Saturday, December 31, 2011

Top 5 Recipes of 2011

I can't believe 2011 is almost over.  In one year, I quit my job, went back to school, finished two semesters, and landed a student teaching position.  It's amazing what can happen in a year, this blog not excluded.  I have had so much fun sharing recipes, workouts, and thoughts with all of you.  I have met some great people and made some pretty extraordinary things I would not have made if it wasn't for this blog.  Writing in this blog has definitely helped me through my quarter life crisis, and I thank all of you for reading along.  I look forward to what 2012 has in store.

I had flip-flopped between calling this the top 5 posts or the top 5 recipes.  From the beginning, I wanted my blog to be a collection of topics, but it seems that this blog is slowly becoming more of a "food blog."  I'm not surprised, actually.  I don't know if I've ever told this story, but I knew something needed to change when I asked my mom, "How do you know when the soup is done?"  Yup, that happened.  After that, I began experimenting with cakes, cupcakes, cookies, dinners, and appetizers/sides.  Finding my way around the kitchen will certainly continue in 2012 as part of navigating through my quarter life crisis, and I hope to bring you a greater number of varied recipes throughout the course of the year.  I also hope to keep up with my running and workout posts, as well as updates on my path to become a teacher.

Honorable mention:  It's My Gym Too!

I had thought to write this post when I was trying to convince my mom to start using the free weights at the back of the gym.  Most women are hesitant to use free weights because (1) they are unsure of how to use them and (2) the back of the gym is filled with giant boys.  I wanted this post to be a starting point for a series of free weight workouts (which there will be more of in 2012!), and I posted this one a few days later.  I hope to continue posting about my running and ventures in the "back of the gym" in the upcoming year and help others find workouts that can get them in the best shape possible.

5.  Butterbeer Cupcakes

I'm not surprised these cupcakes made the list since they were made to mimic a popular drink from the Harry Potter series.  I was incredibly proud of these cupcakes because, even though I got the idea from another source, I adapted my basic white cake recipe to mimic the buttery and butterscotch taste of what I imagine actual butterbeer to taste like.  And I was very happy with the results.

4.  Grilled Pizza

This post was from one of my favorite nights this past summer.  Inspired by a dinner I had at Cape Cod, I invited all of my friends over to make grilled personal pizzas.  Even though it was dark and threatened to rain, everyone had a great time making up their own pizzas.  The pie dough was easy to make and the load was lightened on my end since I asked people to chip in toppings.  This was a great summer party idea and I hope to do it again this coming summer.

3.  Soft Gingerbread Cookies (Nana Cookies)

I think this is my favorite recipe from this year.  I had set out to find a recipe for soft gingerbread cookies that tasted just like my Nana's cookies.  After adapting a recipe I had found on Two Peas and Their Pod, I had come across the perfect recipe that brought me back to my grandmother's house in Connecticut.  Not only did I love the taste and texture of these cookies, but I made about 70 of them this past month and was able to share them with family and friends.  Even though these are traditionally Christmas-time cookies, I know I'll be making these throughout 2012.

2.  Butterscotch Whoopie Pies

To be honest, I didn't expect this recipe to make top 5, let alone take 2nd place.  I think this post was so popular because I included a tutorial on how to make whoopie pies using a piping bag.  And honestly, who doesn't love whoopie pies?  These came out so delicious and I'll actually have a new whoopie pie recipe to post within the first few days of 2012!

1.  Shrimp and Grits for Pat

I think the reason this recipe was the most popular was because of the story that went with it.  One reason I loved this blog is it has allowed me to share every part of my quarter life crisis, both the good and the bad.  Making this dish and sharing my story was incredibly helpful during my recovery and I thank all of you for spreading my story and taking it to heart.

I hope you all have a safe and happy New Year's filled with friends and family.  See you guys next year ;)

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Chocolate and Toffee Stuffed Brown Butter Cookies

I took part in my first cookie exchange this year.  The cookie exchanges I've been familiar with are ones that work like a Secret Santa, in which one person bakes cookies for another person.  The cookie exchange that I took part in was quite different (and much more enjoyable) since each person made cookies for everyone else.  We decided to keep the numbers under control and we made about 4 or 5 cookies for each person.  We all had a great time and everyone made some delicious cookies.  Plus, we each got to go home with each other's recipes!

