Monday, December 29, 2008

Merry Christmas to Me

This is me at Christmas, about to enjoy a whole pile of one of my favorite (and Oprah's favorite) desserts: Wicked Whoopies.

Ben and I went straight to the Isamax bakery to pick up a dozen. Unfortunately, they were closed early for Christmas Eve. Fortunately, my sister made it there before they closed and picked up all my favorites: strawberry, raspberry and cream, and peanut butter.

See all that raspberry goodness?

I'd like to take this opportunity to offer a formal word of thanks to my sister for her whoopie pie foresight. Whoopie pies, it would have been a blue Christmas without you.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Hot Potato (Latkes)

We had our first Christmas on Sunday with Ben's side of the family and, in honor of the first day of Chanukah, Peter lit the menorah and made beef brisket and potato latkes. After Peter mixed the latkes, I volunteered to fry. It was strangely satisfying to drop piles of shredded potato and onion into hot oil.

It was also satisfying to eat them. Crunchy on the outside, chewy on the inside. Yummy all around. I recommend a little sour cream on the side.

I'm not sure what recipe Peter used, but everyone's favorite home expert and jailbird Martha Stewart offered this take on latkes on her show yesterday, after taking a moment to emphasize that her family is Catholic, not Jewish.

We've had a great time with Sue and Peter and Gabe and Melissa, and we've been eating very well and often. Next up is our Nixon Christmas, with more fun and more family.

And more food. Oy vey.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A Chip Off the Old Bar

When it comes to Christmas baking, I usually stick to the faithful favorites, but this year I branched out a little with these ginger chocolate chip bars. Overall, I would rate them as an "ehh, okay."

Basically, they're a blondie brownie with ginger in the batter. I love ginger, but the flavor wasn't very pronounced, so I pretty much ended up with plain old blondies. No Christmas razzle dazzle there. And with holiday baked goods, I'm going for the razzle dazzle. I might try them again with lots more ginger.

I will say that the batter tasted much better than the final product. So if you like raw cookie dough and you're feeling brave about salmonella, this might be the recipe for you.

The food: Ginger chocolate chip bars
The verdict: Like I said: ehh, okay

Monday, December 22, 2008

How I Roll

I like rock and roll. I like a good honor roll. But my favorite roll, by far, is pumpkin. Especially at Christmas. This is the perfect Christmas dessert. Pumpkin sponge cake. Walnuts. And more cream cheesy goodness than you can shake a yule log at.

Plus the slices look cool. And it's fun to throw powdered sugar all over your dish towels.

A word to the wise: Let the cake cool nearly completely rolled up in the towel before you attempt to fill. Don't be impatient. And speaking of being patient, let it sit in the fridge overnight if you can.

Pumpkin Roll
  • 3/4 cup flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 2/3 cup pureed pumpkin
  • 1 cup chopped walnuts
  • 1 pkg. (8 oz.) cream cheese, softened
  • 1 cup powdered sugar
  • 6 tablespoons butter, softened
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • Powdered sugar (for towel and for dusting cake)
Preheat oven to 375F. Grease 15x10-inch jelly-roll pan and line with wax or parchment paper. Grease and flour paper.

Mix flour, baking powder, baking soda, pumpkin pie spice and salt. In a separate bowl, beat eggs and granulated sugar. Add pumpkin. Stir in flour mixture.

Spread in pan and sprinkle with nuts. Bake about 15 minutes.

While cake bakes, sprinkle a thin towel with about 1/3 cup of powdered sugar. (Use plenty – the cake sticks.) When cake is done, invert immediately onto towel. Peel off the paper and roll cake in towel. Cool completely (on a rack) before unrolling.

For the filling, beat cream cheese, 1 cup powered sugar, butter and vanilla. Unroll the cake, spread the filling and re-roll. Refrigerate for two to three hours (but best if refrigerated overnight). Dust with powdered sugar before serving.

The food: Pumpkin roll
The verdict: Santa requested it over cookies this year

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Taking 'Cues

Ben and I have become barbecue enthusiasts. The time-honored Southern tradition of roasting an entire pig over a wood fire has become very dear to the hearts of these two Yankees.

For those of you unfamiliar with barbecue, or for those readers who think of barbecue as an event held on the Fourth of July or similar occasions, let me point you to the wisdom of Rhett and Link, North Carolina's favorite musical comedy duo:

People not from the South think barbecue means cookout.
And that’s something they’re wrong about.
Barbecue’s not a verb.

Barbecue’s not a grill.
Barbecue is meat prepared in a very special way, which varies depending on where you are.

And when you're in Eastern North Carolina barbecue territory, like we are, barbecue is pork prepared with vinegar-based sauce. And that's it.

I'll spare you details on the Eastern-style/Western-style drama, only saying that most folks around here like Eastern-style and Ben and I are with them on that.

Our favorite barbecue spot in Bill's in Wilson. There are a lot of good things about Bill's. First -- and most important -- the food is excellent. Second, there's a lot of it. Third, it's pretty cheap. Fourth, the ambiance and decor are such that you don't feel bad if you drop a little of your barbecue on the table. Or the floor.

I usually go for the barbecue (pork -- but that goes without saying in the Tar Heel State), chicken and dumplings, hush puppies, sweet potatoes and biscuits. And peach cobbler. The photo at the top is my most recent Bill's meal.
Notice the half-eaten biscuit. That's where I started.

Ben skips the dessert and does double barbecue and biscuits. He's also a sweet potato fan, likes the fried chicken and hush puppies, and has been known to try fatback but reports it isn't his favorite menu item.

