Sunday, December 14, 2008

Mint Nanaimo Bars

Several years ago, not long after I’d started a new job, one of my coworkers threw a potluck at her house. Another coworker, a Canadian woman, brought these cookie bars – or maybe “dessert bars” is a better term. We all said, “Wow, these are great, what are they?” She said, “What, you don’t know?” They’re called Nanaimo Bars, she explained, and are apparently the unofficial national dessert of Canada (the name is that of a small town on Vancouver Island, BC, where they originated, or so goes the story). She kindly wrote out a recipe for us.

A few weeks ago I was casting about for something to take to the Rutgers Gardens annual holiday potluck, and I thought of these. In addition to the basic recipe, my coworker had mentioned that some variations exist. She provided instructions for a cappuccino version, and said there were mint and peanut butter versions, though she wasn’t sure just how to make them beyond putting mint extract/peanut butter in the middle layer. The mint version seemed appropriate for this time of year, so I decided to take a stab at it.

This recipe is not difficult, but does take some time: it involves three layers, each of which has to be cooled/chilled before adding the next. However, if you plan ahead you can split up the work over three sessions. It also can be doubled and made in a 9 x 13 baking dish. Cut them pretty small, because they’re rich.

Two of the ingredients require comments. The recipe calls for “desiccated coconut”. I’m not sure if this is a Canadianism, or something other than the usual flaked coconut. I’ve been using the usual flaked coconut. The other ingredient that puzzles me is the “vanilla custard powder”. The woman who gave me the recipe noted that there’s a product called Bird’s Custard Powder that comes in a red, yellow, and blue box about the size of a large pudding mix box. It may also be called Bird’s Imported English Dessert Mix for Custard Style Pudding. I did see it once at a supermarket, but of course I didn’t need any at that time so didn’t buy it…and I haven’t seen it when I did need it…so I’ve been substituting vanilla instant pudding mix, and it seems to work just fine. I’m not sure if the custard powder is supposed to impart flavor, or helps thicken, or what.

Oh, back to the mint version: I added ½ tsp mint extract and 2 drops green food coloring to the middle layer. I didn’t change the top or bottom layers. I think this was a bit too much mint – about 1/3 tsp might have been better. However, this didn’t seem to hurt their popularity at the potluck (see before and after photos below)…

Verdict: Yum! This one's a keeper!

Nanaimo Bars

(source: Thanks to Barb, now living in British Columbia)

Before the party:

After the party:

Bottom layer:

½ cup butter or margarine

¼ cup sugar

1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

1 egg, lightly beaten

1 tsp vanilla

1 ½-2 cups graham cracker crumbs

1 cup desiccated coconut

½ cup finely chopped walnuts

Lightly grease a 9-inch square baking dish. Melt butter; add sugar and cocoa and mix. Remove from heat and add egg and vanilla. Stir in remaining ingredients and press into bottom of pan. Bake at 350°F for about 10 minutes until just firm. Let cool.

Middle layer:

¼ cup softened butter or margarine

2 tbsp vanilla custard powder

2-3 tbsp milk

2 cups confectioner’s sugar

Cream together (adjusting milk to give good spreading consistency) and spread over cooled base. Place in freezer (about 7 minutes) or refrigerator (about 40 minutes) until firm.

Top layer:

Melt 4 oz semi-sweet chocolate; can add 1 tbsp butter or margarine to this to make it more spreadable. Spread over chilled bars. Refrigerate until chocolate is firm.

Variation 1: Cappuccino Nanaimo Bars

Bottom layer – same

Middle layer – replace custard powder with 2 tsp instant espresso powder or coffee granules and ½ tsp vanilla

Top layer – add ½ tsp espresso powder to the melted chocolate

Variation 2: Mint Nanaimo Bars

Bottom, top layers – same

Middle layer – add 1/3 tsp mint extract and 2 drops green food coloring

Recycle: vanilla bottle, mint extract bottle, coffee jar

Compost: eggshells

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Blackened Fish Fillets

Ah, the joys of the empty nest. The question is no longer do I dare make blackened fish? Rather the question has become: catfish or tilapia? The decision was made for me at the fish counter. The tilapia was from China. There are so many tainted products from that country that I felt safer buying American catfish.

I was a little leery about “rubbing” spices on fish which is more fragile than beef or chicken, but it was no problem. I used a non-stick frying pan so there was no problem with the fish sticking to the pan. The spicy coating sealed in the juices so there was no problem with the fish being too dry.

The problem turned out to be the taste. It just wasn’t all that spicy. I’ve had blackened fish in restaurants that made my eyes tear and my nose run. This recipe is tame compared to restaurant offerings. And since I love spicy food, I’m forced to give a thumbs down to this recipe.

Verdict: Not bad, but I don’t think I’ll be making this again.

Blackened Fish Fillets

(source: Family Circle magazine, 10/17/08)

2 teaspoons paprika
½ teaspoon dried oregano, crumbled
½ teaspoon onion powder
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
4 catfish or tilapia fillets (1 ¾ pounds)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil

Blend paprika, oregano, onion powder, cayenne, salt and black pepper in a bowl.

Pat fish fillets dry with paper towels, then rub spice mixture into both sides fo fish.

