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Spinach and Tortellini Skillet Dinner

This past weekend was our first dance competition of the season for our veteran dancers.  Both kids did spectacular with their dances, and we all had a wonderful weekend.  Monday was a different story.  We all were tired, crabby, and two of the three of us felt like we were at the beginning stages of some kind of cold bug.  I suppose when you’re crammed into a theatre with thousands of people for three days straight, the petri dish effect takes place, and it is possible to bring home more than just your trophies and awards.

Anyway, Monday.  We always skip school the Monday after a competition- I just know better than to try and do anything, it’s a free-for-all day for the kids, with the exception of their regularly scheduled dance classes in the evening.  The entire problem with Monday is that I’m tired, and this week I desperately needed to make a grocery run and come up with some dinner ideas.  It sure would have been nice to just pick up a pizza or something, but dance weekends see us eating so poorly that when we come home we need to boost our nutrition for a few days to undo some of the damage we’d done.

One of the blogs I follow on facebook posted a picture yesterday of some tortellini, and that set my wheels turning.  I decided to do a really easy and quick skillet dinner utilizing some frozen tortellini.  It just sounded delicious- even better, I could pair it with a crunchy salad (some much needed vegetables), AND I thought I could get a few handfuls of spinach into the kids bellies if I mixed it with the tortellini.

As I expected, this dish came together so easily.  Here is my cast of characters.

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The only thing missing is the red wine that I added spur of the moment.  Skip the red wine if you are averse, but even though I only added a small splash, I thought it really contributed to the depth of the sauce, without adding that wine taste that my kids would really dislike.  You can see that my package of Italian sausage had five links in it- I ended up using only three, and put the remaining two away to be used for pizza another time.  I also opted to use frozen tortellini, which meant that this wasn’t really a skillet dinner, as I had to use another pot to cook up my tortellini in.  But the bonus there was that then I had some pasta cooking water to also add to my skillet, and I thought that was a great addition as well.  If you choose to use a refrigerated pasta that doesn’t need the boiling in salted water, you’ll need to add a cup of liquid to your skillet for the pasta- either water or a stock will work nicely.

The end result was delicious and everyone enjoyed it topped with either Asiago cheese or a dollop of ricotta.  Even better, because I served this with a salad and garlic bread, I had plenty leftover.  The leftovers will become today’s Italian Sausage and Tortellini soup by adding 1 quart of home-canned tomatoes and 2 cups of chicken stock.  I may also cook up a handful of small white beans as well.  I do love it when a dinner can be tweaked in the smallest way to produce a whole new meal the next day.

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Quick Spinach and Tortellini Skillet Dinner

2 teaspoons olive oil
3 links of Italian sausage, casing removed
1 small to medium onion, sliced
1-3 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons red wine
1 teaspoon dried basil
1 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 (5 oz) package baby spinach leaves
1 (15 oz) can petite diced tomatoes
1 (15 oz) can tomato sauce
1/2 cup water used to rinse the tomato sauce can
1 pound frozen cheese tortellini cooked according to package directions, with 1/2 cup of the cooking water reserved.
Asiago, Parmesan, Ricotta cheeses for topping

Directions:

In a large skillet over medium heat, add the olive oil and the sausage.  Break up the sausages with a cooking spoon as they cook.   Once the sausage is no longer pink, add the onions to the pan.  Cook for 2 minutes, then add the minced garlic.  Cook and stir for a minute, and then add the dried basil, salt and pepper.  Stir it all around and let the seasonings toast in the pan for just a minute or two, and then add the splash of red wine.  (If omitting the red wine, just use a bit of water or broth.)  Cook for another minute, and then add the whole container of spinach to the pan.

Stir the spinach into the mixure, and keep stirring until it is mostly wilted.  Add the diced tomatoes, tomato sauce, and the bit of water used to rinse out the tomato sauce can.  Stir it all together, turn the heat down to low, and cover the pan.  Cook for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Meanwhile, prepare the tortellini according to the package directions.  Before you drain the tortellini from the cooking water, take out 1/2 cup of the cooking water and set aside.  Drain the tortellini.

Remove the lid and add the tortellini to your tomato/spinach/sausage mixture, along with the 1/2 cup of cooking water.  Taste for seasoning- adding more salt if necessary.  Stir everything together and serve immediately with cheese to top with.

Makes 4-6 servings, depending on appetites.

 

My Big Fat Mexican Lasagna

Friends, this turned out to be the best tasting Mexican Lasagna I’ve ever had.  I have had many over the years- made a few different ones myself, but it always seemed to me that something could have been better.   Well, yesterday’s lasagna started out as a pan of enchiladas.  I have some shredded turkey from the weekend in the fridge and I started thinking about how to combine that with either the corn or flour tortillas I had on hand.  I had a quart jar in the freezer of homemade Texas Enchilada Sauce which had about 3 cups of sauce in it… I had some Colby-Jack cheese on hand… And THEN I found a container of leftover ground beef taco meat- just a cup left, so not enough to do much with.  Rummaging through the fridge I pulled out some cream cheese, various jars of salsa, sour cream, cottage cheese, half a cup of pumpkin puree and some plain tomato sauce.

Then I thought of some pinto beans and put them on to cook, pulled a can of corn from the pantry, added some taco seasoning to my pile, and it was clear I had WAY too many things on hand to just make a pan of enchiladas with.  I suppose I could have made multiple pans of different kinds of enchiladas, but I did only have 3 cups of good enchilada sauce.  So instead I set out to kill multiple birds with one stone.  Honestly, the biggest thing I was excited to accomplish here was using up all these little bits of random leftovers that were at the point of needing to be used or tossed. I started musing about what I would like to layer into my lasagna and started assembling my ingredients.