I think this picture of Ben really captures our barbecue experience. See how he's savoring the moment? Or just happened to blink as I took the picture?

If you're in the neighborhood, stop in at Bill's. Tell them we sent you. But I'd recommend skipping the fatback.

Monday, December 15, 2008

A Kale Tale

See this leafy green stuff? It's kale.

If you've never had it, here's how I'd describe it: a really, really tough version of parsley. It doesn't wilt. It takes a lot of effort to chew. Did I mention it was tough?

I don't have much use for kale. In fact, I have only one recipe I use it in: a sausage and potato soup. (If you're still interested in trying it after you read this -- and really, you should, because it's a good soup -- the recipe is at the end.)

The soup calls for two cups of kale. The thing is, you can't buy kale by the cupful. You buy it by the bunch. And there's a lot more than two cups of kale in a bunch.

Back when my sister Allie and I had our apartment in Farmington, I made this soup one time. I used my two cups of kale. I thought about throwing out the extra. But then I didn't.

This apartment was the first place I'd lived that had a garbage disposal. It was an impressive machine and I was a little fascinated with it. I thought it would be fun to feed it the kale.

And it was -- at least for stalks one through six. They spun and spun while the blades ground away, eventually sucking in leafy tops. Stalk seven, though is what gummed up the works. I was faced with an ugly kale clog.

I tried running the garbage disposal longer. Nothing. I tried four different grades of drain cleaner. No dice. I tried a snake-like gadget that was supposed to clear any blocked pipe. All it did was bring up a few good size chunks of kale, unharmed, except for the color bleaching that occurred as a result of the three gallons of Draino I used.

Ben finally showed up to help and suggested lye. Citing my aversion to corrosive alkalines in the kitchen, I said no. Then he suggested a plunger. I have an aversion to plungers in the kitchen, too, but it was better than lye and I was desperate for an operational sink at this point.

At first, even the plunger was helpless against the kale blockage. Eventually, however, Ben was able to clear the clog. I was giddy. My sink was kale-free. I'm sure my landlord would have been appreciative, too, had he been aware of the situation.

Thanks to this experience, Ben asks me whenever I make this soup not to put the kale down the garbage disposal. Let me caution you in the same way. Toss it, give it to the dog, put it in a vase and pretend it's a bouquet -- but do not try to grind it up in the InSinkErator.

Trust me on this one.

Sausage Kale Soup
  • 1/2 lb. hot Italian sausage
  • 3 to 4 cups chicken broth
  • 3 to 4 cups milk
  • 1 small onion, minced
  • 1/4 cup bacon, crumbled
  • Dash salt
  • Dash crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1 large russet potato, scrubbed, with peel
  • 2 cups kale, chopped
Grill or sauté sausage until cooked. Slice into 1/4-inch slices.

Combine broth, milk, onion, bacon, salt and pepper flakes in a large stock pot. Cook at medium high heat for about 10 minutes.

Quarter the potato lengthwise, then slice. Add to pot. Bring soup to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, for about 30 minutes.

Add sausage to soup. Simmer for an hour.

Add kale. Simmer for 15 minutes.

Makes four servings.

The food: Kale
The verdict: Great in soups. Not great in drains.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Sir, Mix a Lot?

I don't use mixes that often, but inevitably, whenever I cheat and bake something from a mix, someone wants the recipe. Basic recipe: Go to Harris Teeter. Add eggs and oil.

I've decided there is no need to apologize for using a mix -- some of them are really excellent. Betty Crocker's Double Chocolate Chunk cookie mix, for instance, makes the best cookies I've ever had.

I'm also throwing my official blog endorsement behind Country Gourmet scone mixes. My two favorites are cranberry orange and blueberry oat. Just add water. Not too sweet, not too dry. Very sconey.

The food: Double Chocolate Chunk cookie mix and Country Gourmet scone mixes
The verdict: The best thing that ever happened to an egg and two tablespoons of water

Friday, November 28, 2008

The Good. And the Bad and Ugly.

Thanksgiving. A day for giving thanks. But mostly for cooking. And eating. And then eating leftovers.

This was our second Thanksgiving in North Carolina and while we briefly entertained the idea of making barbecue for the big meal, we went traditional in the end. In my post-Thanksgiving review and analysis, I give a thumbs-up to the turkey (made in my slow cooker), the cranberry sauce (made in a factory by Ocean Spray) and the biscuits (which were both a Thanksgiving side and breakfast today, served with gravy).

The secret to the biscuits is Maine's own Bakewell Cream. I haven't found it around here, but if you're into making biscuits, it's well worth a mail order. The leavening agent makes biscuits flaky and fluffy (unless you're a compulsive mixer or kneader, which I used to be -- and in that case, even the magic of Bakewell Cream can't save you). The moral of the story: Mix minimally. Knead lightly. Use Bakewell.

The day, however, was not without its disappointments. The biggest disappointment: Rachael Ray's Double-Decker Pumpkin-Caramel Pie.

Check out this link to see what Everyday with Rachael Ray promised me it would look like. Here's what it actually looked like:

I swear, there's a slice of pie under there.

This flop was particularly painful since dessert is the best part of Thanksgiving and pumpkin pie is the best dessert.

