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Peppermint Mocha Cakes

Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat…

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

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

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Gifts marked for the exchange

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

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Brothers

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

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Peppermint Mocha Cakes

Ingredients

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

For the coffee glaze:

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

Directions

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

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

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

Makes 12 mini-bundt cakes or 1 large bundt cake

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Triple Ginger Cookies and Holiday Sangria

This past weekend, I hosted my third annual cookie exchange party. Cookie party, for me, is quite simply an excuse to have a bunch of my friends over to my festively adorned house, so we can indulge in afternoon cocktails and eat cookies.

We eat cheese. We drink holiday sangria, pomegranate champagne cocktails, and cocoa. We trade cookies. The kids make holiday crafts. Everyone has grand time.

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This year’s party was apparently so grand and inviting, that perfect strangers decided to join us.

No joke.

My cookie party got crashed by three women wearing Santa hats.

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They walked up our driveway, let themselves in through the front door, sat on our stairs to remove their winter boots, coats, and hats, then proceeded to walk through the house in search of someone they knew.

One of my friends alerted me to the presence of my new guests, who were wandering my house at that very moment. I ran to my husband to find out what to do.

We were just about to greet our new guests as they walked into the living room and realized their mistake.

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One woman, who appeared to be the mother of the other two, mumbled an embarrassed apology, then made a hasty exit. The other two women sat on the stairs while they laced up what seemed like the tallest winter boots in creation. They then chased after their mom, who was already in her car driving down the road in search of their intended party.

Had it been me, standing there, eating a piece of cheese in the living room of a complete stranger, surrounded by that stranger’s family and friends, I would have run out of that house barefoot, into the foot and a half of snow on the ground.

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Had they brought cookies to share, I would have eagerly encouraged them to stay. But, as I always say, every time someone crashes my cookie party… No cookies? No cocktails!

Next year, I’m hiring a cookie bouncer for my party.

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These spicy, triple-ginger cookies were my contribution to the cookie buffet. They’re sweet and chewy and oozing with gingery flavor. The holiday sangria, which follows, is accented with festive flavors of orange, ginger, cinnamon, and pomegranate.

You’d have crashed my cookie party too, if you knew these cookies and sangria were waiting inside.

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Triple Ginger Cookies

Ingredients

  • 1 3/4 cups sugar
  • 1 cup vegetable oil
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup molasses
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 2 teaspoons ground ginger
  • 1 tablespoon fresh ginger, grated
  •  1 2-ounce bottle crystallized ginger, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 4 cups flour

Directions

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix sugar, eggs, and oil. Add the remaining ingredients and stir until well blended. Roll into 1″ balls. Arrange the balls about 1 1/2″ apart on a baking sheet. Bake for 8-10 minutes, until crackles form on the top. Remove the cookies from the oven, then give the baking sheet a little whack on the counter to flatten the cookies.

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Holiday Sangria

Ingredients

  • 1.5 liter bottle of sweet red wine (I used Sutter Home’s Sweet Red Wine)
  • 1/2 cup triple sec
  • 1/2 cup orange juice
  • 1 cup ginger ale
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1 pear, chopped
  • 1 pomegrante
  • 1 orange

Directions

Combine the wine, triple sec, orange juice, and ginger ale. Add the cinnamon stick and the chopped pear. Remove the arils from the pomegranate and add to the mixture. Remove the orange segments from the orange, chop into small pieces and add to the mixture. Remove the white pith from the orange peel, then slice the peel into small slivers. Add to the sangria. Chill and enjoy.

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Rainbow Cookie Cake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rainbow Cookie Cake

Ingredients

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

Directions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thanksgiving Menu Ideas

Hey, folks…

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

~Amy

APPETIZERS

Cranberry Chipotle Meatballs

Corn and Bacon Fritters with Smoked Salmon

Bacon-Wrapped Dates stuffed with Bleu Cheese

THE MAIN EVENT

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

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

Spiced Sweet Potato Puree with Pecan Streusel

Sausage, Apple, and Leek Stuffing

Cranberry-Orange Sauce

Green Beans Almondine

Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Bacon and Walnuts

Hot Doughy Buns

DESSERTS

Chocolate Pecan Pie

Pumpkin Coconut Pie

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

Caramel Apple Cake

Turkey-Shaped Sugar Cookies

Caramel Apple Tartlets

Spiced Mango Upside Down Cake

Cannoli Cheesecake

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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Treat Your Valentine

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

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

Breakfast

Super Simple: Strawberry and Nutella Stuffed French Toast

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A Bit More Complex: Cinnamon Raisin Donut Bread Pudding

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Manageably Elaborate: Eggs Benedict

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Lunch

Super Simple: Sausage, Bean, and Rapini Soup

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A Bit More Complex: Smoked Salmon and Cucumber Salad

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Manageably Elaborate: Quiche Lorraine

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Dinner

Super Simple: Penne a la Vodka

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A Bit More Complex: Pork Chops with Fontina and Marsala

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

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Dessert

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

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A Bit More Complex: Chocolate Raspberry Torte

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Manageably Elaborate: Fresh Berry Mousse with Vanilla Panna Cotta

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Cherry Cordial Brownie Bites

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

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Just look at that face!

