December 30, 2010

Best (New) Eats of 2010

Reflecting over the year via my food journal aka blog brings to mind memories of delightful tastes shared with special people. All food that makes the blog pleases the taste buds, but these were this year's stand-outs, the doable recipes that everyone enjoys, that I made multiple times, and that friends tried for themselves.

Butter-licious Showstopper
Paula Deen's Caramel Cake

Most Refreshing and Simple Summer Entree

Most Fresh and Crowd-Pleasing Lake House Appetizer

Hands-Down Best Non-Tollhouse Cookies

Simplest, Most Decadent Dessert

Impressive Two-Minute Party Starter

More 2010 Favorites
Because I fret when asked to pick favorites for fear of all the good I might leave out, some more new recipes:

Grilled Veggie Pasta
Tomato Pie
Lemon Poppyseed Pancakes
Banana Pudding Pie 
Shrimp and Grits 
Lofthouse Frosted Sugar Cookies
Peach Buttermilk Pancakes
Marbled-Chocolate Banana Bread
Peanut Butter Brownies
Pasta Fagioli Soup
Moroccan Carrot Salad
Strawberry Icebox Cake

And here are some of my all-time favorite recipes that made it to the blog this year:
Capo's Chicken Diablo
Garlicky Spinach Dip
Tollhouse Chocolate Chip Pie
Chicken Salad with Piquant Sauce
Boat Church Egg Puff
Chocolate Sheet Cake
Morning Glory Muffins
Pecan Squares
Berry-and-Spice Whole Wheat Muffins

December 27, 2010

Chocolate Florentine Cookies

A photo of these cookies stared at me whilst I waited in the checkout line at the grocery store. "We elegant chocolate-filled lace cookies," it said, "look like a Pepperidge Farm Brusels, but our crisp, buttery, homemade taste trumps them. Bake us so you can find how great we are for yourself. PLEASE!!"

Luckily, I had just enough wait time to flip through the book and find the name of the recipe. Then I could be cheap and google the recipe instead of buy the Nestle baking book whose cover it graced (sorry, Nestle, but I did give you page views to find the recipe). Nestle says use milk chocolate chips, but I say semi-sweet is better, based on my bias against milk chocolate.

What better New Year's resolution could there be than learning to make fancy-looking cookies that everyone will so enjoy? Maybe my photo will stare at you and say, "Do it!"? (It's not too hard; you just have to have the time and patience to make sandwiches.)

December 20, 2010

Monkey Bread Muffins

These bites of buttery, cinnamon-sugar goodness are the perfect treat for a holiday breakfast. I made them for Thanksgiving; now you can try them for Christmas.

Just like a regular batch of monkey bread, you can pull apart the pieces of deliciousness, but the bonus to the muffin-pan version is that you get more of the caramelized topping for each bite. Plus, it's easier to serve, and you can make a smaller amount if you have less people and don't make yourself sick off the sweetness--been there, done that.

Also, thanks goes to Rachel (who is in Singapore!) for recommending I try this recipe and hence got it from my forever long to-cook list to real mouths and then to the blog.

December 16, 2010

Ultimate Grilled Cheese and Tomato Soup

This week it's cold enough to flurry in the deep South and produce enough snow to collapse a dome in the Midwest, so everyone is in need of this body-and soul-warming comforting food.

Grilled Cheddar-Apple-Bacon Sandwich
This version of gooey melted cheese between slices of toasted bread takes a childhood favorite to whole new level. Sharp cheddar cheese combines flavor forces with salty bacon and crisp, sweet apple slices.

Tomato-Basil Soup
You might not be able to get decent fresh tomatoes this time of year, but cooking down canned whole tomatoes gets so much closer a out-of-the-garden taste than canned tomato soup. It makes for a medium-thick consistency. Fresh basil, still available for a price at the grocery store, completes the essence of summer-meets-winter soup.

December 13, 2010

Food Thoughts: Saying Grace

Saying "grace" was a mealtime ritual growing up. At home we said, "God is good, God is great. Let us thank him for this food..." Youth group pre-meal practice included superman motions to, "Thank you God for giving us food." Every kid's favorite seems to be, "Rubadubdub, thanks for the grub." My Catholic family members repeated, "Bless us, O Lord, and these Thy gifts which we are about to receive from Thy bounty, through Christ our Lord."

