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Pumpkin Bread Pudding with Cream Cheese Icing

Bread pudding is sort of a strange love of mine. It’s not something I grew up eating. In fact, I don’t think I’d even heard of it until sometime in adulthood when I ran across it on the dessert table at one of my favorite restaurant’s brunch buffets. I was more than apprehensive at first. Soggy bread?? Yuck. And it certainly didn’t look like any ‘pudding’ I’ve ever seen before. No, thank you.

Then, one day (after a few breakfast mimosas) I felt brave. I took a small scoop of that bread pudding. And forevermore wondered why I hadn’t tasted it earlier.

I’ve made a few variations of bread pudding over the past few years, each time trying to determine what it is that makes me love it so darn much. And I finally figured it out… It tastes like french toast; a big scoop of warm, comforting french toast. But the thing which makes it even better than french toast, especially for serving a crowd, is that the whole mix gets thrown in a dish and baked with little mess or fuss.

Bread pudding also lends itself quite well towards getting creative – and I love a dish that likes to be played with. Make it with French bread or muffins or challah. I’ve even made it out of donuts! Add vanilla or dried fruits or chocolate chips.

Or seize the pumpkin spice mania and make this pumpkin bread pudding with cream cheese icing. This comforting bread pudding tastes like a cross between a spiced pumpkin pie and a slice of french toast. It’s best served warm, but after more than a few stolen spoonfuls from the leftovers in the fridge, I can tell you with confidence that it tastes pretty fantastic cold too!

For more variations on bread pudding, check out my Cinnamon Raisin Donut Bread Pudding, Fluffernutter Bread Pudding, and Spiced Fruit Bread Pudding

Today’s Focus on Technique – Easy Disposable Pastry Bag

It’s easy to make a pastry bag in a pinch by simply using a plastic baggy. This technique works best for fairly soft dressings, fillings, or icings. (Plastic baggies may not hold up well with very firm fillings.) Simply fill the plastic baggy with your dressing, filling, or icing. Squeeze it into one corner of the baggy. Twist the top of the baggy to hold the filling in place. Then, clip the corner with scissors, large or small, depending on your purpose. Now you’re all set to easily squeeze fillings into cupcakes or attractively drizzle dressings, sauces, or icings. The best part about plastic baggy pastry bags is that they’re disposable…no messy clean-up!!

Pumpkin Bread Pudding with Cream Cheese Icing

Ingredients

  • Approximately 10 cups day-old French bread, cut into chunks
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1 15-ounce can pumpkin puree
  • 1/2 cup white sugar
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon ginger
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
  • Pinch of ground cloves

For the icing

  • 4 ounces cream cheese, softened
  • 3 tablespoons powdered sugar

Directions

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Arrange the chunks of bread in a large baking dish. In a large bowl, whisk together the milk, pumpkin puree, sugars, eggs, cinnamon, vanilla, ginger, salt, nutmeg, and cloves until well-blended. Pour the mixture over the bread chunks. Press down on the mixture so the most of the bread is submerged. (I like to leave a thin layer of unsoaked bread at the top for a nice crust layer.) Allow the mixture to soak for at least 15 minutes. (You can leave it to soak overnight, in the fridge, if desired.)

Bake for 45-50 minutes.

For the icing, combine the cream cheese and powdered sugar until well blended. Spoon the mixture into a plastic baggy. Squeeze the baggy in your hands for a few seconds to soften the icing. Squeeze the mixture into one corner of the baggy, then twist the top of the baggy to hold the icing in place. Using scissors, clip a small bit of the corner, then drizzle the icing over the warm bread pudding. Serve warm.

Cannoli Cheesecake

I was undecided – and frankly, feeling a bit resentful over the implication that we undecided folks were either not paying attention or have the intellect of potatoes. I’d paid attention, done my research, weighed the pros and cons, and reflected on my personal tastes. And yet, I was still undecided; twisted by my contrary desires, unable to decipher the antsy feeling in my gut.

I take important decisions such as these quite seriously, you know.

But how in the world is a person supposed to choose between cheesecake and cannoli?? (Oh, did you think I was talking about the presidential election?) I mean, the cheesecake is rich and refined – maybe a little too rich for my tastes – but an intriguing option nonetheless. The familiar cannoli is a bit rougher around the edges and sometimes messy to consume, yet it calls to me. I wanted both; I wanted neither. My stomach churned with restless indecision. What if I wanted something different? Another choice on the menu? A third-party option of sorts?

So I decided not to choose between the cannoli or the cheesecake. I wanted something else. So I voted for the cannoli cheesecake instead.

