Catching Up

It's been weeks, I'm sure, since I've posted any recipes, but my life has been unbelievably hectic as of late! I didn't realize December was such an active month, but I had plans every weekend--something very unusual for me! This is the last weekend of plans, though...yet a relaxing one :) Tonight, I'll be headed to Detroit to celebrate at The Old Shillelagh, maybe see the Old English 'D' dropped in Campus Martius (my friend put it best: An Old English 'D' instead of a ball..."HOW GHETTO." Hehe! But hopefully awesome, nonetheless)...Tomorrow is lazy...Sunday I simply have a book club meeting (very first one!) and Monday...more lazy :) Too bad this is my last four-day weekend...forever :'(

Anyway, I have so much catching up to do! I don't believe I ever posted my grandmother's recipe for Italian sesame seed cookies...I have pignolata...sugar cookies...chocolate cutout cookies...brown butter toffee bars...chocolate peanut butter velvet cake...butternut squash oven risotto...macarons (finally made them!!)...and probably much more that I can't even remember. I was hoping I could use this weekend to catch up, but I've realized that I should be taking down my Christmas tree/decorations aaaand I may throw myself into another 'Sex and the City' weekend-long marathon as I did during my four-day Christmas weekend ;)

Right now, I have a dozen muffins waiting in the oven--half are Billy's favorite, orange chocolate chip; half are mine, plain muffins filled with jam (three apricot, three fig). I don't know how long I'll be able to let them cool before needing to devour them! I hope they're good, though. I'm using a brand new recipe from one of several baking books my mom gave me by Nick Malgieri. The recipe was a simple muffin base with several variations included--I'd done both these variations before, but can't wait to try some others.

I think, for Christmas, I got about sixteen cookbooks. How crazy is that? My mom gave me at least ten, all Nick Malgieri, Billy gave me The Melting Pot's cookbook and both volumes of Julia Child's 'Mastering the Art of French Cooking,' and his mom gave me 'Baked: New Frontiers in Baking,' this really awesome book that has so many interesting and unique recipes, like a malted milk ball cake! I want to stack up all the books I got and take a photo just to illustrate the insanity that is now my cookbook collection--I thought it was bad before! Hahaha.

Today is about a tiny bit relaxation, some errand-running, eating, and New Year's Eve partying :) I, unfortunately, have no time for recipe updating. Perhaps tomorrow or Sunday I'll get it in me!


Aunt Lena’s Cucidati (Sicilian Fig Cookies)

I have, what I'd consider, a pretty small family. When I think of Italian families, I think of far, far more than thirteen people. I don't think I'm just stereotyping either; Italian families (like many Mediterranean peoples and more) tend to be huge! Cousins upon cousins upon cousins; it's the kind of family my mother grew up in. For us, though, it's just my grandmother, her four children, and their spouses and children: one grandmother, one mother and father, two aunts, three uncles, a brother, and three cousins.

When my mother was young, their family gatherings were clearly incredible. As cliché as this sounds, the women would make enough food to feed an army. What's funny is that our small family cooks in a very similar way, though we have much fewer to feed. Growing up, we always ended up with dozens of cookies or pastries, some of which would be served at a party, some divided up between each nuclear family, and most layered into plastic bags to keep in the freezer. My bragging about our feasts is neverending; I take pride in how many desserts you can find at our table!

You'd think we'd simply cut the recipes in half too, but we don't! We always make each dessert or meal full-size, try to eat a little bit of everything, and always end up with plenty of leftovers. It's just in our nature. Really thinking about it, though, this process almost works in our favor because most of the dessert can be frozen, which means we can enjoy them for so much longer than one gathering. The food can be used throughout the week for leftovers, making our lives easier at least for a short period of time. Perhaps it would be more logical to only make as much food as can be eaten, but it just wouldn't be right. I imagine that, even if it were just me, my husband, and two children, I'd make a feast for every special occasion. I mean...why not? Losing that would be the saddest thing in the world to me.

I grew up with so much great food because of my family, especially because of my grandmother and especially concerning dessert, which was always my favorite--sesame cookies, butter cookies, biscotti, tiramisu, cassata cake, cannolis, pignolata, angel wings and bow ties. As I've become more involved with cooking, I've wanted to learn to make all the favorites from my childhood that have been traditionally made by my Grandma Pizzo. I'm slowly trying to master each item, which brings us to this recipe (courtesy of my grandma's sister) for cucidati or fig cookies. Anyone who likes Fig Newtons would love these, though they're worlds tastier. The filling is made up of several different dried and candied fruits, nuts, and chocolate, while the outer layer is a pastry, much like pie crust. You're left with a tender, yet flaky crust and an incredibly moist, sweet filling with little bits of soft, milky chocolate and hints of crunchy pine nuts (my favorite!). Of course, every recipe you see will likely vary somewhat, even on the shape (sometimes they're just little logs, sometimes cut into the shape of X's), but they're all equally delectable :) 

I got together last week with my mom and grandma to make them; I'd made them with my grandma once before, about three years ago, but I couldn't remember how to form the cookies whatsoever. As usual, we made the full recipe, which means I'm left with three plastic containers filled with multiple layers of cookies; I'm guessing the recipe yields about four dozen or so...and these are not small cookies. About one quarter to one half of a single cookie would probably equal a single Fig Newton! Unless you plan to feed a crowd or have enough room in your freezer to keep a large stash, I highly recommend reducing the recipe by at least half. 

I also must warn that there are several steps to this recipe, though each is actually very easy. It took maybe an hour or so to make the dough and filling, then another hour or two forming them (alone!), which I didn't do until the next day. For one person shaping four dozen cookies by hand, I'd say that's pretty good! It's quite fun, though, a feat to be proud of, and definitely worth the effort. You'll never go near the store-bought version again, I promise.


Childhood Memories & Love for Some Good Old Peanut Butter

I am eating the most delicious panini! Bet you've never thought of this combination, let alone pressing it in a panini-maker...It's peanut butter...on Wonderbread...double decker! Yummm :)

Yes, I know, you're thinking that I'm the type of person who loves to eat things like paninis made with chicken, freshly roasted red peppers, pesto, pine nuts, and fontina cheese...or coq au vin...or roasted garlic and tomato pasta with ooey-gooey fresh mozzarella...so what on earth am I doing eating a peanut butter sandwich? Well, I'm low on groceries!

It takes me back too, though. I think what's gotten me so far from everyday sweets like peanut butter, Little Debbie snacks, and candy is probably the fact that I ate these things every...single...day since I was probably physically able to! No exaggeration, every year since elementary school, my lunch consisted of at least a peanut butter sandwich and a package of swiss cake rolls (eaten in the intricate manner of first peeling off the outer layer of chocolate, then unrolling the entire treat, scraping off and eating the frosting, and finally eating the sheet of chocolate cake. It's the only way!). My body clearly could only tolerate so many hundreds of pounds of sugar before deciding our relationship had to end, haha.

A peanut butter sandwich on white bread, though, was really my favorite meal. In third grade, I discovered the best way to eat it too. My favorite teacher of all time, Mr. Noble, would walk around the cafeteria, jokingly harassing us about eating our sandwiches before our dessert. I usually went for my dessert first (of course!), so one day, when he got to my table before I'd started my sandwich, I quickly hid it (inside the sealed plastic sandwich bag, I promise) beneath me. Yes...I sat on it. And when I finally ate that sandwich...oh...my god! It was so much better than ever before! Something about the pressed white bread just took it to a new level. Obviously I was onto something considering the common use of panini makers today!

