Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Vacation candy

How 'bout them apples?  The outside temperature for this morning's run -- 52 degrees!!!  I didn't know this until I returned but holy cool.  Yes, the sun was out and it turned out to be quite pleasant by the time I finished, but I definitely had to do a good bit of hand flexing and fist pumping to keep my fingers warm.  I probably looked like some kind of Rocky wannabe with my arms flailing or, better yet, Phoebe.

Thank goodness for that early metabolism boost, because my biggest nutrition downfall is the office.  I'm very fortunate to work with people with a massive sweet tooth (or else they'd have sacked me long ago for bringing in so many baked treats, ha!).  A coworker of mine recently returned from her vacation and left some sweet treats for the staff.  Salt water taffy and something I've never seen before: cranberry bog frogs!  Think of the traditional candy called turtles, consisting of milk chocolate covered pecans and caramel, but take it a step further.  Bog frogs are milk chocolate coated cashews, dried cranberries, and caramel.  Holy awesome:

I remember riding back from Ocean City as kids, with our legs crossed so there was room for the numerous tubs of Fisher's caramel popcorn and Dolle's Salt Water Taffy at our feet that my parents were taking back for family, neighbors picking up our mail, and ourselves when we started craving sun, sand, and sweet popcorn sometime in December.  Oh my gosh, have you ever had Fisher's popcorn?  It's heavenly.  And one of those giant tubs can last me months, provided that I keep it sealed so it doesn't get soft and stale.  Though, hands down, the best part was watching through the storefront windows as they filled tub after tub with the molten gooey popcorn.
Inquiring minds want to know -- do you bring back treats from vacation for family, friends, and/or coworkers?  Maybe a local specialty?  What's your favorite vacation munchie? 

Have a happy hump day!

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Crepes with stewed cinnamon apples

Ha ha!  Man, that is a great way to start my day.  For those of you keeping track, it's roughly 19 days until my birthday.  (If you aren't keeping track, well, keep reading anyway.)  And since I've been perusing recipes worthy of being crowned my birthday cake, I've been getting ideas for other meals, including breakfast.  Crepes.  I've never made crepes and have always considered them a dish best ordered from a restaurant.  After all, watching the local Frenchman at my favorite crepes haunt in Pittsburgh pour and whirl away with the batter on the special crepe pan thingie tends to intimidate onlookers into thinking, "No way, I can never do that."

Well, I'm here to say yes, you can!  Full disclosure -- while it's an easy recipe and process, theoretically, it takes some practice.  Mostly because the heat, timing, flipping, and batter consistency must be just right.  If you're okay with a few early (and inexpensive) mistakes (and, you should be, it's the kitchen, not an operating room), you will be handsomely rewarded. 

Well, after working on Saturday, Sunday morning seemed perfect for an extra effort breakfast.  Still working on using up the food I have around the kitchen, I decided that one crepe would feature Nutella and the lone banana left on my counter.  The other, hmm... I had a few apples just rolling around.  Stewed apples for the other crepes.  Who says that apples have to be just a fall/winter taste?  I love the sweet tart flavor of them all year round.

While this was my first crepe-making experience, it certainly won't be my last.  I'm not claiming perfection here, folks, but the results were delicious (even the initial ugly ones were munched while making the prettier later versions).  Have a sense of humor while making these and you'll have much more fun with it :)  To be continued...

Sweet Crepes
(loosely adapted and pieced together from Alton Brown and Paula Deen)
-makes about twelve 10-inch crepes, or more smaller... duh

2 large eggs
3/4 cup milk
1/2 cup water
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 Tablespoons granulated sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3 Tablespoons melted butter
Topping of your choice, if using stewed apples, see below

In a large bowl, whisk together all ingredients briskly for a minute.  Cover with plastic wrap and chill crepe batter in refrigerator for at least one hour, or up to 48 hours.  If making stewed apples, start them now (see recipe below).

Heat a small (I used a 10" pan, took some adjusting but the recommended size seemed to be about 6 inches) non-stick pan on medium heat.  Brush with butter to coat.  Pour about 1/4 cup of batter into the center of the pan and quickly swirl to spread evenly.  Cook for 45 seconds and flip, carefully.  Cook for another 30 seconds and remove flat to a wire cooling rack.  Repeat process until batter is gone.

"Decorate" crepes as desired.  I spread one with Nutella, topped with banana slices, and folded into the middle.  For Matt's, I rolled three crepes and topped with the apples.  You could try layering like pancakes, too.  It's up to you!

Cinnamon Stewed Apples
-makes about 1 1/2 cups

2 apples, peeled, cored, and roughly chopped
1 1/2 Tablespoons unsalted butter
Pinch of salt
1/2 cup water (or apple juice)
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 cup brown sugar
Pinch of nutmeg

In a small saucepan, combine ingredients and cook over medium-low heat for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until mixture thickens slightly.  Remove from heat and allow to cool for at least 5 minutes before serving.  Pour over rolled crepes (or hey, pancakes and waffles need some love, too!) and enjoy.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Peanut shrimp & stir-fry vegetables

[wipes sweat from forehead]  Whew!  That was one humid morning run.  My air conditioner has been working overtime this weekend and, what a coincidence -- I was, too!  In addition to working on Saturday (a very rare event), there were unemployment celebrations to be had, free Bon Journey concerts to attend, cookies to bake, and bridal shower crafts to be... well, crafted.  (Sorry, V, no clues here!)  All were lots of fun, but left me without much spare time to visit the grocery store.  And my calendar for this week is looking pleasantly full as well.  No complaining here, as all are good things.  But I'm going to have to channel my creative food energies, as it's shaping up to be a fridge/freezer/pantry cleaner-outer kind of week :)

I don't know about you, but I tend to forget about the contents of my freezer.  You know, the thing that people long ago would've given anything to use to keep food fresh and for longer periods of time?  Yeah, I'm apparently still learning the advantages of having one.  Since I try to shop for groceries every week, I tend to gravitate toward the fresh fruit and veggies, yogurt, etc. that are newly purchased.  It's only when the fridge is starting to look bare that I turn to the freezer and my cabinets and discover a wealth of eats: shrimp! veggies! rice!  (I actually FORGOT that I had rice.  Woops.  Shows you how often I eat that.)  Some other pantry staples and I could surely whip up a healthy little meal for myself and my gardener.

