Monday, October 29, 2012

Simple Muffin Tin Meatloaves

We didn't have meatloaf very often when I was growing up, but I still find it to be a nice comfort-food dish.  This recipe can be made with either beef or turkey, I've used turkey for the picture above.  When using turkey, it may be necessary to increase spices, and be careful not to overcook the mini-loaves, since turkey can get dried out easily.

  • 1 Tbsp milk
  • 1 egg white
  • 2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
  • 1/2 lb extra lean ground beef or ground turkey
  • 2 Tbsp dry bread crumbs (any flavour)
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp pepper
  • 1 Tbsp barbecue sauce or ketchup
1.  Preheat oven to 350°F.  In medium bowl, beat milk, egg, and Worcestershire sauce with fork.  Mix in meat, bread crumbs, salt and pepper.  Scoop into ungreased muffin tin.  Brush loaves with barbecue sauce or ketchup.
2.  Bake 20-25 minutes until cooked through.  Let stand 5 minutes.

Robyn's notes:  since I used plain bread crumbs and turkey, I decided to spice it up a bit by adding grated Parmesan cheese and dried basil.  I didn't measure either one, just eyeballed them.  Turned out to be a good thing, the basil especially added good flavour to the finished product.  While the standard side dish for meat loaf is mashed potatoes, we were both in the mood for rice, so had that instead.  I cooked 20 minutes and the loaves were nicely juicy inside.  This is a good meatloaf recipe for when I don't have a lot in the house, since every required ingredient is always on hand.

**** 4 Stars: Very Good. Enjoyed by us both, I will make this frequently

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Small-Batch Frosted Sugar Cookies

I have a weakness for grocery store bakery frosted sugar cookies.  Those fat soft cookies with thick frosting and sprinkles on top?  I'm forever in search of a recipe for homemade sugar cookies that come out like those, and I have yet to find one.  This recipe is not the long-awaited successful completion to that search, but it is a perfectly good recipe, if I do say so myself, so I figure I might as well share it for those who are looking for a simple recipe for whipping up a few thin sugar cookies quickly.

  • 3 Tbsp butter
  • 1/4 C sugar
  • 1/4 tsp vanilla
  • 1/8 tsp almond extract
  • 1 Tbsp mayonnaise
  • 3/4 tsp buttermilk, sour cream, or plain yogurt
  • 1/2 C + 1 rounded Tbsp flour
  • 1/8 tsp baking soda 
1.  Preheat oven to 375°F.  Beat together butter and sugar until light and fluffy.  Stir in flavourings, mayonnaise, and buttermilk; mix.  Stir in flour and baking soda.
2.  Shape dough into teaspoon-sized balls, drop on parchment-lined baking sheet, 2 inches apart.  Flatten slightly with the bottom of a glass that's been dipped in granulated sugar (see notes).
3.  Bake for 9-11 minutes, or until just set.  Do not overbake.  Allow to cool for 1 minute on baking sheet, remove to cooling rack to finish cooling.  Frost when completely cooled.

Yield: 8-10 cookies

Robyn's notes: to flatten the cookies, I used the underside of a 1/4 C measure.  I gently pressed it briefly against one of the dough balls first, then dipped it in granulated sugar, to get the sugar to stick to the measuring cup for flattening all the dough balls.  Another option is to roll the dough balls in sugar and then flatten them, but I didn't want that much sugar on the outside of the cookies.  It would be best to mix the dough in an electric mixer, but since my mixer is here with us and the mixer's beaters are apparently still in storage, that wasn't an option.  I therefore mixed the dough with a fork as fast as my arm would move, to get air into it.

  • 1 C confectioner's sugar
  • 2 Tbsp butter
  • approximately 1 Tbsp + 1-1/2 tsp milk
  • 1/4 tsp vanilla
  • food coloring if desired
1.  In a medium bowl, cream together the confectioners' sugar and butter. Gradually mix in the milk and vanilla with an electric mixer until smooth and stiff, about 5 minutes. Color with food coloring if desired.

Robyn's notes: again, I had to do this by hand, and frosting is never as good when mixed by hand because it's very difficult to get the air in.  It's also exceedingly difficult to cream that much powdered sugar with that little butter by hand.  Add the milk slowly, until you've achieved the desired consistency.  The entire amount may not be needed, and since this makes a very sweet frosting, if you add too much milk it's hard to firm it back up.  Replacing the butter with shortening is an option and might actually be better, but I didn't have any shortening in the house.  

*** 3 Stars: Good. At least one of us liked this enough for me to make it again, but not often 

Monday, October 22, 2012

Peanut Butter Bread Mini Loaf

This is a very simple recipe that produces a bread that's good for snacks or pbj sandwiches.  I've eaten it toasted or not, spread with jelly or honey.  While it's baking the whole house gets a nice smell of peanut butter, but the flavour of the finished loaf is pretty subtle.
  • 1 C flour
  • 2 rounded Tbsp sugar
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp beaten egg
  • 1/2 C milk
  • 1/4 C + 2 Tbsp peanut butter
1.  Preheat oven to 350°F.  In medium bowl, combine flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Add egg, milk and peanut butter; stir just until combined. Pour into greased mini loaf pan (5 1/2 by 3 inches).
2.  Bake for 40-50 minutes, until toothpick inserted near center comes out clean.  Allow to cool 10 minutes in the pan, then remove to a wire rack to finish cooling.  

Robyn's notes: I own steel mini loaf pans, but for households that don't, disposable ones can generally be found in the kitchen supplies aisle of grocery stores (I always keep a few of those on hand for cooking gluten-free breads, so there's no danger of cross-contamination from my regular pans).  As I've said before, I suspect that my oven thermostat is off, so while this took 40 minutes to bake for me, it may take longer for more accurate ovens.  This makes a fairly dense bread, but I still think it has good texture.  It would get a higher star rating if there was more peanut butter flavour, it's just a bit too mild for my taste and adding much more peanut butter would keep it from baking properly.  Chunky peanut butter is an option for those who can have it, I'm not supposed to.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Drop Biscuits

Growing up, my mom had an old recipe for baking powder biscuits that we all loved.  Soft and fluffy and flaky, perfect with jam or honey or even just butter.  I've made the recipe myself a few times, but don't have the recipe available just now. These drop biscuits aren't a replacement for the old cut-out biscuits I love, but they're an easy substitution, especially for a leisurely morning.
  • 2/3 C flour
  • 3/4 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp baking soda
  • 1/8 tsp sugar
  • 1/8 tsp salt
  • 1/3 C buttermilk, cold
  • 2 Tbsp butter, melted and slightly cooled, plus 1 tsp extra for brushing the completed tops
1.  Preheat oven to 450°F.  Line baking sheet with parchment paper.
2.  In medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, sugar, and salt.  In a small bowl, combine chilled buttermilk and melted butter until butter forms small clumps.  Stir buttermilk mixture into flour mixture with a rubber spatula until just combined and dough is pulling away from the sides of the bowl.
3.  Using a greased 1/4 C measure or #16 scoop, drop four mounds of dough onto prepared baking sheet (see notes, below), about 1 1/2 inches apart.  Bake 12-15 minutes until tops are golden brown and crisp, turning pan halfway through baking.
4.  Brush additional melted butter on tops of baked biscuits, transfer to a wire rack, and allow to cool for 5 minutes, serving warm.

Robyn's notes: I used a 1/4 C measure to scoop the dough onto the baking sheet, and got exactly three biscuits.  The original recipe gives a yield of four, so it's up to you whether to scoop the dough into four equal portions or measure out in 1/4 C amounts as instructed.  Be aware that smaller biscuits will cook faster.  These came out slightly dry for my taste, but I strongly suspect that my oven thermostat is wrong and that they were baking at a temperature higher than the oven claimed.  Since I haven't found my oven thermometer in any of the boxes we have here, I can't check it yet.  The biscuits were still good, easy to pull apart and tasty both with jam and just with dabs of butter.  

