Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Autumn Pasta Salad with Basil Vinaigrette

Let me just start this post out by saying how excited I am that tomorrow is Thanksgiving!  I absolutely love Thanksgiving, or as K likes to call it "Bird Day." Every year K tells me stories about how much his Dad loved cooking for the holidays.  He says he would get in the kitchen, crank up some Louis Prima, and dance away while he cooked.  Plus he was famous for his grilled turkey, which we are definitely going to have to try to recreate someday.  K and I spend Thanksgiving day with my side of the family and then we cook dinner at our house for his side of the family the next day.  We always carry on the tradition of putting on some of his Dad's favorite music while we cook, especially while we make his awesome stuffed mushroom recipe.  I love spending this time in the kitchen with K, prepping all of the delicious food and just hanging out together without the distractions of normal daily life.

I spent a few hours in the kitchen today making dutch apple pie, chocolate cream pie, and honey yeast rolls for my mom's house tomorrow, plus cranberry sauce for Friday.  A lot of people find holiday cooking to be time consuming and stressful but it is actually very relaxing for me.  I just focus on what I am doing and let my stresses melt away.  Cooking, specifically baking, has always been a comfort for me and I am very thankful for that. 

I hope everyone has a wonderful Thanksgiving Day, that you enjoy some amazing, overly indulgent food, and that you have a few minutes to reflect on all of the things you are thankful for in your life.  We have so much to give thanks for this year, especially our growing family!

After you have had your fill of turkey, potatoes, stuffing, and then leftovers for days you will probably be in the mood for something lighter and different.  This pasta salad has lots of incredible warm fall flavors and is a nice cold salad to enjoy as a meal or side dish.  The whole wheat noodles are nutty and flavorful which is great compliment to the sweet roasted butternut squash and salty cheesy Parmesan.  The green beans stay nice and crisp from their short blanch while the pasta cooks.  Combining all of these great components with the basil based vinaigrette is the perfect autumn salad. 

Autumn Pasta Salad with Basil Vinaigrette

Pasta Salad
1 box whole wheat penne or other short cut pasta
1 cup fresh green beans
2 cups cubed butternut squash
2 tsp olive oil
1 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1/4 cup walnuts or pecans, chopped
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Basil Vinaigrette, recipe below

Preheat the oven to 400°F.  Peel and cube a butternut squash into small bite sized pieces and place on a greased baking tray.  Toss the squash with olive oil, salt, pepper, and cayenne pepper.  Roast in the oven for about 20-25 minutes until tender and slightly golden brown on the edges.  Let the squash cool to room temperature.

Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil and cook the pasta according to package instructions.  Snap or cut the green beans into bite sized pieces and add to the boiling pasta for the last 4 minutes of cooking time.  Drain the pasta and green beans and allow to cool.

To assemble the pasta salad, combine the pasta, green beans, butternut squash, and chopped nuts in a large bowl.  Toss everything with about 2/3 of the basil vinaigrette recipe.  Stir in the grated Parmesan cheese and be sure to check the salad for seasoning.  Add salt and pepper, if needed.  Refrigerate the pasta salad for at least an hour before serving.  If the pasta has absorbed all of the dressing and become dry, toss with the remaining reserved vinaigrette right before serving.

*Note* I found a similar recipe to this on a google search a few months ago and used it for inspiration.  I have not been able to relocate the recipe, so please leave me a comment if you can direct me to the original blog so that I can give proper credit.

Basil Vinaigrette

1/3 cup fresh basil
1 clove garlic  
1 tsp dijon mustard 
1/3 cup white wine vinegar  
3 tbsp water 
1 tsp Italian seasoning
1 tbsp white sugar  
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
1/3 cup olive oil 
1/3 cup canola or vegetable oil

Add the fresh basil to a food processor and pulse a few times to begin chopping up the leaves. Add all of the ingredients except for the oils and blend for about 30 seconds until well combined and the basil and garlic have been pureed.  With the food processor running on low speed, drizzle the oils in through the top opening and blend until the vinaigrette has emulsified. Pour into a bowl or glass measuring cup and store in the refrigerator until ready to use.