This cannoli cheesecake isn’t going to be making any speeches come inauguration day, but it’s a definite winner in my book. Creamy, sweetened ricotta is blended with cream cheese and hints of chocolate, candied orange, and cinnamon, then baked in the form of a decadent cheesecake with a graham cracker crust. The end result is lighter than a traditional New York style cheesecake, with the subtle texture of ricotta cannoli filling. It’s presidentially delicious.

Author’s Note – By no means is this post intending to compare our presidential candidates to delicious Italian desserts. That would just be silly. I did, in fact, vote for an actual candidate in today’s election; not a cannoli cheesecake. Though if this cannoli cheesecake were on the ballot, it probably would have had my support.

Today’s Focus on Technique – Cooking with a Bain Marie

Cooking in a bain-marie refers to using a water bath. The purpose of using a water bath is to moderate the oven heat so that delicate ingredients cook more slowly and evenly. The water provides a moist, indirect heat that allows for a more gentle cooking process, which is ideal for many egg-based desserts, such as cheesecake, custard, and creme brulee.

No special equipment is required for a bain-marie set-up. You can make use of a regular roasting pan, baking dish or baking pan. Place the pan or ramekin you’re cooking in within the larger baking dish or baking pan. Place the entire set up in the oven, then fill the outer pan with a layer of warm water. (Placing the set-up in the oven before filling it with water is usually the easiest approach.)

*Always wrap the bottom of springform pans to prevent water from seeping into the bottom.

Cannoli Cheesecake

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 cup graham crackers, finely crushed
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
  • 8 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
  • 1 pound cream cheese (2 8-ounce bars), softened to room temperature
  • 1 15-ounce container ricotta cheese
  • 1 1/4 cups sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/4 cup candied orange peel, finely diced
  • 4 eggs
  • 1/2 cup mini chocolate chips

Directions

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

For the crust: Combine the graham cracker crumbs, sugar, and melted butter. Press the mixture into the bottom of a 10 inch springform pan*. Place the pan in the oven for 5 minutes to set the crust. Remove the pan from the oven and cool while you prepare the filling. (Leave the oven on.)

For the filling: Beat together the cream cheese and sugar until smooth. Add the ricotta cheese, vanilla extract, cinnamon, and orange peel. Beat for another minute until well blended. Add the eggs one at a time and beat just until blended. Stir in the chocolate chips.

Securely wrap the bottom of the cooled springform pan with foil (to prevent water from seeping into the pan).

Pour the filling into the springform pan. Place the pan within a large baking sheet or baking pan. Place the water bath set-up on the middle oven rack, then pour a small layer of warm water into the baking sheet/baking pan, so that it comes about 1/2″ up the side of the springform pan.

Bake for 60-65 minutes. The filling will still be slightly jiggly in the center when done. Cool the cake for 30 minutes at room temperature, then refrigerate until completely chilled.

*You can use a smaller springform pan, but the cooking time will vary.

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

Rice Krispie Treat ‘Sushi’

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I’m just about ready to put this chat about ninja parties to bed. (I’ve got a recipe for some really delicious and very un-ninjalike Moroccan lamb meatballs in a minted apricot glaze coming up soon.) But before we bid farewell to ninjas, I wanted to share a quick photo guide for making the rice krispie treat ‘sushi’ which we served as part of our dessert spread. It’s super easy and insanely cute. The hardest part was peeling those darn fruit roll-ups off the wrapper.

You can find lots of variations of this sort of thing all over the web. Here’s how I did it…

You’ll need:

  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 4 cups mini marshmallows
  • 6 cups rice krispies cereal
  • A baking sheet
  • Wax paper
  • Non-stick cooking spray
  • A few long, soft candies (like twizzlers, gummi worms, or sour straws)
  • Fruit roll-ups (green would be most realistic looking, but might be difficult to find)
  • Swedish fish candies

Step 1: Melt the butter in a large pan over low heat. Add the marshmallows. Stir until melted. Remove from heat, then stir in the rice krispies.

Step 2: Arrange a piece of wax paper on a baking sheet. Spray the wax paper with non-stick cooking spray. Transfer the rice krispie treat mixture to the baking sheet. Spray your hands with the cooking spray, then press the rice krispies into a thin (less than 1/2″) even layer.

Step 3: Arrange a few fruit roll-ups (the ‘nori’) on top of the rice krispie treats.

Step 4: Place a couple of the long candies on top of the fruit roll-ups. I used sour straws. Multi-colored Twizzlers or gummi worms would also work well.

Step 5: Lift up the edge of the wax paper and begin to roll the rice krispie treats around the fruit roll-ups and candy. Use the wax paper to help squeeze and tighten the roll.

Step 6: Once you’ve achieved a small ‘California Roll’ size, use a knife to cut the roll from the remaining rice krispie treats. Slice into pieces. Roll in colored sugar ‘roe’, if desired.