There were three main problems. First, I couldn't find the chocolate graham crackers for the crust, so I improvised with Oreos. Sounds good in theory, but they stayed in the pie plate. Second, the pie batter was a little on the bitter side, so I added a little (lot) more sugar. The pie never really set right. Third, the caramel whipped cream was made by melting caramel with cream, then adding the mixture to cream whipped to soft peaks. The caramel deflated the cream and turned the whole thing into a soupy, yucky-sweet mess.

Despite the obvious visual evidence that I had failed, I grabbed a spoon and tried a slice. This, after all, was Thanksgiving, and I needed some pie. It wasn't pretty.

Next year, it's back to regular old pumpkin pie. Hold the caramel.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Table Talk

This past Saturday was the first ever Bridge Community Church DelecTables event. Hostesses from the Bridge each decorated a table in a holiday theme, made a dessert and invited a few friends to come and enjoy.

Since my good china consists of a quarter of a set of Corelle Livingware, circa 1985, I had to pass on the tablescaping portion of the event. I did, however, volunteer to bring a dessert.

This was the perfect opportunity to try out a recipe I've been holding on to for just such an occasion: chocolate pound cake with Italian meringue buttercream.

I'll skip the play-by-play and just say this: It was good. Thanks in part, I believe, to the six sticks of butter and nine eggs it included.

I won't lie. I was nervous going into the production phase. The cake itself required delicate sifting, measuring and blending, none of which I do too carefully. But the real challenge was the Italian meringue buttercream. It required the whipping of, as they say here in the South, a whole mess of egg whites. Then it required me to heat water and sugar to exactly 245 degrees -- a process during which a kid named Steve came to the door selling magazines. I explained that I'd love to hear more but that if I didn't go stir the syrup my meringue would be ruined and I didn't suppose Steve wanted that on his conscience.

He didn't.

Once I had the syrup, I added it to the egg whites. I blended. I whipped. Then I added a little butter. Like two cups. As in a whole box. But I did it tablespoon by tablespoon. That made it seem a little more reasonable.

In the end, the cake and the frosting both turned out pretty well. I didn't get a photo of the finished cake, but I did photograph the mini version I made for myself (to test for quality). I've decided sifted flour and superfine sugar are the way to go with cakes -- you get a very fine crumb and smooth texture. And if you're feeling like your cholesterol levels can survive the hit, I'd highly recommend the meringue. (I found my recipe in Cuisine at Home, provided by CakeLove in Washington, D.C., but you can see the same recipe here.) It's not too sweet and very smooth. Like butter, you might say.

The food: Chocolate pound cake with Italian meringue buttercream
The verdict: The tastiest heart attack you'll ever have

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Election Day: An Excuse to Eat Themed Food

So, last Tuesday, when everyone else in the U.S. was out exercising his or her right to vote, this early ballot caster was at home, thinking up election-themed eats. I finally settled on mulled cider, in honor of all the undecideds out there, mulling over their choices, and variety-is-the-spice-of-life cake -- a nod to the new incoming president, whoever he would be.

The cider was comforting, the cake was spiced, the electorate was heard.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Books that Make You Want to Stop Eating Food

If you read my post on books about food, you may remember that I was anxiously awaiting Melanie Dunea's My Last Supper: 50 Great Chefs and Their Final Meals.

I'm disturbed to report the book features a portrait of Anthony Bourdain wearing the main ingredient for his meal. This book is not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach. People, you've been warned.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

When one bite just isn't enough

Last week at work, we held an office-wide potluck, featuring fried chicken and everyone's favorite sides and desserts from home.

I made apple-cinnamon bundt cake from Martha Stewart's Everyday Food magazine. (That's the bundt in question above.) I used rome apples instead of granny smiths, which I probably wouldn't do again, but it turned out pretty well, except for the broken side piece. In a hurry to un-bundt it, I ripped out a little chunk, which stayed in the pan. I'm sure Martha would have made another for work and fed the mangled cake to the dogs, but I just covered the bad spot with a lot of icing and asked co-workers to avert their eyes.

The real stars of the potluck, however, were brownie bites topped with cream cheese frosting, courtesy of my pal Katherine. She and I each enjoyed one before the potluck began (we were considering them appetizers), I had one with lunch, then I swung by the kitchen in the late afternoon for yet another.

Katherine says she bought them at Whole Foods, but I'm pretty sure God just reached down from heaven and handed her the tray.

Whole Foods, if you're listening, I'd like your recipe.

The food: Whole Foods Market's bite-size brownies with cream cheese frosting
The verdict: I think I'm in love

Friday, October 31, 2008

Cuts Like a Knife

When it comes to Rachael Ray, you either love her or hate her. But regardless of your feelings on the Rach, I think you could really warm up to her East/West knife.

This little gem from Furi, part of Ray's flaming orange cookware line, has a nice weight, a grippy handle, and looks good sitting in my Kapoosh. What more could a girl ask for? Oh, it's also sharp.

Sure, it's no J.A. Henckels Twin Pro S 7-Inch Santoku Knife with Hollow Edge, but for $20 at T.J. Maxx, how can you go wrong? I recommend it. It's a fun knife to use. Especially on onions. With a wooden cutting board. When you say "Hiyah!" and drop the knife from three feet in the air. Being careful not to cut your fingers, of course. I mean, that's what I've heard.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Books about Food

Wake County has a fantastic library system. Procuring a library card was one of my first acts as an official Wake County citizen.

Since that day, I've been one of WCPL's most faithful readers. And lately I've been reading books about food.

My most recent read was Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl, former restaurant critic at the New York Times. I spent most of the book wishing I was a professional restaurant patron and wondering if anyone -- even those with palates as sophisticated at Ruth's -- can taste a drop of squid ink in a complicated dish. It kind of sounds like the princess and the pea. Except with squid ink.

