Thursday, April 29, 2010

Rice Pudding

So last week we had a couple meals with rice as the side. As usual, I made way more rice than I needed. We all like rice, so that isn't ever a problem, but this time I did it on purpose, because I had a hankering for some rice pudding. Yes, I just said hankering.

I have a rice pudding recipe that I have used before, but I haven't made it in so long, that I decided it was time to try a new one. There are lots of recipes out there, using all kinds of rice and taking all different amounts of time. Most of them have the same general list of ingredients (rice, milk, eggs, extract/flavoring of some variety), just in various proportions. None of them were speaking to me.

Then I saw this one. This one intrigued me for two reasons - first of all, it specifically called for leftover rice. Secondly, there are no eggs in the recipe. Interesting! Oh, and it didn't require the oven, which was a good thing, since the oven was fully booked that day. Bonus.

The great thing about this recipe was how easy it was - all of the ingredients are combined in a pot and simmered for a while. That's it. One pot, one spoon, no eggs - how easy could it be? Little miss could help me measure, pour and mix everything before it went on the burner. Decision made.

I only made a few alterations to the recipe as it is written. I wanted extra vanilla flavor, so in addition to the vanilla extract called for, I split a vanilla bean, added the seeds to the pot and even let the pod steep in the milk while the mixture simmered. I also replaced one of the four cups of milk called for in the recipe with heavy cream. Because why not? Lastly, I used a combination of raisins, craisins and dried apricots instead of just raisins as the recipe called for.

I was a bit curious as to what the texture of the pudding would be like without the eggs, but was pretty sure that however it turned out, it was going to be delicious, because the kitchen smelled SO good when this started heating up. And after about 15 minutes, I was amazed to see how well the pudding was thickening up. Little miss loved to peek in the pot every few minutes to watch the progress, too.

After 25 minutes, it was time to transfer the pudding to a bowl and let it cool down for a little while. I loved the colors of the different fruits and was amazed at the smooth, creamy texture. I couldn't wait for dinner to be done so that we could dig in.

I have to say, this will now replace my other rice pudding recipe as the "go-to" one here. Between how easily it came together and how delicious it was, there is no downside to it.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

April Daring Bakers Challenge - Traditional British Pudding

The April 2010 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Esther of The Lilac Kitchen. She challenged everyone to make a traditional British pudding using, if possible, a very traditional British ingredient: suet.

I am so American that it shows sometimes. This month's challenge was proof of that. When I hear the word pudding, I think of a custard type dessert, usually in chocolate or vanilla, sometimes with rice or tapioca. That was not what this challenge was about.

The British word pudding has much further implications than that. It can either be used as a generic term for "dessert," or to describe any dish that is cooked in a pudding bowl or pudding cloth, and is normally steamed or boiled, but is sometimes baked.

The first definition was the one I was vaguely familiar with, mostly through books like the Harry Potter series and a variety of British historical fiction novels. The second definition clarified things a bit for me, both regarding things I had previously read (I had heard of steak and kidney pudding and wondered just what kinds of desserts these were?!?) as well as for this month's challenge.

Our challenge this month was to prepare a steamed pudding, either savory or sweet, using the traditional British process. Generally speaking, the savory puddings tend towards a steamed pot-pie type dish, with a pie crust filled with some kind of meat (or vegetable) filling. Conversely, sweet puddings tend to be of the "sponge" variety - a steamed, sweet cakey dessert.

An additional, optional, aspect of the challenge was to use a traditional ingredient in the preparation of the pudding, suet. To date, my only experience with suet had been the stuff I put in a birdhouse in an attempt to draw an adventurous woodpecker away from the siding of my house. Not something I ever thought of eating. Turns out it is another form of fat, though one not all that popular or commonly available in grocery stores in our area. I chose to substitute other fats in my recipes, though would not object to trying suet, were I to get my hands on the boxed, pre-processed stuff one day. Something to look for if I am ever baking in Europe!

