Friday, November 27, 2009

Holiday Greenery

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Mom and I made use of our country setting and ran around the farm and dirt roads acquiring various bits of greenery for our holiday decorating. We gathered pine cones, pine cones on pine branches with pine needles, dried red sumac, strange hot pink berries, thorny berries (those hurt when I cut them) and cedar branches.

Mom wanted to decorate her front porch with her old sled and bench. We used the greenery we found along with an oversized ornament (two for $1.99 on sale at Shay's in West Plains) and a couple little ones. We also used some of her existing outdoor decor (birds on the branch and wall vase) for some extra umph.

So with a little imagination, some gloves and time, we were able to transform her porch into a winter wonderland. Oh. And some canned snow.

More pics to come!

Holiday Candle Arrangment

Mom and I went to a bunch of holiday open houses the first day of deer season. Apparently around here, it's the thing to do!

We saw a TON of great ideas. Us being us, we took some pictures of our favorites and decided to make some of them.

Today's project for Mom was the candle arrangement we saw at one of the floral shops. I'm not sure how much it cost in the store, but considering that it can be used year after year, it's final price to DIY is much cheaper! And so easy!

box or tray
candles in various sizes

Mom didn't have a tray on hand and around here, without any kind of Hobby Lobby or Michael's, when you do find a tray for sale the price is somewhat outrageous. We found a shiny green box for $2.99 at Alco. The actual box was too deep but the lid was perfect. We chose green to offset the color of the red candles. You can buy an unfinished wood tray from a craft store and paint or decoupage it.

Some of you may even have Holiday trays around with Santas or what not on them! Use those!

Mom hit both Dollar Tree (everything is $1!) and Walmart for her candles. All in all, she spent no more than $2 for each of them, even the bigger ones! She used candle holders she already had for the tapered candles. She arranged these on the tray to her liking.

Next, we took advantage at our setting in the country and took a drive around the farm and along the back roads. We found a good collection of dried, yet still red, sumac and pine sprigs we snipped straight from the trees. Mom then took some fun sprigs and sumac and arranged them around the candles on the tray.

Finally, for additional color and bling, she added some of the glittered pine cones I had decorated earlier in the evening.

We think the final look is much more exciting than the version in the store!

Glittered Pine Cones

Today's project is incredibly messy and time-consuming but well worth the effort. Plus, it's very easy!

Supply List:

pine cones
glue (Aleene's Tacky Glue is always my top choice)
paint brush

Optional Supplies:

paper plates

  1. Brush the tips of a pine cone with a thin layer of glue.
  2. Dip or sprinkle glitter onto pinecone (sprinkle over a bowl to collect glitter to be put back into container after use).
  3. Allow to dry (paper plates work best).

See? Easy! Even Randy (hands shown in pictures) joined in the glitter fun! Now we have a ton of blingy, glittery pine cones for decoration! Woo!

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Holiday Wreaths


I don't know if you're excited about a craft post, but I certainly am!

I have been spending some time at my mother's house for the last two weeks. Of course, what do Mom and I DO when we get together? We craft!

Since it is so close to the winter holidays (i.e. Christmas) we've been working on various Christmas projects. We've been working on Christmas presents and decorations. This post will be all about wreath making!

I actually stole my idea from an Etsy project that I fell in love with a few weeks ago. I have an adoration for owls and decided to look around for an idea incorporating owls and wreaths. I found this wreath by Red Marionette (for $55 - 75). Cute!

Here is a list of what you will need for this project:

12 - 14" styrofoam (rounded) wreath
hot glue gun
hot glue
embroidery thread
embroidery needle
popsicle sticks

Optional Items:
white pom poms
garland or ribbon

foam snowflakes
holiday decor (bells, Poinsettia sprays, Holidays leaves, berry sprigs, flat ornaments such as snowflakes)

First, unroll a whole bunch of yarn by winding it around your palm.

Take one end of the unrolled yarn and attach it to either the back or top of your styrofoam wreath using a dab of hot glue. To keep from burning my fingers, I held each side of the yarn and pulled it down onto the hot glue, holding in it place until it was dry. Then I snipped off the extra.

Wrap the yarn tightly around the wreath until you run out of yarn and lightly glue the end.

Repeat until the wreath is completely covered. It took me about 2 hours!

I'm sorry I don't have pictures of the finished yarn wrapped wreath!

The next step is to make your cute little felt guys. I chose the owls, as I stated above. I made a template so my owls would be similar in size (and symmetrical).

After I cut out the cute little felt owls, I sewed them together by hand using the embroidery thread (matching closely to the felt color) and needle.

I then took some fuzzy yarn and wrapped it around the bottom of the wreath where the owls would sit to make it look like snow.

Before mounting the owls to the wreath, I wrapped silver garland around the wreath to add a little bling to it.

My next step was to secure a piece of the popsicle stick to the back of each owl by sewing them on. I then mounted the owls onto the wreath using hot glue.

I then arranged various faux holiday flowers and stuff around the wreath until I looked like I wanted. I also added white pom poms around the owls feet to look like snowballs. I went a little crazy on mine. Oops. I also added some foam snowflakes for fun.

As you can see from the pictures, Mom made two wreaths with blue yarn and snowmen. She made a mini wreath (with a shorter snowman) and a larger wreath.

We also made a wreath for Mema using red, gold and green. We made a red felt dove with a gold and red beaded tail and glittery feather wing.

