Sunday, October 31, 2010

Happy Halloween!

Ah, Halloween. The holiday where we take candy from strangers, stay up past bedtime and sugar up our kids beyond what we would ever reasonably do.

So what better way is there to celebrate Halloween than to make extra sweets?? Little miss and I decided to have a little bit of fun this weekend and make some ghoulish goodies.

We started by making ghost-pretzels, which are basically pretzel rods dipped in melted white chocolate and decorated with Halloween sprinkles. We originally intended to actually decorate them as ghosts, but little miss was having way too much fun with the sprinkles to try to be precise, and we just went with it. The funniest part is that little miss actually claims to not like pretzels... yet somehow managed to eat a few these guys. Maybe it's the chocolate, maybe it's the sprinkles, maybe it's the Halloween spirit, but somehow she managed to enjoy them.

For our other Halloween treat, I decided to try something I have seen all around the food-blog-world recently - ghost cupcakes. I modeled my cupcakes on these cute ghosties, using the cupcake recipe listed there, but not the frosting. I was planning on making a marshmallow frosting, but at the last minute switched to a simple cream cheese frosting. Since the ghosts are basically a huge swirl of frosting, we decided to make only half of our cupcakes into ghosts, and to just frost and decorate the other half of them with our trusty Halloween sprinkles.

Our ghosts didn't really look to ghostly, but overall, the cupcakes were a ton of fun to make and were a super cute way to celebrate the day. We shared them with the family at Halloween brunch, and for whatever they lacked in ghostiness, they made up for in fun.

I hope you all had a fun, festive and sugar-high filled Halloween!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

October Daring Bakers' Challenge - Donuts

It's that time of month again, and I have to warn you - this is going to be a long one!

Like most kitchen dabblers, I have a list. Well, not a written list, but a list none the less. It is a list of those things that I would like to try to make one day, but just haven't. The list is made up of things that are usually a bit complicated, or that require specialized equipment, or that I am just a bit scared to make. But crossing things off of that list is always so exciting. And I always feel extra accomplished when I make something from the list.

This month's Daring Bakers' challenge gave me the opportunity to knock something off of my list.

The October 2010 Daring Bakers challenge was hosted by Lori of Butter Me Up. Lori chose to challenge DBers to make doughnuts. She used several sources for her recipes including Alton Brown, Nancy Silverton, Kate Neumann and Epicurious.

I was so excited to read this challenge. The main reason that I had put off making donuts is that I was pretty scared of the whole deep-frying thing. Something about dropping dough into a pot full of super hot oil, especially with my four year old kitchen helper, always had me... well... a little nervous. But I have wanted to try my hand at homemade donuts, anyway, and this challenge was just the incentive I needed.

Lori provided us with four different recipes, each looking more delicious than the next, so the first step was deciding which one to try first. I decided to start with Alton Brown's recipe for yeast donuts, as, believe it or not, this was one of the recipes that originally peaked my interest in trying homemade donuts. Little miss was more than happy to help, and I was more than happy to let her help out with as much of the process as she could, since she wouldn't be able to help once we got to the whole hot oil part. She took a very active role in the dough preparation, from breaking eggs to measuring to mixing. The dough came together very easily, though is very different from other yeast-dough recipes that I have made. This is a high-hydration yeast dough, and is thus much softer and "wetter" than most yeast-doughs that I have worked with. I was really glad to have my KitchenAid mixer to help out with the kneading, because it would have been very difficult to do so by hand. Once the dough was kneaded, the recipe calls for it to rise for an hour at room temperature. Like several of the Daring Bakers, I chose to allow my dough to rise in the refrigerator overnight, so that we could tackle the shaping and frying the next day.

The next morning, our dough had risen more than double, and had also become a bit easier to handle, so little miss and I were ready to try our hands at turning the dough into actual donuts. I gathered the necessary equipment and we set to work. As the dough was still a bit sticky, we lightly floured our counter and used our hands to gently press out the dough, rather than rolling it with a rolling pin, then set out cutting our shapes. We used round cookie cutters to make traditionally shaped donuts, using an apple corer to cut out the center holes, and a couple of other cookie cutters to try our hands at other shapes, too, just to see how they would fry up in the oil. After much dough rolling (pressing), shape cutting and many sprinkles of flour, we soon had three trays covered in round donuts with holes, round donuts without holes in case we wanted to try filling them, the itty bitty donut holes, and a few assorted shapes just for fun.

And then it was time to bite the bullet and heat the oil.

