Wednesday, April 25, 2012


Church cookbooks are awesome.  Especially the ones from the church circle heyday, back in the 50's and 60's.  My mom has a cookbook from my grandma's church that's probably 40 years old, at least.  But those recipes from the ladies' group (I think they were Martha's Circle or Miriam's circle, something like that) represent real comfort food from my childhood. If you've ever been to a church potluck, you know what I mean. No one could make potato salad like Minnie, and the meal wouldn't be complete without Ruth's chocolate cake.  Because I'm from the Midwest, Jello salads were also popular.  Those I could do without, to be honest.

Anyway, I hope to someday own that book when my mom doesn't have a use for it anymore, but there was a recipe in it for my favorite bars that I used to make when I was a kid.  Last time I was home, I finally remembered to copy down the recipe, so I could make them any time I wanted.  Which I will probably regret, because they are so rich and addictive!  They're not called Heavenly Bars for nothin'!

A chocolate-coconut-almond crust topped with a buttercream filling, then a thin layer of bittersweet chocolate.  I was surprised my boys actually liked them, but my oldest son ate four and my youngest's eyes rolled back in his head with pleasure at his first bite.  So the legacy continues.

The steps may seem fussy, but I guarantee that it's all worth it, especially for the crust, which has a chewy-crunchy texture that is so unique and delicious!

Heavenly Bars

Ingredients for crust:

1/3 cup butter
1/2 cup sugar
6 tsp cocoa
1 egg, slightly beaten
10 (double) graham crackers (about one package), crushed fine
1 Tbsp. vanilla
1 cup coconut (you can use sweetened or unsweetened -- I've used both and it's all tasty)
1/2 cup nuts, chopped fine (I used slivered almonds)

Ingredients for 2nd layer:

1/2 cup butter
1 cup powdered sugar
1 1/2 teaspoon milk

Chocolate topping:

4 Tbsp. semisweet chocolate
1 Tbsp. butter

For the crust: blend butter, sugar, cocoa and egg in the top of a double boiler set over warm water.  No particular order. As you can see, I just dumped everything in and started stirring. Note that in the first picture, I have two packages of graham crackers, but for the recipe you only need one. Didn't want anyone to be confused.

Stir until combined. Continue stirring over the hot water until warm and thick (you want to heat the mixture because of the egg, but not too much heat too fast, or the egg will cook and separate).  Take chocolate mixture off heat and add the crushed graham crackers, vanilla, coconut and nuts.  Pat into a buttered 8" square pan (I lined my pan with foil to pull them all out at once, but you don't have to do that).  Chill crust while you make the second layer.

Second Layer: Mix the butter, powdered sugar and milk and beat until smooth. Spread over crust and chill.

Chocolate topping: Melt chocolate and butter together and stir until smooth.  Pour on top of bars and spread (I just swirled the pan around until the top was covered so it would look smooth).  Return to the refrigerator to chill until the chocolate is set, about 30 minutes.

Cut into small pieces (they are rich) and enjoy!  I usually get about 25 (5 rows by 5).

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Take a Risk! Break the Rules!

I have a confession to make. You know the cardinal rule that you never, EVER make a new recipe when you're have people over? Well, I break it. All the time. It usually comes about because I get this itch to try something new, either inspired by something I saw on Pinterest, in my latest issue of Bon Appétit or Everyday Food or a new cookbook (I have a cookbook problem).  So I create a menu around the thing I want to make, but it's usually too much for my little family of 4 to eat, so I invite people over to share.  I've been lucky so far, since I haven't had any major failures, not that I would serve anything that I thought was inedible. But I have served things that didn't turn out how I wanted them to.  Fortunately, I have a circle of friends who are happy to share whatever comes out of my kitchen.  They're adventurous like that, and I'm grateful that they're not too judgey.