And while I don’t have a specific recipe in the end here, what I do have is a procedure that you can use yourself sometime when you find you have all these mystery bits of leftovers on hand.

First, the beans.  I had cooked up two cups of dried beans, which amounted to about 5 cups of cooked beans.  I put 3 cups of the pinto beans on a pie plate and mashed them up with a fork.  To this I added my one cup of ground beef taco meat and the 1/2 cup of pumpkin puree.  The seasoned taco meat wasn’t enough to season everything else, so then I added a generous sprinkle of taco seasoning and a bit of salt.  The pumpkin contributed a small bit of sweetness, but it also lightened up the texture of the mashed beans significantly, and in the end, you certainly couldn’t taste that there was pumpkin in that mixture. The beans would be one of my lasagna layers.

Next I looked at my shredded turkey.   I took about 2 cups of the turkey and chopped it up a little more finely than what it was.  I added one can of corn to the turkey, and then added 1/2 cup of sour cream.  Next it needed seasoning, so I used 1/2 a teaspoon of smoked paprika, as well as some salt and pepper.  A splash of salsa finished that mixture up.  In retrospect, I think the smoked paprika was fabulous, but a bit of chipotle would have been even better.  Turkey/Corn mixture was another layer.

Now, with regular lasagna there is always that layer of cheese, and this was going to follow along those lines as well.  I took a block of cream cheese and softened it in the microwave for a minute.  Then I stirred in another 1/2 cup of sour cream, my cottage cheese (about 3/4 of a cup), one egg, and a generous sprinkle of Garlic Pepper, along with a touch of salt.  Creamy white component done.

I shredded up my Colby Jack cheese until I had about 4 cups of shredded cheese, and then I gave some attention to my enchilada sauce.  I wanted it a bit thinner for the lasagna, so I added the 3/4 cup of plain tomato sauce as well as a cup of my homemade salsa.   So here we have the entire cast of characters together and waiting for assembly.

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Other than the dried beans and the can of corn… this pretty much is a fridge full of leftovers, with a few things also pulled from the freezer.   Way too often I find myself forgetting those random bits of things in the fridge, and this is a great way to put them to use!  Because this worked so well, I have made a mental note to actually tuck some of these things into the freezer- like that bit of pumpkin puree and small amount of taco meat.

After going back and forth several times, I finally decided to go with the flour tortillas over the corn tortillas.  I thought the corn would have given a great flavor, but I thought the flour would behave more like lasagna noodles- they would suck up some of the liquids in the lasagna and get all sorts of delicious as it baked up.  I started by lightly rubbing my 9×13 pan with olive oil, and then took one cup of my sauce and spread that around the bottom of the pan as well.  For the tortillas, I placed two side by side in the middle, and then ripped a few tortillas in half to get nice clean edges and fill in the gaps.  Here is what that looks like:

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I did that for two layers of the tortillas.  With the third layer I added a third tortilla to the middle of the pan because there was a little more room to do so.

From there it was a simple matter of layering everything.  I started with half of the bean mixture onto the tortillas-spreading the beans all the way to the edges.  On top of the beans I poured half of my cheese sauce and spread that around as well.  Next came the turkey/corn mixture, followed by a light sprinkling of one cup of the shredded cheese.  On top of that I spread another layer of the red sauce, and then added my  next layer of tortillas.  I repeated those layers in the exact same way.  After the third layer of tortillas had been added, I poured the remainder of the red sauce on, and then sprinkled the top with the remaining two cups of shredded cheese.

I covered the whole thing with non-stick foil and popped it into a 350º oven for an hour.  On the rack below the lasagna I also put in an empty baking sheet to catch drips, since I really filled the pan!  I removed the foil after the first hour and baked it for another 30 minutes.  As anyone knows, a lasagna also needs rest time when it comes out of the oven, so at that point, I took it out, put it on a baking rack to cool, and covered it back up loosely with foil.  I waited 20 minutes before cutting into it.  I probably could have waited a full 30 minutes, but the kids were home from dance and no one wanted to wait anymore.

The lasagna was spectacular.  As I was making it, I found myself wishing I had tomatillos and cilantro on hand- as I would have added a layer of green to the lasagna, but that may have been overkill.  Every bite of this lasagna was spectacular- Andy actually debated going back for thirds, but resisted when I let him know that leftovers were going to be available to him later in the week.

Lesson learned.  Lasagna for me (whether Mexican or Italian) always starts with a trip to the store to get the original ingredients.  Turns out that combining a whole pile of leftovers into one dish is even better.  And it didn’t taste like leftovers, it just lasted like an incredibly cheesy and delicious Mexican Lasagna.

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Pad Thai At Home

I was going through my pictures this morning when I found  this picture and was instantly experiencing a craving.  This was some very delicious Pad Thai, and I have yet to make it again, but now that I’ve found this picture and the recipe that went with it, I will have to remedy that very soon.

The key to making this at home is to prep everything ahead of time.  Have your mise en place ready, because once the chicken is cooked, everything else cooks very quickly and it comes together in no time at all.   As I’m looking at the ingredient list, there are some scary things in it- fish sauce, dried shrimp, Thai chili sauce specifically.  Don’t skip the dried shrimp or the fish sauce.  Oh, they smell something fierce when you open up the package, but the flavor they add to the finished product cannot be replicated any other way.  For the Thai chili sauce, use a hot sauce you like.  In our case we used just a smidge because we were serving this to children.  I recall it could have used more.   You’ll need to make a trip to an ethnic grocery store or a grocery store with a well-stocked Asian aisle, but it will be worth it to have the necessary ingredients.  And then once you have everything on hand, you can make this several times and only need to pick up a few fresh ingredients from time to time.

