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Creamy Non-Dairy Tropical Smoothie

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((Sheepishly sneaks back into the blogging room, pretending as if she hasn’t been absent for the past three months))

If the look he gave me at the doctor’s office is any indication, I’m going to be in big trouble if my five-year-old, Lucas, finds out I’ve shared this story with you.

Many little boys dream of growing up to become superheroes, as if they will magically awaken one morning with webs shooting from the fingertips or the ability to leap the tallest buildings in a single bound. My Lucas has a better plan. He is aspiring to become a scientist when he grows up, with the specific intention of developing a potion which will give him super powers. He’s not about to sit around just waiting for it to happen.

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This plan of his has come up again and again over the past few months. This is no casual daydream. His plans have incited intense arguments on the ride home from school over the morality of animal testing. Though Lucas has no desire to harm any animals, he feels it will be necessary to have an assortment of animals on hand to test his potions.  (Enter legions of super-powered rabbits and monkeys into the story.)

Liam, his older brother, has shamed him for his planned methods, accusing him of being a MAD scientist. Lucas remains insistent that he is a happy scientist.

He claims that while animal testing is necessary, his potions will be made of watermelon seeds and salt, because “salt ALWAYS makes potions better.” (Lucas has apparently spent some time in culinary school.) He will then dye the potions blue to trick the animals into thinking it is water. As you can tell, he’s put a frightening level of thought into these plans.

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At a recent visit to the doctor, Lucas’ plans to become a scientist came up in discussion, as the doctor mixed the chemicals for a strep test. I mentioned the whole watermelon and salt potion, as it seemed relevant to the conversation. Lucas instantly shushed me and gave me the glare of death.

As a friend suggested, that doctor will likely now share the information with a colleague who secretly harbors a mad lust for power. He will attempt to replicate Lucas’ formula, but use the wrong proportions of watermelon seed to salt, resulting in a potion which grants him powers similar in strength to Lucas, but somehow twisted and corrupted.

In my casual comment, I had just created Lucas’ archnemesis.

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It is hard being the mother of a mad scientist.

For a variety of reasons, I haven’t done as much cooking recently as I normally do, hence part of the reason I’ve been a bit absent from this blog. Of course, I’ll be making our traditional corned beef and cabbage for dinner tonight, along with boiled potatoes, carrots, and Irish soda bread. We’ll also consume a variety of green foods, which don’t normally occur green in nature.

This smoothie recipe hardly counts as a ‘recipe’ at all. It’s more of a “Hi, I still exist.” This naturally green, healthful potion is bursting with delicious nutrition which may actually induce super powers. Lusciously creamy, I suspect this recipe may produce a fantastic dairy-free iced dessert, if thrown into an ice cream maker. I foresee an experiment in our future.

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Disclaimer: No animals were harmed in the concocting of this smoothie.

Creamy Non-Dairy Tropical Smoothie

Ingredients

  • 2 ripe avocados
  • 2 ripe mangos
  • 2 ripe bananas
  • 1 1/2 cups coconut water
  • Juice of 1 lime

Directions

Scoop out the flesh of the avocados and mangos. Chop the bananas into chunks. Blend all ingredients in a blender or food processor, until smooth. Enjoy immediately, or chilled.

*A squirt of lime juice over the top of the smoothie will prevent the avocado from browning.

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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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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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Cranberry Mango Sauce

My five year old has discovered my kryptonite…

You see, when bedtime arrives, Liam will begin spewing an endless stream of stories and questions in an attempt to delay the inevitable lights out. It’s his routine. He speaks so fast you may imagine he’s in training for a career in auctioneering. Math facts, dinosaur facts, sight words, stories about school, menu planning, favorite mythical creatures… The only escape is fast and brutal, even as he’s mid-sentence talking about the cunning swiftness of the velociraptor.

Good night. I love you. Lights out. 

Reindeer Liam

But the clever bugger has picked up on something… I can’t leave if he’s talking about God. I’m physically incapable of it. What am I, some sort of monster?!? Stop talking about God. Mommy needs to go downstairs and drink my wine! No, I can’t turn the lights out and walk away when the kid starts talking about God or heaven or angels or prayer. And the little stinker has figured it out.

So, when he senses that I’m about to put a quick kibosh on the nighttime story telling, he doesn’t miss a beat. Without even pausing for a breath, he slides right into the God talk. Questions and stories and ideas. It’s endearing. And also manipulative. Amongst a million other things, I’m so thankful for that clever kid and the opportunity to talk about important things with him, like dinosaurs, three-headed dogs, and God.