Okay, maybe that's a stretch.

In any case, Garlic and Sapphires was a fun read. I'd recommend it. And if you've got an appetite for more food books, here are a few others I've read recently.

Classic 30-Minute Meals by Rachael Ray
She's a little wacky, but Rach comes up with some good food ideas. If you can get past the cover photo (yes, her shirt does say "YUM-O!") I think you'll dig this cookbook.

The Fortune Cookie Chronicles by Jennifer 8. Lee
Lee traces the history and rise of American Chinese food through her search for Powerball winners who played the numbers from their fortune cookies. Highly entertaining, except for the three pages in which Chinese food becomes a metaphor for life in the American melting pot. I'd skip those if I were you.

The Last Chinese Chef by Nicole Mones
Continuing on my Chinese food kick, I moved on to this novel, by the author of Lost in Translation. It's the story of a food writer named Maggie who travels to China to settle some legal affairs for her deceased husband. While there, she is assigned a story on the Chinese-American cook Sam Liang, who is preparing for a huge feast for a cultural festival in Beijing. The descriptions of food (and its preparation) are amazing. I loved the book until it turned into a love story, at which point I alternated between salivating (food descriptions) and gagging (love).

Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O'Nan
This novella is about the final evening at a Red Lobster restaurant in Connecticut, told from the point of view of the honest, earnest restaurant manager who will be reassigned to an Olive Garden when his restaurant closes. Doesn't make me want to eat at a Red Lobster anytime soon, but it's a good book.

Stand Facing the Stove by Anne Mendelson
The story of Irma Rombauer, author of The Joy of Cooking, and how her classic book came to be. Mendelson covers Joy from its initial self-publication to its current form. Who knew the history of a cookbook could be so interesting? It feels a little like a soap opera -- but in a good way.

Waiting for me right now, courtesy of interlibrary loan, is Melanie Dunea's My Last Supper: 50 Great Chefs and Their Final Meals. Dunea, a photographer, documents the food that famous chefs would request before they, uh, died, I guess. Sounds a little morbid but the photos are supposed to be great. Count me in.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

It's Bean a While

For Ben's birthday back in August, we went to a restaurant that specializes in Southern favorites made with local ingredients. While neither of us were too excited about the okra (plea to actual Southerners: please do not kick us out of North Carolina!) I was very excited about my black bean cakes -- great texture and a fantastic crispy "crust," thanks to a nice panfry.

Last week I attempted to recreate them at home. The recipe I used needs a little tweaking but it definitely has potential. Also, it calls for two cups grated, raw sweet potato -- which stumped me a little bit, but it turns out that one largish potato turns out about four cups grated. That means you can make the recipe twice. I recommend enlisting a sous-chef to handle the actual grating work. Faithful sous-chef Ben prepped my ingredients while I was working late and reported that he thought his arm would fall off. (It didn't actually, in case you were worried.)

Black Bean Cakes
(makes eight)
  • 1 tablespoon oil, plus more for frying
  • 1/4 cup onion, minced
  • 6 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin
  • 2 (14.5 ounce) cans black beans, drained and rinsed
  • salt and black pepper to taste
  • 2 cups grated raw sweet potato
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1/2 cup plain dried bread crumbs
  • Sour cream, for serving
Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a small skillet over medium heat. Cook onions until softened, about 1 minute. Stir in garlic and cumin; cook about 30 seconds.

In a bowl, mash black beans. Stir in onion mixture and season with salt and pepper. Mix in egg, sweet potato and bread crumbs.

Heat several tablespoons of oil over medium heat. Form 8 patties with the bean mixture; cook 4-6 minutes on each side. Serve hot; top with sour cream.

These were good as is, but next time I'm thinking about ginger, red peppers or maybe just lots more garlic. It's hard to go wrong with garlic. Unless you're planning on taking leftovers for lunch the next day. At which point your coworkers may have some specific objections having to do with garlic breath.

As an additional note, Ben liked the black bean cakes but said that eating only vegetables for dinner makes him feel empty inside.

The food: Black bean cakes
The verdict: According to Ben, they're "strong enough for a man but made for a woman"

Monday, September 29, 2008

It's the Yeast You Can Do

The Amish are responsible for a lot of great things. Furniture. Quilts. Dutch Blitz. And my favorite bread recipe.

As much as I love making bread, I don't do it as often as I used to. But the other day, while working from home, I decided to start a batch of Amish White Bread. (Picture it -- kneading with one hand and typing important public relations messages with the other.) It's a little sweet and very chewy -- good for sandwiches or just for eating plain.

Amish White Bread
(makes one loaf)
  • 1 cup warm water
  • 1/3 cup white sugar
  • 2-1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 3 cups flour
In a large bowl, dissolve the sugar in water, then stir in yeast. Allow to proof (about 10 minutes).

Mix salt and oil into the yeast, then mix in flour one cup at a time. Knead dough on a lightly floured surface until smooth. (Sometimes I cheat and use the dough hook on my Kitchen Aid mixer.) Place in an oiled bowl and turn dough to coat. Cover with a damp cloth. Allow to rise until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour.

Punch dough down. Knead for a few minutes and shape into a loaf. Place into an oiled 9x5-inch loaf pan and allow to rise for 30 minutes. (I usually let it go at least 45 minutes and sometimes longer, depending on the temperature and humidity.)

Bake at 350 degrees F for 30 minutes.