This recipe is adapted from a recipe for Big Bowl’s Chicken Pad Thai.  The directions in the original recipe were pretty indiscernible, so I took the liberty of adjusting it for the home cook.    The only big change we made, really was to eliminate the peanuts and use cashews instead, due to a peanut allergy in the home.

In addition to having everything chopped, prepped and ready to go ahead of time, read through the recipe ahead of time so you can be thinking ahead.  I’ve put a note in the directions as to where everything comes together very quickly.

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Chicken Pad Thai

1/3 of a package of dried Pad Thai rice noodles
4-6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs (or 2-3 breasts), cut into bite sizes pieces
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sesame oil
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground chili powder (we used Ancho, I believe)
1/2 teaspoon paprika
2 tablespoons Thai chili sauce
2 tablespoons fish sauce 
1 cup peanut oil
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/2 cup thinly sliced scallions
2 tablespoons Thai basil, chopped (regular basil will work, but it does need to be fresh)
2 tablespoons cilantro
1 tablespoon dried shrimp (if the shrimp are whole, you’ll want to crush them and then measure out a tablespoon of the bits)
3 tablespoons chopped roasted peanuts
1 cup fresh bean sprouts
lime wedges for garnish

Directions:

Pour very hot tap water over the rice noodles to cover them.  let sit for 30 minutes.  Drain thoroughly, rinse with cold water and set aside until needed.

Combine the chicken with the cornstarch, salt and sesame oil.

In a small, separate bowl, combine the lime juice, brown sugar, chili powder, paprika, Thai chili sauce and fish sauce.  Set aside.

In a wok (or other large saute pan) heat the 1 cup of peanut oil over medium heat.  When hot, but not smoking, add the chicken. ( If your pan is not large enough to accommodate all the chicken at once, cook half at a time.)  Stir to separate the pieces and cook them evenly.  Once they have changed color and cooked through (4 to 5 minutes) remove from the pan to drain.

Here is where the cooking gets fast and furious.

You need to leave about 3 tablespoons or so of oil in the wok, so carefully use a ladle to remove the excess.  Put it in a measuring cup in case you need to add an extra drizzle as we go.

Add the beaten egg to the hot oil and stir.  It will quickly cook and scramble.  Once cooked through, push the egg to the perimeter of the wok and add the scallions to the hot oil. Give them a quick stir, and then we’re going to add our drained rice noodles.

Add the noodles, and toss them around a few times to incorporate the egg and the scallions.  Next, we’re going to add the chicken back to the pan.  Continue tossing everything around in the pan.  The noodles will change texture and soften- if you need to add a little extra oil, definitely do so here, the noodles should be coated lightly with oil and the chicken, egg and scallion evenly distributed.  This maybe takes 2-3 minutes depending on the size of your pan.  It may take longer if you’ve really filled your pan/wok up.

Once everything is nicely combined and piping hot, add your lime juice/brown sugar/fish sauce mixture to the pan.  Give it a quick toss and pull the pan off the heat.  Add most of the basil and cilantro (leaving a small pinch for garnish), as well as the dried shrimp, peanuts and fresh bean sprouts.  Toss, toss, toss.  Stir everything together well so it is all evenly distributed.

Transfer everything to a serving platter.  Garnish with the reserved basil and cilantro leaves, as well as lime wedges for serving.  This is excellent with a fresh squeeze of lime added to each plate.

 

Cauliflower Will Never Be Potatoes

Every year, after the holiday season the cauliflower recipes start showing up all over facebook.  Everyone is making their dietary changes for the new year, and for some unexplained reason, the no-carb contingency thinks that pretending cauliflower tastes like potatoes is a good thing.  I happen to be a huge fan of cauliflower, but I think it’s time we all admitted that cauliflower will never be the same as potatoes.   A while back I made some cauliflower pancake/fritter like things.  I think they were trying to be like potato pancakes.  It didn’t even come close, and while we ate them, they will not ever be repeated.  I far prefer recipes where cauliflower is allowed to be cauliflower and not used as a stand in for potatoes.

Because when you’re expecting potatoes and you get cauliflower, no one is going to be tricked.

One of my Christmas gifts this year was a new immersion blender, which I wasted no time in using on a pot of  Potato-Leek Soup.   The soup was delicious.  So tasty, and the texture was luxurious- like liquid velvet in a bowl.   Surprise, surprise, because my son who dislikes both soup AND potatoes scarfed down that soup and proclaimed it the best ever.  He LOVED it.  He’s asked for it again in recent weeks and I was only to happy to acquiesce to his request.

It was only a matter of time before I utilized that immersion blender to pulverize other vegetables into creamy versions of themselves in an attempt to get him to like even more vegetables.

Alas, he was not fooled by the cauliflower.   He picked at it, as usual, and said it tasted too much like cauliflower.  I don’t know who was more disappointed, him or me.

But the good news is, if you are not my picky soup hating son, this Creamy Roasted Cauliflower Soup is absolutely delicious.  It does take a few steps with the roasting of the cauliflower and garlic, but other than that, it has very few ingredients, and it was SO much better than the sum of its parts.

It started with the largest cauliflower head I’ve seen at my grocery store.  So creamy white and large, I knew it was going to become a pot of soup.

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I started by cutting up the head of cauliflower into large florets.  Then I tossed that with a light drizzle of olive oil and some salt and pepper, and popped it in the oven to get caramelized and delicious.  I also added three cloves of unpeeled garlic to the baking sheet before putting it in the oven.  Keeping the garlic in its peel prevents it from getting too toasty and bitter.

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While that roasted, I dice an onion and sauteed it in a little more olive oil.  After a few minutes, I added two sprigs of thyme and one small sprig of rosemary to the onions and let them all cook together.

