Ten-Minute Risotto & Five-Minute Cream Soup


Fancy. Time-consuming, Complicated…all words that come to mind. But is it? Risotto is creamy rice. Fancy? I’d say comforting like soup or mashed potatoes! It cooks in twenty minutes; time-consuming? I don’t think so! And complicated? You saute onions, add the rice, and cook for twenty minutes while gradually adding stock and stirring. Oh…my.

Here is what’s so difficult about risotto…the misconception that it’s difficult! Honestly, I will acknowledge fear about getting the texture right and how easy it is to screw up because that almost soup-like creaminess is what makes risotto, not the fact that you used Arborio rice. I mean, I used sushi rice after running out a few times! However…even if your rice ends up thick and softer than it’s supposed to, it will be delicious and so very satisfying! So, I’m here to say, make risotto! Make it plain, make it with tomato sauce, bits of buttercup squash, loads of roasted garlic and fresh herbs. You’ll never look back! And, on top of that, your life will be made easier because, in one batch of risotto, you can end up with the base for ten-minute risotto and some of the creamiest, most flavorful, five-minute soup you can make.

How, you ask? Easily…

First we’ll start with the ten-minute risotto. I found this tip in a book by Jamie Oliver and was so excited! Basically, you cook risotto to the halfway point, which is about ten minutes and four to five ladles of stock. You then pour it out onto a sheet pan, spreading evenly, and immediately put it in the fridge to stop the rice from cooking further. After it has completely cooled, you can transfer it to a container for storage. When you want to cook it later in the week, simply put it in a pan with a ladle of warm stock and gently heat it to temperature, allowing it to mostly absorb that ladleful before finishing it with three to four more! In about ten minutes you have freshly made risotto with the same texture as if you’d never stopped in the first place. This is a great idea if you want to make it for a gathering since risotto must be served immediately lest you chance the rice absorbing every bit of liquid and becoming mushy. Even better, though, busy people, like me, can have a family meal (since risotto is truly a main course!) or side dish finished in ten minutes. What I Iike to do is start a full batch of risotto and refrigerate half of it for later, leaving me with the other half to eat that night. Half a batch is a full meal for two people, so that works perfectly for Billy and I.

What if I don’t save half of it in this manner, though, and end up with a load of leftovers? As flavorful as it is, I don’t really want to eat the equivalent of mashed rice…so what I do is portion it and throw it in the fridge or freezer. Then, whenever I like, I have nearly instant, effortless, creamy soup. I take the risotto and put it in a pot with some stock. Once they’ve warmed up, I puree them together with an immersion blender (you can use a blender or food processor, though) and add more liquid or risotto, if necessary, until I have the consistency I desire. I eyeball the measurements because everybody likes theirs differently.

It’s so easy, though…I come home from work for a half hour break and do this! The mixture heats up (in minutes) while I feed the baby and I need only a minute to puree it before putting it in a thermos and heading back to the office. That’s how simple and fast. And the flavor…It tastes just like the risotto! So, you can have onion soup, roasted vegetable, tomato and basil, sweet potato…your options are endless and all absolutely wonderful. In my opinion, this is as easy as canned soup, but better tasting and worlds healthier, especially if you make risotto as I usually do—sans butter or parmesan. I actually prefer the taste without them; the butter is too rich for me. Plus, I make it several times a week, so it’s just plain healthier!

To get you started on what I can only imagine is a path to addiction…I’ve provided a base recipe with ideas for variation. Enjoy and don’t be daunted! 


Homemade Hash Browns: No Grater, No Flour, No Sticky Mess.

First off, I have to apologize for being so incredibly slow with this blog! I actually have a few unfinished entries, but taking care of a baby uses up a lot of free time! Hopefully, I'll be able to get back on track some time this year, despite also now having to plan my upcoming wedding ;)

Back to the task at hand, though...homemade hash browns! And you all know that when I say homemade...I mean from scratch with fresh potatoes, not from a bag of frozen hash browns, which really is probably what you're eating at the restaurant, wishing you could replicate at home. Since those are frozen and fresh is obviously tastier ;) I promise you that my method creates better hash browns than you've probably gotten anywhere! It's incredibly easy, too, and only takes half an hour!

For hash browns crisp on the outside, soft and fluffy on the inside...all you need is a pan, a potato, a knife, some olive oil, and salt and pepper (plus any herbs and/or spices you'd like to enhance the flavors with).

Heat a tablespoon or two of olive oil over medium heat in a nonstick pan. While it heats up, cut one large potato into matchsticks. An easy way to do this is to cut off the top, tail, and sides of the potato so that you're left with a big rectangle; then, slice it thinly along the long side and repeat along the short side; you're left with matchstick size pieces (think about an eighth of an inch, no larger). If you're an anti-waster like I am, slice the top, tail, and sides into matchsticks as well.

Toss the potatoes into the hot pan, coating evenly with the oil and stirring constantly for about ten minutes, until softened. Sprinkle in salt, pepper, and any herbs or spices that you like; stir to coat evenly. Then, gently form the potatoes into a patty covering the bottom of the pan; don't press the potatoes into each other, though, just leave them loosely together. Cover with a lid and allow to brown for about ten minutes. When crisp and golden on the bottom, flip the patty (turning it out onto the lid and sliding it back into the pan is an easy way to do this) and repeat, leaving it to brown under the lid for another ten minutes. When crisped and golden on both sides, you're done and ready to serve!

The secret to keeping the potatoes from turning goopy inside is the manner in which they're cut. By slicing them into matchsticks rather than grating them, the starchy liquid stays inside the potatoes rather than oozing out and creating a gluey texture. When you grate them, you have to make up for the starch by squeezing the liquid out of the potatoes with a towel and adding flour. Even then, though, they don't quite turn out right. This method, however, is foolproof :)

Soft yet crisp bits of potato rivaling the best diner fare!


Caramelized Onion Pizza

Growing up, I always remember Saturday nights as 'pizza night' at my parents' house. Just as we went to Big Boy for breakfast Saturday morning and had pancakes Sunday morning, we ordered Little Caesar's pizza for Saturday night dinner...every...week. As a result, I have to admit, I'm not really a big pizza fan! I'm incredibly, incredibly picky. I actually went years without eating it until a trip to Spain my junior year of college.