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add fillets and cook 4 minutes. Carefully flip over with a large spatula and continue to cook another 3 to 4 minutes, until cooked through and fish flakes easily with a fork.

Serve immediately.

Recycle: spice bottles, vegetable oil bottle

Monday, November 17, 2008

Chewy Cocoa Brownies

After an unnaturally warm start to the month of November, cooler temperatures have finally begun to prevail. And just in time too! I have a few days off from work before beginning the nightshift (don’t ask, trying to understand my work schedule would only make your head hurt) and several new recipes to try.

Time to test my theory about cocoa brands. I made the brownie recipe on the label of the Nestle Cocoa container.

I liked this recipe right from the start. Most recipes that use cocoa instead of baking powder tend to be dry. This recipe calls for 2 tablespoons of water to be added to the batter. I think that’s what did the trick.

The batter came together easily. It was stiff without being too stiff. It baked up in about 20 minutes. The range of times, 18 to 25 minutes was a little wide. That did give me pause. But by keeping an eye on the edges of the brownies, I was able to time it just right.

The results were deeply chocolaty unlike the results I get from Hershey’s cocoa. And chewy as promised. I’m definitely going to hang on to the is recipe so that I can make brownies any time regardless of whether I have baking chocolate or cocoa on hand.

Next time I’m feeling flush, I may spring for some those expensive cocoas to see if they are as good as the snooty recipes say that they are.

Verdict: Yum! This one’s a keeper!

Chewy Cocoa Brownies
(source: back of the Nestle cocoa container)

1 ⅔ cup granulated sugar
¾ cup (1 ½ sticks) butter or margarine, melted
2 tablespoons water
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
¾ cup cocoa
½ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
¾ cup chopped nuts (optional)
Powdered sugar

Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease 13 x 9-inch pan.

Combine sugar, butter and water in large bowl. Stir in eggs an vanilla extract. Combine flour, cocoa, baking powder and salt in medium bowl; stir into sugar mixture. Stir in nuts. Spread into prepared baking pan.

Bake for 18 to 25 minutes or until wooden pick inserted in center comes out slightly sticky. Cool completely in pan on wire rack. Sprinkle with powdered sugar. Cut into bars.

Makes 2 dozen brownies.

Recycle: vanilla extract bottle

Compost: eggshells

Friday, November 14, 2008

Old-Fashioned Cinnamon Rolls

I have confession to make. As much as I love home-baked goods, I am addicted to the cinnamon rolls that come in a tube. And it’s mainly because I have never found a recipe for cinnamon rolls that is as light and flavorful as the ones that come in a tube. They always come out crusty and heavy and the glaze is always too thin and runny. But I keep hoping and trying recipes.

I wasn’t going to post a review of this recipe because I made a HUGE error while I was preparing it. I had taken the eggs out of the refrigerator ahead of time to warm up to room temperature. Then I had become so involved with mixing the dough using my mixer (who mixes dough in a mixer?), that I completely forgot to add the eggs! It wasn’t until I had finished kneading the dough and had no way at that point of incorporating them into the dough that I saw the eggs still sitting on top of the toaster oven. I had put them there so that they would be out of the way while they were warming up. Out of sight, out of mind.

I went ahead with assembling and baking the rolls but had no intention of reviewing the recipe because it wasn’t a fair trial without a major ingredient. If the rolls came out half-way decently, I would make them again sometime using the eggs and then review the recipe. Amazingly, they were absolutely delicious! They rose with no problem and were surprisingly light but not surprisingly a little on the tasteless side. Best of all, they almost taste like the ones that come in a tube. I can’t wait to make them again using the eggs.

I do have a couple of minor criticisms. One thing that I would change would be to use finer sugar than the granulated sugar called for in the recipe. The filling was a little gritty. The glaze, which is thick like the glaze that comes in the tube, didn’t taste right when I made it but once I had “drizzled” it onto the rolls, it was just perfect.

The best thing about this recipe is that you can prepare the rolls the day before and then refrigerate them overnight. The next morning (or afternoon if you are doing a brunch), you can bake them and have warm, delicious cinnamon rolls with your coffee.

Verdict: Yum! This one’s keeper!

Old-Fashioned Cinnamon Rolls

4 ¾ to 5 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
1 pkg. active dry yeast
1 cup milk
⅓ cup butter
⅓ cup sugar
3 eggs
3 tablespoons butter, melted
⅔ cup sugar
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 recipe Creamy Glaze (below)

In a large bowl, combine 2 ¼ cups flour and yeast. In a saucepan, heat and stir milk, ⅓ cup butter, ⅓ cup granulated sugar, and ½ teaspoon salt just until warm (120° to 130°) and butter almost melts. Add to flour mixture; add eggs. Beat on low speed for 30 seconds, scraping bowl. Beat on high speed for 3 minutes. Stir in as much of the remaining flour as you can.

On a lightly floured surface, knead in enough of the remaining flour to make a moderately soft dough that is smooth and elastic (3 to 5 minutes total). Shape into a ball. Place in a greased bowl; turning once. Cover; let rise in a warm place until double in size (1 hour).

