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Peppermint Mocha Cakes

Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat…

We’re at the three day countdown to Christmas and the excitement is bubbling over in our home. Our annual cookie exchange took place last weekend, and last night we hosted our first ‘white elephant’ booze exchange amongst my siblings and a few other honorary family members.

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It was a roaring success, most certainly to be repeated in future years. I won a couple bottles of hard cider from a local orchard, a wine glass sippy cup, and a bottle of One Hope pinot noir, a portion of whose profits go toward funding adoptions for homeless animals. Every sip comes with complimentary images of wagging puppy tails and frolicking kittens. Christmas win!

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Gifts marked for the exchange

Tomorrow I’ll cook our annual chicken parmesan dinner, then Tuesday I’ll prepare the beef bourguignon for the Christmas dinner we will celebrate with 16 people. The abundance of our blessings in love, and family, and friendships does not go unnoticed.

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Brothers

Before we get swept into the Christmas tornado, I wanted to share this recipe with you. These delicious little peppermint mocha bundt cakes evolved from one of my favorite Hershey’s chocolate cake recipes. They’re moist and rich, with a minty mocha flavor reminiscent of my favorite holiday Starbucks beverage. Make them as mini cakes, perfect for gifting or bake sale donations, or make it as a full-sized treat for your holiday table.

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Peppermint Mocha Cakes

Ingredients

  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1-3/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 teaspoon peppermint extract
  • 3/4 cup very strong, hot coffee

For the coffee glaze:

  • 1/2 cup confectioner’s sugar
  • A few tablespoons brewed coffee

Directions

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease and flour 12 mini-bundt pans or 1 12-cup bundt pan.

In a large bowl, combine the sugar, flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Add the eggs, milk, oil, and peppermint. Beat for a couple minutes until well combined. Gradually add the hot coffee and stir. (The batter will be thinner than you might expect.) Pour the batter into the prepared pans, so that each pan is no more than 2/3 full. Bake until a toothpick inserted comes out clean. (Approximately 20-25 minutes for mini-bundts, 50-55 minutes for large bundt pan) Cool completely.

To prepare the glaze, gradually stir a little hot coffee into the confectioner’s sugar until a smooth glaze forms. Drizzle the glaze over the top of the cake, then garnish with a crushed candy cane.

Makes 12 mini-bundt cakes or 1 large bundt cake

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Rainbow Cookie Cake

Is anybody else planning on getting their two-year-old a Harry & David fruit basket for Christmas this year??

I’m guessing I might be the only one, and yet, I’m 99.99% certain that it will be his favorite gift, by far. The kid is ridiculously in love with fruit.

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In fact, on Halloween, we stopped by my sister’s house to trick-or-treat. She handed each of the boys a piece of candy from the bowl of treats by her door, before remembering that she had an ultra-ripe Harry & David pear for my littlest guy. She ran into her kitchen to grab the foil-wrapped gem, then handed it to my little James, who literally threw the piece of candy over his shoulder like a piece of worthless garbage, in exchange for the tender pear.

I expect him to be as excited over his Harry & David fruit basket as the other boys will be over their massive Lego castle and Minecraft video game.

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When it comes to Christmas, I am like Walt Disney, carefully masterminding magical moments. While James revels in the magic of an assortment of unusually large, perfectly ripened fruit, I expect the other two boys to be doing giggling backflips over the two-foot-long gummy worm I plan to order or the giant rice krispie treat I found at Target.

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In the spirit of magical, over-sized treats, I think you’ll enjoy this oversized rainbow cookie cake. It’s like those addictingly delicious, almondy rainbow cookies, only it’s the size of an entire cake. It’s like one, giant rainbow cookie, and I wouldn’t blame you if you ate the whole darn thing.

I started with a recipe for rainbow cookies, then lighted it up just a bit with an additional egg, a bit more flour, and a teaspoon of baking powder. It’s got the dense lusciousness you expect to find in a rainbow cookie, just a bit more cake-like.

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This rich, chocolate-drenched cake is a must-have on any holiday table.

Rainbow Cookie Cake

Ingredients

  • 5 eggs, separated
  • 1 8-ounce can almond paste
  • 1 1/4 cups sugar
  • 2 1/2 sticks butter, softened to room temperature
  • 1 teaspoon almond extract
  • 2 1/2 cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • Green food coloring
  • Red food coloring
  • Yellow food coloring
  • Seedless raspberry jam
  • Apricot jam
  • 4 ounces semi-sweet chocolate
  • 1/4 cup heavy cream
  • Chocolate sprinkles

Directions

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray three 9×5 inch loaf pans with baking spray.

