Saturday, December 18, 2010

Gingerbread Extravaganza

Brett's gingerbread house got a little more intense this year. Not only was it a house with two gables, which required a lot more engineering and calculation, but he also decided to add a second, rather large lighthouse... that actually lights up. Ambitious, yes. But when Brett puts his mind to something, there is no stopping him.

He stayed up late for two nights working on blueprints. He calculated angles and lengths using stuff he learned in trig back in high school. (If you look closely you'll see something involving cosine.) He figured out specific measurements for each piece.

Then he stayed up late for two nights rolling out the dough, meticulously measuring and cutting out each piece, and then baking them. He used Life Savers this year instead of Jolly Ranchers because Life Savers have the clear pineapple flavor. He used these for the lighthouse windows so that the light could shine out brightly. Unfortunately the sugar darkened a little bit and ended up being kind of a brownish yellow.

Then construction began. I tried to help, but my poor hands were way too shaky. I was quickly relieved of my duties.

Sometime in the middle of the night, while I was fast asleep, Brett piped fences for the house and lighthouse on a silpat.

The next night was for finishing touches. I applied the M&Ms to the roof, Brett did everything else... mostly while I was in bed fast asleep. He created a special compartment for the battery-powered tea light and made a removable roof so we could turn the light on and off. He also dyed a little icing green and piped some wreaths and bushes.

AND... it lights up!

I could not be more proud of his gingerbread house skills!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Super Chocolate Fudge Bundt Cake

Brett doesn't like chocolate. And that's ok with me. There are plenty of delicious, chocolate-free desserts out there. At my new job (the one that has unfortunately made blogging a low priority in recent months) everyone loves chocolate A LOT. I have unofficially declared myself the office birthday cake baker and this past week I was all set to make an angelfood cake, when I got an email from my boss regarding the birthday girl's cake preferences: "Her passion is chocolate." Well, first of all, you don't ignore the boss's guidance, and second of all, when someone's passion is chocolate, you can't give them an angelfood cake. The only problem was that I didn't have a stand-by recipe for a really decadent chocolate cake. I did a quick search on Tasty Kitchen and found this recipe for Chocolate Fudge Bundt Cake. It just looked like the kind of cake a chocolate lover would go crazy for.

The batter was super easy and fast to mix up: chocolate cake mix, instant pudding powder, sour cream, eggs, vegetable oil, water, and chocolate chips. I got out my lovely chrysanthemum bundt pan and sprayed gobs and gobs of Pam for baking. As pretty as this pan is, there are soooo many nooks and crannies for cake to get stuck in. I poured the super thick batter into the pan, popped it in the oven, and went to sit down.

About halfway through the baking process, I got up to check on it and saw that it was rising, which usually is a good thing, but it was rising up over the sides of the pan. There was not much I could do at that point, so I let it continue baking. I referred to the recipe, and it says to use a 10 inch bundt pan. I didn't break out the ruler, but I could safely say that my bundt pan is smaller than 10 inches. Oops!

When I pulled it out of the oven, it had risen some more--up and over the center hole. After it cooled, it did sink back down a little bit, but the hole was still covered over.

I flipped it over without incident, and like the rusty blogger that I am, I forgot to take a picture of the finished product. (If you would like to see what the chrysanthemum shape looks like, look at my amaretto cake.)

And the birthday girl loved it, which is all that matters to me! It was a chocolate lover's dream!

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Chicken Potpies

This meal was the ultimate team effort. Usually when I make the menu for the week I run out of ideas after three meals and start asking Brett for his input. Usually he has no input at all, which is very frustrating for me. However, last week Brett expressed an interest in making chicken potpies and even found us a recipe to try in that red and white checked Better Homes and Gardens cookbook that EVERYONE seems to own.

Our job assignments were very clear. I was in charge of the goo, Brett was in charge of the crust.

I chopped half an onion, a handful of baby carrots, and one potato. Then I boiled the potatoes and carrots for about 10 minutes (the prep was pretty similar to Cheddar Chowder) and threw in a handful of frozen peas for the last 2 minutes. While that was going, I sauteed the onion in a saucepan with a couple tablespoons of butter (the recipe called for mushrooms too, but I left them out.) I added 1/6 cup of flour and let that cook for about a minute before adding 1/2 tsp salt, 1/8 tsp pepper, a couple shakes of dried thyme, 1 cup of vegetable broth and 1/2 cup of milk. I stirred and stirred until that stuff got pretty thick, then I added the drained veggies and shredded chicken (leftover from a roasted chicken earlier in week.)