At home, when I was much younger, we had a sandwich maker, which is a lot like a panini maker, but I think, when the lid was lowered, it cut the sandwich in half (into triangles) and the border sealed. Then, when you bit into your sandwich, the flattened border was super crisp and the melted filling oozed out all over the place. It was my absolute favorite, possibly my brother's too. I mean, how can you top a freshly pressed, warm, peanut butter sandwich?

I haven't eaten anything like that in years, though! Since, like I said, we're running low on groceries, I figured I'd just have myself a peanut butter sandwich (double decker, since I can fit a bit more in than I used to), but then I thought "Ooooh, grilled peanut butter," which lead to "Oooooooh, PRESSED peanut butter!" It really did take me back. I should have taken a photo of the oozy warm peanut butter, but I devoured it too quickly. Next is dessert: sesame cookies with dark chocolate spread :) Which reminds me that I have yet to post the cookie recipe and promise to do it this weekend!


Special Breakfasts

Right now, I'm standing in the kitchen, waiting for the chocolate croissants and brown sugar bacon to finish baking. I wish I could say that the croissants were homemade, but they're not; they're from Trader Joe's freezer :) My mom bought them and said they're wonderful. You just proof the croissants overnight and then bake them in the oven first thing in the morning! I can't wait...chocolate croissants are one of my most beloved pastries (yes, beloved!), especially with bits of crisp chocolate inside.

I can't even begin to describe the achingly delectable scent that has taken over my kitchen. It actually makes me feel like it's Christmas morning even though it's Halloween! I just can't think of anything more comforting than the smell of a freshly baked breakfast...sweets mixed with savory. Creamy scrambled eggs, crisp bacon, hash browns, pastries fresh from the oven (croissants, chocolate chip muffins, cinnamon rolls), and a hot pot of coffee laced with the scent of vanilla, hazelnut, caramel or kahlua.

I think breakfast must be my favorite meal; the morning is when I feel the most starved that I do all day! Most mornings, I wake up with the sensation that there's a hole burning in my stomach--it can actually be painful, as if I haven't eaten in two weeks.

I've always believed that breakfast is an important meal to jumpstart metabolism, but, all my life, I generally had cereal for breakfast, which probably isn't bad, but it's not the best. Recently, I started having an egg every morning, no matter what--hard boiled, over-medium, scrambled--however I can get it, I have an egg and I eat it as soon after waking up as possible. It's really perfect; because eggs cook so quickly, I don't spend a lot of time on breakfast when I'm rushing to get to work. With my unending hunger, I think it's extra important that I do this to help ensure I don't gain 500 lbs from snacking, literally, all day long.

I also believe, however, that indulging yourself once in a while is important! In my family, we always had a tradition of eating pancakes on Sunday. For me, that meant pancakes with chocolate chips, Hershey's chocolate sauce, and whipped cream. It makes me so hungry just thinking about those. Though I stopped eating pancakes like that long ago, I did try to carry the tradition into my home life with Billy. Since he often works weekend mornings, it's not a regular occurrence, but when he is home, we definitely eat well! That's how I believe it should be done. If you eat healthy every day of the work week, don't you deserve a little something terrible at the end of it all? I'm not saying to spend a full day devouring chips, cookies, and pizza, but maybe indulge yourself for a meal or two!

Making this breakfast, I realized how much I enjoy eating sweets as an uncommon indulgence rather than something I consume on a regular basis. When you eat a certain type of food really often, it looses its sparkle. Sure, you probably crave it all the time, so it is satisfying when you eat it, but it's not the same as eating something you barely ever have. I never eat chocolate croissants, so you can bet that if I make three of them one random Saturday morning, I'm eating at least two! We also never have bacon, let alone brown sugar bacon, so you can bet that gets devoured (especially by Billy). If we ate these things on a regular basis, though, they wouldn't be nearly as exciting and I love excitement. What's fun about eating the same thing over and over and over?

I've been working in this way on my own eating habits--trying to take the bad food that I crave most and turning it into a happy indulgence that I reward myself with once in a while--but I really want to get Billy...and other people...to learn to do the same. It's really difficult to give up the food you crave the most, but your body actually tends to crave what it's used to consuming. So, once you've gone without pop or chips or cookies long enough, your body stops caring. Likewise, when you start eating healthy foods, like fruit and vegetables, on a regular basis, your body starts to crave those instead! Then, for some special occasion like a party, a holiday, or just a random weekend morning/night, you can allow yourself something your body used to crave...devour it...and not feel guilty about it later! At least, you shouldn't, because an indulgence here and there is nothing to feel bad about.

My policy is to bring only "healthy" food to work for snacking (since I spend most of my day at the office)--bags of all natural chips (and the like) that are low fat and low calorie (based on the ingredients and cooking method, not that they're 'reduced fat' which is just absurd), for when I crave something salty...a bag of dark chocolate covered almonds, for the few times I crave chocolate...and raw vegetables, fruit, and nuts for when I'm just hungry and need to eat something. For instance, at my desk all this past week, I had out a bottle of water, two small apples, and a big container of grapes. I like to keep something handy that's really easy to snack on, like the grapes, because then I can just consistently grab one to pop into my mouth without disturbing my work, but while also not allowing myself to get too hungry. I do the same by keeping a container of cut up vegetables like carrots and celery. Aside from that, I have a small drawer with snacks. So, I'm set all day! Obviously, my lunch is on the healthier side, as well as my dinner.

Because I behave so well ninety percent of the day, five days a week, I think I'm entitled to a slice of cake, a thin stack of chocolate chip pancakes, or (sometimes) a plate of eggs, brown sugar bacon, toast with butter, and a pastry. If I didn't allow myself these indulgences, who knows...I may have such a powerful craving for something sweet one day that I go way overboard and consume, let's say, a five pound bag of candy! Or a whole batch of cookies...maybe half a chocolate cake ;)

Learn to reward yourself once in a while and do it at breakfast! At least you can spend the rest of the day burning those calories.


Getting a Man to Cook

My boyfriend has this complex...and hopefully he doesn't mind me outing him here...He doesn't like to cook...not just because it's a hassle and he'd rather relax, but because he thinks he's going to screw it up. That's understandable coming from someone who never cooks, but how is one supposed to overcome that if they don't ever, ever try to cook anything?

So, I nag...and I nag...and I nag. I love cooking; this is obvious! I'm exhausted after work too, though. Exhausted and famished, which makes me more exhausted...and crabby. Sometimes I just don't have the willpower to stand up in the kitchen and make anything, but I also don't want to eat a dang sandwich just because I'm too tired to cook. Sandwiches are all Billy makes, though...outside of a fried egg here and there...maybe a salad, if I really want one.

Last March, we got into a small argument about cooking. I was harassing him because I'd just made dinner and was "playfully" going on about how nice it felt and wouldn't he enjoy feeling as if he accomplished something like that, especially doing something nice for his girlfriend...His reply set me over a bit--something about "why bother if I can make it from a box?" I rather went off, going on and on about "Oh, well why make you mashed potatoes for dinner if I can get them from a box? Why make you a nice, from-scratch birthday cake if I can get it from a box?" and other such examples. My point was, if it's so pointless to make food from scratch since you can get virtually anything in a box on the grocery store shelf, then why am I bothering? I'll just start doing that too! He wasn't fond of the idea, though...

It reminded me of a story Alton Brown told during a lecture at my university. His wife had made spaghetti with tomato sauce and, when he tasted the sauce on the stove, he casually said it could use more of a certain herb; supposedly, it was six months before she ever cooked for him again :) Now, I probably wouldn't go that far, especially over that kind of "critique," but the point is...if you don't appreciate what I'm doing, you don't need it and maybe I should stop!