Anyway, back to the challenge. I was very excited when I read this challenge. Everything about this challenge was new to me. It was about way more than a recipe, it was about a style of cooking with which I was wholly unfamiliar. This was the reason I joined the Daring Kitchen in the first place. Needless to say, I was nervous.

After seeing several of the completed puddings of some of my fellow daring bakers, I worked up the nerve to try my first pudding. I started with a dessert sponge-style pudding. One of my fellow daring bakers prepared a beautiful and delicious looking pudding with a recipe that looked very easy to follow. A layer of jam is spooned into the bottom of a greased pudding basin (I used a one-liter pyrex bowl), then covered with a simple, though thick, batter made from butter, flour, sugar, egg and vanilla. The dish is then covered with waxed paper and foil, and the whole package is tied off to ensure that no moisture gets under the cover during the steaming process. I used rubber bands to hold my cover onto the bowl, and used my slow cooker as a steamer. I covered a mini tart pan with foil (to protect it, just in case), then placed it, upside down in the bottom of my slow cooker. I rested my pudding bowl on top of this make-shift steaming platform, then poured hot water (heated in a kettle) into the slow cooker until it reached the bottom of the pudding bowl. Make sense? Cover on the slow cooker, heat set to low, and there you go. I was officially making a steamed pudding. The only problem was that I didn't know how long it needed to steam for. Everyone who had made this kind of pudding had mentioned cooking times in the range from an hour to two and a half hours. Erring on the side of caution, I allowed three hours for the steaming of this pudding. Unfortunately, my pudding had other things in mind. When I popped the lid after two and a half hours, I was confused to find that both rubber bands had popped off and that, when I peeked under the foil, my batter was still... well... batter. I replaced the foil, changed our dessert plans for the night and popped the dial on the slow cooker up to high. I then worried for the next two and a half hours about what in the world I could have done wrong, and was I going to officially have a fail on my hands?? As luck would have it, I didn't. Apparently, between my bowl and slow cooker, I just needed extra time. The next time I checked, my pudding had a spongey, cakey texture and looked cooked all the way through. The only problem this time was that it was two and a half hours past dessert time, so we would have to wait until the next day to eat it. No problem - I put it back in the steamer about an hour before dinner the next night and it was perfectly warmed through for dessert. I think the re-steaming affected the color, but the taste was fantastic. What a rich, moist, delicious cake! Little iss loved it, and even asked for seconds. Definitely not a fail.

Based on the (eventual) success of my first pudding, I decided to try another sponge style one. Most of the daring bakers on the forums were sharing photos of a delicioiusly decadent looking chocolate sponge pudding. It looked too tempting to pass up. The process was almost identical to the first, but rather than jam lining the pudding basin, chocolate chips get the honor. The batter has cocoa mixed into it, and, for extra good measure, more chips mixed in. This time I even knew about how long it would need, so I was able to time it to have for dessert on the correct night!

Holy chocolaty richness. The only "problem" with this one was that it was so rich and ooey gooey that it didn't cut into nice even pieces. Yeah, I didn't think that was a big deal either. You must try this one. Got the little miss seal of approval, too, with an even higher ranking than the strawberry version.

Two sponge puddings complete, I felt ready to give the other type a try - a savory, crust style pudding. The problem was deciding on a filling. Once I understood the style of food this kind of pudding was, what kept coming into my mind was some kind of chicken pot pie dish. Unfortunately, I couldn't find a recipe that went along with this vision in my head. Did I let that stop me? Not at all! After reading recipes for other savory, crust style puddings, I felt comfortable enough pulling together my own recipe for a chicken pot pie version.

The first step was to prepare the crust. Instead of the traditional suet, I opted to use vegetable shortening. Little miss has helped me make many pie crusts, and was happy to help me prepare this one, too. She helped me measure, mix and knead. Then we put the dough in the fridge and worked on the filling.

I started by sauteeing some onion and potato in some butter. I then added some flour to the pan, the poured in some chicken broth to make the sauce for my pie's filling. I then diced up some raw chicken breast, which I mixed with some frozen mixed veggies. All of this was mixed with the onion and potato sauce, then set aside.