But my point is this: be fearless when it comes to cooking. After all, it's just ingredients. If it doesn't work out the first time, try again.  Or embrace the "failure" as something that didn't turn out exactly as you expected, but still tastes good.  So what if it's not perfect? Maybe you'll discover a new technique, or flavor combination that's totally amazing.  Or totally suck. But you'll never know unless you try.  It's an old nugget but still holds true. 

Letting go of the fear of failure is any aspect of your life. But we're talking about cooking, here. Good cooks (and bakers, for that matter) are made, not born. I don't know anyone who's ever been 100% perfect in the kitchen. We've all had flops.  Honest! Just ask my husband, who good-naturedly choked down some nearly inedible concoction I'd whipped up using kosher-for-Passover noodles that had turned into mush. And I've become really good at figuring out uses for failed hockey-puck biscuits (my biscuits still aren't perfect, but much more edible).

Is there some food or technique that you've been wanting to try, but just haven't, for whatever reason?  What's holding you back?

Get into that kitchen! Break the rules! Take a risk!  And be sure to share your results back here.  :-)

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Meringue Mania!

It's raining today, so I decided to show you the wonderful world of meringue.  Which is probably a really dumb idea, since you're not supposed to do meringues on a humid day. But I'm just a little crazy like that. Livin' on the edge, that's me.

I honestly don't think meringues get enough play. I don't know why, since they're fairly simple to make and you pretty much always have the ingredients on hand, plus they're low-fat.  A nearly guilt-free treat that is a satisfying party in your mouth. My mom used to make individual meringue cups and we would fill them with ice cream and sometimes even put chocolate sauce on top (again, I grew up livin' on the edge, people).  The ice cream would melt a little into the crispy meringue shell, which would then get this kind of gooey, chewy, marshmallow-y texture that is so wonderful! Ironically, I really don't like lemon meringue pie. The texture of that kind of meringue (just sugar-y air with no texture) is just off-putting for me.  Just wanted to share that with you all.

 I'm also giving due respect to the pavlova, a super simple dessert that is as easy to make as it is impressive. It's a little retro, having been created in honor of dancer Anna Pavlova in the 1920's, but I'm on a mission to bring it back into vogue, because it's just that awesome. If you're not familiar with this dessert, it's a meringue shell (made in individual sizes or in one huge, magnificent disk of sugary lightness), filled with mounds of whipped cream and topped with fruit.  It's a heavenly combination of creamy, sweet, tart, and chewy. My go-to recipe is from Nigella Lawson's How to Be a Domestic Goddess cooking and baking book.  If you don't have it, and like baking, you need to go out and get it, pronto.

But the latest bee that got stuck in my meringue bonnet was this wonderful meringue I ate while I was in London recently.  It was this enormous, crunchy, chewy chocolately confection that was indescribably delicious.  I saw different versions of them in various pastry shops around the city, but finally succumbed to their sweet siren song when I was wandering around Selfridge's food hall (between that and my time at Fortnum and Mason earlier that day, I was in foodie heaven!).

Here's me, with my Selfridge's meringue:

Wouldn't you want to know how to make something like that??!!  I would, or die trying.  Well, not really. It's just an expression.

I think some might be intimidated by meringues because of the whipping of the egg whites. Or maybe the fussiness of separating the whites from the yolks. But neither is really that hard with a little practice. I kind of go between two techniques for separating eggs. I'll give you both and you can figure out which one works best for you. A couple of things to remember: make sure your hands are clean and free of oils, as well as the bowls and utensils you use.  Oil will make it difficult, if not impossible, to whip your whites up light and airy.