Repeat to make additional ‘California rolls’. Alternately, you can roll the candy within the rice krispie treats, but reserve the fruit roll-ups to wrap around the outside of the roll prior to slicing in pieces.

To make ‘nigiri sushi’: Using your hands, mold portions of the rice krispie treats into small oblong clumps. Place a swedish fish on top. Use thin strips of fruit roll-ups to wrap around the rice and fish.

Serve with a bowl of chocolate syrup ‘soy sauce’.

Easy Vegetable Lo Mein and Pork Eggrolls

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Well, the ninja party was a grand success. We had a huge turnout of both children and adults, the weather was perfect, and laughter could be heard in every corner of the house and yard throughout the entire event…just as it should be! I love throwing parties of any kind, but I especially love throwing the boys parties, which are planned around a theme of their choice. This ninja theme sort of took on a life of its own and we all had a lot of fun with it.

We gave the party an Asian feel with a few Chinese New Year decorations I picked up online (shhhh…don’t tell anyone they weren’t authentic ninja decorations) and a whole bunch of red, black, and gold balloons. Little accents of tiny ninjas, dragons, and Asian fans were scattered about.

The boys dressed as ninjas and my gracious brother-in-law agreed to make a surprise appearance in full ninja attire. A bit of quick thinking at the radio had us listening to Kung Fu Fighting, as the ‘ninja’ evoked mixed feelings of terror and elation from the birthday boy and our young guests, while the adults giggled on the sidelines.

Good friends, good fun, and good food…

For our ninja themed party, I served a crowd-pleasing selection of Asian dishes. Though ninjas may be most closely associated with Japan, I planned the party buffet around a more familiar Chinese-takeout menu, which I was certain would be enjoyed by both the adults and children at our event. I made the sweet and sticky orange chicken, which I shared with you in a previous post, along with a mountain of homemade pork egg rolls (and a few veggie ones for our vegetarian guests) and a big batch of super simple vegetable lo mein. Grilled teriyaki beef skewers, sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds and jasmine rice completed the feast.

I’m sharing the ‘recipes’ for both the lo mein and egg rolls below, though I should note that the batch I made was quadruple of what I’m sharing below and in the flurry of party-prep, I didn’t take exact measurements or record times as I cooked. Use the recipes as a guide, but as always, taste as you go. It’ll be ‘right’ when it tastes good to you. And be creative with the ingredient lists. You can substitute any sort of veggies in the lo mein and add meat or seafood, if you desire.

Focus on Technique – How to Julienne

Julienne is a type of culinary knife cut, wherein the resulting pieces are long and thin, roughly the size and shape of a matchstick. A julienne cut is often used to make shoestring potatoes or can be used to cut a variety of veggies for sushi, soups, or garnish. A julienne cut appears most pleasing when the pieces are a uniform size, shape, and length.

To achieve a nice, even julienne, start by squaring your fruit or vegetable. To do this, cut off the rounded portion of one side. Lay the flat side down onto the cutting board, then slice off the rounded part of each side. Turn the fruit or vegetable to cut off the remaining rounded side. Then, thinly slice the fruit or vegetable, to about 1/8″ thickness. Finally, stack the slices and carefully cut into matchsticks, about 1/8″ wide.

*If you were to cut the matchsticks into teeny tiny 1/8″ cubes, you would have a cut known as brunoise, pronounced broon-wah.

Easy Vegetable Lo Mein

Ingredients

  • 1 pound spaghetti or lo mein noodles, cooked al dente according to package directions
  • 2 tablespoons sesame oil
  • 1 teaspoon garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon fresh ginger, grated
  • 1 cup mushrooms, sliced
  • 1 cup sugar snap peas
  • 1 cup carrots, julienned
  • 2 green onions, sliced
  • 1/4 cup soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon fish sauce or oyster sauce
  • Salt and pepper

Directions

Heat sesame oil in a large pan over medium heat. Add the garlic, ginger, and veggies. Cook for about 10 minutes, until tender, stirring frequently. Add the cooked spaghetti, soy sauce, and fish sauce. Toss to combine. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt, pepper and/or additional soy or fish sauce, as desired.

Garnish with additional sliced green onions, if desired.

For the Egg Rolls:

To prepare the filling: Heat about a tablespoon of sesame or vegetable oil in a large pan. Add about 1/4 pound bulk pork sausage. Cook for several minutes, using a spoon to break it into small pieces as it cooks. Add about 4 cups cups of cole slaw or Asian slaw mix (very thinly sliced cabbage, julienned carrots, celery). Cook for several minutes, stirring frequently until the cabbage is wilted and tender. Drizzle about 1-2 tablespoons soy sauce over the mixture. Season with salt and pepper, to taste.