Of course, Billy does appreciate my cooking; he just doesn't want to do it himself! I swear, though, a lot of it is about the belief that he'll fail. I made him cook our pancakes one morning, to show him how easy it was and that I didn't need to be the one to make them all the time. And you know what happened? He was bopping around, smiling as he poured each ladle of batter onto the griddle; he was enjoying himself! He actually said it was fun.

Since then, I've been getting him to help with certain things, here and there...chop up some onions and garlic...prepare the rice for boiling...cut up the potatoes...season the chicken. Little tiny baby steps, haha. One night last week, though, I came home feeling so heavy on my feet, there was no way I was going to make dinner; we had freshly defrosted chicken in the fridge, but I couldn't even deal with just putting it in the oven. Billy offered to make...surprise! Sandwiches. You know what? I hate sandwiches. I only like them if I'm craving one, otherwise, I don't want anything to do with them! So, I threw a very tiny, rational fit (yes, you can essentially throw a fit while staying calm!) about how all he has to do is season potatoes and chicken and throw them in the oven--nothing could be easier. And he conceded!

And dinner was delicious. Oh my god...the first time he makes chicken and it's cooked perfectly (so plump and juicy), seasoned perfectly. The same with the potatoes. He even prepared a mustard glaze that was so simple a child could pull it off. There was nothing difficult about it! Yet, it was so flavorful and satisfying; I loved the glaze. Of course, I stood there and supervised, but I didn't touch a thing. I just didn't want to give him the chance to screw up simply because his mind was set on it. I know he can cook and I'll be damned if he's not going to figure that out himself...I'll also be damned if I'm going to have to eat a sandwich or buttered noodles (*barf*) just because I want to take a night off. 

My hope is that, one day, Billy will be as confident in cooking as I am. That he'll realize most dishes are as easy as following a recipe and having common sense; that he'll even realize you can change up a recipe depending on what ingredients you want to use or flavors you're looking for--nothing has to be exact. Going a step further, I hope that other people with similar mindsets will learn the same--and, if not for themselves, then for their loved ones! Think of how nice it feels when someone makes a really good meal for you, especially one of your favorites. Think of how grateful you are when you can put your feet up in front of the television after work, able to catch your breath and unwind, while someone stands in the kitchen, sacrificing a portion of their post-work relaxation, cooking not only for his or herself, but for you. Don't you want to make someone else feel the same way?

And, if none of that works for you...don't you just want the nagging to end? :)


A little rant about good food.

I'm only about 25% on the organic food bandwagon. Really, it's just a hassle to find good organic produce because my best bet is Whole Foods Market, but it's all the way in Rochester and that drive is not something I want to make once a week. So, I just make the sacrifice and buy pesticide-rich fruits and veggies at my favorite market.

When it comes to meat, though? I honestly don't even want to touch something that isn't organic, vegetarian fed, and free range. Part of it is because the living conditions of mass-produced animals (because that's really what they are--mass produced) disgusts me. I've never been of the mindset that "they're just animals." Honestly, just because they're not "higher thinking" beings like humans (and dolphins lol) doesn't mean their livelihoods aren't important. People are mortified by dogs kept in any ill manner, but a room of chickens with their beaks cut off, standing all on top of each other, wading in their own feces? Well that's just fine as long as it's only two bucks a pound to eat their breasts with the bones and skin removed!

I'm not against meat eating in any way, whatsoever...I'm pretty sure I could not survive without a nice, juicy piece of chicken or steak once in a while. Animals in the wild hunt and kill each other for sustenance. Sure, we don't have to do that to survive anymore; we're perfectly able to stay alive and well on proteins from the food of the earth. I don't see why, just because we have the luxury of "higher thought," though, that it makes eating meat unethical. Yet, on the other hand, I do find it unethical to essentially torture an animal for their entire life, just to make food cheap.

I recently bought a cookbook by Jamie Oliver called "Cook with Jamie: My Guide to Making You a Better Cook" and he has some pretty good arguments to make about people's eating habits. He makes a point about how we'll search like crazy to make sure we get the best quality television, cell phone, car, any number of materialistic possessions. But when it comes to the food that we put into our bodies, whatever's cheapest will do. Who cares about fat content or whether a piece of chicken is truly plump, meaty, and tender. Who cares if we're loading our bodies up with preservatives and weird chemicals that we can barely pronounce let alone know the effects of on our bodies. Who cares if we're eating pesticides from fruit that isn't quite as juicy or flavorful as it should be. Cheap is the way to go!

A lot of people claim that they just can't afford organic food, especially meat. Jamie uses low income families in Italy as an example, stating that they eat the best quality meat, but only a few times a week, making pasta and vegetables the general meal staple, which keeps costs down. That's actually a really healthy way of eating too! In America, it's all meat meat meat. Meat is the main star of the meal and everybody trying to lose weight is nixing everything but that. If you take a look at countries where most of the population is of healthy weight, though, they aren't packing themselves with beef! They're eating everything in moderation. Hell, in France, they're eating pastries for breakfast each morning and are still thinner than we are. You can bet your ass they're also probably using real butter when they cook rather than replacing everything with weird solidified liquids that are "flavored" like butter.

This whole rant stems from a recent chicken purchase I made. Until recently, my freezer was well stocked with pieces of bone-in, skin-on chicken my mom bought for me at Sam's Club. Every time I wanted to make a meal, I had to stand at the sink for 10 minutes cutting the fat off the meat. It's not only gross, but it's a hassle I don't want to bother with, especially because I can never remember that I have to do it until it's too late; my pan is already hot and I'm staring at huge globs of yellow, mushy fat covering my chicken thighs. Billy and I took a trip to Whole Foods the other day, though, purchased a vegetarian fed, free range, organic chicken and, when I cut it up...there wasn't a sliver of fat to be seen. Not the tiniest bit. Why? Because the chicken wasn't stuffed with protein, leading a sedentary life standing on top of some other poor, fat, sedentary chicken! Not to be truly disgusting, but if I were a cannibal, you can bet I wouldn't make a meal out of Rosie O'Donnell just because she cost less money than Hugh Jackman!

Anyway, beyond that, I even found a massive difference in how the chicken tasted! We cooked the chicken thighs in the exact same manner that we cook all of our chicken--the exact same temperature, exact same length of time. Yet, this chicken was incredibly plump, juicy, and so tender you could cut it with a fork. No exaggeration, whatsoever. This thing sliced like butter. I've never eaten such delicious chicken all on its own before. It was a truly delectable meal and all the credit goes to the chicken, itself.

So, my next goal is beef. That one's going to be harder because it's not like I can buy a whole cow to cut up myself, haha. With the chicken, I paid just over two dollars a pound, since it was a whole chicken. If I'd wanted boneless, skinless breasts (as, I feel, most people buy), I'd have paid over six dollars a pound for organic, free range, vegetarian fed. So, cutting up my own chicken brought me down to about the price everybody else pays for someone else to cut up their meat and skin and de-bone it. There's no way I'm cutting up my own beef, though, soooo I'm pretty much screwed on that front. But...maybe I should be looking to the Italians for inspiration! I'm already taking a note from Europe and having a bit of wine with every meal anyway ;)


Chocolate Salted Caramel Tart

Last night, the family got together at my parents' house to celebrate my dad and Aunt Ann's birthdays. Of course, it was fun, as always, because my mother and aunts are a special breed of hilariously smart, witty, sarcastic women. They're the kind of people that everyone loves, especially younger generations who always seem to be in awe of parental figures who are actually laid-back and comical. At every event, they spend hours relating stories from work, friends, family, and their childhoods. I always feel like a kid at story-time, sitting there, listening intently on the edge of my seat. They're not afraid to be completely blunt or inappropriate either--in a way that isn't uncomfortable, but fills you with laughter. And they have so many tales to tell, you almost never hear the same one twice. If you do, though, it's just as funny the second time around. 