Punch down dough. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface; divide in half. Cover; let rest 10 minutes. Lightly grease two 9 x 1 1/2 –inch round baking pans. Roll each half of the dough into a 12 x 8 rectangle. Brush with melted butter. Combine the ⅔ cup sugar and the cinnamon; sprinkle over rectangles. Starting from a long side, roll up each rectangle into a spiral. Seal seams. Cut each spiral into 12 slices. Place slices, cut sides down, in prepared pans.

Cover dough loosely with plastic wrap, leaving room for rolls to rise. Chill for at least 2 hours or up to 24 hours. Uncover; let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 375°. Break surface bubbles with a greased toothpick. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until light brown. If necessary to prevent overbrowning, cover rolls loosely with foil for the last 5 to 10 minutes of baking. Remove from oven. Cool for 1 minute. Carefully invert rolls onto wire rack. Cool slightly. Invert again onto a serving platter. Drizzle with Creamy Glaze. Serve warm. Makes 24 rolls.

Creamy Glaze: Mix 1 ¼ cups sifted powdered sugar, 1 teaspoon light-colored corn syrup, and ½ teaspoon vanilla. Stir in enough half-and-half or light cream (1 to 2 tablespoons) to make of drizzling consistency.

Recycle: cinnamon bottle, corn syrup bottle, vanilla bottle

Compost: eggshells

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Lighter General Tso's Chicken

I’ve always been a fan of Martha Stewart. I love her style, her crafts, her perfectionism. But I never delved very deeply into her recipes. The few that I perused in her magazine while waiting in line in the grocery store, were too long, too complicated and called for exotic ingredients that I don’t normally keep in my kitchen and might have to spend some time tracking down.

Then, last spring when I was on my soup kick, I discovered her website. What an eye-opener! There are a lot of simple recipes, easy to make, that don’t require expensive or scarce ingredients. Now, when I am searching for a recipe, Martha Stewart’s site is one of my regular stops.

Sometimes, I just poke around for fun. I find lots of interesting recipes like Lighter General Tso’s Chicken. Who doesn’t like General Tso’s Chicken? And in this case “lighter” apparently means using egg whites instead of breading. I printed it out and tucked it away until I figured out a way to use the leftover egg yolks. I just hate wasting ingredients!

When I finally got around to making the Candy-Corn Cookies which use egg yolks, I first went through my recipe basket looking for a recipe that used egg whites. This recipe was a perfect fit. I made it first. After separating the eggs, I put the yolks into the same containers that I use to store seeds, one yolk per container to be used later in the cookie batter.

Coating the chicken with the egg white mixture was no problem. It was cooking it where I ran into trouble. The egg whites wouldn’t stick to the chicken. They ran off of the top of the chicken while the bottom was cooking. When I turned it, it all stuck to together.

My other complaint was the taste. I didn’t have fresh ginger so I substituted 1 teaspoon of dried ginger. Maybe that made a difference but this didn’t taste like any General Tso’s Chicken that I have ever eaten. It’s delicious spicy chicken, but it’s not General Tso’s Chicken.

I liked the snow peas but in my opinion, 1 pound is too much. I bought an 8 oz package of snow peas and it was the perfect amount. 1 pound of snow peas would have overwhelmed the chicken, making it more General Tso’s Snow Peas than General Tso’s Chicken.

Verdict: Not bad, but I won’t be making this again.

Lighter General Tso’s Chicken

(source: Martha Stewart)

1 ¼ cups long-grain brown rice
¼ cup cornstarch
1 pound snow peas, trimmed and halved crosswise
4 garlic cloves, sliced
2 teaspoons fresh ginger, grated and peeled
3 tablespoons light-brown sugar
2 tablespoons soy sauce
½ teaspoon red-pepper flakes
2 large egg whites
Coarse salt and ground pepper
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1-inch pieces
2 tablespoons vegetable oil, such as safflower

Cook rice according to package instructions. Meanwhile, in a large bowl, stir together 1 tablespoon cornstarch and ½ cup cold water until smooth. Add snow peas, garlic, ginger, sugar, soy sauce, and red-pepper flakes; toss to combine, and set aside.

In another bowl, whisk together egg whites, remaining 3 tablespoons cornstarch, ½ teaspoon salt, and ¼ teaspoon pepper. Add chicken, and toss to coat.

In a large nonstick skillet, heat 1 tablespoon oil over medium-high. Lift half the chicken from egg white mixture (shaking off excess), and add to skillet. Cook, turning occasionally, until golden, 6 to 8 minutes. Transfer to a plate; repeat with remaining oil and chicken, and set aside (reserve skillet).

Add snow-pea mixture to skillet. Cover; cook until snow peas are tender and sauce has thickened, 3 to 5 minutes. Return chicken to skillet (with any juices); toss to coat. Serve with rice.

Recycle: soy sauce bottle, vegetable oil bottle

Compost: snow pea strings, garlic skins, ginger peels, egg shells

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Butternut Squash and Sage Orzo

While digging through my cupboards the other day, I came across a partially used bag of orzo, which is a kind of pasta that looks a lot like rice. I bought it awhile back for a recipe – I forget what now – and it’s been sitting there ever since. So I went online to find a recipe that would use it. I came across this one for butternut squash with orzo. This is the time of year for butternut squash, so I decided to try it.

