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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Cream Cheese Pumpkin Bundt Cake

I made this cake for the first time earlier this week.  It's a favorite recipe of my sister Bonnie, and every time she talked about it, my mouth started to water.

Pumpkiny baked goods always remind me of Thanksgiving and Christmas, but since there's STILL a foot of snow in my back yard, a Winter dessert didn't seem inappropriate for the end of March.  I justified making this dessert with the idea that I'd take some slices to the women I visit-teach . . . but I also ate half the cake myself.

Since it was my first time to bake this cake, I don't feel too bad that I under-greased my Bundt pan.  But that's the beauty of frosting--you are able to disguise your mistakes.

It was delectable.  You can wait for the holidays to roll around at the end of the year . . . or go ahead and bake a "trial cake" to make sure you'll like it come Thanksgiving.  I'm sure you will.
PS- I had about 3/4 cup of frosting leftover, and I was as liberal with it as I could be.  I think you'd be totally safe to halve the frosting recipe and just drizzle it on the upper half of the cake instead of the whole thing.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Barbecued Dry-Rubbed Chicken

Another recipe from Cook's Country (best cooking magazine that exists). The first time I made this for my husband, he thought he'd died and gone to heaven. I am not a fan of fried or barbecued chicken (it's so hard to cook it just right: not over- or under-done), and my poor hubby with his Southern upbringing longs for the food of his youth.

Enter this recipe: if you follow it to the letter, you can't go wrong.  It'll be perfect every time.

Make sure you chill the meat for at
least a half hour and let the rub really
season the chicken.
You don't have to use chicken legs--I just
do because they're my kids' favorites and
they're CHEAP.
*My only word of caution is to make sure your grill is very clean before you start--there's enough oil in the chicken skin to cause flare-ups that can blacken each piece, you don't want to add to that problem by having a full grease pan or greasy grates.  Kohl's always has the best online sales and coupon codes--check out this sweet grill set for Father's Day!

Be sure to coat the chicken with your rub
under the skin--I cook with the skin on,
but then most of us discard the skin
when it's time to eat.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Flakiest Pie Crust

Homemade apple pie is my very favorite food in the world.
This is more fragile than Never-Fail Pie Crust (which I recommend if you are a beginner--it's the recipe I used all through my college years).  The finished product here is so beautiful, flaky, and delicious I can hardly stand to write about it.

The key to any good pastry is to handle the dough as little as possible.  You want gluten (stringy strands of protein) in your breads, which is why you knead bread dough so much.  But since you want a flaky, airy pie crust  (not rubbery or tough) you don't want gluten to form.  That's why you use ice water, and why a food processor can do the job better than a pastry cutter--you won't be handling the dough as much, therefore it won't warm up, therefore little gluten will form.

I got this recipe from Every Day FOOD magazine (that Reader's Digest-sized Martha Stewart cooking mag) and it was photographed and explained so well that I was sold before I even took a bite.  So I tried to be as good about taking pictures for you.

After the dough comes together, form a ball, wrap in plastic,
then flatten into a 1-inch disk and chill for at least one hour
This is my best pie-crust tip ever: before you roll out the chilled
dough, indent the edges with your knuckles--it makes it so cracks
don't form and you end up with one big, round, pretty pie crust


Another tip: carefully roll the dough around your rolling pin,
then unroll it over your pie dish--it makes transferring the
dough from counter top to pie pan a cinch.
I didn't take pictures of the actual apples.  I used my peeler/corer/slicer to prepare about nine apples.  Most were Pink Ladies, but I think there was a Braeburn and a Fuji in there as well. (People always say to use Granny Smith apples for pie--but they are not my favorite.  Pink Ladies are delicious and crisp, and won't go soggy like a Red Delicious . . . I almost always use three different kinds of apples).  I sprinkle about 2/3 cup of cinnamon sugar over the sliced apples (2 tsp cinnamon to 1 cup of sugar) and coat the apples evenly, then let them sit while I roll out the dough.  You can use a little bit of lemon juice to keep the apples from browning, but I never do. 
I bought this pie top cutter in an Amish village in Missouri--you can
get all kinds of designs online . . . just google "pie top cutter."
It's fun to make a pie that looks so perfect--but it is also a PAIN
to carefully cut out the shapes and remove the stencil.  Fortunately,
this one turned out without cracking the crust. 
Especially for the top, I recommend rolling
up the dough and then transferring.
You don't have to add the "cut-outs"--it looks pretty just like this.
I add the apples because my kids love eating them off the top after
it has baked (some people have a harder time waiting, obviously)
Before I put the dough-apples on top, I brush the whole crust with ice water, using a pastry brush.  It helps the apples stick.  I didn't use an egg wash on this particular pie--just the water.  Then I very lightly sprinkled cinnamon-sugar over the top before placing the pie in the oven.  Here are some tips for the tops of your pies:
My husband was strictly a chocolate dessert kind of guy before he met me.  I love chocolate, too, but nothing really beats a made-from-scratch pie.  He recently told me, in a reluctant-but-satisfied tone of voice, "I hate to admit it, Bec, but I think I like your apple pie just as much as chocolate cream pie."