Oh. And my all green owl is Bernard. The green owl with purple wings is Gertrude. I can't wait to welcome them to my front door!

Friday, July 10, 2009

"Freedom Fries" (and burgers)

Well, there's been much about which to post, but little time in which to do it lately. Let's start with something relatively easy.

A few weeks ago, the remarkable Bakerella astounded me once again with yet another beautifully-photographed, unbearably-cute new take on the cupcake.

(If you didn't follow the link, here's a quick rundown: yellow cupcakes split in half for the "buns", brownies cut into circles for the "patties", and skinny sugar cookies sprinkled with sugar for the "fries".) Incredible, yes? I mean, the cupcakeburger on its own is cute, but pair it with sugar-cookie fries and put it in a handmade paper tray, and it becomes irresistable. Literally irresistable - as in, I was still in remission from my last insane cake-decorating project (post to follow), but still couldn't keep myself from making these for our little 4th of July party.

Here's the result:

I'll readily admit this isn't nearly as perfectly-cute as Bakerella's version, but they (I made 8) were cute enough to bring smiles to my nieces' faces which, after all, was the object all along. Depending on how you define "easy", this is a pretty easy project - not too messy, not too technically demanding. The issue isn't ease, however; it's time. Because cute as they are, these cupcakeburgers are a complete, time-consuming pain to make. Consider the steps involved:

1) Make the cupcakes.
2) Make the chocolate cake (or brownies).
3) Make the cookies.
4) Print the little trays.
5) Cut out the little trays.
6) Assemble the little trays.
7) Design the stupid little french fry holders.
8) Print the stupid little french fry holders.
9) Cut out the stupid little french fry holders.
10) Assemble the stupid little french fry holders.
11) Tint 3 colors of frosting.
12) AND, assemble everything (which of course includes splitting the cupcakes, cutting out chocolate cake-rounds, etc.).

Hey! It's a 12-step process!

Anyway, at least that 12th step is pretty gratifying, as you're left with amazingly cute & sugary little fast-food meals.

I chose to make my life slightly more difficult (but make the project more rewarding) by making everything - cupcakes, chocolate cake, cookies - vegan so that my little 4-y-o niece could for once fully participate in the fun dessert. Not that at 4 my niece is already making life-choices about her eating habits. She's just still (hopefully) growing out of several food allergies that prevent her from having any dairy or egg products. Meat, she's OK with, but unfortunately most cupcake recipes don't involve ground beef (not even for cupcakeburgers!), so it's hard to take advantage of this.

Fortunately - both for my niece and in this case for myself - the world we live in is fairly replete with nondairy options. For the "patties" I made what has become one of my niece's dessert stand-bys: Crazy Cake, a quick-and-easy chocolate cake recipe with none of the offending allergens:

Crazy Cake*

Mix together:
1 1/2 cups flour
1 cup sugar
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking soda
3 Tab. cocoa powder

2 tsp. white vinegar
1 tsp. vanilla
5 Tab. oil
1 cup cold water

Mix well and pour into greased pan (8" or 9" - or whatever works for what you're doing).

Bake at 350 degrees for 25 to 30 minutes.

I made this in a 9x13 baking pan so it wouldn't come out too thick and, when it had cooled, inverted it onto a cutting board and used one of my nifty Ateco circle cutters to make my cupcakeburger patties. (Helpful tip: Don't forget to grease the pan. I somehow neglected to do this the first time around and had to scrape the entire cake into the garbage and start over. Argh.) I ended up splitting each "patty" to make it thinner - otherwise they were too thick relative to the "buns".

For the "buns" I used a Cherrybrook Kitchen yellow cake mix that I picked up at Whole Foods. The cupcakes came out more like muffins than cupcakes in my opinion - both in appearance and in sweetness - but that's a minor issue, I guess. I tinted a Pillsbury vanilla frosting - which contains no dairy products (though you should always read the label just in case) - for my ketchup, mustard, and lettuce (along with a LOT of red food coloring for the ketchup). And finally, I googled "vegan sugar cookies" and came up with a plethora of recipe options for my "fries". (I went with this one because it only involved one obscure ingredient - vegan maragine - whereas others also involved tofu or soymilk or somesuch. (OK, I guess they all also involve egg replacer, but I have that on-hand anyway, so I don't consider it obscure.))

Bakerella very kindly posted a pdf with templates for the tray, french fry holder, and liner paper. (I skipped the personalized liner paper since I was unable to find vellum.) Of course, her little faux fast food meal was made in honor of Father's Day, whereas mine was for Independence Day. Thus, I did a quickie 4th of July design on the blank french fry holder template that she helpfully provides.

Finally, I couldn't resist putting little American flag toothpicks into the burgers. Since I had none of these on hand, and couldn't think of a nearby store that was likely to sell them, I did a Google image search for the US flag, scaled it to about 3/4" high, made a horizontally-flipped version of it, and printed as many would fit on a sheet of 8 1/2"x11" paper - cut them out with an Olfa knife and used double-sided tape to wrap them around plain toothpicks. The extra step of making the flag-picks sounds like a pain, but it went pretty quickly (in comparison to, say, making the food trays) and added a really cute touch.

And there you have it - Fourth of July Burgers and Freedom Fries for the sweet-tooths (sweet-teeth?) among us. Don't worry, Father's Day and Independence Day may be behind us, but it's not too late to make these for Labor Day or any other summer get-togethers you have coming up. Just be prepared to spend some time, or find a helper to make all the paper products!

Oh, and, belatedly...