The recipe says to simmer the squash about 10 minutes; to get it all cooked through required more like 20 or 30 minutes. But that was okay as it took that long to get the broth heated and the orzo cooked. It sounds like the orzo is supposed to absorb most of 3 ½ cups of broth, but that didn’ t happen. There was at least a cup of broth left when the orzo was done cooking. So if I make this again, I won’t bother adding so much. By the way, I used homemade broth instead of canned. Canned broth might be stronger, but as it was, I don't think the flavors were unbalanced.

The sage I used was some from my garden; it’s a decorative type called tricolor sage. Its flavor is not as good as the usual culinary sage, I discovered. I hadn’t picked quite enough, so I supplemented what I had with some dried rubbed sage. Some of the cooks who commented on this recipe on the Epicurious site said it was important to use fresh sage, and they are probably right.

This is a good recipe, not great, but not bad, and pretty easy. It stands up well to reheating. It also makes a generous amount; more like 6 servings than 4. It would be a good Thanksgiving side dish. Sorry I don’t have a picture of it, but imagine orange chunks of squash mixed with rice – that’s about what it looks like.

Verdict: Hmmm...I might make it again.

Butternut Squash and Sage Orzo


3 tablespoons butter
1 cup chopped onion
1 garlic clove, minced
1 2-pound butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into 1/2-inch pieces (about 4 cups)
4 cups canned low-salt chicken broth
1/2 cup dry white wine1 cup orzo (rice-shaped pasta)
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons chopped fresh sage

Melt butter in a heavy large skillet over medium heat. Add onion and sauté until tender, about 6 minutes. Add garlic and sauté until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add butternut squash and stir to coat. Add 1/2 cup chicken broth and wine. Simmer until squash is almost tender and liquid is absorbed, about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, bring 3 1/2 cups broth to boil in heavy saucepan. Add orzo. Boil until tender but still firm to bite, about 8 minutes. Drain orzo if necessary.

Transfer orzo to large bowl. Stir in butternut squash mixture, then Parmesan and sage. Season with salt and pepper.

Recycle: broth can, wine bottle

Compost: vegetable peelings

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Candy-Corn Sugar Cookies

Halloween got away from me this year. When my daughter was growing up, Halloween was big in our house. It actually started in September when we made the annual pilgrimmage to the fabric store to choose a pattern and material for her costume. We went all out and spent hundreds of dollars. Then I spent my evenings and weekends cutting, pinning, sewing, hemming. But no matter how hard I worked, I always took it right down to the last moment. One memorable year, I was literally fastening the rank insignia on her Star Fleet Officer costume as she was heading out the door for school!

Since she moved out, Halloween has receded in importance in my life. When I saw these cookies on the Martha Stewart site, I thought "They look cute! I should make them for Halloween!" but since it was still early October, I pushed it to the back of my mind. All month I thought about making them, but I always had other things to do. All of a sudden, it was Halloween and I still hadn't made them. I grabbed a bag of candy corn at the grocery store today while they still had them. And I finally made the cookies.

They were very simple to make. A bowl and a wooden spoon. My favorite kind of recipe. And by making the chocolate variation second, I was able to use the same bowl and wooden spoon. Score! Those of us who still live in the Dark Ages without a dishwasher appreciate recipes that require few dishes to be washed.

I did have a few issues with this recipe. The batter is supposed to be beaten with a wooden spoon until a dough forms. That worked really well until I added the flour. It nust wouldn't come together, stubbornly maintaining the consistency of sand. I was going to add a little water like I would with a stubborn pie crust when the thought of pie crust put my pastry cutter in mind. That did the trick.

My other issue was with the number of cookies. I had read complaints on the site that although the recipe says that it makes 36 cookies, almost no one got that yield. I didn't either. I was only able to make 18 cookies from the batter. As you can see from the picture, if I had made the cookies any smaller, the candy corn would have been too big!

But they did come out cute, didn't they? And delicious! Even the chocolate ones which was surprising because I don't normally like chocolate recipes that use cocoa instead of baking chocolate. I've always used Hershey's cocoa when baking. It's a leftover from my childhood when my mother would make us cocoa from the familiar brown tin. But when I went to buy some at the grocery store, they didn't have any small tins, only large ones. So I bought a small tin of Nestle cocoa instead. I think that made the difference. I may have to revisit some recipes that use cocoa that have disappointed me in the past to test my theory.

As an aside, it should come as no surprise to anyone who reads this blog regularly and knows how much I hate to waste ingredients that I found a use for those two egg whites. I'll be posting another Martha Stewart recipe in a few days that calls for two egg whites.

Verdict: Yum! This one's a keeper!

Candy-Corn Sugar Cookies
(source: Martha Stewart)

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, very soft
1/2 cup sugar
1 large egg yolk
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup all-purpose flour (spooned and leveled)
About 36 candy corns

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place butter and sugar in a medium bowl; beat with a wooden spoon until combined. Beat in egg yolk, vanilla, baking powder, and salt. Add flour, and mix until a dough forms.

Scoop out level teaspoons of dough, and roll into balls (chill dough briefly if it becomes too soft to handle). Place balls on baking sheets, 2 inches apart.

Bake, rotating sheets halfway through, until edges are firm and cookies are dry to the touch (do not let cookies color), 10 to 12 minutes.

Remove from oven; gently press a candy corn into center of each cookie (surface of cookies may crack slightly). Cool on sheets 1 minute; transfer to a rack to cool completely.