Inspired by Serena Bakes Simply From Scratch


Tuesday, November 19, 2013

"Better Than Sex Cake"

A week or two before my mom's birthday we were gmail chatting and I mentioned that I was really craving cake and she responded by saying..."mmmm that sounds good, chocolate cake with vanilla frosting, yum!"  So while her comment didn't help curb my cake craving in the slightest (thanks mom.....), it did remind me of this cake recipe and I decided this is what I would make for her birthday cake. 

If you spend much time browsing around in the food blog world or even on pinterest, you have probably seen a recipe for this cake pop up from time to time. The most common version is a 9x13 one layer "semi-homemade" style recipe with box cake mix, sweetened condensed milk, jarred sundae sauce, cool whip, and crushed heath bars.  Now, not that there is anything wrong with using box mixes or cool whip; they can be really great time savers and are easy to put together, but I really like trying to make recipes completely from scratch when I can. I feel like this gives me better control of the ingredients and preservatives I am putting in my food.  So I took the idea of this "potluck" style cake and made each of the components from scratch and tried to fancy it up a little bit by making it into a layer cake.

I have read many excellent reviews about the infamous better than sex cake, some people even claiming the cake really lives up to it's name.  While I thought this cake was delicious, I don't know if I will go that far :) Everyone at the birthday party agreed that the cake was fabulous; very rich and chocolatey with a good  balance of sweetness in the homemade whipped cream. 

I had two small glitches with my attempt at this recipe, but I have made adjustments to the recipe and assembly to hopefully fix these issues for you.  The biggest problem I had was getting the ooey gooey sweetened condensed milk soaked cakes assembled into the layers.  I laid both layers of cake out on parchment paper  and poked with lots of holes to allow maximum cake soaking.  However this meant making two moves from paper to cake stand, which was a bit tricky since they were so saturated.  Next time I would place one of the cakes directly on the plate or cake stand before soaking so that it is ready to go at assembly time. I would also recommend baking this cake in straight edged cake pans, if you have them, instead of the slightly tapered side style pans that I used.  I think this will give the cake a bit more stability and it will result in a nicer finished look. 

The other problem that I had was the recipe that I used for the chocolate sauce recommended boiling for 8-9 minutes, which I believe ended up bringing the sauce's temperature too high for me. My sauce resulted in more of a thick fudge layer that was very difficult to cut through, hence why there are no pictures of the cake sliced.  To put it 'lightly', it was a huge, giant mess and I ended up carving the cake with a spoon.  I have decreased the cooking time and hopefully you won't have the same problem.   

Even with my minor difficulties, I still think this layer cake came out beautiful (well before I attempted to cut it anyways) and it tasted excellent too.  The sweetened condensed milk absorbs into the cake creating a dense gooey texture and the chocolate sauce enhances the richness.  The whipped cream cuts through the chocolatey-ness and brings a wonderful creaminess while the toffee flavored heath bar bits add just the right amount of crunch.  Give this recipe a try and let me know if you think it holds up to it's name!

"Better Than Sex Cake"

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups white sugar
3/4 cup cocoa powder
1 1/4 tsp baking powder
1 1/4 tsp baking soda
1  tsp salt
2 large eggs
1 cup milk
1/2 cup vegetable or canola oil
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup boiling water

1 14oz. can sweetened condensed milk

Preheat the oven to 350°F.  Grease two 9" cake pans and line the bottoms with parchment paper rounds.  Grease the parchment paper and dust pans with cocoa powder for optimal cake sticking prevention.  In a large bowl sift (yes, you should actually sift this time because cocoa powder can be so lumpy) the flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda, and salt together.  In a large liquid measuring cup, measure the milk and oil together and then whisk in the eggs and vanilla extract.  Pour the liquid mixture into the dry ingredients and whisk until combined.  Lastly, add the boiling water and stir to combine.  The batter will be very liquid.  Divide evenly between the two cake pans and bake for 30-35 minutes until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool in the pans for 10 minutes and then turn out on wire racks lined with parchment paper.

When the cakes are still only slightly warm transfer one cake round to your cake stand or serving plate.  Leave the remaining cake on the parchment paper.  Using the back of a wooden spoon poke holes evenly around the cake, making sure not to poke all the way through.  Pour about 1/2 of the can of sweetened condensed milk over each cake round and allow to soak for at least 20 minutes.