On top of that, they're all wonderful cooks. No matter the reason for a get together, there's always way too much food than can be eaten; leftovers abound! This includes dessert, which can add up to more than seven, full-sized dishes for just the 13 of us. Almost everyone takes a piece from multiple desserts too because you just can't pass that stuff up...cakes, pies, cheesecakes, trifles, tiramisu, cookies, cannolis...you just have to have a little bit of everything.

For Dad and Aunt Ann, we had three desserts. My mom made what seems to be a new tradition--a chocolate cake covered in half chocolate frosting, half Aunt Ann's buttercream with coconut. It's really the perfect combination because at least one side will satisfy everyone in the family; Billy, in fact, likes his slice to fall on both sides of the line, so that he gets chocolate cake and coconut cake, all in one piece. He actually just devoured a giant section a couple nights ago, big enough for two people.

My Aunt Ann made a chocolate cheesecake (courtesy of Junior's Cheesecake), perched atop a thin layer of spongecake, covered in chocolate ganache and chopped candy bars (we're talking Reese's cups, Kit Kats, Peppermint Patties, Hershey's cookies & cream, and more). This thing looked astounding. Nobody would ever suspect it was homemade! Considering my obsession with great food, I am definitely lucky to have family members with such talent.

The third dessert was a Halloween-themed chocolate salted caramel tart that I made for my aunt (as is the tradition, four years running!). I used polenta shortbread as the crust, spread a layer of melted, bittersweet chocolate over it, filled it with a chocolate batter to bake, then topped with a salty, buttery caramel. For the finishing touches, I laid onto it a spun sugar web with a giant, chocolate spider. For my first time designing anything out of spun sugar, I did a pretty decent job too! There were some screwed up areas, but the spider, which my mom made, did a fine job of hiding them ;)

We even got some homemade peanut brittle out of the leftover sugar. I've been eating little bits of it all week as part of my nightly, Halloween dessert. Of course, this week I have not only that but some of the chocolate tart, cheesecake, and chocolate covered strawberries that Billy gave me for Sweetest Day...I don't plan to weigh myself at the end of this month, in case anyone wondered ;)

Now, in this entry, I'm posting the recipe for my chocolate tart, which I highly recommend. It's actually quite easy considering all the separate items that have to be made. The original recipe is simply the crust and chocolate filling, so you could make just that! It really is delicious all on its own that way. I'm going to make another post with the recipe for my aunt's candy bar cheesecake, though...whenever she finally emails it to me!


Coq au Vin Blanc

This week, I've failed to come up with any sort of pre-planned meals and it's sent me into a bit of a tizzy because I'm too indecisive to come up with anything good quickly. I find myself debating what kind of meat I should be taking out of the freezer, what the sides should be, what the flavor should be...and if I don't remember to take the meat out the night before or in the morning before work, then we're really screwed; that's when I default to pasta...generally the same pasta over and over again :)

So, Monday night I took out two chicken thighs, figuring I'd come up with a recipe, Tuesday, on my lunch break...which I did not. When I got home, I decided I felt like Coq au Vin, but I hate making the same meal over and over and I'm supposed to make it with Megan soon, so I really didn't want to end up eating it three times in a three week period. That's the whole point of planning an entire week's meals ahead; I can make something completely different all the time.

I thought that if I switched out the red wine for white and then ignored the traditional Coq au Vin mix-ins (like tomato and mushrooms), it would be changed up enough for me to feel like I was still getting some kind of variety. So, I pretty much came up with this dish on the fly. I took a look at two Coq au Vin recipes, simply to determine liquid-to-meat proportions and cooking times. Then, I thought about what would taste good with chicken and white wine.

That's what I love about cooking. You can take almost any dish and simply use it as a base to translate it into something completely different! This is only the second dish I've come up with on my own using Coq au Vin as a base; the first was chicken curry and I already have so many more in my head. With Coq au Vin, you basically sauté your foundation flavors (onion and garlic), brown some chicken, then throw it all in a pot along with other flavor enhancers (like herbs, mushrooms, and tomato) and some liquid (chicken stock, wine, and brandy). Then you just let the meat cook in the liquid, remove it, and reduce the liquid to become a thicker sauce. That's it! It's the simplest thing in the world and there are so many choices to change it.

The Coq au Vin Blanc sauce with vegetables.

With my chicken curry, for example, I sautéed onions, garlic, and peppers, browned my chicken, then threw it all in a pot with coconut milk, curry paste, and some other flavor enhancers like ground ginger and mirin. Once the chicken was cooked, I removed everything but the liquid, cooked it down to a sauce, and then put the whole thing over a bed of coconut jasmine rice laced with salty chopped peanuts. It was delicious!

Other ideas I've had are using the same method to cook chicken or beef in a chili sauce (much like a sauce you'd get over an enchilada), a sweet rum soy sauce (with sweet potatoes), and an apple cider sauce. You can pick out almost any vegetable to cook with it...any side dish like rice, potatoes, or pasta. The options are pretty much endless; you just have to think about what flavors you like, what you think would taste great together, and then you have a brand new meal! All cooked in the same pot...all superbly delicious.

So, with this meal, I sautéed onion and garlic, browned some chicken thighs, and then cooked it all with chicken stock, white wine, chopped herbs, and root vegetables. Once everything was finished, I served it over a simple bed of jasmine rice (my go-to rice!) seasoned with salt, pepper, a tiny bit of garlic powder, and a combination of extra virgin olive oil and butter. It ended up, literally, being one of my favorite meals of all time. I couldn't believe how well it turned out and I'm so excited. Thank goodness, for me, that I actually paid pretty good attention to the amounts I was using and the ingredients! Now, I'll be able to replicate it any time I like :)

And so can you.


The Most Nutritional Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies

A few years ago, I got into this sort of health food kick, along with several of my friends. At that time, I was first really getting into cooking, so I was trying hard to come up with healthy versions of my favorite meals. This was right after the short period of time when I'd finally started to gain weight from eating junk food and, since I just can't give up my favorite foods, I really needed an alternative!

Once I started to bake more often for friends and family, though, the experimentation died down. I didn't want to chance serving anybody something that didn't turn out right and I didn't want to have to eat my experiments alone, so I just stuck with the more traditional recipes. My own eating habits were generally fine, though--I'm really a fresh fruit for dessert and pasta for dinner kind of girl--but since I've become much more interested in cooking and baking, I've started to gain weight again. In the past year, I've probably gained around 10 pounds and gone up one full size...so many jeans...so painful on my hips, haha.

So, my mission is back on! With my successes in the past (such as my delicious 80 calorie cheesecake!) and better experience, I'm confident I can easily come up with new, healthier alternatives to keep myself (and Billy) on the right track. I decided to start it off by making a batch of my nutritional oatmeal chocolate chip cookies.

These cookies are soft, chewy, sweet, nutty, and full of nutritional value! To an extent, of course. I took a basic oatmeal cookie recipe from the Quaker Oats container and heavily altered it, replacing most of the "bad" fats with "good." In 4 dozen cookies, there are only 4 1/2 tbsp of butter and 1 egg; that's roughly .09 tbsp of butter per cookie! Of course, I replaced them both with other fatty ingredients, such as ground almonds and flaxseed meal, but these contain the "good" fats. Should you devour a dozen cookies in one sitting? Probably not. But you definitely shouldn't feel as guilty. That's why I don't consider these low cal/low fat cookies, but rather "nutritional," which I think should be the happy medium.