**** 4 Stars: Very Good. Enjoyed by us both, I will make this frequently

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Queso Blanco

Last Wednesday I leaned over the bed to pull off the fitted sheet for washing, and immediately felt a series of spasms in my lower back.  I have a herniated disc that leads to sciatica, so this is not the first time I've experienced this, it generally happens about once a year.  This time I fell forward onto my face screaming from the pain, which is where I remained until my sweetheart got home and rescued me.  He moved me onto my back in bed with pillows under my knees, and I stayed there until Thursday morning when we went to the ER for stronger pain meds and muscle relaxants.  Monday was the first day I was truly up and moving around, but since it's best for this sort of back problem to keep moving as much as possible, I decided that today I'd make the most basic of cheeses.  Queso blanco is not a melting cheese, but it's good on crackers or bread, sliced and fried, or sprinkled over tacos or refried beans.  Read all my notes at the bottom before beginning, the recipe I followed was not perfect.
  • 1/2 gallon cow's milk (raw or pasteurized is ok, not ultrapasteurized)
  • 1/4 C lime juice (for me this was every drop of 3 limes)
  • salt to taste
1.  Heat milk in a non-aluminum pot on medium-low heat for about 10 minutes (see notes, below) or until it looks like it’s just about to boil. If you have an instant-read thermometer, heat until milk is between 185°F and 190°F.
2.  Pour in lime juice. The curds will separate from the whey and the mixture will begin to look lumpy or grainy.  Simmer for 2-3 minutes.
3.  Pour the pot’s contents into a cheesecloth-lined colander and drain for 2-3 minutes.  Sprinkle curds with salt (see notes, below).  If desired, add herbs, spices, or chopped chiles (about 1/4 C of chopped chiles would be right, or about 1/2 Tbsp of fresh herbs.  Really it's whatever tastes best to you, you'd need to experiment).
4.  Gather curds in the center, tie the cheesecloth’s ends and hang the cloth on the faucet so it can drain for 4 hours or overnight.
5.  Untie cheesecloth, and store cheese in sealed container in the refrigerator.  It will keep as long as the milk would have, so note the expiration date on the milk before disposing of the packaging.

Robyn's notes: I used raw cow's milk because it's easily available, but as mentioned above, pasteurized is fine.  Ultrapasteurized should never be used for making cheese.  The recipe I was following phrased step 1 almost exactly as I've written it here, and since it didn't say whether or not to cover the heating milk, I left it uncovered so I could see better when it was getting close to a boil (I have many thermometers of various types, all are still in storage).  When, after 15 minutes, the milk was just slightly warm to the touch, I put the lid on.  Another 30 minutes later, it still wasn't coming up to a boil and I bumped the burner to a slightly higher heat.  Counting from the time I first turned on the stove, it took 50 minutes to get the milk to the proper temperature, and I've seen other people comment that they had the same experience.  A lot of this will depend on your stove, the size of the pot you use, etc.  Visually for me, the milk quickly got a yellow skin on top, and after all that time tiny bubbles started to form all across the underside of that skin.  When I poured in the lime juice I did give it a quick stir, but didn't agitate it very much.  The entire pot separated without my having to do so.  I only used two thicknesses of cheesecloth over my strainer, and I lost a lot of curds, so in future I'll probably use four thicknesses.  The recipe I followed gave no guidelines as to amount of salt.  It just said it was ok to use more than you normally would, because a lot of the salt will drain out as the cheese dries.  Since I didn't know how much "normal" was, I used about 1/2 tsp.  It was definitely not enough.  As I was draining in the strainer, I scraped the cheesecloth with a spoon in several places to help the whey drain out.  I would recommend not pressing with the back of a spoon, as that will just force the curds through.  The completed recipe worked, but the cheese was completely tasteless.  I've had queso blanco many times, and while it's a mild cheese it does usually have some flavour.  This did not.  Obviously if I'd added herbs, spices, or chiles it would have been different, and I will try that in the future and revise my rating if it improves.  For now I'm being generous in a 3 star rating, as so many of the instructions were vague and the final product tastes like nothing.
*** 3 Stars: Good. At least one of us liked this enough for me to make it again, but not often

Tuesday, September 25, 2012


Generally, if someone told me there was a spider in my kitchen, my response would not be one of joy or excitement.  In our house the eight-legged kind get liberated instead of decimated (unless a cat sees them before I do), and the wire kind shown above get waved happily around like a magic wand. 

A spider is a fairly simple tool, a straight handle with a shallow wire-mesh basket at the end.  It's not a kitchen necessity by any stretch of the imagination, everything it does can be done by other tools, but it's a great addition to your kitchen and it does its jobs better than the other options.  If you're making a holiday wishlist, a spider might be a good thing to include. 

The most common use for a spider is to lift and remove food from hot water or oil.  Those of us who can and preserve can use it for moving blanched vegetables quickly from boiling to cold water.  It's also a great tool for gnocchi and any stuffed pasta, which should ideally be lifted from their cooking liquid instead of being poured into a colander.  Doing the latter can burst delicate pasta or crush gnocchi, while lifting them out individually with the spider is gentle enough to keep this from happening.  Spiders are sometimes referred to as basket skimmers, because they are very useful for skimming foam from stocks and soups.  Additional uses include fishing a bouquet garni or whole bay leaves out of a pot and deep frying foods.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Small-Batch Shortbread Cookies

The cats have been waking us up very early recently, which means that we eat breakfast earlier than usual, then lunch and dinner as well, and at the end of the day I'm wanting to snack on something. A quick cookie dessert generally satisfies that, and the other night I was in the mood for a very simple cookie.  I don't know how I managed to bring a kitchen box that contained cookie cutters but didn't manage to bring one that contained a paring knife, but I do have the former and so used them to make these cookies.  I really like shortbread cookie dough, so I only rolled out and cut the dough twice, eating the remainder raw.  Between that and the fact that I rolled my dough thinner than is traditional (see notes, below), the yield is a little vague.  I suspect that 1/2-inch thick cookies cut to 3"x1" would work out to about 5 cookies.  
  • 6 Tbsp butter, softened
  • 1/4 C sugar
  • 1/4 tsp vanilla
  • 3/4 C + 2 Tbsp flour
  • dash salt (see notes, below)
  • additional sugar
  • 3-4 Tbsp semisweet chocolate morsels
1.  Cream together butter and sugar, add vanilla and mix.  Sift in flour and salt and combine.  Form dough into a flat disc, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate 30 minutes.
2.  Preheat oven to 350°F.  Turn dough onto lightly floured workstation and roll to 1/2 inch thickness.  Use cookie cutters or cut into rectangles 3"x1".  Sprinkle with additional sugar, place on ungreased baking sheet and bake 20-25 minutes.  Allow to cool completely on wire rack.
3.  Once cookies are at room temperature, melt chocolate in the microwave or a double boiler, and drizzle chocolate over half of each cookie until well coated.  Allow to cool.

Yield: 5-8 cookies depending on size

Robyn's notes: the salt measurement should technically be 1/16 tsp.  I used my 1/8 tsp measure and filled it halfway.  This is actually a bit more than I use when a recipe calls for a dash or a pinch, so I like to mention it here.  If using cookie cutters, be sure to either use all one shape or, if using multiple shapes (as I did in the picture above), bake all the cookies of a given shape together.  Size and shape differences can lead to different baking times, and you don't want half the cookies overcooked just to get the other half perfect.  I rolled my dough out to 1/4 inch thick, because that's what I'm used to and I didn't have a recipe in front of me when I was working on this one.  I baked my cookies for 12 minutes at that thickness and they came out perfectly.  In researching various shortbread cookie recipes today, however, I find that the vast majority call for a 1/2-inch thick cookie and a longer baking time.  Whatever works for you.  With this small an amount of chocolate, a microwave is the easiest way to melt it (30 seconds at a time, stirring in between, don't overcook).  We don't have our microwave with us at the moment, so I did it in a double boiler.  I let the chocolate-coated cookies cool on the same wire rack with a sheet of aluminum foil beneath to catch any drippings.   

