Tuesday, August 31, 2010

I'm in Denial

Yup, I admit it. I'm in denial. I'm in denial that tomorrow is September and it's still 100 degrees where I live. OK today it was 93 I think but Saturday it is supposed to be triple digits again.  Not that I want to say goodbye to summer but since school started on Monday it feels like Fall whether I want it to come or not. So I'm ready. I'm ready to embrace the smells, sounds and treats of fall. I'm ready to enjoy warm apple cider, pick out Halloween Costumes for the boys and get ready for the holidays to start arriving. Now... Las Vegas just needs to cooperate and give me Fall in return. Would that be so hard? Oh and can you thrown in some beautiful autumn hued leaves and the crisp smell in the air I remember as a child in Maryland? Pretty Please...

So since that probably won't happen... Hey you can only ask for some much when you live in the desert. I never have to sweep snow off my car right? I will share a favorite fall treat.

Caramel Apple Cupcakes
Butter Pecan Cake Mix
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
2 1/2 cups of diced peeled granny smith (or other tart apple)
35 caramels
4 tablespoons milk
1 1/4 cup of finely chopped toasted pecans
24 craft sticks

Directions:  Prepare cake batter according to package instructions adding spices. Fold in apples and 1/4 cup of nuts.  Fill 24 greased or paper-lined muffin tins 2/3 full.  Bake at 350 for approximately 20 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean.  Cool in tin for about 10 minutes and then move to wire rack to cool completely.  In a small heavy saucepan melt the caramels and milk on low heat.  You may need to add a little more milk.  You want the mixture to be "spreadable".  I found the best way to get the caramel onto the cupcakes was to dip the top of the cupcake into the caramel mixture and then quickly spread with an offset spatula.  Sprinkle with toasted pecan pieces, press gently to adhere and insert a wooden stick into the center of each cupcake. 

Sorry no picture but they really do look lovely and what's even better is that they taste heavenly! I made for my best friend's Halloween Party last year and they were quickly eaten.

Since I don't have a picture of the cupcakes I thought I would share a photo of our pumpkins from last year. I found these great decorative pieces on clearance. They worked great for my toddlers (and their teenage big sissy)!

Strawberry Lemonade Cake

There are a few things that just say SUMMER. To me lemonade is the quintesential summer beverage.  My office has started to celebrate to celebrate national food holidays occasionally and the other day it was National Lemonade Day.  I seem to be seeing a lot of lemonade, lemon-berry cake/cupcake recipes lately so decided to whip something up for the office. I used bits and pieces from 3 or 4 different recipes (including two on the side of the cake mix). The end results was a huge hit at the office, requested by one co-worker for her baby shower and is reminiscence of a lemonade poke cake.

Strawberry Lemonade Cake
1 white cake mix
1 lemon cake mix
Ingredients to prepare cake mixes - usually water, eggs and oil
1/2 can of frozen pink lemonade concentrate (defrosted)
3/4 cup of powdered sugar
zest of 1/2 a lemon (make sure very fine)
juice of 1/2 a lemon
16oz white frosting
8 oz of cool whip (make sure not frozen)
6-8 strawberries sliced

Directions:  Preheat oven to 350.  First let me tell you that using both cake mixes makes a lot of cake but I really like the flavor created by mixing.  It makes it a lighter lemon flavor more like lemonade. I was making a double layer cake (9x2 inch round) for my office and I was also able to make a single layer 8 inch square for my family. I do have to say the double layer tasted better.  Prepare cakes according to package instructions but prepare both cake mixes together. This works easily in a stand mixer. I use the whisk attachment to get a lighter batter and add an extra tablespoon of water. Bake cakes according to time indicated on package.  Take out of oven and cool for 15 minutes on wire rack.  Mix concentrate with powdered sugar using a wire whisk until dissolved. I found mine did not dissolve easily so I microwaved for 10 seconds and that did the trick. Remove cakes from pans. Level bottom cake layer.

Now here is a trick I learned from a cake decorator.  If you freeze your cakes they are easier to frost.  Also I find I like the texture better. The don't dry out.  I find it also makes it easier for me to make cakes. I make the cakes at night after my kids are asleep, put in the freezer and then can finish decorating when needed. Takes less time and tastes great. It does require a little pre-planning though so I am sure this step could be skipped. But if you skip you will need to refrigerate for at least 30 minutes after poking and adding lemonade - see below. If you are going to freeze I recommend cleaning out the cake pans with a paper towel. Line with plastic wrap and return cakes to pan.  Then follow steps below. This will make it easy to finish wrapping and put in the freezer.

Poke holes in cake using a skewer or straw. Pour concentrate mixture into holes.  I found that it worked best to spoon the concentrate into the holes.  Now finish wrapping cakes and place in freezer or loosely wrap and put in fridge.