What resulted from some scrambling and unintentional rearranging of my cabinets was a quick and fresh take-out inspired meal that was so much better.  The sweet and tangy balance of the sauce with the crunch of the peanuts and steamed vegetables.  I completely forgot that I was eating a relatively balanced meal because it was just so darn enjoyable to look at.  That color!  The textures!  My only regret is that I didn't make more, so learn from my mistakes -- make much, much more.  Because while traditional take-out would've lasted a few days in your fridge because it lost its appeal after you stuffed yourself with flavorless fried rice and some random chicken the first night, this dish will disappear by lunchtime tomorrow.

A few notes: Substituting peppers and green beans or your favorite vegetable (Matt loves and suggested water chestnuts, but I was obviously out of them) is very simple.  Soy sauce can be used in place of "wooster" sauce, and white or rice wine vinegar for balsamic if you like.  Oh, and finally, a word about the shrimp: I hate when restaurants keep the tails on shrimp.  Yes, it's slightly prettier but I'd rather not pick off the tail with my fingers or leave a perfectly good piece of shrimp stuck in the tail only to be wasted.  But, if you're a tail fanatic, ignore my previous soapbox completely.

Peanut Shrimp & Vegetables
-serves 2 as a main dish, 4 as a side

1/2 pound of frozen cooked shrimp (using 41/50 count, this was about 22) or fresh, if you prefer
1 cup broccoli
1 cup snow peas
1 cup green beans
1 Tablespoon lemon juice
Ground black pepper
2 Tablespoons peanut butter
2 Tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 Tablespoons Worcestershire sauce (or soy sauce)
1 teaspoon brown sugar
1 Tablespoon sesame seeds (optional)
2 Tablespoons salted peanuts

Thaw shrimp using the quick method -- fill a bowl with warm water and place frozen shrimp in for ten minutes.  (If using fresh, steam per your method.)  Meanwhile, in a small bowl, whisk together lemon juice, peanut butter, vinegar, brown sugar, and "wooster" sauce; set aside.  Check to make sure they are thawed and pat dry with a towel and remove tails.  Cook vegetables according to package instructions (salted boiling water, about 5 minutes, drain) and set aside.  Add shrimp and sesame seeds and toss to mix.  Season with pepper.

Plate shrimp and veggie mixture, sprinkle with peanuts, and drizzle sauce on top to finish.  Take obligatory pictures if you're nuts like this girl, and enjoy!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Creamy pasta with peas & carrots

What a week for sports we're having all over the world!  First, the US pulls out a last-minute win yesterday in the World Cup.  But what's more interesting to this girl is that nearly 10 hour yet-to-end Wimbledon quarterfinal match between American John Isner and Frenchman Nicolas Mahut.  I haven't played competitive tennis in years, but I can recall the longest match I've ever played clocked in around 3 1/2 hours.  Ten hours of my beloved sport just seems unfathomable to me and probably everyone else.  I remember taking bites of a Power Bar on a changeover break; these guys have been eating those, whole bananas, and who knows what else.  And, after the 9:00 evening darkness delay, I'm sure they went home to carbo-load like their lives depended on it (in a way, they do, at least as far as Wimbledon is concerned).  Naturally, it's only fitting that I, too, needed to load up on carbohydrates after being so enthralled by this match.  Hey, emotional/mental exhaustion deserves some street cred, too :)

So, it's only fitting that after watching such a grueling display of athleticism and sheer will that my dinner was a delicious pasta dish.  Oh, but I can't take credit for this feast.  Nope, it was Laura's week to host dinner, and let me tell you, what an ambiance she had going!  She must have remembered that I'm the ultimate sucker for the dining experience as much as the food.  I walked in to the musical stylings of Glee playing in the background, a faint smell of garlic, the tiniest cans of Coca-Cola I've ever seen, and a "Happy Day!" cookie cake.

What a coincidence that I actually watched this episode of Giada at Home a few weeks ago and made a not-so-reliable mental note to make this at a later date.  She made the dish for her infant daughter's first birthday party, but it was clear that the adults enjoyed it just as much as the kids.  The prep was so easy (this observation confirmed by the cook) and the resulting dish was fabulous.  The cheeses made for such a creamy, smooth and lightly sweetened sauce along with the adorable farfallini pasta, and the fresh peas and carrots (courtesy, I'm told, of a Pittsburgh area CSA).  And the garlic bread was a perfect tool for sopping up the extra sauce.  While eating, we were talking about the recipe and how it was meant for kids... and decided that we'd sit at the kids table (tiny chairs, too) anytime if it meant we got to eat this dish.

Pasta with Peas and Carrots
(adapted from Giada DeLaurentiis on Food Network)
-serves 4

1/2 pound (8 ounces) farfallini, or other small-shaped pasta
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, finely diced
2 medium carrots, peeled and diced into 1/2-inch pieces
1 cup low-sodium chicken stock
1 cup frozen petite peas, thawed (Laura used fresh)
1/2 cup (4 ounces) cream cheese, room temperature
1/2 cup (4 ounces) mascarpone cheese, room temperature
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil leaves (optional)

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat.  Add the pasta and cook until to your desired firmness (I like mine softer, some like al dente), about 8 to 10 minutes.  Drain the pasta, but be sure to reserve about 1 cup of the pasta water for later.

In a large skillet over medium heat, heat olive oil.  Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally until translucent and soft, about 7 minutes.  Add the carrots and chicken stock and bring to a boil.  Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for 5 minutes.  Add the peas to the pan and cook for 2 minutes until the peas are warmed through and the carrots are tender.  Stir in the cooked pasta.

