Mexican Wedding Cookies

When I was young, and (I'm ashamed to admit this), up until about 3 years ago, I was convinced that these cookies were my mother's. By that I mean her recipe that she was brilliant enough to dream up. I guess my mind as a child associated the "Mexican" in the title with my mom's Spanish (as in, from Spain) heritage...which shouldn't have made much sense 3 years ago anyway.

Imagine my surprise as I perused the grocery store (3 years ago) and came upon a pink Keebler box entitled "Danish Wedding Cookies," complete with a picture of powdered-sugar coated balls.

Could these...

Were these...

Were the Mexican Wedding Cookies that had always been a staple during Christmases of my childhood not been an example of my mom's brillance at work?

Apparently not, I soon confirmed with a quick Google search. The exact same cookies are not only known as Mexican Wedding Cookies, but also as the Keebler box suggested, as well as Russian Tea Cakes and, not so subtly, Pecan Snowballs.

Regardless of what you call them or what culture you associate them with, these cookies are often the only one of their kind on holiday potluck tables. They bake up much like shortbread, buttery and crumbly, and after a quick roll through powdered sugar, are irresistible at best and dangerous at worst. You may find you need to double the recipe (this one yields about 36).

You will need:

2 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cups powdered sugar, plus 1 cup for dusting
1 tbs vanilla extract
1/2 tsp salt
3/4 cup - 1 cup coarsely chopped pecans
2 1/2 cups all purpose flour

Preheat oven to 350F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. Knead all ingredients except pecans together until a ball forms, but do not overmix or the cookies will be tough. Knead in pecans.

Wrap the ball of dough in plastic wrap, and refrigerate until chilled enough to handle (about an hour). Form dough into balls, and bake 12-16 minutes until the balls are golden brown.

Allow to cool. Put the rest of the sugar in a large bowl. When the cookies are cool to the touch, place 2-3 at a time into the bowl, and shake to coat with sugar. Once all the cookies are coated once, sift the remaining sugar over the cookies to give a second coating.

Savory Bread Pudding

Man. Is it just me, or is it really hard to go back to eating normally after Thanksgiving? All I want are cookies.

Alas, I refuse to undo the work I've done all year and nullify my thrice weekly workouts by eating cookies morning, noon and night. Add to that the fact that I've become a part of my company's Wellness Committee, and therefore I. must. resist.

My carb cravings hit full tilt this time of year also, and they eventually become unignorable to the point that I have to give in from time to time, despite my best efforts to ingest main-dish salads every night leading up to Christmas (as the buffalo wings digesting from dinner laugh at that best effort).

Enter bread pudding...but not the sort that would quell my cookie craving. This is a savory bread pudding, which I'd like to think is fairly original and imaginative, but I'm sure I'm not the first to give it a shot. I had leftover Italian bread from my parents' visit over Thanksgiving, as well as half and half and a smattering of good cheeses from the same visit (my Italian father is a Grana Padano snob, while I'm generally content with Parmesan in a tub). Josh had just dried the final sprigs of a hearty sage plant that had survived at least two overnight frosts, so you see, I had no choice.

How do I know when a new dish is a hit? Josh tells me he loves me with his mouth full.

You will need:

2-3 slices bacon (peppered bacon would be sooo goooood)
1 shallot, sliced thinly into rings
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 or 4 leaves of chopped sage/2 teaspoons dried sage
4 1/2 cups of French or Italian bread cubes, cut from a loaf and loosely packed into a measuring cup
1 cup mixed grated cheeses (I used Grana Padano, white cheddar and muenster)
4 tablespoons heavy cream
Salt and pepper

Heat oven to 350 degrees.

Cook the bacon in a skillet over medium heat until crispy. Remove, crumble, and set aside. In the same pan, cook the shallot until beginning to brown, about 4 to 5 minutes. Add the garlic and sage and cook just until fragrant, about one minute (don't burn the garlic).

In a medium bowl, combine the shallot mixture, bread cubes, cheeses, and bacon. Pour in the cream and stir until everything is moistened. Add a pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper.

Transfer to a greased casserole dish and cook for 20-30 minutes until cheese is melted and bubbly.

November Daring Baker's Challenge: Crostata

This chocolate and ricotta tart is light, fresh and easy to make. I do wish I had gone with a different pastry - something saltier and flakier - but for the quick pastry it is, it works well with the ricotta filling. We had a couple of pieces once it cooled, and left the rest of the tart in the freezer for several weeks until the day after Thanksgiving, and it froze and defrosted perfectly.

The 2010 November Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Simona of briciole. She chose to challenge Daring Bakers’ to make pasta frolla for a crostata. She used her own experience as a source, as well as information from Pellegrino Artusi’s Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well.

These challenges are helping me to better equip my kitchen - I've been after a tart pan for ages, and even though we were allowed to make a free-form tart, I took this challenge as the best excuse I could fathom to get my hands on a tart pan!

The recipe I used came from Broxholm Road (warning: measurements are given in Metric format, so some conversions and/or a kitchen scale are necessary).