What's the big difference between Spain's pizza and ours, you ask? A lot, actually. First of all, we didn't order from a chain "pizzeria" like Jet's or Pizza Hut. This came from nice, non-chain restaurants where, I assume, a chef or team of people work hard to establish really great recipes in order to keep their business afloat. Sure, I have a bias against chain restaurants, but you have to admit unique, privately owned establishments tend to have better food! Anyway, these pizzas were thin crust, just as I like them, and made with fresh ingredients, which, in my opinion, bring a new light to pizza...I am not a pepperoni and packaged mozzarella fan (surprise, surprise!). I think, after so many years of regular eating, I just got sick of the generic American pizza. Having it prepared in a different way, though, created something completely new for me, which is exactly what homemade pizza does.

What I like about making pizza yourself is that you can have it exactly as you like it best. I don't usually prefer meat on my pizza, at all...I think we all know I'm not a big meat person, in general...but, on occasion, I do like a nice sprinkling of Italian sausage! The problem is that it's different everywhere you go--sometimes it's large chopped pieces, sometimes little crumbled bits, sometimes hot, sometimes mild! So, to be safe, I usually just don't bother asking for it. At home, though, I can prepare it my favorite way and I can do as many different topping combos on one pizza as I like without paying more, which is another plus! 

The pizza Billy and I made last night actually had three different combinations. Half of it was just pepperoni (Billy's favorite), a quarter was the same with the addition of caramelized onions, and the last quarter was caramelized onions topped with wedges of fresh tomato. For the purposes of this blog, I've simply posted the recipe for the latter portion, since the remaining only requires you buy some cheese and pepperoni or any other toppings you'd like.

Now, I think meals made completely from scratch are almost always the best; you just can't beat something freshly made at home. So, a pizza made with home prepared dough and sauce is exquisite. However, sometimes you haven't given yourself the time to make these things, so I think it's completely acceptable to go out and buy them...though, I must say, the sauce doesn't take but half an hour and truly does make a total difference in the outcome. 

Since I haven't been able to get too much cooking in after finally having the baby (yup, she's here! I know I hadn't announced that in my blog yet), Billy just picked up some pizza dough at a local Italian bakery--you can really find it any number of places, though. Our local produce stores tend to carry them in the freezer aisle and, I assume, some grocery stores may as well. Anyway, Billy picked up the dough for us to make calzones a few nights ago (delicious!), so we just used the leftovers for pizza last night. I did make my own sauce, though, and encourage you to do the same! Then, simply gather together your favorite toppings and go to town :) 


Ribs Guaranteed to Fall off the Bone

One of my favorite aspects of summer is the opportunity to use my grill. I almost don't want to cook inside, at all; it just feels unfortunate not to take advantage of the sun and warmth after spending nearly three quarters of the year without that option. Our grill even has a single burner on one side, so I'll cook everything I possibly can out on my porch; I just fill up a jelly roll pan with all my prepared food and utensils, grab a drink, and park myself outside.

If I can make everything fully on the grill, I'll one hundred percent do it. For some meals, though, that simply isn't an option. Anything that's going to take several hours to cook in order to yield moist, tender meat, I'll cook first in the oven and only finish off on the grill to bring in a smoky flavor. I'm just not confident enough in my grilling skills, yet, to try otherwise. A lot of people look down on that method because it's not "real" barbecue--even just using the grill isn't "real" barbecue--but who cares? I think all that matters is that your meal is delicious and to your liking :) 

The same goes for how your food turns out. There's always a "right way" for something to taste or a "right" texture it should yield, but it's really just a matter of opinion. Do I believe pasta should be cooked al dente? Yes. Do I believe steak and hamburger should be moist, tender, and pink inside? Yes; do I think the meat's been wasted if cooked well done? Certainly! That's just my personal preference, though. Of course, I do partake in judging food that I feel wasn't prepared properly (everybody does, whether they admit it or not)--like lasagna made with browned ground beef rather than mashed up meatballs. But, truly, if that's how you like it best, that's how you should make it and you shouldn't let anyone put that down--not me and not any "expert."

I say all this because I've heard many, many times that rib meat should never be tender enough to fall off the bone; if it is, you've overcooked it. Overcooked?? To me, that means I've cooked something so long, I've rendered it completely unappetizing; for meat, that would mean drying it out. Last summer, I cooked a meal for my boyfriend's family and we accidentally grilled the chicken at too high a temperature for too long, creating something horribly dry that I didn't even want to eat, let alone serve; THAT, to me, is overcooked. Astonishingly delectable, fork-soft meat is not overcooked. If you want to devour pounds and pounds of it, it must be cooked just right ;) So, in my opinion, rib meat so tender it slips right off the bone is cooked just right, and I know loads of you out there agree!

As with pancakes (which I spoke about in a previous entry), I grew up eating only my dad’s ribs, which are cooked first in the oven and then finished on the grill, where he layers on sauce to caramelize. I’ve never ordered ribs in a restaurant because I’m picky about the sauce; it just never lives up to my expectations and I prefer to be safe rather than find myself disappointed while out. So, when it comes to texture, I know only what I’ve had at home, which is almost always tender enough to pull easily off the bone. Until last year, I didn’t know anything more tender than my dad’s ribs.

When my best friend started dating her current fiancé, Steve, though, I got my first taste of someone else’s. I have to say, I was a bit wary because I just find that a lot of people dry out meat and I’d never eaten any of Steve’s food before, so there was no way to know how the meal would turn out. Yet, his ribs soared past my expectations!

Steve’s method for cooking ribs is, actually, nearly identical to my parents’; he also cooks them first in the oven and then finishes them off on the grill. There’s one key difference, though. My parents lay the ribs in a roasting pan covered in foil while Steve lays his in a pan with a layer of plastic wrap covering it before the top layer of foil. By using plastic wrap, a perfect seal is created, allowing the meat to, essentially, steam itself. This method, I swear, is flawless for creating the most supple meat imaginable. With such a low temperature (250 degrees), there’s no worry about the plastic melting, either.