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

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

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

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

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

Today’s Focus on Technique – Using a Double Boiler

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

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

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Cherry Cordial Brownie Bites

Ingredients

For the brownies:

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

For the brownie bites:

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

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

Directions

To prepare the brownies:

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

To prepare the brownie bites:

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

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

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

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

Makes 2.5 – 3 dozen candies

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New Year Bean and Bacon Soup

The afternoon following my last post, I picked the boys up from school, acutely grateful for their safety while we were apart. On the way home, we stopped by the craft store to pick up two spools of a delicate, iridescent ribbon. After completing homework, snack, and our other normal after-school routines, we moved into the living room, where we used the ribbon to tie small bows to the boughs of our Christmas tree; one for each of the victims at Sandy Hook.

I spoke the name of each child and teacher aloud as we wrapped and tied each delicate bow, allowing a moment for their lives to be remembered. As I worked, the boys mostly bounced around the living room in their typical manner, half attending to the names I spoke and half lost in their own important business of being kids. They’d alternate between chat about their Christmas wish lists and comments about how about how they know Dylans and Chases and Jacks and Noahs; friends in their pre-k and kindergarten classes, children not much younger than the Dylan and Chase and Jack and Noah lost at Sandy Hook.

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It was a small thing to tie those little bows, but it felt cathartic to be doing something, anything, to honor those tragically lost lives. The bows remained on our tree as we hosted all varieties of holiday celebrations; a quiet way to keep the suffering Newtown families in our prayers, even as we went about joyously celebrating the holidays.

I retied those bows a hundred times during the few weeks that the tree sat in our living room, each time trying not to become frustrated by the boys’ constant undoing of my work. Instead, I consciously replaced my frustration with appreciation of the fact that I had all my little boys with me to make their special brand of mischief in our home. Those little ribbons shimmered on the lit tree all throughout the holidays. My Liam commented that they reminded him of angels.

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Our holidays were beautiful. We had a revolving houseful of family and friends straight up until New Year’s Day. We enjoyed Dinosaur BBQ takeout on Christmas Eve, our now-traditional beef bourguignon for Christmas dinner, and a plentiful selection of finger foods on New Year’s Eve. I’m talking about mini crab cakes with chipotle remoulade, tiny quiche lorraines in puff pastry, stuffed mushrooms, cheese, and chicken wing dip. For three weeks, our recycling bins overflowed with gift packaging and emptied bottles of wine and champagne; evidence of our prosperity in family, love, and life.

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I was inspired by a friend’s recent comments about bean soup and its symbolism for prosperity in the new year. I must admit that the connection between beans and prosperity was not something I’d been aware of, but the description of her soup had me sold. This incredibly simple soup utilizes canned beans, which makes it super easy to throw together. It’s a hearty, comforting, and delicious way to celebrate the new year. Serve it with a nice, crusty chunk of French bread.

Wishing you all a prosperous 2013!

Focus on Technique – Canned Beans vs. Dried Beans

Both canned and dried beans offer the same high-protein, high-fiber, antioxidant-rich nutrition, which makes them a great addition to any diet. Dried beans offer the advantages of being lower in sodium, free of preservatives, and requiring less space for storage. Additionally, dried beans can be cooked to your personal preference, whereas pre-cooked canned beans come as they are, at the risk of being mushy. The downside of using dried beans is the length of time required for soaking and cooking, which requires advance planning and preparation. If ease and convenience is the name of your game, canned beans are the way to go. (Admittedly, I almost always use canned beans.)

Bean and Bacon Soup

Ingredients

  • 1 pound bacon, chopped
  • 1 small onion, finely diced
  • 1 teaspoon garlic, minced
  • 1 (15-ounce) can kidney beans, drained
  • 1 (15-ounce) can garbanzo beans, drained
  • 1 (15-ounce) can black beans, drained
  • 1 (15-ounce) can cannellini beans, drained
  • 2 (15-ounce) cans chicken broth
  • 1 bag (approximately 4 cups) baby spinach
  • Salt and pepper, to taste

Directions

In a large saucepan, over medium/medium-high heat, cook the bacon until crisp. Remove the cooked bacon with a slotted spoon and set aside. Reduce the heat slightly and add the onion and garlic to the pan. Cook, stirring frequently, for 5-7 minutes, until tender and golden. Carefully drain any leftover bacon grease. Add the beans and chicken broth to the pan, then add the spinach. Cook for a few minutes until the mixture begins to simmer and the spinach has wilted. Return the bacon to the soup. Taste, then season with salt* and pepper, as desired.