I've never doubted that we should thank God for food but lately have been thinking about how routine it is to say "grace," especially when all that you want to do is eat the meal in front of you. And then I came across these thoughts:
Photo: Southern Living 
"If I say thank you to God for every morsel of food, that transforms the food. It is no longer merely fuel for my body; it becomes a gift from God to be enjoyed and relished. Its taste and texture take on new significance."-Tim Chester and Steve Timmis, Total Church, page 145

What is saying grace to you? A family ritual? Something for little kids? A personal prayer?

December 10, 2010

6 Cookies for Christmas

Christmas time is cookie time, and these are my favorites. Take out a couple of sticks of butter, bake you some cookies, eat a few while they're in their most perfect state (hot out of the oven), and share with special people in your life.
Wedding Cookies
For: People Who Put Butter on Everything
What: Buttery, powder sugar-coated shortbread with pecans

Peppermint Bonbon Cookies
For: Ones Who Start Celebrating Christmas in September
What: Soft, chocolate-intense cookie filled with peppermint pieces
Pecan Squares
For: Pecan Pie Aficionados
What: Shortbread crust topped with a slightly gooey toffee-pecan mixture (Ok, they're not really cookies. But bars are the next closest thing.)
Malted Chocolate Cookies
For: Those Who Can't Eat Just One Cookie
What: Colossal cookies packed with three kinds of chocolate and a secret ingredient

For: Crazies Who Prefer Something Other Than Chocolate
What: Chewy cookies with crisp edges, filled with not raisins but toffee pieces

Chocolate Crinkle Cookies
For: Chocoholics
What: Rich brownie-like cookies that make a festive presentation

December 6, 2010

Tilapia with Walnut Pesto

You might be thinking that all I do is bake sugary things. This is not true. Last week I made fish. It had no sugar. It did bake in an oven though.

White fish officially has no flavor, so that's why you allow a crisp mixture of nuts and garlic and lemon to bring it to life. It cooks in white wine, too, which gives you an excuse to drink wine while you cook and eat.
The recipe came from a German cooking demonstration, but I don't know what makes it German. It was the "bonus" recipe that didn't come with a recipe card. Maybe I was too busy writing down the steps to hear any explanation.

November 29, 2010

Caramel Italian Cream Cake

This Italian cream cake is good, but with its frosting, oh its creamy caramel frosting, the coconut-pecan cake is divine. At one sitting my grandmother told me no less than four times that it was "so good;" she does love butter more than anyone I know. And the whole family thought it was the best of our treats on our Thanksgiving retreat to the lake.
Caramelizing brown sugar and butter transforms their union into a class of its own. Mix that the caramel mixture with powdered sugar (yes, more sugar) and vanilla, and you'd better make sure someone else is around to help you lick the frosting bowl. If left to lick it on your own, you will not be able stop and hence will create dangerous potential sugar coma conditions. It was necessary to pronounce aloud, "This is so good!" each time I sampled the frosting, if you can call the number of bites I took a "sample."

I had been anxiously awaiting baking this beauty since I had the privilege of tasting it while Southern Living test kitchen was perfecting it. They did get the recipe quite perfect, but the magazine fancified it with cream cheese icing and shaved coconut on the sides. I tweaked the recipe to put more spotlight on the caramel frosting that I can't stop talking about; plus, "basic" homemade layer cakes require enough labor as is.

November 23, 2010

Spiced Oatmeal-Chocolate Chip Cookies

Idea: A New Cookie Recipe
Requirement: Chocolate
Recipe: Adding the warm spices and bit of orange zest from Smitten Kitchen's Oatmeal, Chocolate Chip and Pecan Cookies to a slightly more chewy, chocolate-filled version of the Quaker Oatmeal box cookie recipe.
Result: A chewy oatmeal-chocolate combination that tastes like fall, perfect for taking to friends the weekend before Thanksgiving.
 The VIP ingredients of this recipe were whole oats and Ghiradelli chocolate. I prefer the texture of whole oats and feel like they are more natural in their slightly less processed state. I felt like splurging on fancy chocolate, but when I taste tested one chip against on Nestle's chip, I found the Ghiradelli slightly richer. It was not as noticeable in cookie dough though.
Note: Many people love these cookies, but they are not the all-around crowd-pleaser that basic oatmeal-raisin or chocolate chip cookies are.