Using Steve’s method, I allow the ribs to cook for about six hours, at which point I could try to lift one side with a pair of tongs and the meat would slip right off the bone. In order to finish it on the grill, I carefully lift the rack with a large, metal grilling spatula and, once on the grill, I don’t move it. My dad will turn the rack over in order to sauce both sides, but that’s too tricky with meat this soft and you can get plenty on the one side. Once it’s to my liking, we’re ready to serve! Billy and I just pull the meat off and eat it with a fork because it’s truly impossible to eat these ribs the traditional way. If you’d prefer that the meat at least stay on the bone, just reduce the cooking time. You’ll still have superbly tender meat, but will at least be able to eat it with your fingers :)

Remember this from last year? Delicious!

So, for guaranteed tender, moist ribs, lay your rack of meat (seasoned with a rub, if that's what you're into) directly in a roasting pan (sans roasting rack), seal the pan completely with plastic wrap and top that with foil. Place it in a 250 degree oven and allow to cook for approximately 4-6 hours, depending on what texture you’re looking for. Don't worry if you have to let the meat go for over six hours, either; Steve had it in the oven for about ten, once, and the meat hadn't dried out! Once it's finished cooking to your liking, carefully lay the rack on the grill to bring in that classic, smoky flavor and to caramelize your sauce (if using). If you don’t finish it on the grill but want caramelized sauce, put your ribs under the broiler and just keep a close eye so that it doesn’t burn.

If you’ve cooked your meat to fall-off-the-bone tenderness, pull out some forks; otherwise, prepare yourself for a most awesomely sticky mess!


Roasted Garlic and Tomato Pasta

I can't deny that I'm a bit of a pasta freak...I suppose, actually, a big pasta freak. It's generally quick, easy, and there are so many flavor and texture options. As a person who has trouble planning meals, pasta is one of my last-minute, go-to meals, along with risotto; I can't tell you how often Billy and I eat these two dishes compared to anything else during the week! This particular pasta, I created years ago, in college. I can't even recall what inspired me, but, up until that point, I really only ever added butter, olive oil, and a bit of garlic powder to my noodles. One evening, though, I got adventurous and created something that, I think, is truly spectacular. 

After having made it on several occasions by now, I've tweaked it a bit...When I first made the pasta, it was dinner for my mother and I while my dad was away on business. For two people, I used a full head of roasted garlic; the flavor was phenomenal. Honestly, I'd continue to use that amount if it weren't for some of the adverse effects that much garlic can have on your body. I'll spare you the details, but if you're not worried about any after-effects, please go ahead and use the ratio of a whole head per two people. Your taste buds, at least, won't be sorry!! Otherwise, I now stick to a much safer half a head per two people; though, I use quite a large head of garlic :) of course

The general preparation is to cook down some fresh, diced tomatoes with chopped, fresh basil; make a thick sauce out of roasted garlic and olive oil; and mix it all together with the ultimately ooey, gooey, stringy wonderfulness of fresh mozzarella. The resulting meal is like a comfort food classic with the sweet tomato playing upon the fragrant garlic while the melty mozzarella softens every bite. Diced, fresh tomatoes are absolutely necessary in order to keep the flavors of garlic and tomato separate; otherwise, you end up with a garlic tomato sauce. Of course, if you know someone who likes to pick around the chunks of tomato (like Billy!), feel free to cut them up much smaller, but don't bring it to the point of a puree. As you can see in the photo above, I chopped the tomato quite finely so it would be impossible for my wonderfully picky boyfriend to avoid it, yet each bit is clearly separate from the garlic-coated noodles.

In the same vein, fresh mozzarella cannot, without a single doubt, be replaced with any other cheese and expected to give the same flavor or texture. The dish is completely transformed without this element; it's still wonderfully delicious, but the strings of gooey mozzarella add that extra something, bringing the pasta to the next level. No matter what, do not replace it with shredded mozzarella from a bag. If you're not going to go the whole way, just grate some Parmesan over the top. In my opinion, once you've experienced melted fresh mozzarella, you'll wish you could easily find a pizza shop that uses that instead of the sad, boring alternative. There's just nothing like it! 


Melt-in-Your-Mouth Buttermilk Pancakes

Like so many friends, I grew up eating Jiffy Mix pancakes. Every Sunday, my dad would get up early (which he did in the first place, anyway) and, as my brother and I were waking up, he'd have the batter mixed and ready to pour onto the griddle. For those unfamiliar, Jiffy Mix is an all-purpose baking mix in which all the dry ingredients are combined, leaving your only "work" as adding liquid and fat (eggs, oil, etc); it's really just another version of box mix cake. From my own personal experience, it seems most people, nowadays, use these types of ready-mixes for pancakes (just as they do for cake), rather than making the batter fully from scratch. I do have to say, my dad's pancakes were always satisfying!

I think, after getting used to eating my dad's pancakes so often, I became a bit picky about them. They're thin and tender, like the perfect marriage between a crepe and a pancake, and they're probably shorter, in diameter, than the full length of my hand. Restaurants, though, tend to serve thick, plate-sized masses that I wouldn't necessarily consider tender, despite appearing fluffy. They're the complete opposite of what I've always been used to, so I've only ordered them under the most desperate of circumstances! 

When I moved out of my parents' house, nearly two years ago, I had to get my dad's recipe so that Billy and I could carry on the weekend pancake tradition. One morning, though...what I thought was one very sad morning...we found ourselves with an empty box of Jiffy Mix. There was no way I was going to let us go without pancakes and I felt terrible making Billy go to the store, so I decided I'd bite the bullet and make them from scratch using a recipe I'd seen in Martha Stewart's Favorite Comfort Food. They at least looked beautiful and I trust Martha's expertise...so I was willing to try something different for one weekend!

Let me tell you, after making that first batch from scratch...I will never...never...make another pancake using any other recipe. I am now even less willing to order a plate of giant, tough, brown restaurant pancakes because, well...why settle for anything less? These pancakes are fluffy and so incredibly tender, they melt in your mouth. Billy and I usually end up with a few left over and, they're so delicious, I just roll them up, hours later, and eat them plain. Leftover pancakes are not generally tasty, especially the texture, but these sure are! I wish I had a plate right now...I'm sitting here smelling the hopefully delicious pulled pork in garlic-lime marinade that's been roasting in my oven for the past two hours and all I can think about is having a big plate of Martha's buttermilk pancakes. 