Place the five egg whites into a clean bowl. Beat with an electric mixer until stiff peaks form. Set aside.

Use a fork to break up the almond paste into smaller pieces. In a large bowl, combine the almond paste and sugar with an electric mixer until there are no large lumps. Add the butter and beat until well combined. Add the egg yolks and almond extract and beat until blended.

In a separate bowl, stir together the flour, salt, and baking powder.

Gradually beat the flour mixer into the wet ingredients. The dough will be quite thick.

Stir one third of the beaten egg whites into the dough. This will slightly lighten the mixture. Then, fold in the remaining egg whites until well blended.

Divide the dough into three equal portions. Use a few drops of food coloring to color one portion red, another portion green, and the remaining portion yellow. *Gel food coloring has the best effect.

Use a spatula to spread each portion of dough into the three prepared baking pans.

Bake on the middle rack of your oven for 20-25 minutes, until the cakes are set and the edges just begin to turn golden.

Allow the cakes to cool for a few minutes in the pans, then carefully invert the cakes onto cooling racks. Cool completely.

Use a long serrated knife to level the cakes, removing as little cake as necessary.

Spread a layer of raspberry jam over the red layer. Place the yellow layer over the jam, then spread the apricot jam on top. Top with the red layer.

Chop the semisweet chocolate. Heat the heavy cream in a small saucepan or in the microwave, just until boiling. Pour the hot cream over the chocolate, then stir until smooth. Use a spatula to spread the chocolate ganache over the top and sides of the cake. Garnish liberally with chocolate sprinkles.

Refrigerate to set, but remove the cake from the fridge before serving, so it comes up to room temperature.

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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

Pumpkin Gingersnap Bars with Gingered Cream Cheese Topping

Halloween blew my two years old’s mind. Totally blew it. For weeks we’d been talking about how he would be Captain America on Halloween, while his brothers would be Hulk and Thor. Daddy would be Iron Man and Mommy would be Black Widow. We’d go door to door, collecting candy, which we would deposit in plastic pumpkins.

Though clearly flummoxed by this odd outline of what would happen on Halloween, he walked around telling anyone who would listen that he was going to “be Captain America”. (When he says it, it sounds a lot more like “Captain Murder”.)

As Halloween unfolded, every last bizarre detail came to fruition. He became Captain America. He was handed a plastic pumpkin. He said the magic words as he trotted from door to door. He got candy. Somehow, he managed to collect twice as much candy as either of his older brothers, having visited the same number of houses.

Be Captain America. Get Candy.

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Meanwhile, Lucas, my five-year-old Hulk, obsessed over the accuracy of every minute detail of his costume. My initial money-saving plan of picking up a fleece Hulk hat, t-shirt, and green face paint was met with a long list of concerns about muscles, green arms, purple ripped pants, and green legs.

I abandoned my frugal plan once the details overwhelmed me, in lieu of an official store-bought muscles-included hulk costume. Far from solving the problem, this purchase was quickly met by concerns over not having green feet or enough teeth in his partially toothless mouth. A hefty dose of gamma radiation may have saved us all a few headaches.

Learn from my experience, folks… If you stick three little boys in superhero costumes and call them The Avengers, you’d better expect some major chaos. Thor’s hammer was revoked almost instantly. Somehow, we made it through the day, by the skin of our superhero teeth.  Next year, I may dress our whole clan as librarians, monks, and sloths.

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American Dairy Association and Dairy Council Fall Dairy Tour – Part 1

Thankfully, the very next day, I had the pleasure of departing for a weekend of dairy education and wine and cheese tasting, hosted by the American Dairy Association and Dairy Council. Last year’s event was such an amazing experience. (You can read about it here.) I couldn’t wait to see what ADADC had in store for us this year.

This year, the event began at the beautiful Geneva on the Lake in Geneva, New York, which is located on the northwest side of Seneca Lake. Nestled in the New York Finger Lakes wine country, the manicured grounds of this elegant villa-inspired resort are absolutely stunning.

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After a comfortable night’s sleep in a spacious jacuzzi suite, we awoke for a continental breakfast at the resort. From there, we departed for Cornell University, where we spent the day touring Cornell’s state of the art dairy farm and dairy production plant. We met with experts in the fields of dairy farming, food science, and dairy production.

Going a step beyond the dairy farms, we learned about ice cream, cheese, and yogurt making and how Cornell University partners with local cheese artisans and other small business to help them develop and promote their dairy products.

Part of our ‘learning’ required tasting a variety of ice creams, frozen yogurt, homemade yogurt, and cheese. I had no choice but to eat that delicious ice cream and a second helping of cheese. Twist my arm already!