November 19, 2010

Pumpkin Pancakes

These fluffy cakes taste like fall. How could they not with a combination of pumpkin and warm spices? 

To complete your pumpkin pancake experience, I recommend a crisp and cool yet sunny morning where you can sit outside amongst orange, red, and yellow-hued trees and linger over quality conversation. Bonus for Me: My particularly wonderful pancake co-conspirator found the pancake recipe and set all the ingredients out for me before I got out of bed; such a treat!
Like most pancakes, maple (preferably real maple) syrup is necessary, unless you are just snacking on the cakes after breakfast. I put the walnuts on to look pretty, but I liked the addition of nutty texture and taste and ended up adding more.

November 15, 2010

Apple Cake

These sweet-tart Granny Smith apples make the base of the favorite cake of the men in my family. My dad talks of it with enthusiasm that comes close to how I talk about chocolate lava cakes.

The batter looks kind of healthy when you add fresh, crisp apples and nutrient-filled pecans, but don't be fooled.

The final cake is super sweet and moist thanks to our friends sugar and oil. Plus, a warm caramelized glaze seeps into the top of the cake, making half of it that much more moist and sugary-delicious.

Word of Caution: Be sure to cook the cake all the way. Otherwise, it will be apple mush. Even Madoline the baker undercooks things sometimes and has to be careful to perform a toothpick test. Fortunately, I have a brother who is quite fond of apple mush and kept my baking whoops a few years ago from being a total waste.

November 8, 2010

Cake Pops: A Birthday Treat

Cake Pops: n. 1. cake in lollipop form 2. cake crumbs and icing mixed together, rolled into a ball, covered in chocolate, and eaten on a stick 3. deliciousness
I discovered the definition of this delectable delight of a dessert on the Kitchn, immediately decided I had to make them ASAP, and then remembered my mother's 50th birthday (aka excuse for special desserts) was four days later. So I gifted her with 50 chocolate-dipped balls of chocolate cake crumbs and buttercream icing.

Between the pops, slightly obnoxious 50-themed decorations, and a collaborative book of "50 Nifty Things About Nancy" that made her laugh and cry, I declared a creative birthday gift victory.

November 4, 2010

Easy Breakfast: Fried Egg Nest

I finally got around to multitasking quick yet tasty and filling fried-egg-on-toast breakfast last weekend. Call it what you like*, it takes the whole putting-the-bread-in-the-toaster step out of the equation and adds an element of fun. Now if I could just master cooking my egg the perfect amount of time, with just enough runniness.

*Wikipedia says this recipe idea is known as bird's nest, bull's eye eggs, cowboy eggs, egg-in-the-hole, eggs in a blanket, elephant egg bagel, frog in a hole, gas house eggs, moon eggs, and Rocky Mountain toast.

November 1, 2010

Three Things: Chocolate Chip Cookie Add-Ins

There's nothing better than a homemade chocolate chip cookie, particularly those of the Toll House variety. However, if I made them all the time, I'd have nothing to talk about on my blog.

Solution: Play with my cookie dough. You can mix in virtually anything—nuts, dried fruit, white chocolate, peanut butter chips—but I wanted something that would still allow chocolate taste to shine brightly. In all of the variations, I used half new ingredient and half semi-sweet chocolate chips.

1. Snickers
I'm pretty convinced that any chocolate bar chopped up will make a cookie taste that much more splendid. These combined the nutty-nougat taste of Snickers with classic chocolate-chip taste.

2. Pretzel Pieces
Pretzels added a salty crunch, kind of like that of a nut except that it doesn't steal as much of the stardom of the chocolate.

3. Toffee Dark Chocolate Bar
I used one of those fancy dark chocolate bars with toffee. They were good in the cookies but not different enough from good ole semi-sweet chips to warrant chopping & paying more. I'll save the bar for snacking next time.