Separating the whites from the yolks (there are lots of videos on-line if these directions are confusing):

First: Make sure you have a bowl for your whites and a bowl for the yolks (you can use these for lots of other things like scrambled eggs, cake, french toast, custard, curd, etc.).  Also, I find that it's easier to separate eggs when they're cold, versus room temp (it seems that the yolk isn't as fragile). Lightly crack the shell, but don't break it open, yet. Holding the egg over the bowl you want the whites in, turn the egg on one end (you want the yolk to be resting inside one end of the egg. Then, pull the top half of the shell off from the bottom half (the yolk should be resting in the bottom half of the shell). A lot of the white should come out and fall into your bowl. Then cradle the yolk back and forth between the two shell halves, letting the rest of the white fall into the bowl. If there is white hanging that doesn't fall, you can separate it off by scraping the other half of the egg shell against the hanging white.  Once you've got as much of the white separated as you can, dump the yolk into the second bowl.  An alternate technique to the cradling between the egg shell halves is to dump the yolk and white into your gently cupped hand, then spread you fingers slightly and jiggle the yolk back and forth in your hand until the white falls through your fingers. The second method is messier, but easier for me (less opportunity for the edge of the shell to break the yolk), but try it and see what works for you.

Now that you've got your egg whites, we're ready to whip it!  Whip it good!  (Ha ha! Devo reference. Apologies to any of my younger followers...)

Here's what you need for the meringues (I used the Nigella Lawson recipe, but halved it):

Clearly, I forgot the sugar for the picture (I'm new at this, so bear with me), but I made sure to list it under the ingredients, since it's pretty key to the recipe.  Frankly, I'm not used to gathering my ingredients before I start a recipe, but I'm trying to be better about that.


4 egg whites
pinch of salt
3/4 cup sugar
2 tsp cornstarch
1/2 tsp vanilla
1 tsp white wine vinegar (I used cider vinegar because I didn't have the white wine vinegar).

Make sure your egg whites are at room temperature. If you separated the eggs while they were cold or cool, let the whites sit out for another 30-45 minutes or so. Add the salt to the egg whites, then whip with an electric mixer (I have a Kitchen Aid stand mixer that I love, but any electric mixer will do. You could also use a whisk, but takes a lot of energy and arm strength/endurance.  Since I don't have either of those, I can't recommend that method). The whites will start to stiffen, looking kind of like this:

Then you can start adding the sugar, a couple of tablespoons at a time, to the whites.  Keep beating until stiff, thick and glossy.  About like this:

See the difference? The final product should be glossy and marshmallow-y looking, and very thick.  Total time for beating will only be about 10 minutes or so. Then, sprinkle the vinegar, vanilla and cornstarch over the whites and fold in to incorporate. TIP: to make sure the cornstarch doesn't clump, hold a small strainer over the bowl, sprinkle the cornstarch into the strainer, then shake until the cornstarch has fallen through.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees (F, not C).  While the oven heats, line baking sheets with parchment paper. For the pavlova, spread the meringue into a 10-inch circle (you can make individual shells as well, just adjust the baking time accordingly), creating a little bowl (sides higher than middle), like this:

When the oven is pre-heated, put the meringue in, then turn down the oven to 300 and bake for 30 minutes, then turn off the oven for another 30 minutes.  Take the meringue out of the oven to cool completely.

To finish the pavlova, whip 1 cup of heavy cream with 2 Tbsp of powdered sugar (chilling the bowl and beaters help this process go faster). Mound it in the center of the meringue, then top with 1 1/2 of berries of your choice (I've also topped with pomegranate seeds, which is really delicious, too).  This dessert can not be made ahead of time, but the different components can, and then easily assembled just before serving.

Sorry for the out-of-focus second picture.  I should always check the photo quality before I eat up the product.  But I'm hoping you can see the lovely layers made by the meringue crust, billowy whipped cream and sweet strawberries.