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Finally, I added a bay leaf, the roasted cauliflower, and some chicken broth to my pot.   I let this simmer for about 15-20 minutes or so, and once the cauliflower was soft, I removed the herbs and grabbed my immersion blender.  It blended up so creamy, and the flavor was so delicious! I served it up with shredded cheese and chopped, cooked Canadian bacon on top.

Yes, it tasted like roasted cauliflower, but a decadently creamy version of it.  If you wanted you could certainly add a swirl of cream or sour cream for some added richness, but I really liked it just the way it was- and also preferred the bites without the bacon and cheese.  It just was nice and clean, and a great way to use that cauliflower.  Honestly, as I ate it, I felt that if anything, it needed a fresh herb as a garnish to introduce a bit of freshness.  Of all things, I really think that some fresh celery leaves would have complemented the roasted flavors here in the bowl.  Since I am out of celery, I didn’t have a way to confirm that, but I plan to do so next time.

If you don’t have the fresh thyme and rosemary available, feel free to use dried, but add them with the onions at the beginning of their cooking stages to give them time to release their fragrance into the soup. You want just a small amount of each- maybe 1/4 teaspoon of dried thyme and a good pinch of rosemary.

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Creamy Roasted Cauliflower Soup

1 large head of cauliflower, broken into florets
3 cloves garlic, still in it’s peel
3 teaspoons olive oil, divided
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
2 medium onions, chopped
2 stems of fresh thyme
1 small stem of fresh rosemary
1 bay leaf
5 cups broth (chicken or veggie)
salt and pepper to taste
cheddar cheese, croutons, bacon for garnish

Directions:

Preheat oven to 425ºF.  Put the cauliflower florets in a large bowl, drizzle with half of the olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper.  Spread the cauliflower out on a large rimmed baking sheet.  Add the three whole cloves of garlic (still in their peel).  Pop in the oven and roast for about 30-35 minutes, stirring twice while roasting.   The cauliflower should have a nice golden brown color on the edges when it is roasted enough.

Meanwhile,  add the remaining olive oil to a soup pot over medium-low heat.  Add the onion.  Cook for about five minutes, stirring occasionally.  Add the sprigs of thyme, rosemary, and the bay leaf.  Add a small sprinkle of salt and pepper.  Cook for an additional three minutes.

Remove the garlic cloves from the baking sheet and take the peelings off the garlic.  Add the whole cloves and the cauliflower to the onions.  Add the broth and stir to combine and evenly distribute everything.  Turn up the heat just a bit until you bring the broth to a boil.  Add the lid to the pot and turn it down to a low simmer.  Simmer for about 15 minutes, or until the cauliflower is very tender.

Remove the herb stems and the bay leaf from the pot and discard.   Using your choice of an immersion blender or a stand-alone blender, puree the cauliflower into the broth to the fineness of your choice.  I prefer a smooth soup, so I blended my soup completely with an immersion blender.  If you prefer some chunks in your soup, use a stand-alone blender, removing about half of the cauliflower and broth to the blender and leaving the rest intact.  As always, use extreme caution when blending hot soup, only filling the blender half full, and covering the top well with a thick towel while you blend.

Serve the soup with your choice of toppings.  Some suggestions would be toasted croutons, shredded cheddar cheese, bacon bits, fresh herbs, etc.

Makes about 6 servings.

 

Delicious Pumpkin Muffins with Dried Cranberries

If you are anything like I am, back in November when all the holiday baking items were on sale, you picked up a half dozen or so cans of pumpkin puree to tuck away in the pantry.  I was remembering how a couple of years ago there was actually a shortage of canned pumpkin, and as I like to use pumpkin in baked goods and in my chili, it seemed wise to pick up a few extra cans- especially since they were about half off their original price.

Well, that canned pumpkin has been hiding away ever since.  I usually do add pumpkin to my red chili, but do you know I haven’t made a red chili in a while?  I’ve made a few different (delicious) green chilis, and a white bean chili, but the pumpkin has just been kind of waiting for it’s turn in the chili pot.   So while I do have thoughts of making a red chili sometime soon before warm weather arrives, chilly temperatures this week have also had me desiring to turn on the oven and do some baking.   We’re back hovering around the zero mark here in Wisconsin,  and while this home is far less drafty than the more recent homes we’ve been in, there still is that sense of chill in the air that happens when the temperatures outside get so frigid.

There’s nothing like enticing my children away from their schoolwork via the scent of baking muffins.  It made me smile yesterday when Abigail meandered down from her room and her very last chapter of Algebra to bring a scrap of debris to the garbage- and to find out what that glorious smell was.  Even bacon doesn’t always bring her down with that dreamy look on her face.  But these muffins worked their magic, and as usual, are delicious and the perfect antidote to a cold winter morning.

I always think chopped pecans would be a lovely addition to these muffins- as would a sprinkle of demerara sugar before baking, but they’re just so good as they are that when it comes to extra additions, I just never decide to be bothered with them.

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Pumpkin Muffins with Dried Cranberries

2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup dark brown sugar, packed
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 cup canned unsweetened pumpkin puree
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 cup butter, melted and slightly cooled
1/4 cup buttermilk or yogurt
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup dried cranberries

Directions:

Preheat oven to 400ºF.  Grease or place paper cups in a 12 cup muffin tin.

In a bowl, combine the flour, brown sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, ginger, cloves and nutmeg.  Mix well.

In a separate bowl, beat the canned pumpkin, eggs, butter, buttermilk and vanilla together.  Add the wet mixture to the dry mixture and mix just until combined.  Fold the dried cranberries in.

Divide evenly among the 12 muffin cups- they will be very full.

Bake in preheated oven until a toothpick inserted near the middle comes out clean- 20 to 25 minutes.  Allow to cool 5 minutes in the pan before turning out to a wire rack to cool completely.