The ingredients may sound odd to anyone who's not used to them, but it can't hurt to give it a try, right? I have a problem where I like to hide certain ingredients from people because I know very well that something can taste different to you if you're prepared for it to suck. For instance, Billy doesn't like vegetables, so when I put parsnips in our pot pie last winter, I didn't let him know; while he picked around the carrots, he ate every last parsnip...because he thought they were chunks of potato ;) Obviously, he doesn't hate parsnips! But if I'd told him what they were, you can bet he'd have eaten around them. My mom takes issue with this, likes to harass me about it...but I'm not trying to feed someone something truly disgusting or something they're truly against eating. Maybe I make turkey meatballs and don't tell anybody they're not beef, but I'm not making liver meatballs!

Anyway, the purpose of this confession is that I've given these cookies to plenty of people without saying a word about the replacement ingredients and the only reactions I've ever gotten is a want for more. To me, that means that these taste just like any other cookie; not some weird nutritional hybrid. I think anybody looking for a more nutritious alternative to replace a particular sweet you like to snack on all day should try this!


Lemon Polenta Shortbread Cookies

My Dad and Aunt Ann's birthdays are coming up this week and, as always, I'm making a dish for my aunt. The tradition started a few years ago when my mother and I came up with the ingenious idea to make a really gruesome cake for her birthday, since it's during the wondrous month of Halloween and our family is just the type to be into that sort of thing ;) Not to say that we're gruesome, but...our sense of humor certainly can be! Every Easter, we have a lamb cake or two and, by lamb cake, I mean a chocolate or yellow cake in the shape of a lamb. So, our idea was to make a chocolate lamb cake...corpse. I deemed it The Silence of the Lambs Cake and, I must say...it was the most amazing cake I've ever made, decoration-wise.

Note the spine and oozing bone marrow (top of neck and bottom of head) constructed of a broken Pirouette cookie covered in icing...also, the chocolate frosting spiders surrounding the plate :) I promise, I'm not a complete and total freak...Seriously.

The following year, I made an evil, murderous Santa cake, deemed Silent Night, Deadly Night, after a really, really terrible horror movie that I've actually never seen, but knew my aunt would surely get the joke.

That would be a bloody razor blade in his hand! A real blade...fake blood. No worries, though, nobody tried to eat that part.

So, this year, I'm, again, making a dessert! I originally had a plan for a cake just about as gruesome (and awesome) as the previous two, but decided to go another route. Instead, I'll be making an amazing chocolate, caramel salted tart and saving the gross idea for next year's birthday, which will give me enough time to pull it off better :)

While I was searching for the perfect tart recipe in Dolce Italianio: Desserts from the Babbo Kitchen, I found one for a polenta tart crust. Most people wouldn't really consider polenta as a dessert ingredient at all, let alone the main component of pie crust, so I thought it was really interesting and had to check it out. I actually ate polenta for the first time a few weeks ago and was surprised to find that it didn't actually taste much like cornmeal, but was much more bland, so I knew it wasn't actually going to be that weird. The full recipe also actually looked more like a type of shortbread, which is also a common tart crust, so I thought I could probably turn it into cookies!

They are REALLY good. I did overbake most of the cookies, so they ended up crispy rather than soft and chewy, but the cooking time just needs to be reduced. No matter what, they're still delicious. The lemon zest is really refreshing too. I think next time I make them, I'm going to reduce the cooking time, but also make up a batch of ganache to sandwich some of the cookies together...maybe even add some orange zest.

Comfort Food for Cold Days: Creamy Chicken and Risotto Soup

This entire summer has been blazing hot. I'm sure it's to make up for last summer, which was absolutely frigid. I kid you not, it was cold. Out of nowhere it seems, though, this summer made one giant leap to fall, which I'm actually loving. Autumn is truly my favorite season; it has my favorite clothes, my favorite movies, my favorite meals. It's cool, but just warm enough for me to wear pants and a cute jacket (usually, but who knows with Michigan). Plus, it contains my favorite holiday of all time; Halloween :) The one time when dressing up as someone else and stuffing your face with junk is truly appropriate. I like to spend each night eating a fall/Halloween-inspired treat with a glass of cider and a Halloween movie; I actually gained ten pounds the first month I started this ritual...oops.

So, as usual, the weather's gotten cold and I've been trying to make more comfort food, such as creamy chicken and risotto soup. I got the idea from Panera Bread's "Cream of Chicken and Wild Rice," which I've been obsessed with since my first taste. One day, mid-summer, I'd actually gone to Panera for a chicken salad sandwich and a cup of this tomato Parmesan soup they used to have, but it wasn't there! My only other option (as I can be fairly picky, especially with soup, which I don't usually even like) was the Cream of Chicken and Wild Rice, which did not disappoint...beyond did not disappoint. It was the thickest, creamiest, most addictive soup I'd ever eaten: no exaggeration, I could have eaten it with a fork, it was so thick. The problem with craving this soup on a constant basis, though, is how fattening it must be (I'm certain), not to mention how expensive.

A couple weeks ago, though, as I was stirring a pot of rosemary risotto to have with chicken for dinner, it hit me that risotto is an incredibly creamy rice dish; so creamy, sometimes, it's almost like a thick soup. Therefore, I should be able to easily turn it into a healthy, creamy chicken and rice soup. Why I'd never thought of this before is beyond me. But that's exactly what I did, last week :)

The meal was incredibly easy. The only actual hands-on cooking I did was food prep and, of course, constant stirring of the risotto. Basically, I cut up some vegetables (carrots and parsnips, to be exact) and poached them with a couple chicken breasts, pearl onions, and a bouquet garni, which is just a little homemade satchel filled with herbs (take some cheesecloth, fill it with flavorful items, tie it closed with kitchen twine, and there's your bouquet garni). While that was cooking, I made the risotto. I know that a lot of people probably think risotto sounds really complicated and tiring, but, as always, it's not. I used to be scared out of my mind of it, maybe because it just sounds so fancy, but after actually trying it? I don't even need a recipe and I doubt anyone else would either.

The basic method is to sauté chopped onions in butter or oil, add the rice to coat with the oil, then add a little wine and stir until nearly absorbed, and, lastly, add a ladle-full of heated stock (chicken, beef, vegetable, fish, whatever your flavor preference), constantly stirring (just casual, slow stirring is fine) until it's absorbed, continually adding stock until the risotto is the right consistency. Overall, it takes about twenty minutes, just like regular rice on the stove. The actual work is stirring; big deal, right? The time flies. And what's great about this method is you can keep adding flavorful ingredients, while it cooks, tasting every so often, until you've found exactly what you're looking for. The results are well worth it, like a fresh bowl of creamy, buttery mashed potatoes. It's also traditional to add a little butter and Parmesan at the end, letting it melt into the risotto on its own, lid on, without touching it. It adds an exquisite richness, but, I must say, it's not necessary. So, if you want it healthier, skip it!