Meanwhile, Brett had been busy with mixing and rolling out the crusts. He just used a recipe for basic pie crust. Our potpie recipe is for the "fake" potpie where the crust is only on top. Brett wanted to do the "real" potpie with the crust all around. I must say that it was a great decision. He fitted our custard cups perfectly.

Of course he had the duty of spooning the goo into the crust and covering them with a top circle of crust.

To help get them in and out of the oven we snuggled the custard cups into a rectangular baking dish. They baked for about 15 minutes and came out gorgeous.

At this point it was nearly 7:30 and I was starving! The only problem with a potpie is you risk extreme mouth burns if you try to eat it right away. The goo is liquid hot magma! Potpies require patience and lots of blowing, and when I'm hungry, patience is not a quality that I possess.

When I could finally start eating it, it tasted pretty good. It was a little on the bland side, so next time I will put more salt and seasoning in the filling. We thought that we would each eat one and then split the third, but we were both pretty full after one. That means that we have one leftover to eat for lunch this weekend! In the future, I think this will be a weekend meal, simply because an hour and a half is too long for a weeknight meal.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Chow Mein with Hoisin Sauce

I love hoisin sauce. I think something I made long ago called for it because there's been a half full jar of it in my fridge for a very long time. I wanted to use it before it got too far past the "best by" date so I turned to the food network website and found this Chow Mein recipe from, strangely, Giada de Laurentiis.

The hardest thing about this recipe was cutting the carrots into matchstick-size pieces. I only had baby carrots, so I'm not sure if this made it harder or easier than a regular sized carrot, but I just took my time and tried not to slice my fingers.

The rest was super easy. I put the carrots and some frozen french-cut green beans into boiling water for one minute, then I took them out with a strainer and put them in cold water.

The pot of water went back onto the burner and when it quickly came back to a boil, I put a package of wide lo mein noodles in for 5 minutes. While that was going, I minced some garlic and fresh ginger.

I'm not sure if it was because the water had already been used (it's the only difference I can think of) but the water got really foamy and kept boiling over. It was really more annoying than anything else because I kept having to leave my cutting board to babysit the boiling noodles.

Once the noodles were done, I drained them, ran some cold water over them, and patted them dry with a paper towel. Then the noodles, garlic, and ginger went into a wok with some hot canola oil. I stirred for 3 minutes like the recipe said, but those noodles never got the slightest bit brown. Then I added the veggies and let those reheat for a couple of minutes. Then I added a mixture of hoisin sauce, soy sauce, vegetable broth, and honey, and let it thicken up for a couple of minutes.

By this point I was so hungry that I forgot to take a picture. Thankfully, Brett eats slower than I do and had a reasonable amount left on his plate.

It tasted good! I never realized that hoisin sauce has a little spicy kick to it, but I liked it. The only thing I might do differently next time is put a tad bit less sauce. It was a little bit overwhelming. All in all, I think we have a keeper! I love it when that happens!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Cinnamon Rolls

First of all... Happy Birthday Dad! He's probably the number one fan of this blog, so if anyone will see a birthday shout out on here, it's him.

Last week, for a Labor Day treat, Brett and I made some homemade cinnamon rolls. Believe it or not (I hardly do) I got this recipe from a fellow blogger waaaaay back in May of 2008. This recipe has been on my mind for over two years and I'm just now getting around to trying it! These rolls proved to be well worth the wait.

If you want to eat cinnamon rolls for breakfast, then you need to start making them the night before. So Sunday night we mixed up the dough (we used our stand mixer like the recipe says, but Brett would have rather done it by hand). I kneaded it for eight minutes and then we let it rise in our usual way (covered with plastic wrap, in the off oven, with a pan of hot water beneath) for 2 hours.

When it came out, it was time for Brett to do his thing! He punched it down and rolled it out into the proper dimensions and I slathered on the softened butter and sprinkled on the brown sugar/cinnamon mixture. Some of the brown sugar mixture sprinkled onto the mat instead of the dough, which is almost inevitable if you're me, but wincingly painful to watch if you're Brett.

I backed away and let Brett roll the dough into a log. I have no doubt that I would have made a giant mess. He, of course, was extremely careful and neat.

Next, Brett (again, I would have made a mess of this) sliced the log into 18 equal pieces and put them into the greased baking dishes (I can handle spraying Pam without making a mess...sometimes). The recipe called for two square 9x9 pans, but we used a 9x13 baking dish and a 9x5 loaf pan. It worked out fine.

