Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Oatmeal Snack Bars

As a working mom, I'm always on the go...which means I don't always have time to sit down for a snack.  Usually I grab some kind of granola or protein bar.  But how healthy are these?  You have to be very careful reading the labels.  You would be shocked to see how much fat and sugar they put in to some of those things.  I never really thought about making my own until I came across this recipe on a popular food blog.  The recipe, for Baked Oatmeal Snack Bars, is from Kath Eats Real Food.  This is a great blog!  If you don't already follow it...you should!  This is a great base recipe for making your own on-the-go granola bars.  There are literally tons of variations!  I have so many I want to try but here is a look at my first attempt:

Monday, November 28, 2011

Christmas Ornaments

Thanksgiving weekend is always when we put up our Christmas tree.  It's one of my favorite times of the year!  I love decorating the Christmas tree.  The lights, the garland and especially the ornaments.  As I carefully unwrap each ornament, it reminds me of a special time in my life.  Each one is unique and carries a story....
Like this adorable wooden star ornament that I received from an old boss.  She is absolutely one of my favorite people and every time I look at it I think of her....
It wouldn't be Christmas around our house without watching the "Lampoons Christmas Vacation" at least once!  This ornament of cousin Eddie's RV was a gift from my mother-in-law...it always makes me laugh!
This Santa ornament reminds me of the Christmas classic movie, "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer."  Every year as a kid I looked forward to watching that movie on TV.
And no Christmas tree would be complete without at least one cardinal on it...for good luck in the coming year of course!
And this beautiful hand crafted metal maple leaf was a gift from an old friend.  

What about you? What is your favorite Christmas ornament?  

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Elinor's Coffee Cake


Little old ladies named Elinor make the best baked goods.  I got this recipe from a dear sweet lady I met a few years ago.  Hands down the BEST coffee cake you will ever have. 

Recipe
Ingredients:
  • Group A
    • 1 cup sugar
    • 1 cup brown sugar
    • 3 cups of flour
    • 1/4 tsp coarse salt
    • 2 sticks of unsalted butter, softened
  • Group B
    • 1 tsp baking soda
    • 1 tsp baking powder
    • 2 eggs
    • 1 & 1/2 cups of buttermilk
  • Group C (topping)
    • 1 cup sugar
    • 1-2 teaspoons of cinnamon
    • 1 cup chopped pecans
Step 1: Mix together the ingredients in group A, cutting the butter into the other ingredients with a pastry cutter


Step 2: Continue cutting the butter into the other ingredients until a coarse crumble forms and there are no more large chunks of butter left.  Remove one cupful of the mixture and set aside

Step 3: Meanwhile, mix together the ingredients in group B till nice and smooth

Step 4: Mix the B mixture into the A mixture and pour into a greased 13 x 9 baking dish


Step 5: Take the reserved cup from the Group A ingredient mixture and spread evenly on top of the batter

Step 6: Next, take the pecan, sugar and cinnamon mixture and spread evenly on top


Step 7: Cover the dish with foil and bake for about 45 minutes.  The cake is done when a fork or toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. 

Thursday, November 24, 2011

HAPPY THANKSGIVING!


HAPPY THANKSGIVING!  I hope you and yours are all together, happy, warm and stuffed!

Above is a picture of one of the pumpkin pies I made for our Thanksgiving dinner.  This is a perfect example of how a decorative crust can take an ordinary pie and turn it into something outstanding.  It's really quite easy to make.  It just takes a little planning.  Remember the elusive perfect pie crust post


Here I used cookie cutters to cut cute shapes out of pie crust.  When rolling out the dough to make the shapes, roll it out a little thicker than you normally would for a pie crust, like 1/4 inch rather than 1/8 inch.  If the shapes are too thin they will likely burn or not hold their shape during the baking process.  Once the shapes are cut out bake them just until golden then cool and freeze until ready to use.  This way you can do this part days or weeks before you actually want to bake your pie, making things a lot easier later on. 
Pre-baked shapes all ready to go!
Putting it all together:

Once you get your bottom pie crust rolled out and set in the plate, chill it for about 30-60 minutes in the fridge.  Now is the time to pull your pie crust shapes out of the freezer and set out to thaw.  In the meantime preheat your oven to about 375. 

Now that the bottom pie crust is chilled, you need to blind bake the crust.  This helps ensure that the entire crust (especially the bottom) is fully baked.  First, use a fork to pierce some holes in the bottom of the crust.  Next, cut out a piece of parchment paper and place in the pie.  Then, use either pie weights or dried beans to fill the pie.  Bake the pie at 375 until the edges start to turn golden.  Remove the pie weights and parchment paper, return crust to oven and allow it to bake until the entire crust is nice and brown.  This whole process usually takes about 30-40 minutes.

Blind-baked pie crust
Remove the pie crust from the oven and allow it to cool (enough that you can comfortably touch the edges).  Now its time to assemble the crust.  Mix together some egg wash (one egg beaten with about a teaspoon of water).  Fill your pie with whatever filling you are using (in this case the pumpkin filling), leaving about an inch of exposed crust.  Next, brush the edges of the exposed crust with the egg wash.  Then, brush the backs of the shapes with egg wash and press firmly on to the exposed crust of the pie.  Continue this process all the way around the pie. 