Filling ready, it was time for little miss to help me roll out the crust. I wanted to be careful to roll the crust thin enough that the meat would cook through well, but thick enough to hold the filling. Little miss did a great job, and we were able to press our crust into my now greatly overworked pyrex bowl. I then poured the prepared filling into this crust and topped it with another rolled crust to seal in the filling. The bowl was covered as before, and placed into the slow-cooker-steamer for six hours. Not only did I want to make sure that my filling cooked all the way through, but other daring bakers had learned that, even with the wet method of cooking, it is possible, given enough time in the steamer, for a steamed crust to become flaky and golden.

Close to dinner time, I made a quick gravy by thickening up some chicken stock and prepared some rice, as we always eat chicken pot pie with rice in our family. Everything prepared, it was time to un-mold my chicken pot pudding. Can you believe that was steamed? I was greatly encouraged. When I cut into it, I was even happier. The chicken was beautifully cooked, the pie even somewhat held its shape. As for the taste? It tasted just like chicken pot pie! Everyone ate it up and enjoyed it, so I would definitely call it a success.

I must say - this Daring Bakers Challenge definitely lived up to its name - so far, it has been the most daring and the biggest challenge for me, which puts it right up on the list of my favorites in which I have participated so far. Esther, I know some of our members must have thought it was an April Fool's joke when you posted this, but I cannot thank you enough for choosing this as our challenge this month. I can honestly tell you that it is something that I never would have thought to try on my own, and that I am so glad to have learned. I have so many ideas for other puddings, both sponge and crust style, and cannot wait to try them all. Thank you, thank you!

And, in case you are curious, there were probably as many varieties of this challenge as there were members participating this month. Click here to see some of the other amazing creations.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Granola Bars - Take Two

Granola bars are such a tasty treat, and are pretty handy to have around - they make a great snack, are a great breakfast on the go, and are even vaguely healthy.

We tried making granola bars before, with okay results. They would have been better if I had followed the recipe rather than adding in apple sauce, like some of the notes suggested, but they were still decent. That being said, I hadn't tried it again.

Until I saw these. The recipe is not actually all that different from the first one that I tried - the proportions of a couple of the ingredients were a little different, but not all that much. I knew it was time to give it another go.

This was a great recipe for us to tackle on one of those afternoons last week where little miss was a little rammy and we needed an activity to keep our hand busy for about half an hour before dinner. Little miss was happy to jump right in with both feet... er... hands. She measured the dry ingredients and helped me decide what goodies should go in these. Granola bars are pretty versatile, and can include just about any nut, dried fruit, seed or chips you want. This recipe called for chocolate chips and peanut butter chips. I didn't have peanut butter chips, so gave little miss the choice between butterscotch chips and flaked coconut. She chose coconut, so she added half a cup into our bowl.

While she was taking care of the dry ingredients, I was measuring and mixing the wet ones. When we were both ready, we took turns mixing the two together - me with my spoon, her with her hands. The idea was to make sure that there wer no dry bits left and that the chips and coconut were evenly distributed throughout the mixture.

Once ready to go, the mixture was pressed into a foiled and greased 9" x 13" pan. And yes, little miss still has impecable timing for popping her head into my shots... but that's okay - it wasn't that interesting a picture anyway...

The next choice that little miss had to make regarding these was whether she wanted her granola bars to be chewy or crunchy, because that would determine the baking time. For chewier bars, you take them out of the oven earlier, for crunchier ones, leave them in longer. Little miss chose chewy, so I set the timer for 15 minutes. When the timer beeped, I checked my bars, but they were still a little softer than we wanted, so I popped them back in and checked on them every minute or two. After another 4 minutes or so, they looked great, so I pulled them out of the oven and reached for the pizza cutter. I carefully cut these in the pan fresh from the oven to make sure they didn't become too hard to cut. Once they cooled part way, I moved them from the pan to a cooling rack to cool completely.

I am so happy that I found this recipe and that it inspired me to give homemade granola bars another chance. Little miss calls these "those awesome granola bars that mommy made,"
and I totally feel good about letting her eat them. And the batch made 16 bars for less than the price of a box you'd buy in the store, which has half as many. I can't wait to finish these and make another batch with raisins and dried apricots... or dried cranberries and nuts... the possibilities are endless!