**** 4 Stars: Very Good. Enjoyed by us both, I will make this frequently

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Small-Batch Peanut Butter Blossoms

Being as far as we now are from the nearest grocery means that if I suddenly have a sweets craving, I have to satisfy it with whatever is in the house, or do without.  So the other day I stood staring into the pantry, waiting for inspiration, when I realized I had all the ingredients on hand for peanut butter cookies.  I looked up the basic cross-hatched pb cookie recipe and discovered that I was wrong and was shy one ingredient.  I did, however, have all the ingredients (except for the Hershey's Kisses) for peanut butter blossoms, and I figured I could just make those, cross-hatch the tops with a fork, and eat them as peanut butter cookies.  Unfortunately, translating the full recipe into a small-batch version was not as straightforward as some other cookie recipes have been, and it took several attempts to get a successful cookie.  In the meantime, we drove into town for something else and I picked up a bag of Hershey's Kisses, on the assumption that I'd eventually get it to work (and I did!). 
  • 2 Tbsp sugar 
  • 2 Tbsp packed brown sugar 
  • 2 Tbsp creamy peanut butter 
  • 1-1/2 Tbsp butter, softened 
  • 1 Tbsp mayonnaise
  • 1/4 C + 2 Tbsp flour 
  • 1/8 rounded tsp baking soda 
  • 1/8 tsp baking powder
  • additional sugar
  • about 10 Hershey's Kisses, unwrapped
1. In medium bowl, mix sugar, brown sugar, peanut butter, butter, and mayonnaise until combined.  Add flour, baking soda, and baking powder, stir until dough forms.  Refrigerate, covered, one hour.
2. Preheat oven to 375°F.  Shape dough into 1-inch balls; roll in additional sugar. Place on ungreased baking sheet, about 2 inches apart.  Bake 8 to 10 minutes or until edges are light golden brown. Immediately press 1 Hershey's Kiss in center of each cookie. Cool on baking sheet 1-2 minutes, then move to cooling rack.

Yield: about 10 cookies

Robyn's notes: I wrote this recipe after moving, and it has therefore only been tested at an elevation of 2,500 feet.  The flour measurement is a little awkward, I know, but I feel this is the best way to write it.  One-third Cup plus 2 teaspoons would be the same measurement, or six Tablespoons.  I think this is just the clearest.  I find the easiest way to roll the dough in sugar is to put a couple Tbsp of sugar into a 1/3 C measure, drop the shaped ball on top, and shake the measuring cup around until the ball has been well coated.  Do not skip the refrigeration step or the dough will not hold together when shaped and the baked cookies will spread and flatten instead of remaining rounded.  

**** 4 Stars: Very Good. Enjoyed by us both, I will make this frequently

Friday, July 27, 2012

Kitchen Basics #2 - Being Fancypants

One of the joys of cooking for two is the chance to be a little more luxurious from time to time.  There are many different levels of luxury, and it's not necessary to try to achieve fancypants status every single night.  Especially if you're a working cook (or in my case, one with very limited energy reserves) it may be hard to find the time, but on your weekend or of you like to have a 'date night' at home, or for special occasions, it's fairly easy to gussy up your meals when there's only two of you.

The easiest way to make a meal more special is by changing the environment it's served in.  Put down a tablecloth or placemats.  If you don't have a tablecloth, as we didn't for a long time, fake it.  Lay a square scarf, bandanna, or shawl down as if it were a cloth (or a rectangular scarf as a tablerunner).  Clean cotton sheets can work as tablecloths for some tables (we have a round cafe table, so it's more challenging).  Unfold a paper napkin completely and place it offset in the center of the table, so that two of the corners are pointing at your plates.  If you're the kind of person who has fabric scraps (I'm a quilter and I sew, so I do), dig through and see if there's a fat quarter worth of material that you wouldn't be heartbroken to get grease on.  Scrapbooker?  Put a square of paper that you don't have plans for in the center of the table, or if you've got two that coordinate, put one under each plate as mats.  If you've got a little extra cash, go buy a tablecloth or some mats.  If you're crafty, make your own.  Quilters and those who sew have a head start here, but all it really takes is straight cutting and sewing a reasonably straight hem.  If you can afford it, it can be fun to have a few tablecloths or placemats that are themed for various holidays.

Whether you go the route of tablecloths/placemats or not, there are additional table changes that can make a real difference.  Have a small centerpiece on your table from time to time.  Fresh flowers are probably the best option, because they'll brighten up that whole section of the house as long as you keep them alive.  Most people usually smile when they walk into a room that has flowers in it.  If you're allergic or have a black thumb even for purchased daisies, grab some silk flowers at the craft store and stick them in a short vase.  Short is the operative word here.  You want to brighten up the table, not make it impossible to carry on a conversation because you can't see each other through foliage.  If you're not particularly clumsy, a couple candles can also make a nice occasional centerpiece, especially sitting on a small mirror.  Have a sense of humor about it.  Fancypants does not mean stuffy.  Why not make a Lego centerpiece?  Or stick a tootsie roll pop bouquet into a favourite mug.  The point is to add colour and interest and change to the table in a way that slows things down and makes you smile.

As often as possible, use napkins.  I've made cloth napkins that match the decor of our eating nook, but we don't always use them, we sometimes just use paper napkins.  The point is to have it there beside the fork, ready to be used.  It completes the table setting.  Which is another note I think is important.  Place the entire table setting.  Even if you know that neither of you will be using a spoon, put the spoons in their proper place on the table anyway.  Sitting down to a set table with a napkin and beverage is a different experience from being handed a plate with a fork on it.  It's not necessary to include salad forks and soup spoons and such, unless you're going all-out and having a Serious FancyPants Dinner with multiple courses.  For a regular meal, the standard place setting should be as shown:

More standard ways to make a meal fancypants are by gussying up the actual food presentation.  Put colour on the plate.  Chicken breast over rice with a cream sauce is just white on white on white.  Use tomato couscous sometimes, or spinach pasta.  Choose a fresh vegetable or fruit side that's orange or yellow, something contrasting the rest of the meal.  If you've got the inclination, grab a couple cheap squeeze bottles (often available, again, at the dollar store) and swirl or dot some sauce on the plate.  It'll make you feel like a restaurant chef and whether it comes out well or not it should make you both smile.  Use garnishes, there's nothing wrong with them if they're edible.  If the budget is tight you can grow a couple small planters in your windowsill (parsley is a good all-purpose garnish for savory and mint for sweet--just don't plant mint directly in the ground unless you know what you're doing, as it has an extensive root system) and snip a couple leaves as needed.  Many flowers are fully edible, as long as you know how they were grown (think about pesticides and sprays used for freshness in cut flowers at stores), including pansies and nasturtiums.  Grate fresh cheese over the top of dishes at the table; pick up a small pepper grinder and add that last seasoning tableside.  If it's something you'd enjoy taking the time with, appetizers or amuse bouches set the tone for a luxurious meal from the start.  If you drink alcohol, wine or cocktails can be a nice addition.  Serve a plated dessert now and then.

From here we move into the parts of a fancypants meal that are some of the bonus aspects of being a small household.  Everything I've written above is easy and relatively cheap regardless of how many people are sitting around the table.  But there are some things that are easier and cheaper when there's just the two of you.

Most of us have sets of dishes.  Whether we bought them, inherited them, received them as gifts, we mostly eat from dishes that have a cohesive look.  But do we have to?  Mix up your dishes.  You don't have to eat off the same plates every night.  Now, I'm a little weird about this, in that I like for all the plates on the table at a time to coordinate.  But even with that being the case, the dishes we use on Monday don't have to be the dishes we use on Tuesday.  Here's where this is great for two-person households: all you have to buy is two plates and you've got a whole new look to your meal.  The dollar store often has dishes in different shapes and colours, so you could either pay $2 to change up one night's table, or conceivably get an entire week's worth of plates for less than $15.  If you really feel like splurging, go to an upscale department store with a china department (or go online).  Since people often have to purchase replacements for broken or chipped fine china, you can buy just two pieces of many designs, instead of a full set.  My grocery store actually sells some dishes, and they have some square bowls that I love, along with those giant leaning spoons that are really appetizer holders.  Thrift stores and garage sales are, of course, also options.  Only needing to get a couple pieces frees up your options and keeps you from needing a second kitchen for storage. 

Having only two people at the table makes it easier to give yourself permission to sometimes try more expensive ingredients in your meals.  When you're cooking a specialty luxury dish, you only have to buy enough to serve two.  Sushi fans will find it much easier to budget for two servings of otoro tuna than for four or six.  Filet Mignon is often sold already portioned for two.  Even such things as specialty nuts, olives, or cheeses are much easier to justify when you only have to buy a small amount.  As a bonus, when you buy just a very small amount of something expensive, if it turns out that you just don't like it, it's not as big of a deal to leave it unfinished and have a slice of pizza instead.  If you're serving 4-6 people, the ingredients for a fancy dish can run you upwards of $50.  When you've put that kind of money into dinner, you're likely to feel that you just have to finish it, no matter what.  If the ingredients for the same fancy dish cost you half as much, you can more easily allow yourself to consider it an unsuccessful experiment.

