December 24, 2013

Chocolate-Peppermint Layer Cake

Always searching for the latest greatest variation on homemade chocolate cake, I took the recipes I know work and added some peppermint flavoring. Voila... chocolate layers with peppermint buttcream innards and pepperming chocolate frosting on the outside.

In-person time with people trumped photo opps for this babe, so all I got was the whole cake in nighttime lake house lighting and then a giant slice that was left two days later. The slice only lasted like 20 minutes after this photo.

How to make this cake:
Chocolate Cake Layers
Buttercream Frosting, subbing peppermint for vanilla
Hershey's Perfectly Chocolate Icing, subbing peppermint for vanilla
Crushed peppermints for garnish

December 8, 2013

Cabbage Wraps with Garlic-Peanut Sauce

If this looks like a rabbit meal, it is. My friend has to eat like one for health reasons, and so any time I happen to think of a meal that's not salad with chicken and that stays within the strictly meat and green veggie realm, I get excited and tend to cook up the meal ASAP.

Voila, Cabbage Wraps, served with Coconut Rice.

(As I type this, I can't believe I am just now blogging about about sweet, nutty Coconut Rice, pretty much the best form of white starch ever).

The serving line looked like a Thai taco bar, with more veggies and no cheese. Carrots added crunch, and the Garlicky Peanut Sauce a strong kick of spice and nuttiness.

Savoy  Cabbage looked like the prettiest wrapper to me because of its rippled texture and curly edges. It was also super sturdy, and my cabbage washing assistant discovered it can hold water, no leaks, like a cup.

If I were to make it again, I would...
  • thin out the sauce with some water so it spreads its punch more evenly over the chicken.
  • add another bell pepper and maybe some mushrooms and other veggies.
  • double it for leftovers, and for the love of Coconut Rice.

November 20, 2013

Buttercream Play Dates

I choose making cake from scratch over making it pretty any day, and all previous decorating attempts have been pretty major failures. But in the spirit of trying new things, I found myself spending Sunday afternoons this fall with a professional cake decorator and two fellow students of confection in a very nice teaching kitchen at Samford.

Our book taught us how to ice and also how to spend a fortune on Wilton cake decorating equipment. But here's what I concluded:

1. Decorating is tedious and laborious. See that cookie? It wasn't so bad. But once we got to cakes, that meant baking cakes, whipping up icing, coloring it drop by drop, coloring another color and another, cutting icing bags, filling bags, putting tips on... and that's all before the decorating starts. And you gotta reverse it all to clean-up at the end.

Basic Sugar Cookies from Martha

2. I hate Crisco, hate it very much. One night after I thought I had cleaned all my icing instruments, my roommate ventured to our kitchen sink to find a greasy soap bottle, greasy dish brush, grease, grease everywhere. I blamed the Crisco. Seriously, it's way worse to clean than butter. And it doesn't taste like butter, just GREASE. I'm sure it helps the shape of my icing and all, but I had a hard time cheating on my true love (butter, right after chocolate) to follow class icing  recipe directions.

Yellow Cake (Smitten Kitchen) with Wilton Class Buttercream of the Almond Variety

3. Flowers aren't that scary to make. They just take about 10 years to bring to life, and then you eat them and they are gone.

4. I could write with icing for hours on end. When penmanship met confection, I had this ah-ha moment: "This is what I was made for writing words with sugar!" My wax paper-on-kitchen-counter canvas brought me back to my sixth grade and all of a sudden I doodling my name and my friends' (now, roommates') names and random greetings. I did stop before getting to adding last names of whatever boy we would like to marry at the given moment.

5.  With writing, I can add all a new dimension to make cakes, one of thoughts and ideas I usually reserve for paper. I was hosting Monday Night Bible study dinner, so I whipped out our "theme line" courtesy of All Sons and Daughters.

(More) Yellow Cake with Hershey's Perfectly Chocolate Chocolate Icing
 6. The best way to bake a cake is to bake it, brainstorm a design with a friend with more artistic talent, do all the prep work yourself and then let her do the hard part where the icing actually comes out of the tip. And then you end up with something like this beauty below, pretty much a masterpiece minus my handwriting. She even created the "Appalachian Trail," albeit unintentionally.

