained this inclination towards white bread stuffing was until I set about preparing a corn bread stuffing earlier this week. It should’ve been delicious, with crispy bits of bacon, tender dates, shallots, and celery. It was supposed to be a new recipe to feature in this post about Thanksgiving ideas. But I didn’t like it. I can’t even tell you if it was good or not, as far as corn bread stuffings go. I am just a white bread stuffing girl through and through and I couldn’t wrap my taste buds or my heart around that corn bread stuffing. I’m not sharing the recipe.

But I am going to share this round-up of wonderful, tried and true Thanksgiving ideas, in plenty of time to add them to your Thanksgiving menu…

Give thanks for good food, friends.

APPETIZERS

Cranberry Chipotle Meatballs

Corn and Bacon Fritters with Smoked Salmon

Bacon-Wrapped Dates stuffed with Bleu Cheese

THE MAIN EVENT

Herb-Roasted Turkey Breast with Pan Gravy (and tips for roasting a whole turkey)

Bacon and Cider Braised Turkey Drumsticks (and garlicky creamed spinach)

Spiced Sweet Potato Puree with Pecan Streusel

Sausage, Apple, and Leek Stuffing

Cranberry-Orange Sauce

Green Beans Almondine

Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Bacon and Walnuts

Hot Doughy Buns

DESSERTS

Chocolate Pecan Pie

Pumpkin Coconut Pie

A Few Variations on Apple Pie (in an all butter pie crust)

Caramel Apple Cake

Turkey-Shaped Sugar Cookies

Caramel Apple Tartlets

Spiced Mango Upside Down Cake

Cannoli Cheesecake

Chicken Cordon Bleu Panini

boy, n.
1. noise with dirt on it
 

Daylight savings time has done a number on my noisy boys’ sleep schedules. They’ve always been early risers, but now we’re talking about 4:30 in the morning early. And they don’t wake slowly. They wake with the force of a jack-in-the-box that someone has been cranking all night long. It’s startling…even when you know it’s coming.

And they’re loud; so incredibly loud. I can’t even begin to put words to the kinds of noises which come from their little bodies. As they come barging into our room making all manners of inexplicable noises, I bury my head under my pillow and wonder why little boys don’t come with volume controls.

But even as I’m hoarsely grumbling ‘go away’, I’m reminded to be thankful for all of that predawn noise; that noise which means we have three healthy, active little boys to be making it. In a month of thanks giving, I am thankful for that.

Thursday nights are crazy nights for our noisy little family. For the few hours preceding the boys’ bedtime, it’s a revolving door of activity. The boys have ninja training (karate class) right about the time we’d normally be eating dinner, so we eat early. My husband gets home from work shortly after we return, then runs off to rock and roll training (band practice) just after the boys get to bed. At that point, I curl up onto the couch for my extremely informal sommelier training (glass of red).

So, everyone eats dinner in a rush and at a different time on Thursdays, making it essential that Thursday night dinners are simple and easy to reheat. This satisfying chicken cordon bleu panini fits the bill perfectly! Breaded chicken breasts are sliced and combined with salty prosciutto and a creamy gruyere sauce, then pressed together, wrapped in foil, and heated until it’s hot and melty. Every part of this sandwich can be made ahead of time (even the night before). Best yet, it can be wrapped in individual portions, which are ready to pop in the oven whenever your future ninja, rockstar, or sommelier gets hungry!

Today’s Focus on Technique – Bechamel Sauce

A bechamel sauce is one of the five French ‘mother sauces’, which means that it is a base sauce from which many variations can be made. Bechamel sauce is a simple white sauce made with a combination of roux (butter and flour) and milk. It’s typically seasoned with salt, pepper, and a pinch of nutmeg. Bechamel sauces can be made thinner or thicker by varying the amount of roux used in the sauce. A basic bechamel can be seasoned in a multitude of ways and used in lasagna, as the base of a cheese (mornay) sauce for macaroni and cheese, or as the start of a creamy soup.