And here's the challenge post.

November Daring Cook's Challenge - Crab Souffle

I have a hazy memory from my childhood involving the '80s cartoon version of Alvin and the Chipmunks and souffles. One of the Chipettes - the chubby one - was some sort of master chipmunk cook who one day took on the task of whipping up a gorgeous souffle. Details are sparse in my memory, but I do remember she was very upset when a loud noise caused her souffle to fall and puddle around itself.

Way to turn a budding cook off from ever bothering.

Dave and Linda from Monkeyshines in the Kitchen chose Soufflés as our November 2010 Daring Cooks’ Challenge! Dave and Linda provided two of their own delicious recipes plus a sinfully decadent chocolate soufflé recipe adapted from Gordon Ramsay’s recipe found at the BBC Good Food website.

Seriously, y'all - I can't believe this came out of my oven. I made this. It was all things a souffle should be: light, fluffy, decadent. I didn't dare open the oven door or make a sound as they rose perfectly, but I did squeal inwardly with delight.

Even though in the 45 seconds it took me to retrieve my camera, turn it on and set the focus to macro, all of the souffles had deflated, the deflation was not as extreme as the Chipette's. It stayed intact and was incredibly tasty. I am so excited to try this base with a number of different fillings sweet and savory, but this Gruyere-crab combination is the stuff a home cook's dreams are made of.

Here's the link to the original challenge post.
And here's the recipe I used from The Kitchn (adding a generous handful of crab meat and chives to the bechamel).

White Chicken Chili

I moved to Nashville friendless. Friendless and jobless (but fortunately, not homeless). I moved here not knowing a soul and never having stepped foot in the city. It was a huge leap of faith that could have brought any number of horrendous consequences, but this is very clearly where I'm supposed to be, and it's turned out to be best thing I’ve ever done.

The first friend I made in Nashville was a co-worker, a relationship that I long shied away from working in Human Resources, but she was relentless in her pursuit to engage me in conversation. Eventually she wore me down. Among other things, we bonded early on over our love of food and consequently, our diet and exercise hurdles and accomplishments (around the time we met, we had both recently shed 35 pounds). However, it didn’t take long for it to become clear that our cooking styles were radically different – she is a clean cook, who is all about ease and as few ingredients and steps as possible. I am a tornado in the kitchen and prefer to make complicated recipes as long and drawn out as possible. Where she reaches for Hershey's chocolate syrup, I’m measuring milk, corn syrup and cocoa powder and boiling it in a saucepan myself. She deems this “Vicki-tizing” a recipe.

Early on, she shared a recipe with me for White Chicken Chili, which includes diced green chilies, Great Northern beans, onions and cream of chicken soup. It did not disappoint, and I made it to the letter for years. I’m sure you know where this is going – in my quest to obliterate processed foods from my diet, I recently began making my own “cream of” soups, and this chili was my first guinea pig recipe. I noticed the difference immediately – the chicken flavor was more pronounced, the mixture itself was much paler than the familiar condensed soup day-glo yellow, and I felt much better eating it knowing there was not a trace of xanthan gum or maltodextrin in my soup.

This recipe includes the homemade cream of chicken soup, but if you can’t break free from the can, dump two whole cans into a soup pot, and proceed to “for the soup, you will need...” It's delicious either way.

For the cream of chicken soup, you will need:

½ cup of butter (one stick)
½ cup flour
1 cup chicken broth or stock
1 cup whole milk, warmed
2 chicken bouillon cubes
Salt and pepper to taste

Melt the butter in the bottom of a heavy-bottomed soup pot. Once the butter is melted (do not allow to brown), add the flour and whisk constantly until smooth, forming a roux. Add the warm milk to the roux and whisk constantly over medium-low heat until the mixture begins to thicken. Once the sauce coats the back of a spoon, add bouillon cubes and chicken stock and stir. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

For the soup, you will need:

1-2 tablespoons olive oil
½ a medium onion, diced
1 can diced green chiles
1-2 cloves garlic, minced
½ tablespoon ground cumin
½ tablespoon red ancho or chile powder
2 chicken breasts, shredded or cubed (I like to pull the meat off a grocery store rotisserie chicken)
1 can Great Northern or Pinto beans, drained and rinsed
Salt and pepper to taste

In a separate skillet, heat olive oil over medium heat. When oil is hot, add the diced onions and cook for 5 minutes before adding chiles and garlic. Cook for 2-3 minutes, then add to cream of chicken soup mixture. Add all spices, salt and pepper to taste. Add shredded/cubed chicken and beans, and simmer slowly for approximately 10 minutes.

Note: this produces a very thick, chowder-like soup. If you like your chili/soup thinner, add another cup of chicken broth or stock.

Serve with sour cream, shredded Monterey Jack cheese, and cilantro.