The countdown to Thanksgiving is on. If you’re hosting, it’s likely you’ve already started the preparations. I beat the Thanksgiving mayhem at my grocery store, by completing most of my shopping early yesterday morning. Just a few fresh items to pick up tomorrow and we’ll be set for a grand feast.

And this morning I started the cooking with this cranberry mango sauce; a unique twist on the ubiquitous cranberry condiment which graces most dining tables come Thanksgiving. For years, I’ve been making a cranberry orange sauce, which we’ve always enjoyed. But this year, I had mangos on my mind. I’d imagined that the mellow sweetness of a mango would be the perfect match for the cranberries’ tart bitterness. I was correct. The smooth mango puree wraps itself around the sharp flavor of the cranberries and gives the dish a satisfying flavor which will pair perfectly with that golden turkey.

Today’s Focus on Technique – Thanksgiving Turkey Safety

Send your guests home on Thanksgiving with a full, satisfied belly. Don’t send them home with food poisoning. Here are a few tips for safely preparing, serving, and storing the star of the show.

  • The safest way to thaw a frozen turkey is in the refrigerator. This technique can take 1-3 days for a small turkey or 5-6 days for a large turkey, so plan ahead. Turkeys that are defrosted in the fridge can be held in the refrigerator for a couple days before roasting.
  • A faster way to safely defrost a turkey is in a large pot of cold water. Wrap the turkey securely, then submerge completely in cold water. Change the water every 30 minutes or so, so that it remains cold throughout the defrosting process. Cook the turkey soon after it is defrosted. This process can take a few hours for a small turkey or up to 10-12 hours for a large turkey.
  • The microwave is another option for safely defrosting a turkey, assuming you can fit your turkey in your microwave. To prevent bacteria from multiplying, turkey which has been defrosted in the microwave should be cooked immediately following. Do not refrigerate or freeze it once it has been defrosted.
  • Never, ever, never defrost a turkey sitting on a counter at room temperature. The outside will defrost much faster than the interior, creating a perfect breeding ground for bacteria. Yuck!
  • Cook your turkey at a minimum temperature of 325 degrees. Any lower could result in the center of the turkey sitting at an unsafe temperature for too long during the cooking process.
  • Consider not stuffing your turkey. To be safe, every part of the turkey, including the stuffing, needs to reach 165 degrees. It can take a very long time for the stuffing to reach this safe temperature, since airflow is restricted within the turkey cavity. This usually means that you will need to continue cooking the turkey beyond the point that the turkey has reached a safe temperature, meaning an overcooked turkey.
  • If you do decide to stuff your turkey, stuff it loosely and use a food thermometer to check that it has reached at least 165 degrees before serving.
  • Use a food thermometer, inserted into the meatiest part of the breast and the innermost part of the thigh and wing, to check for doneness. Turkey is safely cooked at 165 degrees.
  • Do not allow your cooked turkey to sit at room temperature for longer than 2 hours. Get those leftovers in the refrigerator promptly, so you can safely enjoy all of those turkey salad and open-faced turkey sandwiches smothered with gravy!
  • Enjoy your leftover turkey, hot or cold, within 3-4 days.

*Check out the USDA website for more information about turkey safety, including time estimates for safely defrosting and cooking that big bird!

Cranberry Mango Sauce

Ingredients

  • 1 12-ounce bag fresh cranberries
  • 2/3 cup sugar
  • 1 ripe mango, pureed*
  • 1/3 cup water
  • 1 teaspoon orange zest
  • 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/8 teaspoon ginger

*See my photo guide on how to chop a mango HERE.

Directions

Rinse cranberries and remove any stems or overly mushy berries. Combine all ingredients in a saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a simmer. Lower heat and continue simmering for 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until all cranberries have popped and the mixture has thickened. Remove from the heat and cool completely before serving.

Spiced Mango Upside Down Cake

When I think of mangos, my first thoughts are of tropical flavors. I’m pretty sure the mango belongs somewhere in that song with the lime and the coconut. I think of seafood and summery flavors, like fish tacos and spicy mango salsa (with mango margaritas on the side). I think of mango creamsicle smoothies, chilled mango cucumber soups, or even barbecue bacon mango pizzas. It’s certainly never occurred to me to combine mango with the aromatic spices of the holiday season, like cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, or cloves.

So, when the National Mango Board offered to send me a sampling of mangos along with some ideas for pairing mangos with festive holiday flavors, my interest was piqued. I accepted their offer, eager for the opportunity to experiment with one of my favorite fruits in a novel way.

The shipment of perfectly ripe mangos arrived last week. Along with the selection of vibrant mangos, the National Mango Board provided a sampling of seasonal spices and a few recipe cards for inspiration. One of those recipe cards grabbed my attention in a way I couldn’t resist; Mango Upside Down Cake.