Granola Bars

2 cups rolled oats
1 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup chocolate chips
1/2 cup dried, flaked coconut
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup wheat germ
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 egg beaten
1/2 cup honey
1/2 cup canola oil
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a 9" x 13" baking pan with foil and spray with cooking spray.
Mix the dry ingredients in a large bowl. In a small bowl mix together the wet ingredients. Pour the wet mixture into the dry and mix well (use your hands - it's easiest!). Pat the mixture into the foil lined pan.
Bake for 15-20 minutes if you want chewy granola bars, 20-25 minutes for crunchy. When the edges start to brown, remove the pan from the oven and let it cool for a couple of minutes. Use a pizza roller to slice into bars. Cool completely before removing from the pan or they will break apart.


Friday, April 23, 2010

Honey Ice Cream

Ice cream is such a treat, and with the weather warming up, it is something we think about for dessert a little more often these days. Who am I kidding? No matter how much I can't stand cold weather, I don't think it is ever NOT ice cream time...

The only problem with ice cream is that, unless you have special equipment, it is not something that you can just whip up at home whenever you feel like it.

Or so I thought.

Then I happened across this recipe. Ice cream without the machine? Intriguing. Honey flavored? Interesting. Only two ingredients? No reason not to try it!

The first step was to warm half a cup of honey in a saucepan. The fact that the picture of the honey in the measuring cup came out so cool was just a bonus. Anyway, the honey is warmed over low heat until it is nice and runny, not so thick and sticky anymore.

Once the honey is ready, the directions say to mix in half of the two and a half cups of heavy cream called for in the recipe (so, one and a quarter cups). It says to mix the cream into the honey until it is smooth and well incorporated. I started out mixing with the spatula you see in the picture, but switched to a whisk after a couple of minutes to better combine the ingredients.

The next step was to whip the other half of the heavy cream (yes, the other one and a quarter cups) until soft peaks form. I started whipping in the KitchenAid and kept a close eye on it... until the phone rang. In only the time it took to turn around, walk to the phone, pick it up and walk back, my cream went from just-about-soft-peaks to slightly-stiff-peaks, so I quickly turned off the mixer. Hey, at least I didn't make butter, right??

The whipped cream was slowly folded into the honey-cream mixture, and stirred until it was completely incorporated and had a nice, smooth consistency. The resulting cream was then poured into a freezer safe container (another trusty take out soup container!) and placed into the freezer for the entire afternoon. That was it. No churning, no special equipment - ice cream recipe complete.

So how did it turn out? It scooped really nicely, and had a very smooth, creamy consistency. I think that half a cup of honey, which doesn't sound like that much, might be a little overpowering for the delicate cream, as the dessert had a very strong honey taste. The texture was not like that of ice cream, but not in a way I can really describe... It tasted creamy, but didn't have the same smooth creamy feel in my mouth as regular ice cream. Little miss thought it was okay, but didn't love it like she does ice cream. My husband thought it was good, but not great. As for me? I will definitely try it again, either with less honey, or possibly try to figure out how to make a different flavor. It doesn't replace ice cream, but is a fun, creamy, frozen dessert.

Honey Ice Cream

1/2 cup honey
2 1/2 cups heavy cream

Heat honey over low heat until runny. Add half of the cream and stir until smooth.
Whip the remaining cream until soft peaks form and add to the honey/cream mixture. Stir well.
Place the cream mixture in a freezer-safe container and freeze for six to eight hours.


Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Girls Only Pizza Night

Daddy had to work late tonight, and had to do a work-dinner thing. You know, when you get to go to a nice restaurant and eat out on expense account, but you don't get to be at home relaxing while you eat...

Anyway, as a result, it was just little miss and me for dinner tonight, and I wanted to make it special. So I asked her what would be special, and she requested a pizza party. Great idea!