Roasted Potato Salad

As fall approached (and soon returned from whence it came, but that’s neither here nor there) this year, in the midst of stockpiling canned pumpkin, planting potted mums and dreaming up Halloween costumes, Josh and I attempted to wax nostalgic about the autumnal orange-hued pleasures of last fall.

We got nothin’. Not a single memory apart from making a mad dash to a Halloween superstore on Halloween to rummage through the wreckage of picked-over eleventh-hour bits and bobs left over from Halloweeners with better organizational skills (and far more free time). Somehow we managed to find cohesive costumes in a pair, even though our “costumes” consisted only of devil horns. But I digress.

Our memories of last fall are inclusive of little aside from turning Lowe’s into our second home, my griping about that blasted second coat of paint, packing up my apartment and covering ourselves in sawdust. Hearty homemade meals, mums, weekend baking and pumpkins? Not so much when deep in the throes of an all-consuming home remodel. We didn't even have an operational oven.

Needless to say, this fall I have been nothing short of the happy homemaker, with my 18 cans of pumpkin on reserve and purple (what else?) fall mums coddled occasionally tended to by the front door. I’ve baked sticky, sugary, cinnamony treats every weekend, have fed my family their fill of slow-cooked meats and ensured their bellies are full of hot, chunky soups.

So when Alyssa of all people requested salad for dinner last Friday night, and Josh requested grilled burgers, I resolved to find a side dish that would throw a little fall into our suddenly-summery early November evening meal. There’s nothing I love more than potatoes with burgers, but sweet potato fries seemed too easy, too obvious. Cold, boiled potato salad would be all wrong.

Enter: roasted potato salad. Served warm or cold, roasting the potato chunks prior to tossing them in mayonnaise brings out amazing caramelized flavor, and a depth you would never find in a boiled potato. I’m not sure I’ll ever serve potato salad another way; since potato salad is so versatile as it is, it can be easily customized to suit your favorite potato salad recipe. Just roast the potato pieces instead of boiling them. Who knew?

For my variation, you will need:

6-8 medium potatoes, skin intact, cut into medium-sized cubes and/or wedges
1-2 tablespoons olive oil
Kosher salt and black pepper

2 tablespoons mayonnaise
2 tablespoons sour cream
4 green onions, white and light green parts only
3 chives, diced
1 teaspoon smoked (or regular) paprika
Salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Toss potato pieces in a bowl with olive oil, salt and pepper. Roast on a sheet pan or pizza stone for 20 minutes, until easily pierced with a fork. Remove potatoes to a plate and let cool to nearly room temperature if serving warm, or cool in the refrigerator if serving cold.

In another bowl, combine mayonnaise, sour cream, onions, chives, paprika, salt and pepper. Stir to blend thoroughly. Add potatoes and toss to coat in mayonnaise mixture. Serve immediately.

Pumpkin Spice Cupcakes

All I did for these was adapt the recipe for pumpkin cream pies into pumpkin cupcakes with cinnamon cream cheese frosting. I topped some with caramel-chocolate candy corn and some with toasted walnuts.


By the way, I've finally figured out a good lighting situation in my I want to re-take all of my food pictures! I just might do that...

Sweet Butternut Squash and Coconut Jam

Please don't let the title dissuade you from trying this fantastically complex, deliciously sweet and heavenly autumnal spread. It is time consuming and requires a good chunk of your afternoon, but the classic scents of fall drifting through your kitchen (and eventually, the entire house) with the October sun beaming through the windows makes for a pleasant, and therefore worthwhile, jam-ing process.

I loved putting this together.

The ingredients are simple enough: peeled and cubed butternut squash, milk, sugar, cinnamon, cloves and vanilla. The magic happens in the lengthy cooking, when the liquids reduce and the sugars - both the ones we add to the pot and the sugar that cooks out of the squash - caramelize and we're left with a gooey, spiced jam.

Don't expect a sticky, stringy jam like strawberry preserves. It does most of its setting after sitting in the refrigerator for a while, and is incredible combined with goat cheese on a baguette.

You will need:

1 large butternut squash, approximately 2 pounds
2 cups milk
2 cups white sugar (can reduce to 1 1/2 cups)
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1 cinnamon stick
8-10 whole cloves
1 vanilla bean, split (2 tsp of vanilla extract is ok too).
1 cup dried unsweetened coconut

Peel and dice the butternut squash into small cubes (the smaller and more even the pieces, the faster they will cook), discarding the seeds and goo in the middle of the squash's bulb. Don't even try to dice a butternut squash without a good, sharp knife...if you can find them in the grocery store already peeled and cubed, you may want to go that route instead.

Add the squash, milk, sugars, cinnamon stick, cloves and vanilla to a heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Remember how many cloves you added, because you will need to pick them all out before mashing (along with the vanilla bean if using, and the cinnamon stick). Allow the mixture to come to a simmer (not a boil!), and after about 15 minutes, the squash should be soft enough to begin mashing with a potato masher or two forks. I used an immersion blender.

