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!