Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Forty Days and Forty Nights

Lent starts Wednesday. And I like a challenge. A while after I decided to give up the dynamic peanut butter/chocolate duo it dawned on me, "oh dear, forty days of no chocolate or peanut butter on my blog!" And then I remembered that it's been quite some time since either showed up on anyway and decided it was a loss that could be afforded. (This does mean, however, that the weekend Lent ends there will be a fantastically rich peanut butter and chocolate recipe up here! Can't end a forty day fast without something epic.)

I suppose I'll have to come up with something equally delicious in meantime, more for my purposes than yours! I'm a dessert addict and if you have any recommendations as to how I can fill the gap between now and then without going insane, let me know! Not only will I make it and try it, but you'll see it up here :) Mrs. Browning gave me a magazine article on some fruit based cakes that look fantastic, and I think I'm going to try my hand a creme brulee! So don't give up on me just yet, more deliciousness is to come!


Ok, so I wrote that this morning. The morning of Fat Tuesday, the day before Lent, and before I went to school and saw Supersize Me. I don't really eat fast food, so it really wasn't a big eye opener or anything, but the cool thing about the movie I think is that even if you are a McAddict, you can still relate. The whole movie is about obesity issues in general and it talks about sources other than the fast food industry. I won't lie, even though the issues pointed out in the video are mostly ones I have learned to avoid, I still have my own messy habits that contribute to me not being the size of a rail (which I'm not necessarily docking, so don't go all haywire on me). So it got me thinking. I have given up peanut butter and chocolate before (so to those of you who think I can't do it, know I have already succeeded once!) and maybe I could raise the bar a little more this year.

So here's what I'm thinking... What if I take the whole Supersize Me experiment and reverse it? Morgan swore to eat only products sold at McDonald's for thirty days, what if I swear myself off processed food for forty? Including chocolate and peanut butter. Obviously a direct foil of his mission would be to give up fast food, but I don't eat fast food anyway so that doesn't seem like much of a challenge. I'm proposing that I not only swear myself off of peanut butter and chocolate but all processed, packaged, or ready to eat food. Meaning... anything straight from a package or carton is off limits. Basically no chips, no ice cream, no crackers, no candy bars, no cereal, nothing meant to go straight from the shelf to your mouth. To a certain degree at least. I could prepare packaged foods like oatmeal, or used canned tomatoes to make pasta sauce, or cook pasta or rice, things of that nature. But toasting a pop tart doesn't fall in that category, nor does baking a Tombstone pizza. See where I'm headed?

And by the way, eating food from a restaraunt would be limited to once a week. Fast food is obviously out of bounds, anything that is pretty much just reheated at the restaraunt is automatically off limits, but otherwise I can order food at MOST once a week from any establishment, discluding non-caloric beverages (what if I want to get some tea ;) ).

Unlike others, and this a sick little part of me, I think this sounds fun. I like a challenge. And I'm going to do it. Hopefully that means you'll be hearing from me more rather than less. After all, I'm going to have to prepare my own food more often and come up with some creative ways to indulge, of course sharing my experiments all along the way. I've been wanting to factor some heathier habits into my lifestyle, and I always seem to use Lent as an excuse to do so. Here goes nothing...

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Of Course Cupid's Chubby, Valentine's Day is about Chocolate!

So naturally when Valentine's Day, or any holiday for that matter, rolls around I end up in the kitchen. The difference between me being in the kitchen for this day, however, as opposed to others is that I really only have one purpose: make something Taylor will think is delicious. Oh yeah, and something fun! I don't know how I came up with this idea. I wanted to make something that could be all his. Cakes, pie, tarts, those types of things are usually on the top of my list, but things like that beg to be shared, even though I am very confident Taylor could find a way to finish one on his own. Regardless, I wanted something fun and playful that could be his, if he so chooses.

I'd never made truffles before, but I love the concept. Depending on how you approach them they can be elegant or funky or elegantly funky! And it turns out there are a quite a few ways to make the actual chocolate part... I opted for the easier one simply because... well.... I procrastinated a bit on Valentine's Day. But not on purpose! I couldn't think of anything to make that filled the $5 limit Taylor and I agreed to place on the day! I think though that these were a good way to go. Besides, the more complicated recipes were a little intimidating and these honestly sounded a little more delicious, hopefully they are.