I am not sure if you can see it in the picture, but my candy thermometer actually has a little hash mark indicating "donuts," so minding the burner temperature and keeping a close eye, I was soon ready to pop the donuts into the oil. Little miss's job for this (from the other side of the kitchen, of course) was to help me pick which donuts would go into the oil in what order. And after the first couple, I even began to feel confident about the whole frying process. These fried up really quickly (about 30 seconds per side was plenty), and we soon had trays of tasty looking golden donuts.

But were we done? No way! Our donuts, though delicious, were naked, and needed just a bit more... fun.

So we rolled our traditionally shaped donuts in cinnamon sugar.

And then we took the round donuts without holes, piped in some raspberry jam, and rolled those in caster sugar.

These were so tasty. It was seriously difficult to not eat large, large quantities of them right away. It is actually really amazing how much better these were, especially right away, than any store bought donuts I have ever had. Little miss and I pretty much devoured all of the little donut holes instantaneously, as they were just so easy to pop right in our mouths. We immediately packed some up to share with various family members, and others went right into the freezer to be enjoyed later. They were just too dangerous to leave out.

But, once again, we were not done. Lori had offered up four different recipes for us to try, and I wasn't ready to call the challenge complete only having tried one of them. Being that it is fall, that it is the harvest season, I just had to try the recipe for pumpkin donuts, as well. I mean, how can you resist making cake donuts out of fresh pumpkin puree? I sure couldn't, so we sure didn't.

Once again, little miss handled much of the dough-making for these donuts. This dough, much to my surprise, was even wetter and stickier than the yeast dough had been, which made it a bit easier for little miss to mix by hand, but made things a bit tougher when it came time to rolling and shaping. With generous amounts of flour sprinkled on the counter, our hands, the dough and, consequently, much of the kitchen, we were able to get started, though, and managed to shape our donuts. Little miss chose, very appropriately, to not only use our round cookie cutters, but to also use our pumpkin shaped cookie cutters for these donuts.

These donuts, like the yeast ones, fried up very quickly, but that is pretty much where the similarities ended. This dough was much denser than the yeast dough, so the donuts sank into the hot oil a little bit more, so I had to be very careful not to allow the bottoms to burn. These donuts also soaked in more of the oil during the frying process than the yeast donuts did. I was glad that I had made the yeast donuts first, because they gave me the confidence I needed to more readily manage the frying of these slightly heavier donuts.

Once these donuts were fried and drained on paper towels, we decided to try a different method of finishing them, rather than rolling them in sugar like we did with the others. To compliment the flavor of the pumpkin donuts, we made a maple glaze using confectioners sugar, pure maple syrup and heavy cream.

The finished donuts were delicious, and tasted absolutely perfect for the season. Little miss has already requested that I make these again. I think that next time I make them, I will try baking them rather than frying them, as many of my fellow Daring Bakers had tremendous success baking their donuts, and it would definitely alleviate some of the guilt associated with eating as many donuts as having a full batch of them freshly made tends to lead to...

Lori, I can't thank you enough for this amazing and delicious challenge. It was just the kick I needed to try something that had been on my to-try list for quite some time, and it was so fun and delicious.

To check out some of the other amazing, delicious and creative donuts prepared by the other Daring Bakers, check them out here.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Cranberry Crock Pot Beef

I love my crock pot. It was a gift from my brother and his wife, and I think of them and thank them every single time I use it. I can't believe that I went so long without one!

I love finding new recipes using the crock pot, too. There is something so great about throwing a bunch of ingredients into the pot in the morning and having a full, delicious meal ready at dinner time, usually with little to no additional work.

Recently, watching some weekend PBS cooking shows, daddy saw what looked like an easy, delicious and seasonally appropriate recipe for the crock pot. Always up to try something new, easy, delicious and, well, seasonally appropriate, we tried it that very week.

The recipe, in a nutshell, called for three ingredients: beef (specifically, brisket, but, since it is going in the crock pot, I would recommend using whatever cut of beef roast is on the best sale), cranberry sauce (canned, according to the recipe) and onion soup mix. That is it.

I have been trying to reduce the use of canned goods around here, so decided to proceed with the recipe using our own homemade cranberry sauce, which is actually super easy to make, and tastes so much better than the canned alternative. Fresh cranberries are hitting the shelves in most of the local supermarkets and produce stands, and are so easy to turn into a delicious sauce or jelly. The rinsed berries are mixed with sugar and cooked down with the liquid of your choice - water, juice - it completely up to you. You can use white sugar or brown. You can add in other berries. This is a very forgiving and adaptable recipe. Fruit, sugar and liquid combined, the mixture is simmered until most of the berries have burst, at which point, all that is left is to wait for it to cool. That is it.