Makes about 36.

Chocolate Variation: Reduce the amount of flour given in the recipe to 1/2 cup. Add 1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder along with the flour and proceed.

Recycle: vanilla bottle

Compost: eggshells

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Buttery Toffee Cookies

(Don’t bother reading my review. Just scroll down to the recipe and make the cookies. Yes, they’re that good!)

If you want to buy toffee bits, don’t look for them in New Jersey. I have, literally for years, with no success. In the meantime, I’ve been accumulating recipes that use them in hopes of either locating my elusive prey or asking A to pick some up for me when she visits her family in the Midwest. There are plenty of toffee bits there, I understand.

A few weeks ago, I dashed into my local Acme to pick up a few things and stopped dead in my tracks. There they were. An entire shelf of Heath toffee bits in a holiday baking display. I grabbed a couple of bags to throw into my freezer. Those bags looked awfully forlorn, so I stopped by the Acme a few days later to grab a couple more bags. It’s a good thing I did. I haven’t seen any since.

I wasn’t able to do any cooking or baking over the summer, so I used the time to reorganize my recipes. That’s an exaggeration. What I really did was take all the clippings, photo copies and printouts from my computer and throw them into a large basket so that I no longer have to turn my entire house upside down searching for a particular recipe.

So I knew exactly where to find the cookie recipe that started the Great Toffee Bit Hunt years ago. It’s one of those recipes from the inside of the butter packaging. It’s an extremely simple recipe but so is the recipe for chocolate chip cookies! I only strayed once from the directions and instead of stirring in the toffee bits by hand, I used my mixer. Just laziness on my part. The cookies took exactly 12 minutes to bake and the batter yielded exactly 48 cookies.

These cookies are so good that I would make them without the toffee bits. They are the best butter cookies I have ever tasted.

Verdict: Yum!! This one’s a keeper!!

Buttery Toffee Cookies
(source: Land O Lakes Butter Package)

1 cup Land O Lakes Butter, softened
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 (8-ounce) package milk chocolate toffee bits

Heat oven to 350°F. Combine butter, sugar, eggs and vanilla in large mixer bowl. Beat at medium speed, scraping bowel often, until creamy. Reduce speed to low; add flour, baking soda and salt. Beat until well mixed. Stir in toffee bits by hand.

Drop dough by rounded teaspoonfuls onto ungreased cookie sheets. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes or until lightly browned. Cool 1 minute; remove from cookie sheet.

4 dozen cookies

Recycle: vanilla bottle

Compost: eggshells

Friday, October 17, 2008

Chicken & Sage-Mushroom Gravy

It’s only October, but already I am thinking about the scents and flavors of Thanksgiving. One of those flavors is sage so it’s no surprise that this recipe caught my eye. And it has mushrooms! Oh, wait. That’s right. I am no longer cooking for a fussy eater so I don’t have to put mushrooms in everything as an inducement to try a new dish. But, hey, I like mushrooms too. And I had noodles left over from the Chicken Noodle Soup. This was a perfect opportunity to use them up.

I wasn’t sure how one goes about seasoning 1 ½ pounds of chicken with only ⅛ of teaspoon of salt and ⅛ of teaspoon of pepper, so I placed the chicken in the pan and sprinkled it with the salt and pepper, turned it over and did the same on the reverse side. I’m sure that the total amount exceeded ⅛ teaspoon of each but I happen to like my food well-seasoned.

Kudos to the person who wrote this recipe. Mushrooms do take five minutes to cook rather than the usual 2 to 3 minutes that most recipes say. I did have a small quibble with the recommended “simmer for 2 minutes” when adding the broth and seasonings to the mushroom roux. For the correct texture, it should be brought to a boil and then cooked for at least 2 minutes, usually more while stirring constantly.

My initial impression of this dish was that the nutmeg was too dominant despite the small amount (⅛ teaspoon) but by the second day, the flavor had mellowed to a delicious blend of mushrooms, sage and nutmeg. Quick, easy and delicious! This dish is definitely being added to my regular rotation.

Verdict: Yum! This one’s a keeper.

Chicken & Sage-Mushroom Gravy

(source: Family Circle magazine, 10/18/08)

1 ½ pounds thin-sliced boneless, skinless chicken breasts
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
10 ounces mushrooms, cleaned and trimmed
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 can (14 ½ ounces) chicken broth
¼ teaspoon dried sage
⅛ teaspoon ground nutmeg
Noodles and green beans, optional

Season chicken on both sides with ⅛ teaspoon each of the salt and black pepper.

Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large skillet. Add chicken and sauté for 3 minutes. Turn and sauté for an additional 2 to 3 minutes or until chicken is cooked through. Remove to a plate.

Add remaining 1 tablespoon oil and the mushrooms to the skillet. Cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until softened and lightly browned. Sprinkle flour over mushrooms; cook 1 minute. Gradually stir in broth. Add dried sage, nutmet and remaining ⅛ teaspoon each salt and pepper. Simmer for 2 minutes. Add chicken; simmer for 1 to 2 minutes or until heated through.

Serve with noodles and steamed green beans, if desired.