*My recipe, copied from the original in my Mom's cookbook which was given to her by a former neighbor, spells it "Crazy Kake". OK then, but why not go ahead and make it "Krazy Kake" and at least be consistent? Though that reminds me of the old "Kleen Kar" carwash next to my old elementary school, which even as a first grader used to drive me crazy. (Or did it drive me krazy?)

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Summer BBQ Party

Sorry, this will have to be a picture-less post, but at least you'll get lots of links!

So, my boyfriend is an architecture professor at MIT, and his students had their final reviews a couple of weeks ago. Because their project was in Palermo, I got to know them all a bit when we all went over for the class field trip in January. I was therefore more excited than usual about having an end-of-the year party.

Main Dish
Typically when he's hosted parties for his students, Mike will just order a bunch of Chinese or Thai take-out, but this year I suggested something a little different. Although he has no desire to actually live there again, Mike is fairly proud of being a native Texan, and in particular is a huge fan - and promoter - of Texas barbecue. So I suggested we order up some real Texas BBQ from one of his favorite Austin (or outer-Austin) places, the Salt Lick. We've done this a couple times before; they ship the meat frozen in a styrofoam box, and it arrives usually still frozen or very cold. Give it a day or so to defrost, and either heat it in the oven or on a charcoal grill. Because the weather has finally gotten spring-like, we opted for the grill (the extra flavor is definitely worth the extra trouble). We ordered two racks of ribs, a brisket, and sausage. One of the fantastic things about Salt Lick BBQ is the sauce - it's somewhat Asian-inspired (ok, a slight departure from the traditional Texas formula, but tasty), and has a nice but unusual kick to it.

But of course you can't only serve meat at a party, so while we left the main course to the Salt Lick, Christie got to take control of the rest of the menu......and went a little bit overboard - not so much in terms of the quantity of food, but in regards to the quantity of work involved.

First off, we needed a non-meat main dish for the non-carnivores among us, so I made up and froze several veggie enchiladas. I got into making enchiladas when I bought a Cook's Illustrated the other week - an entire issue devoted to make-ahead food, including a recipe for chicken enchiladas. This inspired me to check out vegetarian-friendly options, and led me to this recipe for "Two Cheese Enchiladas" which in addition to the aforementioned cheeses include pinto beans, corn, and cilantro. I made the recipe pretty much according to directions, except substituting Cook's Illustrated's enchilada sauce (sorry no link - you have to subscribe to their webpage), and freezing according to CI's directions. It's an amazing system in that you cook the enchiladas directly from the freezer - no defrosting required (aside from the sauce) - and they turn out amazingly well.

So now we had a main course for both the vegetarians and the carnivores, now for some sides! First something starchy, this fabulous potato salad recipe from the My Recipes site: Potato Salad with Artichokes and Asparagus*. I've made this salad before with great success. This time, sadly, I had limited success - mainly because I underboiled the potatoes and stupidly didn't notice until I had mixed them up with the vegetables and dressing. Another issue was that I used spicy brown mustard instead of the coarse-grain mustard the recipe calls for. You wouldn't think this would be a big deal, but the dressing lacked the kick it normally has. This was a disappointment, but I could live with it. What I could not live with was undercooked-potato salad. I tried microwaving to remedy the problem, but this just seemed to make the vegetables blander, paler, and still (in the case of the potatoes) underdone. I ultimately decided to pour the whole thing into a baking pan and roast it in the oven just before dinnertime - about half an hour at 400, and then another hour at 200 (we had to turn the oven temp down so we could keep the brisket warm while the ribs were on the grill). This seemed to solve the problem, but I wouldn't say it was one of those great discoveries like penicillin or Reese's cups or something. Next time, I will check the potatoes (by taste, not just pricking them with a fork) before I mix up the salad - and preferably before I pour out the boiling water.

The second salad came out perfectly, as always. This is a fabulous Southern Living recipe that goes really well with barbecue or hamburgers or just about anything: Toasted Pecan and Broccoli Salad**. I have never served this salad without receiving rave reviews. It's simply delicious. A couple of notes, though. First, the recipe calls for only 1/3 cup of cranberries. I start with at least double that, and add more until I get a nice balance, visually. The other thing is to make extra dressing. I've doubled it in the past and had a lot leftover. This time I made an extra half recipe, and used most of it. I guess it's a matter of taste, but I don't like a dry salad. (Now that I've actually written this out, it occurs to me that perhaps the reason I always get rave reviews on this salad is because I double the tastiest ingredient and use lots of extra dressing. I guess that would yield rave reviews for just about any salad.)

I chose the recipe for salad number three to compliment the enchiladas, knowing it would also be a nice match for barbecue. I got this recipe from epicurious: Cucumber and Chayote Slaw. I first made this a few weeks back for Cinco de Mayo (paired with enchiladas, along with rice and beans). It's incredibly refreshing and tasty. To thin slices of cucumber and chayote, you add diced pineapple (in fact, I don't know why they don't call it "Cucumber, Chayote, and Pineapple Slaw", because the pineapple is just as important), and toss everything with a slightly spicy dressing. One nice thing about this recipe for my purposes is that it needs to sit for 8 hours or overnight - one less thing to do on party-day.