November 6, 2013

Reese's Brownie Bites

For full disclosure...

Melted butter and chocolate chips erupted in my kitchen mid-afternoon one Sunday.

They were supposed to combine with peanut butter cup splendor and make it to Best Wurst Fest (think urban hipster church backyard version of a church supper with much sausage grilling).

This sequence of events did in fact happen. Like much of life, it did not happen as planned.

My Reese's babes did not want to come out of their little muffin tins until they were fully cooled.  
Cooling was taking about 10 years per brownie.
Three batches remained to be cooked.
I called in the assistance of a less cooperative nonstick tin.
 I was scooping batter. 
I was unwrapping gold foil.
 I was delicately hacking at the edges of cooked brownies only for them to melt into an ugly blob. 
I needed to shower before re-entering public. 
It was time to go.

In the end, I was clean and had half of my baked goodies to take and share. 

The kitchen was not clean. The other half of the brownies were in multiple tins, on a rack, in a container, smeared on the counter.

But my house had peanut butter chocolate decadence to keep us sane for the next few days, says the sweet-obsessed optimist in me.

This post is brought to you by Madoline's efforts to slash the idea that all things online are perfect and pretty. She knows baked goods make messes and result in imperfection. And she reminds herself that in real life marriages, children, vacations and all instagrammed and facebooked and blog prettiness are, in fact, messy, too. Oh, the lies to the contrary she subconsciously believes!

October 29, 2013

Grilled Caesar Salad

Grilling: A technique that guarantees to make any and every food taste exponentially more mouth-watering.

Apply said technique to classic Caesar, lettuce and all (but not the dressing), and boom! you've a lunch that makes people say "interesting," think "weird" and then pronounce "delicious" upon taste.

 I recommend serving it up on a back deck with my favorite Caesar twists: bell peppers and almonds in place of croutons.

October 21, 2013

Pumpkin Pie Cake

Chapter 1: The Reaction
To: Madoline
From: Coworker
Subject: Yum!!!
Message: That's the best pumpkin cake I've ever had.
(This was copied and pasted from an actual email, for full disclosure.)

Chapter 2: The End Product
Dense, buttery cake.
      Then, pumpkin pie.
            Finally, buttery cinnamon streusal sprinkled on top.
                  All melded together in the oven.

Chapter 3: From Whence It Came
My friend Brianne's aunt's pumpkin cake recipe.
The one she brought to Southern Progress fellow potlucks.
The one made with cake mix.
Tweaked to be from scratch by subbing in parts of some random "homemade cake mix" recipe Google found me.

Chapter 4: The Critique
I took this baking project on too late on a school (err, work) night (over-ambition in the kitchen=my downfall in life). And then I had to do math to combine recipes because I wanted to be original (originality for the sake of originality=not always the best idea). And then it was 11:30 p.m. and the top of the cake was STILL not set. And I just wanted to go to bed. So, yeah, I had bias against this cake before the innocent thing made it out of the oven. It ended up tasting sweet and richly dense, yes, but also too much like pumpkin pie for this Thanksgiving-pie hater. I ate a bit, gave away most of it, and then moved on to... chocolate, my one true love. But now I baked something seasonal and something original, so I can check that off my list and move back to the 17,987th variation on chocolate cookies and cakes I can develop.

Also, it was really ugly to photograph. That's why you basically see pictures of plant green and tree/house bright yellow with only a splash of all shades of distasteful browns and oranges, brightened in Photoshop.

September 27, 2013

Minestrone: Hello, soup season.

It was in a teeny, tiny old kitchen in Missouri that I first discovered how vegetables, water and spices can cook down into something comforting, and even satisfying.
It was my first month on my own post-college, in a new town where I knew precisely one person. I didn't think much of it that day, but the New York Times recipe for Summer Minestrone I found would set the tone for this season I was entering.

I would feed myself without a meal plan, without my mother, without good friends to eat with. Trying a new recipe to eat off all week would become my go-to weekend escape. In a creaky, sometimes creepy, small space all of my own, I learned what I liked to eat and how I liked to cook, not just what  I grew up with but still building on that foundation.