Remove the pan from the heat and add the cheeses. Stir until the mixture is incorporated and forms a sauce.  If sauce is a bit thick, use the reserved pasta water to thin, adding one tablespoon at a time and stirring until desired consistency is reached.  Season with salt, to taste. Transfer to a large serving bowl and garnish with chopped basil, if using.  Serve with garlic bread for cleaning your plate... after all, that's what good kids would do.

(Oh, and if you're wondering, that cookie cake was the bomb!  No pictures, unfortunately, but it was a perfect snack while watching the hilarious train wreck otherwise known as the NHL Awards Show last night after dinner.  Thanks again to Laura for a great dinner date!  I've got until next week to think of something for my turn...)

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Easy microwave egg & cheese breakfast sandwiches

After succumbing to laziness, sore muscles, and a serious lack of sleep on Monday morning and skipping my run, my sneaks and I returned to glory this morning.  Two miles, though they were a little slower than usual.  Hey, it's the thought that counts, right?  After a good shower, I needed a breakfast that counted for some serious nutrition for my morning: a breakfast sandwich.  And no, I didn't run back out to the Einstein's Bagels, Panera Bread, or even Wendy's just down the street from me.  I whipped up my protein packed meal in my own kitchen.  Remember that breakfast panini that I got last year sometime? "This is so much better than that!"  And no, I can't think of a better way to start your day than by watching a clip like that :)

Breakfast sandwich

1. Coat small (cereal size will do) microwave-safe bowl in nonstick spray

2. Crack and gently whisk one egg in bowl, just enough to mix yolk and white.

3. Season with salt and pepper, if you like.  "Nuke" egg in bowl for roughly 1 minute (if you have a super strong microwave, it may be closer to 50 seconds).  While it's microwaving, toast two slices of bread, a bagel, or a sandwich thin (what I used).

4. Remove egg (it should slide right out of the bowl) onto one side of whatever you've toasted.  Add a slice of your favorite cheese, I used cheddar, but American or any other kind will do.

5. Add some spinach or maybe a slice of tomato or two, if you like.  Top with other half of sandwich thin and take a second to admire the beauty of what you've just created... and hey, it's only 7:15!  Imagine what you can do the rest of the day.  Oh goodness, look at that cheese oozing out and the crunch of the bread and the spinach.  Yum!

Bonus -- you've only dirtied three items: the egg bowl, a fork, and your final plate.  Double that if you had settled for a much more time-consuming omelet.  Happy hump day!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Less than a month away...

I can't believe I somehow missed the one month 'til my birthday mark!  I must've been too distracted with water and my family of hams to realize I'm only 25 for a few more weeks.

So, much to my mother's disbelief -- "You're going to make your own birthday cake?!" -- I am, in fact, planning on making my own birthday cake.  Listen, when you enjoy food this much, it's a treat to have a reason to bake a cake of your choosing while everyone around you has no choice but to eat what you've selected :)  Plus, I'm pretty picky when it comes to my baked goods, so I can fine tune them to meet my unreasonably high standards.  I love the basic yellow and chocolate cakes, but I think I can speak for every baker out there when I say that I welcome a challenge!  Something out of the ordinary.  With a little bit of flair, danger... what, too much?  Fine fine.  Anyway, here are some of the finalists in the running for my 26th birthday cake:
  • Crepe cake with layers of luscious vanilla bean pastry cream.  No oven required!
  • Citrus poppyseed cake... perfect summer flavors
  • Finally attempt a red velvet cake, despite kitchen disaster stories that I've heard
  • Strawberry ice cream cake (and maybe some blueberries for July, too)
Have you seen any awesome cake-ish recipes that I should consider for my big day?  What do you think of my choices so far?  That's especially directed at those who will most likely be enjoying said treat with me.  Well, the day before.  Since around 7:45am on my actual birthday, I'll be boarding a plane to LA-la land :)

Monday, June 21, 2010

Weekend + happy summer!

Happy first day of summer!  I am still exhausted from my river weekend in Maryland with the whole family.  There were disappearing cookies and cupcakes. Waterskiing (and falling) and tubing.

Not to mention sun, campfires, s'mores, crab cakes, a lil Betty White, tons of pictures, and much-needed family fun.  And I experienced a food first -- gravy fries!  Have any of you heard of this?  My aunt and cousins said it is a southern thing so that would explain why it's new to me.  But, goodness, ah-maz-ing!  Just a perfect Father's Day and a great kickoff to summer.  As much as I love winter and snow, I do enjoy summer.  You guessed it -- time for a list!  Five of my favorite things about summer:

1. No jackets required!  I get cold very easily, so I love not having to overpack when I go places.
2. Friendly people everywhere.  Winters in western PA tend to be cold, windy and icy causing people to hibernate and get cranky.  Thankfully, sunny summer seems to bring even the most hermit-like folks out of their residences for ice cream and walks and smiles.
3. Cheap produce.  Blueberries, strawberries, and... swoon... sour cherries!  Time to stock up while you can, bake those pies and tarts, and freeze some for later.
4. Extra daylight.  You know that I love to walk anywhere I can.  And that's much more feasible when it's not dark shortly after 5 o'clock.
5. Free things!  I can't vouch for other cities, but Pittsburgh is pretty fantastic when it comes to free entertainment throughout the summer.  Schenley Plaza has yoga sessions open to all, there are free classical music concerts on Sunday mornings, and - my favorite - free movies in the park!  I haven't made it to a flick on Flagstaff Hill yet, but I'm hoping to this week.  Does your city do similar things in the warmer months?

What are five of your favorite things about summer?