And guess what. Putting together the beef is actually even easier than that. All you have to do is put the roast into the crock pot, pour the cranberry sauce on top (canned, fresh - whatever you have), then take one packet of onion soup mix and sprinkle that on top. Then put the lid on the crock pot, turn it on low and let it sit all day. Seriously - that is it. No extra liquid, no extra spices - it doesn't really get much easier than that.

So how does it turn out?

So tender, so flavorful, and really quite delicious.

We served this with noodles and fresh, steamed brocolli, both very quick and easy side dishes, and it was quite a delicious meal. I will definitely keep this recipe handy for busy days.

Cranberry Crock Pot Beef

1 beef roast (brisket, chuck - whatever you like and is on sale!)
1 can (16 oz.) cranberry sauce (whole berry or jellied, or make your own!)
1 envelope (1 oz.) onion soup mix

Place beef in crock pot. Top with cranberries and onion soup mix. Cover and cook on low for 8 hours (or high for 4 hours).


Sunday, October 17, 2010

Chocolate Frosting

We are fortunate enough to live close to our family. As such, we try to have dinner with the family once a week. Nana and Pop-pop always feed us very well, and we usually bring dessert.

For tonight's dessert, we decided to stay simple and make cupcakes. Little miss chose chocolate cupcakes with chocolate frosting. Yum.

Then I realized that I had no confectioner's sugar in the house. Uh oh. Most frosting recipes with which I am familiar rely largely on confectioner's sugar and butter (all variations of buttercream frostings), and you cannot substitute regular (granulated) sugar for confectioner's sugar - you will not get the consistency you want out of your frosting.

After some online searching, I was able to find a recipe that looked interesting in a question and answer thread on Yahoo! Answers, a forum where people can go to ask questions, and any registered Yahoo! users (ie: the general public...) can post responses. I was a little wary, since you never know who the people are who are responding, but figured that it was worth a shot.

The recipe itself is very simple. It begins with one cup of granulated sugar, 1/4 cup of butter (half a stick) and 1/4 cup of milk in a saucepan. These three ingredients are heated (I used medium high heat, the recipe didn't specify) to a boil, and I made sure to stir regularly so that none of the sugar or milk would burn.

Once the ingredients came to a boil, the pan is then removed from the heat, and 3/4 of a cup of chocolate chips are stirred into the hot liquid. The chips are carefully stirred in until they melt completely. Once the chips are melted, stir in 1/2 a teaspoon of vanilla extract. That is it.

The resulting "frosting" more closely resembled ganache, and I was a little worried about how I was going to frost my cupcakes with it... I was worried that it would slide right off, or that it would be more of a glaze than a frosting. I decided to try letting the mixture cool, to see if it would thicken up a little bit to a more frosting-like consistency. I stirred the cooling chocolate every ten minutes or so, to make sure that it cooled evenly and to avoid any clumps, and within about half an hour, I decided to go for it and see how it went.

The frosting spread very easily over the first few cupcakes, and I was very encouraged. Every few cupcakes, though, I could tell that it was thickening up unevenly, and had to stir it up again. As I reached the end of the frosting, I had to stir between each cupcake, and the frosting became a little harder to spread, despite the stirring. It probably would have piped really well, though, if I had a piping bag (or if I'd had the inclination to try that method today...).

The real test, though, was in the tasting, so we brought our cupcakes to our family dinner and, when it came time for dessert, brought them out. The frosting had cooled very nicely on all of the cupcakes, and had a smooth, even look to it. Better than that, though, everyone loved it, and agreed that this frosting recipe is a definite keeper.

For convenience's sake, here is the recipe, as I found it in this thread:

Chocolate Frosting
1 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup unsalted butter (1/2 stick)
1/4 cup milk
3/4 cup chocolate chips
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Combine sugar, butter and milk in saucepan, and heat to boil. Once mixture is bubbling, remove from heat and stir in chocolate chips until they melt. Stir in vanilla extract.

* The recipe states to spread it on your cake at this point. If you choose to allow it to cool a bit first, make sure to stir it every few minutes to avoid clumping. The recipe indicates that it is enough frosting for a 9" x 13" cake. I was able to nicely cover 12 full-sized cupcakes as well as 20 mini cupcakes.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

October Daring Cooks Challenge - Stuffed Grape Leaves

It's that time again - time for the Daring Cooks Challenge! Our October 2010 hostess, Lori of Lori's Lipsmacking Goodness, has challenged The Daring Cooks to stuff grape leaves. Lori chose a recipe from Aromas of Aleppo and a recipe from The New Book of Middle Eastern Food.