For the Selfridge's meringue recreation, I had to do some experimentation.  What worked best was dry ingredients: grated chocolate or cocoa powder mixed with a little powdered sugar, or hot chocolate mix. That kind of thing.  I did try to do a berry one, but those meringues turned out much more "wet" and chewier. Not entirely a failure, but definitely a different texture.  The best result in terms of fruit was using dried fruit (cherries) pureed with a little bit of strawberry syrup (like the syrup you use to make strawberry milk).  Using the fresh fruit was way too watery. When I try again, I might experiment with either Nutella or melted chocolate to see if I can get that streak-y deeper chocolate-y effect that was in the Selfridge's one I had. For the chocolate chip, I grated dark chocolate into some of the meringue mixture and folded it in to incorporate, then mounded it on the parchment-lined baking sheet. Before I baked them, they looked like this:

Once you put them in the pre-heated oven, turn the temperature down to 275, then bake for 45 minutes.  Turn off the heat, but let the meringues sit in the oven for another 30 to 60 minutes.  You want the outside of the meringue to be stiff and dry, but not brown. If you try the fruit-flavored one, I had to keep those in the oven at 200 for another hour, then turned off the oven and let them sit in there to dry out even longer (until the oven was completely cool).

Here's the inside of the meringue I added the cocoa powder to:

And here's the one with the cherries in strawberry syrup. Again, sorry for the lack of focus...

The flavors were great, even if the textures were really different. You can tell that the one with cocoa has a nice crisp crust that shatters when you bite into it, but the cherry one, while it still holds its shape, has a softer, marshmallow-y texture. Of course, you can make these just normal cookie sized (bake for less time, of course), but I love how over-the-top and indulgent the big ones look!

Monday, April 16, 2012

For the Love of Pinterest

A friend of mind asked why people used Pinterest. What was the purpose? Now, I have wasted many hours looking at pictures and re-pinning fabulous-looking homes and clothes and food, maybe in the misguided attempt to create my perfect fantasy life. But what I use it for most is collecting ideas I see from other blogs and websites so that I can refer back them in one place.  It's really handy, in my opinion.  If anything, I get a little stressed thinking about all the great recipes I pinned that I haven't tried yet, so this weekend, I tried to put a dent in them and made a few recipes off of my "Yum!" board.

The first one I did was the Brown Sugar and Balsamic Glazed Pork Loin from the C+C Marriage Factory Blog. I linked the recipe to the name, so I won't re-post it here (I really hate typing recipes, so the less I need to do, the better).  :-)  It was delicious! The glaze is awesome, even if the pork loin ended up dry (my fault, not the recipe's).  Here's a picture of the finished product, with some roasted brussels sprouts and turnips (the glaze tasted great on those, too!):

The next recipe I attempted was the Pretzel Crusted Peanut Butter Cup Blondie Pie from the Cookies and Cups blog.  Again, this was a really great recipe, although, if I make it again, I might try it in a different pan. A 9x13, say, and increase the recipe accordingly, so I could cut it into squares.  No real reason, except the filling made a lot and almost flowed over my 10 inch tart pan, and taking the ring off the tart pan was really messy.  I'd definitely make sure my pretzels were more finely crushed. And I might try putting brown sugar in the crust, rather than granulated.  But the blondie filling was delicious! I'd bet it would be great on it's own, even without the crust.  Here's photographic evidence of my attempt:

I topped it with maple-walnut ice cream and chocolate syrup, taking a cue from the original post. Loved the combo of the maple-walnut ice cream with the chocolate chip/peanut butter cup filling. My family loved it.  Because I can't leave well-enough alone, next time I might try adding peanut butter to the blondie filling to increase the peanut butter-chocolate intensity (it's one of my favorite flavor combos!).  If anyone out there is inspired to try any of these changes before I get to it, please report back how it turns out!

Finally, the last pinned recipe I tried recently was the Garlicky Baked Shrimp from Real Simple. It was super simple (I just tossed everything around in the baking dish) and delicious!  I served it over red bell pepper rice (steamed some rice, then added butter and some chopped up red pepper right out of the microwave, then covered it back up to steam all together) and a delicious strawberry goat cheese salad that I found on Eating Well. Instead of the greens called for, I just used some mixed greens I already had on hand, and I substituted toasted almonds instead of the pecans, since I had some already toasted up (I'm all about the simple, baby!).  Here's what our dinner looked like:

The picture with the salad really doesn't do it justice. I'm really going to have to work on my photographic skills! With a glass of white wine, it was the perfect meal!