Have a great Monday!  (Mine has significantly improved with the aid of Advil to ease these river-beaten muscles.) :)

Friday, June 18, 2010

Peanut & chocolate chip peanut butter cookies

TGIF!  So many things to be happy about today: day #3 and end of week #1 of the running in the morning experiment went very well.  Though I was up late baking (shocking, no?) and got an hour less of sleep than normal, I was out pounding the pavement by 6:07.  It's amazing what a lower level of humidity can do for your body during exercise-- I didn't break a real sweat until the last half mile or so, woo!  And, it's Friday, which means I'm heading to Maryland for a weekend family gathering at my aunt and uncle's cabin at the Potomac river for some boating, crab cakes, grilling, crab cakes and general good times.  Did I mention the crab cakes?

The cookies I was up late baking last night are for said gathering, but were made solely with my dear ol' dad in mind.  My dad is a peanut butter nut (pun absolutely intended).  For as long as I can remember, my mom has had to hide the peanut butter from my dad in order to keep some for our lunch sandwiches or make it last longer than a week.  And, to no avail, she'd come into the kitchen to discover the jar out, with a butter knife stuck inside and a nearby pack of Saltines, proof that some munching was taking place behind her back.  Shortly thereafter, my sweet but frustrated mother would grumble under her breath, seal and put the peanut butter away, knowing that it was a waste and she'd once again find it out a few hours later.  (True story -- Matt raids my cabinets and eats peanut butter by the spoonful almost every visit to my apartment.  Coincidence?  I think not.)  Dad would be happy to know that I've been on a bit of a peanut butter binge lately.

So when my aunt asked me to bake something sweet for this weekend, I was happy to help.  Yellow cupcakes with chocolate frosting are an official dessert reserved for after dinner, but I also like to make something sweet for nibbling throughout the day.  After all, flying high on tree swings and waterskiing can be utterly exhausting :)  This power protein (hey, relatively speaking) cookie comes from Magnolia Bakery's cookbook.  (You know, that cupcake haunt in New York City for which people wait hours in line.)  Many different cooks tried and loved this recipe, and even promised to make you forget all about the (in my opinion) overhyped cupcakes, I couldn't waste a second more without taking action.

These are for you, Dad :)  They are crunchy on the outside, chewy on the inside, and bursting with peanut butter flavor and a tiny chocolate hint on the side.  I can't wait to see how long these last with my peanut butter crazy family (oh yes, Dad got it from his mom).  Especially knowing how hard it was not to throw back about 10 on my own and simply pack them away for the enjoyment of others.  Torture, thy new name is sharing my peanut butter cookies.

Very Peanut Butter Cookies
(adapted from The Magnolia Bakery Cookbook)
-makes about 3 dozen cookies

A few notes: I did a little experimenting with this recipe.  First, the suggested size of rounded teaspoonfuls was just too small for my liking (and would've had me baking well past the witching hour), so I adjusted to rounded tablespoonfuls and the baking time accordingly.  The original calls for chunky peanut butter, but I only had smooth.  I did, however, have salted peanuts on hand, so I added 1/3 cup of peanuts, chopped, to half of the dough.  While the peanut-laden cookies tasted great, the dough was a little too crumbly and made rolling into balls a little difficult.  So, I'd skip the chopped nuts in the future.  I also used coarse sanding sugar for half of the cookies and simple granulated sugar for the other.  The sanding sugar added a nice crunch and made the cookies sparkle a bit, but I think it took away from the greatness of the cookie itself.  Again, granulated sugar is perfectly fine.  Finally, I used normal size semi-sweet chocolate chips because it's what was available, but might invest in mini chips for future use.  The cookies are so small that tinier chips could help the dough stay together.  Again, not crucial since the flavor is the same.

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup peanut butter at room temperature (I used smooth)
3/4 cup granulated sugar + 2 Tablespoons for sprinkling
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1 large egg, at room temperature
1 tablespoon milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup peanut butter chips
1/2 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips (regular or mini)

Preheat oven to 350F.  Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper for later use.  In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda and powder, and salt; set aside.

In the large bowl of an electric mixer, beat the peanut butter and butter on medium high speed until smooth and fluffy.  Add both sugars and beat until uniform.  Add the egg and mix until evenly incorporated.  Add the milk and vanilla and mix until just combined.  Slowly add the flour mixture and beat thoroughly.  Stir in the chopped peanuts (if using), peanut butter and chocolate chips.

Place remaining tablespoons of sugar in a small bow.  Drop by rounded tablespoonfuls into the sugar, roll until lightly coated, and place onto cookie sheets, leaving about 3 inches between cookies.  With the bottom of a something small and flat (i.e. a metal measuring cup), slightly flatten cookie.  Bake 10 to 12 minutes until edges are starting to brown.  Don't fret if they don't look done -- don't overbake and remove sheet to cooling rack for 1 minute.  Remove cookies to cool completely on rack.


Remember dads of all kinds this weekend!  Are you doing anything special for your pops?  Happy Father's Day!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Restaurant review: Lucca

Someone great* once said, "I love lunch!"  I'm positive that the source must have had Lucca Ristorante in mind when he first said it.  This classy little place calls South Craig Street in Oakland home, where it offers up northern Italian fare to patrons with phenomenal service.  This was my second trip there (the first being for dinner about a month ago), and my previously set high expectations were not disappointed.

We sat outside since it was such a nice day.  My dining date ordered the arugula salad with goat cheese, almonds, and mandarin oranges in a berry vinaigrette ($7).  I ordered the crab cake sandwich that came with a little side salad, pickle, and three gorgeously plump strawberries ($13... the most expensive item on the lunch menu).  I couldn't have selected a more perfect lunch (minus the pickle, natch'):

The Old Bay mayonnaise was a spicy sidekick to the moist and slightly sweet crab cake.  Oh and that bun?  Hello bliss.  The salad was perfectly sized and the strawberries were a wonderful conclusion to this little lunch date.  When I asked my partner how her food was, the response was, "I freaking love goat cheese."  So, there you have it.  One last thing -- the bread basket.  The most amazing bread basket I've had in a long long time.  I'm thinking it was made on a baking stone of some sort since it was so flaky and crusty on the outside and light and fluffy and warm on the inside.  Paired with some olive oil and balsamic vinaigrette... get outta here!