After being refrigerated over night. I got them out and put them (still covered) in a cold oven with a pan of hot water underneath to rise for about an hour.

Then they baked for 18 minutes.

They looked ok when we pulled them out. But the real magic is hidden.

We flipped them out onto the cooling rack and simultaneously said, "Oooooh."

I stirred up some simple frosting (powdered sugar and milk). The recipe called for a cream cheese based frosting, but I think cream cheese flavor can be overwhelming sometimes, and I really wanted to be able to taste the cinnamon rolls.

The final product was absolutely wonderful. It got me thinking about Thanksgiving and Christmas and wanting to share these with family (also the fact that there were 18 rolls got me thinking about sharing). This is definitely a special occasion worthy breakfast and I've no doubt we will see these again.

They heat up great in the microwave too. We were eating the leftovers for the rest of the week.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Orange/Pineapple Shrimp

This was another recipe from Simple and Delicious that we tried during our meat-fest a couple of weeks ago. Their recipe was called Sesame Shrimp and Rice, but I believe this is a wildly inaccurate name. The mandarin oranges and pineapple chunks are what give this dish most of its flavor.

I started out with 20 minutes of peeling and deveining 18 GIANT shrimp. It was really gross and took forever. Next time I will ask the butcher to do it for me. I had peeled shrimp before, but never deveined. Yuck, yuck, yuck! The term "devein" is also wildly innaccurate, but I won't go into details.

Then I stir fried some snow peas with the shrimp and added some green onion when the shrimp were about half-way done. At the very end I dumped in a couple handfuls of mandarin oranges and lots of pineapple chunks. The mandarin oranges are so delicate that as soon as I started stirring in the sesame ginger sauce (the recipe says salad dressing, but we had some leftover sesame ginger teriyaki sauce) the oranges disintegrated. There was not a whole orange to be found anywhere in the finished product. Next time I will add the oranges last and not allow any stirring of any kind. Or maybe I will just place oranges on top after it is already plated.

The final product was pretty good. I wish the oranges had stayed whole and that I had put fewer oranges in. The orangey-ness was a little much for me. Brett liked the orange mush all over the place though. My favorite part, by far, was the shrimp. All that work to get them cleaned up and ready to go turned out to be mostly worth it... but I'm still never deveining my own shrimp again!

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Unwrapped Bacon Scallops

When we jumped off the vegetarian wagon, we really jumped off. This past week, in addition to a chicken, we bought scallops, shrimp, and ... bacon! Just two slices of the thick cut bacon from the butcher counter at Whole Foods, but it still counts.

Lately, I've been coming up empty handed with my Simple and Delicious magazine. More than lately. It had been three or four issues since anything even vaguely caught my eye. But this last issue, I found three things to try and they all were successes to varying degrees. We'll start with the biggest success: Unwrapped Bacon Scallops.

I had never made scallops before. I had only ever had a couple of bites of scallops off of Brett's plate (the grilled scallops at Legal Seafood are great). Brett is a big fan of scallops. As an elementary student he proudly proclaimed scallops his favorite food when all of his peers were saying pizza and burgers. So he was excited to try making our own, and a little nervous about it too.

I chopped up the bacon, sauteed it, and then set it aside to drain and crisp up a bit. I reserved a little bit of the bacon grease and cooked some onion, zucchini, and garlic in that. I didn't like that the onion cooked much faster than the zucchini. Next time I will put the zucchini in first and then add the onions and garlic. When that was almost done I scooted it to the outer edges of the pan, added the scallops, and sprinkled them with salt, paprika, and fresh thyme. The recipe called for seafood seasoning, but I didn't want to invest in a big can.

We let the scallops cook for almost three minutes on one side and then flipped them and let them cook for another two minutes.

How's this for a pretty plate? You all know I'm terrible at presentation ... so naturally, this is Brett's handiwork. I love the bacon sprinkled around the edge :)

It tasted great! We will definitely make this again.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Off the Wagon

Our vegetarianism morphed into what we called "at-home vegetarianism." This means that when we were on vacation, at a restaurant, or eating at someone else's house, we ate whatever we wanted, which many times, included meat. Our home however, had been consistently meat free since March...until recently. I decided that we needed to occasionally eat meat, so we went to Whole Foods and bought a chicken. The packaging said that it was raised by the Amish, and I have a hard time imagining the Amish mistreating their animals, so I deemed it acceptable meat to consume.