These really were so simply! The recipe simply asked that I beat one package of cream cheese until fluffy (make sure you use real cream cheese, not fat-free or anything robbed of flavor! and IT MUST BE AT ROOM TEMPERATURE, your ingredients won't blend if it's not softened), then gradually beat in 3 cups of powdered sugar. I then melted 3 cups of semi-sweet chocolate chips in the microwave and, after it cooled a bit, beat the melted chocolate and 1.5 teaspoons of peppermint extract (though the recipe calls for vanilla; really any extract would do, pick what you like) into the cream cheese and sugar mixture. I then covered the bowl with saran wrap and let it chill in the refrigerator for an hour.

I planned on rolling the truffles in whatever lovely coatings I could come up with and then place them on a baking sheet to be popped into the freezer, but when I went to retrieve my baking sheet I noticed a couple mini-muffin pans that I thought would be perfect. After all, truffles are significantly less appealing if they roll off an inconveniently flat baking sheet. I also remembered we happened to have mini-muffin liners! So I placed them in the muffin pans and went to work on my little peppermint chocolate treats.

Using a regular metal spoon, I scooped out balls of chocolate just big enough to fit in the mini-muffin slots, rolling them into smooth balls with my palms. You can coat your truffles really in just about anything you'd like, within reason of course. Some delicious options to consider are coconut flakes, any chopped variety of nuts, cocoa powder, or festive sprinkles. Taylor doesn't like coconut so I ditched that option, and I'm pretty sure he's not a huge nut fan, so I ruled that one out as well. I rolled a few in a mixture of red, pink, and white sprinkles because they were, after all, Valentine's Day truffles. I also rolled a few in cocoa powder, powerded sugar (though that wasn't my favorite), and chocolate sprinkles.

These I put in the freezer to set and then let sit in the fridge until I was ready for them! The night before Valentine's Day, I cut up small squares of saran wrap and individually wrapped each truffle, so very cute! Unfortunately my procrastination left me in such a hurry that taking pictures failed to make my priority list... especially since I might have been wrapping them at 2:30 in the morning... so you'll just have to take my word on there absolutely awesome presentation. You certainly don't need to wrap them individually, I just liked the idea of having them look like gourmet candy store goodies, which I thought they got pretty close to! The muffin liners are a necessity either, but they make clean up and delivery a little easier and I would assume can be found at your grocery store (pretty sure we got ours from Meijer, and if Meijer has it, everybody probably does).

Anyway, truffles are incredibly impressive for an incredibly easy recipe. I think too often people give in to the Hallmark crafted version of Valentine's Day. The best way to spend the holiday is to do something thoughtful, not something gift store crafted, generic, and often expensive. Baking is a perfect way to show a loved one you care, it takes time and effort and shows a great deal of appreciation and thought. If you're still on the hunt for a Valentine idea, which you shouldn't be because I had to wait until the day of to post this, make some truffles. This recipe will make enough to almost fill a paper lunch bag, around 3 dozen. Nothing says I love you like a decadent balls of chocoholic joy!

Friday, February 6, 2009

Dinner for One

Haha! You thought my poll was aimed at trying to figure out what you wanted me to write about! Not really, sorry, I'm going to continue to cook whatever I feel like cooking... I just got excited cause I found out I could make polls! So even though healthy main dishes aren't in first, you will just have to get over it and either read this anyway or go to some other cookie and brownie plastered website to drool over, but personal, I thought this rocked...

Usually cooking is the last thing I want to do when I get home from work, but on this particular past Thursday I didn't seem to mind. Besides, the recipe I'd had my eye on looked pretty easy, fairly quick, and utterly delicious! Once again, I'd been religiously checking smittenkitchen.com for a few good ideas, and when I came across this one I put it at the top of my list.

This recipe immediately got my attention because it includes one of my absolute favorite ingredients, winter squash. Butternut squash actually, and it's even roasted! How could you possibly dream of saying no? And better yet, one of my other absolute favorite ingredients was mixed in, chickpeas!!! Oh smitten kitchen, I do love you.

So I cut up a butternut squash, which is no easy task. Actually sliced into my finger a bit... but it's well worth it! Cubed then tossed in olive oil, garlic, and all spice, the roasting squash sent wafting out of the oven an absolute divine aroma.

Roasted Butternut Squash

I could've eaten the whole pan just like that, but I managed to resist and press on! Those lovely golden cubes of squash were tossed with chickpeas, sliced red onion, and parsley flakes (though I would definitely recommend using fresh parsley...) and drizzled with a tahini dressing.