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I couldn’t possibly do the weekend justice in a single post, so I’m going split my thoughts into a few posts, each post paired with seasonal, dairy-inspired recipe. Think cheese, yogurt, ice cream, and creamy chowder…

For today, let’s start at the beginning, with the cows. During our time at Cornell, we had a chance to visit their state of the art dairy farm, where approximately 150 cows roam within the freestall barn, resting on comfortable beds of beach sand and enjoying pleasant back-scratching from the automatic back scratchers placed throughout the barn.

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Any mom who has ever nursed a baby knows that milk production is at its best when the mom is well-nourished, well-rested, and comfortable. Same applies to dairy cows. Happy cows means more milk and these dairy farmers have mastered the art of keeping cows happy and healthy to maximize production.

Cornell’s dairy barn, which is designed for maximum ventilation, sanitation and cow-comfort, sets an example for the dairy industry and provides a hands-on learning opportunity for its dairy students.

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Three times a day, Cornell’s cows are brought to the milking parlor, where their milk is collected for use within the school’s very own dairy production plant, where Cornell’s own ‘Big Red’ cheddar is made, as well as yogurt and ice cream for the university’s dining halls.

Twice daily milking is standard for most dairy farms, but Cornell’s cows, much like its students, are overachievers. Each cow produces an average of 95 pounds of milk daily, putting them in the top 95th percentile for milk production. I’d expect nothing less from an Ivy-league cow!

As each cow arrives in the milking parlor, its health records are electronically reviewed to ensure that the milk from any cow being treated for an illness is never mingled with the rest of the milk supply. Maintaining the safety of the food supply, from milking to production is a top priority.

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The level of careful planning and practice which goes into the entire process of dairy farming is seriously impressive. As a dairy consumer, it’s comforting to get a closer look into where my food comes from. And as someone who has a soft spot for animals, it’s reassuring for me to learn that cow comfort is intrinsically linked to milk production. Happy cows really do produce the most milk.

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In Part 2 of my dairy adventure, I’ll talk about two things which I love dearly: cheese and Wegmans. For today, enjoy some pumpkin gingersnap bars.

These seasonally perfect pumpkin bars pair a spicy gingersnap cookie crust with a layer of luscious baked pumpkin custard. Creamy half and half (half cream/half milk) lends a satisfying richness to these tiny bites of gingery pumpkin bliss. Cream cheese, another of dairy’s mouth-watering contributions to the world of food, provides the perfect finishing touch.

Pumpkin Gingersnap Bars with Gingered Cream Cheese Topping

Ingredients

  • 2 cups crushed gingersnap crumbs
  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
  • 2 cups pumpkin puree fresh or canned (1 – 15 oz can will do the trick)
  • 1/2 cup white sugar
  • 1/3 cup brown sugar
  • 1 1/2 cups half and half
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
  • Pinch of cloves
  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch
  • 6 ounces cream cheese, softened to room temperature
  • 1/4 cup powdered sugar
  • Pinch of ground ginger
  • Extra gingersnap crumbs for garnish

Directions

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Combine the crushed gingersnap crumbs with the melted butter. Press in an even layer into the bottom of a 13×9 inch baking dish. Bake for 7-8 minutes. Remove from the oven.

Meanwhile, whisk together the pumpkin, the sugars, half and half, eggs, vanilla, cinnamon, ginger, salt, nutmeg, and cloves, until well blended. In a small dish, combine the cornstarch with about 1/4 cup of the pumpkin mixture, until the cornstarch is completely dissolved. Whisk the cornstarch mixture into the pumpkin mixture. Pour the pumpkin mixture over the gingersnap crust.

Bake for about 40 minutes.

Remove from the oven. Cool at room temperature until no longer hot. Then, cool completely in the refrigerator. Cut into small 1- 1 ½” squares.

Combine the cream cheese, powdered sugar, and a pinch of ground ginger. Use a pastry bag to pipe a bit of the cream cheese topping onto each square. Sprinkle with extra gingersnap crumbs.

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This dairy tour and wine and cheese getaway weekend was hosted by the American Dairy Association and Dairy Council. As part of this event, they provided me with accommodations, meals, and compensation towards travel expenses. I was under no obligation to the ADADC, Cornell University, Geneva on the Lake or any other agency. All opinions and observations are my own.

Triple Ginger Apple Muffins

If an apple a day keeps the doctor away, then my little James is going to have the doctors bolting in the other direction. The kid eats, oh, anywhere from 5 – 10 apples a day. No joke.