The process of making a bechamel is simple. Combine equal parts butter and flour in a pan over medium heat, whisking constantly for a minute or two to remove some of that raw flour taste. Gradually add milk to the roux, whisking constantly. (Ideally, the milk should be warm or hot when it’s added to the roux, though I’ll admit that I rarely warm the milk and have never had a problem.) Whisk until well combined. Bring the mixture to a simmer. Cook for a few minutes, whisking constantly, until the milk is thickened. Season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg.

*1 tablespoon each of butter and flour to 1 cup of milk will produce a thin bechamel which makes a good base for a cheese sauce. Use 2-3 tablespoons each of butter and flour to 1 cup of milk for a thicker sauce.

Chicken Cordon Bleu Panini

Ingredients

  • 1 loaf of wide, flat crusty bread (such as ciabatta)
  • 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1 1/2 cups seasoned bread crumbs
  • Olive or vegetable oil
  • 3-4 ounces prosciutto (or ham)
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons butter
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons flour
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1/2 cup gruyere (or other swiss-style cheese), shredded
  • Salt and pepper
  • Pinch of nutmeg

Directions

For the chicken: Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Dip the chicken breasts in the beaten eggs, then press into the bread crumbs, until well coated. Heat a thin layer of oil in a fry pan over medium/medium-high heat. Cook the chicken for 2-3 minutes on each side, until golden brown. Transfer the chicken to a baking sheet. Place in the oven, until cooked through. (Chicken is fully cooked at 165 degrees. Cooking time will vary based on thickness of the chicken breasts and how well they’re cooked during the browning step. Mine took about 13 minutes in the oven.) *The chicken can be made ahead and refrigerated.

For the sauce: Melt the butter in a pan over medium heat. Add the garlic. Cook for a few seconds, being careful not to burn. Add the flour. Whisk to combine. Cook for a minute. Gradually add the milk, whisking constantly to combine. Bring the mixture to a simmer. Cook for a minute or two, until thickened. Reduce the heat. Add the cheese and whisk until melted. Season with a pinch of nutmeg and salt and pepper, to taste. *The sauce can be made ahead and refrigerated. It will thicken as it cools.

To assemble the sandwiches: Slice the loaf of bread in half. Spread a layer of sauce onto each half. Arrange the prosciutto in a thin layer on the bottom half. Slice the breaded chicken breasts into thin pieces. Arrange them on top of the prosciutto. Cover with the top half. Tightly wrap the sandwich in foil, pressing down to flatten the sandwich. If desired, you can pre-cut the sandwich and wrap in individual servings. Bake in a 375 degrees oven for about 20 minutes until hot and melty. *The entire sandwich can be made ahead of time. If cooking from cold, allow for extra cooking time.

Cannoli Cheesecake

I was undecided – and frankly, feeling a bit resentful over the implication that we undecided folks were either not paying attention or have the intellect of potatoes. I’d paid attention, done my research, weighed the pros and cons, and reflected on my personal tastes. And yet, I was still undecided; twisted by my contrary desires, unable to decipher the antsy feeling in my gut.

I take important decisions such as these quite seriously, you know.

But how in the world is a person supposed to choose between cheesecake and cannoli?? (Oh, did you think I was talking about the presidential election?) I mean, the cheesecake is rich and refined – maybe a little too rich for my tastes – but an intriguing option nonetheless. The familiar cannoli is a bit rougher around the edges and sometimes messy to consume, yet it calls to me. I wanted both; I wanted neither. My stomach churned with restless indecision. What if I wanted something different? Another choice on the menu? A third-party option of sorts?

So I decided not to choose between the cannoli or the cheesecake. I wanted something else. So I voted for the cannoli cheesecake instead.