Keep the heat on medium and continue simmering, stirring frequently. When the mixture is reduced by half and thick like jam, remove from the heat. Keep a close eye on it so it doesn't burn as the milk reduces. This will take between 20 and 30 minutes.

See the line of squash around the pot , above the rest of the mixture? That's how much it reduced since I initially mashed/blended the squash.

Stir in the coconut and let cool before serving.
I canned mine in 5 half-pint jars, thinking that I could preserve the jam like any other jam, but every source I consulted advised stronly against preserving pureed squash. Why? The mixture is far too viscous and thick for water bath canning (even pressure canning) to sufficiently kill all the bacteria throughout the mixture.

They all instead advised freezing. Store a jar in the refrigerator if you are planning on using some within the
next 4 days, and store the rest in the freezer.

Source: The Kitchn.

October Daring Baker's Challenge: Doughnuts

The October 2010 Daring Bakers challenge was hosted by Lori of Butter Me Up. Lori chose to challenge D-B-er's to make doughnuts. She used several sources for her recipes including Alton Brown, Nancy Silverton, Kate Neumann and Epicurious.

 Despite my excitement when October's challenge was posted, I was unfortunately disappointed at the results. My donuts just didn't rise, and I know where to lay the blame. I know better. I'm disappointed in myself.

For whatever reason, I refused to use my mixer, and opted to make the entire dough by hand with a whisk (which is actually ok). People were making baked goods before electric hand mixers and stand mixers. But, I didn't make up time for power - meaning I should have whisked for way longer doing it manually than I would have had to with some electricity in hand. There simply wasn't enough air in my dough, which made for a paltry rise. I started my dough and left it to rise while I went to Zumba, expecting to find fluffy, towering puffs of doughnutty dough to fry and douse in sugar when I returned from my hour of intense calorie burning.


                                                                     Post-rise. Sigh.

Then my candy thermometer broke in the dutch oven and released mercury into my oil. What's the point of being able to measure 400 degrees if the damn thing gets too hot to stay intact at 375? So I switched to the cast iron skillet, which I suppose worked just as well.

They rose a little more as they cooked, but overall I was unimpressed. Regardless, I pushed on with a variety of glazes: classic, chocolate, pumpkin, and "Homer Simpson pink."

I've got to start paying better attention to the Daring challenges. Baking is a relatively new concept for me, and while I've impressed myself recently, I've also been getting ahead of myself as far as the challenges are concerned. If I hadn't rushed myself to get these donuts done, they might be as pretty as some of the other Bakers'. Lesson learned, I hope.

Original recipe here. Prettier donuts here.

Pumpkin Cream Pies

I caught wind of a possible canned pumpkin shortage through one of the blogs I regularly read, which I shared in passing with Josh at the grocery store as we passed the canned pumpkin display. I then watched as into the cart went 7...8...10 cans of canned pumpkin. "Think that's enough?" he asked.

Enter the first of at least 10 pumpkin desserts/dishes I'm sure I'll find myself making this season: pumpkin cream pies (or whoopie pies).

For the cakes, you will need:

1 cup brown sugar
1 cup sugar
1 cup vegetable oil
1 can pumpkin (15 oz.)
2 whole eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 tablespoon pumpkin pie spice
1/2 teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Beat together brown sugar, sugar, oil and pumpkin. Add eggs one at time, mixing well after each addition, followed by the vanilla.

In a separate bowl, mix together the dry ingredients.

Slowly incorporate the dry ingredients into the wet until just combined.

Cut 3 inch squares of parchment paper, about 48. Using a pastry bag with a round tip, or a big zip top plastic bag with one corner snipped, squeeze out concentric circles of batter (spirals), starting from the middle and working outward until the circles are about 2 inches in diameter.

Transfer each square to a baking sheet. Bake for 11 minutes, or until firm, and cool on a rack.

For the filling, you will need:

1 package cream cheese, softened (8 oz.)
1 stick butter, softened
1 package powdered sugar (16 oz.)
3 drops vanilla extract
2 dashes cinnamon (1-2 tablespoons)

Beat together cream cheese and butter. Add powdered sugar, vanilla and cinnamon.

Match similarly-sized cakes. Frost flat side of half the pies and sandwich with its match.

Enjoy right away, or chill overnight. These keep very nicely in the fridge for at least a few days.

Chicken Fried Chicken

Before I post a new recipe, I always consult Food Blog Search beforehand out of curiosity. I want to know how many other times it's been blogged, and frankly I want to know if someone's pictures of a similar dish are better than mine (they usually are).

At this point, I've lived outside of Texas long enough to know that the majority of the country isn't familiar with migas, Chuy's (praise the lord that Chuy's made it to Nashville!), or breakfast tacos, but I was honestly surprised not to find more than one or two small mentions of chicken fried chicken. Chicken fried steak, yes...there were plenty of posts about that.

Maybe because it's redundant, you'd say. Perhaps it is, in a linguistic sense. But chicken fried chicken is not fried chicken.