I stuffed the chicken with thyme, garlic, and lemons, rubbed it with butter, and sprinkled it with salt and pepper. It smelled wonderful and tasted fabulous. I was feeling ok with our decision to occasionally have meat in our house...until we turned on the T.V. I found it very ironic that the show we found ourselves watching, The Fabulous Beekman Boys on Planet Green, featured city guys turned farmers who just happened to be slaughtering their pigs in the episode we caught. They did it humanely, and those pigs lived very good "piggy" lives, but it was still sad. The guys in the show were crying, I was crying, and the chicken that I was stuffing into my mouth started to taste a little less delicious. It is hard for me not to think about the animal that died so that I could have a meal.

I don't know if this was a sign that we should stick with vegetarianism a little longer, or if it was just a reminder to be grateful for the animals we eat and respect their lives as much as possible. I just couldn't believe the timing! (The show is great, by the way. You should watch it if you get the chance!)

We intend to limit our meat to one chicken a month. I can come to grips with that. Afterall, the leftovers did feed us for an entire week! The chicken most certainly was not wasted.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Orzo with Chick Peas

We loved the Lemon Orzo Soup so much that we thought we should find another orzo recipe. It didn't take me long to find this recipe for Orzo with Chick Peas on Food Network's website. I debated whether or not to tell Brett that it's a Rachael Ray recipe, since he hates her with a passion, but a few of our stand-by favorites are hers so I figured he would be ok with it.

It has a lot of ingredients that just jumped out at me: orzo, red onion, garlic, zucchini, chick peas, and feta cheese. Yum, yum, yum, yum , yum, yum. I did leave out the mint and parsley, mainly because I don't like buying a big thing of herbs that I'm just going to use a tiny bit of. It was extremely easy to throw together, as I would expect of Rachael Ray. And before Brett could finish making the hummus, I was done!

I was worried about over-salting because Feta Cheese is already so salty and I probably ended up under-salting as a result. Any bite that had Feta was perfect, but the bites that were heavier on chick peas were a little bland. So my solution was just to make sure I had Feta in every bite! This was a tasty and easy side-dish that I'm sure we will make again.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Refrigerator Potato Bread

Brett and I are always looking for new bread recipes to try, so when Brett received Beard on Bread by James Beard for his birthday, we were immediately excited to get baking. When confronted with a new cookbook it is a little overwhelming so we decided to tempt fate and just open the book and make the first recipe we saw. This happened to be Refrigerator Potato Bread.

We got off to a bad start. I put the yeast, warm water, and ALL the sugar in the bowl, and then realized that I was only supposed to add some of the sugar. We waited to see if the yeast would bubble anyway, but it didn't, so we threw it out. Oops!

Brett took over and got the sugar measurement correct, only he let it proof for 15 minutes instead of 5. We got distracted and didn't set a timer. Oops again!

While Brett mixed in the rest of the ingredients (milk, butter, sugar, salt, and eggs) I whipped up some mashed potatoes using some potato flakes that we've had in the cupboard forever. I couldn't believe that Beard says that it is okay to use potato flakes! Then Brett started adding flour to form a stiff dough.

Instead of rising like usual, this bread goes directly into the fridge overnight. The next day when we took it out it looked pretty much the same. Punching it down was like punching play-do. At this point I was worried, but we moved ahead. Brett formed it into a loaf and then we let it rise our traditional way for 4 hours.

This time it did rise, so I stopped worrying.

It baked beautifully and tasted wonderful!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Birthday Cake!

Amidst all of this May busy-ness I had a birthday! Brett woke up early and baked the cake so it would be nice and cool when we returned from our day out on the town. My least favorite part of cake decorating is trying to get the icing perfectly smooth so Brett did that part while I piped pink roses. Then I did my trademark basketweave around the sides of the cake and piped the words. It's a little weird writing "Happy Birthday" to yourself, but I'm a firm believer that the birthday cake should have a name on it.

For the finishing touches, Brett added tiny purple flowers made by a special tip that I just can't figure out how to use. He's just got the magic touch I guess.

And after a short stint in the freezer, I placed the roses all over.

The cake turned out beautifully and tasted great too!

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Sweet and Spicy Grilled Cheese Sandwiches

Wow! I cannot believe that it has been a full month since I last posted! Between a new, full-time job, two sets of visitors, and the always busy month of May, I just didn't have a spare moment to blog. But enough excuses, I will try to do better!

One of our new favorite recipes was adapted from an Elie Krieger recipe called Sweet and Spicy Grilled Cheese Sandwiches. Her recipe calls for tomatoes, which we immediately eliminated.

