Sunday, March 29, 2009


I LOVE lasagna, but I don’t make it very often. The one recipe I had was rather laborious, and the result just wasn’t satisfactory, though I could never figure out just what was wrong with it. So I hadn’t bothered making it in, oh, years, probably.

Then last week I bought a package of ground beef at the supermarket. On the front was one of these peel-off labels, on the back of which, once you peeled it off, was a recipe for lasagna. The idea of making lasagna sounded appealing enough that I decided to try it.

I was a little concerned about using prepared spaghetti sauce. I was even more concerned about the fact that the recipe didn’t say to cook the lasagna noodles first. The recipe I’d used before had you do that. This was a pain because the cooked noodles were slippery and tore easily. In the past I’d seen boxes of lasagna noodles that mentioned that they didn’t need to be cooked beforehand, but when shopping for this dish I couldn’t find any like that. Uncooked noodles are much easier to handle, but would they cook sufficiently during baking?

Yes, as it turned out. The noodles came out fine. In fact, the whole thing came out fine. Even with basic, store-brand spaghetti sauce, the flavor was very good. Maybe not quite as good as you can get at a good Italian restaurant, but good enough. And the preparation is relatively simple.

A note on pan size: the recipe calls for an 11 ¾” by 7 ½” baking dish. I made this in a pan that is 12” x 8” and about 2” high, and it was full. I advise putting a cookie sheet under the pan when you bake this, because it did bubble over a bit. Also, instead of putting all the cheese mixture in the middle, I put half where it's called for in the recipe and the other half on top of the second layer of noodles.

Nutritional note: the recipe calls for part-skim ricotta. At the supermarket I happened to read the nutritional label on the part-skim ricotta, and was appalled. It does have a little less fat than the whole milk kind, but not much less. So I used fat-free ricotta instead, and it was fine.

Verdict: Yum! This one's a keeper!

(source: National Cattlemen's Beef Association)

1 pound ground beef

1 jar (26 to 30 oz) prepared spaghetti sauce

1 can (14 ½ oz.) diced tomatoes, undrained

1 container (15 oz.) part-skim ricotta cheese

1 egg, well beaten

¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese

1 tsp dried basil leaves, crushed

6 lasagna noodles, uncooked

2 cups (8 oz.) shredded mozzarella cheese, divided

1. Heat oven to 375°. Cook ground beef in preheated large skillet over medium heat 4 to 6 minutes or until no longer pink, stirring occasionally to break up ground beef into pea-size pieces. Pour off drippings. Add spaghetti sauce and tomatoes with liquid to skillet, stirring to combine; reserve.

2. Meanwhile combine ricotta cheese, egg, cheese and basil.

3. Spread 2 cups beef mixture over bottom of 11 ¾” x 7 ½” baking dish; arrange 3 lasagna noodles in single layer, pressing into beef mixture. Spoon ricotta cheese mixture on top of noodles; sprinkle with 1 cup mozzarella cheese. Top with additional 2 cups beef mixture; arrange remaining noodles in single layer, pressing lightly into beef mixture. Top with remaining beef mixture, spreading evenly to cover noodles.

4. Bake at 375° oven 45 minutes or until noodles are fork tender. Sprinkle remaining 1 cup mozzarella cheese on top; tent (loosely cover) with aluminun foil. Let stand at least 15 minutes before serving.

Makes 8 servings.

Recycle: spaghetti sauce jar, tomato can, cheese containers if possible

Compost: eggshells

Monday, March 23, 2009

Toffee Bars

A borrowed my Silver Palate cookbook recently and when she returned it, I flipped through it. I hadn’t looked at it in years. I was surprised to find a lot of really good recipes and wondered, at first, why I had never tried any of them. Then I remembered. It had been a gift many years ago from a cook that I greatly admired. At the time, I was still cooking for an extremely fussy eater. Trying out new recipes was difficult enough. Ones calling for exotic ingredients were out of the question.

These days, I’m cooking for a very adventurous eater: me! I love sampling new dishes, especially if they feature new flavors. Or old favorites that were not on the fussy eater’s approved menu. For my first stab at cooking from The Silver Palate, I decided to go with Toffee Bars. I love toffee, especially with chocolate.