I know I'm overly against food in which any part is pre-made, but here it really does make a difference. I will admit that a box mix cake has the same texture as a homemade oil cake...but you cannot get these pancakes from a box! You can't get those beautiful little holes of tenderness out of a box...you need to add the flour, baking soda, powder, and sugar yourself. In all seriousness, measuring out a few dry ingredients is not hard work. This isn't the difference between throwing a frozen dinner in the microwave or putting together something from scratch. This is about measuring maybe four extra items into a bowl rather than measuring one pre-mixed item plus all the extras you have to add and mix by hand anyway! The extra "effort" is beyond...beyond well worth it. If I could just show up to the homes of everyone I know and make these to get the word out, I would, without a doubt!


Cannoli Cream Gelato

Can you think of anything that sounds more delicious than the sweet, creamy, cinnamony filling of cannoli turned into gelato? I can't!! Every time I go to a gelato shop, I wish I could find one based on that flavor, but I never, ever do. And why not? You'd think someone would have come up with this idea by now! And maybe someone has, but I haven't been able to find that person yet.

When Billy got the ice cream maker for his birthday, I quickly started looking for gelato recipes online because I'd always wanted to try homemade gelato; that's when I found out that, generally, it's made with a milk base rather than heavy cream. At the same time, I read that Sicilian gelato tends to be made with a base of milk and cornstarch and found a recipe for dark chocolate gelato using exactly that. As I read the recipe, I realized that, outside of the cocoa powder used to flavor it as chocolate, it looked eerily similar to my family's biancomangiare recipe (biancomangiare is the term for cannoli cream), which has a base of half and half, cornstarch, and sugar, with canella (a unique type of cinnamon) used as flavoring. Traditional cannoli filling is made with ricotta cheese rather than the pudding my family uses; however, our version is incredibly common, at least in America; it would be rare to step into an Italian bakery here and not find one filled with a white pudding rather than ricotta.

So, back on topic, when I realized the base for gelato was generally identical to the base for biancomangiare, I knew that would have to be my very first attempt at gelato...or ice cream...or any frozen dessert made at home. I immediately found our biancomangiare recipe and compared the amount of half and half to the amount of milk so that I could calculate how much canella to add. After a few other flavor tweaks, I poured the base into the machine, adding chopped chocolate and pistachios at the very end. When the gelato had finished freezing and I took my first bite...I nearly died. It was perfect...identical to the flavors of my absolutely positively favorite dessert of all time...and it was so creamy and soft, just as I like it. So, I filled a container, placed it in the freezer, and quickly emailed my mother to brag, who then said I should bring it for the Fourth of July!

A few hours later, I went back to the freezer for another taste...and my heart sank. My soft, creamy gelato had become hard, gritty, icy...the texture was incredibly unappetizing, especially with the chocolate and pistachios mixed into the icy cream. I did some research to find out what had gone wrong and it simply appeared that this is a common problem with homemade ice creams! They're great right out of the machine, but icy and gritty out of the freezer. It bothered me because who wants to make just enough ice cream to immediately eat? Billy and I had wanted pints and pints of flavors in our freezer to enjoy at the drop of a hat! And what was I to do for the Fourth of July? Make the gelato that very afternoon and hope it doesn't melt at my aunt's before it gets eaten? I don't think so.

That's when I found Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams at Home, which I mentioned in my last entry. It was actually probably the third book I looked at. First, I browsed a couple gelato books because...you know...I'm just obsessed with gelato a bit more than ice cream! Since the results were lacking, though, I decided to search for ice cream books, instead, and the very first one I saw was Jeni's, which I had to click on because I'd heard of her ice cream!

In Michigan, we have a store called Plum Market, which is like most markets...they sell amazing looking produce, wines, deli meat and cheese, grocery items, etc. It's a lot more amazing than most markets, though...The quality and selection are supreme; there are things you can find there that you probably can't find anywhere: belgian dark chocolate spreads, dark chocolate dulce de leche, home baked breads like quarkstuten (unless you've been to Germany, have you even heard of this?), the largest selection of frozen yogurt you'll find anywhere and, imported from an ice cream shop in Ohio...Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams. Though I've never purchased any, I've always lusted after her ice creams; with flavors like Brown Butter Almond Brittle, Wildberry Lavendar, Rockmill Golden Ale and Apricots, and (seemingly everyone's favorite) Salted Caramel, how could I not? How could anyone not? There are even unique sorbets, frozen yogurts, and ice creams made with goat cheese!

So, I clicked the link to read about her book and knew I had to search no further; only one reviewer gave it fewer than four stars (and that person sounded like a giant crab) and the whole foundation of the book was about finding the perfect recipe for homemade ice cream so that it retained the same texture as anything you could buy in the store. Hello! Exactly what I was looking for! The next day, Billy went out, bought the book...and we immediately got to work :) Flipping through her recipes, I realized...this homemade ice cream was, really, closer to homemade gelato. Could my day get any better? Her ice cream base does contain heavy cream, but the ratio is nearly two parts whole milk to only one part heavy cream, so that's good enough for me. Despite the preponderance of unique ice cream flavors, I quickly located one for a simple vanilla bean and decided that would be the basis for my Cannoli Cream Gelato--the only thing I would have to do is add the unique flavors of biancomangiare, so it was truly meant to be :)

This time around...once the gelato had set up in the actual freezer...I ran a spoon through it, took a taste...and my smile must have reached from ear to ear or as close as it could get. Jeni knows what she's doing! Her technique for adding chocolate (so that you can make something like mint chocolate chip ice cream) is exactly what Billy and I were looking for too; she calls them "chocolate freckles" and they're amazing. So, I used that technique to imitate the chocolate chunks we mix into the biancomangiare before spooning it into cannoli shells or cassata cake...or simply our mouths. All I left out, this time, were the chopped pistachios, which is because Billy isn't a fan of nuts and I wanted him to try the gelato so he could give his opinion on the chocolate bits (for future use in his mint chocolate chip!). Something like that could be added later, anyway, so the outcome was still exactly what I was looking for and exactly something I would be proud to present to my family.