Many households have very busy schedules.  The more people living in the house, the busier they tend to be.  Lots of people have to contend with multiple work schedules, school schedules, after-school extracurriculars, clubs, errands, appointments, and visiting friends.  This makes arranging dinner more challenging.  When there are two people in the house, managing the time does get simplified quite a bit.  It's easier to plan a nice dinner together from time to time, because there are only two schedules that have to be worked around.  Only having to take into account the time constraints of two people allows dinner to be a more luxurious experience on occasion. 

There are some surprising benefits to taking the time to make a meal a nice occasion, instead of just grabbing some plates and chowing down in front of the tv.  You're much more likely to talk to each other if you're sitting at a table, especially if that table has been fully set and even decorated in some manner.  Talking, having real conversations, is regularly cited as being important for all types of relationships, be they parent-child, friendships, siblings, but especially intimate partners.  Taking the time to sit down to a meal together and talk about your day can have a real lasting effect on the long-term health of your partnership.  Also, give some thought to how quickly you eat when you're at a sit-down restaurant versus a casual meal at home.  You likely eat much faster at home, rushing through the meal to get the dishes out of the way and get on to the next thing you've got planned for the evening, even if that's just tv time.  Slowing down when we eat doesn't just improve our enjoyment of the experience (it tastes better if you let the food touch your tongue, instead of just inhaling it!), but it's good for our physical health.  People who eat slowly and fully chew their food have fewer digestive problems such as gas, reflux, constipation, etc.  It can also be a part of a weight-loss plan, in that you're more likely to eat only as much as you need and stop when you're full if you eat slowly.  The faster you eat, the more likely you are to eat until there's no food left.  Personally, I think life is less stressful overall if you take time as often as possible to just take a break from everything else and sit down and eat a meal with no hurry and no interruptions.  Let the phone ring if someone calls.  Put your napkins in your laps.  Tell a story and laugh at your eating companion's stories.  Do it on a regular basis and it becomes something to look forward to, a moment of calm no matter how hectic things otherwise get. 

One important note about being a little bit fancypants.  If one person is in charge of the meals they either need to tell the other person that they're planning something special for dinner, or they need to do it only to make themselves happy.  One should never spend money and time on elevating a meal experience solely for the praise or appreciation of someone else.  Many of the things I've mentioned are small changes that, taken alone, will make a meal a little bit more fun or a little bit fancier.  They may not be consciously noticed by the person who didn't put the time into them, and that's ok.  On the other side, if many of these things are combined, it could make for a very fancy meal, which might be uncomfortable for an unwarned person who's used to very casual eating.  Be fancypants to the level that is fun for you, and do it because it is fun.  Tell your dining companion that you thought you'd "do things up special tonight".  They may decide to make it even more special and contribute an idea of their own, or they may just grin and go along with it.  Regardless, the point is to have a nice meal together.

The photo at the top of this entry is an example of a very simple fancypants side dish.  I made Parmesan couscous and spooned it into an old heart-shaped mold (which I think was originally for jello), pressing it into all crevices.  Then I turned it out onto the plate and lay a few celery leaves alongside (because I had celery in the fridge.  If I'd had an herb within reach that related to the dish, I'd have used that so the garnish could be eaten), topping the heart with a small amount of grated Parmesan cheese.  The white beneath the blue plate is an old Corningware plate turned facedown.  The whole look took about a minute and a half to achieve, but made my sweetheart smile when he sat down.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Spinach Cucumber Salad with Yogurt Dressing

I don't really like to buy salad dressing unless I'm using it to cook with.  I'd much rather make my own, as it's fresher and can be made in small amounts as needed.
  • 1/2 Tbsp lemon juice
  • 1/4 tsp honey
  • 1 Tbsp plain yogurt
  • 1 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1/2 Tbsp fresh mint, chopped
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 2 C baby spinach leaves
  • 1/2 cucumber, peeled, seeded, and halved lengthwise (see notes, below)
  • few slices red onion
1. Whisk the lemon juice and honey in a bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk the yogurt and olive oil together. Add the yogurt mixture to the lemon juice mixture in a thin stream, whisking constantly. Stir in mint, then add the salt and pepper to taste. Cover and chill the dressing for up to 24 hours.
2.  Combine the spinach, cucumbers and onion in a large bowl. Season with a little salt and pepper if desired. Add just enough dressing to moisten the salad. Toss to coat, and serve with extra dressing on the side.

Robyn's notes: My sweetheart prefers that I not peel or seed cucumber, as lots of nutrition is lost in disposing of the peel, so I just wash it well and slice it into half-coins.  This is a side salad, not an entree salad, and was made to use leftover cucumber, red onion, and yogurt from recent meals.  I can't eat spinach, cucumber, or red onion, so I can only go by his opinion, which was that this was "fine".  Dressing smelled nice, I can say that!  

*** 3 Stars: Good. At least one of us liked this enough for me to make it again, but not often

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Cookbook Review: Diabetes and Heart-Healthy Meals for Two

Author: American Heart Association and American Diabetes Association
Published: 2008 by The American Heart Association Consumer Publications
Available for Purchase: Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powell's

Neither of us is diabetic, nor do we have heart problems, but I think the best way to keep those statements true is be careful before issues start.

There are more than 170 recipes in the book, in the following categories: Appetizers, Snacks, Beverages; Soups; Salads; Seafood; Poultry; Meats; Vegetarian Entrees; Vegetables and Side Dishes; Breads and Breakfast Dishes; Desserts.  There is a very short (6 pages) introduction on making healthy food choices, and a double index that isn't fantastic because it lists the recipes first by name, then by "subject", and many of the subjects are the same as the chapter headings.  It's just as easy for me to go to the first page of the poultry chapter and look at the recipe list that's printed at the start of the chapter with page numbers, as it is for me to go to the index, find the poultry section of the index, and look at that list of recipes.  If the index were sorted more specifically, for example chicken vs turkey, that would be more useful.  There are a few pictures in the center of the book, all in full colour, showing a total of 15 recipes.

Lots of recipes that look tasty, good nutritional information, and real "for two" recipes, none of that "freeze leftovers" nonsense that some small-yield cookbooks try. A couple recipes do call for "half a can" of diced tomatoes or whatever, which is frustrating, but most either use all of an ingredient or explain how you can purchase just half to begin with. There are a surprising number of processed ingredients in some of the recipes, and in order to make the nutritional analysis accurate you have to be careful to note that most of the ingredients required are "fat-free" or "low fat" or "low sodium" versions.

I've cooked from the book on several occasions, and have had good luck with everything I've tried, but for one soup that was far too heavily spiced. The dishes are good, filling, and the recipes are complete and easy to follow. Nothing so far has felt as if we're eating "light", there's no flavour lacking.  Admittedly, I sometimes use a recipe but don't get the "fat-free" sour cream that it calls for, but mostly I follow their guidelines. 

The vast majority of the entrees are in the 200-300 calorie range (some fall below that, a few go as high as 450 calories), and the sodium levels are generally amazingly low.  There are a lot of options, and recently this has been a cookbook that I find myself checking fairly often.  It's nice to have a good meal that is also relatively good for us. 

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Small-Batch Oatmeal Scotchies

After successfully writing and testing my recipe for Small-Batch Chocolate Chip Cookies, I decided to turn the same technique to other cookies.  I love Oatmeal Scotchies, but the recipe makes so many!  Fortunately, the egg and butter ratio could be modified in a fairly straightforward manner, so I'm pleased to have successfully written the below recipe. In the Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe, I used vanilla sugar to counteract any tang from the acid that's in mayonnaise.  I use regular sugar in this recipe, partly because I doubt the vanilla sugar is strictly necessary in either recipe, but mostly because a common ingredient in some butterscotch-oatmeal cookies is a bit of citrus (usually orange zest), so the tiny bit of lemon juice usually found in mayonnaise won't be an issue flavour-wise. 
  • 2 Tbsp butter, softened
  • 3 Tbsp sugar
  • 3 Tbsp packed brown sugar
  • 1/4 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp mayonnaise
  • 1/3 C flour
  • 1/4 tsp baking soda
  • 1/8 tsp salt
  • 1/8 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 3/4 C quick or old-fashioned oats
  • 1/3 C butterscotch flavored morsels
1.  Preheat oven to 375°F.  In a medium bowl, cream together butter, sugar, and brown sugar until combined.  Stir in vanilla and mayonnaise until blended.
2.  Sift together flour, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon, add to butter mixture and stir until combined.  Stir in oats and morsels.
3.  Drop dough onto baking sheet in rounded spoonfuls.  Bake for 8-10 minutes or until cookies are beginning to brown at the edges.  Allow to cool for 2 minutes on the baking sheet.  Remove to wire rack to cool completely.

