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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

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How to Carve Your Thanksgiving Turkey – Photo Guide

In charge of carving the bird this Thanksgiving?

Most of us carve a turkey once a year, if that, which means that just about all of us could use a little refresher on how to tackle that big golden bird.

With that in mind, here’s a little photo guide to help you get the job done.

1. Allow your guests to see that gloriously golden, fragrant, tender roasted turkey. Then, bring it back into the kitchen to carve. It’s a hands-on and somewhat messy job. There’s no need to be dealing with it at the carefully set Thanksgiving table.

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2. Start by removing the legs. To do this, use a sharp carving knife to cut the skin connecting the leg to the body. Use your hands to pull the leg away from the body until you hear the joint pop.

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Then wiggle the knife through the joint and pull the leg off of the turkey carcass.

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3. Repeat on the other side. Then, separate the thighs from the drumsticks by inserting a knife between the joint. If desired, slice the meat from the thigh and drumsticks.

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4. Remove the wings in a similar manner, by gently pulling the wing from the body, then using a knife to cut through the skin and joint.

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5. Finally, remove the turkey breasts from the carcass. To do this, make a long, deep cut into the center of the turkey on one side of the breast bone. Carefully glide your knife down along the breast bone to remove the entire breast from one side of the turkey.

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6. Repeat on the other side, then lay the breasts skin side up on your carving board and cut across the breast into slices.

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Save the carcass from turkey soup!!

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.

Spectacular Spinach Salad

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Process for Vacuuming a Room Without Kids:

Step 1: Remove vacuum cleaner from closet.
Step 2: Plug in the vacuum.
Step 3: Turn on the vacuum.
Step 4: Use the vacuum to suck debris and animal hair from the floor.
Step 5: Unplug and return the vacuum to the closet.
 
Approximate Time Required: 5 minutes

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Process for Vacuuming a Room With Kids:

Step 1: Remove vacuum cleaner from closet.
Step 2: Rehang all of the jackets which the baby pulled from the closet while you were removing the vacuum.
Step 3: Negotiate an argument over the remote between the two other kids.
Step 4: Plug in the vacuum.
Step 5: Instruct oldest kid to return the salamander to the outdoors and to stop squishing him.
Step 6: Replug the vacuum which the baby unplugged, while you were trying to save the salamander’s life.
Step 7: Return all vacuum accessories to their proper places.
Step 8: Turn on the vacuum.
Step 9: Begin vacuuming the room, while the baby rides on top of the vacuum, switching it off at intervals of 5 seconds.
Step 10: Turn the vacuum back on. Repeat as often as necessary in order to vacuum first half of room.
Step 11: Pause to console the child who is literally crying over spilt milk.
Step 12: Clean up the milk.
Step 13: Unravel the vacuum cord from the baby’s neck.
Step 14: Resume vacuuming the second half of the room.
Step 15: Revacuum the first half of the room after the baby spills goldfish on the floor, then crushes them riverdance-style.
Step 16: Instruct the children to put clothes on before playing outside.
Step 17: Accept that the vacuuming task is futile. Try again tomorrow.
 

Approximate Time Required: Unknown – This task has never been successfully completed.

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The actual experience, when sandwiched between twenty other equally impossible ‘simple’ tasks, is only remotely comical in writing. Experiencing it is a heart-pounding, curl-into-a-ball-and-cry-with-frustration, exercise in futility. (Yes, attempting to vacuum a room has brought me to tears more times than I’d care to admit.) If only I could learn to accept this loss of control over accomplishing simple tasks. Each day feels like a mad rush of tasks, errands, and chores, yet there is scarce evidence of the work accomplished by the end. Even the process of writing this simple blog post has been overly complicated by a million micro interruptions of the salamander, spilt milk, and crushed goldfish variety.

But recently I have managed to find the most perfect peace in a somewhat unusual place…the gym. Many people dread going to the gym. For me, the gym’s bright, sterile environment invokes the same calm as a dimly lit spa with soothing water features. I feel my heart rate decelerate when I walk through those doors, because my gym offers childcare. So, every day, I have been shuffling the little ones off to the gym, where I claim one hour to use as I please. One precious hour, where I am the master of my time, to select a task and complete it with minimal interruptions. One hour where I can choose to move slowly between the strength training machines or to let my heart race with the endorphins of a good run as compared to the cortisol of home stress. That hour may not make vacuuming a room any less stressful, but at least I had that one blissful hour.