To assemble the egg rolls: Arrange an egg roll wrap with one of the points facing you. (If desired, you can layer two egg roll wraps, for a chewier egg roll.) Place a mound of the filling, about 1/3 cup, in the center of the wrap. Grab the point closest to you and wrap it up and around the filling. Then, grab each of the side points and fold them in towards the center. (Brush the points with a bit of water to help them stick.) Brush the top point with a little water, then continue rolling up towards the top point.

To cook the egg rolls: Heat about 1/2″ vegetable oil over medium-high heat, to about 375 degrees. Place a few eggrolls in the hot oil. Cook for a couple minutes on each side, until hot, golden, and crispy. Drain on a paper towel.

Makes about 10 eggrolls

*Detailed pictures of the rolling process can be seen HERE.

Ninjago (ninja lego) treat bags

Orange Chicken

You know that feeling you’re left with after a major spring cleaning of your house…purging the junk, wiping away the dust, polishing the knick knacks…that refreshed feeling of comfort in your space, when everything is organized, neat, and tidy?

Well, after taking the past few weeks to put a fresh polish on some things around this site, that’s just about how I’m feeling. And it feels good…

  • The Recipe Collection is up to date and organized in a way which I hope will make browsing the vast selection of recipes on this site a bit more user friendly.
  • The Gallery page now includes a much more comprehensive collection of photos, which are bigger and arranged in a more appealing manner. Best yet, clicking any photo will bring you directly to that recipe. Hovering your cursor over any picture will provide a brief description of the featured recipe.
  • A few new step by step guides have been added to the How-To Photo Guides page.

I’ve still got a bit more housekeeping to do around here, but I really hope you enjoy browsing around those pages!

It’s been a productive few weeks. But the best thing about stepping away from new posts for a bit is that it gave me a little time to reflect on where I am and where I’m going with this little blog. I started this blog two and a half years ago as what felt like a natural extension of what I was already flooding my social networks with…ramblings about cooking and eating. Very quickly, I discovered that it gave me a great feeling of satisfaction to produce a blog post…a delicious dish, a few photos, a written recipe…that tangible ‘job completed’ feeling that’s rare in my life as a stay-at-home mom. The very act of clicking Publish was rewarding to me. Even more rewarding was finding that people were actually interested in what I’d published. And that sure felt good!

Rice Krispie Treat ‘Sushi’ for our ninja-themed party

What started as a sort of personal food journal, took on a life of its own, with readers and subscribers and a facebook page and a twitter account (which I don’t really know how to use). But at the end of the day, this is just my little space about food, with no aspirations of being anything other than what it is. It’s not a baking blog or a gluten-free blog or a South Beach blog, though it contains recipes that fall into each of those categories. It’s not a gourmet blog or even a family-friendly blog, though there are plentiful recipes in each of those categories as well. Admittedly, the collection of recipes on this site is a bit scattered.

But you know what? So am I. So is my family. And this blog is a snapshot of our lives… One day I’m intent on losing the weight that’s been nagging at me since having our third son. The next day I’ve craving chocolate-covered bacon-wrapped twinkies. One day I’m cooking hot dog casseroles with my kids. The next I’m serving slow-braised short ribs in a cabernet reduction sauce at an elegant dinner party with dear friends. (I wear sweatpants regardless of the occasion.) My kids are usually clamoring around my feet when I cook and with three boys ages five and under, it’s almost inevitable that one of them will throw a tantrum, fall off a chair, or start coloring the grout between the bricks on my fireplace just as I’m engaged in some crucial time-sensitive step in a recipe. My photos are rapidly staged and shot close because my table is usually too messy to shoot wider. There’s often a baby climbing my legs while I’m frantically snapping the photos.

It’s chaotic. It’s imperfect. It’s my life. And I’m guessing it’s probably some of your lives too.

The Birthday Boy!

And that’s not about to change anytime soon, but there is something new I’d like to bring to this blog… The most wonderful thing about the culinary program I completed many years ago is that it left me with so much more than a collection of tasty recipes. It armed me with an understanding of techniques, which I can now apply towards everything I do in the kitchen…the tools and the confidence that enable me to walk into the kitchen and cook without recipes or to read another’s recipe and quickly understand what I can substitute or alter to fit my family’s tastes. That’s the thing I hope to share with all of you. I want to take my posts here one step further than just some story about my chaotic life and an awesome recipe for braised short ribs or pumpkin parfaits or cheddar bacon biscuits. I want each post to leave you with understanding of why the recipe works and how you can take that idea and make it part of your culinary toolbox. So, from here on out, that’s what I intend to do. Everything else will remain the same, but with each new post, I’m going to pull out one or two techniques or tips which are demonstrated in the recipe and be just a bit more explicit about the how or why.