Yield: 8 medium-sized cookies

Robyn's notes: I made this twice, and the first time refrigerated the dough for an hour because I was in the middle of doing other things and wasn't ready to bake it yet.  That's not at all necessary, but it certainly doesn't hurt anything, just makes it a bit more difficult to form the dough into balls.  It will seem like there is far too much oat compared to dough when you start to mix in the oats, but stick with it and be sure to scrape your spoon, a lot of dough tries to hide in it.  Same with the butterscotch chips, there seems to be too many, but they can all be combined, even if it means pressing the stragglers into the dough balls before placing them on a cookie sheet.  The first four cookies I baked for 8 minutes, the second four for 10.  Not much difference between the two, and neither batch flattened much while baking, though they certainly baked through and I think they're delicious.  Just be aware that the cookies may not look cooked through if they've not flattened, but they actually are.  If you want flat cookies, make them small, the littlest cookies I made did flatten out during baking, but they were about 1 1/2 inches in diameter.  Oatmeal Scotchies are some of my favourite cookies, so I'm very happy that these came out.  I have also made this recipe at high altitude, successfully, with no changes.  Several friends had them and all loved them.  

**** 4 Stars: Very Good. Enjoyed by us both, I will make this frequently  

Monday, July 23, 2012

Luleh Kebabs with Yogurt-Cucumber Sauce

As far as I can determine, Luleh Kebabs are an Armenian dish (though some others claim them, mostly people of various Persian descents).  Traditionally, they would be made with ground lamb, but as I didn't get this recipe from a traditional source, ground beef has been substituted.  This is an American Heart Association/American Diabetes Association approved dish.

Yogurt-Cucumber Sauce

  • 1/4 C fat-free plain yogurt
  • 2 Tbsp finely chopped, peeled, and seeded cucumber
  • 1/8 tsp dried dillweed, crumbled
  • dash of pepper
  •  8 oz extra-lean ground beef
  • 2 Tbsp finely chopped onion
  • 2 Tbsp snipped fresh parsley
  • 1/4 tsp ground coriander
  • 1/4 tsp ground cumin
  • 1/8 tsp garlic powder
  • 1/8 tsp salt
1.  In a small bowl, stir together the sauce ingredients.  Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve.
2.  Preheat the broiler.  In a medium bowl, using hands or a large spoon, combine the kebab ingredients.  Using hands, shape the mixture into two 6x1 1/2-inch logs.  Insert skewers into the center of the logs.  (Or shape the mixture into two oblong patties about 3/4 inch thick.)  Place on broiler sheet.
3.  Broil 4 to 5 inches from the heat for 4 to 5 minutes on each side, or until no longer pink in the center (internal temp should be 160°F).  Serve with the sauce.

Robyn's notes: these were fine, not exciting for me because there are so many parts of this that I'm not able to eat (cucumber, onion, only supposed to have ground beef once each month).  I tasted the sauce and it was interesting, very strong taste of the cucumber, which made it light and fresh.  The kebab was juicy all through, and I admit I ended up eating mine with some ketchup since I couldn't have the sauce.  Needs a side dish of some sort, since each person only gets one kebab it feels like you're not getting much to eat, even though it's a full serving.  For snipping the parsley, the easiest way is to use kitchen shears, hold the leaves in a tight bunch between your fingers, and carefully snip, avoiding injuring yourself.

*** 3 Stars: Good. At least one of us liked this enough for me to make it again, but not often

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Cinnamon Apple Bagels

I love bagels for breakfast.  When I lived in Arizona, every Saturday morning when I got home from work (my Friday night shift ended at 7am Saturday morning), we'd load the dog into the car and head for the Bark Park, to give him a chance to run around and socialize with other dogs.  On the way, we'd stop at Einstein Brothers Bagels.  I'd get a plain with plain shmear (restrictions, sigh) and a hot chocolate.  Einstein Brothers knew us, and always threw in a free doggie bagel--bagels that fell on the floor would be wiped off and then cooked near to burnt for dogs.  Usually I'm too tired in the mornings to get fancy with my bagels, and I still have a plain with plain cream cheese.  Sometimes, though, I like to do a little something more.  No measurements on this, because much of it will depend on individual tastes.

1.  Split and toast two bagels, plain or whatever flavour is preferred (cinnamon or raisin are good options).  Allow to cool until easily held.
2.  Shmear cut sides with cream cheese to achieve preferred consistency (I like a lot of cream cheese on my bagel, my sweetheart prefers a thin spread).  Top with thin slices of apple (I usually go with Golden Delicious, you'll want an "eating apple", not a baking apple, that's juicy).  Sprinkle with brown sugar and cinnamon.

Robyn's notes:  that's all there is to it!  The cinnamon won't impart a lot of actual taste, but every time you bring the bagel to your mouth you'll smell the cinnamon, and that makes for an entirely different experience than if you leave it out.  The juicy apple with the thick bagel bread is a winner in my mind.  I'm not allowed to eat the peel, so I have to peel my apples, but since that's where a lot of the nutrition is, I recommend leaving it on if you can.

*** 3 Stars: Good. At least one of us liked this enough for me to make it again, but not often

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Chicken Tikka Masala

Whenever I go to an Indian restaurant that serves chicken tikka, I'm always grateful.  It's not really an Indian dish, after all, it's a British dish, so I'm glad it's made the transition here to the States, no matter what menus it ends up on.  If you can make your own garam masala mix, that's always best, but it's fine to grab one from the grocery.  Be aware that results will be different based on what specific spices are included in the garam masala mix you use.  Plan ahead, this includes a marinade.
  • 1/2 C plain yogurt
  • 1/2 Tbsp lemon juice
  • 2 1/2 tsp garam masala
  • 1/2 Tbsp minced fresh ginger
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 2 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves, cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 1 Tbsp butter
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 2 tsp paprika
  • 3 tsp garam masala
  • dash cayenne
  • 1/4 tsp salt (or to taste)
  • 8 oz can tomato sauce
  • 1 C heavy cream
1.  Combine yogurt, lemon juice, 2 1/2 tsp garam masala, ginger, and 1/4 tsp salt in a ziploc bag.  Add chicken, coating completely, seal, and marinate in refrigerator for at least 1 hour.
2.  Melt butter in large skillet over medium heat, add garlic and saute for 1 minute.  Add paprika, 3 tsp garam masala, cayenne, 1/4 tsp salt, and blend.  Carefully stir in tomato sauce and heavy cream.  Simmer uncovered on low heat until thickened, approximately 20 minutes.
3.  Meanwhile, place chicken on broiler pan, discard marinade.  Broil 3-4 inches from heat for 8-10 minutes, turning once halfway through cooking.  Add cooked chicken to thickened sauce and simmer 10 more minutes, stirring occasionally.  Serve over rice.

Robyn's notes: this was fairly spicy, but I'm sensitive to spice.  The garam masala I was using (I was lazy this time and used a pre-made mix) contained black pepper, cardamom, cumin, cinnamon, coriander, "and other spices".  I would have added black pepper and cumin separately if they had not been included in the mix.  Although we enjoyed this, it was a bit too spicy for our tastes, so I'm not likely to make it often.  

*** 3 Stars: Good. At least one of us liked this enough for me to make it again, but not often

Garam Masala

Garama masala is a blend of toasted ground spices used in South Asian cuisine, most especially in Northern India.  As is the case with curry powder, different brands will have different amounts of the spices, and sometimes other spices added. 