So, if you own an ice cream maker and are a fan of cannoli, I highly, highly encourage you to make this recipe. If you've never had a cannolo...I'm sorry...and beg you to either go out and buy one or at least make the cream at home if your particular location is void of proper Italian bakeries. Of course, you could always just make this gelato because, I promise, it tastes exactly the same :)


Almond Marsala Gelato

I have to admit that I don't eat ice cream often unless I go somewhere like Maggie Moo or Baskin-Robbins where I can get a nice fat waffle cone and sit outside enjoying it in the summer heat with a friend; if I happen to buy something for home, it tends to stay neglected in the freezer, despite my love for the confection. I think it has something to do with memories of adolescent summers, meeting friends at an ice cream shop and hanging out on the trunks of our cars, idly chatting while we relax with our treat. Sitting inside eating a bowl of ice cream simply isn't the same, so I really almost never buy it unless I find something that looks truly delicious (like mascarpone ice cream with hazelnuts and fudge ribbons).

Billy, on the other hand, is an ice cream FREAK. You can bet that nearly every single night he makes himself a bowl of mint chocolate chip ice cream sprinkled with extra chopped bits of bittersweet chocolate from our pantry. Of course, he adds the extra chocolate because he's never able to find a brand that adds chocolate in just the right amount using just the right method; if he does happen to find that brand, he usually gets one container of ice cream out of it before it's completely disappeared from the store. That's why, when we saw this Cuisinart Ice Cream Maker, we just had to have it. Finally, Billy could have the mint chocolate chip he'd always dreamed of and I could put my culinary creativity to good work and make as many crazy flavors as I please...scooping them into a cone to enjoy on my back porch, of course ;)  

Yesterday was my family's Fourth of July celebration and, after having made an experimental batch of Cannoli Cream Gelato, my mom suggested I bring that as my dessert. I thought it was a great idea considering the heat and decided to take the chance to make even more and have a little ice cream bar with it all. So, I came up with the second idea of Almond Marsala (inspired by my favorite pie crust), while Billy picked out a wonderful dark chocolate recipe from Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams at Home, a book I needed to own after reading reviews that it had recipes for homemade ice cream that actually stayed soft and creamy rather than turning into a gritty, icy mess, which is exactly what my experimental batch of Cannoli Cream Gelato had done. It was so perfectly creamy right out of the machine, but a disaster out of the freezer...more on that when I blog the recipe, though.

So, my original idea for dessert was essentially an ice cream bar where we'd have three ice creams, cones, chocolate sauce, fruit...you know, all the general staples of an ice cream bar, plus the cakes and pies others were going to bring. I had also wanted to make a nectarine tart, though, simply because I have a ton of ripe nectarines on hand and thought it would be really refreshing, especially topped with ice cream (I didn't end up making the tart, yet, but that's beside the point). My problem was that I didn't feel like the two ice creams Billy and I were definitely going to bring were right to serve with fruit and I really wanted something to go with it. So, I racked my brain trying to think of something that would be unique, but would taste wonderful alongside roasted nectarines or fresh, macerated strawberries. That's when I thought of Marsala wine and almonds, which I use in many pie crusts to complement the fruit inside. It seemed like the perfect combination for my purpose, so that's exactly what I did!  

Because I'm absolutely no expert on the chemistry behind ice cream, though, I chose to use recipes from my new cookbook as bases for my own, simply altering the flavors. You know how I love to tell people to take a recipe and make it their own! By doing so, I was able to make an ice cream with great texture, but still have the ability to take credit for the taste. For the Almond Marsala, I used Jeni's "Cognac Ice Cream" recipe, simply replacing cognac with Marsala (actually, doubling the amount, taking the chance that the ice cream would be softer because of the extra alcohol) and adding homemade almond paste as well as chopped almonds. I made sure to reference a recipe containing nuts, though, so I'd know what amount would be proper; I didn't want to end up with only a crunchy bite every so often or having more crunch than cream.

The resulting gelato has a light, overall almond flavor with just the right hit of sweet, fruity wine at the end, a combination that, I find, pairs perfectly with a bowl of fresh strawberries...


Breakfast Bread Pudding: French Toast Baked in the Oven

I am not a French toast fan...I've always had issues with eggs and egg-y foods; they tend to make me a little nauseated unless I'm craving them. So, French toast is just not where it's at for me. Beyond being able to taste the "custard" too well, I just don't like the texture of the bread! Of course, always a polite guest, I eat what's been made for me...thank goodness...because if I had refused to try this French toast casserole, I would surely, surely be missing out. 

My best friend's parents own a cottage up in the thumb of Michigan where we absolutely love to spend hot summer weekends relaxing, barbecuing, drinking on the boat, and sitting by the bonfire. Short, up north vacations are a staple in Michigan, at least for those of us in the suburban, metro area. If we could spend every weekend at the cottage, we'd do nothing else. What's great about these trips with my particular friends is that we don't just allow ourselves to become completely lazy; there's a full kitchen to utilize and, no doubt, you'll find us making anything from a huge breakfast feast to homemade, from-scratch calzones. And, while I love to take charge of cooking, it's absolutely wonderful to have Megan's parents along, allowing us to wake up to the sweet aroma of her mother's French toast casserole and the savory goodness of her father's omelettes. 

As Mom C said, "Place the pan on the counter top and magically people begin to descend from the upper level of the cottage and start to devour!" I mean, why even bother waking up unless we can immediately feast ourselves upon her casserole!? Dense, moist, and sweet with bites of crisp caramelized brown sugar, this bread pudding is undoubtedly addictive. I ate so much more than I could handle, I had to lay on my side for half an hour to settle my stomach! And when I felt okay again...I finished the few pieces I'd left on my plate ;)

I've wanted this recipe for years now, but, of course, never remember to ask. I even tried to get my mom to help recreate it, but because I hadn't realized, at the time, that it's truly a bread pudding, my description kept getting lost in translation and all we could do is sadly fail. I just couldn't have my baby shower brunch without it, though, so I finally remembered to get the recipe from Mom C! Two days later, here it is in my kitchen...doubled in size not only as a sure-fire test for the shower, but to give Billy and I plenty of leftovers for freezing :) It's so simple, though, you could make this every weekend without feeling as if you've done any work. It will surely look like you made more effort, though!


Boca Negra: An Intensely Fudgy Cake

Late one evening I found myself craving dessert, which actually doesn't happen that often. Usually I'm happy with just a bite of candy or a cookie, but this was the kind of craving where I had to make something or I was going to die (I mean that too!). Most weeknights, I'm too tired to cook anything past dinner and I prefer to allow myself an evening of as much laziness as possible, simply so I can feel I've relaxed at least somewhat. So, making dessert wasn't something I wanted to put any time or effort into. It's pretty difficult to find a fast and easy recipe, though! I suppose it's a good thing I have ten or more dessert cookbooks because there would have to be something in at least one of them, right? I'm lucky because I happened to find the perfect recipe, a Boca Negra, in the first book I grabbed, Dorie Greenspan's Baking with Julia. (Julie who? Julia CHILD, of course, haha).