My only quibble with this recipe is that it calls for an egg yolk. One egg yolk. You know how much I hate to waste ingredients. What am I supposed to do with a single leftover egg white? The cake part of the batter came together beautifully and spread without much difficulty in the pan. The chocolate melted on cue and also spread with much difficulty in the pan.

The recipe calls for the cake to be cooled completely in the pan. Yes, the cake cools, but the chocolate is still runny. It needs to be refrigerated to prevent it from oozing all over your dish and fork (or fingers in my case). And therein lies the problem. After cooling but before refrigeration, the cake part of the bars is delicious. It’s fluffy and toffee-y. After refrigeration, the bottom layer becomes hard and sandy, without a distinctive flavor.

I couldn’t decide. I don’t dislike this recipe but I don’t love it. Easy to make but tastes only “eh”.

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

Toffee Bars
(source: The Silver Palate Cookbook: Delicious Recipes, Menus, Tips, Lore from Manhattan's Celebrated Gourmet Food Shop)

½ pound (2 sticks) sweet butter
1 cup light brown sugar
1 egg yolk
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
12 ounces semisweet chocolate chips
1 cup shelled walnuts or pecans, coarsely chopped

Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease a 9 x 12 inch baking pan.

Cream butter and sugar. Add egg yolk; beat well.

Sift in flour, mixing well, then stir in vanilla. Spread batter in the prepared pan. Bake for 25 minutes.

Cover cake layer with chocolate chips and return to oven for 3 to 4 minutes.

Remove pan from oven and spread melted chocolate evenly. Sprinkle with nuts. Cool completely in pan before cutting.

About 30 bars.

Recycle: vanilla bottle

Compost: eggshell

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Special Dark Picnic Cake

I’ve been in the mood for cookies but I couldn’t find any cookie recipes that really grabbed me so I turned to my personal cookbook. Nope, still not cookie recipes that screamed “Make me!”. So I turned to the cake section. Perhaps I could find something chocolate-y.

Special Dark Picnic Cake is a recipe that I probably originally found on a chocolate chip package. The recipe is available on the Hershey’s site, along with other chocolate recipes. Hmmm, there’s a couple of cakes that I would love to try.

This was a good chance also to test my oven. Since this is a recipe that I have made many times and know that it bakes correctly, if it didn’t cook all the way through like the Red Velvet Cake, then I would know that the problem was with my oven and not that recipe. I’m happy to report that the problem is with the recipe. This cake baked up just fine.

I’ve never followed the directions exactly when making this cake. I just pour the water into the bowl with the chocolate chips and butter and stick the whole thing in the microwave. Ditto the frosting. As a matter of fact, I should have read the directions for the frosting a little more closely! I was wondering why the frosting was so runny. I omitted the step in the refrigerator. Fortunately, this is a sheet cake, not layers, so the consistency of the frosting wasn’t critical.

This is a very easy cake to make that is “Dark” in name but light in texture.

Verdict: Yum!! This one’s a keeper!

Special Dark Picnic Cake

1 cup dark chocolate chips
¼ cup butter or margarine
1 ⅓ cups boiling water
2 ⅓ cups all-purpose flour
1 ¼ cups sugar
½ cup dairy sour cream
2 eggs
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Heat oven to 350°F. Grease and flour 13 x 9 x 2 –inch baking pan.

Combine chocolate chips, butter and water in large mixer bowl; stir with spoon until chocolate is melted and mixture is blended. Gradually add flour, sugar, sour cream, eggs, baking soda, salt and vanilla; beat on low speed of electric mixer until smooth. Pour batter into prepared pan.

Bake 35 to 40 minutes or until wooden pick inserted in center of cake comes out clean. Cool completely in pan on wire rack. Frost.

Special Dark Frosting

¼ cup butter or margarine
1 cup dark chocolate chips
1 ½ cups powdered sugar
¼ cup milk
½ teaspoon vanilla extract

Place butter and chocolate chips in medium microwave-safe bowl. Microwave at HIGH (100%) 1 minutes; stir. If necessary, microwave at HIGH 15 seconds at a time, stirring after each heating, until chocolate is melted and mixture is smooth when stirred. Gradually beat in powdered sugar, milk and vanilla, beating until smooth.