This cannoli cheesecake isn’t going to be making any speeches come inauguration day, but it’s a definite winner in my book. Creamy, sweetened ricotta is blended with cream cheese and hints of chocolate, candied orange, and cinnamon, then baked in the form of a decadent cheesecake with a graham cracker crust. The end result is lighter than a traditional New York style cheesecake, with the subtle texture of ricotta cannoli filling. It’s presidentially delicious.

Author’s Note – By no means is this post intending to compare our presidential candidates to delicious Italian desserts. That would just be silly. I did, in fact, vote for an actual candidate in today’s election; not a cannoli cheesecake. Though if this cannoli cheesecake were on the ballot, it probably would have had my support.

Today’s Focus on Technique – Cooking with a Bain Marie

Cooking in a bain-marie refers to using a water bath. The purpose of using a water bath is to moderate the oven heat so that delicate ingredients cook more slowly and evenly. The water provides a moist, indirect heat that allows for a more gentle cooking process, which is ideal for many egg-based desserts, such as cheesecake, custard, and creme brulee.

No special equipment is required for a bain-marie set-up. You can make use of a regular roasting pan, baking dish or baking pan. Place the pan or ramekin you’re cooking in within the larger baking dish or baking pan. Place the entire set up in the oven, then fill the outer pan with a layer of warm water. (Placing the set-up in the oven before filling it with water is usually the easiest approach.)

*Always wrap the bottom of springform pans to prevent water from seeping into the bottom.

Cannoli Cheesecake

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 cup graham crackers, finely crushed
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
  • 8 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
  • 1 pound cream cheese (2 8-ounce bars), softened to room temperature
  • 1 15-ounce container ricotta cheese
  • 1 1/4 cups sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/4 cup candied orange peel, finely diced
  • 4 eggs
  • 1/2 cup mini chocolate chips

Directions

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

For the crust: Combine the graham cracker crumbs, sugar, and melted butter. Press the mixture into the bottom of a 10 inch springform pan*. Place the pan in the oven for 5 minutes to set the crust. Remove the pan from the oven and cool while you prepare the filling. (Leave the oven on.)

For the filling: Beat together the cream cheese and sugar until smooth. Add the ricotta cheese, vanilla extract, cinnamon, and orange peel. Beat for another minute until well blended. Add the eggs one at a time and beat just until blended. Stir in the chocolate chips.

Securely wrap the bottom of the cooled springform pan with foil (to prevent water from seeping into the pan).

Pour the filling into the springform pan. Place the pan within a large baking sheet or baking pan. Place the water bath set-up on the middle oven rack, then pour a small layer of warm water into the baking sheet/baking pan, so that it comes about 1/2″ up the side of the springform pan.

Bake for 60-65 minutes. The filling will still be slightly jiggly in the center when done. Cool the cake for 30 minutes at room temperature, then refrigerate until completely chilled.

*You can use a smaller springform pan, but the cooking time will vary.

Buffalo Chicken Pasta Bake (and Giveaway Winner!!)

Well, we did it! We made it through Halloween. I enjoy Halloween, especially now that I have kids to celebrate it with – but to be honest, for me it’s mostly just the gateway holiday to Thanksgiving and Christmas. Those are the holidays which really have my heart. I’ll admit, a small tear of joy may have run down my cheek when I walked into Target the other day to find the first of their holiday decorations hung from the ceiling. I have no problem with celebrating Christmas even as we prepare for Thanksgiving. The two go hand in hand for me.

But Halloween was fun this year. Really fun. The boys dressed up for the pre-Halloween party at their school. There was a dj, a disco ball, and hundreds of costumed children, half-blinded by masks, crashing into each other on the school gym dance floor. All varieties of goblins, ghouls, princesses and superheroes roamed the school cafeteria with slices of pizza and pumpkin cookies hanging from their mouths.

On Halloween, the boys put on their costumes for their school parade. Liam was Harry Potter, a costume I’m certain he selected for the pretend glasses it came with. Lucas was a terrifying werewolf, a costume I believe he selected for the shredded jeans it would give him a reason to wear. The kid’s got a weird love for jeans, as long as they have a real, functional button and zipper…none of those faux buttoned, elastic-waisted toddler jeans for him!