I have arrived.

(Also, I wish I had the apron that happy housewife is wearing).

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Apple Streusel Muffins

I love muffins. I love apples. I love streusel. Therefore, this is the perfect muffin recipe.

I also love the clipart on this recipe card--I like to imagine that my hair is done up in a cute, retro bob whilst I am baking in the early morning . . . instead how I actually look when I bake in the morning: hair pulled back in a messy bun (and not a cute messy bun that I would take a thousand pictures of and post to my FaceBook profile . . . a true messy bun), socks halfway off, bra-less, and puffy-eyed from getting up too early.  And if I do have an apron on, it's a real apron that covers my shirt.  Those waist aprons are just for show--all the spills happen up top, people.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Grilled Chicken with Coconut Sauce

I don't confine my outdoor cooking to the summer months. Though this dish is delicious in the summer, it's also very comforting and tasty during cold winter months.

Coconut was never a flavor I enjoyed when I was a kid--maybe because I associated coconut with sweetened flakes on the top of those hideous pink Hostess snowballs.  Coconut milk, however, is another flavor entirely.  Many of my favorite recipes call for it (see Chicken Curry in a Hurry, Thai-Style Squash Soup, and Curry-Coconut Sauce).

This sauce has the perfect amount of heat--the jalapenos are not overpowering, but do add a spicy zip that is so delicious over chicken (over your rice, too).  You can use fresh jalapenos and grill and peel them, but I no longer do that: I just use two or three canned jalapenos and put them straight in the blender without grilling, then freeze the rest of the can for next time (I put 2-3 peppers in a snack Ziploc, squeeze the air out, then put all the Ziplocs in a freezer bag and date it).
When I made this over the weekend, it just so happened that my boys were at a movie and my daughter was taking a nap--so Allen and I were able to have a quiet and delicious lunch at home together.  I don't know that this has ever happened before.  I hardly knew how to eat without getting up to help kids or fill glasses or wipe up spills or set-the-timer-for-ten-minutes-for-a-certain-child-who-needs-a-deadline-in-order-to-finish-his-food.

Perfect lunch.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Famous Springer Rolls

"Springer" sounds like maybe these rolls spring back when you touch them, like the belly of the Pillsbury Dough Boy, but it's just my friend Melanie's maiden name, and this is her (not-so-) secret family recipe for scrumptious rolls.

Pour about 1/4 cup melted butter on dough after you roll it out

Spread butter evenly and cut into 16 pie-pieces with a pizza cutter

Roll each pie-piece, starting with the outside edge, into a
croissant-shape and let rise again

These are actually the last three rolls left after I made three dozen. 
It often happens that I am really good at taking pictures until the food
is done . . . then it gets eaten before I remember to snap a photo

These rolls are. the. best.  They always turn out, too.  My kids beg for me to make them.  And they look so pretty . . .

Friday, March 18, 2011

Belgian Waffles

When I went to my first year of college, my grandma bought a Belgian waffler for me to take along.  Not only was I grateful . . . I'm sure my roommates were as well, because Belgian waffles and apple pie were the only two things that I learned to make from scratch that year (just the essentials, peeps--I'm ashamed to admit how many Totino's pizzas I consumed freshman year).  Whenever we had boys over to our apartment for date night, Belgian waffles were invariably on the menu.

The recipe I used back in (gasp!) 1997 was not this recipe.  It was good, and it did use yeast (an essential ingredient for authentic Belgian waffles) . . . but it wasn't as totally fail-proof and delicious as this recipe.  These waffles are crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside.  Crispaliscious.

My kids only want syrup on their waffles, which to me is a waste of a good Belgian.  You can't go wrong with fresh strawberries and whipped cream (peaches are equally delicious).  This time, I made a fruit compote with frozen raspberries, blackberries, and strawberries.  I sprinkled a tiny teaspoon of sugar on about two cups of frozen fruit and heated it in a lidded saucepan on low while the waffles were proofing.  It tasted heavenly.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Spicy Chicken Romano Pasta

If my sister Hanna had a signature dish, this would be it.  It's a great dish for hostessing, because it's relatively simple, (especially if you take a shortcut and don't make the Alfredo from scratch) everyone raves about how tasty it is (hello, artichoke hearts and sundried tomatoes), and it makes a LOT.

This is what it looks like when you serve the "sauce" over the pasta.
And this is how it looks when you mix it all up and keep it warm in a crockpot for parties.
I added "grilled" to the chicken, because that's always how I like my chicken--it's healthier and tastier.  And you don't have to make it spicy.  I added a few dashes of red pepper flakes to a very small amount (about 1/4 teaspoon) of cayenne pepper last time I made this, and it was barely spicy--my kids still loved it.  You can make it with my delicious Alfredo Sauce recipe.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Sweet Cornbread

I like this cornbread because you can whip it up as a quick side dish to almost any meal.  My kids and husband love to have it with honey butter, and I love serving it to crumble into soups and stews.  I served it a few nights ago with Italian Pasta and Bean Soup.  It's also excellent with Mom's Clam Chowder.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Italian Pasta & Bean Soup

I make this soup at least twice a month, and I never get tired of it. It's also my kids' favorite. In fact, it's one of the ONLY soups I make that inspires my most picky child to exclaim, "Yay! Bean and shell soup!" He likes it because the beans try to "hide" inside the shells, but there's no escaping a hungry six-year-old.  I served this soup with sweet cornbread last night.
One of the things that makes this soup good is to grill your chicken.  It makes the chicken pieces so tender and flavorful.
Also, I used to use canned chicken broth until I discovered chicken bouillon in bulk at Winco--it's just as flavorful and about one-tenth the cost.  (Thanks for the tip, Cori!) 