The service is just as I would want it -- polite, timely, and perfectly invisible when needed.  By invisible, I mean that your drink glass is refilled without a scene and dishes are brought and removed without conversation being interrupted.  My friends make fun of me for always commenting on the service at restaurants and stores, but that's something I got from my mom (thanks!) and will always go somewhere with good service but may not return to a place with good food but terrible service.

A few other notes: I've been told by multiple people that the wine list is great (though I haven't sampled myself).  The dessert menu is something straight out of Italy -- the chocolate gelato is prime.  And, for dinner on my first visit, I ordered the fettuccine with mushrooms, artichokes, sun dried tomato, greens, and feta which was a decision for which I was very thankful.  I would recommend Lucca to anyone for lunch and dinner! 

*Genius of aforementioned creamsicookie fame :)

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Orange creamsicle cookies

 [the sweet taste of summer in your very own kitchen]

Made it out today for my second 6am run this week!  This has to be some kind of miracle, really.  As much as I'm a morning person, rolling out of bed and pounding the pavement a mere five minutes later is a horse of different color.  And I am firm believer that while the first day is easy, the second and third days are a little more difficult since you know what's in store -- like the ridiculous humidity western PA is being "blessed" with right now.  81%!  What is that about?  The first mile was a cake walk (possibly due to the fact that I was barely conscious), but the second... whew, what a sweat fest!  The original motivation behind these morning runs was that your body is slower to warm up at the beginning of the day and it would be cooler outside, right?  Wrong!  Regardless, I'm loving this and I feel much more energized for the rest of my day.  And this picture has me so excited for my July trip to LA, where I will hopefully do at least one morning run on the beaches of Malibu.

As if the morning runs weren't helping to meet my perspiration quota for the week, I had my second hot yoga experience last night.  Torture, thy sweet name is hot yoga... or, maybe torture would be my decision to bake these cookies that needed to be chilled two hours before going to exercise, knowing that if I savored any I'd be regretting it later in that 100+ degree room.  Oh, but don't worry.  The second I got home and guzzled two huge glasses of water, I rewarded myself with an orange dreamsicle -- no, there wasn't an ice cream truck driving by at that exact moment, but some delicious cookies waiting center stage counter.

This recipe holds a special place in my heart because it is one of the first true experiments of my baking career.  I can vividly remember being in the car with Matt and saying that I needed to start adapting recipes to make them more my own.  I had just made a batch of lemon sugar snaps for my family and, while everyone raved about them, I felt a tinge of jealousy that I had simply perfected the execution of someone else's recipe.  (Mini rant - Every recipe is essentially an adaptation, however loosely, of another recipe.  There is no such thing as an original, but that shouldn't discourage you from experimenting.  If an idea is new to you and you work out the kinks on your own, then kudos!)  Anyway, we started brainstorming of ways to adapt the cooking to new flavors.  Lemon led to citrus flavors and thus orange.  But what about adding a vanilla twist?  And to make it chewier than its lemon snap ancestor?  While I was milling over the logistics of the recipe, Matt wasted no time in coming up with names for this new creation before settling on "the creamsicookie"... creamsicle + cookie.  He's a smart one, no? :)

Four trials later, this baby was ready for its debut.  Granted, the first three trials were delicious but didn't quite balance the orange and vanilla flavors like I wanted.  This version is no longer a pencil but a pen recipe -- hooray!  The citrus flavor is refreshing while the vanilla balances with warmth and sweetness.  And they are chewy, oh so chewy.  But, if you bake them for longer, they will be crisp.  So decide your own cookie destiny.  These would make a perfect picnic treat or [ahem] a unique addition to a wedding cookie table. (If you're reading, congrats Kristy!)

Made-by-Katy-but-Named-by-Matt "Creamsicookies"
(adapted almost beyond recognition from Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook)
-makes 30 cookies

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar + extra for rolling
1 large egg
Freshly grated zest of 2 oranges
1 Tablespoon freshly squeezed orange juice
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, cream of tartar, and salt; set aside.  In the large bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (if using a hand mixer, use normal beaters), beat the butter and sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes.  Add the egg, orange zest and juice, and vanilla; beat until combined.  

Slowly add the flour mixture and beat on low speed until just combined, scraping down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula as needed.  Cover bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or overnight.  (Insert a giant "BOO" here.  I somehow block this instruction from my memory and am disappointed every single time I make these that I am forced to wait to indulge in sweet citrus cookie goodness.)

Preheat oven to 350F.  Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper.  Place extra sugar for rolling (I use granulated with some orange sugar left in those Wilton Halloween sprinkles variety packs) in a shallow bowl.  Shape two level tablespoons, or one scoop with my little friend the scooper, into 1-inch balls and roll in sugar to coat completely.  Place dough balls about 3 inches apart (trust me, they will grow!) on the prepared cookie sheet.

Bake, rotating sheets halfway through, until the edges just begin to turn golden brown, 12 to 15 minutes.  Transfer cookies to a wire rack to cool completely.

Storage tips: These creamsicookies can be kept in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 7 days.  In this sumer humid weather, they may lose a little of their crispness but will taste just as delicious.  Also, these are fantastic freezer cookies!  I've made countless batches of these for Christmas orders (and an upcoming wedding!) or just for myself, and they taste equally awesome after two months sealed in a freezer bag.  I've been known to eat one straight out of the freezer, but take out of bag and place on plate at room temperature for 30 minutes.  