Five years later, my life looks different, though not drastically.  I am closer to home and have new companions in my day-to-day comings and goings. I share the fruits of my kitchen in different ways than I did then.
But as I  sauté onions and carrots, add tomatoes to simmer, and fill my kitchen with the aroma of Italian spices, once again all by myself, I return to fellowship with a simmering pot, with thoughts left to wander, with solitude.

For a good part of the evening, I don't look at my phone or consider the rest of the world's social plans on this Saturday night. I rest in the moment, in my happy place, and travel back to a mid-day lunch of Summer Minestrone and Parmesan toast in my lil' old grad school apartment. This is me embracing who I was created to be, and no one else.

September 9, 2013

Chocolate-Buttercream Cupcakes

Why even bake other kinds of cupcakes?

This is what I ask myself after tasting this Best Cupcake Combo Ever this go-round.

And self, I really have no good response.
 Let me explain:

1. The Cake. Cake more moist and pure chocolatey than what comes from a box, 100x more moist than my other attempts to bake cake from scratch and 100 percent without the fakey-chemically taste that comes courtesy of a box.

2. The Icing. It's butter and cream (milk actually). And sugar and vanilla. The best thing that will ever go in your mouth, and the perfect butter-vanilla complement to chocolate cake.

3. The Garnish. Shaving chocolate is easy, looks fancy, and, of course, is chocolate.

So if someone has a birthday coming up or an unbirthday, wow them with these... unless of course they don't like chocolate. Then they don't deserve birthday sweets.

But beware, if you blink, they will disappear. All 33 of them.

August 28, 2013

Summer Gratitude

This season I have been thankful...
For meals with 20 people who share my last name, and fruit of my dad's new massive "Bubba Grill" smoker.

Grilled Cilantro-Lime Shrimp Kebabs
For the grill on my back patio, the lovely woman with which it came, and all the meals and fellowship it has brought to our table.

For far-from-weak mint juleps in frosted glasses, chopsticks with which to stir them, and thoughtful persons who make them possible.

Grilled Chicken, Grilled Zucchini, Caprese Salad, Strawberry Scones
For self-taught grilling lessons and friends who affirm my gifts for culinary creations.

August 23, 2013

Tomato Watermelon Salad Stacks

I think I am eating out too much. Because I  plated my salad to look pretty yet have few degrees of functionality. To eat this masterpiece, you must in fact slash it up into pieces that end up looking like a normal tossed salad.

Blame my leaning tower of tomato and watermelon on Chis Hastings' tomato salad stacking at Hot and Hot. Or blame Slice's tomato-watermelon fancification. That's where the idea come from.
Still, I did dumb down chefly salad over-orchestration to six simple ingredients. And  mint+tomato+watermelon+feta tastes like an explosion of the fresh sweetness of summer in your mouth.

So try it in towers that can topple, or just cut it all up and toss it together like a normal person. Your call.

August 14, 2013

Mocha-Chocolate Chip Cookie Icebox Cake

Ina Garten is a brilliant woman. She dreamed up layering chocolate chip cookies with a tiramisu-like mocha cream in a spring form pan.
But in the name of "Barefoot Conetessa How Easy Is That?", her recipe calls for packaged cookies. Dessert blasphemy! I baked Tollhouse ones from scratch.

Actually I baked cookie bars in a jellyroll pan because it was like 9:30 p.m., and I did not want to be scooping dough and cooling cookies for forever. So I ended up with three thick layers of cookie and Kahlua/marscapone wonder instead of the five the recipe calls for. If I did if over again, I'd make thinner cookies so that cookie+cream melds together more seamlessly.
 Icebox desserts: Madoline's solution to serving seasonally appropriate chocolate desserts in the summer since the Strawberry Icebox Dessert wonder of 2010, or actually since Cooking Light's Chocolate- Eclair Icebox Dessert of my teenage years.

August 1, 2013

Chocolate Cream Pie Squares with Oreo Crust

Let me tell you about the day my life forever changed.

It started with a seething cauldron of sin. Chocolate and cream and such churned into the most decadent creamy cocoa-y yum that has ever gone between Oreos and real whipped whipping cream.