Well...I mean, it is. But not the sort you can get from a bucket basking in the glow of a deli counter's heat lamps. It is always a boneless, skinless chicken breast dredged in seasoned flour and pan-fried, and it is always served with cream gravy. And it is always a fork and knife meal. Texans are sophisticated like that.

The rest of the country just has to know!

You will need:

2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
2 cups flour
3 eggs
1/2 cup milk or buttermilk
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cracked black pepper
Cayenne pepper (optional)
Vegetable oil

Pound chicken with a meat tenderizer until flattened and almost doubled in size. Place flour in a large bowl and season with salt, pepper, onion powder, garlic powder, and cayenne pepper to taste.

Mix eggs in another bowl with milk. Coat pieces of chicken in flour. Dip coated chicken into egg mixture and then dip back into flour again.

Heat on medium enough oil to fill halfway up the sides of a cast-iron skillet. When a drop of water makes the oil sizzle, it's ready for frying. Place the chicken in the skillet. When the chicken is golden brown on the bottom, gently - without splashing! - turn over with a long fork

Cook another five minutes and then take the chicken-fried chicken out of the pan and drain on a paper-towel-lined plate or cooling rack.

Repeat process for remaining cutlets. Makes four pieces of chicken-fried chicken. Serve with black pepper cream gravy made from the pan drippings.

Ode to Toast

My brother, frequent guest blogger Craig, loves toast so much that he had it tattooed on his body. My brother, medical student and anesthesiology tech, has a toaster tattoo on his leg.

I kid about his love of toast. This tattoo is not a profession of his love for bread. It's the result of a long-running inside joke between he and my dad - a joke that nobody ever could have imagined during a discussion about tattoos between my dad and a 14 year old Craig would actually come to fruition in the form of flaming toast on Craig's leg. I believe my dad was illustrating what he believed to be the stupidity of putting anything on your body permanently (also never guessing that one day his adult children would have 19 tattoos between the two of them).

Dad: "You want a tattoo? How about a toaster? Or a potato? Or a fire extinguisher?"

In a weird Craig way, it's actually kind of sweet - he did it for my dad. While the toaster wasn't his first tattoo, I'm certain that it's his most talked-about tattoo. Good thing he has to wear those scrubs every day to keep it under wraps.

Although I do have my share of ink, and though I do love food, I have no food-related tattoos. Would you ever tattoo food or cooking implements on your body? If so, what do you love enough to permanently associate yourself with?

Chicken Pot Pie

I really thought I was lacking the chicken pot pie gene. Gloppy sauce, chunks of rubbery chicken and COOKED CARROTS? Blech. Right?


Unfortunately, that description is fitting for about 90% of frozen (storebought) chicken pot pies. While revolting as far as I'm concerned, my man just happens to love them. It pains me. So I figured if chicken pot pies were going to find their way into my freezer, they may as well have arrived there by my own hand.

By this point, we know that I'm a taste-as-you-go kind of girl. I can't keep my (clean, thank you) hands out of the stuff that I'm cooking - batter, dough, sauce, whatever. I'm making sure the end result will be perfect as I go along. One slurp of this homemade sauce paired with a shred of rotisserie chicken, and I all but forgot about the mushy carrots that would soon join the party.

Oh, and the crust. Cream cheese seems surprising here, but I think it really makes a difference in flakiness. If you are a fan of any of the countless frozen chicken pot pies on the market today, or if you're like me and equate it to institutional slop, please try this.

One more thing: my man declared this the best pot pie he's ever eaten. Now that's the surest sign of a keeper.

Note: this recipe can also be converted into an 8 x 12 baking dish, which was how I prepared it since I only have two crocks.

For the filling, you will need:

3 tbsp. unsalted butter
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
1 large russett potato, peeled and diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 red bell pepper, diced
8 oz. button mushrooms, sliced (I found a stink bug in my carton of mushrooms. I think my heart stopped for a second).
½ tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 purchased rotisserie chicken
2 cups frozen peas and carrots
1/4 cup dry sherry (optional)

For the sauce, you will need:

8 tbsp. unsalted butter
1 cup all-purpose flour
2½ cups chicken broth
½ cup heavy cream (optional)
Dash of hot sauce
Salt and freshly ground pepper

For the crust, you will need:

16 tbsp. cold unsalted butter
3 cups all-purpose flour
10 oz. cream cheese, chilled
1 tsp. salt
¼ tsp. pepper
1 large egg

To make the filling: melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and potato to the pan, and sauté for about 5 minutes. Add sherry. Mix in the garlic, bell pepper and mushrooms, and cook for about 15 minutes more, until the potatoes are tender. While the vegetables are cooking, remove the skin from the chicken, pull the meat off the bones and shred or chop the chicken into bite-sized pieces. Once the vegetables are finished cooking, turn off the heat and mix in the chicken and the frozen peas and carrots. Stir in the red pepper flakes, and season with salt and pepper to taste.