This baker could hardly wait the 30 minutes required to bake. As soon as it was out of the oven, I cut a nice, thick slice. Okay, two slices. And then I had another slice with supper. Okay, three.

The food: Amish white bread
The verdict: Excellent served plain, with butter, or in a horse-drawn buggy

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

How My (Small) Garden Grows

When I was a kid, I wasn't really into gardening. My mom, who had a pretty big vegetable plot, would occasionally enlist my help in weeding. "This," I thought, "is not fun." Not only was I out in the heat, pulling weeds, but I was pulling them from around bean plants -- the very plants that grew the green beans I'd be forced to eat later in the season. These were a special variety of green beans. I think their scientific name was "youcan'tleavethetableuntilyoueatthem greenis beanis." Or something like that.

Anyway, skip ahead a few years. Allie and I are living in Farmington and I decide it's time to give gardening another try. Not outside, since we didn't have any land. I was going to garden inside in pots.

Since my pots weren't big enough for, say, potatoes or onions, I settled on herbs, which I started from seeds. Allie wasn't too fond of the new hobby, since she doesn't really like dirt in the living space, whether it's contained in a pot or not, but she tried to be supportive. She also started calling me the urban gardener, which I thought was pretty good, since it was also a play on words. ("Herb-in" gardener.)

Things were going just fine until Allie, who has a super sensitivity (and huge aversion) to any food smell, opened the window one January to help clear the kitchen of the lingering scent of bacon. (In her defense, the old bacon smell is pretty gross.) Unfortunately, my little herb friends were on the windowsill and did not take to the Maine winter. They were gone before they knew what hit them.

Skip ahead a few more years. Here I am in North Carolina, taking advantage of the Tar Heel State's long growing season. I started out with rosemary, for a soup recipe my pal Rachel sent, but that never really took off, so now I'm working on some leafy basil and chives. I've got all kinds of things to do with chives, but I've got basil coming outta my ears and I'm stumped. I put it in salads, I've tried my own pesto -- I need some new ideas. Or some friends to share with. If you need some basil, let me know.

I'm already thinking about next year's "garden" and I'm not sure if it will include basil or not. Sure it's versatile. Sure it's easy to grow. Sure it looks cool on the porch. But Ben's taken to calling it "baahzil," inspired by some guy on local public television, and I'm not sure I can stand another year of that.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Potluck Jackpot

This week, our small group Bible study met up for a potluck dinner. I said I'd bring a main course dish but had a hard time deciding what to make. Since I wouldn't have much prep time between getting home from work and heading to dinner, it had to be something I could assemble ahead of time. Like a casserole. I'm not a big casserole maker, though, so there aren't many in my repertoire, and I've learned the hard way that you do not test out a new recipe if you have to serve it to people other than your husband.

I eventually decided on this little "Mexican" number. At first, I thought it was too simple to be good, but then I thought to myself, "People love seasoned beef. People love sour cream. People love melted cheese. Give the people what they want."

I also thought this might also appeal to Mike, our pastor and fearless group leader, who recently noted that there "wasn't enough meat" among the refreshments at the church Christmas party. Ah, yes, the traditional Christmas-cookies-and-meat combination.

People seemed to dig the casserole and no one reported food poisoning, so I'm calling this one a success. The moral of the story: Sometimes it's okay to make something easy just because it tastes good.

Mexican Casserole
  • 3 cups crushed tortilla chips
  • 1 pound lean ground beef
  • 2-3 cups salsa (I used two and it was a little dry)
  • 1 (16 ounce) can chili beans, drained
  • 2 cups sour cream
  • 1 (2 ounce) can sliced black olives, drained
  • 1/2 cup chopped onion
  • 1/2 cup chopped tomato
  • 2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large skillet over medium-high heat, cook ground beef until no longer pink. Stir in salsa, reduce heat, and simmer 20 minutes. Stir in beans, and heat through.

Spray a 9x13 baking dish with cooking spray. Spread half of the crushed tortilla chips in dish, then spoon beef mixture over chips. (You may want to leave out the chips if you think you'll have leftovers -- they're kind of yucky the next day.) Spread sour cream over beef, and sprinkle olives, onion, and tomato over the sour cream. Top with the reserved chips and cheddar cheese.

Bake in preheated oven for 30 minutes, or until hot and bubbly.

The food: Mexican casserole
The verdict: Probably not all that Mexican, but pretty yummy

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Apples Don't Fall Far From the Tree

My friend Courtney has been sharing the bounty of her backyard apple tree with me and, as a result, I've turned into an apple-recipe-making fool. I started with apple pie, then moved on to a new apple cream cheese tart -- good idea in theory, but I didn't use the right size springform pan and the whole thing fell apart. Next I made apple bread, apple muffins and I plan on some apple pancakes in the near future. Oh, and some apple-and-feta-stuffed chicken.

If you've got any apple-themed recipes, you know where to send them.

And if you're interested in trying the new apple pie recipe I used, you can find it here. I was impressed with how easy the crust was to work with, but I thought the 3/4 cup water was a lot, and it did end up making my crust a little tough. Or that could be due to the fact that I'm a compulsive overmixer. What can I say? I like to be thorough.

Friday, September 5, 2008

What I Love About Pimento Spread

American cheese. Mayonnaise. Pimentos. Awesome.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

You Are What You Eat

If, like me, you are a little nosy and love food, you might enjoy Fridge Watcher, a little site my pal Nicole told me about. It encourages readers to take and send in photos of their fridges, then posts them for public perusal. The site is international, so you can see fridges from around the world. How do you say "Time to toss those leftovers" in Italian? Anyone?