But hey, don't be fooled -- if left out in plain sight, they won't come close to lasting that long.  After all, the creamsicookie is going to save the world.  Just you wait and see :)

Friday, June 11, 2010

Homemade brown sugar toffee with chocolate & almonds

Happy Friday, everyone!  The end of the week can only mean one thing -- cupcake walk tonight!  Unfortunately, I made the mistake of checking the weather forecast for this weekend, and heavy rain is predicted for Saturday AND Sunday.  Bummer!  I was planning on planting my lovely fuchsia petunias and yellow marigolds to finally complete my garden project.  I suppose I could plant them tonight and forego a cupcake walk since book club is meeting on Sunday night for dessert.  Oh decisions decisions!  What's a girl to do?  She could just work on her garden and upon completion, enjoy some homemade toffee that she whipped up earlier this week that's been calling from her pantry... yes, that just might do the trick.

A coworker commented that I should venture into candy-making, so here goes!  I found this recipe searching for baking and cooking classes in Los Angeles for my upcoming July trip.  I've never made toffee before but am quite familiar with the taste and know of the basic process... and the idea of a brown sugar toffee really intrigued me.  It's easy as pie candy, quick, and a great treat to keep around your place for unexpected guests (or your own cravings).  The toffee part is snappy, as it should be, and flavored with the hint of molasses from the brown sugar, while the chocolate and almonds puts it right over the top into decadence.  Oh, and be careful, grasshoppers.  This stuff is HOT when first poured.

Brown Sugar Toffee
(adapted from a recipe on the Gourmandise Desserts website)
-makes a 12-inch square of 1/2-inch thick toffee

1 cup granulated sugar
3 Tablespoons water
1 stick (4 ounces, 1/2 cup) unsalted butter
Pinch of salt
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
1/4 cup almonds, roughly chopped, and sifted (so no dust remains)

Line a quarter cookie sheet with parchment paper and set aside.  In a medium saucepan, bring both sugars, water, butter, and salt to 295 degrees F, according to a candy thermometer, stirring a few times just to mix all ingredients.

Once 295F is reached, remove from saucepan from heat and immediately add the baking soda and vanilla at once, stirring until smooth.  (The mixture will sizzle a bit when the vanilla is added.)  Pour onto parchment-lined sheet and spread to desired thickness.  Work quickly since candy will harden fast!  Place sheet on potholders on a shelf in your refrigerator and allow to cool/set for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, melt the chocolate in a microwave-safe bowl, 20 seconds at a time and stirring between until smooth.  Remove pan from fridge and spread chocolate evenly over top of toffee, covering completely.  Immediately sprinkle chopped almonds on top of chocolate and gently pat nuts into the chocolate.  Replace to fridge for another 20 minutes until cooled and set.  Remove and break into pieces.  Store between pieces of parchment or wax paper in a container for up to two weeks.  Enjoy!


Keeping with the candy theme, do you have anything you'd like to see me make?  I'm open to ideas!  Have a fantastically sweet weekend!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Favorite lunch snack

So, who watched the Glee season finale last night?!  And who had a tiny tear in her (or his) eye during their regionals number (not naming songs so as to not spoil it for the DVRers)?  I can't believe we have to wait four long months until the show returns... thankfully, Fox is treating us to reruns every Thursday this summer.  Score! :)  Now, to business as usual:

For some reason, my parents are under the impression that I'm some kind of insane health food junkie.  They jest about meals of tofu and lettuce.  Blech.  Dear family, if you only knew what I ate for lunch some days at my very adult 40-hour a week job.  Then you'd be really proud of your little girl :)  Or something along those lines.

Anyway, my lunches usually consist of some protein with veggies or a sandwich and an apple.  Call me old-fashioned, but I looooooove sandwiches.  But, every now and then I have a lapse in judgment and pack a salad.  I mean, aesthetically speaking, salads are so appealing.  They are colorful, healthy, and very filling.  Plus, I keep a bottle of salad dressing in the fridge at work, so I can dress that little meal, too!  Yesterday's lunch was a spinach salad with zucchini, grape tomatoes, grilled chicken, and cheddar cheese.  Sound good to you?  Yeah, it sounded good to me, too, at 7 in the morning.  And then lunchtime rolled around... I just wasn't having that salad.  In fact, I delayed my eating time over an hour simply because I did not want a salad.

I can enjoy green salads for dinner, potato and lentil salads any ol' time, even side salads with a juicy burger, but for some reason the idea of a lunchtime salad makes me ill.  Just seems so unsatisfying in the middle of the day, that giant pile of lettuce (even my beloved baby spinach) looming under a few delicious toppings.

Well, in case you're wondering, I did eat my salad begrudgingly, but not before I went out in search of a little elementary school lunchtime favorite - the Handi-Snack.  Do you remember those?

I saved it for last -- dessert, if you will.  And man oh man, why did I ever stop eating these?  Or, rather, why is it socially unacceptable for adults to enjoy these tasty little portable treats?  This totally hit the spot! 

What is/was your favorite school treat?  Or heck, your current lunchtime routine?  Are you a salad or sandwich connoisseur or a lover of leftovers?  Maybe you dine out regularly at noon?  I need some new ideas, so fess up, please!

(Oh, and if I had to say my all-time favorite lunch snack, it'd be string cheese.  Without a shadow of a doubt.  Best snack E-V-E-R.)

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Peanut butter & jelly bars

(Please accept my apologies for these pictures.  I was experimenting with light since it was very dark and stormy the night I made these... obviously said experiment didn't go as well as planned, but this wasn't discovered until I uploaded my pictures and deemed them beyond photo editing repair.  Thankfully, the treats weren't affected by my little point-and-shoot's shortcomings, so you shouldn't be deterred by them either.)

Peanut butter and jelly.  Is there a more famous duo in the food world?  Probably not.  (And if there is, please keep it to yourself for the sake of this post.  A-thank-you.)  And while it seems that my brain has been cranking out ideas like oatmeal and cupcakes, my taste buds simply can't get enough of this salty sweet combination.  Some might call it a rut; I, however, humbly prefer terms like "groove" and "hot streak."