Little miss helped me with every step of this dinner. First up was making the pizza dough. We used our old standby recipe, which comes together very quickly and easily. While the stand mixer does most of the heavy lifting (ie: kneading), little miss was more than happy to lend a hand and make sure that the dough was good and ready.

Once we were ready to roll out the dough, I borrowed an idea that I had seen from a couple of online friends to up the fun of our girls only pizza - instead of a regular round pizza, we made ours in the shape of a heart. Very cute! So, dough shaped, little miss was ready to spread out some sauce. She is pretty good at leaving a bit of crust un-sauced around the edges. And she gets it pretty even, too.

Next comes the cheese. Little miss is actually quite funny about cheese. She claims that she does not like cheese, and she refuses to eat "raw" cheese. But she loves ooey, gooey, melty cheese. So when it came time to sprinkle the cheese onto the pizza, she was all over it - piled on as much mozzerella as she could get her hands on, so that her pizza would be extra ooey, gooey and melty. Awesome!

The pizza came out really cute, and little miss was really excited for our special pizza party. And she made sure that we had enough leftovers to save some for daddy.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Play with your food...

Not exactly what you'd expect to hear a mommy saying, is it? But involving kids in food is so fun that sometimes you just have to play.

We play with our foods in all different ways around here, and for all different reasons, too. I mean, you have no idea how much cookie cutters "improve" the taste of lunch. On those days when little miss is a bit apathetic about our lunch options, cookie cutters make all the difference. She will devour any sandwich (or today's quesadillas) with no complaints as long as she can pick a shape. And I don't mean she'll just eat the shape - she'll eat the whole "outside," too. Thank goodness for our bucket of 100 cookie cutters.

We also like to be hands on with our food. Literally. I definitely believe that involving kids in food decisions and preparation helps kids appreciate a wider variety of foods. Sometimes this is a very messy proposition, like when we made homemade gnocchi last week and little miss helped me knead the dough, but I tell you - she always tastes what she has a hand in making, and is always very proud to tell people that she helped to make whatever is being served.

Cooking, or pretending to cook, is also a great way for me to keep little miss occupied when I need a couple minutes to do some of those chores and tasks that little "helping" hands are a little less helpful with... Today little miss measured, mixed and cooked soup using only water, various utensils and lots of imagination while I did all of the dishes and wiping up from our breakfast and bread-baking activities this morning. I love hearing her talk about what she is doing as she is doing it, too - "I need a little oregano, mommy!" and "And now I add a half a cup of yeast!" It is always so amusing to hear what she picks up, what combinations she thinks of, and how she imitates what she sees me doing. Fun for both of us!

And I think she enjoys sharing her love of food, too. I mean, when it was her turn to take the classroom monkey home from school, she made sure it was well fed, with a place set at every meal, the entire time it was with us.

So play with your food, and let your kids do the same. The results are so worth it.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Broccoli Rabe Pasta

I wasn't planning on posting tonight, in all honestly. It's not that we haven't been cooking this week, because, well, of course we have. But we've been keeping busy and I just haven't had anything new to add. But dinner tonight was pretty tasty, so I wanted to share...

We don't watch all that much TV in our house, but we each have a show or two that we really enjoy. One show that I really enjoy, but seldom actually watch, is Lidia's Italy, a PBS cooking show that airs on Saturday afternoons. I love watching her cook, and her recipes always look fantastic. And attainable. I kid you not, I want Lidia to adopt me. Anyway, I happened to catch Lidia's show this last Saturday, and the show was all about pasta. All three recipes that she made looked great, but her simple broccoli rabe pasta recipe just looked so fresh and so good, that I knew I wanted to make it this week.

I have never tried broccoli rabe before, but am always game to try new vegetables, so I specifically added it to this week's shopping list.

The recipe, which I remembered from the show, but also found online here, is very simple, and only has four ingredients - extra virgin olive oil, garlic (and plenty of it!), brocolli rabe and pasta. The prep is just as easy as the ingredient list, and the whole thing came together pretty quickly.