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Lunch Box

So if you ever find yourself in North Raleigh looking for a place to have lunch, let me offer a suggestion: Seoul Garden, my new favorite Korean barbecue and tofu place.

There are plenty of reasons to like Seoul Garden. Here are a few:
  • The rice is extra sticky (and the rest of the food is great, too).
  • The waiters are very friendly.
  • The service is speedy.
  • The prices are reasonable.
But here's my primary reason for going: If you order the lunch box, you get your food . . . wait for it . . . in a compartmentalized box! (You classy types will know them as bento boxes.)

There is something so satisfying about having little portions of food separated into little spaces in the lunch box in front of you. Orderly. Cheerful. Every lunch should be this compartmental.

The food: The Seoul Garden lunch box
The verdict: Hand me my chopsticks, please

Friday, August 15, 2008

True Blue

There are plenty of things I like about living in the South, but one thing that really riles me up, culinarily speaking, is the lack of blueberries. Or, more specifically, the lack of good blueberries. All I can get are the highbush, puffy, tasteless blueberries that grow in New Jersey. No offense to any New Jersey readers, or those who dig New Jersey's brand of berry, but people -- these are just poor imitations of the tart little lowbush guys we grow in Maine.

But fear not. My mom -- partly because she loves me and partly because she's tired of hearing me whine about my blueberry situation -- gave me two cans of "the caviar of Maine" for my birthday. I saved them for a while before I found a recipe worthy of them. I ended up making a very yummy batch of muffins. Which I mostly ate by myself.

The food: Maine lowbush blueberries
The verdict: The way blueberries should be

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Piece o' Cake

So for Ben's birthday, I had lots of elaborate plans for the birthday cake. At first, it started out as just wanting to make the "fluffy yellow layer cake" recipe I found in Cook's Illustrated. But then I needed a good frosting -- eventually deciding to lemon-ize both the yellow cake and my faithful standby buttercream frosting. But then, I thought, all that lemon might be too much, so I should add a filling -- like a blackberry curd with whipped cream folded in. Made from scratch.

Here's the trouble. I'm a better cake baker in my mind than I am in my real life. The frosting turned out pretty well -- I've done it enough times now so I have the hang of it. And the curd was very tasty -- I'd recommend it if you're in the market for blackberry curd. (This is the curd recipe I used. It calls for raspberries, but I was mixing it up.) But the cake came out kind of dry and not at all fluffy.

I know cake baking is a real science, so part of my problem is my dislike for leveling measuring cups. I'm of the "close enough" school of thought. But I really went out of my way to be accurate this time. And I made sure I had good baking powder (which has been a problem in the past). And I even used cake flour. Swan's Down, to be exact. A fairly unappetizing name, if you ask me.

When it came time to layer and frost, the cake was looking a little small. And kind of uneven. So I did what any good baker would do -- I covered the whole thing in whipped cream.

Oh well. I guess I'll just keep practicing. In the meantime, if you'd like to see examples of some beautiful (and delicious) cakes, check out what my friend Ellen does! This is one talented baker.

The food: Ben's birthday cake
The verdict: Not fluffy enough

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Water Ice? Pick a Side.

The other day at church, everyone stuck around after the service to have Rita's. When someone mentioned Rita's, I said, "Oh, water ice. That sounds good." But then I got a lot of funny looks, because no one here has ever heard of water ice. They call it Italian ice.

I'd never heard of either before I lived near Philadelphia during college. There was a lot of water ice there -- I get the feeling Philadelphians take their water ice pretty seriously. (Also their cheesesteaks. And their professional sports. And their Rocky. But I digress.)

Based on my near-Philadelphia experiences, I've come to believe there is a difference between Italian ice (think sno-cone) and water ice, which is more like ice cream in consistency and a lot more flavorful. And my pal Nicole, an actual Philadelphian, agrees.

But now that I've been thinking about it, my eyes have been opened to the contradiction in the term.

People, either it's water or it's ice. I think we've got to pick a side.

Can someone explain this to me?

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Milk End of the Macaroni

Back when we were counselors at China Lake Baptist Camp, my friend Randi Lynn and I had a little saying: "Sorry, looks like you got the milk end of the macaroni." We used this on macaroni-and-cheese night in the dining hall, when the last camper served got more noodle and whitish liquid than actual cheese. Similar to getting the short end of the stick, if you will.

That type of situation is what I was trying to avoid tonight when I tried a new mac and cheese recipe from Cook's Country, an excellent source of comfort food, mom's-home-cooking type recipes.

Unfortunately, I had trouble at the other end of the spectrum: not enough milk. The recipe called for three cans of evaporated milk. Not one for reading recipes too awful closely prior to starting the actual cooking, I only had one can. So I improvised. By adding regular milk. Which, you guessed it, made it pretty runny.

I think I was too hard on the cooks at China Lake.

The food: Cook's Country mac and cheese
The verdict: Can someone hand me a spoon for all this milk, please?

Friday, July 25, 2008

Supermarket Sweep!

So, my trip to Harris Teeter today felt a little bit like Supermarket Sweep. The aisles were crowded. The deals were extreme. The coupons were tripled.

This is a picture of my fridge. You know, where people put pictures of their friends and their kids' report cards? Things that they love and are proud of? That's where I'm putting my receipt from today.