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Soup's On!

I love soup! It can be cozy and comforting, or elegant, or refreshing. If you’re interested in improving your cooking skills and don’t know where to start, soups incorporate a number of basic skills, and is relatively hard to really mess up.  Soups are easy to make for a crowd or for freezing meals for later in the week.  You can make soups with relatively few ingredients, most of which we all have on hand. Oh! And pretty economical, too, depending on your ingredients.

So, have I sold you yet?

It’s also easy for entertaining. Make a nice pot of soup, toss together a green salad, some tasty bread, and voilà! You have a great meal, with minimal last-minute preparation, that allows you, the host, to enjoy your guests without sweating a complicated multi-course meal. People will rave, and you can bask in the glow of their adoration.

Last year, during January, I had Soupapalooza, where each Sunday, I would make a big pot of soup and issue a general invitation to my friends in the neighborhood to come over, hang out, and eat some soup.  It was great!  To be honest, I got the idea from an article I read in Bon Appétit, so I can't claim credit for the original idea.

When I was growing up, my mom would make what us kids called her famous “3-day soup.” The type of soup varied, but she made a big pot that we would have to eat for lunch and dinner over the course of three days.  True story. You’d think that would turn me off from soup forever, but no.  Probably because there are endless variations to soup, so I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of it.

One of my favorite soups she made was Chicken and Wild Rice Soup. So, in honor of her (and the fact that I had some extra wild rice hanging around), that’s what I’m making.

Just in case you’re not sure what wild rice looks like, here’s a picture:

It has long, black grains, and takes a while longer to cook than regular white or brown rice. That plastic tub behind it is homemade chicken stock.  I’ll usually make that out of a leftover carcass after I’ve roasted a chicken, but there are a lot of good quality stocks and broths out there, so don’t feel you have to make your own.  I’ll save the roasting of chickens and corresponding making of stock for another post.

So, another important part of soup is making sure your veggies are chopped to relatively the same size bits so that they can cook at the same rate.  If you’re going to blend the soup later so that it’s smooth, the size of the veggies aren’t as important, but it’s still something to keep in mind.

Here are the components of the mirepoix (that’s a fancy term for chopped up celery, onion and carrots):

You may notice that the carrots seem to be in bigger chunks than the onions or celery. I did that because I like my carrots to have a little bit of bite to them, so I don’t want them as soft as the other veggies.

The other key part of a soup, one that elevates it from simply good to excellent, I think, is seasoning, which means actually tasting the soup.  It’s a tough job but someone has to do it.  Speaking of seasoning, I would be remiss if I didn’t give a shout out to Penzey’s Spices, my all-time favorite place to get spices. They have a store about 40 minutes from me, so I don’t go there often, but they also have a great mail order business. When I do make a special pilgrimage, I’ll spend an hour there, just smelling all the amazing spices and herbs, and usually spending a bundle!  (I swear I’m not a paid spokesperson, just a fan!) But I digress…

Okay, so after a few more steps like sautéing the veggies, dumping in the chicken stock and some water along with some chopped up cooked chicken and wild rice (I realize that other food blogs will have pictures of all these steps, but it's really just dumping the stuff into a pot and letting it cook, and you don't really need pictures of that, do you?), you’ll get something that looks like this:

It’s delicious and creamy, with big chunks of chicken and carrots. The wild rice gives it a little nutty earthiness.