Little miss was game to taste the broccoli rabe, so I gave her some raw after I washed it. She seemed to enjoy it, so I was very encouraged. The recipe calls for penne pasta, but I always let little miss choose our pasta shapes (I usually hold up two or three different shape options and let her pick between those, so I still have a little say in the matter...), and tonight she picked rotini over penne. Still a great shape, still a pasta that holds its sauce (or whatever you put with it) rather well, so I was cool with it.

I have to say, I am so glad that I tried this. The pasta was so easy to prepare, and tasted really fresh and delicious. I will definitely be adding broccoli rabe to the vegetable rotation around here. Little miss was less thrilled with the cooked broccoli rabe than she was with it raw, but that might be because it was mixed together with the pasta, and I think she is entering the "I need to separate all of the different elements of my meal" phase of childhood... but she still ate it, so I count it as a success.

The only change I made, by the way, was with the garnish. The recipe says to top the pasta with parmesan or pecorino cheese, but, somehow, we ran out of parmesan cheese, so I chose extra sharp cheddar instead. I may do that on purpose next time, because it went really well.

Definitely worth a try.

Pasta with Broccoli Rabe
(from Amateur Gourmet, from Lidia's Italy)

3-4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
6-8 cloves garlic, slivered
1 bunch broccoli rabe
1 pound pasta (penne or rotini)

Cook the pasta as per the package directions.
Meanwhile, in a large frying pan, toast the sliced garlic in the olive oil.
Clean the broccoli rabe by dunking it into a bowl of cold water. You may need to empty and refill the water, depending on how long it takes until dirt is no longer released as you dunk. Cut the bottoms off of the stems and discard them, then cut the broccoli rabe into approximately 1/2 inch-1 inch pieces.
Once the garlic has toasted and is slightly golden, add the broccoli rabe to the pan. Sprinkle with a bit of salt, then cover the pan, reducing the heat a bit.
After about two minutes, lift the lid, stir, then replace the lid. If the broccoli rabe seems a bit dry, add a little bit of the pasta water and stir again. It should be fully cooked within about 6 minutes.
Serve over pasta. Sprinkle with grated cheese (parmesan, pecorino or, in my case, cheddar!)


Wednesday, April 14, 2010

April Daring Cooks Challenge - Brunswick Stew

Grab a drink, settle in, and here we go!

The 2010 April Daring Cooks challenge was hosted by Wolf of Wolf’s Den. She chose to challenge Daring Cooks to make Brunswick Stew. Wolf chose recipes for her challenge from The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook by Matt Lee and Ted Lee, and from the Callaway, Virginia Ruritan Club.

I am going to be honest with you. When I first read that our challenge was stew, I was... well, not overly excited. I like stew, don't get me wrong, but I make stew already. Okay, okay, give it a chance, read the recipe. Okay, reading, reading, not your regular beef and root vegetable stew, looks interesting... wait. What is traditional Brunswick Stew made with? What kind of meat? Rabbit. Uh oh. I have never had rabbit before, and feel really, really weird about it. Funny that I don't feel weird about cows or chickens, but rabbits? Yeah... weird. And this was Easter month... Just couldn't eat the Easter Bunny.

But wait. Here is the most awesome part about the Daring Kitchen, and the challenges therein. It is all about learning, it is all about trying new things, and they are totally cool and understanding about modifying recipes for dietary needs, restrictions, and even preferences.

I quickly put my reservations aside and started planning my stew. The first order of business was making stock. If you remember, last month's risotto challenge also called for making stock, so I was much more confident this time, and used some of the tips from the other awesome Daring Cooks. I am really hooked on homemade stock now - so much more rich and flavorful than the boxed or canned stuff. My stock even gelled up a little in the fridge (trust me, that is a good thing), which made me so proud that I had to call my sister (fellow Daring Cook and Baker) just so that someone else could revel in my gell-y stock with me. Yes, we are cooking nerds.

The next step was to decide what kind of meats I was going to use in my stew. Chicken was a given - it is in the recipe and is a standard in this house. But for variety and flavor, I wanted a second kind of meat, too. I didn't find any inspiration in the butcher section of the grocery store, so decided on two pork chop ws that I had wrapped and frozen in the freezer. I took them down and put them into the fridge the day before I was planning on making the stew, and made sure I had a nice, full package of chicken leg quarters, too, since I find dark meat tastiest and most flavorful.