This festive spiced mango upside down cake is a definite keeper. The cake is moist and flavorful with a satisfying texture, the result of folding beaten egg whites into the batter; an extra step worth taking. And I’m fairly certain I could be happy eating nothing but the tender mango and caramelized top of this cake for the rest of my life. Seriously, the gooey top layer of this cake is something that epic poems should be written about.

This cake would work well any time of year, though I think it would be make a perfect addition to any Thanksgiving or Christmas dessert spread. The glazed top and artful mango star make it truly show-stopping and worthy of the festive season!

Today’s Focus on Technique – Folding in Egg Whites

Beaten egg whites can be folded into a variety of dishes, such as cake, mousse, souffle, and waffles for a lighter, fluffier result. The goal of folding in the egg whites, as compared to just stirring them in, is to maintain as much of the air, which has been beaten into the egg whites, as possible.

To begin, start by carefully separating the yolks from the whites, taking care not to allow any yolk to mix with the whites. (This can prevent the egg whites from getting properly light and fluffy.) Beat the egg whites using an electric mixer at medium/medium-high speed until soft peaks form. To incorporate the egg whites into your batter, start by adding about 1/3 of the beaten egg whites. Holding your spatula in an almost horizontal position, gently turn the mixture over the egg whites until the egg whites are incorporated. (This first 1/3 helps to lighten the batter, making it easier to incorporate the remaining 2/3). Add another 1/3 of the mixture, gently lifting and turning the batter over the egg whites. Add the remaining 1/3 of the egg whites, using the same gentle lifting and turning maneuver, just until the egg whites are blended and no longer. Over-mixing the egg whites into the batter will diminish the lightening effect of the beaten egg whites.

Spiced Mango Upside Down Cake

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 sticks (12 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened (divided)
  • 1/2 cup light brown sugar
  • 1 large mango, peeled, pitted and sliced ¼-inch thick
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/4 teaspoon ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon orange zest
  • 3 eggs, separated
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/3 cup mango nectar or mango puree
  • 1/3 cup milk

Directions

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-inch round cake pan, set aside.

In small saucepan, melt ½ stick of butter and stir in brown sugar, simmer for about 2 minutes. Pour mixture into prepared cake pan and top with sliced mango, creating a circular fan pattern.

In medium bowl, stir  together flour, baking powder, salt, cloves, and cinnamon. Set aside.

In another bowl, using an electric mixer, beat remaining 1 stick softened butter, granulated sugar and orange zest on high until pale yellow and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Add whole egg yolks, one at a time until well blended. Add vanilla. Decrease speed to low and add half of flour mixture. Mix in mango nectar (or mango puree) and milk and then remaining flour mixture.

In another bowl, beat egg whites until soft peaks form. Fold one third of the egg whites into the batter. Repeat with another third of the egg whites. Finally, fold the remaining third of egg whites into the batter, taking care not to over-mix.

Carefully pour cake batter over mangos, spreading evenly. Bake for about an hour, or until toothpick inserted into center of cake comes out clean. Cool in pan for 15 minutes then invert cake onto plate. Cool completely.

Garnish with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream and candied orange peel, if desired.

*Recipe slightly modified from the one provided by the National Mango Board

The National Mango Board provided me with a box of mangos and sampling of spices, which I used to prepare this recipe.

Bacon-Wrapped Dates Stuffed with Bleu Cheese

A few weeks ago, my five year old comes out of the dining room holding a little recipe book of cocktails, which he found while rummaging through a drawer in the hutch…the hutch that he’s not supposed to be in, but that’s another story entirely. Liam was holding this little black book of beverages with a page open to a generic looking bit of cocktail clip art. The recipe on the page was for kir royales. Something about the name rang a bell, but I couldn’t have told you what sort of drink a kir royale was. My best guess would have involved whiskey, which isn’t really my thing.

I began uttering my normal line of questioning. Where’d you get that? Why are in the hutch? What other sorts of mischief are you doing in there? But, Liam interrupted me, “I think you should invite some of your friends over for your birthday and make them these drinks”. I smiled briefly, because he’s sweet to think up plans for my birthday. Then I took another glance at that kir royale recipe. Turns out that kir royales are a champagne cocktail, champagne mixed with a bit of creme de cassis (blackcurrant liqueur).

Visions of champagne cocktails, wine, and cheese began dancing in my head. I mean, is there any more heavenly combination than wine and cheese? Wine, cheese, and chocolate, perhaps??