Homemade Fruity Gummies

With Valentines Day coming up this next weekend, I thought this was a perfect time to share about these interesting homemade candies.  This was one of those recipes that popped up in my facebook feed a while back, and once I saw what it was, and what it was made with, I absolutely had to give them a try.  They intrigued me.  A lot.   A few weeks before I saw that posting, I’d purchased some Great Lakes brand Kosher gelatin from Amazon.  I had been reading a lot about the health benefits of consuming gelatin, and decided to order some to have on hand.  I mean, who doesn’t like the occasional jiggler?   So I saw this recipe for fruit gummies that used 6 tablespoons of gelatin, some sugar, water and flavorings, and it became necessary to give it a try.

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Now, let me forewarn everyone and mention something that no one else mentions.  When you cook with real gelatin- as this one is- it smells.  There’s no way around it, it stinks to high heaven, and it is a smell not unlike the smell one gets when driving past an animal disposal plant.  It’s rank and unpleasant.  I almost quit halfway through because it was simply awful.   The gelatin needs to boil for 25 minutes, while constantly stirring, so I couldn’t even get away from it. But I kept at it.  When the cooking time was up, I divided my mixture between three bowls and added some flavorings.

For flavorings, I used some candy flavorings that I’d bought years ago when I played with making my own lollipops.  In this case I used strawberry, pineapple, and green apple.  Then I also added some food coloring to color the candy as well.  After the mixture was colored and flavored, I poured it into loaf pans that I’d lined with plastic wrap and sprayed with cooking spray.  Then they went out onto the back porch to chill.

Several hours later, they were completely set.  I really had to work to get that sheet of gelatin off the plastic wrap!  Clearly the cooking spray is very important, but I did wonder how these would have turned out using non-stick foil instead… Eventually it came off, and I plopped my slab onto a pile of sugar.  That sugar is very important- get it all over, or the candy is going to stick to everything!  I used the sugar generously as I took my chefs knife and cut the candy into little cubes- and then rolled it in more sugar.   When all was said and done, I had a rather large pile of gummy candies!

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I have to admit, the finished texture was not what we were expecting.  We were anticipating something closer to a gumdrop.  Instead, it was like a very firm jiggler coated in sugar.  They were fun, but everyone who tried them had the same reaction we did.   Overall though, there are hardly any ingredients in this candy- they would be perfect for someone with food allergies or sensitivities.  There’s no gluten, no eggs, no dairy, no nuts, etc.   While our family was not a fan of these gummies, I’m keeping the recipe and tucking it away for future use.    It would be so fun to be able to really bless someone with an unexpected treat when they usually have to abstain from the treat table at a holiday party.

You can flavor these with candy flavorings or oils, if that is your preference.  One thing I did with just a few pieces was to mix sugar with citric acid- thinking of sour gummy candy.  That didn’t work very well, but I’m sure I just didn’t use the right proportions, as they were way too sour for even my sour loving son.   For Valentine’s I could totally see using some cinnamon oil for some spicy red hearts for the hot candy fan in your life.

Homemade Fruit Gummies

6 tablespoons unflavored gelatin (about 8 envelopes*)
1 1/2 cups cold water
2 1/4 cups boiling water
6 cups sugar, plus extra for coating
Extract or flavored oil
Food coloring
*Measure out the gelatin in tablespoons, as it may be more than 8 envelopes. 

Directions:

1. Line 2  8-x-8-inch pans, or a variety of smaller rectangular containers with plastic wrap and spray with non-stick spray.  Set aside.  Sprinkle gelatin evenly over the cold water in a 6-quart pot. Let sit for 5 minutes, then add the boiling water and stir until gelatin dissolves. Stir in sugar.

2. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat and gently simmer for 25 minutes, stirring constantly.  Remove from heat.  At this point you may pour the mixture into the prepared pans and then add flavors and colors as desired, or carefully pour hot mixture into a mixing bowl in batches to color and flavor and then pour the mixture into the prepared pans.   Cover finished containers with plastic and chill at least 4 hours or overnight.

3. Lift plastic from pans and peel off candy.  Turn candy onto a cutting board that’s been sprinkled with sugar.  Coat a sharp knife with cooking spray, then cut candy into 1/2-inch cubes. Roll in sugar.

4. Leave candies on parchment, foil, or waxed paper at room temperature for one to two days to allow the outside to crystallize. Store in an airtight container for up to 3 weeks.

Product Review: Keurig 2.0

It is no secret that I am a BIG coffee fan.  I love coffee.  I drink several cups a day, hit up Starbucks, Gloria Jeans, or Caribou when I can, and have even taken to keeping coffee flavored candies in my purse for when I can’t have a cup close at hand.

Several years ago, a Keurig came into our life.  For years we’d resisted the idea of a dedicated coffee pod machine.  To us it seemed like a fun novelty, but the reality in our minds was that the coffee from such a machine had to taste like that awful instant coffee.  We discovered how wrong we were with that first Keurig.  We tried box after box of K-cups, finding ones we liked, ones we didn’t like, and we also discovered how wonderful it was for entertaining! Fresh, hot coffee of your choice at the ready?  We wished we’d had one of these back when we were hosting a small group all those years!

While the Keurig did not replace our daily morning drip pot of coffee, it did add to it, and enhanced our coffee-drinking lifestyle.   So when Keurig announced their big upgrade to the Keurig 2.0, I honestly didn’t see a real reason to upgrade to the new machine.  Oh, it claimed to have new bells and whistles, but we already had a working Keurig that we liked, why upgrade to the new one?