This is another recipe that's been waiting in the wings for quite some time.  I hadn't forgotten about it, no, but was saving it for a little "happy new apartment!" treat for two lovely folks.  Short of sending some large mysterious casserole to them, what says comfort like a classic twist on a basic bar cookie?  These just beg to be eaten curled up on a couch (or floor, if said couch hasn't quite found its final resting place) with a tall glass of milk, looking around and marveling at the possibilities of your new space.  They will also hold you over when you realize that your pretty new refrigerator is stark empty.  Woops.

While I sent most away to be enjoyed in a new home, I kept a few for myself.  The jelly keeps the peanut butter cookie so moist, making me forget about a slightly tragic experience with a peanut butter cookie so dry that I'd favor eating Sahara desert sand (oh, and it was one of the queen's recipes -- she isn't flawless, people).  The salty crunch on top from the peanuts is a perfect finishing detail.  But, be warned.  You can't eat just one of these.  In fact, I'd say four is a good number.  If you push them together, they are roughly the size of a sandwich, anyway :)

Peanut Butter & Jelly Bars
(adapted the teensiest of bits from Ina Garten)
-makes 16 two-by-two-inch bars

Note: I halved the original recipe and used an 8x8-inch pan with success... mostly so I didn't sit home and feast on 20 cookies by my lonesome.  Anyway, if you are making these for a crowd, simply double the ingredients, use a 9x13-inch pan, and use roughly the same baking time.

1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature
3/4 cups granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 large egg, room temperature
1 cup (about 9 ounces) creamy peanut butter
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cups (about 9 ounces) your favorite jam or jelly -- I used grape jelly
1/3 cups salted peanuts, coarsely chopped

Preheat the oven to 350F.  Grease an 8x8-inch pan, line with parchment paper, and grease and flour the paper and pan together.

In a small bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder and salt.  Set aside.  In the large bowl of an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes.  With the mixer on low speed, add the vanilla, egg, and peanut butter and mix until all of the ingredients are combined.  Keeping the mixer on low speed, gradually (I usually use a rubber spatula to fold in the flour first, then turn on the mixture to avoid a mini blizzard in my kitchen) add the flour mixture to the peanut butter mixture and mix until just combined.

Spread 2/3 of the dough into the prepared cake pan and pat until evenly distributed.  Spread the jelly evenly over the dough.  Drop small globs (oh Ina, I love your not-at-all technical terms, really) of the remaining dough evenly over the jelly.  Don't worry about covering every inch of jelly -- the dough will spread in the oven and over it.  Sprinkle top with chopped peanuts and bake for 45 minutes, or until top is golden brown.

Remove from oven and let cool completely in pan.  Cut into squares while in pan and remove parchment paper to separate bars and serve.  Enjoy with a tall glass of milk... possibly followed by a nap or craft time.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Two recipes: Fresh spinach pasta dinner & PB&J oatmeal breakfast

TGIFF - Thank goodness it's finally Friday!  This week has seemed extra long (probably due to the lack of sleep I've gotten the past three nights and the extra fun weekend I was sad to see go), but it was supposed to be a short one!  I mean, it was a short one with the holiday off on Monday.  I live for weeks like this -- namely due to the surprise Friday phenomenon.  Not familiar with the SFP?  Let me explain.

During a normal week, by the time Friday rolls around, your body and brain are expecting it, having worked or schooled your way through five typical days.  But, during special four day weeks in which the Monday is a holiday and therefore a no school/work zone, your week starts on Tuesday, but your brain still thinks it's Monday.  Wednesday feels like Tuesday, and Thursday feels like Wednesday.  Get to what seems like Thursday but, wait -- surprise!  It's actually Friday!

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why I will always choose to have Monday off rather than Friday.  But this week hasn't quite flown by like I hoped it would.  Aforementioned lack of sleep, a to-do list that keeps growing in the "I haven't been home for more than an hour except for sleep" kind of way, and not much time to spend in the kitchen are all reasons to really really be thankful for this weekend that is now upon us!  So, for your viewing and eating pleasure, two quick and satisfying meals.

First, though poorly photographed (I blame it on the fact that I was in a super rush making this in order to meet friends for a movie), a delicious spinach and tomato pasta toss.  It's colorful, healthy, and incredibly satisfying yet oh so simple.  And who says you need a fancy sauce for pasta?  The creamy ricotta was a pleasant change that I will surely use again this weekend.

Spinach Tomato Pasta Toss
-makes enough for one, but can be multiplied easily

2 handfuls baby spinach
1/2 cup grape tomatoes, halved
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 teaspoon minced garlic
Salt & pepper
3/4" thick bundle (or however much you want) dried spaghetti noodles
1/4 cup ricotta cheese

Fill a small pot with water, salt generously, and bring to a boil.  Add pasta and cook 7-8 minutes.  Drain, reserving a tablespoon or two of pasta water.  Meanwhile, in a large skillet, heat oil and add garlic and spinach, stirring frequently to coat with oil.  Once spinach has wilted, add tomatoes, and toss to coat.  Over medium heat, add cooked pasta and toss until mixed.  Remove from heat, and stir in ricotta.  Salt and pepper to taste.  Enjoy!


Second, this morning's breakfast: peanut butter and jelly oatmeal.  Though it may sound a bit juvenile (so what if it is, huh?), it fit the bill for a morning that had this 25-year-old me refusing to get out of bed until 20 minutes after my alarm had first beeped.  And then pacing around in my robe weighing the idea of taking the day off because I simply wasn't in the mood to go to work.  How very mature of me, right?  Well, suffice it to say that I did make it to work (and on time, at that), but not without an energizing treat of a breakfast.