Donate: Campbell’s Soup labels to your local school

Recycle: vegetable oil bottle, chicken broth can

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Caramel Swirl Hunks

I’m always on the lookout for recipes that contain ingredients that I’ve never used before. I’ve never even heard of dulce de leche so when I saw this recipe featured as part of the come-on to buy “A Passion For Baking” by Marcy Goldman, I was eager to try it and see how it is used.

Everything was going great until I got to the last step and opened the can of dulce de leche. The batter was a perfect consistency, like that of brownies, looking and tasting just like the promised caramel. From reading the recipe which instructed you to swirl or smear the dulce de leche into the batter, I was under the impression that it was a liquid. Imagine my surprise, then, when I opened the can and discovered that it is, instead, the consistency of peanut butter. I could dollop it as instructed with no problem, but swirling or smearing was out of the question.

After baking for 35 minutes, the edges were definitely done on their way to overdone and the middle was not at all wobbly, liquid or jiggly as the recipe had said was possible. It had a nice “crust” on it. Unfortunately, after I removed it from the oven and refrigerated it, I discovered that underneath that crust, was uncooked batter. I don’t believe that if I had lowered the oven temperature and cooked it 10 to 15 minutes longer as recommended, it would have helped. Indeed, I’m certain that it would have made a bad situation worse. The cooked part of this was dry already. If I had continued cooking it, it probably would have burned and the center would have dried out leaving me with an unpalatable mess.

Cooked as directed, the edges, other than being a bit dry, were delicious. The center was good if you like cookie dough, which I do.

Verdict: What were they thinking???

Caramel Swirl Hunks

(source: A Passion for Baking)

2 cups unsalted butter, melted
3 cups firmly packed light brown sugar
⅓ cup white sugar
4 large eggs
4 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 cup quick oats
4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips or chopped up chocolate
1 (14-ounce) can dulce de leche*

*Find dulce de leche on the baking aisle or with Mexican foods.

Preheat oven to 350°F. Generously spray a 13 x 9-inch pan with nonstick cooking spray and place it on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet. In a mixer bowl, blend butter and both sugars. Add eggs, vanilla, and oats and blend well. Fold in flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Then fold in chocolate chips. Spread batter in prepared pan. Top with dollops of dulce de leche and then swirl or smear dulce de leche somewhat into batter.

Bake 35 to 38 minutes until batter is set (not wobbly and liquid). If it seems browned around the edges but jiggly in the center, lower the temperature to 325°F and continue baking 10 to 15 minutes longer until set. Refrigerate or freeze 1 hour. Cut into large hunks or blocks.

Recycle: dulce de leche can, vanilla extract bottle

Compost: eggshells

Friday, September 26, 2008

Chicken Noodle Soup

I was on a soup kick for a while in the spring. My goal was to find a good minestrone soup recipe. Along the way, I found what looked like a good chicken noodle soup recipe. Chicken noodle soup and I go back a long way. Growing up, I ate so much Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup that it was known in my house as [nickname] Food. No, I’m not going to reveal my childhood nickname to the entire internet. I’m still embarrassed by it 50 years later.

I was attracted to this recipe because of the seasonings and the egg noodles. It was very easy to make and once you got through the onerous chopping of the veggies, it was very quick. The initial result was very unsatisfactory. All I could taste were the seasonings. Despite the chicken broth, it didn’t taste “chicken-y” at all.

All good recipes need a day to reach their peak flavors and this one is no different. By the following day, the basil and oregano had receded to the background and the “chicken-y” taste was in full flower. I will make a few changes the next time I make this. A medium onion instead of a large. There is too much onion in this soup. Three carrots instead of two. It needs more color. Wide egg noodles instead of medium egg noodles. Just because I like them better.

I’m eager to try the variations also. This soup will come in handy along with my pot pies as a way to use up leftover turkey after Thanksgiving. I can hardly wait!

Verdict: Yum!! This one’s a keeper!!

Chicken Noodle Soup

4 ½ cups chicken broth
1 cup chopped onion (1 large)
1 cup sliced carrot (2 medium)
1 cup sliced celery (2 stalks)
1 teaspoon dried basil, crushed
1 teaspoon dried oregano, crushed
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
1 bay leaf
1 ½ cups dried medium egg noodles
1 cup chopped cooked chicken or turkey

In a 3-quart saucepan combine broth, onion, carrot, celery, basil, oregano, pepper, and bay leaf. Bring to boiling; reduce hear. Simmer, covered, for 5 minutes. Stir in uncooked noodles. Return to boiling; reduce heat. Simmer, covered, for 8 to 10 minutes or until noodles are tender but still firm and vegetables are just tender. Discard by leaf. Stir in chicken; heat through. To serve, ladle soup into bowls. Makes 4 main-dish servings.

Chicken Tortellini Soup: Prepare as above, except substitute small broccoli florets for the celery and one 9-ounce package refrigerated cheese-filled tortellini for the noodles. Add the broccoli and 1 cup sliced fresh mushrooms when tortellini is added.

Parmesan-Pesto Chicken Noodle Soup: Prepare as above, except substitute 1 small zucchini, halved lengthwise and sliced for the celery; Italian seasoning for the basil and oregano; and dried small shell macaroni for the noodles. Add 2 cloves garlic, minced, to the broth mixture. Add the zucchini with the macaroni. Meanwhile, spread each of 4 slices Italian bread with 1 tablespoon refrigerated basil pesto; sprinkle each with 1 tablespoon finely shredded Parmesan cheese. Place, pesto sides up, on a baking sheet. Preheat broiler. Broil 3 to 4 inches from the heat about 2 minutes or until cheese melts. Top each serving with a slice of the bread.