Well, that decision was made for us as a Keurig 2.0 showed up on the doorstep one day.  It was a gift, one that I was not expecting and after admiring the box for a few hours, the kids and I pulled it out and put it to work.  After having it in the house for several weeks now, I feel like I now know the ins and outs of the new Keurig 2.0 and can give it a proper review.  The spoiler alert is that I love, love, love it, and am so glad for the upgrade.  However, there are a few drawbacks so I’ll dig into those as well.

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The big thing you first notice with the Keurig 2.0 is that in addition to the sleek new design, it also comes with a carafe for brewing into.  There are special K-Carafe packs of coffee that you can now use to brew 2-4 cups of coffee into the carafe.  This feature works well, and with the new digital touch screen you can set your Keurig 2.0 up in advance and set a timer to brew your carafe of coffee.  Handy for in the morning, or when you know you’ll be home at a specific time and want to grab a quick cup to take with you back out the door.  We have tried several of the K-Carafe pods- our favorite seems to be the Green Mountain Breakfast Blend set at brewing 4-5 cups.

Some caveats to the carafe feature.  One is that the carafe is not very large.  When it says it’s brewing 4-5 cups of coffee, it means 4-6 ounces a cup.  We use large coffee cups in our home, so we get 2 cups of coffee, plus a warmer for someone halfway through.  If you have smaller cups to drink out of, obviously you’ll get more mileage out of brewing a carafe.  The second, and biggest caveat to brewing into the carafe is that the carafe is not insulated.  It does not keep the coffee hot for any length of time.   On top of that, it appears this machine does not brew coffee as hot as our traditional drip brewer does.  When Andy gets up in the morning and brews a carafe, he fills his travel mug and then pours the rest into our thermal carafe for when I get up a few hours later.  My morning coffee prepared in this fashion has only been warm- and that’s pretty unpleasant first thing in the morning.

Note, the coffee seems to be plenty hot enough when brewing a single cup.  Since I drink my coffee black, I have to set my cup aside for a few minutes before I can start sipping.  It’s also plenty hot that Andy can add his cold cream from the fridge and find the temperature perfect for drinking.   And, straight out of the carafe is fine, it just isn’t a hot enough temperature to really stay hot for a long period of time I guess.

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Anyway, I mentioned the digital screen a bit ago.  I love this part of the Keurig 2.0.  With the old machines there were buttons with different sized cups on it, but it was always just a guess what size cup you were brewing.  With the 2.0 the digital screen gives you specific options of 4, 6, 8 and 10 ounce cups of coffee.   There is also a separate selection for non-coffee cups, such as hot chocolate or tea.   My absolute favorite new feature is the choice to brew your cup “strong”.  It really does make a difference! I did two cups side by side, choosing strong for one of them, and it really was a stronger cup of coffee.  I really like the strong button.

You can also just run hot water out of the Keurig in 4 or 6 ounce increments.  It’s quite nice having hot water on demand!  I’ve used it to dissolve bouillion, and also for steeping a tea bag.  I found that I’m not really a fan of Keurig tea k-cup packs, there is a metallic flavor there that I don’t care for.  But I do like putting a big mug under the Keurig with a tea bag in it, and running in two 6 ounce dispenses of hot water.

There are also other, interesting options that don’t really have an explanation yet.  It seems that Keurig is likely planning on expanding their line of products, and I’m anxiously waiting to see what these other selections will do.

This machine also holds significantly more water than the first version.  This will be great for entertaining, as I won’t need to monitor the machine as much to keep it filled up.  Another feature on the Keurig 2.0 that I personally love is that the water reservoir comes with a filter.  Yes, this will be something I will need to replace, but filtering the water is far preferable to having to descale the Keurig every once in a while, or having to trouble with using filtered water in the first place.

The one complaint that I’ve heard so many negatives about is that with the Keurig 2.0, you have to use their specific branded k-cups in the machine or it won’t work.  This is true, and it is also true that you can find ways around this on Youtube.  For us, this is a complete non-issue, as the K-cups that we prefer are already branded for this specific machine.  I bought one of those reusable pods a while back and we really didn’t care for the results of using our own ground coffee in the Keurig.   It maybe was a little annoying that upon getting the Keurig 2.0 I did have a collection of k-cups that were now unable to be used, but we know so many people with a Keurig in their home, that it wasn’t difficult to pass them on to someone else.

Overall, I am thrilled with the Keurig 2.0.  If you asked me if it is worth the expense of the upgrade, I would say that it depends on how you plan to use it.  For entertaining, hands down, this one is far superior to the first version.   For every day use, I really like the added details and functions, and the K-cup limitations don’t bother me.  But if you’re one of those who prefers a specific off-brand of K-cup, you’re better off waiting to see if that brand will eventually work with the Keurig 2.0.  As for me, I love it, and should this one bite the dust, I’ll be replacing it with the same.

 

Key Lime Curd

When Zander asked for his plain-jane vanilla cake, I decided that I needed to surprise him with a great filling.  I was thinking of lime or raspberry- two of his favorite flavors.  The only thing was, the way our Saturday was looking, I was really hoping to be able to purchase pre-made filling.  So on Saturday I went to a rather large kitchen store in our area, and was dismayed to discover that they’d all but eliminated their cake decorating section of the store.  The only things they had for cake supplies were baking pans.  They certainly didn’t have any cake fillings on hand either.  I was disappointed and for a minute thought about just putting a frosting filling on the cake, but then I saw the bottles of  Key Lime Juice on the shelf, and I thought that perhaps I could use that to make a key lime curd for my cake.

key lime juice

Allrecipes to the rescue with a simple recipe right off the bat for a lime curd.  I modified the recipe slightly to use the bottled key lime juice instead of regular lime juice, and then since I had regular limes on hand, I used their zest.  You know, even if I had key limes on hand, I don’t think I would have zested them.  I have a vague memory of zesting key limes and how long it took to grate a measurable amount of zest…

Fruit curds are really easy to make, provided you follow the directions correctly.  There is a moment where you are tempering eggs that the curd could go quickly from silky to chunky if the eggs scramble.   I followed the directions for the double boiler most of the way for this recipe- I liked using the double boiler, I think that made it less likely that I would scramble the eggs instead of incorporating them.  I’d tempered my eggs and stirred them back into the bowl on the double boiler, but it was taking forever for it to thicken.  Honestly, I was making this at 8:00 at night, and I still needed to chill it completely and completely assemble and decorate my cake.  I did not want to be up until the wee hours.