How, if at all, do you switch up your cookie recipes?

October 29, 2010

Dinner: West African Soup

It's a little bit funky. However, if you like the principal ingredient, the sweet potato, you'll like this hearty, nutty soup. I made it for a vegetarian friend, but it's so fiber-packed that it left me more full than many meat dishes. We ate it with crusty, grainy bread.

I'm not sure how authentic to West Africa this recipe really is. Google research told me sweet potatoes and ground nuts are common in traditional African cuisine, so that's something.
Also, beyond chopping the sweet potatoes and onions, the recipe is simple. Just dump ingredients, and simmer.
Is anyone else as excited for soup season as me? I'm all about the ease of comfort food and yields of enough to easily freeze for a second meal.

October 25, 2010

Blondies with Reese's

Chunks of the chocolate-peanut butter delights that are a Reese's top these super-thick, moist bars. Perfectly festive for fall, they won't even leave chocoholics wondering why they didn't just eat a good ole brownie instead.

The ingredients are basic, so if you happen to get a "you have to make these" recipe email from your poor baking-deprived, Singapore-exploring friend, Rachel , you can pick up some Reese's and grant her request within a few hours.
Plus, blondies are like making cookies, but easier because there's one less ingredient (baking powder or soda) and you dump the dough straight into a single pan.  

October 21, 2010

Dinner: Brunswick Stew

I had tasted Brunswick stew once or twice and not thought much of it, but the ease of this recipe won me over. Its barbeculicious taste ended up quite pleasing the parentals and myself who ate it. Like most stews, you simply dump in a bunch of veggies, let it simmer, and, poof, you have a one-dish meal that warms you from the inside out. Better yet, this one is pretty much barbecue in a bowl with some classic Southern veggies: lima beans, corn, and tomatoes.

I sauteed fresh onions, peppers, and garlic since everything else was canned, but the recipe I based it off called for zero fresh ingredients and the canned tomatoes with garlic and onion instead. Ease or more freshness, you choose.

This particular recipe makes enough to feed an army of 12-15 by my estimates, so either feed it to lots of friends or plan on several meals of leftovers for the freezer. It was also packed with pork, so if you want more than a sprinkling of veggies in a meaty stew, you could cut the meat down by as much as a half. I used pulled pork from my favorite local barbecue restaurant, but any kind would do after you cook it down with all those ingredients.

October 15, 2010

Three Things: Applesauce

I bought a large jar of plain applesauce recently and have been playing with how to best put the inexpensive, natural apple goodness to work.
1. Spice it up.
Mix it with cinnamon, nutmeg, and/or other warm spices and eat it as a snack or with a meal. It keeps much better than fresh fruit and hence is always around for fruit cravings, which for me usually come on after a max of 8 hours without natural sugary treats. Eating this particular serving of spiced applesauce with leftover homemade mac and cheese brought on serious childhood nostalgia.

2. Use it as a insta-sauce.
The sweet fruit spread complimented the savory flavor of potato pancakes I ate as a light supper. It's also good on pork and lamb.

3. Bake with it.
It adds fruity flavor and natural sweetness and can take the place of oil. I baked it in these Apple Bran Muffins (which I like only okay, but not because of the applesauce) and always put them in the ever-delicious Morning Glory Muffins. I tend to only use it as a partial oil replacement in quick breads and muffins; if I am going to make a decadent brownie or cake, it's typically going to be 100% decadent.

October 11, 2010

Chocolate Crinkle Cookies

These festive black-and-white cookies are uber-chocolatey, like with the extreme richness of a fancy dark chocolate bar with a really high cocoa percentage or my scratch brownies. If you are a chocoloholic like me, you'll love them with a glass of milk to cut the chocolate. If not, less-chocolate-intense Mississippi Mud Cookies might be more up your alley in the realm of chocolate cookies.

October 7, 2010

Honey-Beer Pumpkin Bread

The only more exciting sign of fall than giant pumpkins (these babes were up to 1331 pounds (!) at the Allardt, Tennessee Pumpkin Festival we stumbled upon this weekend) is the warm spices in a slice of fresh pumpkin bread.