Decorating: Slice strawberries. Zest lemon. Juice half of lemon and put in small bowl. In a large bowl combine the defrosted cool whip and white frosting mixture. I found that this was a little lumpy which I don't like. I would recommend whipping the white frosting with a whisk or mixer to get very light and fluffy before you gently fold in the cool whip. Add zest and juice.  Put a small amount of frosting on cake stand or plate. Add bottom layer. Put small amount of icing in center and smooth outward with knife or offset spatula. Top with sliced strawberries.  Add top layer of cake and ice with remaining frosting mixture. I didn't do these last steps since this was the first time I made the cake but I will in future.  Arrange sliced strawberries in a fan on top of cake and place halves strawberries and lemon slices at base. Dust with yellow sugar and place a sliced lemon in very center. Refrigerate until served. The double layer cake served about 12. Sorry for the bad picture due to the florescent lights in the break room at the office. Enjoy!

Monday, August 30, 2010

Eggplant Parmesan

Eggplant is one of those things most people either love or hate. Often the people who hate eggplant haven't even tried it.  Two of the most popular methods for cooking eggplant are Asian stir fry or the classic Italian Eggplant Parmesan. The other week I got eggplant in my co-op basket and decided to make Eggplant Parmesan for the first time. Now I have had it many times before but honestly it isn't my favorite dish. I find that sometimes it is really good and well some times it really isn't.  If eggplant isn't prepared well it can become slimy or bitter. I normally avoid ordering at a restaurant because I never know if I will like it. I checked out a few recipes and this is what I came up with.  It turned out fabulous. My family loved, even my 18 month old who had 4 helpings!  I will definitely make again but this is not an every day dish. The cheese along makes it a little pricey and it is definitely not low on calories. Plus it takes some time to prepare so not something I will be doing after a day of work but it really is quite simple and very much worth the effort! I will most likely save for Sunday dinner or when company is coming over.

Eggplant Parmesan
1 medium to large eggplant
1 cup of panko bread crumbs
2 eggs
1/2 cup of flour
1 bottle of spaghetti sauce (homemade would be even better)
1 large can (I used a quart of home canned) Italian tomatoes
2 small cans of tomato sauce
3 garlic cloves
2 - 3 tablespoons of Italian seasoning
1 medium ball of fresh mozzarella (6-8 oz)
1 cup of fresh shredded Parmesan cheese
Olive Oil
Canola Oil

Directions: Slice eggplant lengthwise and then into half moons approximately 1/4 inch thick.  Salt eggplant. While eggplant is sweating gather rest of ingredients.  Prepare dredging dishes. I do a paper plate for the flour first. I added salt and pepper to the flour.  Then quickly beat the eggs in a shallow bowl.  Finally you will need the panko breadcrumbs in a plate. Add 2 tablespoons of Italian seasoning to the breadcrumbs. Reserve 3 tablespoons of crumbs for the top of the dish. Heat about 2 tablespoons each canola and olive oil.  Olive oil has a low smoke point and since you will be frying I like to mix with canola to raise the smoke point.  I used a 12" fry pan. If you are using a smaller pan reduce the oil amount.  Bring oil to medium high heat.  Depending on how much eggplant you are frying you may need to add more oil in between batches.

In a medium sauce pan combine the Italian tomatoes, sauces and crushed garlic.  Bring to a boil. Depending on the sauces you used you might need to add additional salt, pepper or herbs. Preheat oven to 350.

Pat dry the eggplant with a paper towel.  Remove as much moisture as possible.  Dredge lightly in flour making sure to shake off excess. Dip in egg mixture making sure to coat both sides and again shake off excess.  Finally dredge in breadcrumbs. Gently press the breadcrumbs to ensure they adhere to the eggplant.  Pan fry for about 1-3 minutes per side depending on heat. You want a deep golden brown.  You will need to do in batches to make sure you don't crowd the pan.  If you put too many in the pan at once you will loose heat and the eggplant will soak up the oil and not fry properly. Place the fried eggplant on a paper towel to drain as you move onto the next batch. 

In a 9x13 casserole dish put a thin layer of sauce on the bottom of the dish.  Now cover bottom with fried eggplant. Slice the mozzarella cheese into thin slices and put about 1/2 on top of eggplant.  It won't cover all the eggplant but that's OK because it will melt nicely into the dish.  Now sprinkle with about a 1/3 cup of Parmesan.  Top with 1/2 of the sauce.  Repeat layer one more time.  Now add the reserved breadcrumbs to the top and remaining Parmesan cheese.  Bake for about 30 minutes until bubbling, cheese melted and golden brown.  Let rest at least 5-10 minutes. 

This equals about 6 servings.  You can simply adjust to make more.  The casserole dish could easily hold more.  Also I added about 1/2 pound of mild Italian sausage to my sauce simply because my family thinks dinner must have meat.  My husband also likes very thick sauces. If you like more sauce you will want to increase the amount of tomato sauce in the dish.  Enjoy!