And there was enough of it to feed all the dudes who ate bread and fish that day in that Bible story. Almost. 

But for real, 20 people ate it at the lake on a Saturday, I shipped off slices to my parents' house and my brother's house, and then I divvied up like eight servings when there ended up being a viewing of super-interesting documentary Searching for Sugarman (check it out, fellow documentary-nerdy friends/anyone who likes music) at my house the next night. 

And then I ate a final solitary piece all by my lonesome one night.

My not-so-pretty photos just don't do it justice.
And now dessert-obsessed me is struggling to brainstorm any other confection to make for people because all I can think of is this, the most perfect way to eat chocolate in summertime. Ever.

Every time I try to think of something new, all that comes to mind is the way the rich fudgy chocolate cream is cut by creamy whipped cream and held together by a buttery-chocolate crisp crust. Ohmygoodness.

July 25, 2013

Arugula-Corn Salad with Feta and Pecans

My friend Amy always tries to claim she had nothing to do with a recipe being amazing because she "just found it online" or "just got it from a friend." What she obviously doesn't understand is that finding an awesome recipe like a corn salad with feta and nuts is feat in and of itself. And she didn't just find it; she made it. And she put pecans in instead of walnuts, and that was brilliant.

In the age of Google and 17 billion food bloggers, no recipe is really original. There's just a bunch of us finding food combos we like, mixing them up and sharing them with people in our real life and internet life. Cultivating recipes in the digital age is still an art best created in community, my friends. 
Anyway, Amy's corn salad has been spreading in-person meme style amongst the original cookout crew that feasted on it last summer.

As for me, I added some green and protein, tweaked a lime vinaigrette recipe (thanks, Google), and poof! had an innovative farmer's market-fresh meal salad to share with yet another friend, for a weeknight dinner on the porch this go-round. 

And then I made it again the next night. Because pre-prepped leftover ingredients rock almost as much as corn corn and feta cheese.

July 15, 2013

Alabama Tomatoes

When I came across the passage below in The Well and the Mine, a case of writer envy set in. Novelist Gin Phillips is just that talented at conveying imagery in the context of developing scenes and characters in Great Depression-era Carbon Hill, Ala. And so I bring you a tribute to Alabama tomaters in her words with photos from moi.

Albert, the father of the main character, narrates:
Heirloom Tomatoes, Pepper Place Farmer's Market
 My mouth watered at the look of them, insides about to burst through the skin. I plucked one and bit into it like an apple, juice running down my chin...

I pulled another one off and handed it to him, still tasting summer in my mouth, seeds stuck in my shadow of a beard...
Jones Valley Urban Farm Tomatoes in a Tomato Pie-In-Process
 I smiled at them all (his children), chattering and slurping, teeth and tongues and hands and arms covered in tomato innards.

"They're happy vegetables, aren't they, Papa?" asked Tess, chomping great chunks of hers. "Cheerful and excited. Like lemons are pouty and peaches are flirts."

Cherry Tomatoes Growing in Backyard Garden (Thanks to roommates who garden)
Virgie took tiny bites, bending over to hold the tomato away from her dress. But her's was the best, fuller and redder than the others. "Tess thinks they all have personality," she said.

"If she can eat it after she makes friends with it, ain't nothing wrong with it," I said.

We all picked beans until supper time, sticky and sweating, licking our fingers and hands and tasting tomatoes and dirt. When I swung Jack and Tess up the steps on the way in, our hands didn't want to come apart.

-Gin Phillips, The Well and the Mine, pages 52-53

Publix pizza crust with olive oil, garlic, tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and fresh basil

July 10, 2013

Red, (Off) White and Blue Berry Trifle

Some things just photograph real pretty. Like patriotic (but not overly so) berries on the Fourth of July.
And if you're going to have the real deal in fresh berries, why not go all out and bake a pound cake from scratch and make a pastry cream the same way? Hello, butter, butter, sugar, sugar, eggs, eggs. (I taught my roommate why pound cake in all its butteriness is called pound cake while I was at it.)