Roasted Butternut Squash Salad

You may be asking yourself, "what is tahini dressing?" Easy, it's a dressing made with tahini paste! If you're now wondering, "what is tahini paste?" then you might well go look it up because I've been wondering the same thing. We bought it a while ago for one reason or another, maybe a hummus recipe.... don't remember, and it never was used. I happened upon this recipe and pulled it out of the pantry. It's got quite a unique flavor, very nutty, but pairs well some olive oil and lemon juice. If you do decide to try out this recipe, however, I would recommend only making half a recipe of the dressing. It's good, but strong, and even though I polished off all of that salad within a couple days, I've got quite a bit of unused dressing sitting in my fridge, hoping for a purpose. Anyway if you're interested, you can find the recipe here: http://smittenkitchen.com/2009/01/warm-butternut-squash-and-chickpea-salad/#more-1870. I made it as a main course, but it was pair well as a side dish with something like a simple version of roasting/grilled/whatever chicken. It's simple, but elegant and unique, an excellent option if you're aiming to impress!

Monday, February 2, 2009

I'm Not There for the Football

Apparently my craving for carrot cake was not satisfied through scones, even if they were delicious. Super Bowl meant a cake. Lots of things mean cake, but whatever, I needed a cake for the Super Bowl and looking for something without chocolate (and after ditching football shaped cupcakes...) I came across a recipe that I've had on my to-do list for quite sometime.

I've seen recipes for Hummingbird Cake on more than one occasion, and fortunately the pages of my new favorite baking book are graced with one! Although I was little confused... the recipe is called Hummingbird Carrot Cake, and yet recipe made no mention of carrots beyond the title! And so trouble ensued, I could not make a carrot cake without carrots, and therefore I decided to take some creative liberty. Ordinarily, cooking can be freestyle whereas baking is a more exact science and recipes should be respected. I've come to find, however, that what's important is that you keep the base batter true to the recipe's directions and beyond that you should be free to add just about anything you'd like, as long as your ingredients are kept to a reasonable volume.

From what I've observed, Hummingbird cakes tend to be a spin off carrot cake with crushed pineapple and sometimes coconut. So after I was shocked to find the carrot part neglected in this particular version I used it as more of a recommendation list than an actual recipe. The recipe called for basic batter ingredients, with crushed pineapple, pecans, and finely chopped banana. Yum. But I decided to add a good two cups of shredded carrot and some raisins, which I made room for by cutting the pecans and banana in half. The best part of a cake like this is the texture. Not only is it decadently moist, but the carrots, raisins, pineapple, and banana all contribute a different chewiness and the pecans add a fantastic crunch.

TIP! I've seen this numerous times before, but hadn't tried it until now. There's a fantastic way to get a little more chew out of raisins when baking! Raisins are dehydrated grapes, right? So if you rehydrate them a little bit they plump up and have great moisture and texture. I did this with my golden raisins by letting them steep in really hot water for about five minutes, and it was a fantastic idea. You can also heat liquor or other flavor lending liquids to steep dried fruit in for plumping. Raisins plumped in rum are a really good addition to a rich cake! (Or so I hear).

ANOTHER TIP! This one I've seen numerous times and have utilized numerous times! I made blueberry bread a little while back and neglected to add this step because I was in a rush and regretted in later. I mixed my blueberries into my batter, but they all sunk to the bottom! The top was just sweet bread and all the blueberries were hidden in the bottom, not cool. To make sure you're ingredients (in this case, shredded carrots and raisins) stay evenly suspended in your batter, sprinkle them with some flour before mixing them into the batter. If the pieces have a light dusting of flour, they stick to the batter and don't sink!

Hummingbird Cake Layers Stacked

And so my loaded batter was poured into three cake pans, because two layers just doesn't seem to cut it anymore. But what is cake, no matter how many layers, without a good frosting? Carrot cakes are classically topped with a cream cheese frosting, but I decided to fudge the recipe for this one a little bit too... I added a couple teaspoons of cinnamon to partner with a splash of vanilla extract. I don't think you could really taste the cinnamon, but it added a lovely rustic color to the icing! I dusted the top with ground pecans and placed a couple pecan halves in the center to pretend I know how to decorate :)

Hummingbird Carrot Cake

ONE LAST TIP! So I made that epic fail chocolate ice cream cake a while ago, right? Well in that mess I discovered something quite delicious. The cake actual cake layers dried out a bit after being frozen, so I decided to "rehydrate" them a little bit by pouring some milk over my frozen slice of cake. What made me decide to do this? I just don't know. But it was genius! I decided to try it with carrot cake and stuck a slice of my Hummingbird Cake in the freezer overnight. EPIC! Frozen cake + milk = delicious. Try it. So good.