Panko Breadcrumbs: If you haven't ever used panko breadcrumbs I highly recommend. They are Japanese style and have a coarser texture. I find they hold up my better in dishes like this where you fry something then bake with a sauce.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Brownies Dressed Up Two Ways

On Monday night my step-daughter announced on facebook that she wanted to bake something.  We decided to bake some brownies and after another friend commented that they wanted some too we decided to bake two batches and "dress" them up a little bit.  I love to start with a mix to save time and then add my own twist to make it taste more homemade. 

Sweet n' Salty Brownies

This is taking the idea from a cookie bar that my best friend loves to make.  I had made that recipe in the last few weeks so had some extra ingredients on hand and decided to use them. 

Are there flavor combinations that you love? I have a few. One is chocolate and bananas and another is the mix of sweet and salty. This is a perfect combination of sweet and salty for me.

1 family size brownie mix - prepared according to instructions
1 cup of broken small pretzels
1 cup of honey roasted salted peanuts
1 cup of chocolate chips

Bake the brownies just 2-3 minutes under time indicated on the box.  While baking break up the pretzels and mix together the pretzels, peanuts and 1/2 cup of chocolate chips.  Take brownies out and spread the topping mix evenly over the brownies.  Press very gently into brownies.  Top with additional 1/2 cup of chocolate chips.  Finish baking for 2-3 more minutes.  Let cool at least 30 minutes or more.

S'mores Brownies

Earlier this summer I was constantly craving s'mores so I have been keeping the ingredients in my pantry.  When I decided to "dress" up the brownies I decided s'mores sounds like a good choice. 

Again, it's quick and easy because you can start with a box of brownie mix or your favorite recipe.

1 family size box of brownie mix - prepared according to instructions
1/2 medium bag of miniature marshmallows
3-4 graham crackers crushed

Mix and bake the brownies according to package instructions.  Bake to the minimum time on package.  Pull out brownies and top with marshmallows.  Cover with foil and allow to sit for 5 minutes.  After 5 minutes spread with an knife or off-set spatula.  I highly recommend the off-set spatula.  Then top with crushed graham crackers. Allow to cool for at least 30 minutes.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Recipe: Italian Style Yellow Squash

This is another dish that I almost feel bad calling a recipe. I remember the first time I had a dish similar to this was at my brothers wedding. I was a preteen and wasn't quite sure squash sounded very good.  I tried it and have this preparation ever since.  It is best in the summer when the squash are fresh but it can be done all year long.

Italian Style Yellow Squash
Serves: 4

2-4 yellow squash (depending on size)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon Italian seasoning
1 clove minced garlic

Directions: Slice squash in half lengthwise and then but into 1/4 inch half moon slices.  Make sure to cut pieces uniformly so they will cook evenly. Heat olive oil in large pan over medium high heat. Season squash with Italian seasoning, salt and cracked black pepper.  Put in heated pan with garlic and saute until slight color change and slightly softened.  Some pieces may brown slightly. Make sure to keep heat low enough to not burn garlic.  Also works great with zucchini and yellow squash mixed. 

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Sewing for the Kitchen: My New Apron

Year end and audit at work mixed with a family vacation have left me little time to blog so sorry I've been away.  I have also been in the mood to sew. After many years of wanting to learn how to sew I finally learned earlier this year and have been having fun creating new things. Just like with cooking I have found I prefer to do things without a pattern/recipe.

One of the things I have wanted to make myself for years is a fun apron. I made this last week and have enjoyed using it in the kitchen! A sassy apron seems to make even cooking normal meals a little more exciting.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Recipe: Orange Almond Cookies

I love cookies. Honestly what smells better than baking cookies. The mix of sugar and vanilla warming is just fabulous! But I often don't make cookies because it takes more time than bars or brownies.  But I love making cookies during the holidays and I make these for the first time a few years ago.  Although they don't have any chocolate (a necessary item for desserts in my opinion) they are yummy and a little unique. Plus if you start with a cookie mix like I generally do you can whip up a batch in no time.

Orange Almond Cookies
3 Dozen
Dry Sugar Cookie Mix
1/4 cup of finely chopped almonds
1 tablespoon of orange zest (very fine)
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 cup of slivered almonds
1/4 cup of orange marmalade

Directions: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Prepare dry sugar cookie mix as directed. I normally use Betty Crocker which calls for 1 egg and 1 stick of butter. Mix in 1/4 cup of finely chopped almonds, zest and vanilla.  I use a food processor to chop the nuts very fine.  Also depending on the zester you use you may need to chop to get zest very fine.  Refrigerate for 10 minutes.  Roll into 1 inch balls.  With handle of wooden spoon or fingertip press a indentation into the cookies.  Fill with 1/2 teaspoon of marmalade and top with 3-5 slivered almonds. Cook for 9-12 minutes until very light brown on edges.  Enjoy!

Tip: Depending on how sweet you want the cookies you may want to add some sugar to the orange marmalade.