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At one point, I would dole out his daily allotment of apples, spending a ridiculous percentage of my days washing, peeling, and slicing his favorite food. After eating 3 in a day, I’d determine he’d reached his daily apple limit and try to persuade him to eat some nice, delicious cookies or perhaps some potato chips instead.

This never ended well. In fact, our worst fights pretty much all came down to a disagreement over how many apples a two-year-old should reasonably eat in a day.

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But, you know, as parents, you have to pick your battles, and eventually, I simply decided that if the kid wants to eat apples from dawn to dusk, then so be it.

We now buy multiple sacks of apples each week, which I wash and leave in a giant mountain on the counter, for my little guy to snack on at will. My only remaining problem is finding half-eaten apples hidden within my slippers. True story.

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Naturally, being peak apple season up here in Central New York, we recently spent an afternoon at our favorite apple orchard, Beak and Skiff, where we rode a flatbed tractor up to the rows of ripe Cortland apples and picked until the bags were too heavy to carry.

James filled his bag, then refused to let anyone touch his precious, precious fruit. He walked row by row, dragging that bulging bag of apples behind his little apple-nourished body, shrieking if I even attempted to lighten his load.

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After riding the tractor back to the front of the orchard, we placed our loot on the scales and handed over $26 for our sweet bounty. (Note to self: It costs 16 cents more per pound to pick the apples yourself than to buy the same apples, from the same orchard at the local grocery store.)

I went through the bags of apples once we’d arrived home. To my utter lack of surprise, James’ bag contained at least 10 bucks worth of half-eaten apples.

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Some of what I found in James’ bag of apples…

Thankfully, most of Liam and Lucas’ apples were not already eaten, leaving plenty of freshly-picked apples for snacking and for making these outrageous muffins. Based on a basic not-too-sweet molasses muffin, accented with a triple dose of ground, fresh, and crystallized ginger, these spicy muffins barely made it to the next morning.

I recommend making a double batch.

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Triple Ginger Apple Muffins

Ingredients

  • 2 cups flour
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 6-ounce container vanilla or apple-cinnamon greek yogurt
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/3 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/3 cup molasses
  • 1 tablespoon fresh ginger, grated
  • 1/4 cup crystallized ginger, chopped
  • 1 1/2 cups apple, peeled and diced

Directions

Preheat oven to 325ºF. Prepare muffin tins with liners or by spraying with a nonstick baking spray.

Combine the flour, sugar, baking soda, salt, ground ginger, and cinnamon in a large bowl.  In a separate bowl, whisk together the yogurt, eggs, oil, and molasses. Stir in the fresh ginger.

Combine the wet ingredients with the dry ingredients until well blended. Stir in the crystallized ginger and the apple. The batter will be pretty thick.

Spoon the batter into the muffin tins, so that each tin is about 2/3 – 3/4 full.

Bake for 20-25 minutes.

Makes 12-15 muffins

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Cheesecake-Swirled Carrot Cake

Posted on

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.

Treat Your Valentine

Treat your valentine to a day’s worth of mouth-watering meals. Here are three ideas for each meal, from super simple to more elaborate. Click on the pictures or the links to see the recipes!

You can also check out the Recipes section at the top of the page for more ideas to delight your sweetie.

Breakfast

Super Simple: Strawberry and Nutella Stuffed French Toast

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A Bit More Complex: Cinnamon Raisin Donut Bread Pudding

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Manageably Elaborate: Eggs Benedict

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Lunch

Super Simple: Sausage, Bean, and Rapini Soup

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A Bit More Complex: Smoked Salmon and Cucumber Salad

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Manageably Elaborate: Quiche Lorraine

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Dinner

Super Simple: Penne a la Vodka

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A Bit More Complex: Pork Chops with Fontina and Marsala

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Manageably Elaborate: Slow-Braised Beef Short Ribs with Figs over Creamy Brie Potatoes

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Dessert

Super Simple: World’s Simplest Fudgey Brownies with Raspberry Coulis

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A Bit More Complex: Chocolate Raspberry Torte

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Manageably Elaborate: Fresh Berry Mousse with Vanilla Panna Cotta

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Cherry Cordial Brownie Bites

My Lucas is charismatic, enigmatic, and profusely loving. There’s just something insanely captivating about him. He’s a heart-melter for sure, with his big blue eyes, sweet dimples, and long, dark lashes. And he’s mine. More than anyone or anything in the whole world (except perhaps Ninjago legos), he loves me. Not sure how I got so lucky!

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Just look at that face!

The kid says, “I love you sooooo much,” so many times each day that I’d begun to suspect it was just a filler statement; simply something to say when there was nothing else to be said. He even says it in his sleep, when I sneak in at night to kiss his little head before I tuck myself into bed. “Mommy, I love you so much.”