Before coupons and store specials, by bill was $120.84. After coupons and specials, I paid $52.16. I am reveling. And making shelf space in the kitchen.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

You're One, Two, Three Times the Coupon

This Thursday, like every Thursday, I am planning a menu for the upcoming week and making a list of groceries to pick up tomorrow.

Tonight, however, I am extra excited because today, tomorrow and Saturday are triple coupon days at Harris Teeter. Imagine that you already love grocery shopping. Then imagine that you have a coupon-tripling opportunity at the same time. It's enough to nearly put you over the edge.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Whip It. Whip It Good.

So, for the last two weeks or so, I've been on a (renewed) healthy eating kick, which basically means nothing good in the house to eat. But 100-calorie packs of Oreo crisps only feel like dessert for so long, so this afternoon, I decided it was time to get in the kitchen.

Of course, thanks to the aforementioned health quest, I didn't have much to work with as far as ingredients go. No chocolate, no cream -- just my baking staples and my wits.

I chose two new recipes from my recipes-in-waiting file: lemon-cornmeal cookies (which, since they're from Cooking Light, still count as healthy in my book) and frozen lemon mousse (because it is one bazillion degrees in North Carolina today, approximately).

I didn't have any lemons on hand, so I made orange-cornmeal cookies instead. I'd make them again -- and I think I'd try them with lemon next time. They've got ginger in them, and I really like lemon and ginger together. They bake down pretty flat (which usually is a bad sign, but the magazine photo shows flat cookies, too) but they're chewy and kind of grainy (again, not usually what you look for in a cookie, but I like it) and they're especially good with milk.

Now the mousse was another story. I've been waiting to try this recipe for a while because frozen mousse sounds like so much fun to eat. But something went wrong. For one thing, I used lemon juice from concentrate instead of fresh lemon juice (no lemons -- see above). I don't usually worry to much about that, but in a recipe with so few ingredients, and where lemon juice is so prominent, maybe fresh is best.

Second, I didn't have the heavy cream called for by the recipe. What I did have was leftover half-and-half. And I said to myself, hey, that will work.

Except that the recipe called for the cream to be whipped. Do you know what half-and-half looks like whipped? It looks like half-and-half. With a couple of bubbles.

The idea of the mousse is a rich, lemony base that gets fluffed up with whipped cream, then frozen. Without the whippedness, the texture (and the fun of eating it) just isn't there.

Also, it turned out tasting too buttery, I thought. Usually I'm a the-more-butter-the-better kind of girl (like Paula Deen, y'all) but it just wasn't working in the mousse.

So my tip for today is to keep cream on hand. If nothing else, you can dip your Oreo crisps in it.

The foods: Orange-cornmeal cookies and frozen lemon mousse
The verdict: Thumbs up on the cookies, thumbs down on the mousse

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Good? Berry.

I've always been a Dairy Queen girl (the Nixon women are very fond of the Blizzard-as-lunch meal) but last night Ben and I decided to try a Triangle tradition: Goodberry's Frozen Custard. Everyone else in the Triangle had the same idea, however, and we had visit two locations before we found a place to park.

This was my first-ever custard. Like ice cream but made with eggs in addition to sugar and cream, custard is -- as you can imagine -- very rich. Goodberry's specialty is the Carolina Concrete. You can choose vanilla, chocolate or the flavor-of-the-day custard and then whatever mix-ins tickle your fancy. I went with peanut butter fudge. Ben chose mocha.

We've already marked our calendars for two Saturdays from now, when the flavor of the day is key lime. I will be adding pineapple and coconut. And maybe playing Jimmy Buffett tunes as I eat, to celebrate the tropic nature of my dessert.

My only complaint? On their website, the fine folks at Goodberry's say their Concretes are so thick, the servers tip them upside down before they give them to you (to demonstrate viscosity, no doubt). Neither one of our Concretes were inverted prior to serving. I was disappointed. Let's have some truth in advertising, people.

Blizzards are still number one in my heart, but Concretes are a close second.

The food: Mini Carolina Concrete (vanilla with peanut butter fudge)
The verdict: 100 times tastier than actual concrete

Friday, July 11, 2008

Coiled Again

If you're up for some baking this weekend, I'd recommend cream cheese coils. These are definitely a weekend project for me because they take a little bit to make, but they are excellent. I like them because they taste like cheese danishes without all the sticky sweetness.

Cream Cheese Coils

For the rolls:
  • 3-3/4 to 4-1/4 cups flour
  • 3/4 cup sugar divided
  • 2 packages yeast
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 3/4 cups milk
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/2 cup butter, cubed
  • 1 egg
  • 8-oz. cream cheese
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
For the glaze:
  • 3 oz. cream cheese
  • 1/4 cup butter
  • 1-1/2 cups powdered sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
  • Pinch of salt
Combine 1 cup flour, 1/2 cup sugar, yeast and salt. In a sauce pan, heat the milk, water and butter to 120-130 degrees. Add to dry ingredients; beat on medium speed for 2 minutes. Add egg and 1/2 cup flour; beat on high for two minutes. Stir in enough remaining flour to form stiff dough. Cover and refrigerate 2 hours.

Turn dough onto lightly floured surface; divide into 18 pieces. Roll each piece into a 15-inch rope. Form a coil, tucking and pinching end to seal. Place coils 2 inches apart on greased baking sheets. Cover and let rise until doubled (about 1 hour).

Combine cream cheese, egg yolk, vanilla and remaining sugar; beat until smooth. Using the back of a spoon, make a 1-inch indentation in the center of each coil; place a heaping tablespoon of cream cheese mixture in each center.