Working around the pie
Once you are finished, go over the entire crust again with egg wash.  Then carefully sprinkle sugar over the exposed crust.  Congratulations!  You are now ready to bake your beautiful pie!


I hope this inspires you to take your holiday pies to new heights!  Happy baking and Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Irish Soda Bread

The best recipes are often the simplest.  Those containing few, basic ingredients.  The kind you can whip up easily on a Sunday morning and share with the family.  Irish Soda Bread is one such recipe.  Its one of the most delicious and easiet breads to make.

Soda breads are aptly named because the levening agent used in them is baking soda, rather than yeast.

Unlike most bread, there is little kneading and because there is no yeast, no rising is necessary.  The whole thing can be made and baked in about 45 minutes (largely unattended).  So sit back, relax, and make some soda bread.

Irish Soda Bread
Ingredients
  • 3 cups all purpose flour
  • 1 cup whole wheat flour (may replace with all purpose flour)
  • 1 & 3/4 cup of whole buttermilk
  • 1 tsp of coarse salt
  • 1 tsp of baking soda
Buttermilk is a key ingredient to Irish Soda Bread.  You cannot replace it with regular milk.  The buttermilk helps make the bread soft and crumbly.


Step 1: Sift together flours, salt and baking soda in a large bowl


Step 2: Add most of the buttermilk


Step 3: Stir with a wooden spoon to combine.  The dough will be coarse and shaggy.  If its too dry to come together, then add the rest of the buttermilk


Step 4: Turn out the dough onto a floured surface and lightly knead for a minute or two.  Shape the dough into a boule and flatten slightly so that in forms a 6 inch round.  As is tradition with Irish Soda Bread, use a sharp serrated knife to score a cross in the center. 


Step 5: Brush the top lightly with oil and place on a parchment lined baking sheet and bake for about 35-40 minutes.  Keep an eye on the bread and if towards the end of the baking time it's getting too brown on top, tent it with some foil.  The bread is done when it sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom.



This bread is best served warm.  Its got a lovely crumbly interior.  Spread some jam on a slice and you've got the perfect breakfast treat.

So the next time you are having a lazy morning, whip up a loaf of Irish Soda Bread.  You'll be glad you did!


Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Elusive Perfect Pie Crust

Thanksgiving is coming fast and I'm sure that like me most of you are probably planning on making a few pies.  I would like to take this opportunity to encourage you to RESIST the urge to use store-bought pie crust and try your hand at making your own.  I know what you're thinking.  "It's too hard...it's too time consuming."  Well I'm here to tell you that with a little patience and planning, its not.  And the results are well worth it!  Just one taste of a flaky, buttery homemade crust and you will be sold.  You will never again go back to store bought crust. 

Picture perfect pies with decorative crusts can be challenging.  I'm still perfecting my technique.  But please give homemade pie crust a try.  I promise you won't be sorry.

A few tips I've picked up about making pie crust:
1.  Keep things cold.  The colder the ingredients, the better.  Keep the butter in the refrigerator until the last possible second.  Some cooks also suggest cooling the flour in the refrigerator beforehand as well.  Some even go so far as to say you should refrigerate the kitchen utensils you are going to make it with beforehand. 
2.  Try not to touch it very much.  The littlest contact you have with the dough itself the better.  The warmth and oils of your hands can alter the very delicate balance of your pie crust

The Recipe

The recipe I use for pie crust is Martha Stewart's Pate Brisee found here.

Step 1: After chilling and assembling all of the ingredients, add the flour, sugar, and salt to the food processor and pulse to combine


Step 2: Cut the butter sticks into smaller (approximately 1 Tbsp) pieces and add to the food processor.  Pulse to combine so that the dough becomes coarse and crumbly.  Make sure there are no remaining large clumps of butter

Step 3: Slowly add the water, tablespoon by tablespoon through the feed tube of the food processor as you pulse the mixture.  Stop adding the water when the dough just comes together.  In other words, you don't want it very sticky or wet.  Just enough that it will hold together


Step 4: Once you have your dough formed, remove it from the food processor and divide in half.  This is a lot easier if you have a kitchen scale and can get it exactly in half.


Step 5: Form each half of the dough into a small disc and cover with plastic wrap.  Then chill the dough in the refrigerator for a few hours before using

This recipe makes enough for one double crusted pie or two open crust pies.  The dough discs will keep up to a few days in the refrigerator or a few months in the freezer.  This way you can make your pie crusts up ahead of time.  Usually when the holidays start getting close, I have a 'pie crust day' where I make up a bunch of pie crusts and then freeze them so that any time I want to make a pie I just pull the crust out and thaw.

The hardest part about homemade pie crust is rolling it out.  After you pull your dough disc out of the refrigerator, you'll need to unwrap it and let it sit out a few minutes so that it warms up just enough to roll.  If you try to roll it when its too cold, it will crack.  Next, you will have to actually roll the dough out into a circle.  The easiest way I have found to do this is to roll it out on a sheet of floured parchment paper.  Putting it on the parchment paper allows you to easily turn the dough (by turning the parchment paper) as you roll so that you can get it in a nice even circle. 