Meats chosen, defrosted and ready to go, it was time to gather my vegetables. The recipe called for a number of root vegetables, including yukon gold potatoes, onions and carrots, which I embellished with a sweet potato, red onion and parsnips. It also called for dried red chiles. Hot! In addition to the vegetables and spices, the stew also called for butter beans, either fresh or frozen. But, going to the grocery store looking for "butter beans," I could only find them canned. Not only did the recipe specify fresh or frozen, but I have been trying to buy less and less canned foods, so when I returned home, I did a bit of research. Went to google, typed in "butter beans," hit enter. First hit - a link called "What are butter beans?" Turns out they are lima beans. Score! Little miss loves lima beans. No, I am not joking. Back to the food store, pick up a bag of dried lima beans, throw them in a pot to soak, and we are rolling.

All ingredients gathered and ready, it was time to start making the stew. Wolf gave two different recipes, one to make the stew a long way, and one to make the stew a short way. I chose the first recipe, to make the stew the long way. Not only did it look like more of a challenge, but it looked more flavorful, so, since I am going to do the challenge, might as well go all in!

The first step was to cook up some cut bacon in the bottom of the pot. Bacon crisped, the pieces are set aside, and the meat, both the chicken and the pork, is browned in the bacon fat at the bottom of the pot, then set aside with the bacon pieces. I always brown my meat for stew, and I love bacon, so I loved the added flavor. At this point, I realized that I was also supposed to quickly heat the chiles in the bacon fat, so I threw those in for a minute. I am not the biggest fan of super-spicy foods, but I have to tell you how delicious those peppers smelled as soon as they touched the heat. Yum.

The remaining steps of the process were straight forward - adding stock, reducing it over the heat a bit, adding the vegetables and meat back to the pot at various times. While it was not overly complicated, it required some time management, effort and attention to make sure that everything made it into and out of the pot at the right times. Once the meat was cooked all the way through, I removed it from the still-simmering stew and shredded it as finely as I could with two forks. The shredded meat was returned to the pot and the stew kept simmering. As I said - not overly complicated, but definitely kept me on my toes throughout much of the process.

The finished stew is very thick and very hearty - thicker than it looks just sitting in the pot! So thick, in fact, that all of the Daring Cooks began posting pictures of their finished stew pots with their spoons standing straight up in the pot. So, of course, I had to take the obligatory spoon-in-pot picture. That spoon stood straight up for long enough for me to take several pictures, put the camera away, wipe the counter... yeah, that's a nice, thick stew. The funniest part of it, though, was little miss's reaction to it. I mean, she thought it was cool and fun to stand a spoon in a pot, but it has sparked in her a desire to test how thick everything is. Mixing cake batter, making pancakes, a bowl of cereal - "Mommy, will the spoon stand up in this?" It is very funny.

While the stew was simmering on the stove top, I decided that I wanted a little something extra with it, so I decided to mix up some drop cornmeal dumplings. These are super easy to make - little miss did most of it for me, from measuring to mixing to grabbing clumps to drop onto the stew. I used the dumpling recipe listed at the bottom of this recipe. After dropping these onto the top of the still simmering stew, I just put the lid on the pot and let the whole thing cook for another 25-30 minutes. It was that easy.

The finished stew looked and smelled so delicious, and the taste did not disappoint at all. I can hardly believe I had been skeptical to try this one. Each spoonful was so hearty and fulfilling and, just, well, yummy. And best of all, everyone liked it. Which is a good thing, because it made a lot. LOTS of leftovers. All three of those takeout soup containers are in the freezer, all ready for dinner on some night when I am too busy or lazy to cook. And also to use in some of the really fun recipes that some of the other Daring Cooks came up with to make use of their leftovers. Interested? Check out the other Daring Cooks!

Thank you, Wolf, for a really great challenge. I am so glad that I learned about this delicious stew, and will definitely be making it again!