And truly, as completing any task is basically impossible anyway, that one hour removed from my daily duties, has made little to no difference with respect to the condition of my house. Now, if that daily hour manages to make a difference with respect to the condition of my waistline, that will be the icing on the cake.

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Thankfully, the kids actually love going to the Kids Korner at the gym. There are novel toys and video games (which are a bit more violent than anything I allow in our home, thus exciting in an illicit way) and other kids to socialize with. So, in addition to my daily weekday gym escape, we’ve been taking a family trip to the gym each weekend. A post-gym stop at Panera for lunch, where we pick up salads and smoothies and other sorts of yummy feel-good food, has become part of our weekend routine.

I’ve been crushing on Panera’s Spinach Power Salad ever since they introduced it to the menu. I could eat it everyday, but that be bad for my wallet. So, I’ve come up with my own version of a salad inspired by Panera’s tasty offering. My salad features the same fresh baby spinach, topped with sauteed mushrooms and onions, crispy bacon, protein-rich eggs, and crispy garlic-pepper onion straws, tossed in a simple vinaigrette made with sweet caramelized onions and a touch of honey. It’s a near perfect combination of flavors and textures, the sort of thing which makes a healthful salad feel like a treat.

Today’s Focus on Technique – Mustard as an Emulsifier

I add a touch of mustard to almost every vinaigrette I make. In addition to adding a satisfying hint of flavor, mustard has the ability to act as an emulsifier, binding the oil and vinegar, so that the dressing is less likely to separate. This secret superpower of mustard occurs as a result of the  ground mustard seed’s particles’ ability to coat tiny droplets of oil, allowing them to mix harmoniously with the vinegar or lemon juice in a dressing. It doesn’t take a lot, but has the best overall result with ground mustard powder or a good quality prepared mustard.

Spinach Salad with Bacon, Eggs, Mushrooms and Caramelized Onion Vinaigrette

Inspired by Panera’s Spinach Power Salad

Ingredients

  • 8 slices bacon, cooked to crisp, crumbled
  • 3 eggs, hardboiled and chopped
  • 9-12 cups baby spinach leaves

For the sauteed mushrooms and onions

  • 1-2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 large sweet onion, thinly sliced
  • 2 cups baby bella (cremini) mushrooms, sliced
  • Salt and pepper

For the dressing

  • 1/2 cup caramelized onions (from the sauteed onions)
  • 1/4 cup white balsamic vinegar
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon dijon mustard
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • Salt and pepper

For the crispy onions

  • 1 large sweet onion, very thinly sliced
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1-1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 3/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • Vegetable oil, for frying

Directions

For the sauteed mushrooms and onions: Heat the olive oil in a pan over medium heat. Add the onion. Cook for 10-15 minutes, stirring frequently, until tender and golden. Remove the onions from the pan. Set 1/2 cup aside for the dressing. Save the remaining onions for topping the salad. Add a touch more oil to the pan, if necessary. Add the mushrooms and cook for about 7-10 minutes, until tender and golden. Season with a sprinkle of salt and pepper.

For the caramelized onion vinaigrette: In a blender or food processor, combine the caramelized onions, vinegar, oil, mustard, and honey. Blend until well combined. Season with salt and pepper.

For the crispy garlic-pepper onion straws: Soak the sliced onions in the buttermilk for 30 minutes or so. In a separate bowl, combine the flour, salt, garlic powder, and pepper. In a large fry pan, heat about 1 inch of vegetable oil at medium/medium-high heat for a few minutes, until it’s good and hot. In small batches, remove some of the onions from the buttermilk, shake to remove excess, then toss in the flour mixture until well coated. Scatter the onions in the oil. If the oil is hot enough, they should sizzle instantly and cook to golden and crispy in about two minutes. Remove the onions with a slotted spoon and drain over a paper towel. Repeat with remaining onions.

To assemble the salad: Toss a generous serving of spinach leaves (3-4 cups) with a bit of the dressing. Top the salad with the sauteed onions and mushrooms, chopped boiled egg, bacon, and the crispy garlic-pepper onions.

Makes 3-4 large salads

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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.

Irish Mocha Chip Ice Cream

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Well, hello there! Long time, no see.

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I hadn’t intended to abandon the blog for any length of time, but life sort of sucked me into its unpredictable time warp. Between the kids and appointments and work and all of the other business of being a family of five, the weeks just flew by. Oh, and I joined a local gym, which has a ‘Kids Korner’, that the kids actually love going to. Ninety bucks bought me up to two hours of time for myself, every day, forever. Best childcare deal out there, folks. I’ve rarely missed a day since I joined. The getting in shape aspect almost feels like the bonus of going, not the very purpose itself.