I have to admit... when I first read this challenge, I was a bit unsure as to how I felt. I love being challenged to make things I have never made before, and I love trying recipes from other cultures. But the only time I had stuffed grape leaves before... well... I wasn't a huge fan.

The recipes that Lori shared, however, looked good, and, despite my previous experience with grape leaves, I thought that maybe, being able to make them myself and control the ingredients, I might enjoy them a bit more.

The first challenging aspect of this challenge was actually locating grape leaves to stuff. Lori said that if we could not locate grape leaves easily that we could substitute cabbage, which I began to think I might have to do. After looking
in the International food isles of almost every local supermarket, I finally found jarred grape leaves shelved with the olives.

The second challenge, believe it or not, was actually removing the grape leaves from the jar. They were packed in there so tightly that it took quite a bit of time, patience and twisting to remove them without totally destroying them.

Once the leaves were out of the jar, I set them to soak, first in boiling water and then in cold water, to try to remove the brine in which they were jarred.

While the leaves were soaking, I set to making the filling. The filling is a mix of ground beef, rice (uncooked), onion and a variety of delicious spices. Once all of the ingredients were well combined, it was time let the rolling commence.

I have to say, the grape leaves were really pretty, and I was very encouraged as the rolling process began. I wanted my leaves to be generously stuffed, but had to be careful
not to overfill them to the point of not being able to roll them securely enough. Once I got a rhythm going, though, it went very smoothly, and I was soon ready to load the rolled leaves into my pot.

The cooking process for the leaves was actually quite interested. The rolled leaves were packed as tightly as possible into my stock pot
(the widest pot that I have) and covered with additional spices, water and a generous splash of lemon juice. I then placed my second-largest pot lid over the leaves to weigh them down (to try to keep them from floating and unrolling while they cooked) and allowed the pot to simmer for about 45 minutes.

Another aspect of the challenge, at least in our house, was deciding what to serve for dinner with the grape leaves. Knowing that stuffed grape leaves are Greek/Mediterranean in origin, I actually took inspiration from a past Daring Cooks Challenge -
the Mezze challenge that I completed in February. I didn't want to assemble a full mezze table the way I had for that challenge, but I did want to incorporate some of the dishes and flavors from that experience. The recipe that I repeated was for pita. Once again, it was a ton of fun to watch the pitas rise in the oven, and the fresh pitas were absolutely delicious.

For dinner, I served the pitas with hummus, chicken grilled with onions and red peppers, sliced cucumbers, and, of course, the stuffed grape leaves. The combination of flavors worked really well, and made for a nice, fresh, Mediterranean presentation.

As for the grape leaves, there was a very mixed reaction to them in our family. Little miss initially refused to taste them. She finally relented and agreed to taste the filling, which she and I both agreed was very flavorful and delicious. Unfortunately, I still wasn't a fan of the leaves themselves. I shared some of these with my in-laws, who I knew were bigger fans of stuffed grape leaves than I. They actually ate them cold, and said that they really enjoyed them. Which made me happy that it really is just the leaves that I am not a fan of, but that I could count the challenge as a success.

I have to say - despite my opinion of the grape leaves themselves, I had a lot of fun with the challenge. Once the leaves were actually out of the jar, they rolled beautifully, cooked nicely, stayed nice and tightly rolled throughout the cooking process, and looked like I'd hoped they would coming out of the pot. Thank you, Lori, for helping me to step a bit out of my comfort zone and try something that I otherwise never would have thought to try. I may just keep this recipe handy, and try it using those cabbage leaves next time, as many of my fellow daring cooks did with tremendous success.

To see the work of the other cooks, check them out here.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Chicken Soup

Is there anything that chicken soup can't cure??

Yesterday morning, little miss woke up with her belly bothering her. After a bumpy start to the morning, her belly evened out a bit, but then she started sniffling quite a bit... Uh oh. Looked like we had a bug trying to settle in.

Lucky for us, we'd had chicken the night before. Like, a whole chicken. Of which we had eaten only about half. And which I'd put in the fridge without removing it from the bones. It's like I knew or something.

So after breakfast, all of the remaining chicken, bones and all, into my stock pot with a few onions, carrots, celery stalks, leeks and parsnips. I let the whole thing simmer all morning,
removed the bones and boiled up some noodles. Instant home remedy.