To make the sauce:  melt the butter over medium heat in a large saucepan. Add the flour and whisk until smooth. Whisk in the chicken broth and cook over medium heat until it thickens to the consistency of a cream soup. Mix in the cream (if using), the hot sauce and season with salt and pepper to taste. Pour the cream sauce over the chicken and veggie mixture and stir to combine well. Spoon the mixture into 6-8 individual oven-safe dishes (such as ramekins/crocks), or scrape the entire mixture into an 8x12 glass baking dish. Preheat the oven to 375° F.

To make the crust: cut the butter into 16 pieces. In the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade, pulse the butter and flour until crumbly. Add the cream cheese, salt and pepper. Continue pulsing just until the dough forms a ball. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured work surface. Use a floured rolling pin to roll the dough out to about ¼-inch thickness. Cut out dough rounds to be about 1½ inches larger than the diameter of your pot pie dish/es. Lay the dough  on top of the dishe/s. Beat the egg with a whisk, and brush the tops of the dough  lightly with the beaten egg. If your crust splits like mine did, just pinch it together as best you can.

Place in the preheated oven and bake for 20-25 minutes, or until golden brown. Serve immediately.

Adapted from Annie's Eats.

Chocolate Peanut Butter Birthday Cake

Happy birthday to me, happy birthday to me...

I'm a bit late as I actually turned 27 six days ago, but this cake was simply too phenomenal not to blog. It was by far the richest, most decadent cake I've made since I shunned the boxed mixes for cakes from scratch. And seeing as how I've made cakes for several (7) friends and family members this year, I figured I may as well go all out for myself.

There are certain flavors and combinations I am always drawn to: marshmallow and chocolate, caramel and graham crackers, and of course, peanut butter and chocolate. I considered a drizzle of caramel over this cake, but ultimately decided to leave well enough alone. It certainly didn't disappoint!

So far, 27 is sweet.

For the cake, you will need:

2 cups all-purpose flour
2 1/2 cups sugar
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder, preferably Dutch process
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup neutral vegetable oil, such as canola, soybean or vegetable blend
1 cup sour cream
1 1/2 cups water
2 tablespoons distilled white vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 eggs

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter the bottoms and sides of two 9-inch round cakepans. Line the bottom of each pan with a round of parchment or waxed paper and butter the paper.

Sift the flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt into a large bowl. Whisk to combine them well. Add the oil and sour cream and whisk to blend. Gradually beat in the water. Blend in the vinegar and vanilla. Whisk in the eggs and beat until well blended. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and be sure the batter is well mixed. Divide among the 2 prepared cake pans.

Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until a cake tester or wooden toothpick inserted in the center comes out almost clean. Let cool in the pans for about 20 minutes. Invert onto wire racks, carefully peel off the paper liners, and let cool completely.

For the frosting, you will need:

10 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
1 stick (4 ounces) butter, at room temperature
5 cups powdered sugar, sifted
2/3 cup smooth peanut butter, (commercial, not "natural" PB is best - I used Jif)

In a large bowl with an electric mixer, beat the cream cheese and butter until light and fluffy. Gradually add the powdered sugar 1 cup at a time, mixing thoroughly after each addition and scraping down the sides of the bowl often. Continue to beat on medium speed until light and fluffy, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the peanut butter and beat until thoroughly blended.

For the glaze, you will need:

8 ounces seimsweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
3 tablespoons smooth peanut butter
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
1/2 cup half-and-half

In the top of a double boiler or in a bowl set over simmering water, combine the chocolate, peanut butter, and corn syrup. Cook, whisking often, until the chocolate is melted and the mixture is well combined.

Remove from the heat and whisk in the half-and-half, beating until smooth. Use while still warm.

To assemble:

I cut one of my layers in half - you can skip that, or cut them both in half (though you may want to double the frosting if you cut them both into two layers).

Place one layer, flat side up, on a cake stand or large serving plate. Spread the PB frosting evenly over the top. Repeat with the next layer. Place the last layer on top and frost the top and sides of the cake with the remaining frosting. This should be a thin "crumb coat" to seal in the dark crumbs against the light frosting. Refrigerate the cake for thirty minutes to an hour, then frost completely with a thick layer of frosting.

To achieve the drip-glaze, start by pouring the mixture over the top center of the cake (freezing the frosted cake for at least an hour before topping with the warm glaze will help). Using an offset spatula, spread the glaze over the top of the cake and let it drip slowly over the sides.

Adapted ever so slightly from Smitten Kitchen.

Mediterranean Pasta Salad

Believe it or not, this was my first attempt at pasta salad. I've always loved it, but seeing as in the past 4 years I’ve both really gotten into home cooking and started (and ended) a low-carb diet, it just hadn't happened. But for my birthday this past Sunday, I wanted to ensure a vegetarian option was available for those who wouldn’t want chili or hot dogs.