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But, it’s come to my attention that one of my favorite holidays is rapidly approaching. So, I’ve pulled myself out of life’s time warp in order to bring you an appropriately Irish themed recipe. This is one for the grown-ups, as it’s chock full of caffeine and festively spiked with a bit of Irish Cream. Interestingly, it was my five year who inspired the whole ice cream idea, while I was pondering aloud about some Baileys twist on panna cotta or chocolate mousse. “It should be an ice cream,” he insisted. And with the approaching spring season peppering our days with warmer weather, he was right-on with that suggestion. I may need to reward him with a decaf, alcohol-free version of this recipe soon.

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The look your child may make when you prepare an ice cream, just for grown-ups.

If you’re looking for some more traditional Irish ideas, like Corned Beef and Cabbage, Irish Soda Bread, Shepherd’s Pie or even a low-carb twist on Cottage Pie, check out last year’s St. Patty’s Day recipe round-up HERE.

Have fun and most importantly, be safe, in all of your St. Patty’s Day festivities!

Today’s Focus on Technique – The Difference Between Ice Cream and Frozen Custard

The main difference between ice cream and frozen custard (also known as French-style ice cream or French custard ice cream) is the addition of egg yolks. Technically, to be considered a frozen custard, it must contain at least 1.4% egg yolks by weight. The USDA has lengthy documents which define all of the characteristics of ice cream, frozen custard, gelato, sherbet and something called mellorine, but basically, the difference between ice cream and frozen custard comes down to the egg yolks. The egg yolks in a frozen custard add a rich, silky creaminess to the end result. When adding the egg yolks to the ice cream mixture, it is important to temper the eggs by very gradually adding the hot cream mixture to the yolks. This allows the temperature of the eggs to rise to meet the temperature of the hot cream mixture without scrambling the eggs. The egg mixture is then returned to the pan and gently heated until the eggs are cooked to a safe temperature. For more info on tempering eggs into hot liquids, click here. I haven’t calculated the percent weight of egg yolks in the following recipe, but I’d venture to say it falls technically in the family of frozen custards.

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Irish Mocha Chip Ice Cream

Adapted from Emeril’s Coffee Ice Cream 

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 cups heavy cream
  • 1 1/2 cups whole milk
  • 2/3 cup sugar
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons instant coffee granules
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 3-4 tablespoons Baileys Irish Cream*
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 2/3 cup mini chocolate chips

*TIP – When cooking with liquors or liqueurs that you don’t frequently use, see if your liquor store carries the mini bottles (like they have on airplanes), to avoid having leftovers go to waste. 

Directions

Combine the cream, milk, sugar, coffee, and cocoa powder in a medium saucepan. Bring to a gentle boil over medium heat, stirring until sugar, coffee and cocoa are dissolved. Remove from the heat.

In a medium bowl, lightly beat the egg yolks with a fork. In a slow steady stream, gradually whisk about 1 cup of the hot mixture into the egg yolks. Then, gradually add the egg mixture to the remaining mixture in the pan. Cook the mixture over medium-low/low heat, stirring frequently, for 5-8 minutes, until it just begins to bubble. (You can use an instant read thermometer to check that the mixture is at least 170ºF.) Remove from the heat. Cool slightly at room temperature, then transfer to a bowl and cover with plastic wrap, pressing down against the surface to prevent a skin from forming. Refrigerate until completely chilled, about 2-3 hours. Stir in the Baileys Irish Cream and chocolate chips just before freezing in the ice cream maker.

Transfer the cooled mixture to your ice cream maker. Freeze according to your ice cream maker’s instructions. The ice cream will still be semi-soft (and lusciously creamy) coming out of the ice cream maker. It will harden a bit further after a few hours in the freezer.

*This recipe would make a perfectly delicious mocha chip ice cream without the Bailey’s. You could also use decaf instant coffee grounds if you’d prefer to skip the caffeine.

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Tropical Chia Green Smoothies

It’s been pointed out to me, that my own enthusiasm for holiday celebrations, may explain the intense energy my 5-year-old, Liam, puts into planning how we’ll honor each special day. We are two peas in a pod when it comes to festive occasions. Heck, we’re already co-planning the Temple Run themed birthday party we’ll throw in May, complete with a costumed gorilla to chase the party guests through the obstacle course we will assemble in the backyard. My husband is skeptical about the logistics involved in carrying out this event, but Liam and I have got it covered.