Chocolate Fudge Sauce

4 oz dark or semisweet chocolate chips
3 tbsp butter
2/3 cup water
1/4 cup sugar
6 tablespoons corn syrup
1 tsp vanilla extract

In a microwave safe bowl melt the butter and chocolate together, stopping to stir about every 30 seconds. In a medium size saucepan bring the water to a boil.  Stir in the melted butter and chocolate mixture, sugar, and corn syrup.  Bring the sauce to a bubble, lower the heat, and let cook for about 6 minutes, stirring continuously.  The sauce should be a somewhat thick consistency.  Let the sauce cool for about 10 minutes and pour evenly over the two cakes.  Let the cakes set until cooled.

Whipped Cream
1 1/2 cups whipping or heavy cream
1/4 cup powdered sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract

Beat the cream with an electric mixer or whisk until stiff peaks form and then beat in the sugar and vanilla until well incorporated.  

1/2 cup crushed Heath Bar bits

To assemble the cake, top the cake on the serving plate with about 1/3 of the whipped cream topping.  Sprinkle the whipped cream with a light dusting of heath bar bits.  Carefully transfer the second cake on top of the whipped cream.  You should try to keep the fudge sauce side of the cake facing up, if possible.  If the cake is too difficult to remove from the parchment paper, trying flipping it over onto the whipped cream and peeling the parchment paper off.  Top the cake with the remaining whipped cream and health bar bits.  Serve immediately after assembling.


Inspired by Lemon Sugar

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Cinnamon Applesauce

Homemade applesauce is a beautiful thing and this recipe is as simple as they come, if you can even call it a recipe since it is just four ingredients.  You can use any variety of apples that you want.  I bought a big bag of local Gala apples on special at the grocery store so I just used those but I think a mix of two or three apple types would be delicious. Next time I make this, I am going to try a Honeycrisp and Granny Smith combo. 

You want to leave the apples in decent sized pieces otherwise they will cook too fast and not develop as nice of a flavor with the sugar and cinnamon. The liquid in the pot should be about level with the apples, so if it starts to get too low while cooking, just add another splash of cider or water.  You definitely do not want these to scorch!

I like really chunky applesauce so I went with the potato masher method.  There is still a ton of apple texture since the apples have been cooked just right and are not to the completely mushy stage.  Even if you want a much smoother texture you still want the apples to be cooked perfectly, just use a blender or food processor instead.  This applesauce is an amazing side dish, breakfast, or snack and can also be used in many baked goods as a substitute for butter, oil, or eggs.  I made super delicious apple streusel muffins with this applesauce, which I will be sharing soon.

Cinnamon Applesauce
Inspired by The Pioneer Woman

4 lbs apples, peeled and sliced
1 cup apple cider or water
1/3 cup brown sugar
1 1/2 tsp cinnamon

Peel the apples, slice into 8 pieces, and place in a large pot or dutch oven.  Stir in the water, sugar, and cinnamon.  Cook uncovered over medium heat for about 25 minutes, stirring occasionally. When the apples are tender, mash with a potato masher or puree with a blender or food processor depending on what texture you are looking for.  The potato masher will result in a chunkier applesauce while you can get much smoother with a blender or food processor.  Be very careful blending the hot apples; do not over fill the blending container or you could have a huge hot mess all over your kitchen.  Let cool to room temperature and transfer to an air tight container to keep in the refrigerator. 


Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Banana Cream Pie Cookies

Have you  heard about the pudding cookie phenomenon?  I have seen this type of cookie, in lots of different flavor combos, showing up all over the interwebz.  Basically you can add any flavor of instant pudding mix that you want into your cookie dough batter and it promises to result in a super delicious, chewy cookie with a burst of whatever flavor pudding you pick.  Awhile back I tried adding vanilla pudding mix to my standard chocolate chip cookies, which was excellent, but this recipe takes it to a whole new level.  Believe it or not, these cookies taste exactly like banana cream pie.