 You know the only thing that was missing in the ingredient list at that point in the brainstorming? Liqueur. So I drizzled me some Amaretto on the cake pieces.
This final masterpiece made its debut following dinner on the Fourth. Throw 19 eaters in the mix, and whoosh, it was gone baby gone.
Happy berry season to ya!

July 1, 2013

Summer Veggie Brunch Bake + Strawberry Scones

Why top eggs with veggies when you can top veggies with eggs, and lots of cheese too of course? Maybe we've been getting this eggs-first priority wrong.

Brunch started with sauteed fresh summer veggies plus fresh mozzarella and basil.

Top it with an egg and more cheese, Parmesan this time, and then more basil, bake it, and voila, you have a pretty+healthy summer breakfast.

Recipe verdict:
+Fresh and summery taste
+Veggilicious lightness as opposed to heavy brunchy eggs-meat combo
+Ramekin presentation elegance
+Individual portion cuteness
-Veggies gone runny...maybe strain veggie mix or leave out tomatoes next time
-Time intensive to cook veggies, put it all together and then bake it
Overall: Make again for a small group but prep the night before and skip tomatoes to avoid liquid in end product

But the best part of this meal was a more decadent strawberry scone.

Once upon a time I though scones were always dry pastries. And then I had one that tasted like a fluffy, buttery, sweet biscuit. Now when I make them I can't stop eating them, especially warm out of the oven and filled with summery-fresh berries.

Recipe verdict:
+Fresh and summery, yet lightly decadent, taste
+So delicious
+Pretty wedges of pastry
-Time intensive to cut butter into a flour mixture and then play  with sticky dough to fold in berries and get it in a decent shape for baking
Overall: Make as often as possible when I have the time to dedicate to it

Serve veggies eggs+scones with milk in mason jar, plus a lake view and a conversation/food sharing partner, for full effect.

June 24, 2013

Benedictine Sandwiches

Garden and Gun bills this creamy cucumber spread as "Kentucky's Pimiento Cheese Cousin," so of course it caught my attention in my inbox. I've also seen some awesomeness of pastoral beauty, food, people and even basketball come from the Fried Chicken Leg state (see the outline of the state if you are confused by my descriptor), so I thought they might know how to do a sandwich well too.

It makes for a refreshing summer or spring tea sandwich, or as we fashioned it, mid-day girly lake weekend meal.
It might have been the kind of meal that made certain members of the opposite sex beg for ham or turkey, but bacon made it a bit more meaty and all the more Southern, kind of like a creamy T-less BLT.
For the record, my recipe is more a variation on a commenter's version than the restaurant recipe the magazine ran. It seemed a bit more home kitchen friendly and just plain practical because you strained the cucumber (spread with too much veggie juice=gross).

Also, post-sandwich photographing I discovered the spread is even better on buttery crackers because you can taste more of the cucumber-onion role in the mix than on the sandwich. Go figure, because I prefer pimiento cheese on crackers over a sandwich.

June 17, 2013

Bookends for a perfect summer Saturday

Start the day at a farmers market, or two if you are racking up a photo collection for community newspapers.

Homewood Farmers Market photos taken for The Homewood Star.

End it cooking up farmers market booty with friends.
Publix pizza dough with olive oil, garlic, green and yellow zucchini, fresh mozzarella, squash blossoms courtesy of my horticulturally talented roommate's garden, and turkey bacon.
Also, drink wine and eat cupcakes.

June 9, 2013

Tomato-Cucumber Bruschetta

Thought One: Make something snacky for people coming over Saturday night.
Thought Two: It's summer. It should taste like summertime.
Thought Three: Ocean serves that tomato-cucumber stuff with crostini. It's like better than their entrees.
Thought Four: Hey, I just bought cucumber and tomato at the farmers market.
Thought Five: Mad's remake of Ocean yum was totally meant to be.

I never cease to be amazed when vegetables can be this refreshing tasting and addictive. Those who partook agreed.

The spread for an evening in the backyard for my friend Jennifer to share about her work in nonprofit architecture serving global missions with 100 Fold Studio: the aforementioned bruschetta masterpiece, mini peach cupcakes, grapes, mixed nuts, limade and vino.

The bruschetta is definitely making future appearances at the lake.