After school, we attended a pre-trick-or-treating party at our friends’ house. I dressed as a princess with baby James as my frog prince. We brought along a bucket of spooky eyeball cake pops, which everyone enjoyed after the delicious dinner served by our friend. There was pasta and meatballs, a vibrant pasta salad, Italian bread and butter, jumbo shrimp, fresh veggies with dip, cheese and crackers, baked ziti and chicken wings.

And that’s when the seedling of an idea began to take root, right there surrounded by ninjas and vampires – baked ziti and chicken wings…

Y’all know I’ve got a little thing for inserting buffalo chicken wing flavor into all varieties of other foods…chicken wing dip, buffalo chicken lasagna, buffalo chicken monkey bread, buffalo chicken pizzabuffalo chicken meatballs, buffalo chicken potato skins… so, why not buffalo chicken baked ziti? As my sister put it, “Why have we not eaten that before???” It’s a practically ludicrous idea to consider. Fortunately, we no longer need to commiserate over the absence of buffalo chicken baked ziti in our lives. I made it last night and my hybrid baked ziti-buffalo chicken world is now beautifully complete.

Focus on Technique – Poaching Chicken

It’s common to find recipes calling for poached chicken. Poaching is simply the process of very gently simmering a food until it’s cooked. Eggs, poultry, and fish all responded well to poaching. Foods can be poached in a variety of liquids, including water, milk, wine, and broth/stock. Various herbs and seasonings can be added to the poaching liquid to impart delicious flavor into the chicken. When poaching, it’s important to control the heat in order to keep the liquid at a gentle simmer.

Properly poached chicken breasts remain moist and tender. Poached chicken works well on its own, in chicken salad, on pizza, in soup, or mixed in with pasta.

To poach chicken breasts, place the chicken in a pot large enough for the chicken to fit comfortably. Cover the chicken with cool water (or chicken broth). Over medium heat, bring the liquid to a gentle boil. Adjust the heat so that the liquid maintains a gently bubbling simmer. Cook for about 10-15 minutes, until the chicken is cooked through. An instant read meat thermometer is the most effective way to determine doneness. Chicken is done once it’s reached 165 degrees.

Buffalo Chicken Pasta Bake

Ingredients

  • 1 pound pasta
  • 1 pound of chicken, poached and chopped into small pieces
  • 1/2 cup celery, chopped
  • 1 cup Frank’s Red Hot hot sauce (or your other favorite hot sauce)
  • 1 cup blue cheese dressing (I always recommend Marie’s)
  • 3/4 cup ricotta cheese
  • 2 cups mozzarella cheese, shredded
  • 1/4 cup blue cheese, crumbled (optional)
  • Salt and pepper (optional)

Directions

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Cook the pasta for about a minute less than the package directions call for. Strain and rinse with cool water to prevent overcooking. Return the cooled, strained pasta to the pot. Add the chicken and chopped celery.

In a bowl, combine the hot sauce and blue cheese dressing. Pour the mixture over the pasta. Add the ricotta cheese and 1 cup of the mozzarella. Stir to combine. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt, pepper, or additional hot sauce, as desired.

Transfer the pasta mixture into a large 13×9 baking dish. Sprinkle the remaining 1 cup of mozzarella cheese and the crumbled blue cheese (optional) over the top. Bake for about 30 minutes.

*You can prepare the entire dish, up to the baking step, ahead of time. If preparing ahead of time and refrigerating, allow for approximately 10-15 minutes of extra cooking time. 

Werewolf and the frog prince

GIVEAWAY WINNER!! We have a winner! Using http://www.random.org to select a number at random, out of the 28 entries received for the dairy-themed gift bag giveaway, the winner is #12 , Jessica M. Congratulations, Jessica!! I’m going to send you an email at the address provided with your comment to get the information necessary to send you out your prize!!

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