Did you know that 1/3 of all milk produced in the U.S. is used to make cheese?? We certainly love our cheese in this country! During my recent farm-to-table dairy-themed getaway, hosted by the American Dairy Association and Dairy Council, we had the opportunity to enjoy some of that delicious cheese in combination with some of New York’s tastiest wines.

After we returned from our morning at a local dairy farm, we were given a chance to clean off the eau de cow and change out of our farm attire. The group reunited at the New York Wine and Culinary Center, conveniently located next door to our accommodations at The Inn on the Lake in Canandaigua, NY. The New York Wine and Culinary Center is a really neat place. In addition to a bistro which showcases local ingredients, they have a wine tasting room where you can sample wines from all five of New York’s wine regions, a hands-on kitchen where they offer cooking classes, and an educational amphitheater for demonstration dinners.

New York Wine and Culinary Center

We began our experience in a private tasting room, where a personable wine instructor introduced us to the basics of wine tasting as we sampled a fantastic flight of New York wines. Then they brought out the cheese plate, a perfect way to make the farm to table connection during our dairy-themed adventure. We tasted each cheese on its own, then experimented with pairing each cheese with the variety of wines. Play with my food? Yes, please.

Following the wine and cheese tasting, we moved into the amphitheater, where a chef prepared a three-course meal before our eyes. We enjoyed ricotta and pancetta ravioli in a delicious cream sauce, bleu cheese port wine crusted beef tenderloin over root vegetables in a red wine reduction, and chocolate amaretto crème brûleé. Each course was perfectly paired with another New York wine. Wine, cheese, steak, and chocolate… I’d died and done to gastronomical heaven.

When I returned from my little dairy getaway, feeling fully inspired by cheese and wine, I began planning my kir royale birthday celebration. Pumped up with New York agricultural pride, I selected a few bottles of New York champagne. Then I set about planning the cheese selection…a little pepperjack and NY cheddar with crackers, some baked brie with marmalade on crostini, and a few simple bacon-wrapped, bleu cheese-stuffed dates. Liam was feeling pretty impressed with himself as he watched his brilliant idea become reality. I just barely caught him trying to sneak the cocktail recipe book into his backpack for kindergarten show and tell.

Focus on Technique – Entertaining with Cheese

Entertaining with a cheese-themed spread is effortlessly elegant and delicious.

A few tips for entertaining with cheese:

  • Keep it simple. Cheese has a way of speaking for itself.
  • Choose a variety of mild and pungent cheeses to please everyone’s palate. Try to serve a mix of aged (aged cheddar, gouda…), fresh (fresh mozzarella, chevre…), firm (provolone, monterey jack, gruyere, emmentaler…) and soft cheese (camembert, brie…). A creamy bleu cheese (stilton, gorgonzola, roquefort, maytag…) or spreadable port wine are other popular favorites.
  • Garnish your cheese plates with a variety of fresh and dried fruits, honey, nuts, and/or cured meats. Fresh mozzarella pleases the eyes and the taste buds when arranged on a platter with sliced tomatoes, fresh basil leaves, and a drizzle of balsamic vinaigrette or basil pesto.
  • Serve the cheese with an attractive variety of crackers, baguette slices, and crostini.
  • Consider serving a few warm cheese dishes, such as a cheese dip, baked brie wrapped in puff pastry, or the bacon-wrapped stuffed dates featured in this post. All of these items can be prepared ahead of time and simply thrown in the oven when your guests arrive.
  • Serve with a selection of wine and have fun experimenting with the way each wine and cheese complements each other.

*** Don’t forget to enter the dairy themed giveaway! You have until noon on Saturday, November 3. To enter, simply leave a comment on the Delicious Dairy Round-Up post. I’ll assign each comment a number, then use a random number generator to pick a winner. Lots of cute stuff in that gift bag. Check it out HERE

Bacon-Wrapped Dates Stuffed with Bleu Cheese

Ingredients

  • 24 pitted dates
  • 2-3 ounces bleu cheese
  • 8-12 slices bacon

Directions

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Stuffed a bit of bleu cheese into the center of each date. Cut the bacon slices in half or thirds, depending on the length. Wrap a piece of bacon around each date, so it overlaps just slightly. Secure the bacon with a toothpick, then place on a baking sheet. Bake for approximately 20 minutes, until the bacon is cooked and crisp. Drain on a paper towel. Serve warm.