Finally for the "meal" portion of the party, we needed a bread. And what better bread to have with barbecue than cornbread? OK, some places in Texas just give you several slices of white sandwich bread, but what works in Lockhart, TX doesn't necessarily go over as well in Cambridge, MA. The last time we did barbecue I just made up a Jiffy cornbread mix, but I didn't think it had a great flavor. This time I wanted to make something "from scratch". I found this Golden Sweet Cornbread recipe at All, and poured the batter into mini muffin tins. It was a very easy recipe, but the quest for the perfect cornbread recipe continues. I just didn't think the flavor was all it could have been - certainly not as good as what I've had at barbecue joints.

If I had stopped at making the above, party-day would have been busy, but evenly paced. But once I start thinking about cooking, I have a hard time stopping myself. For one thing, we needed a dessert, and mid-May seemed to me a perfect time to bring back Strawberry Rhubarb Pie. I'll take just about any excuse to make this pie, it's so delicious, especially right out of the oven. Because we had about a dozen people coming I obviously had to make two pies. I briefly toyed with making a different second pie (leaning towards Key Lime), but we decided things were complicated enough as is. I've graduated to a better pie crust than the method I posted about last summer - Julia Child's Pâte Brisée. I don't really know why I said I "graduated" to this recipe because in fact it's very simple. It just feels more grown up, I guess, to do things Julia's way. The dough goes together very quickly - no food processor required - and after chilling, rolls out very nicely. This occasion was not, however, my finest attempt at this pie crust. The kitchen was warm, and because I had forgotten to buy shortening the day before, I didn't end up rolling out the dough and assembling the pies until 20 minutes to party time, so I was more rushed than I should have been. This meant I ended up leaving the bottom crust a little thicker than the desired 1/8", my top lattice was a little skimpy and messy, and the edges were dreadful-looking. The best moment, though, in making these pies was when I went to mix up the filling and discovered we were low on sugar. I had bought extra flour in anticipation of making the crust, but completely forgot about sugar! To make a double recipe I needed 2 cups of sugar. The sugar cannister contained about 1 1/2. Pondering whether there was time to run to the store, or whether we could get by with a tangier pie, I looked up and saw the Alessi sugar bowl that sits,unused, decoratively on the counter. I tentatively lifted the lid to - Hooray! - discover plenty of sugar for my final half cup, with plenty leftover for spinkling on top of my inferior lattice. The pies were trouble, and stressful, but they were also a huge hit. Authentic Texas BBQ and homemade Strawberry Rhubarb Pie? Killer party, every time.

Finally, I turned to a couple of what-have-come-to-be-standbys for pre-dinner snacks. First, the always-delicious, always easy Goat Cheese Stuffed Peppers, peppadew version. The self-contained nature of the peppadews is too good a bonus to ignore, so they've pretty much become my standard pepper of choice when it comes to goat cheese fill-ability. The only down-side of the peppadews is they tend to be a bit sticky to handle, due I suppose to the brine in which they're packed. This time I therefore drained the peppers into a collander, rinsed them thoroughly with water, and set them upside-down on a paper towel for about half-an-hour to dry. I bought and filled two jars of peppadews, and all but about 3 were eaten by the end of the evening. The pre-rinse seemed to take care of the stickiness factor.

The other standby for us is Ana Sortun's amazing Whipped Feta with Roasted Red Peppers. If you don't live in the Boston/Cambridge area, or if you do but have other things to think about than eastern-Mediterranean restaurants, Ana Sortun is the proprietor and chef at Oleana, an amazing Cambridge restaurant. (Watch out for that link - it comes with startling background music.) The Whipped Feta is one of the restaurant's pret à manger items, and it's incredible. The recipe is included in Sortun's cookbook Spice. Not sure what the protocol is on reprinting cookbook recipes, but since, by comparison to the Whipped Feta, all the other recipes I've tried from this book are extremely complicated, time-consuming, and failure-prone, I don't feel too bad giving out the ingredients for one little starter dish:

1 lb sheep's or goat's milk French feta, drained and broken into rough 1/2-inch pieces or crumbled

2 medium red bell peppers, roasted, peeled, seeded, and roughly chopped, and drained of excess juice

2 tsp. Aleppo chilies plus a pinch for garnish

1 tsp. Urfa chilies plus a pinch for garnish

1/2 tsp. smoked Spanish paprika plus a pinch for garnish

1 tsp. lemon juice

1/4 cup olive oil

Place all ingredients in a medium mixing bowl and combine so that the sweet and hot peppers coat the cheese.

Purée the mixture in a food processor for about 2 minutes, until very smooth and creamy. The mixture will be quite loose, but will set when chilled (at least 30 minutes).

Sprinkle with a pinch of all three chilies to garnish.

I've found that a half recipe is plenty for pre-party snacking. Although I've tried oven-roasting bell peppers, the only successful method I have found for roasting them - sufficient to allow for peeling off the skin - is to set them directly on a (gas) stovetop flame and allow them to char for several minutes on all sides. (This also makes your house smell very nice and spicy.) When blackened on all sides, place the pepper(s) in a bowl, cover with plastic, and allow to steam for about 5 minutes. Remove from bowl, and peel/rub off skin.

I lucked into a very good spice shop in Inman Square where I can usually find both Urfa and Aleppo chilies - not sure about their availability elsewhere. The feta has almost a pimento-cheese flavor about it, but it's so much more. It's deliciuos on bread, but can also be served with celery, endive, or fennel. (I've personally never tried the fennel and wonder if it mightn't be too strong - not sure.)

So, that's the story - that's our party. (Leaving out the customary olives, cheese, chips and salsa, etc.) Very good food - a little too much work to try to take on in one day, but each of the above recipes is perfectly doable on its own, delicious, and highly recommended. And don't forget Salt Lick next time you want a unique main dish for a big group.