A few months ago, I was looking for a banana baked good recipe of some kind for my brother-in-law's birthday since he loooves banana. So, I decided I wanted to try to find a cookie recipe because everyone loves cookies for their birthday.  At first I was skeptical of the thought because normally, I am not a huge fan of banana flavored food (other than my oh so delicious banana bread) so I wasn't sure how banana cookies would turn out.  After a while of looking and seeing a lot of healthy banana and flax seed type cookies I was disappointed and was about to start looking for other ideas.  Then the thought of banana cream pie popped into my head.  I started googling and this wonderful recipe appeared in  my results.  As soon as I read that it was a pudding cookie, I knew that I couldn't go wrong here.  

The cookies turned out amazing.  My brother-in-law and his family thought they were delicious and even as non-banana lovers, K and I both thought these cookies were great.   The cookie dough plus the white chocolate chips tastes exactly like banana cream pie custard and these would not be complete without the graham cracker pieces to resemble the pie's traditional graham cracker crust.  As an added benefit, banana cream pie in cookie form is much more portable than a slice of pie and these cookies come together much faster too.  If you are banana fan, you must give these cookies a try soon!

Banana Cream Pie Cookies
Inspired by Like Mother Like Daughter

1 cup (2 sticks) butter, room temperature
1 cup white sugar
1 cup brown sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
1 small box (3.4oz) instant banana cream pudding mix
1 1/2 cup white chocolate or vanilla chips
4 honey or cinnamon graham crackers, crushed in small pieces

Preheat oven to 350°F. In a large bowl cream together the butter and both kinds of sugar until light and fluffy.  Add the eggs and vanilla and mix until well combined.  Carefully stir in the flour, salt, baking soda, and dry pudding mix until fully incorporated.  Mix in the white chocolate chips and graham cracker pieces, reserving some of the chips to top the cookies when they are removed from the oven, if desired.  Spoon tablespoon size (I like using something like this scoop) balls of the cookie dough onto parchment lined baking sheets and bake for 9-10 minutes. When you remove the cookies from the oven, you can top with a few additional white chips for a cute look, but completely not necessary.  Remove cookies to cooling rack and let cool completely.  Store for 3-4 days in air tight containers.


Sunday, November 3, 2013

Chicken & Rice Soup

In case you haven't noticed by now, I have a serious love for comfort foods.  Stews, casseroles, soups, I love them all.  Now that the cool fall weather has officially settled in, soup is back on the menu in our house.  I actually don't think I have made any soups since last winter when I tried out a wonderful recipe for broccoli cheddar soup, but this soup brought my love for soup back in a big way.  I have been thinking about and searching for new soup recipes to try over the next few months and I am really excited about them.  So far my plans definitely include Italian wedding, minestrone, french onion, and wonton soup.

This chicken and rice soup was super satisfying, warming, and hearty.  It is a very classic chicken soup recipe, wonderful for the cooler autumn and winter months.  Or if you are feeling under the weather or down and out, it is the perfect food to make you feel a bit better.  This recipe makes a pretty big batch of soup.  We both had a huge bowl of it for dinner and then reheated it for several lunches too.  You could certainly freeze this to keep on hand for a quick meal as well.  I hope you give this soup a try and also check out the dinner rolls that I posted in the previous post, which were an amazing compliment to this beautiful soup (link below). 

Chicken & Rice Soup

1 tbsp olive oil
3-4 carrots, diced
2-3 stalks of celery, diced
1 small onion, diced
1/2 of a bell pepper, diced
2 cups shredded chicken
1 tsp poultry seasoning
6-8 cups chicken stock
2 cups cooked white rice
Salt & Pepper, to taste

In a large pot or dutch oven, heat olive oil over medium heat.  Add the diced vegetables to the pot, season with salt and pepper, and cook until becoming translucent. Add the shredded chicken and poultry seasoning and cook for 2-3 minutes.  Once the chicken has started to heat through, add the chicken stock and bring to a boil.  When the vegetables are soft add the rice and cook for 5 minutes more to make sure everything is fully warmed.  Be sure to check to see if the soup needs salt and pepper, especially if you are using low or no sodium chicken broth.  Serve piping hot with crusty bread or homemade rolls