To get a nice even circle, roll, then turn the paper slightly, roll, then turn the paper slightly and repeat until your crust is about 1/8 inch thickness.  This should be enough to form a crust for a standard 9 inch pie pan. 



If you are making an opened face pie, like your standard pumpkin pie, then horaay you are done!  If you are making a double crusted pie, then you have to repeat the process with the other disc.  You can then just place the rolled out dough on top, cut a few vent holes and be done.  OR...you can get a little more fancy.  You can use cookie cutters to cut out cute shapes to top the pie with.  Below are some fall leaves I cut out to place on top of a Thanksgiving pie.  (this can be done in advance too)!


Below is a picture of a double crusted blackberry-apple pie I made.  I used a pumpkin cookie cutter to cut out pumpkins and arranged them over the top.  Note also the adorable pie bird in the middle...



So when it comes to pie crust...you can't go wrong with homemade.  Your guests will be ranting and raving about the flakiness.  Try it!  So easy...even a domestically inept person can do it!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Homemade Peppermint Bark

Well the holidays are rapidly approaching which means lots of baking in my house.  I'm always on the hunt for new holiday recipes.  After roaming around on allrecipes, I was inspired to try and make my own homemade peppermint bark.  I was very surprised at how easy it was!  Basically, all you need is melting chocolate and peppermint candies.  Mine came out rather thick so its more like peppermint slabs than bark but here is what I used:

Lori's Peppermint Slabs:


Ingredients
  • 12 ounces Baker's Sweet Chocolate
  • 12 ounces vanilla flavored white melting chocolate
  • 8 candy canes, crushed
Directions:

  • Carefully melt Baker's Sweet chocolate over a double boiler, stirring frequently
  • Meanwhile, line an 8 inch round cake pan with parchment paper and place some heavy objects in it to weigh it down and force the parchment paper in place
  • Once all the chocolate is melted and looks smooth, remove from heat and pour into prepared cake pan
  • While chocolate layer is setting, melt the white chocolate in the same way over a double boiler
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  • Meanwhile, place the 8 candy canes (unwrapped) in a plastic bag and crush them (I used the flat side of a meat tenderizer)
  • Sift the contents of the plastic bag so as to separate the bigger candy cane "chunks" from the "dust."
  • Once the white chocolate is melted and smooth, remove from heat and mix in the larger candy cane pieces, till the mixture resembles cottage cheese

  • Pour the white chocolate-candy mixture on top of the chocolate layer in the cake pan.  Its best to still have the chocolate layer a little "malleable" (not quite set) so that the white and chocolate layers can blend together a bit so they stick together better.
  • Sprinkle the candy cane "dust" over the top.  This gives the slabs a nice shiny luminescence!
  • Then allow mixture to cool and set (takes about 30 minutes in the refrigerator)
  • Once the mixture is set, remove from pan by lifting up parchment paper, turn over and peel parchment paper off of the bottom (very easy)
  • Next cut the slabs into desired shapes or sizes.  Keeps very well in a cool, dry area for several weeks.

A few side notes.  If you wish to make this thinner and more like a true bark, you could use less chocolate (probably about 8 ounces of both white and regular, versus 12 ounces) or you could use a larger pan, thus requiring a thinner spreading.  Either way, these peppermint treats are delicious and are sure to be a hit at any holiday gathering!  Put them in a cute little Christmas tin with some pretty parchment paper and you've got a great gift!  

Monday, November 14, 2011

Fall Entertaining

I recently hosted a Longaberger party for my mother-in-law.  In case you are not familiar with Longaberger, I will enlighten you!  They are an Ohio based company that specializes in handmade baskets and pottery.  They have great quality products that are both beautiful and functional.  Needless to say, this gave me an opportunity to brush up on my culinary skill and entertaining techniques.  From the picture below you can see we had quite the spread.

If you look closely, pretty much all of the dishes and baskets displayed are Longaberger.  I like their products because they can go right from oven to table.  Notice any other unique elements?  How do you like my pumpkin and squash candles?  A few months ago I was shopping at my local grocery store and stumbled upon the neatest little gadget!

I'm not sure what its called but you can use it to carve perfectly round holes in just about any type of produce to put tea lights in.  In the fall its easy to find lots of small, cheap squash, pumpkins and gourds.  Just put a tea light in them and you have some unique and inexpensive decorations!  

Just a little tip I discovered when I was putting these together, you may have to stuff some foil under the tea light to make it flush with the top of the gourd.

Okay so back to our original picture....notice anything else?  How about a serving bowl?  Or is it a pumpkin? 

As you can see here, I cleaned out a small pumpkin and used it as a serving bowl for my hot spinach and artichoke dip.  The best part?  No clean up...just throw it away when you are done with it!  I used the same concept to form a beautiful vase for some fall berries.

I hope I've given you some fun and easy tips for fall entertaining!