What her recipe doesn't call for (and I decided to add on a crazy whim) is a thin layer of apricot jelly. Sounds weird but it is so good.

So first I thinly sliced half of a red onion and sauteed it in a teeny tiny bit of canola oil.

While that was going I spread butter on one side of each slice of bread, sliced up A LOT of pepper jack cheese, and spread some apricot jelly on the inside of half of the bread slices. Then I put the sandwiches together.

I wiped out the onion pan and used it to grill my sandwiches. There's no sense in dirtying a new pan! Since there is not melting cheese holding one side of bread on, you have to be very careful when flipping the sandwiches. I pretty much just hold it on with my hand until it's almost all the way flipped.

Then slice and eat!

The pepper jack cheese is pretty spicy (if it's too spicy just substitute a couple slices of cheddar but you have to leave a little bit of pepper jack otherwise there's no spicy in sweet and spicy!) And the apricot jelly and red onions add a wonderful sweetness that I just love! Sweet and spicy and very easy to make!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Lemon Soup with Orzo

Brett and I tried a new recipe out of Elie Krieger's The Food You Crave. Of course we adapted it to be vegetarian, which just means that we swapped chicken broth for vegetable broth and left out the chicken. We also left out the celery because Brett does not want celery anywhere near his food.

I sauteed some chopped onion, carrot and fresh thyme in some olive oil until the veggies got tender and then I added all of the broth. About one minute later I realized that I wasn't supposed to add all the broth so I dipped a measuring cup in the pot and then strained it into another measuring cup. Oops!

Orzo is great! I'd only had it a couple of times, but I had never cooked with it before. It looks like rice, but is actually pasta. I poured some orzo into the pot and let that cook.

When the orzo was almost done, I took that reserved liquid and heated it up in the microwave. Now for the weird part... I beat an egg, whisked in some lemon juice, and then gradually whisked in the hot vegetable broth to temper the egg. This mixture got added to the pot of soup and acted as a thickener. Just make sure that the soup doesn't come to a boil.

Admittedly, it is not the prettiest soup in the world (although Elie Krieger's is quite lovely.) I think that the brown vegetable broth instead of golden chicken broth kind of ugly-ed this dish up. But to me, all that matters is the taste, and it was anything but "tan"! The main flavor was lemon, but I think the fresh thyme is what really made this soup wonderful. The orzo also gave great texture. Yum! We liked it so much that we decided to make it again the next night for my parents who came all the way across the country to see us! And we will definitely be making it again in the near future.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Broccoli Cheese Stuffed Potatoes

We're trying to eat more vegetables. It's a constant battle for us because we want to eat healthy but we just don't really like vegetables. I've been that way my whole life. I remember as a kid I would eat broccoli, but only if it was absolutely doused in melted Velveeta "cheese". Don't even get me started on Velveeta. Any cheese that doesn't need to be refrigerated and can be found on the cracker aisle, is not cheese.

We've also been watching Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution and got a HUGE kick out of last week's episode when the school district's lunch nutrition enforcer declared that even though there were 7 different vegetables in his veggie noodle stir fry, he needed more vegetables on the tray, and then she suggested adding some french fries to reach the vegetable quota! French fries are not vegetables! Potatoes in general should not count as vegetables; they are a starch and should be placed in the same category as breads and grains. At least that's how we view them... and we are not experts.

All that talk about potatoes made me hungry for them (that should be another clue that they're not a vegetable!) I've had bad luck with baked potatoes in the past, but I decided to go with a new method that I found in Rachael Ray's Veggie Meals: poke them with a fork and microwave for 8 minutes. Then wrap them in foil and throw them into a 450 degree oven for 20 minutes. This method worked beautifully!

While the potatoes were baking, I whipped up the broccoli by steaming the florets in 1/3 cup of water for 5 minutes. It also turned out beautifully!

Last came the cheese sauce. I melted 1 T of butter then sauteed about half of a small onion (the recipe called for a shallot) until it was soft. Next I added 1 T of flour, then I added 1 cup of veggie stock and let it thicken. Finally, a HUGE gob of grated cheddar cheese made it's way into the pot. The steamed broccoli gets stirred around into the sauce and then it all gets poured over the split baked potato.

I loved these potatoes. Yes, it is an unsettling amount of cheese... but at least it's not Velveeta. And there's broccoli in there! I even ate the skin of the potato, which I usually don't do... that's how amazing this sauce is!