Birthday Kir Royales

Caramel Apple Tartlets

I had a little mommy meltdown yesterday. It was very unpretty…crying, rocking, gasping for the air which seemed to be sucked from the room. And over what? I don’t even know. Nothing even worth writing about. Stupid, every day, normal stuff…just too much of it. Fighting with an uncooperative vacuum while trying to banish the tumbleweeds of dog hair from our living room was the little thing that sent me over the edge. So silly. And yet in the moment it felt like the world was caving in on me. To an objective observer, I probably looked pretty ridiculous, throwing myself down onto the ground and mumbling under my breath as I cried, while my inner voice tried to coach myself to pull it together and act like a grown-up. But for me the feeling was crushing. Sometimes day-to-day life is just overwhelming.

Sadly, the kids witnessed my little meltdown, and I can only imagine how scary and unsettling that must have been for them. In the moment, rational mommy (as compared to crazy lump of tears mommy) told them I loved them and explained that I was just stressed and needed to cool down for a minute. Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to get that minute of serenity in a house with three young boys. Eventually, I stopped fighting with the vacuum, collapsed against one of the toy boxes and closed my eyes for a second.

And then the most beautiful thing happened. I opened my eyes and my precious 17 month old was sitting in front of me, completely silent. He sat facing me, knees bent, feet together, so that his entire little body was nestled within my own bent legs. And he just smiled. Silently, calmly smiled. I kissed his forehead. He smiled and leaned forward to rest his head against my chest. He stayed like that for what felt like a perfect eternity. I inhaled his sweet baby hair as I felt my heart rate slowly returning to normal. Eventually he turned around so that he was leaning against me, holding my hand as it rested on his little belly. And he stayed like that until his daddy arrived home from work. He greeted his daddy, then returned to sit by my broken side, smushed up against me with a perfect grin on his face. He was like a tiny, precious bomb defuser.

Such perfect, simple love…and trust. He saw me torn apart and irrational. If it were me, I would have run from that crazy woman. But he came straight to me. As close as he could get to me. Confident that his presence would fix me. How in the world did I get so lucky??

These drool-worthy caramel apple tartlets are bursting with flavors as uncomplicated and confident as my sweet little man’s love. We baked them using fresh-picked apples from our favorite local orchard. Though the apple crops up here were hit hard by an early spring bloom followed by a bloom-killing frost, the kids got every bit of fun out of filling buckets of unusually small apples. I made these tartlets using store-bought puff pastry and caramel sauce for time-saving convenience. The end result is still dripping in homemade yumminess.

Focus on Technique – Puff Pastry

Puff pastry is a rich and flakey pastry made by repeatedly folding and rolling generous quantities of butter into the dough, resulting in puffy, delicate layers when baked. It’s a manageable and fun thing to make at home (and will totally wow your guests), but takes a few hours of repeatedly rolling and chilling to be made properly. When ease is the name of the game, store-bought puff pastry provides great results with great convenience. It can be used to make decadent savory appetizers, like warm pastry-wrapped brie or sweet treats like these caramel apple tartlets. Check your grocery store’s frozen section, near the frozen pie shells for boxes of puff pastry sheets. Always defrost the sheets according the package directions and lightly sprinkle your clean work surface with flour before rolling.

Easy Caramel Apple Tartlets

Ingredients

  • 1 sheet puff pastry, defrosted
  • 2 large apples (or 4 teeny-tiny ones), very thinly sliced
  • 4-5 tablespoons caramel sauce, store-bought or homemade
  • 1 egg white
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Directions

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Spray a baking sheet with nonstick cooking spray. Lightly sprinkle a clean work surface with a bit of flour to prevent sticking, then roll the sheet of puff pastry into a square, about 12″ wide. Cut the square into four 6″ squares. Place the squares on the prepared baking sheet. Spread about 1 tablespoon of caramel sauce into the center of each pastry. Arrange a layer of thinly sliced apples on top of the caramel. Then, pull each of the four corners over the apples, slightly twisting each point so that the corners meet in a sort of pinwheel design revealing four pockets of the caramel and apples. Gently press the points together with your fingers to hold them together. Brush each pastry with some of the egg white. Combine the sugar and cinnamon and sprinkle over each pastry. Bake for about 20 minutes, until puffed and golden.

Enjoy hot out of the oven or at room temperature.

Makes 4 Individual Tartlets

Chilled Mango Cucumber Gazpacho

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This past weekend, I had the pleasure of escaping with my husband to the most charming little place in the Catskills. We’d gone to celebrate the first wedding anniversary of my husband’s beautiful sister at the location she and her husband eloped to last August. Dear old friends, family, and new friends gathered at The Roxbury Motel for a truly blissful weekend.