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As Valentine’s Day approached, Liam easily slipped into holiday planning mode. For weeks, I heard about the special Valentine’s Day he was planning for me. It was to be a spa day, as imagined by a 5-year-old, pieced together with ideas he’d gleaned from watching episodes of Phineas and Ferb or Spongebob. I was given a list of the supplies to acquire for this special day: bubblegum scented bubble bath, ‘some kind of soap’ for my face (a face mask), cucumber slices, candy, and bubbly water. Then I eagerly waited for Valentine’s Day and the one hundred arm massages I’d been promised as part of this luxurious spa package.

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But then I received the phone call from the school nurse. My sweet, little valentine was running a fever and needed to be picked up from school. After a bit of rest at home, I decided to turn his little spa idea around on him. It just seemed like he needed the extra attention more than I did. The boys enjoyed the funny face masks and cool cucumber eyes and they laughed their bubble-bearded faces to near tears in the over-filled bathtub. I poured cool glasses of cucumber water for the boys to sip while they enjoyed the soothing effects of the face masks, but none of the boys would drink what they perceived to be ‘pickle water’.

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After soothing face masks, ‘pickle water’, and bubble baths, we enjoyed some delicious tropical green smoothies. Inspiration for these smoothies came to me while watching a food documentary I ran across on Netflix, Hungry for Change. For the most part, the film spoke to what most of us already know; whole foods are good for you, processed foods are not. Eat lots of fresh, unprocessed fruits and vegetables and you’ll feel better, look younger, and have glowing skin. (They talked a lot about skin.) At one point, the filmed focused so heavily on juicing that I started to suspect I’d been tricked into watching an 89-minute long informercial for a juicing machine. But all-in-all, it was a decent film which drove home some important points about healthy eating.

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Above all, to me, the most interesting segment had to do with foods that have the ability to reset and detoxify our bodies, so that they function more efficiently and effectively. Leafy green vegetables and gelatinous plant foods, such as chia seeds, were given the biggest focus. After doing a bit of research into chia seeds and discovering their many potential health benefits, I made the decision to incorporate them into my diet, starting with these delicious and nutrient dense smoothies. These vibrant smoothies start with fresh tropical fruit and a big handful of baby spinach. Protein-rich greek yogurt, omega-3 and fiber-rich chia seeds, and natural, sweet honey complete the mix to form a nutritional powerhouse smoothie you can feel great about enjoying.

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Today’s Focus on Technique – Making Smoothies with Frozen Fruit

Keeping a stash of fresh fruit pieces in your freezer makes smoothie-making a breeze. Most fruit contains enough water content to give your smoothies that icy texture, without actually adding any ice. (Banana smoothies usually require some ice.) Clean, peel, and chop your favorite fruits, then freeze them in large ziploc bags or airtight containers. For extra convenience, consider buying the bags of pre-cut, no-sugar-added frozen fruit, which can be found in the freezer section of your grocery store.

Tropical Chia Green Smoothie

Ingredients*

  • 1 6-ounce container plain Greek yogurt
  • 1 cup pineapple, cut into cubes and frozen
  • 1 cup mango, cut into cubes and frozen
  • 1 cup kiwi, cut and frozen
  • 1 1/2 cups baby spinach leaves
  • 1/4 cup orange juice (or milk)
  • 3 tablespoons chia seeds
  • 1-2 tablespoons honey

*All ingredient measurements are approximate.

Directions

Add all ingredients to a blender. Blend until well combined. Taste and adjust sweetness with additional honey, if desired.

Makes 2 generous smoothies

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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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Loaded Nacho Chicken

Like many young twenty-something couples, my husband and I spent a good amount of our time, energy, and income on accumulating stuff. We needed the stylish duvet from Pottery Barn, the flatware set from Crate and Barrel, and the clothes from JCrew. When we married, we registered for the long list of items the registry guide told us we needed, fully believing that we would find frequent use for that 50-piece fondue set and the espresso maker with the milk foaming wand. We gathered our items and checked them off the list of things we were ‘supposed’ to have as well-equipped adults. We were consumers to the utmost degree.