But I’ve come to realize that his words are so much more than sounds to fill the silence. He recently turned to my husband and began to say, “Daddy, I love…” I’d expected the statement to end with his predictable “…you soooo much.” But it didn’t. It was quite beautifully, “Daddy, I love Mommy soooo much.” He’s my precious little lovebug.

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On a recent trip to the grocery store, as we walked hand in hand through the parking lot, he squeezed my hand and expressed his sweet statement of love. I returned the sentiment, then we continued into the store. An older woman, who’d been coming from her car, caught the exchange as we passed. I saw her pause and hold her heart for a moment. We ran into that woman as we made our way through the store and she stopped to comment on my sweet boys. I thanked her and she parted with a friendly, “God bless.” As we began to walk away, she shouted back, “What am I saying? Clearly, He already has.”

He certainly has. I have been so generously blessed in love; a family who cherishes and supports me, a husband I can laugh with, children whose love is more contagious than the flu, and the most beautiful friends, who persistently raise me up. This Valentine’s Day, I will celebrate every bit of that priceless, precious love.

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Sweet treats are the perfect way to celebrate the sweetest people in your life, like these absolutely decadent, truffle-like cherry cordial brownie bites. They start with my World’s Simplest Fudgey Brownies, which are then blended with a bit of cream cheese, until rich and smooth. The luscious brownie mixture is then rolled into small balls with a Grand Marnier (or orange juice, for the kiddies) soaked cherry in the center, before being dipped in smooth, melted chocolate. A drizzle of melted pink candy and sprinkles provide the perfect final touches.

Today’s Focus on Technique – Using a Double Boiler

The process of cooking with a double boiler (also called a bain marie) is an ideal technique to use when preparing delicate sauces, such as hollandaise, or when melting chocolates. In a double boiler set-up, the food is placed in a bowl which is suspended above simmering water. The water provides a gentle, consistent, indirect heat which prevents finicky foods from breaking (separating) or burning. It works in a similar manner as using water bath to prepare custards and other delicate egg-based dishes. No special equipment or dedicated ‘double boiler’ is required to utilize a double boiler technique. Simply fill a saucepan with an inch or two of water. Place a stainless steel or glass mixing bowl on top of the pot, so that the bottom of the bowl dips into the pot, but does not touch the water. Place the food you’re preparing in the bowl, bring the water to a simmer, and you’re set to go!

For more useful tips, techniques, and culinary photo guides click HERE.

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Cherry Cordial Brownie Bites

Ingredients

For the brownies:

  • 1 stick of butter
  • 1 cup chocolate chips
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup flour
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

For the brownie bites:

  • 1/4 cup Grand Marnier or orange juice (approximately)*
  • 3 dozen dried cherries
  • 4 ounces cream cheese, softened to room temperature
  • 2 cups chocolate chips (semi-sweet or milk chocolate)
  • Pink or red candy melts and sprinkles, for decorating (optional)

*Be aware that no alcohol will be cooked off in the preparation of these candies, so it would be wise to use the orange juice for children, pregnant women, or anyone who is avoiding alcohol intake.

Directions

To prepare the brownies:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray an 8×8 baking dish with cooking spray. In a saucepan over medium-low heat, melt the chocolate chips and butter until smooth, stirring constantly. Turn off the heat. Stir in the sugar and salt until dissolved. Stir in the flour. Add the eggs and stir until well blended. Pour the mixture into the prepared pan and bake for about 35 minutes.

To prepare the brownie bites:

Soak the dried cherries in approximately 1/4 cup of Grand Marnier or orange juice for at least an hour.

Once the brownies are cool, crumble into small pieces, then place in a food processor. Add the cream cheese and pulse until well-blended and smooth. (A food processor would work best for this task, but it can also be done by hand. If combining by hand, cut off the crispy brownie edges before blending, for a smoother result. If using the food processor, it’s not necessary to cut off the brownies edges.) Roll the mixture into small balls (less than 1″ diameter), inserting a soaked cherry in the center as you roll. Refrigerate until well chilled.

Melt the chocolate chips in a double boiler, stirring frequently, until smooth. Use a fork to lower each brownie ball into the melted chocolate. Shake off the excess chocolate, then place on a baking sheet, which has been lined with parchment paper or wax paper. Refrigerate until the chocolate has set. If desired, drizzle the brownie bites with melted pink or red candy melts and decorate with sprinkles.**

**Click HERE to see an easy pastry bag technique, which can be used for drizzling the brownie bites.

Makes 2.5 – 3 dozen candies

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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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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

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