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.

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