Refrigerate 15 to 20 minutes or until of desired spreading consistency. Makes about 1 ⅔ cups frosting.

Recycle: sour cream container, vanilla extract bottle

Compost: eggshells

Friday, March 13, 2009

Buttermilk Pancakes

I’ve been making pancakes for years using Half & Half instead of milk because that is what I have in the refrigerator. I love buttermilk pancakes, but who has buttermilk in the house? I bought a quart of buttermilk to make the Red Velvet Cake but only used 1 ½ cups of it. I knew exactly what I was going to do with the rest!

A little searching on my favorite recipe sites yielded a quick and easy buttermilk pancake recipe. I was just a little leery because one of the commenters had noted that this batter was runny. I don’t know how she made this recipe because my experience was just the opposite. I found it to be too thick to pour or cook properly. My pancakes came out oval instead of round. I think it needs just a little bit more liquid to be perfect. The taste certainly was.

Verdict: Needs work

Buttermilk Pancakes

1 ¾ cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
1 egg, slightly beaten
1 ½ cups buttermilk or sour milk
3 tablespoons cooking oil
Desired fruit options (optional)
Desired syrup (optional)

In a large bowl stir together flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. In another bowl use a fork to combine egg, buttermilk, and oil. Add egg mixture all at once to flour mixture. Stir just until moistened (batter should be slightly lumpy). If desired, stir in desired fruit.

For standard-size pancakes, pour about ¼ cup batter onto a hot, lightly greased griddle or heavy skillet, spreading batter if necessary. For dollar-size pancakes, use about 1 tablespoon batter. Cook over medium heat for 1 to 2 minutes on each side or until pancakes are golden brown, turning to second sides when pancakes have bubbly surfaces and edges are slightly dry. Serve warm. If desired, top with syrup. Makes 12 standard-size pancakes or 40 dollar-size pancakes.

Fruit Options: Stir one of the following fruits into the pancake batter: ½ cup chopped fresh apple, apricot, peach, nectarine, or pear; ½ cup fresh or frozen blueberries; or ¼ cup chopped dried apple, pear, apricot, raisins, currants, dates, cranberries, blueberries, cherries, or mixed fruit.

Recycle: cooking oil bottle

Compost: eggshell

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Red Velvet Cake

This seems to be my week to plunge into the culinary unknown. Red velvet cake has intrigued me for a long time. A southern tradition, it was unknown in upstate New York where I grew up. I only became aware of it with the advent of the internet with its plethora of recipe sites and blogs. Most of the recipes I have seen use a cream cheese frosting. I came across this version with the more authentic butter roux frosting on I just had to try it.

The cake was easy to make and other than the intense red color, seemed to be just the right consistency and amount for three 8" pans. When the layers came out of the oven, even after the full 30 minutes baking time, they were not cooked in the centers. Judging by the "doneness" of the edges, I think this recipe would be better made in 9" pans.

The frosting was fun to make. Cooking the milk and flour was like making pudding. It blended well into the butter and sugar mixture. My fears that the roux would make it too heavy were unfounded. This is a light, easy to spread frosting which generously frosts three 8" layers.

My problem with this recipe is the taste. I just don’t like Red Velvet Cake! It’s too sweet even for my overactive sweet tooth. On the other hand, the frosting isn’t sweet enough. And I particularly don’t like the gritty texture.

Note: the picture below is from the site. My version was not nearly as attractive because the layers did not cook fully, creating a cratered cake.

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

Red Velvet Cake

3 eggs
¾ cup butter
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp. unsweetened cocoa powder
2 ¼ cups sugar
1 ½ tsp. vanilla
1 1-oz. bottle red food coloring (2 Tbsp.)
1 ½ cups buttermilk
1 ½ tsp. baking soda
1 ½ tsp. vinegar
1 recipe Buttercream Frosting

Let eggs and butter stand 30 minutes. Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease and flour three 8 x 1 1/2 –inch round baking pans; set aside.

In medium bowl combine flour, cocoa powder, and ¾ tsp. salt; set aside. In large mixing bowl beat butter on medium-high 30 seconds. Add sugar and vanilla; beat until combined. One at a time, add eggs; beat on medium after each. Beat in food coloring on low.