I can't say enough good things about this book. I suppose I'd feel the same way about any Julia Child based cookbook, but this one contains so many recipes that you never see, which really sets it apart. I've found that many, many baking cookbooks showcase all the same sweets: the same cookies, cakes, cupcakes, pies, icebox desserts...same flavors, same ingredients. They're all very similar! But this book has things like "Sweet Berry Fougasse," "Fruit Foccaccia," "Sage Upside-Down Baby Cake," "Poppy Seed Torte," even a wedding cake with marzipan fruits, and, of course, the "Boca Negra." Now, Julia can't be credited with all of these desserts; it's based on her PBS series and, so, the recipes come from many contributing bakers. Perhaps that's why the range of baked goods is so vast and interesting!

I've only tried out a few recipes, but I can already tell the Boca Negra is one of the best. The author describes it as "moist, dense, and dark," but it's so much more than that. First, while it's best classified as a "cake," the texture is so far from what anyone would consider as such. There's almost no flour, so it's more aligned with a flourless chocolate cake, but the texture and flavor is so intensely better. The best way I can think to describe it is to say that it's like eating the inside of a molten lava cake, but denser. It's smooth, rich, and-- served warm--incredibly comforting. Normally, I can't eat too much of a rich dessert, especially something too chocolatey; I literally get one or two bites and I'm done. I think something about the texture and warmth played against the richness, though, allowing the true addictive quality to come through.

I should add, as the author has, that this "cake" becomes something completely different once chilled; suddenly, when you take a piece out of the fridge and bite into it, you have a mouth full of fudge! What's nice is you then have a choice of what sensation you'd like to get out of this dessert. You can eat it cold and feel as if you're biting into a piece of Mackinac Island fudge or you can heat it back up to revisit the almost gooey, hot chocolate-like flavor that it exuded coming straight out of the oven; you can even allow it simply to come to room temperature and find yourself eating the perfect in-between. I love when the choice is yours :)


Balsamic BBQ Chicken with Oven Frites

I think this meal is going to be a new staple in my dinner repertoire, especially once it's warm enough outside to grill. I've always wanted to make my own barbecue sauce because I'd like to be able to tweak it perfectly to my liking and this one blew me away a bit! Normally, I avoid vinegary tasting barbecue sauces; they're completely unappealing to me. I can't tell you what it is about this sauce (by Giada DeLaurentiis, by the way) that's different from the others, perhaps the specific use of balsamic vinegar (which I adore), but the vinegary bite is almost addictive.

The fries were made with an "Oven Frites" recipe by Martha Stewart (go figure, two of my three favorite cooks!). She slices them thin and bakes them at a high temperature so that they're crisp on the outside and fluffy on the inside. I swear they're better than the traditional fried version. I'll admit I've grown tired of fast food fries, but I don't doubt anybody else would devour these like an order of McDonald's, especially with the addition of some Italian herbs and cheese. They're so super crunchy on the outside and light inside, just as a good fry should be! Dipped in the vinegary barbecue sauce...oh...my...goodness. I wish I had a plate right now!!


Brussels Waffles

First off, can I say how proud I am of this photo? Really, all the photos I've taken lately, which should be getting up here SOON! We moved into our beautiful, beautiful new home, which has a huge front window with a large, white ledge where I can prop my creations with not only a wonderful white backdrop, but a lot of natural light. The shadowing can get tricky, but I've had some good luck with lighting, so far!

This delicious dish you see above was breakfast this morning...though, I suppose it was really more like brunch, considering how late I made it :) Billy and I recently went on a shopping trip with my mother to take advantage of the ever-elusive thirty percent off coupon she had for Kohl's, where I found a great, stainless steel, Belgian waffle iron by Food Network. HAD to have it! 

The funny thing is, I've generally hated waffles all my life. When my parents would make them for breakfast, they had to make a separate batch of pancakes, just for me. Recently, though, I've learned to love the crisp outer crust of these beauties, and decided I needed a waffle iron so I could start making them. 

Recalling that the only waffles I was willing to eat were Big Boy's Belgian waffles, I thought it only fitting to purchase a Belgian waffle iron...and to begin my search for the most authentic recipe I could find! That's where I discovered that the waffles we, in America, know as "Belgian" are actually Brussels waffles, specifically, as there are many more than one type of Belgian waffle, all with their own unique texture/flavor. The difference between these and a more traditional waffle you'd make at home is that Brussels waffles are made with yeast...which I found very exciting since I've been baking my own bread.

While I found the dough/batter quite easy to put together, cooking it scared the life out of me. With a more traditional batter, you simply pour it to cover the peaks of the bottom iron. The yeast dough, however, is much thicker and stickier, like a very, very wet bread dough. The issue that arose is I couldn't simply pour it as needed...even spooning it with a ladle was a problem. I found the most foolproof way to fill the iron was to use a soup spoon, placing a dollop of doughy batter in each corner of each quadrant (the iron has four quadrants and I prefer to fill them separately so that I have four perfect, small waffles, rather than filling the entire bottom as one and having a giant waffle with four quarters that end up being cracked apart anyway). Therefore, I used four spoonfuls per quadrant/waffle. This method ended up working quite well for me and I was able to spread the batter quickly and get that baby closed for even cooking. I'm excited to do it again in the future!

Now, as far as I've seen, our restaurant Belgian waffles are always served with fruit, ice cream, and whipped cream...which I ADORE. However, I've been reading that, in Belgium, these waffles are actually served as snacks with simply powdered sugar! I find, of course, that you should eat them however you like :) which is why I made myself a pair of waffles with a dusting of powdered sugar, two spoonfuls of Belgian chocolate spread, a few slices of banana, and a giant...GIANT scoop of toasted almond gelato. Scrumptious. Simply scrumptious :)

Billy had half his waffles with chocolate syrup and half with Golden Griddle, which I ended up copying with one of my waffles because I was feeling jealous by missing the simple flavor of maple syrup. Eating two waffles each with a different topping was the best of both worlds! I highly recommend it :)


Berrie's 'n Cream Trifle

Happy birthday to Greg, for whom this delicious trifle was prepared! Of course, I created this post weeks and weeks ago (it got interrupted by a lot of moving work!), but here it is, finally :)

What's great about trifles is that no baking or cooking is required, whatsoever. Of course, a more traditional English trifle would have custard, which does require cooking, but my version is simply lady fingers soaked in a sweet wine or liqueur, layered with freshly whipped cream and fruit. It's as easy as that.