So after about ten minutes of stirring my curd, I decided to grab a small, clean saucepan and dump my curd into that.  I put it directly on the heat instead of on the double boiler, and stirred until it came to a boil and thickened up for me.  It did the trick.  I took the curd off the heat, scraped it into a metal bowl and then popped it into the freezer to cool down quickly.

The key lime curd was spectacular.  It was tart and tangy and it was the PERFECT addition to this cake!  It went with the vanilla cake so well, and you could take a sweet bite with frosting, and then take a bite with the tangy filling, and you were able to eat the whole piece of cake without feeling like you’d consumed eight days worth of sugar.   My family wants me to see if there are other things that I can incorporate this lime curd in- they really loved it.

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Key Lime Curd

1 cup sugar
1/4 cup butter
3/4 cup bottled key lime juice (or fresh if you’re really ambitious)
1 tablespoon lime zest
2 eggs, beaten

Directions:

Combine the sugar, butter, key lime juice and zest in the top of a double boiler over medium heat.  Stir until the butter is melted and the sugar completely dissolved.

Working quickly, stir about two tablespoons of the mixture into the eggs- beating continuously while doing so.  Add a little more of the hot sugar mixture and mix well.  Then, add the egg mixture into the hot sugar/juice mixture, stirring continuously.

Cook and stir until the mixture thickens and will coat the back of a metal spoon- about 20 minutes.

Cool completely before using.  Store in the refrigerator for up to a week.

Delicious Birthday Cake!

Last Tuesday, for Zander’s actual birthday, I whipped together a quick, one-bowl yellow cake.  While it satisfied our desire for a quick birthday cake, admittedly, it wasn’t very good.  The texture was dull, the flavor was dull, it just wasn’t special- I might as well have used a mix.  But for his actual birthday party yesterday, he requested another vanilla cake. I knew there was only one cake I wanted to make to give him his vanilla cake, and that was the Classic Yellow Cake from King Arthur Flour.

After the dismal one-bowl cake, it was obvious why cake batter is made with specific steps and instructions.  The ingredients weren’t that different, but how they were combined made all the difference in the world.  The Classic Yellow Cake had a fabulous texture- slightly dense as homemade cake tends to be, but with a velvety texture.  Slight bit of moistness, and tons of flavor.

Zander’s cake this year.

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I used a large 12-inch circle pan that held one batch of cake batter, so ended up making two so that I had layers.   The outside design of the cake is a symbol from his favorite video game, Super Smash Bros, topped with a pair of new figures to go with his game.   I just used a basic buttercream frosting that I tinted with paste food coloring to really get that vibrant color.  On the inside of the cake I surprised Zander by making a key lime curd filling.  Wow! Did that make the cake spectacular, and I’ll share the recipe for the curd tomorrow.

Today though, here is King Arthur Flour’s Classic Yellow Cake.   This is my go-to scratch cake when we want that yellow/vanilla flavor.  So good, and really very easy.

Classic Yellow Cake

1 1/2 sticks butter, softened
1 3/4 cups sugar
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
4 large eggs, plus 2 yolks
2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups milk, buttermilk or yogurt (I use buttermilk)

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 350ºF.

In a large mixing bowl, cream together the butter, sugar, salt, baking powder and vanilla until light and fluffy- 2 to 5 minutes or so, depending on your mixer.

Add the eggs and egg yolks to the batter one at a time- beating completely after each addition.   Slowly, blend in one-third of the flour into the creamed mixture, then half of the milk, another third of the flour, the remaining milk, and then the remaining flour.  Be sure to scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl frequently during this process.

Pour the batter into a greased and floured or parchment-lined pans.  Use two 8-inch or 9-inch pans or one 9 x 13 pan. Bake 23-26 minutes for 8-inch, 25-30 for 9-inch, or about 35 minutes for the 9 x 13 pan.  Remove the cakes from the oven, cool for 10 minutes in the pan, then turn out onto a rack to cool completely before frosting.

Baking vs. Frying: Egg Rolls

Many, many years ago I tried a recipe that called for baking egg rolls instead of frying them.  The recipe was from Cooking Light magazine, and I just had to try it.  The recipe called for copious amounts of cooking spray- you’d spray the raw, rolled up egg rolls and pop them in the oven to bake.

What I remember about those egg rolls to this day is the awful texture of the wrapper.  It was like eating leather- chewy and not that beautiful crispness that you get from deep fat frying an egg roll.

I don’t make egg rolls often because of that fry factor.  Deep fat frying fills the house with a smell that lasts for days, and in the end, I just find that the expense of the quantity of oil needed to fill such a vat just isn’t worth it.  I might as well stop at my local Chinese place and buy a dozen egg rolls that have been expertly made.

But a couple of years ago I experimented with oven-baked chimichangas where I brushed the whole tortilla with olive oil and popped it in the oven.  That has become a great family favorite here- the tortilla gets deliciously crispy while the filling gets all gooey and cheesy, and every time I make them, I think that I need to try the same method with egg rolls soon.  So last night I did just that.