Monday, April 12, 2010

Rainbow Cake

As I may have mentioned, little miss had a birthday this weekend. In addition to all of the celebratory cake pops that we made, I also wanted to make a more traditional birthday cake to bring with us to our Sunday night family dinner. I also had the rare instance of having the house (and thus, kitchen) to myself for a while on Sunday morning, so I was able to surprise everyone with my cake creation.

What I brought with us was this:

Totally normal looking cake, yummy chocolate frosting, pretty, pastel flower sprinkles... No one suspected anything. But when the cake was sliced, what everyone got was this:

Isn't that cool? And the awesome part was that everyone was surprised. Yay!

I have actually wanted to make this for a while. I was planning on making it in cupcake form for little miss's preschool class before deciding on the cake pops. When I came home from the gym Sunday morning to an empty house, though, I knew I had my opportunity.

This is actually pretty simple to make, but requires a little planning, some food coloring, and a lot of bowls. Once again, I used a cake mix, this time for a white cake, to give myself the cleanest base for my colors. Once the cake batter was prepared the normal way, I divided it into five bowls, one for each color that I wanted in my rainbow. The tricky part of this process is figuring out quite how much batter to put in each bowl. You have to know which color you want to be your outside ring (red, for me), and you need the most of that color, with slightly less of each following color, ending with the least of your final, center color (in my case, blue).

Because I wanted a two layer cake, I prepared two eight inch cake pans and began building my rainbow. Beginning with my red (okay, pink... there is only so much food coloring I was willing to use...) batter, I poured half directly into the center of each pan. It doesn't reach the edges, but that is not a worry. I then took my orange batter and poured half directly into the center of each pan, right in the middle of the pink layer. The addition of the orange batter helps to push the pink batter out further to the edge of the pan. I repeated the same process with the yellow, green, and, finally, blue batter, pouring half of each directly into the center of the pan, right in the middle of the previous color. What resulted was so cool looking, don't you think?

The other thing that resulted was a sink full of dishes. The prettiest dishes I think I have ever generated with a single baking project, but a LOT of dishes none the less.

The hardest part of the process was making sure that no-one peeked at the cakes while they were cooling. Daddy and little miss came home not too long after these came out of the oven, so I tented them with some foil and put a note over them requesting that they pretty-please not peek. I then took advantage of the beautiful weather later in the afternoon by sending them outside to play so that I could layer them up and frost everything.

This was a ton of fun to make, and even more fun to surprise the family with. I will definitely do it again, though I am now on the lookout for better food colorings - both more vibrant, and without all the fake chemicals and and preservatives... and I will stop using cake mixes...

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Cake Pops (part 2)

Yesterday we made our second round of cake pops for the week, this time to bring in to little miss's ballet class, which was this morning. Since these were going to ballet, I figured we could be a little more girly with our colors and decorations.

Since we only made half of the chocolate cake into pops for her preschool class, we decided to make two flavors for ballet - we made the second half of the chocolate cake with the second half of the chocolate frosting, then we also baked up a yellow cake, and mixed that with vanilla frosting. By this point, little miss was pretty much an expert at the whole process, and wanted to do it herself, but I still maintained supervisory control...

Both flavors of balls in the fridge, we decided to use two different colors of candy coating so that we could differentiate between the two flavors. Little miss chose pink for the chocolate and purple for the vanilla. We also chose cute pastel flower sprinkles to make them extra cute and springy.

Between the two flavors, we wound up with 31 cake pops to bring in, which was more than enough for the 17 girls in the two ballet classes, with plenty to share with the ballet teacher, studio owner, parents and siblings who were hanging around. I gotta say, though, that I was ready to be done by the time I hit number 31... I was proud that there were no casualties this time. At least, none that couldn't be fixed with an extra little drizzle of melted candy... These were definitely a fun way to celebrate little miss's birthday with her classmates and fellow ballerinas.

And in case you are curious, little miss chose pancakes for her birthday breakfast, and asked me to make her a GIANT pancake. Then she asked if she could have chocolate syrup on it. Happy 4th birthday, little miss!
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