When I first heard that we were doing a cookie swap, I wanted to make some over-the-top cookies for my girlfriends.  Jessica from How Sweet Eats has made some pretty extraordinary cookies, so when I saw the title of her newest endeavor, I knew I had found the cookie for the cookie exchange.  Let's take a minute to talk about these three amazing ingredients:

1. Brown butter.  I'd never even heard of brown butter until it popped up on Jessica's blog.  Basically, unsalted butter is melted and separated into fats and milk.  The milk solids will start to brown over low heat and give the butter a rich, nutty taste.  And that smell - wow.  Amazing.

2. Chocolate shavings.  Need I say more?

3.  Toffee.  I LOVE Heath bars.  When I worked at Cold Stone, one of my favorite combinations was banana ice cream with  Heath bar bits.  I love that crunchy, nutty taste AND it's covered in chocolate.  Put a chunk of it in the middle of cookie dough and you have the most delicious cookie ever.

Now, when you're melting the butter, be sure to keep it over low heat and watch it carefully.  First, the butter solids will separate and you'll see white bits on the top of the butter.  The bits can go from brown to burnt relatively quickly.  Bring it back to room temperature before you mix in the sugar, but don't leave it out for too long or else it'll begin to congeal.

I usually have this "bake everything at 350F" rule, but these cookies crisp up pretty quickly so I reduced the temperature to 325F for the second batch I made.  10 minutes is a generous estimate for how long you should leave them in the oven, so make sure you keep your eye on them...

The brown butter gives the whole cookie a nutty taste, and the bite of toffee in the center is really nice.  Plus, the cookies are flecked with semi-sweet chocolate shavings.  It's an amazing combination of flavors and I will certainly use the brown butter as a base for cookies in the future.  These were almost too good to give away, that was until I remembered I was trading them for 5 other varieties of cookie! :)  The cookie swap was great fun and I have some new recipes to try out!

Chocolate and Toffee Stuffed Brown Butter Cookies
Yield: 3 dozen
Prep Time: 40 min        
Bake Time: 8 - 10 min

-                1 1/3 c flour
-                ½ tsp baking soda
-                ¼ tsp salt
-                1 stick unsalted butter
-                ½ c brown sugar
-                ¼ c sugar
-                1 egg + 1 egg yolk
-                1 tsp vanilla extract
-                1 (4 oz) bar semi-sweet baking chocolate, chopped
-                Heath candy pieces,  coarsely chopped

Preheat oven to 325F.  Line a baking sheet with a silicone mat or parchment paper.

Heat butter in a saucepan over low heat.  Stir butter until it melts and continue to stir until brown bits appear in the bottom of the saucepan.  Immediately remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature.

Sift together flour, baking soda and salt in a small bowl.  Set aside. 

Add butter to a large bowl with the sugars and whisk until the sugars have dissolved.  Add in the egg, egg yolk, and vanilla extract and combine.  Add in dry ingredients about 1 c at a time and combine completely after each addition.  Fold in the baking chocolate shavings.

Form dough into balls and make a well in the center.  Fill with 1 or 2 pieces of Heath candy bar.  Roll dough back into a ball, covering the Heath candy pieces.  Add more dough if necessary.  Place on a baking sheet and place in oven for 8 - 10 minutes.  Let cool slightly on a baking sheet and then transfer to a wire rack. 

Adapted from How Sweet Eats

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Wreath Meringues

If you're looking for a last-minute holiday cookie, meringues are the way to go.  They're the most versatile and underrated cookie.  And they're incredibly easy to make.  And you probably already have all of the ingredients in your kitchen.  Just whip up egg whites (or meringue powder/water) with sugar and there you go.

You could even dye it and use different tips to make them into any design you want.  Just make sure you turn your oven off right before you put your cookies in and do not open the door for about 2 hours.  For best results, I'd suggest leaving them in the oven to dry out overnight.  In the spirit of Christmas, I affixed a star tip to a pastry bag and dyed my meringues green and made....

...pretty little wreaths!  With this design, I was actually able to make about 6 dozen cookies.  Meringue cookies are so light and sweet, I'm sure they'll please everyone on your Christmas list.  Merry Christmas everyone!

Yield:  5 dozen
Prep Time:  20 min        
Bake Time: 2 - 3 hours or overnight

-                2 tbsp meringue powder
-                1/3 c water
-                ¾ c sugar
-                pinch salt
-                1 tsp vanilla extract
-                Food coloring (optional)

Preheat oven to 350F and line a baking sheet with parchment or a silicone mat.

