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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 Thor’s hammer was revoked almost instantly.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.

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.

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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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!

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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