Grounds of The Roxbury Motel in Roxbury, NY

This place is a polished gem with so many facets that you can’t help but gasp as you view each new angle. It’s hard to put into words and pictures don’t do it justice. It’s just magical. Every space on the property has been tended to with the same special care a momma gives her baby. You can feel the love in every unique little detail. During our time there, we encountered a family with two small children, a group of four women celebrating a bachelorette weekend, a couple on a romantic getaway, and a pair of outdoor sports enthusiasts. Oddly, The Roxbury Motel provides the perfect accommodations for each of these occasions. It’s definitely a special place.

The ‘Maria’s Curtains’ room in The Roxbury Motel

My husband and I stayed in the room which is called ‘Maria’s Curtains’…as in the Maria from The Sound of Music and the curtains she used to create play clothes for the von Trapp children. Our room was swimming in the curtain’s pattern, from the bedding to the hand stenciling which crossed from the walls to the ceiling, to the custom tiling around the massive soaking tub. The lamps were made of brown paper packages tied up with strings. And two fantastically tiny, bright copper kettles sat on a small corner table. I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t spend half of the weekend singing My Favorite Things in my ridiculously out-of-tune voice.

We stayed up too late laughing with friends, old and new. We had massages. We soaked in the spa’s hot tub. We drank champagne. And we dined at an amazing little restaurant, called the Peekamoose. The Peekamoose prides itself on its use of locally grown, seasonal ingredients with a menu which changes based on the day’s freshest available foods. Their execution is flawless in every way. I enjoyed a peppery arugula salad tossed in a light vinaigrette with fresh peaches, chevre, and toasted pine nuts, followed by tender goat cheese gnocchi and then the most decadent slow-cooked braised short ribs in a truffled bordelaise sauce. It was an amazing meal.

Exterior of the Peekamoose Restaurant in Big Indian, NY

My husband enjoyed the same selections, with the exception of the first course. For his first course, he selected the chilled watermelon gazpacho. (I stole a taste, of course.) And when we arrived back home to find a box full of the most beautiful, perfectly ripe mangos on my doorstep (courtesy of the National Mango Board), I was instantly inspired. Mango gazpacho.

Traditionally, gazpacho is a chilled tomato-based soup accented with cucumbers, onion, and peppers. But, inspired by the sweet and savory watermelon gazpacho at Peekamoose and the box full of gorgeous mangos on my doorstep, I came up with this refreshing (and quite mangolicious) variation.

Somebody couldn’t stay away from the mangos…

Mangos are just so perfectly versatile. They’re sweet, smooth, and bursting with fiber and vitamin C. Everyone in our family loves their flavor and I always feel good about feeding my family fresh, nutritious foods. When selecting mangos, focus more on the feel of the fruit, than the color. A ripe mango will feel slightly soft, like a peach. If your mangos are not quite ripe, store them on your countertop for a few days. Placing them in a brown paper bag can help speed the ripening process. Once they are ripe, you can store them in the fridge for up to five days. For a photo guide on how to cut mangos, check out my mango guide HERE or stop by www.mango.org for more tips and delicious mango recipes.

Apparently, I was taking too long to cut the mangos.

This smooth, chilled soup makes a refreshing first course during a summer meal or an eager partner to a nice fresh salad. Sweet mango provides the main flavor base, combined with a bit of creamy Greek yogurt and vegetable broth. Fresh cucumber, added to both the soup and the garnish lends a cool, crisp flavor. We tend to like things spicy around here, but you can easily adjust the spiciness to your family’s liking by increasing or decreasing the cayenne and jalapeño pepper in the recipe.

Chilled Mango Cucumber Gazpacho

Ingredients

  • 4-5 large mangos, skin and pit removed, cut into chunks*
  • 1 (6-ounce) container plain Greek yogurt
  • 1 (15-ounce) can vegetable broth
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons lemon juice
  • 3″ segment seedless cucumber, peeled and chopped
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper (plus more if desired)

For the garnish

  • 6″ segment of seedless cucumber, finely diced
  • 1 jalapeño pepper, ribs and seeds removed, finely diced
  • 1 shallot, finely diced
  • 1 teaspoon lime juice
  • Basil oil, optional

*Click HERE for a photo guide on how to cut a mango.

Directions

Place the mango chunks in a blender. Blend until smooth. (You should have about 3 1/2 cups of mango puree.) Add the cucumber, vegetable broth, lemon juice, and yogurt. Blend until smooth. Add salt and cayenne pepper, as desired. Refrigerate until chilled.

For the garnish, combine the cucumber, jalapeño pepper, and shallot with the lime juice. Refrigerate until serving.

For the optional basil oil, blend about 1/2 cup fresh basil leaves with abut 1/4 cup of olive oil, then strain through a fine sieve or a piece of cheesecloth to remove large chunks of basil.