What's also nice is that it's a sweet dessert, similar to a cake, but much lighter and refreshing. You get your cakey texture fix from the softened lady fingers while your palette is brightened by the fresh fruit...and a little kick from the liqueur never hurt anyone :)

The trifle shown above was, as stated, made for my coworker, Greg. After bringing this in to work, though, I was immediately commissioned to make a second, that very same week, for another coworker! It was my very first commission and incredibly exciting. I think it looked even better the second time around and I've heard that my accidental addition of a bit too much Marsala wine made it an even bigger hit ;)


Baked Tomato Basil Risotto

So, Take Home Chef...I told you it's inspiring me! Last night we had a baked, tomato basil risotto with roast chicken and tonight is my very first homemade cream of potato soup! Hopefully an equally tasty, yet healthier version (with barely any cream). We'll see ;)

I was trying to come up with a way to use the leftover roast chicken yesterday and all I could think about was the "Neely's Get Yo' Man Chicken." It's one of my absolute favorite dishes (which...I know I say about a LOT, but when I crave this, I need it) in which you cook chicken in a bath of tomato sauce on the stove top. What gets you is the combination of herbs and spices--they create a very strong flavor that is truly addicting, which is obviously how it got its name! The story is that Pat Neely was won over by this, his very first meal cooked by his wife, Gina. Since my chicken was already cooked, though, I needed to come up with something else. Normally I eat this with rice (as the recipe states as well), so I figured I could easily turn it into a tomato risotto and simply shred up the roast chicken to mix in, which is exactly what I did.

Whenever I try to create my own recipe, I try to use another as a foundation...it makes me a lot more comfortable because I feel I'm less likely to fail. I find this method enables you to be incredibly creative and, eventually, find that the base recipe is no longer necessary!

So, I looked through every cookbook I own that could possibly have a tomato risotto recipe. I have one go-to cookbook for baked risotto, which is Martha Stewart's Favorite Comfort Food. I enjoy just looking through the book at the photos of all my favorite comfort foods, but it's also a very good source! It's my go-to for pancakes as well and I have never...never had better pancakes in my life. Never!!

Anyway, I like to take her recipe for "Baked Sage and Saffron Risotto" and use it as a base for other baked risottos, simply removing the sage and saffron. I find that it's never failed me when it comes to creaminess either. Baked risotto will likely never be as creamy as a traditional stove top risotto, but if you cook this slightly lower, it does mimic it more as opposed to simply resembling a baked rice.

However, that recipe wasn't quite good enough for the tomato sauce idea, so, instead, I used one in Patricia Wells' Trattoria. In her recipe for "Baked Risotto with Tomato Sauce and Pecorino," she combines her tomato sauce with the traditional chicken stock, something I wouldn't have considered, though it makes perfect sense. This is essentially what I took from her recipe since I was missing other key ingredients. I found that I have no hard Italian cheeses, whatsoever (not even a backup supply of Parmesan, *gasp!), and also was out of chicken stock! In a pinch, I simply omitted cheese completely (which is healthier, thank you) and replaced the chicken stock with beef stock. About four ounces short of what I needed in stock, I added just a bit of Burgundy to even it out :) 

I have to say, this dish was exactly what I was looking for. Once the risotto was finished, I quickly heated up some of that leftover roast chicken and threw it (chopped up) into the rice. My one qualm is that the flavor of the chicken didn't quite marry with the flavor of the rice; it was too plain! Had I been making chicken from scratch (as I likely will next time), I one hundred percent would cook the chicken in the tomato sauce, like the Neely's. 

What's great is that you can bring in as much (or as little) tomato flavor as you like. If you find you'd have preferred more, mix in a little extra sauce at the end. Then, next time, add more sauce initially. When I usually make the Neely's recipe, I do mix the sauce into my rice, so you may also prefer a plainer risotto with the sauce on top! I always encourage your own experimentation :)


Getting Amped to Cook

Like I said in my last entry, I've been pretty bad about cooking lately. An issue beyond the cold, dark weather and my fatigue is my small kitchen! It gets cluttered up with dishes so quickly and that's just uninspiring. Obviously I need to learn to keep the kitchen up better and plan meals ahead of time, like I had started months ago...

But today, I've found an additional remedy :)

Billy's been at work all day and, I, bored...tired...and hungry, decided to watch some online Food Network television. We don't have cable, so I've gone nearly a year and a half without my beloved Food Network. FINALLY I discovered, last week, that Hulu has some of its shows online! Today, I've discovered even a couple more cooking shows on Netflix, with far more potential episodes to watch :)

Currently, I'm going through TLC's The Take Home Chef, which many people might remember! A chef, Curtis Stone, goes to the grocery store searching for someone who will allow him to come back to their home and cook a meal for their significant other/family/friends. What I like about it is that these are very doable meals and you get to see everyday people, so much more like you and I than a television chef (even the rich housewives!), working in the kitchen. I could really watch anybody cook, but there's something even more inspiring about being able to relate more to the person...being able to envision their real, home kitchen (rather than an incredibly well put together studio kitchen) as your own and imagining the same exact possibilities.

Also, as always, it's made me so hungry for so many different foods that I never consider on my own. Just seeing something being made can be really inspiring. Perhaps it's just me, but when I see someone cooking or eating a meal, I want that for myself! Even seeing a character just snacking on something particular may encourage my craving (and we're talking far pre-pregnancy). So, watching someone cook on television seems to be having a really great effect.

I'm quite excited! I also hope that, moving into our new home, I'll be even more inspired because of the new environment...just getting to start over again from scratch. The kitchen isn't really any larger, but it's the possibilities of a completely new setup and being able to create a better environment that I'll actually want to spend time in that's so wonderful.