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Strawberry Shortcake

This recipe has been in my cards-to-do list for a long time.  It is a Martha Stewart recipe and so scrumptious.  I made shortcake last weekend (in a fit of defying the two feet of snow in my yard) and remembered why I love it so much--the cake is crumbly and biscuit-like, and complemented perfectly by the sweet strawberries and cream.

It takes a more time to make individual shortcakes, but looks very impressive.  This time I made one big shortcake in my deep-dish pizza stone, which is 10" in size.  I baked it for about 30 minutes and it turned out perfectly.
You might also like my heritage shortcake recipe from my husband's maternal grandmother.

Monday, March 7, 2011

What is Kefir?

It's a probiotic gem (smiley face).

Kefir is a cultured milk product, similar to yogurt, that has been around for centuries, and is still in everyday use in parts of Europe and Asia (and making headway in America!).  Kefir "grains" (which look kind of like cottage cheese) originate when milk (usually from cows, sheep, goats--even mares, in the case of the Mongols) is left to ferment and, over time, develops into a polysaccharide (a chain of carbohydrates joined together by glycogen, or sugars).

The reason kefir is a probiotic gem is because it is rich with probiotics--little microorganisms that are good for you.  Probiotics are found in other fermented food with added live cultures, like yogurt, but are more abundant in kefir (click this link for yogurt vs. kefir).  In kefir, you have a blend of complete proteins, "friendly" bacteria, and lots of valuable B vitamins.  For practical health purposes, kefir stimulates digestion (it has helped a lot of people with intestinal and digestive problems).  It restores "good" bacteria to your body after a round of antibiotics. It even helps lower your cholesterol (click on the health purposes link above for more information about healthy benefits of kefir).

But all of those things are just bonuses.  The reason I love kefir is because it's cheap and delicious, and the perfect culinary substitute for yogurt, heavy cream, sour cream, and buttermilk: things which I do not always have on hand, which are expensive, and which are less healthy.  I make my own kefir at home by adding milk from the grocery store to my kefir grains (given and introduced to me by my wonderful dad, who ordered his kefir grains online originally).  The grains slowly multiply as you use them, so it's fun to share your kefir with friends.  {In fact, if you know me and live in my town--I can give you your own.}

There are a bunch of videos on You Tube that show you how to use your kefir grains, but I've just made a picture tutorial.  All you need to enjoy kefir every day is your grains, a glass jar, a fine-mesh strainer, and any kind of milk.  A lot of studies suggest it's healthier to use "fresh" milk (straight from the cow or goat), but I just use milk from the grocery store.  You can even use soy milk!

Then you put the grains back in the jar (I wash my jar out about once a week) and start all over again.  I use my kefir every day.  On weekdays, I make kefir smoothies for my husband and I first thing in the morning; we both save them for a mid-morning snack.  On Saturday morning, I make pancakes with my kefir, and on Sunday, I'll usually use it for a cake or biscuits

Below are some pictures with kefir tips.  If you leave the kefir out longer than overnight at room temperature, don't throw it away!  It will still thicken and it is still good.  If you want to stop the kefir from thickening, just put it in the fridge until you are ready to use it.

As your kefir grains slowly multiply, you can store extra grains safely in your freezer for six months.  Just pour enough milk over the grains to barely cover them (you need to keep them moist) and freeze.  I always have some in my smallest (half-cup) Tupperware container in the freezer.  When you're ready to use it, just let it thaw at room temperature, strain the grains out, and start brewing with step 1.  About once a week, I will just throw a tablespoon of the grains into my smoothie along with the kefir.

The more grains you have, the faster your kefir will thicken, so there's nothing wrong with just letting your grains multiply.  Several times, I have used kefir twice in a day--the second batch is usually a little thinner, but still chock-full of healthy probiotics.

Speaking of probiotics--you are killing them when you use the kefir in baking, but it's still doing the job that buttermilk or sour cream would do: making your pancakes and muffins and cakes extra moist, fluffy, and delicious, without all the fat of buttermilk and sour cream.

My favorite recipes with kefir?  Best Buttermilk Pancakes, Huckleberry Cream Muffins, and Buttermilk Baking Powder Biscuits.  I always use kefir in place of yogurt when I am making a curry sauce, and my friend Cori uses it in place of the sour cream in Cafe Rio dressing . . . more like Kefir Rio!

I will probably add to this post as I think of more amazing things about kefir.  But now you'll know, when you're browsing through my recipes, why kefir is included in the ingredients whenever possible.