My go-to recipe is a Cooking Light one from a couple of years ago that calls for honey beer (or really any beer you have on hand). You can't really taste the beer all that much like you can in beer bread. I mostly like the recipe because it cuts back on the oil a bit and hence is somewhat better for you than your typical recipe. "Light" in no way diminishes the flavor. It's still plenty most and filled of warm fall flavors.

The recipe makes two loaves, so bring the extra to friends or freeze it for future eating. I like to pull chunks out of the freezer and pack it for an afternoon snack.

Like  pumpkin? Try these pumpkin snack recipes.

October 1, 2010

Recipe: Garlicky Spinach Dip

This cold, creamy dip more than lives up to to its name. You sauté  fresh spinach in several cloves of garlic, thereby making it uber-garlicky, but I also put in enough lemon juice for it to rival the garlic flavor. Add some cream cheese and sour cream and let the flavors meld for a combination your cracker won't be able to resist. This dip forever ruined my opinion of the cold spinach dip made with Knorr's soup mix, but of course fresh ingredients always win out.

Warning: The smell of garlic will fill in the air in your house, which I like, but it got my friend Rachel banned from making this dip in her parents' kitchen.

September 27, 2010

Monday Sweets: Tollhouse Chocolate Chip Pie

This pie has all the taste I love of chocolate chip cookies warm and gooey out of the oven, with the added bonus of a more gooey texture (when hot), pie crust, and an excuse to pair it with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream. It's pretty much Tollhouse cookie dough with proportionally more butter  you can't beat that in the realm of sinfully delicious desserts.
Perfect for dinner parties (or just everyday dinner with a chocolate finale treat), you can put the pie in as you start eating dinner, and it's done and ready to eat an hour later. The pie also beats out cookies in the ease department; you don't have to dollop dough onto a cookie sheet, just pour in a pie shell, or clean up cookie sheets and cooling racks.

September 24, 2010

Tastecation: Maine Lobster

When in Maine, you must eat lobster, lots of lobster, or so I learned on my trip there last week. The meat is so fresh and sweet tasting you know it was fished from coastal waters within a few miles of your dining spot.  You can eat lobster stew, lobster quiche, and almost any lobster dish imaginable, but these were the classic and, in my opinion, best showcases of the state's signature food.

Exhibit A: Steamed Lobster
I definitely needed instruction to get the meat out of this guy and even with them managed to make a giant mess, but the taste is all the better when it doubles as a reward for pulling apart the lobster and carefully pushing out its meat.

Exhibit B: Lobster Roll
Even the ice cream shops in Maine sell lobster rolls apparently. It gives you the super-fresh meat with zero work required. The meat is mixed with a light white sauce and served on a, you guessed it, roll.

Bonus Tip: Blueberries
Are you ever in Maine, make sure you also feast on tiny yet sweet wild Maine blueberries the form of crumbles, pies, and jams.

September 20, 2010

Monday Sweets: Mint-Chocolate Chip Ice Cream Squares

Sundaes are great, but there's something special about feasting ice cream and toppings frozen together in layers. And what better flavor combo than cool mint-chocolate chip ice cream, crisp Oreo crumbs, rich homemade chocolate syrup, and light and creamy Cool Whip?

With a yield of 15 servings, this is a good recipe for a crowd. If you have less people, want to keep from over-eating leftovers, and/or want a different presentation, I also like a similar pie version of the mint-chocolate chip treat.

To avoid uber-green food dye and savor natural goodness, I like to use Breyer's mint-chocolate chip ice cream.

September 15, 2010

Super-Quick Appetizer: Baked Brie

Buttery, creamy Brie cheese is always a treat, but its flavors really come alive when heated to a gooey state. Better yet, add a little something sweet like honey to the rich, earthy-tasting cheese and a bread coating for the perfect Brie delight. I like to cut it into wedges. You can eat it on crackers or savor its flavors alone.
Baked Brie looks and sounds fancy, but all that it requires is drizzling honey on top of cheese, wrapping it in crescent roll dough, and baking. If you have an occasion that warrants buying a nice cheese for snacking, this is your new entertaining best friend.