Lessons Learned:

#1 Better to have slightly overcooked potatoes than slightly undercooked - pretty much in all cases, but certainly for potato salad. Check the potatoes - with your teeth - before taking them off the stove.

#2 Less is probably more, but if you can't resist making up all your favorite recipes, at least plan ahead enough so that you can make, or start, a few things the night before.

#3 Always check your sugar - and flour - cannisters. Everyone thinks to buy strawberries, or apples, or what-have-you when making a pie, but when was the last time you checked your sugar supply?

*The recipe calls for bacon, but I substitued soy bacon to make it vegetarian-friendly. I'm sure it's better with real bacon, but oh well.

**I left the bacon out altogether for this one.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Deep Chocolate Cake

Another long time no see. Write.

Tonight, I made a cake because tomorrow is our business manager's last day at work. Now, I realize that I have only been at this job for not even three months, but my loyalty is in my cakes. I guess you could say.

Dana requested a chocolate cake. Amazingly, in all the cakes I have made, I haven't made many chocolate cakes. I went all out and got a recipe from Better Homes and Gardens and tried it out. I'll post the pics of the finished cake tomorrow.

The cake is a deep chocolate cake. It smelled heavenly in the oven.

Deep Chocolate Cake:


cup unsweetened cocoa powder
cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
teaspoon baking soda
cup butter, softened
cups sugar
ounces unsweetened chocolate, melted and cooled
teaspoons vanilla
cups milk

  • First (my own instructions) before you do ANYTHING, melt the unsweetened chocolate. Otherwise, you'll be waiting around for it to cool.
  • Grease three 9-inch round baking pans, three 8X8X2-inch square baking pans; lightly dust each pan with 1 teaspoon of the cocoa powder. In a medium bowl, stir together the remaining cocoa powder, flour, baking powder, and baking soda. Set aside.
  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
  • In a large bowl, beat the butter with an electric mixer on medium to high speed for 30 seconds. Add sugar; beat until combined. Add eggs, one at a time, beating for 30 seconds after each addition.
  • Beat in chocolate and vanilla. Alternately add flour mixture and milk to chocolate mixture, beating on low speed until well mixed. (Batter will be thick. - That's what they say - I say it looks like chocolate mousse! Yum!)
  • Divide batter among prepared pans; spread evenly. Bake in the preheated oven for 20 to 25 minutes or until a toothpick inserted near the centers comes out clean. Cool in pans on wire racks for 10 minutes. Remove from pans. Cool completely on wire racks.
My cakes only took 17 minutes to bake. It was my first experience with this oven so that may be the reason...I have the world's crappiest oven. It doesn't even have a viewing window. Crapola-ish.

While the cakes were baking, I curled some milk chocolate. It was warm in the house and the chocolate didn't want to curl nicely so I got mini curls. They look fine and taste even better, but for nice curls, just simply use a vegetable peeler along the length of a good quality chocolate bar. The longer the better. So pretty. I used parchment paper for the curls to fall on and then put them in the fridge until frosting time. Like I said, it was warm in the house and those little curlies melt fast.

Chocolate Sour Cream Frosting:


12 ounces semisweet chocolate pieces (2 cups)
cup butter
ounces dairy sour cream
cups sifted powdered sugar (about 1 pound)

  • Make sure to buy sifted confectioner's sugar. Most of the time, you won't need to sift it like I had to tonight. Which made my arm HURT and my frosting wasn't nearly as fluffy or light in color (meaning it was well beaten - with chocolate frosting, the lighter it gets, it usually means it is getting fluffier - but not always - I'll stop commenting now...)
  • In a large saucepan melt chocolate and butter over low heat, stirring frequently. Cool for 5 minutes. Stir in sour cream. Gradually add powdered sugar, beating until smooth. This frosts tops and sides of three 8- or 9-inch cake layers.
Cake Assembly:

Optional Ingredients:

Chocolate curls
Fresh raspberries
Fresh mint sprigs

  • To assemble cake, spread Chocolate-Sour Cream Frosting on tops of two of the layers; stack. Add top layer; frost the top and sides of the cake. If desired, while frosting is still moist, use a 4- to 6-inch wooden skewer or tweezers to lightly press chocolate curls into frosting around the bottom two-thirds of the cake. If desired, garnish top with raspberries and mint. Store, covered, in the refrigerator. Makes 12 to 16 servings.
I used strawberries. They are in season and raspberries aren't. So there, cake recipe people! Anyway, I hulled those tasty little guys and halved them and just arranged them nicely on the top of the cake. I sprinkled the top and the bottom edge with the chocolate sprinkles. It still needed a little pretty, so I added so malt balls - some halved - and strawberry quarters along the bottom edge. I would probably use more chocolate curls next time and more malt balls. They look cool in the picture on BHG's website.I hope it's good!! I'll let you know.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Super-Easy Peanut Butter Cookies

Just a quickie post about yet another very simple but satisfying recipe.

Last summer when I was moving, I promised a coworker of mine cookies in exchange for his box- and furniture-lifting skills. But not just any cookies, for this particular coworker is very finicky about what makes for a good cookie: not too sweet, not too doughy, no chocolate, etc.. Since I didn't want to be wasting my time making something he would scoff at, I asked him to bring me his mother's cookie recipes - his particular standard for what all cookies should be. He gave me three recipes: molasses, oatmeal raisin, and peanut butter. This recipe is for the latter, which is probably the easiest cookie recipe I've ever made. In fact, when I first saw the ingredient list I thought there must have been a mistake - that is, an omission - in the ingredient list.