*The bacon and beans will both contribute a good amount of salty flavor to the soup. Depending on how salted or unsalted your chicken broth is, you may not need any additional salt. Give the soup a taste before seasoning. I added a little pinch of salt and a good dose of pepper.

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Antipasto Chicken (and the yarn wreath giveaway winner!)

This recipe is born of my Thanksgiving leftovers, though not in the typical turkey soup, casserole, or sandwich sense you may expect. Thanksgiving at my Grammy’s always began with a giant platter of antipasto; all varieties of meat, cheese, and marinated yummies, drizzled with a dressing made from the oils and vinegars which preserved and flavored the veggies. And though I now host my own Thanksgiving feast, a smaller version of that antipasto platter still belongs at my table.

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So, after our Thanksgiving feast, we were left with the expected turkey leftovers, as well as a tasty assortment of salami, provolone, sun-dried tomatoes, and olives. In search of an easy dinner which would put those leftovers to use, I threw them all together in a baking dish with a bit of tomato sauce and a few chicken breasts. It wasn’t a planned blog post. No photos were taken or measurements made. It was just a lazy night’s meal made with leftovers. But the result was so delicious, I had to make it again just to share with you.

The savory antipasto ingredients flavor the tomato base as the dish cooks, creating a rich full-flavored tomato sauce. Nestled in the sauce as it bakes, the chicken remains moist and tender. Super simple for the busy holiday season, yet incredibly flavorful and satisfying!

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Today’s Focus on Technique – Using an Instant Read Meat Thermometer

When cooking meat, it’s important not to rely too heavily on the stated cooking times in any given recipe. Normal variations in actual oven temperatures, along with differences in the weight and dimensions of individual cuts of meat, mean that your meat may cook slower or faster than the stated time in a recipe. To avoid under- or over-cooking meat, your best bet is to use an instant read meat thermometer. It’s one of the most useful kitchen tools you can have on hand. If you don’t already have one, put an instant read meat thermometer on your Christmas list immediately! I use mine almost every day.

Here are a few tips for properly using an instant read meat thermometer:

  • Begin checking the temperature as you approach the expected finish time for your meat (typically a few minutes before the recipe’s stated time for smaller cuts; farther ahead for larger roasts).
  • Remove the meat from the heat before measuring the temperature. Do not measure the temperature while the meat is still in the oven, as the oven heat may skew the results.
  • Insert the thermometer into the center of the thickest part of the meat.
  • Make sure that the thermometer is not poking out the other end or touching bone.
  • Wait for the thermometer to register the temperature. Some thermometers will register the temperature immediately, while some will take a few seconds.
  • According to the USDA, the following are the recommended minimum safe temperatures for various foods:
    • Beef, Pork, Veal, and Lamb (steaks, roasts, and chops) – 145°F
    • Ground meats (this includes hamburger) – 160°F
    • Poultry – 165°F
    • Fish and Shellfish – 145°F
  • Keep your instant read meat thermometer pristinely clean and close at hand!

Antipasto Chicken

Ingredients

  • 1 8-ounce can tomato sauce
  • 1/4 cup tomato paste
  • 1/8 cup parmesan cheese, grated
  • 4 slices salami, chopped
  • 1/2 small onion, finely diced
  • 1 teaspoon garlic, minced
  • 1/4 cup sun-dried tomatoes
  • 1/4 cup olives (any kind), sliced
  • 3-4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
  • Salt and pepper
  • 3-4 slices provolone cheese, chopped

*Marinated mushrooms, spicy peppers, or marinated artichokes would all make delicious additions.

Directions

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

In a baking dish, combine the tomato sauce, tomato paste, parmesan cheese, salami, onion, garlic, sun-dried tomatoes, and olives. Sprinkle the chicken with salt and pepper, then press the chicken breasts into the tomato mixture. Turn once to coat on both sides. Bake for approximately 25-35 minutes*, until cooked through. Turn once, halfway through cooking. Once the chicken is cooked, sprinkle the provolone cheese over the top. Leave in the oven for just a few seconds to melt. *Cooking time will vary depending on the weight and dimensions of your chicken breasts. Use an instant read meat thermometer to determine doneness. Chicken is safely done at 165°F.

Slice and serve over pasta.

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GIVEAWAY WINNER!! We have a winner! Using http://www.random.org to select a number at random, out of the 15 entries received for the yarn wreath gift bag giveaway, the winner is #2 , Jennifer. Congratulations, Jennifer!! I’m going to send you an email at the address provided with your comment to get the information necessary to send you out your prize!! Thank you to everyone who shared their holiday tips and traditions.

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