In a bowl, whip the meringue powder and water together until it becomes foamy and slightly stiff.  Add the sugar about ¼ c at a time and combine completely after each addition.  Whip on high speed until the meringue is stiff and glossy and add in the salt and the vanilla extract, whipping again to combine.  Add food coloring if desired. 

Attach desired tip on the end of a pastry bag and fill bag with meringue.  Pipe 2-in dollops onto baking sheet and place in the oven, turning it off immediately.  Allow to dry out in the oven for 2 to 3 hours or overnight. 

*Meringue powder and water can be substituted for 3 egg whites

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Potato Pancakes

The kids I nanny for celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas.  On Monday, they could hardly contain their excitement for the beginning of the festival of lights.  I feigned ignorance (as I love to do with children) and asked the 6-year-old to explain to me what Hanukkah is.  This is what I got:

"You think that Hanukkah is just one night [like Christmas] but it's not it's 8 nights which means 8 nights of presents."


Constructivism at work.  I know that as he gets older he'll build upon this conception of Hanukah, but right now Hanukah is candles, presents, and potato pancakes.

I knew Hanukkah was fast approaching when I saw their mom had stocked the freezer with about 20 boxes of potato pancakes.  I often make mashed potatoes for the kids so I understand that peeling a pound of potatoes isn't normally one's idea of a fun way to spend an hour, so I don't blame her for getting the store-bought kind.  In fact, my family will also get frozen potato pancakes from Trader Joe's (which by the way are different from their delectable hash browns) and they're just as good as the real thing.  That is until you try actual potato pancakes - the ones fried in oil.  And by try I really mean eat 4 of them in about 10 minutes.  So after this experience I thought I would broaden my horizons a little and try my hand at making potato pancakes from scratch.

Let me tell you, this is not something you plan to do about an hour before dinner.  I went to Chef Central and bought a special peeler for this endeavor.  I found the best way to peel potatoes (because there is a science to this), is to pull the peeler towards you.  Just be sure to go slowly and keep your fingers out of the way.  I find this gives you more control and you can get more peeling done in less time.

There are different ways you can prepare your potatoes.  You can mash them.  You can shred them.  Or, you can put them through a food processor.  I feel that, although it is extra work, shredding gives you the best consistency.  If you have a food mill, you could do this in a matter of minutes.  But, let me tell you, shredding is an amazing tricep workout...

So while you're shredding and working out your triceps, your potatoes will start to turn pink.  Don't freak out (like I did), this is just the starch in the potatoes coming out.  Rinse very well with cold water for a couple of minutes to remove the starches.  Heat up your oil, scoop in some potato mash, and when the edges start to get golden brown, flip them.  You can make them as big or little as you want, but remember the smaller they are, the easier they are to flip.  I fried mine in about 3 in. wide cakes.

These are such a special treat to have whether you celebrate Hanukkah or not.  You can always make them ahead of time and then reheat them in a 350F oven (which will also make them a little crispier).  And for those of you that do, Happy Hanukkah!

Potato Pancakes
Yield:  25
Prep Time: 40 min          Bake Time: 8 - 10 min (each)

-                4 large Russet gold potatoes, peeled and shredded
-                ½ lg onion, grated
-                2 eggs
-                ½ c flour
-                1 tsp salt and pepper
-                Oil for frying

Place shredded potatoes in a colander and rinse under very cold water for a few minutes to remove the extra starches.  Pat dry with a paper towel and transfer to a large bowl.  Add grated onion, egg, flour, and salt and pepper.  Stir to combine completely.

Heat oil in a frying pan over low to medium heat.  When the oil begins to bubble slightly (after about 5 minutes), spoon the potato mixture into the oil.  Allow to brown on one side for about 4 minutes and then flip.  Remove when golden brown on each side.  

Monday, December 19, 2011

Soft Gingerbread Cookies (Nana Cookies)

My grandparents passed away when I was young, but I'm lucky enough to have strong memories of them still.  I was also lucky enough to have my grandparents relatively close to me, so we were able to see them often.  I can still see my mother's parents' house in my mind, from the separate beds the two of them slept in to the pool table and slot machine in the basement.  The one thing I will always remember of my mother's mother is her cookies.  None of us ever really knew what was in those cookies, so we always called them Nana cookies.  And whenever we walked through the door of my grandparents' house, there would always be a container of Nana cookies waiting for us.  I'm pretty sure I also stuffed my face with about three or four before Nana put them away.  It's comforting to know that some things never change.