Alternately add flour mixture and buttermilk to egg mixture; beat on low-medium after each just until combined. Stir together baking soda and vinegar. Add to batter; beat just until combined.

Spread in prepared pans. Bake 25-30 minutes or until pick inserted near centers comes out clean (cakes may appear marbled). Cool in pans on wire racks 10 minutes. Remove from pans; cool.

Prepare Buttercream Frosting. Place layer flat side up on plate. Spread top with ¾ cup frosting. Stack layer, flat side up; spread top with ¾ cup frosting. Stack final layer, flat side down; spread remaining frosting on top and sides. Makes 16 servings.

Buttercream Frosting: In medium saucepan whisk together 1 ½ cups whole milk, ⅓ cup flour, and dash salt. Cook and stir over medium heat until thickened and bubbly. Reduce heat; cook and stir 2 minutes more. Transfer to small bowl; cover surface with plastic wrap. Refrigerate until cooled (do not stir). In large bowl beat 1 ½ cups softened butter, 1 ½ cups sugar, and 2 tsp. vanilla on medium 5 minutes until light and fluffy and sugar is almost dissolved. Add cooled milk mixture, ¼ cup at a time; beat on low after each until smooth.

Recycle: vanilla bottle, food coloring bottle, vinegar bottle

Compost: eggshells

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Couscous Paella

For many years, I had no idea what couscous is. I’d seen it written about in recipes. I’d seen photos of it illustrating recipes. But I couldn’t figure out what it was. A grain? A pasta? An exotic part of an animal? Okay, I was just kidding about that last one. Now, paella on the other hand, I absolutely love. Seafood. Spices. Rice. Yum! So what better way to be introduced to couscous than in a couscous paella?

The seasonings alone were enough to sell me on the recipe. Cardamom. Turmeric. And the colors! Red peppers. Pink shrimp. Yellow whatever the heck couscous is. Now I just happened to have a pound of peeled cooked medium shrimp in my freezer. The reason why I had a pound of peeled cooked shrimp in my freezer is a story for another time. But it had been hanging around in there since the holidays and was begging to be used.

I made some rather major changes in this recipe. I cut it in half to suit my 1 pound of shrimp. Most importantly, I substituted chicken broth for the vegetable broth. I just don’t like the taste of vegetable broth. I left out the peas. I’m not a big fan of peas. And I also omitted the toasted chopped almonds and the minced fresh parsley. I didn’t have any in the house and I didn’t feel like buying them for just a couple of tablespoons.

Because the shrimp was already prepared, this recipe came together really quickly. It smelled delicious while cooking and tasted even better when it was done. It was so good that when I needed a little snack before bed, I ate some straight out of the refrigerator! I couldn’t wait to taste it again the next day when the flavors had had a chance to mellow out.

Alas, it was not to be. I woke up the next day swollen and itchy. I was having an allergic reaction to something. It got worse and worse and I ended up at the doctor’s office. I don’t know what caused it. It could have been pollen from the Philadelphia Flower Show. It could have been the spices I used. Or maybe I’m allergic to couscous. Who knows? But I couldn’t risk it. No more Couscous Paella for me.

Verdict: Yum! This one’s a keeper!
Couscous Paella
(source: Taste of Home)

1 medium sweet red pepper, chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon canola oil
6 green onions, thinly sliced
2 cans (14 ½ ounces each) vegetable broth
2 teaspoons gound coriander
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
⅛ teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 pounds uncooked medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
2 cups uncooked couscous
2 cups frozen peas, thawed
1 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoons chopped almonds, toasted
2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
Lemon wedges

In a large nonstick skillet coated with cooking spray, sauté red pepper and garlic in oil for 2 minutes. Add onions; cook 2 minutes longer or until red pepper is tender.

Stir in broth and seasonings; bring to a boil. Add shrimp; cook for 2-3 minutes or just until shrimp turn pink. Return to a boil. Stir in the couscous, peas and butter.

Remove from the heat; cover and let stand for 5 minutes. Fluff with a fork. Sprinkle with almonds and parsley. Serve with lemon.

Yield: 8 servings

Recycle: oil bottle, vegetable broth cans, spice bottles

Compost: pepper seeds and veins, garlic skins, green onion stems, parsley stems