Strawberry Banana Bread

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Back in what feels like another lifetime, I was a second grade teacher. One portion of our daily routine included an activity we called Writers’ Workshop. It was a time of the day devoted towards writing, where my students could work independently or collaboratively on various forms of written expression. While they worked, I’d meet with individual students to help walk them through the editing process, while weaving lessons about writing technique, language, and grammar into our little discussions. Some students worked on personal narratives, others on poetry, and others on persuasive writing.

Strawberry Banana Bread Attempt #1 – with freeze-dried strawberries

And then there was the group of boys who’d formed a rock band and spent their time during writers’ workshop writing song lyrics. Now, this rock band was no casual arrangement. Though not a one of them played a musical instrument, they took the idea of their band quite seriously. These boys waited all day to work on their writing. They put careful thought into their choice of words and worked cooperatively to fine tune their performance. I was feeling like a pretty awesome teacher for being able to get my students so actively engaged in the writing process and so motivated to develop their writing skills. And that’s right about went things went sour with the band.

Strawberry Banana Bread Attempt #2 – with strawberry glaze swirl on the top

You see, ‘Diego’ kicked ‘Joshua’ out of the band. It had something to do with not fully committing to his dance moves. Seriously. Joshua was crushed. ‘Willis’ tried to remain neutral, but it was clear that he was also  unimpressed by Joshua’s moves. I intervened and brought peace back to the band long enough for them to perform the song they’d been working so hard at.

It went something like this…

Oh, when am I gonna be a man?

I wanna be a man!

I’m gonna get a wallet.

I’m gonna go to the gym.

Ooo, when am I gonna be a man?

It was sort of a rap song. And clearly very revealing about a second grader’s perspective on what makes a man…gym memberships and wallets. Of course.

Strawberry Banana Bread Attempt #3 – invisible strawberry glaze swirl throughout the bread

I was reminded of this memory when I walked into my living room to find my 5 year old giving my 3 year old lessons on how to be a man. They were as serious about these lessons as my former students were about their rock band. The lessons involved such behaviors as hopping on one foot, not crying, and toasting blueberry waffles. All very important man behaviors, for sure.

Kids are funny. They’re constantly trying to make sense of their little worlds and every so often, they give us a peak into the carnival of their little brains. Like this morning, on our walk back from the grocery store, when we passed an empty bottle on the side of the road.

That’s weird, commented my 5 year old.

I bet it was a man sitting by the road singing a song who left it there, replied my 3 year old. (A hobo with a handkerchief on a stick, perhaps?)

What was he singing, I asked.

Yankee Doodle, replied my 5 year old confidently.

No, my 3 year old adamantly intervened. I think he was singing Nowhere Man. 

I will bake five dozen cookies for any hobo with a bindle, singing Nowhere Man, on Blueberry Lane.

Strawberry Banana Bread Attempt #4 – with fresh strawberry puree and dried strawberries

But we hadn’t gone to the grocery store to buy cookie ingredients. We were picking up fresh strawberries and bananas for this Strawberry Banana Bread. This recipe is the result of not one, not two, not three, but four attempts. (We’ve been eating a lot of banana bread around here.) Every batch was delicious in its own right. But, it wasn’t until the fourth batch that I nailed what I’d been trying to accomplish.

Doesn’t seem like making a loaf of strawberry banana bread should be such an issue, right? But here’s the problem…when baked, strawberries become undesirably mushy. So, in my first attempt, I tried incorporating freeze-dried strawberries to conquer the mushy dilemma. The result was acceptable. The freeze-dried strawberries rehydrated during baking, but there wasn’t enough strawberry flavor throughout the loaf. So, on attempts two and three, I made a strawberry glaze, which I attempted to swirl throughout the loaf using two different techniques. But, the banana bread was too dense to produce my intended result. Both of those loaves came out fantastically sweet and moist with a lovely caramelized crust, but I still wasn’t satisfied. On my final attempt, I had the epiphany that I could puree fresh strawberries to replace all of the water and part of the vegetable oil in my normal banana bread recipe. This had the double effect of dispersing the sweet strawberry flavor throughout the bread as well as slightly lightening the recipe. Chopped dried strawberries lend additional strawberry flavor and a nice variety of texture to the loaf.

Strawberries and bananas are a classic flavor combination. And they’ve never been better combined than in this twist on banana bread. This is more than just a banana bread with a few strawberries mixed in. This bread pays equal homage to both the strawberries and the bananas. Definitely worth the four attempts it took to come around to this recipe!