After Nana passed away, I didn't have those cookies again.  My aunt apparently has the recipe, but she said she's never been able to recreate them.  Once, my mom got some cookies from a coworker and she swore they tasted just like the Nana cookies, but I never got a chance to try them.  I had figured out years ago that Nana cookies were some sort of gingerbread cookies, but I never really understood how she made them so soft.  And besides, they didn't have that strong spice taste that many gingerbread cookies have.

Seeing the myriad of cookie posts in the blogs I follow brought back memories of these Nana cookies.  I made sure to really read the recipe for every ginger cookie I saw, but nothing really sounded right.  Finally, I came across a recipe by Maria of Two Peas and Their Pod.  I mean honestly, why didn't I think to check Maria's site first?  Her cookies even looked like the Nana cookies (except for the white chocolate chunks) and seemed to have the right texture and ingredients.  Plus, Maria knows her cookies, so any cookie recipe of hers couldn't be bad.  I bookmarked it and decided I would give it a try.

I cut the recipe in half and replaced the granulated sugar with brown sugar since I remember Nana's cookies being darker and richer than the ones listed here.  I also increased the amount of molasses.  This definitely made the cookie very rich, but it was not too sweet.  Plus, I think it helped balance out the intense taste you get from most gingersnap cookies.  When I opened the Tupperware container the next morning I was immediately transported back into my grandmother's kitchen - brown tiled floors and all.  I knew I got the recipe right.  I really loved these cookies for so many reasons and I know I will be making them again to share with my mom's side of the family for Christmas.

Soft Gingerbread Cookies (Nana Cookies)
Yield: about 3 dozen cookies
Prep time: 20 min          Bake time: 10 min

-                2 c + 2 tbsp flour
-                1 ¼ tsp baking soda
-                ½ tsp salt
-                ½ tsp cinnamon
-                ½ tsp ground cloves
-                ½ tsp ground ginger
-                ½ c unsalted butter
-                ½ c brown sugar
-                1/3 c molasses
-                1 tbsp canola oil
-                ½ tsp vanilla extract
-                1 large egg
-                granulated sugar, for rolling cookie dough balls

Preheat oven to 350F and line a baking sheet with either parchment paper or a silicone baking mat.

In a bowl, sift together the flour, salt, and spices.  Set aside

In a separate bowl, cream together the butter and the sugar.  Beat in the molasses, oil, vanilla extract, and egg until completely combined.  Add in the dry mix about 1 c at a time and combine completely after each addition.

Scoop dough into balls and roll in granulated sugar.  Place on baking sheet and bake in oven for about 10 minutes.  Remove baking sheets from oven and allow cookies to cool on sheets for about 5 minutes before transferring to a wire rack. 

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Pecan Pie

So I wanted to get this recipe up before Thanksgiving, but I think we all know how life tends to get in the way.  However, I believe pecan pie can be served any time of the year, and after making this recipe for Thanksgiving I will definitely be making it again for Christmas.

Pecan pie is hands down my favorite pie of all time.  Unfortunately, we never seem to eat it because the more popular and easier to make pumpkin pie and apple pie seem to take precedence in our holiday dessert spreads.  Compared to those recipes, this recipe looks very involved and complicated but believe me, it's not.  Just make sure you read through it before you plan to make it since you'll need to let the pie dough firm up in the refrigerator for about an hour, let it bake in the oven for about 20 - 30 minutes, and then bake the actual pie for about an hour.  But when you dig into this pie and taste the filling you'll realize it's so worth it.

This is the first time I rolled out an actual pie crust and it went (surprisingly) well.  I just put the pie dough in the center of this mat I got from Wilton and continued to roll out the dough, turning it as needed, until all sides reached the 12" mark.  If some parts of the dough were going over the mark, I'd just tear that piece off and use some water to attach it to another part of the circle that wasn't quite 12".

To transfer your dough to a pie plate, you simply roll it over the rolling pin and then unroll it over the pie plate.  I may be using the term "simply" loosely, since after multiple attempts at doing this the correct way, I basically ended up picking up my dough and tossing it into the pie plate.  You could also turn your pie plate upside down on top of the dough and flip your dough over with the pie plate.

Once you have your dough securely in the pie plate, simply press down the sides and bottoms of the dough to make sure there is no air trapped underneath the crust.  Then you go around the edges and fold the overhang underneath itself to create a ridge.  You can make a little design in that edge however you like.  I created this simple crimped design by placing my index and middle fingers on the outside of the crust and my thumb between my two fingers on the inside of the crust and pinched.  The act of pushing your thumb forward and index and middle fingers back creates this fluted edge.