Anyway, once everything was cooked, I simply diced up the chicken and veggies, added them to the risotto, and then continued to cook a little bit longer, adding more and more stock to achieve an even creamier, more soup-like, consistency. While risotto is quite creamy, it's supposed to be rather al dente--have a little bite in the center. With cream soup, this isn't what I'm looking for. So, that's why I continued on longer, with more and more liquid. At the very end, I added a splash of wine and a few extra herbs, for flavor. I have to say...it was delicious. Absolutely satisfying! We still have some leftover risotto--just plain risotto--that I'd set aside because we didn't need that much for the soup. So, I'm really excited to eat that with a meal some time this week. It's taken everything in me not to take it for lunch. I thought I should be a good person and leave it to share with my boyfriend :)


Homemade Apple Cider for Fall Days

Last year, I wanted really badly to make my own apple cider. Why? So I could experiment with different flavors, of course! I never actually got around to it until this week, though. Took me long enough :)

Now, homemade apple cider is probably completely unnecessary unless you want to play with the flavor by using different types of apples or so you can simply boast that you made it yourself. Of course, I enjoy both of these benefits, haha. The problem is that homemade is much more expensive than store-bought, considering all the apples you need to buy in order to get a gallon's worth. I must have used maybe ten apples and only got a few cups out of it. I can't bear giving up the cider, though, so I just have a little sip every day :) It's a problem I have; when I was little I used to hoard my Easter and Halloween candy in a big tupperware container and eat just one piece a day because I didn't want it to be gone.

If you're into the idea of coming up with your very own cider, maybe for a special occasion or just a little fun experimentation for yourself one day, it's incredibly easy! Apple cider is literally just plain old juice from an apple. Growing up, this isn't something I ever realized; I mean, why would I? What's labelled as "apple juice" on the store shelves looks and tastes completely different from "apple cider," which I always thought was something more special, with added ingredients! One day, several years ago, I figured it out when I was making up a container of vegetable juice and found that the juice from the apple looked eerily similar to cider.

Apple remnants, separated by the juicer. So colorful!

So, if you happen to own a juicer (or, for some insane reason, an apple press), all you have to do is cut up some apples, shove them through the juicer, and voila...homemade apple cider! Mine was a combination of mostly red delicious, a few honeycrisp, and a single granny smith. My favorite part is the foam that develops on top, making it look even more rustic and a bit like a glass of beer! But much tastier.

The Way to a Man's Heart? Chocolate.

I don't know what it is--maybe the simplicity and pure satisfaction of the flavor--but every boy (25 years old and I just can't bring myself to say 'man' yet!) I've ever known has been deeply in love with chocolate. Ask a guy what flavor of dessert he wants, no matter the form, and the answer is "chocolate." You'd expect it to get boring after a while, but there are so many different possible flavor combinations, even savory, that chocolate is timeless.

I think that, maybe, inside every man is hidden a little boy with a big sweet tooth. Perhaps it's because I associate chocolate with sweets and sweets with childhood, but so many of my favorite chocolate desserts remind me of being a little kid with a bottomless pit of a belly and a constant nagging hunger for something sweet.   One of my favorites was brownies; somehow, they were always exciting! I can't think of a denser, chewier, more satisfying chocolatey dessert than a brownie. And there are kinds for everyone's taste; you can use milk chocolate, dark chocolate, semi-sweet, bittersweet; lace it with chunks of chocolate or keep it light; make them dense and fudgy or light and cakey. With brownies, really anything goes. And, no matter where you get them, they're always different. 

I saw these little glasses at Anthropology this summer and just had to have them. The style reminds me of mason jars and who could resist a glass that has "milk" etched all around it in different languages? Not me!

I've definitely had a lot of different types throughout my life, but the combination I keep coming back to is consistently dark, chewy, and has little fudgy pockets of soft chocolate morsels. I'm not a milk chocolate fan; it is far, far too sweet for me to handle. I'm not even really a semi-sweet chocolate fan, though it's billions of times better than milk. For me, the only options are dark and bittersweet, so that's all I buy. And I have to say, I've found that a nice dark chocolate brownie is definitely the way to a man's heart...at least my man's heart! Of course, he'll take chocolate in any form; though he did devour these pretty quickly. I even had to yell at him today because there was only one brownie left and I hadn't photographed a single one for this entry yet, but he took it to work to eat! Didn't even ask...such is his mad hunger for chocolate ;) No worries, though, he didn't eat it! So, I got my photograph and slipped the last brownie back into his lunch bag for tomorrow. 

Now, I know that a lot of people will just default to using a box brownie mix if they want to make them at home, but from-scratch brownies are quite literally one of the easiest desserts you could make. With a mix, you put the boxed dry ingredients into a bowl, add the wet, and mix it all up until incorporated. With from-scratch (at least my recipe), you generally do the same, but in a pot on the stove. I find the main difference in taste and texture probably comes from the use of actual chocolate rather than cocoa. As far as I can tell, chocolate flavored box mixes use cocoa, which imparts a chocolate flavor, but no fudgy texture. For me, I want to feel the chocolate as much as I taste it, so using actual chocolate, rather than cocoa, is a must.

I know that doing something on the stove top sounds like it must be more complicated, but it's really not. The only reason you do your mixing on the stove is so you can melt the chocolate and butter together at the beginning; of course, you could melt the chocolate and butter separately, but that would be more work! Basically, you just melt the two together in a pot, mix the dry ingredients in a separate bowl (it helps them to fully incorporate more easily because half the mixing is already done) and then mix it all together! After that, you just have to pour the batter into a pan and let the oven do its job. 

My mom is the queen of box mixes; she loves to taunt me for being a from-scratch purist when it comes to cakey desserts because box mixes are so much easier and, in her opinion, taste just as good. I needed help preparing for a party one night, though, and she offered to help, so I gave her the task of making the brownies...from scratch. Of course, this was not something she was looking forward to! But my mother, who is free and open with her opinions, admitted that my way was just as easy. If she can admit it, so can you! I promise, it's worth it.


Eat to Energize

I've been trying really hard lately to eat well; to have a healthier breakfast in the morning (first thing when I get up, rather than two hours later at work), snack on produce throughout the day, and have a more interesting, but healthy dinner.

A while back, I bought a book, "Mad Hungry," by Lucinda Scala Quinn. It's about how to feed men and boys; I got it because I thought there might be more recipes in there that Billy would be interested in. I've found out, though, that there is so much more! She really tells you how to make cooking easier and more enjoyable; how to get the most out of your food and your day! There are tips galore. One of the main tips, which I'm now trying to get into, is to have an established routine because everything is easier when it's all laid out before you.

So, this week I began a routine, planning out four meals (since the other three nights would be booked already): enchiladas salsa verde, coq au vin, potsticker dumplings, and chili.

Coq au Vin. I know it looks like a photo from some Chinese takout menu, but this is chicken simmered in red wine with garlic, onions, and herbs! Amazing.
The first thing I did was make a list of all the ingredients I didn't have on hand, so Billy and I could pick everything up Sunday and be prepared for the rest of the week. Usually, I'm so indecisive and feel like we don't have enough variety in the cupboards, I end up making the same handful of dishes all the time. I usually default to pasta with tomatoes and herbs (actually, one of my favorite and most satisfying meals, though), steak with wine sauce and some type of potato, or baked chicken (plain, spiced, or curry) with, again, some type of potato or coconut rice. Without planned meals, I just don't buy less common ingredients at the store. I figure, I don't want to crowd my kitchen with food that never gets touched, because you know how easy it is to find something interesting, buy it, and never use it because you just don't get to purposefully finding something to use it in.