I am pleased to report that little miss is feeling much better today. I would love to claim that the chicken soup is solely responsible for her speedy recovery, but I am pretty sure that a day of taking it easy, some nasal spray and some extra fluids may have had something to do with it... But you still can't beat a nice, hearty bowl of homemade chicken noodle soup.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Apples, apples everywhere

As the harvest season continues, our family decided to make our annual trip to the apple orchard this past weekend. It's the same farm where little miss and I do all of our picking, but this time of year, they kick it into high gear and celebrate the season with activities and hay rides and all kinds of fun times for families.

After a hayride out to the actual orchard, it was time for us to decide which delicious variety of apple to pick. We knew we wanted something versatile, as we had many, many, many plans for these apples. Last year, we really enjoyed the Mutsu apples that we picked, which were new to us at the time, so this year, those were the first trees we visited.

Little miss loves picking just about every fruit, and most of the time, there are plenty of available fruits at her level. And while this was the case this weekend, there were even more apples up just a bit higher, so daddy was more than happy to give her a boost. With the added height, little miss was not only able to pick more apples, but had a great view of the orchards, and was able to direct us to all of the best trees.

We ended up with half a bushel of apples (about 22 pounds), a mix of Mutsus, Empires and Jonagolds. Right at the end, when our bag was so filled that we couldn't fit any more in, we discovered Macoun apples, a cross between Macintosh and Jersey Blacks, which are absolutely delicious, so now we have a new variety to add to our mix on next year's outing.

The first thing that we decided to make with our bounty was applesauce. The crock pot makes homemade applesauce so easy. The hardest part is also the most time consuming - peeling, coring and cutting enough apples to fill my 6.5 quart crock pot. While some fruits at the you-pick fields are smaller than those you can find in the supermarket (like the strawberries, raspberries and peaches), the apples that we pick at the orchard each year always amaze us with their size. I started with ten large apples, with an even mix of Mutsus and
Jonagolds. I peeled, cored and cut, and little miss handled making sure that all of the cut fruit made it into the crock pot. She did, of course, insist on tasting one piece from each apple that was cut, just to make sure it was good enough for our apple sauce. Luckily, they all passed the taste test.

Once all of the apples were in the pot, I sprinkled them with a bit of brown sugar, a dash a cinnamon and just a hint of nutmeg, then turned the crock pot on low and left it for an entire day. Seriously - it is just that easy.

Applesauce saucing away, I decided that I also wanted to make a dessert to bring to our family's weekly Sunday night dinner. We were going to barbecue this weekend, and what goes better with a weekend barbecue than apple pie? I must, must, MUST recommend the new pie crust recipe that I used. It will absolutely become my new standard, it was just that good and flaky and delicious.

Crust prepared, apples peeled, cored, sliced and coated in delicious sugars and spices, daddy and little miss decided that they wanted our pie to have a lattice top, so we set down to weaving. This was only the
second time I have attempted a lattice top, so I am still working on the best way to work it all out, but I
would say it went pretty well. A quick crimp to the edges and a sprinkling of demarara sugar, and the pie was ready to head into the oven.

By the time the pie was ready, the whole house smelled so yummy, between the sauce in the crock pot and the pie in the oven. The pie looked beautiful, crispy and bubbly in all of the right places, and wound up being a big hit after our family dinner.

In case you are curious as to what else these apples have been turned into in the last few days, I made a delicious apple-pecan chicken dish for dinner last
night, and put together an apple crisp this morning to bring with us to a play-date at a friend's house. And we have been snacking on apples, also. And we still have only used about half of what we have picked, so please feel free to suggest other apple recipes for us to try!

Pie Crust

2 1/2 cups flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 sticks (8 ounces, 16 tablespoons, 1 cup) unsalted butter, very cold, cut into half-inch cubes
1 cup very cold water (throw in some ice cubes to keep it cold)

In a large bowl, combine the flour, sugar and salt. Sprinkle the butter cubes over the flour mixture and work it in with a pastry cutter or two knives (try not to work it in with your hands too much - it raises the temperature too much) until it resembles a coarse meal. Don't worry if there are still some bigger pieces - it can be uneven.
Drizzle about a half a cup of the water (careful not to pour the ice cubes in) over the flour and butter mixture. Using a spatula (rubber or silicone), gather the dough together. You may need additional water to fully incorporate everything, but add it slowly (a tablespoon at a time). Once the dough has mostly come together, knead it gently and carefully with your hands.
Divide the dough in half, gather each piece into a disc shape and wrap tightly in plastic wrap. Refrigerate the dough for at least an hour, though it can rest for up to a week in the fridge (longer in the freezer).
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