Peanut Butter & Jelly Oatmeal
-makes enough for one (whether 7, 25, or 82 years young)

1/3 cup old fashioned oats
2/3 cup water
1 Tablespoon peanut butter
1 Tablespoon jelly or jam of your choice (I used grape)
Dash of cinnamon
1 Tablespoon peanuts

Combine oatmeal and water and cook per directions.  Then, against your grumbling stomach's wishes, patiently add peanut butter, jelly, nuts, and cinnamon while photographing each step at 7am.  After said photographing, stir up (don't photograph this, it's not as photogenic) and enjoy :)

What's on your agenda for the weekend?  If you're in the Pittsburgh area, the Three Rivers Arts Festival is in full swing, and I'm hoping I can make it to enjoy the FREE Guster show on Saturday evening.  I swear, SWEAR, that I will get to weeding my garden.  It's already June and I'm a bit behind on things.  Woops.  I'm officially using this space to promise to show you before and after pictures on Monday.  Don't let me break that promise!  :)  Have a fantastic weekend!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Hurts so good

Do you find yourself clinging to certain exercises because they are familiar and easy?  I do that all too often.  I find a workout that I like and will be loyal to it for a year or so.  And when a few of those are in my repertoire, I can just pick one for the day and mindlessly go through the motions, knowing my muscles will remember what's next.  In fact, they're probably saying something like, "Oh, it's just you, beach body workout #2," while thinking, "No reason to get excited for this one.  Back to sleep, muscles."

Just as I resort to old favorites in the kitchen, it was time for something new.  A bright salad recipe, and now a new set of heart-pumping, muscle-burning exercises, complete with less-than-attractive facial expressions due to exertion.  This is my second week trying out a new workout routine, and boy oh boy, am I sore.  I'm doing this circuit three times, two days a week.  I'm due again tomorrow, and I'll confess that my legs are still a teensy bit tender from those side lunges and arms rubbery from the Zottman curl.  But so worth it.  And guys, no mocking here.  Just try this workout with appropriate weights and you'll feel it, too.

Do you have any go-to gym routines that you'd like to share?  Please do because I'm open to new ideas!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Summer corn & tomato salad with avocado, zucchini & mozzarella

Before I get to anything, I need to take a moment to discuss Glee... you know, that incredibly addicting TV comedy about a high school's glee club.  Love love love it.  Anyway, I'm not going to give anything away from last night's episode, but uh, is anyone else a little shocked at the dance moves that pregnant cheerleader Quinn Fabray is performing?  Yes, only the show's character is with child, not the actress, but shouldn't she be 8 1/2 months pregnant at this point?  And maybe the show's creators are ignoring that fact for dance numbers.  But, geez, at a few points during last night's final number, I fully expected to see the birth of her child right then and there.  Does this slightly annoy/concern anyone else?  That being said, I freakin' love that show :) Favorite song of the night -- Puck and Finn's number in the Sheets 'n Things store.  LOVE.

It's somewhat fitting that an uber colorful show should be the introduction to this rainbow of a summer salad.  While in Reading this past weekend, Matt's mom gave me the reigns to make something for part of Sunday's dinner.  Burgers were to be the entree, so I wanted something packed with vegetables and color and flavor.  After flipping through a stack of about 20 (really) food magazines, I found a recipe for avocado, corn and tomato salad.  This only took about a half hour, to which Matt's mom said, "Oh Katy, I didn't realize what I'd be doing when I asked you to think of something to make."  Yes, I take a challenge like that very seriously!

I changed a few of the ingredients to better suit my mood.  First, although some people love cilantro, you'll never find me singing its praises.  I can handle a little, but this called for 1 1/2 cups of the stuff and pureed at that.  Not for me, so I omitted it, and no one was the wiser.  Also, we had 3 cooked ears of corn remaining from the previous night -- bonus!  I also swapped out one ear of corn for one green zucchini for more color.  The resulting salad was light and a bit sweet with an array of textures: zucchini with a crunch, the pop of the juicy grape tomatoes, and the smooth mozzarella cheese.  Feel free to add a little garlic powder if you want a little kick to this salad.

Final notes: someone said, "What, are we feeding 12 people?" when he saw this huge bowl of salad.  Let's just say that 5 people cleared out about 3/4 of the bowl with no problems at all.  And, when I started photographing the prep and assembly of this salad, unaware that the parents hadn't seen me in food writer form, I got a few pats on the head and chuckles with "I love you, Katy."  Ahh yes, here I am, the food nerd.

A-Z Summer Salad
(adapted from Aida Mollencamp's recipe in Food Network magazine)
-feeds 8-10

2 avocados, diced
3 ears cooked corn, kernels removed (about 2 1/2 cups)
2 pints grape tomatoes, halved
Zest from one lime + 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice (from said 1 lime)
1 pound fresh mozzarella cheese, diced
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 medium zucchini, diced
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

In a large bowl, whisk together lime zest and juice, olive oil, and salt and pepper.  Add avocado and toss with mixture to coat evenly (the acidity in the lime juice will keep the avocados from browning).  Add remaining vegetables and cheese, and toss to mix up ingredients.  Cover and let sit for at least 15 minutes before serving or refrigerate up to 4 hours.  Before serving, check for seasoning (salt and pepper).  Enjoy!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Playing catch-up

Happy June!  (Can you even believe that it's already June?)  After a fantastic weekend in Reading with Matt's family and friends, I'm back in Pittsburgh.  And man, I need a day to recover from vacation.  Not that I was overexerting myself with the eating, shopping, and sitting, but because I need some time to tackle my growing to-do list:

-Plan this week's meals and make grocery list
-Grocery shopping
-Pay bills
-Order contacts
-Finish a gift that is already two weeks late (woops...)
-Some other intentionally unspecified gifts
-Develop pictures
-Pull weeds in garden
-Check out an apartment for a west coast pal
-Finish painting trim around apartment
-Type up recipes from this past weekend

So, I swear, I'll have some more exciting things for you to read later this week.  In the meantime, I have something for YOU to do -- tell me what you'd like to see this month!  I'm already on the hunt for no cook recipes because a certain apartment is just unbearably hot when the oven is in use.  What else?