Many garam masalas will include black pepper, cinnamon, cumin, cloves, cardamom, and sometimes coriander.  Because these spices quickly lose their aroma and strength once ground, it is best and most effective to use whole spices and create the mix as needed.  In this case, the spices are toasted first, then ground together.  Sometimes a liquid is added to make a paste.  Bay leaves, nutmeg, garlic, or onion may be included.  In store-bought garam masala, there is often a higher proportion of less expensive spices, sometimes including ground ginger and dried garlic.

The pre-made garam masala I have on hand includes coriander, black pepper, cumin, cardamom, and cinnamon. 

GF - because garam masala is not a single spice, there is a very slight possibility of gluten in some brands. The McCormick company is very dependable on this subject and does not hide wheat on their labels (if it's there, it'll say "wheat", not "natural flavours"). At the time of this writing, McCormick garam masala is gluten-free, as are the vast majority of brands (I've yet to find one that isn't).

Monday, July 16, 2012

Zoku Fudgsicles

I don't think there's a part of the country that hasn't been suffering from the heat these past few weeks.  Personally, having lived in Arizona and in the Southern CA Low Desert, I'm just grateful to have air conditioning and not be looking at brown-outs on 110°F days.  But I have been using my Zoku quite a bit, mostly for simple juice pops.  I'd tried a Zoku-branded recipe for fudgsicles once before and wasn't happy with the results, so I'm pleased to say that this recipe seems to work great.
  • 2 oz bittersweet chocolate, chopped
  • 2/3 C heavy cream
  • 1/4 C whole milk
  • 1/2 Tbsp cocoa powder
  • 1/2 Tbsp vanilla
1.  Place the chocolate in a medium-sized glass bowl, and set aside.
2.  In a medium saucepan, combine cream, milk, and cocoa powder over medium-high heat, whisking constantly.  Bring to a simmer.  Remove from heat and pour mixture over chocolate.  Let sit for 2 minutes without stirring.
3.  Whisk together until chocolate is melted, whisk in vanilla.  Refrigerate until cool.
4.  Stir cooled sauce to re-combine.  Insert stick into mold, pour sauce into prepared Zoku, and let stand until frozen, 10-12 minutes.

Yield: 3 Zoku pops

Robyn's notes: the texture of these is exactly what I look for in a fudgsicle.  Remove from Zoku slowly, the soft consistency wants to stick.  It'll be fine if removed gently but will be a disaster if you force it.  I also thought these were great with some banana coins in the mold first.  Does not store well, I had some leftover in the fridge overnight and it had thickened to a point the following day that I had to defrost the Zoku to get the popsicle out (and I'd stirred it a lot before pouring it in the mold).

*** 3 Stars: Good. At least one of us liked this enough for me to make it again, but not often

Friday, July 13, 2012

Small-Batch Chocolate Chip Cookies

One of the challenges with reducing baked goods, especially cookie recipes, is that there's only so far you can reduce them before you're dealing with the ridiculousness that is parts of an egg.  There are ways to address this, and I've used them all.  One-and-one-half Tablespoons of beaten egg will often work for half an egg.  Some recipes choose to use just the yolk.  There's always the use of egg substitute (Egg Beaters being the most recognizable brand name).  And I've got a few recipes that call for a quail's egg instead of a chicken egg, as they're much smaller.  All of these options have their drawbacks.  Using part of a beaten egg means either throwing away the rest or whipping up a partial-serving scrambled egg snack, because it won't last long safely in the fridge (2 days max).  Using just the yolk often makes the final dish taste too eggy and means quickly (within 2 days) finding a use for the white or, again, throwing it away.  Egg substitute is another thing to purchase and have on hand (must be used within 7 days of opening the carton), and to be honest I'm not entirely happy about the product.  They are 99% egg white, with beta carotene for colour and vitamins and minerals added back in, but the manufacturers choose not to disclose how that's done.  And as for quail's eggs, yes, they happen to be available in my town, but they certainly aren't available everywhere, they're more expensive, and the shells are more gelatinous, which not only makes them more difficult to crack but can change the consistency of the white. 

The thing is, we love cookie dough and we even occasionally like to bake chocolate chip cookies.  But if I make an entire batch, or even a half batch, of cookie dough, it'll be gone within 2 days.  We don't even notice we're dipping into it until we're looking at an empty bowl.  And more than 2 dozen cookies is far too many for the two of us.  So I wrote this recipe to solve the problem.
  • 2 Tbsp butter, softened
  • 3 Tbsp vanilla sugar
  • 3 Tbsp brown sugar, packed
  • 1/4 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp mayonnaise
  • 1/2 C + 1 Tbsp flour
  • 1/4 tsp baking soda
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/2 C semisweet chocolate chips
1.  In a medium bowl, cream together butter, vanilla sugar, and brown sugar until combined.  Stir in vanilla and mayonnaise until blended.
2.  Sift together flour, baking soda, and salt, add to butter mixture and stir until combined.  Stir in chocolate chips.
3.  Refrigerate, covered, for 1 hour.
4.  Preheat oven to 375°F.  Drop dough onto baking sheet in rounded spoonfuls.  Bake for 9-11 minutes or until cookies are beginning to brown at the edges.  Allow to cool for 2 minutes on the baking sheet.  Remove to wire rack to cool completely.

Yield: 8 medium sized cookies (3-inch diameter) or 1 dozen small cookies (2-inch diameter)

Robyn's notes: I'm calling for vanilla sugar instead of regular granulated in order to counteract the slight tang of the mayonnaise.  It is not strictly necessary, I have made the recipe several times with regular sugar.  I did test baked directly on the baking sheet, with parchment paper, and with aluminum foil.  The aluminum foil made for a flatter cookie that I found too crunchy for my taste.  If you like a really crunchy cookie that may be the way to go.  The other two options had no discernible difference, so I'm saving the parchment paper and saying to use just a regular baking sheet.  It was a bit difficult to get all the chocolate chips mixed in, as the dough is not very sticky, so I just forced the stragglers into each ball of dough when I loaded up the baking sheet.  Based on the relative humidity on a given day, the dough may be dry and crumbly (happens about 40% of the time to me), in which case I simply add a very small amount of milk (about 1 tsp is enough) before adding chocolate chips, and mix well.  I find that these cookies have a crispy exterior and soft inside.  There is no trace of mayonnaise flavour, either in the baked cookies or in the dough.  As hard as it is, the cookies are best after 8 hours of resting in a sealed ziploc bag.  I have also made these successfully at high altitude with no changes.   

This recipe has been demonstrated on my YouTube channel!

**** 4 Stars: Very Good. Enjoyed by us both, I will make this frequently

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Icebox Cookies

This is the base for multiple cookie recipes, read through all notes before beginning.
  • 1/4 C butter, at room temperature
  • 2 Tbsp sugar
  • 7 Tbsp flour
  • 2 Tbsp + 2 tsp cornstarch
  • pinch salt (see notes, below)
1.  Cream and stir butter and sugar together with a fork until light.  Add flour, cornstarch, and salt and mix until just combined.
2.  Add mix-ins to dough, stirring well to combine (see notes, below).  Shape dough into a log about 1 1/2 inches thick.  Wrap in plastic or waxed paper and refrigerate at least 2 hours before slicing or baking them (or freeze for up to 8 weeks).
3.  Preheat oven to 325.  Line cookie sheet with parchment or silicone liner.
4.  Unwrap log and slice cookie dough into rounds about 1/4 inch thick.  Place rounds on lined cookie sheet and bake until edges of cookies are just slightly browned, 20-25 minutes. 

Robyn's notes: this dough makes very crisp cookies, because of the cornstarch.  For the salt, it should be 1/16 tsp, I used my 1/8 tsp measuring spoon and filled it halfway.  The photo above shows the entire batch, so it's a good recipe for making just a few cookies for two people.  The dough is intended as a base for multiple mix-in options, and I didn't use any of them.  I added 1/2 tsp vanilla to the dough, then flattened it into a 1/4 inch-thick disc, wrapped it in plastic, and refrigerated it for 2 hours.  I then lay it out on the counter and cut out the four stars.  The remaining bits of dough I rolled into balls about an inch thick, and rolled them in sugar that I'd dyed with food colouring.  I placed the balls onto the parchment-lined cookie sheet and flattened them with the back of a metal spatula.  The stars were placed onto the cookie sheet and sprinkled with leftover coloured sugar.  I then baked them for the given time.  The cookies came out only ok, not enough flavour.  We ended up frosting them with leftover frosting from the cupcakes I'd also made, and that was good.  I will try the recipe again with other mix-ins and may increase the star rating depending on how it turns out.  To do the recipe properly, here are suggested mix-ins (use only one):  
1 1/2 tsp finely chopped lemon thyme  OR
1 tsp citrus zest + 1/4 tsp orange flower water OR 
1/2 tsp cinnamon + pinch each of ground cloves & nutmeg + 2 Tbsp toasted chopped walnuts or pecans OR
1/2 tsp vanilla + 1/4 C unsweetened shredded coconut

*** 3 Stars: Good. At least one of us liked this enough for me to make it again, but not often

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Simple Cupcakes to Share (Or Not!)