I made a batch of egg roll filling, and proceeded to fill my wrappers.  For my filling I still use that same Cooking Light recipe from all those years ago- it’s a very good filling and is easy to boot.  My only changes to the recipe as written is that I always use a lot more black pepper than is called for, and I vary the meat I use.  This time it was ground pork- which really makes the best egg rolls, in my opinion.

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Once I had my wrappers filled, I decided to let them sit while I side-by-side tested one egg roll that had been shallow fried in a cast iron pan, and one egg roll that had been bathed in olive oil and baked.  For the shallow fried egg roll I used my organic palm shortening.  I dropped the shortening in the pan and heated it up over medium heat- I wanted a scant  inch of oil in the pan.  For the baked egg roll, I took some olive oil and made a nice puddle on a different cast iron skillet.  I rolled the egg roll around so it was well coated in the olive oil, and then popped it in a 375ºF oven.

The baked egg roll took about 20 minutes to brown up.  After ten minutes I flipped it over in the oven.  The shallow fried egg roll took about 2 minutes- one minute per side of egg roll.  The shallow frying worked better than I’d expected.  One of the things that I thought might happen would be that the egg roll would burst on the half not submerged in the hot oil, but that didn’t happen at all.  My first one actually got a touch dark because I didn’t expect it to cook so quickly.

I waited for both to be done and then set them on a plate side-by-side.  The baked one is the one on top- visually it looks different.  It resembles spring rolls that I get locally at the farmer’s market.  Where the one on the bottom is the fried one, and looks more like I expect a real egg roll to look.

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It was no contest.  Even bathing the whole egg roll in olive oil did not improve the texture much on the baked egg roll.  The outside layer got nice and crispy- it was much better than the cooking spray version.  But the layers underneath were tough and chewy and a touch unpleasant to eat.  The shallow fried egg roll was crispy and delightful the whole way through.

So there you have it.  I was delighted to discover that I could adequately shallow fry the egg rolls- that will put them on the menu more often.  It didn’t take near as much fat as deep frying does, and the house also doesn’t have that familiar smell.  Interestingly, the egg rolls also cooked more quickly shallow frying than I remember from deep frying.  It didn’t take me long at all to have the whole batch fried up and hiding in a 250ºF oven to hold for when the kids were home from dance.  Overall, I’m very pleased with the results of this test.  I’m also very glad I did not experiment by baking up the whole batch.  As it was, we had a delightful dinner that will be repeated very soon.

Egg Roll Filling

3/4 cup diced carrot
3/4 cup chopped celery
2 cups shredded cabbage
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon freshly minced ginger
1/2 pound ground meat (pork, turkey, chicken, beef)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 1/2 tablespoons good quality soy sauce

Put the carrot and celery into the bowl of a food processor and process until finely chopped.  Add these to the shredded cabbage and set aside.

In a saute pan, add the olive oil over medium heat.  Add the onion and cook for two minutes.  Add the garlic and ginger and cook for another minute or so.  Add the raw ground meat to the pan. Break up with your spoon and saute with the onion mixture until no pink remains.  Add the salt and pepper.

Last, add the raw vegetables and cook until the cabbage is looking wilted and soft.  Add the soy sauce.  Taste your filling and adjust salt, pepper and soy sauce as desired.

Makes enough filling for about 14 standard sized egg rolls.

 

Happy Birthday Zander!!

Eleven years ago you came into this world and filled my heart near-to-bursting.

iron man zander

Your care and compassion for others is one of my favorite things about you, as well as your enthusiastic spirit to try anything once.   You have a heart of gold- you truly are a Super Hero!

 

Snickerdoodle Blondies

It’s Birth Week here at the Tummy Treasure home, and that means several different variations of birthday treats for the birthday boy.  Zander turns eleven on Tuesday, if you can believe it!  That’s practically a teenager!  On Tuesday he’ll be taking a birthday treat to dance, but since my young man wants to share his birthday treats with pretty much everyone in the studio, he was thoughtful in selecting a large tub of Laffy Taffy to take to share with his friends.   Very nice of him to not ask me to make 100+ birthday treats.  But for church on Sunday, I thought I would make up a batch of Snickerdoodles for him to take.

Then I started thinking about sprinkles, and how they wouldn’t work very well on a snickerdoodle, and that led me to thinking about making a pan of blondies and pressing the sprinkles into the top.  When I asked Zander what he thought, he was very excited.  Snickerdoodles are his favorite cookies, and the Snickerdoodle Blondies are one of his favorite cookie bars.

The dough for these bars is very thick and you’ll need to use your hands to press it into the pan.  Just make sure you set a timer when you put them in the oven.  I forgot with the first pan I made up.  We got involved in a game of Monopoly, AND I also had some hot beef going in a roasting pan, so the smell of beef permeated the whole house.  Of course, I didn’t smell the bars until quite a bit later, and when I pulled them out of the oven… they were not burnt, but they definitely were more like biscotti than a tender cookie bar.

If you love Snickerdoodles, you’ll love these bars.  All that delicious cinnamon flavor without the hassle of rolling the dough into balls and rolling in sugar.  Feel free to add your favorite sprinkles to the top before baking- I lightly pressed my sprinkles in, and most of them stayed on once they were cooled.

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Snickerdoodle Blondies

2 2/3 cup all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 cups packed brown sugar

1 cup butter, softened

2 eggs at room temperature

1 teaspoon vanilla

Cinnamon Topping

2 tablespoons white sugar

2 teaspoons cinnamon

 

Sift flour, powder, and salt. Set aside. In a large bowl, beat butter, brown sugar, eggs, and vanilla until smooth. Stir in the flour mixture. Spread evenly in a lightly greased 9×13 pan.

Combine the cinnamon and sugar together to make the topping. Sprinkle mixture on top of the batter.

Bake 25-30 minutes.