Ninjago (Ninja Lego) Cake

Ok then, enough chatting about this blog. Time to get back to actually blogging on this blog… We’re throwing our middle guy, Lucas, a grand ninja battle…errr, I mean party, this weekend in celebration of his fourth birthday. It’s gonna be a ninjatastic event with an Asian-themed menu, surprise costumed ninjas, and rice krispie treat ‘sushi’ for dessert. I will share more details, photos, and recipes after the party, but for the moment, I want to share one of the recipes I’ll be preparing for this weekend’s festivities.

Orange chicken…I just adore the sticky sweet and slightly spicy sauce coating chunks of crispy chicken. As I planned the menu for this little ninja party, it seemed like the perfect fit for a big group of adults and young children. It’s a dish I’ve eaten often and made never. So, I did a bit of searching for a starting point. The big surprise for me was that some of the recipes contained not a bit of orange. No juice, no extract, no peel. Many recipes were more sugar than anything else. And though those recipes may be successful at reproducing the familiar orange chicken flavor from your favorite Chinese takeout restaurant, I just can’t come to grips with an orange chicken recipe made without orange. So, I played around a bit and came up with the recipe which follows. It’s pleasingly sweet, just a bit spicy, and packed with a good dose of authentic orange flavor. Prior to frying, the chicken is marinated in a soy-ginger-orange marinade, then dipped in egg, and coated with cornstarch. A simple sauce, made with orange juice and fresh zest is accented with Asian flavors then thickened to the consistency of a glaze with a bit of cornstarch. Definitely a crowd-pleaser!

Focus on Technique – Thickening with Cornstarch

Cornstarch is an effective (and gluten-free) thickener which can be used in a variety of recipes, including sauces, gravy, pudding, and fruit pie filling. It adds no flavor of its own and produces a clear, glazy result, as compared to the cloudy effect of a butter/flour roux. In general, about 1 tablespoon of cornstarch can be used to thicken 1 cup of liquid. To effectively blend the cornstarch into the liquid to be thickened, you should start by making a slurry, which is simply a mixture of the cornstarch with a bit of cold liquid (usually water). This step prevents the cornstarch from clumping when added to the hot liquid. Add the slurry to the liquid you wish to thicken, then bring to a simmer for a minute or two until the liquid thickens.

Orange Chicken

Ingredients

For the Chicken

1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1″ chunks

  • 1/4 cup soy sauce
  • 1/4 cup orange juice
  • 1 teaspoon fresh ginger, grated
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 3/4 cup cornstarch
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • Vegetable oil, for frying

For the Sauce

  • 2/3 cup brown sugar
  • 3/4 cup water
  • 1/2 cup orange juice
  • Zest from 1 orange (about 1 tablespoon)
  • 2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons sambal oelek (crushed chile paste)*
  • 2 teaspoons soy sauce
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 2 tablespoons cold water
  • 2 green onions, sliced

*You can substitute crushed red pepper or cayenne pepper powder to add a bit of spiciness. If using cayenne powder, reduce the quantity.

Directions

For the Chicken

Stir together the soy sauce, orange juice, and ginger. Submerge the chicken in the mixture. Allow the chicken to marinade for about 20 minutes in the refrigerator.

Combine the cornstarch and salt on a plate. Heat about 1/2″ of oil in a large skillet over medium-high/high heat to approximately 375 degrees. (You can use an instant read meat thermometer to estimate the temperature. If you do not have a thermometer, just heat the oil for several minutes until it’s sizzling hot.)

Remove the chicken from the marinade. Place the chicken in a bowl with the lightly beaten eggs. Remove the chicken from the eggs, then dredge in the cornstarch until well coated. Fry the chicken in small batches until crispy, golden, and cooked through, about 5-6 minutes. Turn the chicken once or twice during cooking. Remove the chicken from the oil with a slotted spoon and drain on a paper towel.

For the Sauce

Combine the brown sugar, water, orange juice, orange zest, rice wine vinegar, lemon juice, soy sauce, and sambal oelek in a saucepan over medium heat until well combined. In a small ramekin or bowl, stir together the cornstarch with the cold water. Pour the mixture into the sauce and whisk to combine. Bring the sauce to a simmer. Simmer for a couple minutes until the sauce is thickened.

Just before serving, pour the sauce over the chicken. Garnish with sliced green onions and additional orange zest, if desired. Serve over white jasmine rice.

Tips

  • To maintain the chicken’s crispiness, wait until just before serving to toss the chicken in the sauce.
  • To make ahead of time, fry the chicken and refrigerate until using. Prepare the sauce and refrigerate until using. Reheat the chicken on a baking sheet in a 375 degrees oven for about 10-15 minutes until heated through and crispy. Heat the sauce and pour it over the reheated chicken.