Planning out the week completely changed this, though. Not only did we eat meals we'd never had at home before (or necessarily at all), but we had something vastly different every single night. With a plan, I was also comfortable cooking straight after work. Usually, I'll sit down to relax first, mostly because I'm exhausted and just plain don't want to cook, but not having any idea what to make compounds that. Cooking after work, though, rather than immediately sitting/laying down for an hour or so, gave me more energy to last the rest of the night! Cooking, itself, obviously kept me awake, but since I was eating at a decent time, I was given an energy burst that would last me until bedtime, rather than finding myself falling asleep in front of the television. I've ended up sleeping better, as well, because of the lack of any sort of nap.

I've been practicing, generally, the same routine in the morning. My main plan is to start cooking breakfast foods that can be taken to work, like frittatas, homemade Hot Pockets, hard boiled eggs, etc--things that are more hardy and will give us real energy boosts, unlike carbs. Both Billy and I eat cereal for breakfast and, at least for me, it does nothing. I wait until work to eat (because I take so long to get ready), which makes it worse because that's two hours between waking up and breakfast, which defeats the metabolic boost it's supposed to give. Now, I haven't actually done any of this yet; I literally haven't had time this week...but I have been eating eggs daily for breakfast, directly after my shower, and I actually do feel the difference! I definitely feel much more awake at work. Being on a computer all day, my eyes get droopy pretty quickly, but I've been fine all this week until today...I'm guessing because I didn't eat breakfast until about 10 and had sugary cereal instead of eggs (it's not my fault, my dog kept me from getting up on time!).

Anyway, my point is that there really is something to this routine stuff. I think people find it difficult to cook not only because it takes effort that they don't want to make after work, but because they're unprepared, which makes it worse. Defaulting to what's easiest is...easier! Even coming up with a plan or routine seems like unwanted work, but it's not really. I think it's actually fun because you get to look through a cookbook at all the different recipes, ogling the most delicious looking photos, and picking out what you want to try, as if you were at a restaurant.t I mean, maybe it's just me, but I love looking through restaurant menus to find the most appealing dish to order, so why wouldn't I want to do that at home?

I'm just hoping I can continue this trend without giving into laziness and that more people discover how much easier cooking is with a routine and how food can truly enrich their lives...because I really do believe that most people love food (nearly) as much as I do.


Whiskey and Chocolate

This past weekend was the bachelor/bachelorette parties I spoke of in my last entry. To illustrate how much fun I had, I probably need only say that I slept for eight or nine hours Sunday...morning/afternoon/evening as opposed to Saturday night! Between the end of the bachelorette party and Monday, I was probably awake for only four hours. Crazy! I do not like to sleep. Sleep is a waste of my time. Of course, I'm constantly exhausted and try my best to get at least seven hours a night, but during the day? Naps are not an option...though I often fall into an extreme coma against my will.

Anyway, the party was just absolutely awesome and the night flew by so quickly! We started out at the bride/groom's house, quickly ate some of my exquisitely decorated cake (this is the part where you recall what kind of cake I made and laugh), hopped onto the party bus to make our way to the bars, and within what felt like an hour, we were dropping people off. That's how you know you had a great time; it just passes you by in a blink. I only spent $10 too, which is pretty amazing! Of course, I only bought two drinks, but mixed drinks are usually more than $5 a piece.

Beginning of the night...
End of the night...Apparent by the table full of bar condiments!

The only thing I would do differently about that night is bring home some of the whiskey brownies...or actually put the tiny whiskey cake I set aside (using the leftover batter) in the fridge rather than leave it out all night on an open-air cake stand. OOPS.

Oh, and use a different recipe for the bachelorette cake/cupcakes. I didn't want to make a chocolate cake because I wanted it to be as authentic as possible (if you know what I mean), but I hate yellow cake; I absolutely loathe it. It was the simplest thing I could think of, though, and my compromise was to add crushed pineapple, so it would be more like a pineapple upside-down cake. Too bad the pineapple didn't add enough flavor! I actually believe that, had there been more fruit, it would have been great. But I'm entirely unsatisfied with the outcome! I'm sure not everybody felt the absolute same way, though. The meringue frosting was at least amazing.

Of course, I have plenty of leftover "pineapple" cupcakes! The one thing I do not want to eat. I actually hate whiskey, but those cupcakes were pretty good! I think it was the fact that the whiskey was set against so much cocoa; the cake was practically black! I also made bourbon caramel to pour over the tops, which was really my favorite part. I could eat spoonfuls of that...maybe. At first bite, it's really delicious and then the back-flavor of bourbon hits you.

Just sampling the ingredients! I recommend leaving the whiskey for the cake...

The combination has inspired me to try something similar with other liquors. I've brushed straight liquor and liquor-infused simple syrups onto cake before, but I've never actually baked it into the cake, and especially caramel, until now. Perhaps, soon, I'll experiment!


...Go Together like a Horse and Carriage

*Note: I stole the entry title from a post a friend made about a completely different subject. But it's so perfect! So, thanks Dustin ;)

I began this entry with the intention of talking about the sudden weather change, what it means for my cooking, and the upcoming bachelor/bachelorette dessert task I'm taking on, which I'm pretty excited for, if I have the time to actually be creative.

I'll start with dessert...

My friends are getting married at the end of this month (17 more days! Don't worry, I had to check my calendar to come up with that number, haha) and their bachelor/bachelorette parties are this Saturday. Megan and I have made several bachelorette party cakes, for parties that we're not even invited to; we get asked simply because we always do it, and we're good at it! Of course, being as blatantly dense as I can be at times, I didn't even think of making one for this party. I offer to bake a cake for all of my friends' birthdays, but I let a bachelorette party go right over my head. The only reason the idea came to me is because someone inquired this past weekend. I couldn't believe I hadn't thought of it!

So, Megan has agreed to help me make the cake. If you're wondering what exactly the cake is, just consider the most inappropriate theme for bachelorette parties and that is the cake. If that doesn't help, perhaps you're a Friends fan and recall the bunny-shaped birthday cake Rachel ordered for her daughter's first birthday, which was not in the shape of a bunny ;)

When we make the cake, we usually end up with enough leftover batter for a small batch of cupcakes and I thought this was my perfect opportunity to make the cutest cupcakes possible! Then, I remembered the wedding-themed cupcake liners I saw at Sur la Table; they came with little cutout brides and grooms on toothpicks. Adorable! It's a tossup, though. Spend time making cute little decorations myself...or spend money on some paper decorations that cost more than they probably should...
Bake Cups, Wedding Set
Considering those cupcakes, though, brought me to the realization that the party is starting at the bride's house, which is the location of the bachelor party and, since I'll be there anyway, I thought I should make something fun for the boys! You know they'll devour anything, as men always do...so I figured that's another opportunity to make something fun.

The problem is that I still haven't developed my decorating skills as far as my ambitions. Believe me, if I could make a full-blown (inappropriate) groom's cake, I would. With a full-time job, feeling over-fatigued every night, and only the smallest decorating talent, there's no way that's happening. I don't even know if I'll have the time or energy to accomplish some of my other ideas; for all I know, these will be simple chocolate cupcakes. Let's hope I can pull through!

I love making desserts for my friends, though, because not only do I get to see them happy, but I don't get stuck trying to eat an entire dessert by myself. Now you're thinking, "Her boyfriend lives with her..." But no...that doesn't matter. Billy eats like a bird and, while he loves sweets, he never eats what I make simply because he can't recall that there's anything to eat! People say you need to leave food where a man can see it or he'll never touch it and I have to say...it's so true. Too bad I can't have everything in my fridge sitting front and center.

After having gone up a full size in the past year, I'm excited to make food for someone else to eat :) I'll just ignore the fact that I'll be continually making dessert for myself and Billy anyway. Maybe I should start trying to come up with nutritious, low-fat, low-calorie recipes like I started to years ago...It's actually not that difficult, so I'm not quite sure why I gave up...probably because I started baking for so many other people and didn't want to chance making something bad.