Here's what you need for one batch of cookies (makes about two dozen):

1 cup sugar
1 cup peanut butter (your choice as to smooth or chunky)
1 egg
1/2 tsp. vanilla

Only four ingredients! For cookies! No flour, no butter, no nuts, no chips. So simple!

Can this possibly produce something edible? Keep reading...

The only sort of un-fun part of this recipe is what comes next:


As we all know, peanut butter is a uniquely sticky, stubborn substance. It doesn't mix particularly well with our own saliva - a phenomenon I once tried to capture in song with a catchy little number called Peanut Butter Stuff Me* - let alone with sugar, egg, and vanilla. If you have the initiative to involve your mixer, then you're home-free. Personally, I hate to drag out the Kitchen Aid for a four-ingredient recipe. What's the point of simplicity if I have to wash my mixer when I'm done? So I opt for good ol' elbow grease.

When you've got the ingredients reasonably well combined, roll the mixture into 1 1/2" balls, and place on an ungreased cookie sheet. (Leave sufficient space between cookie-balls for the cookies to spread as they bake.)

At this point the recipe just says to press with a fork, but if you don't mind getting another dish dirty, my Mom and I recommend pouring a little sugar onto a dish and first dipping your fork in that (you may have to press one cookie first to accumulate enough grease for the sugar to stick to the fork). With your fork nicely sugared-up, press each cookie-ball with your fork in the traditional criss/cross pattern.

Place the cookie sheet in a preheated 350-degree oven, and bake for approximately 10 to 12 minutes, depending on degree on desired crispness, and keeping in mind that cookies will continue to bake (and therefore harden) after they're removed from the oven. I generally start checking them at about eight minutes, because an overdone cookie is not a particularly appealing cookie - to me, at least.

And there you have it. Taste one. They're very yummy - not too sweet - pretty much just solid peanut butter, with a little sugar so you know it's a cookie, and a little egg to hold it all together.
* This was followed by the lesser-known but slightly more tuneful Eatin' Jelly with Mom and Dad. I'll readily admit that at age 5 (or 6?) my song compositions weren't especially complex or clever, but both are catchier, if less didactic, than the annoying Peanut, Peanut Butter - And Jelly song. (Although one of my nephews used to love that song as a little kid, so I hold no grudge against its having made the big-time while my humble offerings remain in virtual obscurity...)

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Now broadcasting from Kansas City

Why hello!

Okay, so I don't actually have any cool projects to post. I have done very little after my move to Missouri. Plus, my camera DIED. So terrible.

Anyway, I can't say that I didn't do ANYTHING. I helped my (step) sister's Mom reorganize and redecorate her basement office. I will post pictures of that as soon as I can get over there with a camera. The only thing I did crafty was to make her four curtain panels from a pair of curtains I bought at Target. We also did a great combination of black with brown and tan. Who says that black and brown don't go together? Ha!

Like I said, pics to follow.

Also, I am moving this Saturday so I can begin to post pics of the new place! It's pretty plain Jane but I am excited to get moved in and all decorated living in my own place in midtown Kansas City! Two minutes from work!! Woo!

Oh. And I bought this fantastic chair at Goodwill for $4.98 and we're hoping to make it even more fantastic in the next few months. I just love mid-century furniture (it's a Baumritter which in 1969 changed its name to the well-known Ethan Allen.)
One more thing, Mom got my funky, swivel chair a makeover from an upholsterer over Christmas, so I'll post pictures of how good it looks (no more kitty scratching post!) when I get it up here!

Until then, see you and miss you all (especially Christie!)!

Man, that wedding soup looks AWESOME.

Sunday, February 22, 2009


Well, Mardi Gras is just a couple days away. I've never been to the various parades and festivities in New Orleans myself, but my Mom being from New Orleans, I grew up playing with boxes of Mardi Gras beads and dubloons. It's probably just as well that my family stopped going down for the parades before I was born, or I could have ended up in a picture like this, but at any rate, an appreciation for this particular holiday has always stuck with me.
When my old roomie Julie and I moved to the Northeast many years back, we were shocked and dismayed to discover that no local bars or restaurants seemed to acknowledge the event. So we began hosting our own mini-Mardi Gras, festooning our dumpy little apartment in purple, green, and gold, and serving up Central Grocery-style muffalettas, crab dip, King Cake, and other Southern delicacies to mildly bewildered coworkers. We got more creative as we went along, at our apex serving up color-coordinated pre-mixed cocktails (margaritas for gold, "leapin' lizards" for green, and I believe hurricanes for purple).

Without an equally-enthused cohost these days, and with considerably less energy myself, I can't say I'm up to all the effort of putting on a whole party, but I like to continue the festivities on a smaller scale. This recipe is from my Mom, and I think it's a safe assumption that she got it from her mom - above, far right - or from her wonderful aunts - above, far left and second (adult) from right. Praline recipes vary considerably - some are hard, some are sticky. These are the kind I grew up with and are therefore just right as far as I'm concerned. I love to break off a piece and let it slowly disintegrate on my tongue into sweet, buttery goodness. They're heavenly, and they bring back fabulous memories, if not of New Orleans, then certainly of our old house in Arkansas.