Donate: Campbell’s soup labels to your local school

Recycle: broth cans

Compost: onion skins, carrot tops and peels, celery tops, bay leaf

Monday, September 22, 2008

Chocolate Chip-Oatmeal-Walnut Bars

I had a busy weekend in the kitchen. Friday, I made Three-Alarm Chili and Saturday I baked an apple pie for a contest. While the pie was in the oven, I made Chocolate Chip-Oatmeal-Walnut Bars for the Master Gardener Annual Picnic. I love attending the picnic, not just because it’s fun to hang out with a lot of expert gardeners, but because they have a plant swap. I always come home with some interesting stuff.

The picnic is potluck. Since I love to bake and the Master Gardeners don’t mind if I experiment on them, I usually try out new recipes. This is one fromCooking Pleasures. Somehow I ended up with a membership in the Cooking Club of America. I refused to send them the fees they demanded, but they still send me their magazine, newsletter and allow me to use their site.

I made one error with this recipe. I bought mini chips instead of the regular sized ones. I think that it does make a difference. "A" remarked when she tried them that the ratio of nuts to chocolate seemed off. I agree but I think bigger chips would have evened things out.

The recipe calls for toasting the nuts on a baking sheet in the oven. It seems like a waste to use the oven for such a small amount of nuts so I used my toaster oven. This is a very stiff batter. Spreading it evenly in the pan requires time and upper body strength. The batter baked up with no problem. Cutting the bars could be difficult thanks to the nuts. In cases like this, I use a pizza cutter. It slices easily through nuts and (large) chocolate chips and makes it very easy to cut in straight lines.

This recipe is billed as “Whole wheat flour and oatmeal add whole-grain goodness to chewy chocolate chip bars.” Perhaps. I found the whole wheat flour made them very heavy. If I made these again, I would use my usual unbleached flour.

Verdict: Not bad, but I don’t think I’ll be making these again.

Chocolate Chip-Oatmeal-Walnut Bars
(source: Cooking Pleasures)

1 cup butter, softened
¾ cup packed brown sugar
½ cup sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 eggs
1 ¼ cups old-fashioned rolled oats
1 cup whole wheat flour
¼ cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
Dash salt
1 (12-oz.) pkg. chocolate chips
1 ½ cups chopped walnuts, toasted*

Heat oven to 375°F. Beat butter in large bowl at medium speed until soft and smooth. Beat in brown sugar, sugar and vanilla. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.

Combine oats, whole wheat flour, all-purpose flour, baking soda and salt in medium bow.

Slowly add flour mixture to butter mixture, beating until well-blended. Stir in chocolate chips and walnuts. Spoon and spread dough in ungreased 15x10x1-inch pan.

Bake 15 to 20 minutes or until golden brown; cool on wire rack.

*To toast nuts, place on baking sheet; bake at 375°F. for 4 to 6 minutes or until pale brown and fragrant. Cool.

Makes 32 bars.

Recycle: vanilla extract bottle

Compost: eggshells

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Wooden Spoon Cooks Face-off in a Bake-off

Hageman Farm, a nineteenth century farmhouse preserved by The Meadows Foundation, held their first annual Fall Festival today. In keeping with the autumnal theme and heirloom apples that were offered to the public to try, an Apple Pie Tasting Contest was held. The chairperson of the committee that oversees Hageman Farm invited the Wooden Spoon cooks to participate.

We took up the challenge with gusto. Last night saw us in our respective kitchens, furiously peeling and slicing apples and carefully rolling out pastry. Then came the nerve-wracking drive this morning to the site, each of us with one eye on the road and the other on our precious cargo. Both pies made it intact, joining the other entrants in the antique dining room.

We were able to relax for a while before the judging began. We toured the beautiful site, inspecting the careful renovations underway at the farmhouse, carriage house and cowbarn. Photos of Hageman Farm can be seen on Flickr.

Then the eagerly anticipated judging began. Participants were asked to wait outside while their pies were being evaluated on crust, appearance, filling and flavor. We sat on a bench under a tree and pretended to admire the zinnias lining the walk to the porch while making nervous small talk.

After what seemed like an eternity, the judges announced that they had reached their decision and the bakers filed into the dining room. Imagine our excitement to hear that the there had been a virtual tie for the third place between A’s pie and OldRoses’ pie! Since only one award could be given, the judges ruled in favor of OldRoses.

Did they make the right choice? We invite our readers to decide for themselves. Try A’s apple pie recipe and OldRoses’ apple pie recipe. Then leave us a comment to let us know which pie was the winner in your kitchen.

After the contest, the pies were offered to the public to taste. A took the opportunity to try the other entries. She has decided to adjust the spices in her recipe. OldRoses had another event to attend today so she didn’t have a chance to try the other pies. But keeping in mind the judges’ seeming preference for tartness, she is going to change the variety of apples used in her recipe.