Since this recipe makes four cupcakes, there's enough to share with company if you're having a couple people over, or to keep all to yourselves and have the other two the next day.
  • 1/4 C buttermilk
  • 1/8 tsp baking soda
  • yolk of 1 large egg, at room temperature
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/2 C flour
  • 1/4 C + 2 Tbsp sugar
  • 1/8 tsp salt
  • 2 Tbsp butter
1.  Preheat oven to 350°F.  Fit paper liners into 4 cups of standard muffin pan, set aside.
2.  Combine buttermilk and baking soda in small bowl, stirring to mix.  Gently whisk in egg yolk and vanilla.
3.  Place flour, sugar, and salt in medium mixing bowl, stirring to combine.  Add butter and half of buttermilk mixture.  Beat on low speed until dry ingredients are moistened.  Increase to medium speed and beat until mixture is lightened and has slightly increased in volume, about 45 seconds.  Scrape down sides of bowl as needed.  Pour in remaining buttermilk mixture and beat on medium speed until well blended, 20 seconds.
4.  Spoon batter into prepared muffin cups, dividing evenly.  Fill empty muffin cups halfway with water to protect pan.  Bake cupcakes 20-23 minutes, until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean and tops are just beginning to brown.
5.  Remove pan from oven and cool on wire rack for 10 minutes.  Remove cupcakes from pan and transfer to wire rack to finish cooling.  Frost as desired.

Robyn's notes: I found these to be a little bit eggy, and not as light as I would have liked, but still quite good.  For frosting, I used store-bought vanilla frosting in a canister because I was very tired.  I split the frosting into thirds, adding red gel food colouring to one bowl, blue gel food colouring to another, and leaving the last white.  I placed a large star tip into a piping bag (I actually had to use two bags, so ended up using a #20 tip and a #35 tip) and then spooned red frosting into one side of the bag, white into the center, and blue to the other side.  It was not easy, as can be seen by my results in the photo above.  The first cupcake I frosted was just getting white and nothing else, until finally the red and blue made their way to the tip.  The second cupcake (front left in photo) came out the best, but after finishing it and adding some colour to the first (back left in photo), I was out of frosting in that bag and had to fill another.  For that bag, the red came out great but the blue was hanging out at the top of the bag, not reaching the piping tip.  I think some practice would be good.  For this situation I'm happy with what I got, and doing it a few more times would help me figure out how best to load the piping bags.

*** 3 Stars: Good. At least one of us liked this enough for me to make it again, but not often

Monday, July 9, 2012

Blueberry Upside-Down Cakes

Mostly I wanted something to do with the blueberries that I had on hand, and something that could be made visually patriotic for the 4th of July.  I used two mini cake pans, and since they're very nonstick I didn't grease or flour them.  I did line the bottoms with parchment paper, however, as not doing so seemed like it would be pushing my luck a little bit.
  • 1/2 C fresh or thawed frozen blueberries
  • 1/3 C + 1 tsp sugar, divided
  • 1/4 C buttermilk
  • yolk of 1 large egg
  • 1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
  • 1/3 C flour
  • 1/8 tsp baking soda
  • 1/8 tsp salt
  • 2 Tbsp butter, at room temperature
1.  Preheat oven to 375°F.  Place jumbo muffin pan (3/4 C capacity) or mini cake pan on a piece of parchment paper and, using a pencil, trace around the bottom of one of the cups.  Cut out 4 parchment paper rounds to this measurement.
2.  Grease and lightly flour 2 muffin cups or mini cake pans if needed.  Fit 2 of the parchment rounds into each of the prepared pans, making a double layer.
3.  Place the blueberries and 1 tsp of the sugar in a small bowl, stir to mix.  Spoon the berries into the prepared pans, dividing evenly.  Set pans aside.
4.  Place buttermilk, egg yolk, and vanilla in a small bowl and whisk to mix.
5.  Sift flour, baking soda, and salt into a medium mixing bowl; add remaining 1/3 C sugar and whisk to combine.  Add butter and half of the buttermilk mixture.  Beat with electric mixer on low speed until dry ingredients are moistened.  Increase speed to medium and beat until batter is lightened and has slightly increased in volume, about 45 seconds.  Scrape down sides of bowl as needed.  Pour in remaining buttermilk mixture and beat on medium until well blended, about 20 seconds.
6.  Spoon batter over blueberries in pans, dividing evenly, and smooth tops.  If using a muffin pan, fill empty cups halfway with water to protect the pan.  Bake cakes at 375°F for 20-24 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center of one comes out clean.
7.  Remove from oven and place pans on wire rack to cool for 5 minutes.  If using a muffin pan, carefully pour water out of extra cups.  Carefully invert pans on large plate to release cake (if necessary, carefully run a knife around the edge of the cake to help it detach).  Peel off and discard parchment paper.  Serve warm.

Vanilla Creme Fraiche
  • 1/4 C premium-quality vanilla bean ice cream, softened
  • 3 Tbsp creme fraiche or sour cream
1.  Place soft ice cream and creme fraiche in a small bowl, whisk just to mix.  Serve immediately.

Robyn's notes: Cakes were served with Vanilla Creme Fraiche and Raspberry Curd.  This was only ok, mostly because I'm not supposed to eat blueberries, they make me fairly ill, so I just tasted a few bites.  He enjoyed it, but not worth raving over.  The vanilla creme fraiche was not worth making again.  The flavour of the ice cream was totally lost, so it was like eating completely liquified creme fraiche.  

*** 3 Stars: Good. At least one of us liked this enough for me to make it again, but not often

Friday, July 6, 2012

B's Chicken

When I was growing up, my sister and I were both Camp Fire Girls.  Each of our clubs did various events that involved food, and often we'd end up with "family recipes" from the families of other club members.  This is the reduced version of a recipe that a girl from my sister's club--who went by "B", short for Beatrice--wrote when she was 8 or 9.  I'm sure there's a written version of it with measurements somewhere, but we've been making it so long that we just do it without bothering with any of that anymore.  Since I used up about 3 days of energy baking for the 4th of July, I needed something simple that didn't ask too much of me, and this recipe was happy to step up.

  • 2 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves, pounded to 1/4 inch thickness
  • 2 Tbsp flour
  • 2 Tbsp milk
  • 2 Tbsp Italian-style breadcrumbs (see notes, below)
1.  Place flour, milk, and breadcrumbs into three separate shallow bowls or pie tins.  In a medium skillet, heat just enough oil to cover bottom of pan over medium-high heat.
2.  Dredge both sides of chicken first in flour, tapping off excess, then in milk, finally in breadcrumbs.  Gently place chicken in oil, and cook over medium-high heat 3-4 minutes.  Turn chicken over and cook another 3-4 minutes, or until juices run clear and chicken is no longer pink in the middle.

Robyn's notes: it is very easy to overcook or even to burn this chicken, because it goes so quickly, so do not raise the heat to high or you will have a blackened crust.  I sometimes take the lazy way out (I did in this case) and buy "thin-sliced" breast fillets at the grocery.  Since the regular chicken breasts available at the store these days are around 6 oz each (which is two servings), buying thin-sliced helps us not eat twice as much as we should.  Another option if not in the mood to pound chicken between sheets of plastic wrap is to cut the chicken into small nuggets.  The only store-bought breadcrumbs I ever have on hand (other than panko) are Italian-style.  If you have plain breadcrumbs, sprinkle in a bit of Parmesan cheese (about a tsp) and dried Italian herbs (about a tsp) and mix well.  Be careful gripping the chicken to turn it in the pan, the coating will slide off if it's pinched too hard.