Breakfast and Brunch Recipe Round-Up

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I recently shared a recipe for a Bacon, Egg, and Cheese Bagel Casserole, as an option for a special Father’s Day breakfast in bed. Just in case that idea doesn’t float your boat, here’s a round-up of previously posted breakfast ideas. Any of these would make a spectacular Father’s Day breakfast for the dad in your life or a great addition to your next brunch buffet!

Cinnamon-Raisin Donut Bread Pudding

Carrot Cake Pancakes with Cream Cheese Glaze

Potato and Chorizo Frittata

Fluffernutter Bread Pudding

Nutella and Strawberry Stuffed French Toast with Raspberry Coulis

Sausage, Biscuit, and Gravy Casserole

Eggs Benedict

Birthday Cake (Sprinkles) Pancakes

Cinnamon French Toast Bake

PB&J French Toast

Roasted Vegetable and Goat Cheese Quiche

Strawberry-Stuffed French Toast

Chocolate Chip Bacon Pancakes

Quiche Lorraine




Carnitas with Chile and Sweet Potatoes

If I told you that our Super Bowl party was literally a bloody awesome time, you may assume that I’m one of those people who wrongly uses the word ‘literally’ to express exaggeration rather than expressing actual events. But no…there was literally blood everywhere at my super bowl party. In fact, there is still blood everywhere.

It all began earlier in the afternoon. The boys were playing Xbox Kinect with my husband while I was preparing party food in the kitchen. Everything was coming along wonderfully. The spinach dip was made, the chicken wing dip prepped, and the creole deviled eggs ready to go. Then came the urgent call from the living room. It had appeared that our three year old had somehow cut his toe, as it was covered in fresh blood. Weirder yet, the entire living room appeared to be sprayed in the same blood. My husband started the clean up while I brought our little guy upstairs to clean and bandage the wound. I could find no wound to bandage, but everyone seemed ok, so we carried on with our party prep, puzzled by the mysterious blood.

A little while later, while my husband was giving the boys a pre-party bath, I spotted fresh blood on the sliding glass doors in the living room. At that point, I realized the blood had been coming from our dog, not our son’s toe. A bit of blood on his nose led me to believe it was caused by a nose bleed, but since the bleeding appeared to be under control, we carried on our merry ways.

Everything was going swimmingly at that point. All of the food had been prepped, the house was clean, the kids were dressed. And then our first guests arrived and everything fell into utter chaos. It all happened so fast. As our friends approached the door, along with their three young children, our dog began his typical guest-greeting frenzy, wildly wagging his tail in eager anticipation of our first guests. It was in that moment that we very quickly discovered the true source of the blood. As his tail wagged, smacking our entranceway baskets and walls, blood flew everywhere. And I mean everywhere. In a matter of seconds, the walls, baskets, floors, curtains, and clothing of anyone standing with 10 feet of the dog were instantly speckled with streams of bright red blood.

In walked our first guests, followed in rapid succession by our other guests. We quickly ushered young children through the blood soaked entrance as we frantically tried to make it appear less like the scene of a violent crime and more like the site of a festive occasion. We put the dog outside where I unsuccessfully tried to wrap his wagging tail in gauze. The children played and helped themselves to an unsupervised buffet of red, white, and blue jelly beans, while some of our friends grabbed wipes and cleaned dog blood off our floors. (I throw a great party, right??)

Ultimately, we came to the realization that our pup needed medical care. So, my husband packed our bloody dog into the car and headed off to the emergency vet, leaving me in our blood-speckled home with our houseful of guests and a gaggle of kids in the midst of a major sugar rush…one of which was now doubled over in bellyache pain.

Our friends are lovely though, and everyone took turns passing the baby around as I served drinks and heated the food, while breathing through the panic attack that lay just beneath the surface of my calm demeanor.  Our friends were even so gracious as to claim that it was a great party as they left later that night. (I think they were just being polite.) My husband arrived home by half-time with our dog (who had been shaved, sedated, and stitched) along with a hefty vet bill. The evening will forever be remembered as the Deline Family Super Bowl Massacre, as it would appear to anyone approaching our front door, which is still streaked in red.

I will spend the rest of the week cleaning up from the worst party I’ve ever hosted.

I’d hoped to be sharing a recipe for the Pepperoni Pizza Monkey Bread I made last night, which was insanely fantastic, but in the chaos of last night’s events, I didn’t take a single picture. So, that recipe will need to wait until I have a chance to make it again…Don’t worry, I’ll find some excuse soon!