The best thing about this recipe is how little time it takes, start to finish. Mom used to go into the kitchen and emerge 10 minutes later with a fresh plate of pralines. And when they were gone, she would (sometimes) pop back in and make another batch just as quickly.

The second best thing about this recipe is how basic the ingredients are. If you have a reasonably well-stocked kitchen, you can probably make them right now. Probably at most all you need to go buy is some pecans.

Before we proceed, however, it is vitally important that you know exactly what you're making - which is to say, that you know how to pronounce it. Repeat after me: "PRAH - LEENS". Can you say that? Very good. Make sure, too, to get the accent on the second syllable. You may have heard others refer to a Southern candy called "PRAY - LEENS." I have no idea what this could possibly be, but it sounds dreadful to me. Alright? All set to make some prahleens? Let's get going.

To make approximately 16 pralines, you will need:

1 cup sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar, packed
1/4 cup milk
1 T. butter
1 cup pecan pieces
1 tsp. vanilla
I like the pecan pieces to be fairly large - I break them by hand into the measuring cup, breaking each pecan half once at most, and leaving a few unbroken.

Combine sugars, milk, butter, and pecans in a heavy saucepan.

Bring to a boil.

Boil for 1 1/2 minutes.

Remove from heat.

Add 1 tsp. vanilla.

Beat to a cream, about 3 minutes.

Drop in spoonfulls onto greased wax paper and allow to cool.

Once the process gets going, it moves quickly, so it's important to prepare your wax (or parchment) paper before you start cooking. For a candy recipe this is pretty simple (no exact temperature requirements); however, it's important to time things exactly according to the directions. For me this means resisting the urge to start tidying up while the candy is boiling.As you beat the mixture to a cream, you'll notice - probably after about 2 minutes - that it will start to thicken up quite quickly. The exact moment at which to stop beating and begin dropping is difficult to describe, but in general it's better to guess a bit early (when it still seems runny) than late (when you could end up with one giant praline stuck to the inside of your pan). The best thing to do is to test-drop when it starts to thicken and see whether the candy runs all over the counter or whether it sets up.

The longer the mixture stays in the pan, the more rough & sugary the consistency will be. This means the final pralines you drop may not be the prettiest. I like to drop the last dregs in small, coin-size pieces in between the larger pralines. These make great "tester" pieces for the cook or other "helpers" who happen to be standing by.

If you end up waiting too long to start dropping and the mixture is un-droppable, no worries. Run some water in the pan, wash it out, and start again. Chances are you have enough ingredients to make another batch, right?
Finally, I can't resist telling my personal Praline Disaster Story. Everything was going smoothly; I timed the candy boiling perfectly, and added my teaspoon of vanilla just as I was supposed to. Except, at this point I noticed that the candy suddenly had a less buttery-sugary smell and more of a harsh-minty smell. What happened? As I continued to beat my mixture to a cream, I glanced down at my bottle of vanilla. Except it wasn't a bottle of vanilla. It was a bottle of peppermint extract. What else could I do but continue to beat the candy and eventually drop my weird praline mints onto the paper? Take it from me, this is was not one of those peanut butter/chocolate collision moments.

However, if you do have interest in trying some variations on the classic praline flavor, there's an old Southern Living article - no longer, alas, on their website - with several different flavor possibilities using a slightly different recipe. Some helpful person has transcribed the original article at post #15 on this page.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Italian Wedding Soup

Let's pretend that this whole months-long blogging hiatus never happened and just dive back in, shall we?

When my boyfriend had an unexpected dentist issue/visit the other day, I embarked on a quest to find a new soup recipe for dinner. My existing soup repertoire consisting of vegetarian chili, which isn't really soup, and one semi-failed attempt at potage parmentiere, perhaps this was a worthwhile endeavor regardless of the dental situation. As it was, the potage didn't seem filling enough on its own, and the chili had troubling spiciness issues. (It's also a bit time-consuming, or is if you do all the chopping by hand - something I always do with that recipe because the texture comes out much better that way. Sometime I should post that recipe, I guess.)

Seeking something simple yet filling, I somehow landed on the idea of Italian Wedding Soup. My first go-to recipe site is usually
epicurious because its recipes come from both Gourmet and bon appetit, which I consider to be pretty reliable and kind of more upscale, which I like. Oddly, however, there were no IWS recipes to be found there. Next I checked My Recipes, which accesses recipes from Southern Living, Cooking Light, and Sunset, among others. Again no results that had anything to do with what I consider to be Italian Wedding Soup. Finally, I hit on a recipe from Giada de Laurentiis over at the Food Network site. Now, Giada doesn't look like she's ever eaten so much as one meatball, let alone a bowl-full of them, but who says being a good cook has to go along with being a big eater? Anyway, in her case I assume she inherited a trunk-full of recipes from a healthy-looking nonna-type who's not afraid of a little butter.

This recipe is much closer to the type of soup I had in mind: broth-based (chicken), with leafy greens, meatballs, and a little parmesan.