Be sure to check back with us next September to see what tweaks we made to our apple pie recipes and how we fared in the Hageman Farm Second Annual Apple Pie Tasting Contest.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

OldRoses' Apple Pie

A and I have been invited to participate in an apple pie baking contest tomorrow. The timing couldn’t be more perfect. I always make my annual apple pie in September when the Macintosh apples are in season. Like my blueberry pie and pumpkin pie, I use a recipe from my trusty Betty Crocker cookbook. The only changes I have made is to use Macintosh apples instead of the Granny Smith that are called for in the recipe and add extra shortening to the crust to make it flakier.

I’m very nervous about this pie. Not only is appearance (not one of my strong suits) critical, but it has to be baked in a foil pan. I always bake my pies in the same pie plate that I’ve had since my college days. I have no idea exactly how old it is. It came from the house of a friend’s grandparents that was being cleaned out. It’s ugly, but I swear by it.

I’ve never baked a pie in a foil pan. I have no idea how much filling it will hold or how it will affect the cooking in the oven. I’m just going to have to cross my fingers and hope for the best.

Verdict: Yum!! This one’s a keeper!!

Apple Pie
(source: Betty Crocker Cookbook)

OldRoses’ Pie Crust
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
¾ cup shortening
5 tablespoons cold waer

¾ cup sugar
¼ cup all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon nutmeg
½ teaspoon cinnamon
Dash salt
6 cups thinly sliced Macintosh apples (approximately 6 medium)

Heat over to 425°F.

Stir together sugar, flour, nutmeg, cinnamon and salt; mix with apples. Set aside.

Measure flour and salt into bowl. Cut in shortening thoroughly. Sprinkle in water and mix until all flour is moistened and dough almost cleans side of bowl. (1 to 2 teaspoons water can be added if needed.)

Gather dough into ball; shape nto flattened round on lightly floured pastry cloth. (For two-crust pie, divide dough in half and shape into 2 flattened rounds). With floured rolling pin, roll dough 2 inches larger than inverted pie pan. Fold pastry into quarters; unfold and ease into pan.

Turn apple filling into pastry-lined pan. Trim overhanging edge of pastry ½ inch from rim of pan. Cover with top crust; seal and flute. Make slits in top crust to let steam escape. Cover edge with 2- to 3-inch strip of aluminum foil to prevent excessive browning; remove foil last 15 minutes of baking.

Bake 40 to 50 minutes or until crust is brown and juice bgins to bubble through slits in crust.

Makes one 9” pie.

Compost: apple peels and cores

Friday, September 19, 2008

Three-Alarm Chili

The cool breezes of autumn are blowing and that means one thing: my kitchen is open again. I wanted something warm and filling and had a strange craving for chili. It’s a good thing too because I just happened to have a recipe for Three-Alarm Chili put aside to try.

As I was buying the ingredients, I thought to myself that this is a very expensive dish to prepare so it had better be really good. I had so much food that I had to use my largest pot. Then I realized that it makes twelve servings! Note to self: next time, halve this recipe. It will still make plenty but be cheaper and require a smaller pan.

I made a few of changes, one of them inadvertent but rather Freudian. I “accidentally” omitted the corn. I loathe corn so obviously my brain just skipped right over it in the ingredients list. I don’t normally use bottled minced garlic so I wasn’t about to buy it, especially when I had a nice fresh bulb in my fridge already. I substituted a large clove crushed for the bottled variety. I also wasn’t able to find bulk Italian sausage at my grocery store so I bought links and merely removed the skins.

This is one of those rare recipes that tastes even better than it smells while it’s cooking. I didn’t find it overly hot despite the name. “Three Alarm” to me means that my mouth is on fire and eyes are watering, but it wasn’t the case here. This is just a nice, spicy chili. It was great the first day and even better the second day. And the fact that it is easy to cut in half means you can use it for large gatherings or intimate family dinners.

Verdict: Yum!! This one’s a keeper!!

Three-Alarm Chili

2 17-oz. pkgs. Refrigerated cooked beef au jus
2 28-oz. cans diced tomatoes, undrained
1 large onion, chopped
1 medium green sweet pepper, chopped
1 medium red sweet pepper, chopped
1 fresh jalapeno chili pepper, seeded and chopped
1 tbsp. hot chili powder
1 ½ tsp. ground cumin
1 ½ tsp bottled minced garlic
8 oz. bulk hot Italian sausage
½ of a 6-oz. bar milk chocolate or dark chocolate, cut up
1 cup frozen whole kernel corn
2 22- to 30-oz. cans chili beans with chili gravy
Shredded cheddar cheese (optional)
Corn chips (optional)

Remove beef from packages and reserve drippings. Chop beef; cover and refrigerate until needed. In 6-quart Dutch oven, combine reserved drippings, tomatoes, onion, sweet peppers, jalapeno pepper, hot chili powder, cumin and garlic. Bring to boiling reduce heat. Cover and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

In medium skillet, cook sausage until no longer pink; drain off fat.

Add chocolate to tomato mixture, stirring until melted. Add chopped beef, sausage, corn, and chili beans. Cover and simmer for 30 minutes more, stirring occasionally.

If desired, top each serving with cheese and corn chips. Makes 12 servings.

Recycle: tomato cans, beans cans, garlic bottle

Compost: onion skins, pepper stems and seeds