In the mean time, here are a couple recipes for a really tasty meal…tender, slow-cooked pork carnitas in a sauce of sweet potatoes and spicy chiles. On the side, a simple variation on my favorite roasted brussels sprouts, cooked with spicy chorizo to coat the sprouts in utter deliciousness. The pork has a long cook time, but reheats beautifully. So, either prepare the pork a day ahead of time or plan it for a day you’ll be around to babysit the oven.

Enjoy, friends! Hope your super bowl celebrations were a bit less bloody than ours!

Carnitas with Chile and Sweet Potatoes

Ingredients

  • 1 6-7 pound pork shoulder, trimmed of most excess exterior fat
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 1 poblano pepper, ribs and seeds removed, chopped
  • 1 serrano pepper, ribs and seeds removed, chopped
  • 1 large sweet potato (yam), cooked until tender, skin removed, lightly mashed*
  • 4 cups chicken broth
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons honey
  • Salt
  • Ground cayenne pepper
*To prepare the sweet potato: Prick the exterior several times with a fork, then bake in a 375 degrees oven for about 60-75 minutes, until quite tender. Cut the potato in half and scoop out the tender interior. Use a fork to lightly mash the potato.

Directions

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Generously season the pork with salt. Heat olive oil over medium/medium-high heat in a large dutch oven pan or oven-safe pot. Place the pork shoulder in the pan. Cook for 3-5 minutes on each side, until lightly browned. Remove the roast from the pan and set aside. Add the onion and peppers to the pan. Cook for 3-5 minutes, stirring frequently. Stir in the sweet potato, chicken broth, and honey. Return the pork shoulder to the pan, the cover with a tight-fitting lid and cook on the middle oven rack for about 3.5 – 4 hours.

After 3.5 – 4 hours, remove the pan from the oven and allow to cool at room temperature. Once the pork is cool enough to handle, remove it from the pan and use a fork or your fingers to pull apart the meat, which should be incredibly tender. (I prefer the use my fingers, since it’s easier to remove and discard any bits of fat.)

Allow the sauce to rest while you’re pulling the meat. As it rests, the excess fat should rise to the surface. Use a spoon to skim and discard the excess fat. Then, using a blender, food processor, or immersion blend, puree the sauce until smooth. Return the sauce to the pan and simmer for about 15 minutes over medium heat, until about 1 1/2-2 cups of nicely thickened sauce remains.Stir frequently to prevent burning. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt and cayenne pepper, if desired.

Toss the meat with the sauce.

To reheat the meat and develop some nice caramelized bits, heat the sauced meat under a hot broiler for a few minutes until the top begins to turn a golden brown.

Serve in warm tortillas.

Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Chorizo

Ingredients

  • 4 cups brussels sprouts, halved or quartered
  • 4 ounces spicy Spanish chorizo, quartered and sliced
  • 1/4 red onion, chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
  • Salt

Directions

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Combine all ingredients in a baking dish. Cook for 40-45 minutes, tossing every 10-15 minutes to coat the brussels sprouts with the delicious oil, which will render from the chorizo. Season with salt, to taste.

Diet Day: 37  Weight Loss: 13  Motivation: Stable…enjoyed myself at last night’s party, back on track today!

Baked Clam Spread

We try to teach our kids about generosity and about giving to those who are in need. To this end, we send in donations when their school collects for the food pantry or bags of toys for sick children who spent Christmas in the hospital. Periodically, we go through the boys’ toy boxes to gather and donate neglected toys to children who would be happy to have them. And the kids watch as we package and donate baby supplies to families in need. We could do a lot more than we do. But through all of these small actions, it is our hope that our children will learn to appreciate how fortunate they are and to think of others in need.

So, you can imagine how proud I felt when the boys offered to donate their old, worn toothbrushes to ‘kids who don’t have any toothbrushes’, after Santa left shiny, light-up toothbrushes in their stockings. I suppose we still need to work on what items have donation value.

As this year comes to a close, I continue to be eternally thankful for all that we have; a beautiful, healthy family, a warm home, dear friends, close family, love. We are so fortunate. It is my wish that 2012 brings the very best of everything to each of you. Take stock of the things which really matter and let everything else go. All the rest is small stuff. Health, love, family, and friends…these are the things worth being concerned about.

I’ve got another quick and delicious appetizer idea for your New Year’s celebrations; a simple baked clam spread made with canned clams. Now, you all know I’m a big fan of from-scratch cooking, but there’s a major convenience factor here. Using canned clams turns this recipe into something you’re very likely to cook as compared to something which seems like too much work to be worth it. For the purpose of this recipe, canned clams work perfectly. And, by all means, if you’re up to cleaning, steaming, and removing the fresh clams, even better!