**** 4 Stars: Very Good. Enjoyed by us both, I will make this frequently

Patriotic Fruit Skewers

This probably doesn't need a recipe, just an explanation and closer photo than the one I posted on July 4th.

On each toothpick a raspberry, banana coin, and blueberry, in that order.  As a dipping sauce, Honey Cream Fruit Dip.  Make as many skewers as needed for the appetites of the eaters.

Only gets three stars because I'm not supposed to eat blueberries, they make me somewhat ill, so I'm not able to enjoy it much.

*** 3 Stars: Good. At least one of us liked this enough for me to make it again, but not often

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Cold-Oven Quarter-Pound Cake

America's Test Kitchen is cooking their way through the 20th century this summer, one week per decade.  They've invited readers to participate by making the provided recipes and then submitting a photo of themselves with the finished product.  The first week is titled Cook Like it's 1905! and as soon as I saw the recipe I knew I'd be making it and then figuring out a smaller version.  Everything it called for was already in the house, and I'd recently picked up a couple of mini tube pans using a gift card from my sister.  As you can read at the above link, at the turn of the previous century homeowners were distrustful of the new gas ovens and unlikely to buy them.  As a selling point, manufacturers marketed the gas oven as a time-saver: no pre-heating necessary!  The America's Test Kitchen Cold-Oven Pound Cake Recipe that is the first challenge is formulated for an oven that's cold when you put the pan in, and so my reduced version is as well.  I used two mini tube pans for this, and while I can't guarantee success with another pan, I suspect that two mini cake pans would work as well, because the mini tube pans don't actually have a tube running all the way through, just a divot.  Since my pans are nonstick, they needed no greasing or flouring.  If not using a nonstick pan, be sure to do both!
  • 3/4 C cake flour
  • 1/8 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/4 C whole milk
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 5 Tbsp butter, softened
  • 1/2 C + 2 Tbsp sugar
  • 1 egg + 1 1/2 Tbsp beaten egg
1.  Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position.  Combine flour, baking powder, and salt in bowl.  Whisk milk and vanilla in measuring cup.
2.  With electric mixer on medium speed, beat butter and sugar until fluffy.  Beat in whole egg, then remaining egg, until combined.  Reduce speed to low and add flour mixture in 3 additions, alternating with 2 additions of milk mixture.  Mix on low until smooth, about 30 seconds.  Use rubber spatula to give batter a final stir.
3.  Divide batter between two mini tube pans and smooth tops.  Place cakes in cold oven.  Adjust oven temperature to 325°F and bake, without opening oven door, until cakes are golden brown at the edges and toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, 38-42 minutes.  
4.  Cool cakes in pans for 15 minutes, then turn out onto rack.  Cool completely.  Serve.  (Cooled cakes can be stored in airtight container at room temperature for up to 2 days.)

I served with a drizzle of Raspberry Curd and some raspberries.

Robyn's notes: Unfortunately I was not at all pleased with the results of the full-size contest cake.  Since it makes so many servings, I waited until my folks came by, so they could help us eat it.  This means my mom was around to watch me make the cake, and she confirmed that I followed that recipe to the letter.  The final cake had good flavour but was the most solid and dense cake I have ever eaten in my life.  I lifted a corner of the cooled cake off the plate and when I dropped it you could actually feel the reverberations in the table.  As we brainstormed what the problem may have been, we finally thought to take a look at my baking powder.  Sure enough, it was a year out of date.  My guess is that since the rise is relying on baking powder, mine being old (has now been tossed and replaced) kept it from happening properly.  

As for my version, it is again a much denser cake than I would like, as I made it the same day and using the same baking powder.  Because it's small, that outcome of my version is more acceptable to me than the full cake.  The density is not as noticeable because it's a smaller proportion of cake that feels heavy.  I feel confident that when I try this again with fresh baking powder it'll be more successful.  Yes, this does need to be done with an electric mixer, otherwise it'll be nearly impossible to get enough air beaten into the batter.  Even though I'm one of those people who never sift if I can get away with not, I sifted my cake flour before measuring it because it had been in a drawer for so long that it was really clumpy.  The one-and-a-half Tablespoons beaten egg is the equivalent of half a large egg.     

*** 3 Stars: Good. At least one of us liked this enough for me to make it again, but not often

Raspberry Curd

  • 2 oz raspberries
  • 1/4 C + 1 Tbsp sugar
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • 2 Tbsp butter
  • 1 Tbsp lime juice
  • tiny pinch salt
1.  Whisk all ingredients in a heatproof bowl set over a pan of simmering water until slightly thick. Strain; refrigerate until cold and thick.

Robyn's notes: lemon juice is also ok, I had half a lime needing to be used.  I served this over my Cold-Oven Quarter Pound Cakes and used it for an additional topping with Blueberry Upside-Down Cakes.

*** 3 Stars: Good. At least one of us liked this enough for me to make it again, but not often

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Happy Independence Day!

Recipes on another day, we're busy having our 4th of July celebration!

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Cookbook Review: Essentials of Cooking

Author: James Peterson
Published: 1999 by Artisan, my copy--with the cover shown above--published 2003
Available for Purchase: Amazon, Powell's, Barnes and Noble

This is a departure from the cookbooks I usually purchase, as it's not a specifically "cooking for two" or small-yield book, and it's not really even a cookbook.  Truly, it's a cooking reference book, and if you've only got space for one on your shelf, this should be one of the top contenders for that spot. 

This really does offer the "essentials", plus several new ideas that would never have occurred to me.  The book starts with full instructions--including step by step photos--on peeling vegetables (each type of vegetable is demonstrated separately), and ends with preparing and braising a large rabbit.  In between is everything from making tomato sauce to making chicken liver mousse; making french fries to cooking squid; poaching eggs to boning a whole round fish.  And there are clear photographs for each and every bit.  Even the 25 page glossary has some pictures, and it provides more than just definitions for each term.  The entry for "steam", for example, defines what cooking in steam is, how to do it, when it is usually done (with cross-reference to earlier text), descriptions of the four main types of steamers available for purchase, a description of how to improvise your own steamer, and instructions for how to use two different types of steamers.

I've never had to fillet a salmon, because my sweetheart takes care of that aspect for me when he catches the fish.  But I truly believe that if I were faced with a whole salmon, I could use the 19 photos here to take me from cutting away the fins to removing the pin bones.  At the same time, there are instructions--I hesitate to call them recipes, as most give ratios, not measurements--for all sorts of dishes, and I could use this book to make mayonnaise, chunky vegetable soup, baked tomatoes with garlic and fresh basil, gnocchi, or any of 18 classic sauces for sauteed chicken. 

Complete and sensible index, well-arranged table of contents, and colour-coded page numbers correlating to sections make it easy to find what's needed quickly.  There was not a single technique that left me feeling a jump had been made from one step to the next, and anything that requires previous knowledge tells you which page to find that particular bit of knowledge on.  For example, on "How to poach chicken in a pot", there are references to "to truss a chicken, page 146", "to core and section carrots, page 21", "to make a bouquet garni, page 31", and "to carve a roast chicken, page 149", plus the related glossary entry (poach) is listed so the reader knows where to go for more.

I am completely unsurprised that this guide was nominated for a James Beard award.  It is a condensing of years of training for those of us who will never attend culinary school but want a solid foundation for our home cooking.  As it says on the inner jacket: "Knowing how to execute a technique makes you efficient; knowing why you've chosen that technique makes you a master."

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Honey Cream Fruit Dip

I took the ratios for this from an episode of Alton Brown's Good Eats. It's easy to upsize if necessary, as this makes quite a small amount of dip.  The show used 1 Cup of sour cream, to give a sense of scale. 
  • 1/2 Tbsp honey
  • 2 Tbsp sour cream
  • berries of your choosing
1.  In a custard cup or small glass bowl, heat honey in microwave for 20-25 seconds.  Whisk in sour cream.  Serve with fruit.

Robyn's notes: this was a way to keep from wasting even the tiniest remaining bit of sour cream after having used it in several recipes.  It was good on strawberries, but I think where it really shone was on raspberries. If making a large batch, the honey should be warmed on the stove in a saucepan, but for such a tiny amount as this that would be ridiculous.

*** 3 Stars: Good. At least one of us liked this enough for me to make it again, but not often