The pie crust needs to be pre-baked, so before you put the unbaked crust in the oven you need to cover it with tinfoil and then fill it with either pie weights or dried beans/rice, which are so much cheaper.  Plus you can save the beans to use as pie weights over and over.  Baking the crust beforehand ensures that it keeps its shape when you fill it and bake it again later.  Also, make sure that the foil is flush against the edges as well or else you'll lose that pretty crimped design you made when the pie begins to bake.

The filling comes together in minutes.  Simply pour it into the center of the crust, brush egg wash over the crust to prevent it from burning, and place the pie back in the oven.  After about 45 minutes, test if the filling is set by seeing if it springs back when touched.  Oh and use a spoon, the pie is going to be super hot...

This pie may seem very involved, but believe me it is incredibly worth the time.  The filling is rich but not too heavy and incredibly luscious.  It would be the perfect thing to bring to a holiday party and I really look forward to making this again for Christmas.

Oh hey, look who came to join us.

This is a nightly occurrence at our dinner table.

Pecan Pie
Yield: 1 9-in pie

-                Pie Dough (frozen, mix, or made from scratch).
-                6 tbsp unsalted butter
-                1 c brown sugar
-                ½ tsp salt
-                3 eggs, lightly beaten
-                ¾ c light corn syrup
-                1 tbsp vanilla extract
-                2 c pecans, toasted and chopped

Prepare the crust and refrigerate for one hour.  If using a frozen crust, let defrost in the fridge for about 3 hours.

Preheat oven to 400F.  Remove dough from refrigerator and roll out onto a floured work surface until it is 12 in. wide and about 1/8 in. thick.  Roll dough around rolling pin and unroll over a pie plate, leaving a ½ in. overhang around the pie plate.  Press dough into bottom and sides of pie plate.  Fold the overhang underneath itself and crimp the edges of the dough as desired.  Using a fork, prick the dough all over the bottom and sides of the pie plate.  Refrigerate for 15 minutes.  *Note: if at any point during this process your dough becomes too soft put it back in the refrigerator for 15 minutes. 

When the dough is firm, remove from refrigerator and line pie crust with aluminum foil or parchment paper and fill with pie weights or dried beans.  Bake the crust for 15 minutes.  Remove foil or parchment and weights and bake for an additional 10 minutes, or until the crust is golden brown.  Remove from oven.

While the pie crust is baking, begin to melt butter in a double boiler or a heat-proof bowl over a saucepan.  You want the water to be barely simmering.  Mix in sugar and salt and stir until the sugar and salt have dissolved.  Remove pan/bowl from heat and beat in the eggs (but leave about 2 tbsp in the bowl for the egg wash), corn syrup, and vanilla extract.  Return the bowl to the hot water and stir until the mixture is shiny and hot throughout, about 10 minutes.  Remove from the heat and stir in about 1 ½ c of the pecans. 

After removing the crust from the oven, decrease the oven temperature to 275F and pour the pecan mixture into the pie crust.  Sprinkle remaining chopped pecans on top.  Brush egg wash over crust and place pie in the oven and bake until the filling is set and springs back to the touch (use a spoon!).  Baking time should take 45 – 55 minutes.  Remove pie from oven and allow to cool completely so the filling can set. 

Slightly adapted from Brown Eyed Baker

Friday, December 9, 2011

Take a Look at What I Did...

So I had some friends over the other night.  I wanted to serve them food.  So I did this:

I melted a block of this:

And poured in a can of this:

And stirred it all together and served it with chips.

I KNOW.  Have any of you ever had Velveeta?  First of all, it's not even in the refrigerated aisle.  Second, the texture reminds me of that cornstarch/water solution you make to teach kids about solids and liquids. You know, how it's supposed to be like a solid and a liquid at the same time?  Something you eat should never have those qualities...

But in all honesty, it wasn't bad.  It was a little spicier than I had expected, so next time I think I'll just get regular Rotel.  Or maybe even go so far as to chop up real tomatoes.  And melt them with real cheese. But let's not get carried away here...

But honestly, if you're having some friends over for SNF and need to whip up something quick before the Saints game, this dip really isn't a bad choice.  And it's just as good cold as it is hot, which is what my parents and I learned as we were all eating it straight out of the fridge the next day...