Steak: A Quick-Cooking Meat for Last-Minute Meals

I am exhausted...ALL...THE TIME. As most know by now, I'm nearly fourteen weeks pregnant and though I have had no symptoms whatsoever (no morning sickness, no mood swings, no cravings, no increased appetite--though mine was large enough as it is--no real weight gain!) I am far, far beyond fatigued during all hours of the day. Being awake is exhausting! Apparently even a peach-sized baby can tire you out.

Add to that the fact that it's winter in Michigan--the most glorious season of all! (Sarcasm). It's cold...it's dreary (though I do enjoy dreary, seriously this time)...and it's dark by five o'clock, which means it feels like bedtime, not dinner time. I get home from nine hours at the office and do not feel energized enough to cook. Not only am I tired from work, my twenty minute drive, and the increasing darkness, but I'm tired because I'm starving--it's a neverending cycle and always has been. When I get too hungry, I get tired, which means I don't want to cook, which means I don't get to eat...which leaves me hungry...and tired! And crabby ;) This is pre-pregnancy too, so imagine how bad it is now.

So, I've had to come up with a solution. Today starts my new routine of making loads of leftovers that can easily be reheated and of resorting to delicious quick-cooking meals, which brings us to STEAK. Sweet, juicy, tender, quick-cooking steak :)

Growing up, I loathed steak. I really am not a beef eater (I think hamburgers are so unappetizing unless made with turkey--and even then, only homemade because restaurants just don't do it right!) and I especially wasn't as a child. My mom had to cook multiple meals because my brother and I were so picky. I definitely was not ever going to touch beef of any kind--not even meatloaf covered in ketchup. A few years ago, though, I finally grew up and decided it was up to me to break my terrible habit and start trying foods that I used to hate and may love now. Enter steak. I love it!!

Billy and I keep a decent set of steaks in the freezer (along with loads of chicken), but my problem (our problem, really) is that I can't ever remember to take one out to defrost. So, I come home from work and there's no fresh meat to cook. I'm not about to put something frozen in the oven; I just think that's a sin...so we have to deal somehow by either eating pasta or sandwiches...or ordering out (gasp!).

Today was like any other day--no thoughts of taking out meat before work (or last night, which would have been better). I knew that I wanted to hit up Whole Foods after work so I could pick up a chicken (we only have two drumsticks and a load of wings left), but my intention for that was to either poach it whole or roast it (to have plenty of leftovers for situations just like this!).

While at the store, I noticed a beautiful section of perfectly crimson, on-sale beef. Most cuts were geared toward slow roasting, but two were perfectly fine for a quick meal (as I discovered by phoning my mom, hehe)--exactly what I needed as I was more hungry than usual! So hungry, in fact, I resorted to devouring an overly sweet Zimmerman's candy bar in the car along with a couple huge squares of super dark chocolate filled with salted caramel (I am not a candy eater, but I was desperate!). I decided to go with the sirloin tip steaks as they were more than half the price of the New York Strip (and these are already expensive because they're organic). This was incredibly, incredibly exciting. 

The first thing I did after getting out of the store was text Billy to let him know I picked up some meat and he'd have to start the potatoes while I drove home. It was perfect timing! He could get the potatoes going the entire time I was on the road. Then, when I arrived home, it would only be a matter of minutes before dinner was finished. These are some of my favorite meals. I mean, steak is incredible, so of course that's an automatic fave, but it's really an indulgent meal for me because we don't eat it often. So not only is it super fast, but a real treat.

Steak Diane. A previous meal because I was too hungry to take time to photograph this one :)
The point of this entry is to appeal to those of you who don't like to cook or don't have time to cook. Yes, steak is a little more expensive than chicken, but it's fast and you can likely afford to eat it (especially non-organic) at least a few times a week! If you don't want to wait for a side to cook, think about leftovers. I always try to cook more than I need because then that's less for me to cook later in the week. Last night, Billy helped make some mashed potatoes and we purposely made enough so that there's a second meal's worth. So, if Billy weren't going to be home before I was tonight, we could have easily reheated the mashed potatoes to go with the steak. Beyond that, you could always just put a snack with it--grab some bread, top it with a little oil, some herbs, maybe a little cheese (and pop it in the oven to toast up while the cheese gets melty) and you have an instant side of crostini--or just have steak and chips!

Either way, when you're in a hurry, remember that you can have the most delicious dinner in ten minutes or less. For a little inspiration, I've included a marinade/sauce recipe after the jump...because I think making your own will not only help you feel accomplished but taste a whole lot better than anything you find in a bottle! And it requires barely any extra effort or time, I promise.


Aunt Ann's Macaroni & Cheese

I have tried many, many different recipes for homemade mac and cheese, none with results that I've liked. The cheese sauce never seems to be smooth enough; somehow, the texture is always off. Of course, for years and years and years I've been obsessed with my Aunt Ann's mac and cheese. Anytime it happened to appear at a gathering, I'd be ecstatic...still am! To me, the texture is perfect, the flavor spot on, and the breadcrumb topping? The perfect addition! A little sprinkling of toasted breadcrumbs to so many smoother dishes can make a world of difference--pasta (even a simple pasta without a creamy sauce and without baking like a casserole) and risotto are two of my favorite dishes to top with crumbs. You wouldn't think they'd go well together, but it's really wonderful.

Despite eating my Aunt Ann's version for so long, though, I never got the recipe until recently. I just kept looking for the next best thing! Finally, it's here :)


What You've Been Missing

I have done plenty of cooking, plenty of photographing, and no posting! Life has just been too hectic with the holidays. Today, my major plans are part relaxation, part massive re-organization of my apartment (since we could be moving in less than two months!), so, I've decided to give you a little teaser of all the recipes I have to catch up on!

Chocolate Peanut Butter Cake
Apple Cranberry Linzer Tart
Cranberry Sugar Pear Tartlets
Big Apple Pancake with Fig Gelato
Orange-Chocolate Chip Muffins, Jam-filled Muffins, and Citrus Scones 
Sesame Cookies and Toffee
Berry Trifle Shooters
Chocolate Indulgence Shooters
Lemon Trifle Shooters
 I've also made a few savory creations, such as pastas, mac & cheese, risotto, and the best homemade hash browns you'll ever try, but the photos don't do them justice, so you'll have to settle with these sweet confections!
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