Strawberry Banana Bread

Ingredients

  • 1 3/4 cup flour
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup pureed strawberries
  • 1/3 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 cup mashed ripe bananas
  • 3/4 cup dried strawberries, chopped

Directions

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray a loaf pan with baking spray.

In a large bowl, combine the flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Add the vegetable oil, pureed strawberries, vanilla, and eggs. Stir until well combined. Add the mashed banana and dried strawberries. Stir until well blended. Pour the banana bread mixture into the prepared pan.

Bake for 60-70 minutes.

Grilled Peach and Prosciutto Salad with Creamy BBQ Dressing

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There’s a little angel who lives on one of my shoulders, whispering, Be a good girl, Amy. Eat the apple instead of the brownie. Put down that fifth glass of wine. Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels. 

There’s a little devil on the other shoulder. He woos me with sexy little suggestions like, Come on, Amy…life’s too short to not enjoy delicious food. You’re not that much overweight. That chocolate will taste even better than skinny will feel. And wine is good for you…scientists say so. Trust me. Trust me. 

I was never ‘overweight’ until I had my babies. As a child, I was one of those featherweight gals who could scarf down remarkable quantities of lemon Italian ices, yodels, and meatball subs without a care. My hunger was infinite. In high school, I gained height without weight and bordered on scrawny. I sobbed like there was no tomorrow over my flat-chested fate. In college, I quickly gained the freshman fifteen (or twenty) on a diet of pizza, beer and Lucky Charms. It filled me out and gave me the curves I’d craved so badly in my youth. I slimmed down by the end of my college days. From there on out, I maintained a healthy weight, with barely an effort. I haven’t been ‘skinny’ since my high school days. But I was healthy and trim.

And then I had my boys. I gained a little more than I should have with each pregnancy. I lost most of the weight between pregnancies with a bit of discipline, but still started each pregnancy five pounds heavier than the one before. And now, here I sit, over a year after the birth of my third son, still struggling to get my weight down. It’s been harder this time. I’m not that far out of a healthy weight range for my height, but those pounds make a difference.

I started this year pumped full of motivation to lose the baby weight, just like millions of others who make grand new year resolutions and swear they’ll stick with them. I actually had a really successful start and quickly lost 15 or so pounds early in the year. And then I got lax and the number on the scale started creeping up again. I’ve been playing the yo-yo game ever since. Lose a few, gain a few, lose a few, gain a few. Lather, rinse and repeat. It would be so much easier if I didn’t love food so darn much!

The funny thing about those little guys on my shoulders is that, in my mind, the angel is blissfully plump. The devil is thin and decrepit. I secretly think that the angel wants me to enjoy the chocolate. He wants me to enjoy the beautiful world of delicious food…just in moderation, of course.

Thankfully, there’s no shortage of drool-worthy food out there which can still be enjoyed within the framework of wanting to shed a few pounds. And there’s no better time than the summer, when produce is at its peak and the hot weather naturally inclines us to eat lighter, to achieve those healthful goals. Take advantage of the season’s bounty to enjoy fresh salads full of vibrant summer flavors, like this grilled peach and prosciutto salad in a creamy barbecue-inspired dressing. Ripe peaches, at their summer best, get grilled to bring out even more of their natural sweetness. Combine that with crisp red onion slices, savory prosciutto, and salty gorgonzola, drizzled with a slightly-spicy BBQ dressing, and you’ll be singing summer’s praises.

Grilled Peach and Prosciutto Salad with Creamy BBQ Dressing

Ingredients

  • 3 peaches, sliced
  • 8 slices prosciutto, chopped
  • 1/2 red onion, very thinly sliced
  • 8 cups mixed spring greens
  • 3/4 cup gorgonzola cheese, crumbled
  • Vegetable oil, for rubbing the grill

For the Creamy BBQ Dressing:

  • 1/3 cup ketchup
  • 1/4 cup mayonaisse
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon dijon mustard
  • 1 tablespoon worcestershire sauce
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
  • 1/4 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Directions

Wipe your grill with a bit of vegetable oil to help prevent sticking. Preheat the grill at medium heat. Place the peach slices on the preheated grill and cook for a couple minutes on each side, until tender. (The peaches can be used hot off the grill or chilled.)

To prepare the dressing, stir the ketchup, mayo, brown sugar, mustard, worcestershire sauce, vinegar, onion powder, and cayenne pepper together until smooth. Refrigerate until using.

To assemble the salad, place about 2 cups of the spring greens on each plate. Scatter the onion slices over the greens. Arrange the peaches in the center. Top with the prosciutto and gorgonzola. Drizzle with the dressing.

Makes 4 Entree-Sized Salads

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