Ingredients - meatballs
1 small onion, grated
1/3 cup chopped fresh Italian parsley
1 large egg
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon salt
1 slice fresh white bread
, crust trimmed, bread torn into small pieces
1/2 cup grated Parmesan
8 ounces ground beef

8 ounces ground pork

Freshly ground black pepper

Ingredients - soup
12 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1 pound curly endive, coarsely chopped (1 pound of escarole would be a good substitution)
2 large eggs
2 tablespoon freshly grated Parmesan, plus extra for garnish
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

To make the meatballs: Stir the first 6 ingredients in a large bowl to blend. Stir in the cheese, beef and pork. Using 1 1/2 teaspoons for each, shape the meat mixture into 1-inch-diameter meatballs. Place on a baking sheet.
To make the soup: Bring the broth to a boil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add the meatballs and curly endive and simmer until the meatballs are cooked through and the curly endive is tender, about 8 minutes. Whisk the eggs and cheese in a medium bowl to blend. Stir the soup in a circular motion. Gradually drizzle the egg mixture into the moving broth, stirring gently with a fork to form thin stands of egg, about 1 minute. Season the soup to taste with salt and pepper.
Ladle the soup into bowls and serve. Finish soup with parmesan cheese if desired.

A few things were unexpected. I hadn't heard of including egg, and I was expecting some sort of pasta. Also, whereas she uses curly endive for her veg, I'm more used to seeing something like kale or spinach. I guess because of these issues, I clicked over to the Comments page that accompanies the recipe. If you're willing to suffer through bad grammar and folksy parlance such as "Hun this is the BEST !!", there's a lot of useful information to be gleaned from the comments page.

For starters, many people seem to have substitued spinach for the curly endive. I had been willing to try for endive or - her suggested substitution - escarole; however, Whole Foods let me down on this one, so I too opted for spinach. Another main comment was using sweet Italian sausage in place of some or all of the recommended ground beef and pork. Again I was willing to follow the recipe here, but finding no ground pork at the store I was happy to know I would be safe using Italian sausage instead. Also regarding the meatballs, many people said they had first browned them before adding them to the broth. I didn't read back through the entire comment log, but I'm guessing that if people are doing this, it's because unbrowned meatballs either fell apart in the broth or were undercooked. Either way, I was happy to take the time to brown them. (In fact, Mike browned them while I got the broth going. He was also helpful rolling the meatballs, which I believe would otherwise be the most time-consuming part of the whole recipe.)

The one change - addition, I guess - I knew I wanted to make was adding some pasta. Not only does this increase the filling-ness factor, but it also jibes better with what I think of as classic IWS. Several commenters recommended a pasta called acini de pepe. I had to
wikipedia the name to determine that it was a type of pasta (as opposed to some type of Italian pepper?), but it's apparently a very small, pepperc0rn-size pasta that's often used in soups. Many other people, however, had used orzo, with which I was familiar. I was all set to go with the acini de pepe but, not finding it at the store, went with the orzo. Given the opportunity I think I'd prefer the acini etc., as its texture would be kind of fun in the soup and it somehow feels more Italian. One of the downsides of adding something extra to a recipe is you don't know exactly when and how to do it. One commenter said she'd used a cup of orzo so, making a half-recipe, I put in a half-cup right after the broth came to a boil and pretty much immediately added the meatballs and spinach. I don't know if this was really a mistake or not. It's definitely true that the orzo was not fully cooked within the 8 minute cooking time for the meatballs and spinach; however, I don't think the meatballs and spinach were particularly hurt by hanging out another 5 minutes waiting for the orzo to cook. I suppose, to do it over again, I could cook the pasta separately and add it at the end, but that creates another pan to clean (you're already adding one for browning the meatballs) and another burner to focus on. I think instead I would let the pasta cook a bit longer next time before adding the rest of the ingredients, although even here you have to be careful, because you certainly don't want to come out with mushy pasta.

As for the egg, I think I could take it or leave it. We happened to have eggs at home, so I didn't mind adding them, but I don't know that I'd buy a carton of eggs purely for their inclusion in the soup.

But, to get to the important thing, this soup was absolutely delicious and also very easy and relatively quick to make! We had enough for leftovers the next day, and it was equally good, if not better. To coin a phrase, Hun this is the best! I definitely plan to make this recipe a few more times while the weather stays chilly up here. However, my modified take on the recipe will be as follows:

Ingredients - meatballs
1 small onion, grated

1/3 cup chopped fresh Italian parsley
1 large egg
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon salt
1 slice fresh white bread, crust trimmed, bread torn into small pieces
1/2 cup grated Parmesan
8 ounces ground beef
8 ounces ground sweet Italian sausage
Freshly ground black pepper

Ingredients - soup
12 cups low-sodium chicken broth

1 pound fresh spinach, coarsely chopped
2 large eggs (optional)
2 tablespoon freshly grated Parmesan, plus extra for garnish
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup orzo, acini de pepe, or other small pasta

To make the meatballs: Stir the first 6 ingredients in a large bowl to blend. Stir in the cheese, beef and Italian sausage. Using 1 1/2 teaspoons for each, shape the meat mixture into 1-inch-diameter meatballs.

Heat 2 T oil in a large skillet. Add 2-3 T butter. When fat has melted to coat the pan, add meatballs to pan in a single layer (do half at a time if necessary). Cook until lightly browned, turning as necessary. Remove from pan and set aside.
To make the soup: Bring the broth to a boil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add the pasta and cook one or two minutes, depending on recommended cooking time. Add the meatballs and spinach and simmer until the meatballs are cooked through, the spinach is tender, and the pasta is cooked to desired consistency, about 8 minutes. Whisk the eggs (if desired) and cheese in a medium bowl to blend. Stir the soup in a circular motion. Gradually drizzle the egg mixture into the moving broth, stirring gently with a fork to form thin stands of egg, about 1 minute. Season the soup to taste with salt and pepper. Ladle the soup into bowls and serve. Finish soup with parmesan cheese if desired.