I've been writing this on my lunch break, which is just about up, so I have to run! Pray for my cakes! ;)


A Weekly Family Meal

For a few years now, my parents and I have gone out to dinner every Friday. My mom came up with the idea as a way for us to go out and regularly try something new. In the beginning, it was fairly easy to pick a completely different restaurant each week; after so much time, though, we tend to go back to the same ones over and over. There are only so many to choose from! Like I've said before, though, I love trying new places, so I make a constant effort to find a dinner location that we've never been to.

Tonight, it was Dino's Lounge in Ferndale. I've actually been there once before, but it was years ago with Megan, and my parents (and Billy) had definitely never been. I hadn't even thought of it until Megan and I drove past it last week on our way to Como's and Pinwheel for our incredibly late lunch and dessert. Like Como's, Dino's seems to be based on Italian food. In my opinion, a preponderance of restaurants seem to dabble in Italian food and get it utterly, utterly wrong; usually, it's less than nothing to write home about. Based on my Chicken Scaloppini Risotto tonight, though...Dino's has it right!

I am very picky with my risotto. The first time I'd ever had it, I made it myself and, while the texture was beyond comfort-food-satisfying, it was far too flavorful to stand for more than a couple spoonfuls. It took me three tries to realize that I didn't like the chicken broth flavor, which all of the recipes I'd used called for. Later, I discovered Brio's Sweet Potato and Chicken Risotto, which I thought was amazing when I tried a bit of my mother's, but found too flavorful, yet again, when I finally had a dish of my own. Instead of overpowering chicken broth, however, it had an overpowering flavor of wine. I have yet to perfect risotto at home, but I finally found a dish I can eat and eat...and eat...until I'm actually full.

After dinner, we headed over to Pinwheel because I, of course, needed to satisfy my week-long craving for macarons! I also wanted to brag about all the more interesting selections they have. This time, instead of getting just one of each cookie I wanted to try, I felt the need to ensure I wouldn't be longing for anything particular all day, every day, for the second week in a row. So, I got a few "cappuccino coins," a Mexican chocolate cupcake, a nice cold lemon buttermilk bar, and two of every flavor of macaron. Two...of every...flavor. That's two blackberry, two strawberry, two lemon, two pistachio, two vanilla, two chocolate, and two coffee. I even had a little photo shoot just to show how adorably delectable they really are!

Now, these cookies, as small as they appear, are definitely sweet enough for a person to eat just one. It's really all you need to be satisfied! For that moment...The next day, however, there are no guarantees, which is why I wanted so many! I figured, I want one of each so that I can sample the different flavors, but I want a second of each just in case there's something I really like that I want to sample again :) Since I don't make too many trips to Ferndale and sandwich cookies tend to be tedious, I'm certain I won't overfill myself on these, so this little overindulgence should be just fine :)

Sunday, I'm going to my parents' house so I can help my mom try a new method for cooking ribs, which is how I attained that tender, fragile meat that slipped right from the bone last week (recipe courtesy of Megan's boyfriend, Steve, man-cook extraordinaire!), as well as learn to properly cut up a whole chicken. Since we'll be having dinner there, I thought it only appropriate that I bring a dessert!

So, tomorrow, I expect, hopefully, to either make several tiny blackberry, red currant, and nectarine tarts (each fruit its own individual tart and all tarts baked rather than fresh, which I tend not to prefer) or an attempt at the original gooey butter cake recipe. I've made the common household recipe (in a chocolate version) just about a bazillion times and finally tried, this past week, to make my own. I used my personal brownie recipe as the cake base and then used the gooey butter cake topping. The treats that came out of the oven, I must say, were out of this world...texture-wise. I thought they must literally be the best little hot fudge cakes I'd ever eaten. The only problem is how blatantly rich and sweet they are. In an effort to find out if alternate recipes exist, I discovered that the most common one found is not the original, which, I can only imagine, is not nearly as overly sweet as it doesn't contain a block of cream cheese paired with a pound (yes, a pound) of powdered sugar.

We'll see what happens tomorrow!


A little comfort dessert for a surprisingly eventful week

I feel like, with my constant burning hunger and my absolute pure joy just to eat, one of my absolute favorite activities is to find new restaurants that actually have good food (because, I find, restaurant food is usually anything but special) and bakeries with new treats I've never tried. I especially like doing this with Megan because she is one of the few people I know who loves to do the same! I’m sure others enjoy eating at new places, but Megan seems to be constantly looking for new and different food stops, which is how I got into it and ended up spending my Saturday in Ferndale.

We had “lunch,” which was really dinner as it was after four pm, at Como's Restaurant and Pizzeria, where I had one of the better chicken dishes I’ve found. It was covered, absolutely covered, in roasted garlic. I didn’t even need my sides and I always need a side. After Como’s, we went off to our real destination, Pinwheel Bakery, where I discovered my complete, unqualified love for macarons. All my life, the only macaron I've ever eaten was this past Saturday at Pinwheel, but I'm totally addicted! They’re little almond-based meringue sandwich cookies filled with buttercream and there are so many different flavors! Megan had a coffee macaron, which reminded her of my mocha cupcakes (I haven’t made them in years and should probably fix that!), and I had a blackberry, which was actually pretty fruity tasting with just the right amount of sweet! They were the perfect size, too. You really only needed to eat one, though I wanted to eat ten J

There were actually a lot of different cookies that I'd never seen in a bakery before too…chai tea cookies (I think like Mexican wedding cookies, but with different spices), cardamom cookies, tiny "cappuccino coins" with equally tiny chocolate morsels, even rosemary cookies! I had to get myself a little cellophane baggy filled with one of each, just in case I’d find a new favorite and because I might discover something I’d like to reproduce at home. Of course, the winner was the macaron and I had only tried one of five flavors.

After our little food outing, Meg and I did some shopping, popped by her boyfriend's fantasy football draft for a drink, which then turned to two, and, finally, I had just enough time to stop by my mom's to pick something up and then drive aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaall the way back home to get Billy so we could drive half an hour in the opposite direction to be late to a friend's apartment for the funniest drinking game of all time, set to The Jersey Shore, that is sure to get you off your rocker.

Having stayed out late for a friend's barbecue the night before, it was definitely a weekend filled with more fun than I'm used to! I was simply exhausted by Sunday and yearning for some comfort food, which brings us to my very first barbecue ribs, which were so tender (thanks to a method I learned from Megan’s boyfriend), we had to eat them with forks because the entire sheath of meat would fall cleanly off the bone when you tried to pick it up…

…and also, my very first clafoutis, made with figs and raspberries.

I got the recipe from my mom's copy of The Best of Gourmet: 1988 Edition...which she just bought for a dollar, by the way...When I saw the dish had figs in it, a fruit you rarely see in recipes anymore, I just couldn't pass! It was so incredibly easy to make too. All I had to do was slice the figs in half, arrange them in a dish with the berries, mix up some batter, and pour it in! 

After that, I let my oven do all the work and spent the next hour laying on the couch with the amazing scent of freshly baked fruit wafting all around me.

When the clafoutis had finally cooled, just enough to serve, I found myself finishing off my small slice so quickly and fervently, I had to take twice as much for seconds. It was everything I was looking for that night...warm and sweet, moist and refreshing...creamy, yet chewy, yet crunchy (from the sugar sprinkled over the top). I'd like to take a piece to work every…single…day this week to warm up in our little toaster oven, but I'm going to at least attempt to behave myself!

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