But, recently, there’s been a major shift in how we handle our ‘stuff management’. I don’t know if it’s come with parenthood or age or just a general change of perspective, but we now purge, rather than collect. A few months ago, the microwave broke. I liked the counter space better than the microwave, so we didn’t replace it, and we’ve been totally fine since. The blu-ray player broke a few months before that. We dropped it off at the place for recycled electronics and left the shelf empty. This past summer, we sold  a good portion of the books and DVDs we’d accumulated over the years and have been thankful for the reduced clutter. Neglected toys and outgrown clothing, we regularly donate to our local rescue mission.

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And what we ‘need’ has changed too. Gone are our days of overpriced, trendy bedding and clothing. We buy mostly everything from Target now and when our Dyson, which served us well for many years, finally bit the dust, we replaced it with a bargain-priced Bissell. And you know what? It’s done the job just fine. Our priorities have shifted. We just don’t want the same things we used to think we needed; things which take up too much space in our lives and leave wanting holes in our budget.

A week ago, we made what was probably the biggest cut of all. We pulled the plug on the cable. Now, for people who are as serious about our tv-watching as we are, this is a humungous deal. We’d been toying with the idea for awhile. While we love our cable, seeing that bill every month was torturing us. We’d just rather have that money in our pockets. Liam cried when we told him what we were about to do. That alone may have signified that it was the right decision to make.

We kept our Netflix and through the convenience of modern technology, we are able to hook our computer up to the tv to get our weekly fix of Downton Abbey and our favorite network shows. I’ve felt no emptiness in my life without cable. In fact, life feels beautifully simpler now.

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When I told my mom I was making this loaded nacho chicken for dinner, she giggled at me, the ‘gourmand mom’, breading chicken breasts in crushed tortilla chips. But hey, no one ever said that good food needed to be complicated or utilize fancy ingredients. Simplicity can be positively blissful. The tortilla chips in this dish provide a fun variation on a basic breaded chicken breast. The tortilla coated chicken breasts are then topped with warm, delicious chile con queso and a generous dose of nacho toppings for a vibrant dish the entire family will enjoy.

**This dish could easily be adapted for a fun super bowl appetizer, but cutting the chicken into smaller pieces, skewering the cooked chicken, and serving with a big bowl of warm queso, topped with black beans, green onions, olives, and chopped tomato!

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Today’s Focus on Technique – Basic Breading Procedure

A basic breading technique can be used to coat veggies, meats, or seafood with a crispy, flavorful exterior. It is often used to prepare foods for pan-frying, but works swimmingly for baking as well. Foods can be breaded with basic seasoned bread crumbs, panko bread crumbs, or any variety of crushed crackers or even chips! Properly breading foods is a three step process. First, dredge the food in a bit of flour. Second, dip the item in a simple bath of eggs whisked together with a touch of milk. Third, press the food into your dry breading, until thoroughly coated. The flour adheres easily to the food. The egg adheres to the flour. The breading adheres to the egg. To prevent your fingers from getting breaded in the process, it’s a wise idea to handle the wet ingredients with one hand, while using the other hand for the dry ingredients. Once breaded, your food can be pan-fried in a bit of oil until golden brown and cooked through or oven baked for a lighter result.

Loaded Nacho Chicken

Ingredients

  • 3-4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tablespoon milk
  • 2 cups corn tortilla chips, finely crushed
  • 3/4 cup chile con queso dip (store-bought or homemade)
  • Black olives, sliced
  • Black beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1-2 green onions, sliced
  • 1 tomato, diced
  • Salt and pepper

Directions

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Season the chicken breasts with a sprinkle of salt and pepper.  To set up your breading station, spread the flour onto a plate. Whisk the eggs and milk together in a small baking dish or bowl. Spread the crushed tortilla chips onto a plate. Dredge each chicken breast in the flour, then dip in the egg mixture. Finally, press the chicken into the tortilla chips until well coated. Place the coated chicken breasts in a baking dish. Cook for 25-35 minutes, until the chicken reaches 165°F, as measured with an instant-read meat thermometer.

To serve, top the cooked chicken with a generous helping of warm chile con queso and a sprinkle of black beans, black olives, tomatoes, green onions, or your other favorite nacho toppings.

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Tomorrow will mark the one year anniversary of what we now jokingly refer to as The DeLine Family Super Bowl Massacre. Guess who’s not hosting a super bowl party this year?? Looking for some fun super bowl food ideas? Check out my Baked Asian Sticky Wings, Buffalo Chicken Monkey Bread, Spicy Mexican Wontons, Chicken Wing Dip (you know you want some), Creole Deviled Eggs, or any of the other fun recipes found in the party food section of my Recipe Collection.

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