Baked Clam Spread

Ingredients

  • 4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • 1 small onion, finely diced
  • 2 teaspoons garlic, minced
  • 2 (6.5-ounce) cans of chopped or minced clams, drained
  • 2/3 cup seasoned bread crumbs
  • 1/3 cup parmesan cheese
  • 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 2-3 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten

Directions

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a pan over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic. Cook for 3-5 minutes, until tender and golden. Turn off the heat. Add the clams, bread crumbs, parmesan cheese, crushed red pepper, salt and fresh parsley. Stir until well blended. Stir in the lightly beaten eggs. Spread the mixture into a small baking dish. Bake for 15-18 minutes. Spread onto crackers or slices of bread.

Alternately, the mixture can be stuffed into real or aluminum clam shells and baked for about 10-12 minutes. (To be honest, stuffing the mixture into clam shells is the best way to do it, but I couldn’t find those little aluminum clam shells in any of my stores, so I gave up and baked it in a dish.)

Christmas Feast Menu and Homemade Butter

Ever tried to get a good picture of three little boys, ages four and younger? Harder than herding cats. Enjoy a few of my favorite outtakes from our attempt at a Christmas card picture.

We’re two days from Christmas now and moving into full Santa mode. We’ve been hosting Christmas for as long as we’ve lived in this house, which was my husband’s grandmother’s house for 46 years, until we bought it and made it our home. Christmas has always been hosted in this house and nothing makes me happier than continuing that tradition.

But what we don’t have is a traditional Christmas dinner. Planning new menus is part of the fun for me. So, each year I like to mix things up with a little something different. This year, we’ll be entertaining sixteen of our dearest friends and family members for dinner.

At first I was thinking of serving roast rack of lamb with a cranberry horseradish sauce. But lamb is one of those foods that not everyone enjoys, so it didn’t seem like the wisest choice for such a large crowd. (I’m saving that idea for my New Year’s Eve dinner!)

I considered making the Braised Beef Short Ribs with Figs and Red Wine that I made for a dinner party a few months ago. It’s easy, delicious, and can be made a day ahead of time. But more than anything, the thought of hearing my guests singing, “Oh, bring us some figgy short ribs! Oh, bring us some figgy short ribs…” amused the heck out of me. Alas, my grocery store hasn’t been well-stocked with short ribs lately and I feared I wouldn’t be able to get enough.

Ultimately, I’ve decided to make Julia Child’s Beef Bourguignon. It’s widely enjoyed, can be fully made a day ahead of time, reheats like a dream, and is an affordable option for a such large crowd. And it can be eaten without steak knives, which is particularly convenient since I don’t own 16 steak knives.

On the side I’ll be serving poached pear and pomegranate endive ‘salads’, quiche Lorraine in a homemade all-butter crust, roasted asparagus, buttered egg noodles with fresh parsley, scalloped potatoes au gratin, garlic peas, cheddar garlic biscuits, and French bread.

With homemade butter.

Did I tell you about the lie I told on Thanksgiving? We had just sat down at the table to enjoy our feast. My guests were admiring the array of homemade goodies, including a from-scratch green bean casserole with homemade crispy onion straws on top. And that’s when the lie came bursting out of my mouth. I’m not even sure why I said it. But out it came, “I even made the butter!”

But I hadn’t made the butter. It was just a yellow stick of Wegmans brand butter. I retracted my statement before I’d even finished it. But, I have in fact made butter in the past, back in the day when I taught preschool. It was an annual part of our classroom Thanksgiving feast. It’s simple as can be and a fun task for little helpers.  And so, to make up for my Thanksgiving lie, we’re making homemade butter for our Christmas dinner.

What you’ll need is a container with a tight-fitting lid (a mason jar works well), two clean marbles, 1 cup heavy cream, 1/8 teaspoon salt. Pour the cream into the jar. Add the salt and marbles. Then, shake, shake, shake.

Keep shaking.

Shake some more.

In about 7-10 minutes you should feel the cream thicken and the marbles will become silent. Keep shaking.

Shake it like a shake weight.

Pass the jar off to your guests if your arms get tired. After a few more minutes, the butter will separate from the buttermilk. It’s impossible to miss when this happens. Pour off the buttermilk (and save for other uses, if desired) and remove the marbles, if they’ve wedged themselves in the clump of butter.

Back in my preschool days, we stopped at that step and enjoyed our fresh butter on warm rolls. But, if you want your butter to last longer than a couple days, you’ll want to drain your butter of as much of the buttermilk as possible. To do this, cover the butter with ice cold water. Press the butter with a spoon to release some of the buttermilk. The water will become cloudy. Drain the water. Repeat this process until the water remains clear. Tightly wrap and refrigerate your butter.

Ok…I’m signing off until after Christmas. Time to put my Santa hat on. Wishing you and your loved ones the very merriest of days! And may all of your Christmas wishes come true!

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