You will need:

For the salad:
4 oz pasta of your choice, cooked per instructions (I used Wacky Mac Veggie Spirals)
1/2 cup feta cheese
1 cup sundried tomatoes
1 cup frozen artichoke hearts, thawed, halved
1 cup kalamata olives, halved
1/2 cup red onion, sliced thinly
5 basil leaves, chiffonade
Handful parsley

For the vinaigrette:
3 tbsp olive oil
3 tbsp canola oil
Juice of 1 small lemon
1 clove of garlic, minced
2-3 tsp red wine vinegar
1/4 tsp oregano
Sea salt and freshly cracked pepper, to taste

Prepare the vinaigrette first. Combine all of the ingredients together and mix thoroughly with a whisk. Set aside to allow flavors to mingle.

Cook the pasta in well seasoned water per instructions. Drain and rinse thoroughly with cool water. Add the feta cheese, tomatoes, artichoke hearts, olives, onion, basil, and parsley to the drained pasta. Toss the salad with the vinaigrette. Can be served immediately or after refrigeration.

Adapted from For the Love of Cooking

September Daring Baker's Challenge: Decorated Sugar Cookies

The challenge this month was to not only bake and decorate sugar cookies, but to settle on a theme that represents September to the baker. Easy: my birthday is on the 26th of September, and I for some reason already had a birthday cake cookie cutter.

The September 2010 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Mandy of “What the Fruitcake?!" Mandy challenged everyone to make Decorated Sugar Cookies based on recipes from Peggy Porschen and The Joy of Baking.

For me, the only challenge this assignment posed was figuring out a better way to mix and pipe royal icing. I have used it in the past with success; however the process was always a little tricky. While workable, my icing was always very runny, which made outlining difficult since the icing would dribble out of the bag before I even started squeezing. I always forged ahead without outlining, which definitely makes for a messier-looking cookie. Nevertheless, I made piped cookies for Christmas (be kind - these snowmen were my first ever experience with both royal icing and piping bags):

And, if you may remember, I turned tiny heart cookies into strawberries for Andrea's birthday cake:

But back to my runny icing. Some why-didn't-I-think-of-that fixes: start with thicker icing, and use gel food coloring instead of liquid so the consistency of the icing doesn’t change. Another great tip I picked up for ease in filling a piping bag: stuff the bag with the tip into a tall glass, then fold the open end of the bag down over the glass…the icing stays contained and you don’t have to try to balance a bag in one hand while filling it with the other.

To add a bit of depth to the plain sugar cookie, I added lemon zest and lemon extract to both the dough and the icing. It wasn’t a very strong flavor, but what did come through was pleasant enough.  I also happen to dislike royal icing (I much prefer buttercream), so I only ate half a cookie, because I figured I should.

Happy birthday to me!

Original post and recipe here.

Pickled Shrimp

When you're blindsided by an odd craving, isn't it just fantastic when you just happen to have all the necessary ingredients to make whatever it is your stomach is hollering for? Or, now that I think about it, perhaps the cravings are a direct result of subconsciously knowing you have everything onhand already. Either way, yesterday for me it was pickled shrimp.

The first time I tried pickled shrimp was on a vacation with friends to Corpus Christi, Texas. I may have been 13 and I distinctly remember my friend's stepfather commenting on how adventurous of an eater I must have been, to plop a pickled shrimp, chunk of avocado and slice of red onion on a tortilla chip after admitting to never having heard of pickled shrimp. "I'll eat anything," I remember telling him; a boastful comment I regretted uttering the next night at dinner as he caught me picking green peppers out of my fajitas.

Amounts are approximate, based on taste and heat tolerance. You will need:

1 1/2 pounds of uncooked large shrimp, peeled and de-veined
4 limes juiced (1/2 cup)
1/2 cup of pineapple juice
1/4 cup of white wine vinegar
1/4 cup of chopped cilantro
1-2 jalapenos, sliced
1/2 medium red onion, cut into slivers
2 cloves garlic, crushed and chopped in half
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon cayenne
1 bay leaf
2 tablespoons of salt, plus more to taste

Add the cayenne, bay leaf and 2 tablespoons of salt to a large pot of water. Bring to a boil and then add the shrimp. Cook shrimp for one minute, drain and run cold water over shrimp.

In a large jar or plastic food-storage bag, add shrimp and rest of ingredients. Add 1 cup of water (or enough to cover the shrimp), sprinkle in a bit of salt, and marinate in the refrigerator overnight, shaking or turning occasionally.

Serve however you like them: with more cilantro, sour cream and avocados in a tortilla, out of the jar with a fork, or toss in a salad. If you used red onions, don't worry when the shrimp turn purple!

Champagne Cake

While I was at home with my parents, we had a smattering of desserts available any time of the day, mostly attributed to the fact that I couldn't get enough of cooking in their lovely kitchen and therefore, baked every day. Between my mom's blueberry fluff, my blondies, chocolate syrup, caramel sauce and the refrigerated organic cookie dough my mom spotted at Kowalski's, the most gorgeous grocery store I've ever set foot in, we certainly didn't need to add a cake to the list of endless choices.

Ah, but add we did.