Are you hungry?  Excellent!  Get cookin’!  Here’s the recipe:

Chicken and Wild Rice Soup


1 Tbsp butter
1 onion, chopped
2 medium carrots, chopped
1 long stalk of celery, chopped
4 cups of chicken broth or stock
2 cups water
3 cups cooked chicken breast (about 2 breasts), shredded or chopped into bite-sized pieces
1 cup wild rice, cooked **
¼ cup butter (1/2 stick)
½ cup flour
1 ½ cups cream
a couple drops of sriracha hot sauce (a couple drops of Tabasco will do, too)
salt and pepper to taste

1.              Melt 1 Tbsp butter in  a large pot (at least a 4 or 5 quart soup pot) over medium heat, then add onion, carrots, and celery.  Saute (cook) for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally to make sure the veggies don’t brown.
2.              Add stock, water, chicken and rice to the pot and bring to boil, then turn down to a simmer (the liquid should not be bubbling, but just shivering around a bit).  Simmer for 10 minutes.
3.              While the soup is simmering, you’re going to make a roux: in a separate, small (2 quart) saucepan, melt the ¼ cup butter over medium-low heat, then sprinkle the flour over the melted butter, whisking until it forms a smooth, pasty kind of mixture.  Let that cook, still whisking, for 2-3 minutes (you’re cooking out the flour taste), then add the cream and whisk like crazy until the flour/butter paste is completely incorporated into the cream.  Let this cook on low heat for 5 minutes, or until it’s thickened, stirring occasionally. (NOTE: you could skip this step all together, if you want a less thick soup, and just add the cream to the soup after it’s cooked the 10 minutes called for in step 2).
4.              Add the roux/cream mixture to the chicken/rice soup mixture and stir to incorporate all the ingredients.
5.              Season to taste with salt and pepper.  I also added a little Sriracha sauce to the soup, which gave it a subtle kick.  Be sure to taste the soup BEFORE you add any more seasoning – commercial stocks and broths can have a lot of salt already added to it, and if you used chicken from a store-bought roasted chicken, those tend to be salty, too.  So taste, then season, then taste again.

**Cook the wild rice according to package directions, or use leftover wild rice, if you have it. Essentially you should have 2 or 3 cups of cooked rice before you add it to the soup. If you’re making the rice from raw, then allow a good 45 minutes to cook it before you can add it to the soup.

This should serve 6-8 people, depending on how hungry they all are.   And it should take you 30 to 60 minutes to make.  Why the huge disparity? Depends on if your chicken and rice have already been cooked, and how long it takes you to chop stuff.

This recipe (as most soups) is really versatile. For instance, you could up the veggie to chicken ratio, or cut back on the rice.  If you have to cook your chicken, intensify your broth by poaching the chicken in it, then remove the chicken to slice it up (just make sure you boil the chicken stock after removing the cooked chicken for 10 minutes – doesn’t have to be a big, rolling boil, but you want to make sure you cook out any bacterial that the raw chicken might have had). You could throw in mushrooms or corn.  You could add a cup of white wine to the veggies and cook a bit before adding the stock..  Lots of variety.  Make it your own and have fun.  After all, that’s what cooking’s all about, right?

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Maiden Voyage

It's a lot of pressure for the opening post on a brand new blog. Especially for someone like me who is not at all savvy, technologically speaking.  Why do I think that anyone will be interested in what I have to say? Maybe not.  I don't know. I think many who know me will be disappointed that my first post has nothing to do with food. Sorry, guys. I'm actually trying to cut back on my baking, because swimsuit season is fast approaching and I personally have some issues with my paunch. And I taste test my products. A lot. My usual methods (giving away, storing extras in the freezer) haven't been working, and, frankly, some of my friends may be getting irritated with me for tempting them with treats, too. That's not to say there won't be plenty of food posts.  There will be, I promise. As soon as I figure out how to upload photos...

Anywhooo, so what can you expect from this blog? Pictures of food, recipes, tips on prep and cooking, a smattering of entertaining ideas, but so much more, because I'm eclectic like that.  Expect tales from the mommyhood trenches, opinions on politics and current events.

So check back now and again, but not too often, because I am notorious for starting out on projects, then letting them languish.  Like working on my son's baby book.  My son, who is now 7.  Sorry, buddy. Or the still blank canvases that I was going to paint (I had this idea for lavender fields) 5 years ago.  But this is going to be different. I promise!