Wisconsin residents are able to buy wine and liquor on Sundays (lucky them!), so mom and I browsed the liquor store in search of a sweet, sparkling Asti or Moscato, which we figured would work best with the sweet buttercream. We settled on Barefoot, which was nice for drinking, but didn't pack as much champagne taste as I was hoping it would. Dreamy and light as the cake may have been, next time, I'll use a drier champagne.

For the cake, you will need:

2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
3 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
2/3 cup butter
1 1/2 cups white sugar
3/4 cup champagne
6 egg whites

For the buttercream, you will need:

3 1/4 cups powdered sugar
1 cup butter, at room temperature
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 tablespoons champagne, at room temperature

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Prepare 2 9 inch cake pans: grease with butter and coat with flour.

In a large bowl, cream together butter and sugar until very light and fluffy. Sift flour, baking powder, and salt together, and then blend into creamed mixture alternately with champagne.

In another large clean bowl, beat egg whites until stiff peaks form. Fold 1/3 of the whites into batter to lighten it, then fold in remaining egg whites. Fill the cake pans about 2/3 of the way full.

Bake at 350 degrees F (175 degrees C) for 20-25 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the cakes comes out clean.

Adapted from Gimme Some Oven

September Daring Cook's Challenge: Strawberry Preserves

"Snore," I thought when I read the September Daring Cooks challenge. Canning. Done it.

I don't mean to sound like a snob worldly home cook who deems herself above the rest of the Daring Cooks. I certainly didn’t have to dumb myself down to make strawberry preserves, and I understand that home canning and preserving is a science. I just can't imagine that many people who would consider themselves "daring" home cooks in the first place haven’t already attempted home canning, at least once.

I digress. I guess I was just hoping for something out of my comfort zone, like salmon en croute or crepes or something.

The September 2010 Daring Cooks’ challenge was hosted by John of Eat4Fun. John chose to challenge The Daring Cooks to learn about food preservation, mainly in the form of canning and freezing. He challenged everyone to make a recipe and preserve it. John’s source for food preservation information was from The National Center for Home Food Preservation.

So I made strawberry preserves. For one, strawberry season is almost over. Secondly, I remember my mother canning jelly when I was very small, and I’d never attempted it myself. Equipped with the same materials from our bread and butter pickles, I followed a recipe for strawberry preserves from the Ball book of home canning.

I hulled and mashed some strawberries.

I juiced a lemon.

I measured out 7 cups (yikes!) of sugar, and added powdered pectin.

I boiled the heck out of the whole thing.

The whole process was simple, but I did learn some things.
  • I learned that sticky, hot preserves splatter and adhere to skin.
  • Perhaps most importantly, I learned that a classic PB&J is stratospherically improved when grape jelly is replaced by strawberry preserves. I had PB&SP sandwich twice for lunch this week, possibly against my better judgment.
  • This stuff is nothing like what you find in the grocery store. It's purer and...strawberry-er.
  • I will use less pectin next time as they turned out a little thicker and not quite a spreadable than I'd have liked.

The original challenge post
And the recipe I followed

At Home With Mom and Dad

My parents moved from my hometown in Texas a few years back to the small, can't find it on a map town of New Richmond, Wisconsin. At first this was a huge shock and upset me greatly - Austin was the only home I ever knew, and even though I had left to forge my own path years before they actually moved, it broke my heart.

However, in recent years, I've come to learn that wherever they go will always be "home." It's where they are, it's where family heirlooms are, it's where all the familiar furniture and knicknacks are. Their home is a peaceful place, along the banks of a small creek and surrounded by cornfields and silos in the distance, so far from city life that you can count every star in the sky when the sun finally sets after 9:00. Since I hadn't been there since Christmas 2007, I decided it was time to visit over Labor Day (a warm weekend I chose deliberately, having spent some time there during the winter in the past). My announcement encouraged my brother and my uncle to join as well.

Cooking in my parents' kitchen has made me long for more natural light in my own kitchen. These are some of the best food pictures I've ever taken, and it's all because of their large, blind-free windows and the fact that the sun hangs around long after dinnertime.

Corn fields from the back of my dad's 1966 Buick Riviera

Organic local corn vodka

Frequent guest blogger Craig and his massive breakfast at Ava's in New Richmond, WI

My Champagne Cake

A margarita garnished with either filberts or hazelnuts (no nut allergy here, but I thought it was kinda dangerous that they didn't disclose a nut garnish when I ordered the drink) at Pracna Restaurant on Main, the oldest street in Minneapolis.

Homemade marinara

French vanilla truffle from Tremblay's Sweet Shoppe in Stillwater, MN

A store I could have wandered around for hours - the Chef's Gallery in Stillwater, MN

Stillwater Olive Oil Company (and Balsamic Vinegars)

Silos at sunset

Milk in a pouch (has always perplexed me - must be a Wisconsin thing?)


Food and eating are always central and integral components of a visit with my family. We're Italian, after all. Recipes for many Labor day dishes (including the Champagne Cake) coming soon!