Bake at 400 degrees F for 10-12 minutes or until lightly browned. Cool on wire racks. Combine glaze ingredients with enough water to achieve icing consistency; drizzle over coils. Makes 1-1/2 dozen.

The food: Cream cheese coils
The verdict: Yummy (if you've got a few hours)

Monday, June 30, 2008

My Mom's Pumpkin Bread

When Ben had his wisdom teeth out a few days ago, he went on a milkshake-and-mashed-potatoes diet. But when he was feeling more up to chewing, I baked two loaves of my mom's excellent pumpkin bread -- a New England favorite perfect for those recovering from oral surgery. And anyone else, too.

I highly recommend this recipe. Very dense and really good with milk. If you underbake it just a bit, you get a little bit of a gooey spot on the top of the bread in the center. That's my favorite part. The bread also freezes really well, so you can eat one loaf now and save the other one for later.

Abbie's Mom's Pumpkin Bread
  • 1 (15-oz.) can pumpkin (I like One-Pie, but I have to settle for Libby's down here in the South; make sure to use pure pumpkin, not a pumpkin pie mix)
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 cup vegetable oil
  • 2/3 cup water
  • 3 cups granulated sugar
  • 3-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice (a mix of nutmeg, cloves and ginger if you want to throw it together yourself; some people add cinnamon or allspice)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease two 9x5 loaf pans.

Mix together pumpkin, eggs, oil, water and sugar. In a second bowl, whisk together the remaining dry ingredients; add to pumpkin mixture and stir until just blended.

Pour batter into pans. Bake for 60-70 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

The food: Pumpkin bread
The verdict: Gourds never tasted so good!

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Winner, Winner, Chicken Dinner

I'd like to extend a hearty "thanks" to the man or woman who came up with the idea of battering and deep-frying little pieces of chicken.

This particular plate of chicken came from The Red Barn Drive-In. (I'm not clear on why they call it a drive-in, unless they want to emphasize that you can drive into the parking lot and park while you pick up your food. Although it seems like that would go without saying.) If you're on or around Riverside Drive in Augusta sometime, I'd recommend stopping by for the chicken, a yeast roll and a milkshake.

The food: Fried chicken
The verdict: Winner, winner!

Friday, June 20, 2008

Frosting that Takes the Cake

Last year for my birthday, Ben bought me a cherry cheesecake from Once in a Blue Moon Bakery in downtown Cary. The good news was that it was a wonderful cheesecake. The bad news was that I gained at least 17 cream-cheese-induced pounds because I lack restraint when it comes to cheesecake and with only two of us to eat it, I had about 14 slices.

So this year, we returned to Blue Moon but decided to go with a few goodies instead of an entire cake: a raspberry brownie, a marble brownie, a lemon bar and a slice of "Orange Creamsicle" cake.

The brownies were great. The lemon bar was great. But the cake was amazing. Buttery, tender yellow cake with an orange frosting, with orange preserves between layers, topped with shaved white chocolate. I wish I had a picture for you, but as with the Starbucks cookie, I ate it before I could photograph it.

What really made the cake special was the frosting. Rich, but not that sweet, with a very true, intense orange flavor. The consistency was perfect -- lighter and fluffier than a typical buttercream-type frosting. And none of that chemically aftertaste that I think comes on ready-made cakes from supermarket bakeries.

Does anyone have any ideas about how I could recreate a fluffy, rich, orange-flavored, not-too-sweet frosting? I'm desperate to recreate this masterpiece o' cake.

The food: Once in a Blue Moon Bakery's Orange Creamsicle layer cake
The verdict: A birthday wish come true

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Whoopie! Pies

I guess you can get whoopie pies in other places, but I always think of them as a Maine specialty. And while I like whoopies of all kinds, my absolute favorite pies come from Maine bakery Isamax, maker of The Wicked Whoopie. (That's a half-eaten Wicked Whoopie pie above, held by my sister Allie, who is also a W.W. fan.) They're soft, they're creamy, they're messy. They're amazing.

I like all of the Isamax flavors, but I have a few top picks: Chocolate Chip, Pumpkin, Strawberry, and my very favorite, Raspberry & Cream, which is golden cake with traditional filling and a dollop of raspberry preserves. Last year, my family was kind enough to send me two raspberry pies and two chocolate chip pies for my birthday. I think at least one was for Ben but I beat him to it.

If you think Wicked Whoopies sound familiar, it could be because they've been featured on the Oprah Winfrey show (and a lot of other places, including The Food Network and QVC).

Oprah digs them. I dig them. I think you'll dig them.

The food: Wicked Whoopies
The verdict: The world's perfect dessert

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Maine Dish

This past weekend, Ben and I drove home for Annie's high school graduation. While we were there, I went with Allie (who, very bravely, is a first grade teacher) to be her grown-up helper for Forestry Day, which is a day where you and a bunch of small children tromp around the woods.

For lunch, Allie and I stopped at the market that used to be Emery's (which used to be Dowe's) on Route 32 in South China to pick up the ultimate field trip food -- Italians.

Perhaps you've heard of the Italian. Anywhere else you can get hoagies or subs or similar impostors, but you can only get an Italian in Maine. (And you know it's true because Wikipedia says so.) Here's what makes an Italian an Italian:
  • Made in a soft, oversized New England hotdog bun (which are baked side-by-side so that there is a crust only on the top)
  • Contains ham (from the deli, sliced pretty thick), white American cheese, green peppers, onions (usually diced), black olives, pickles and tomatoes
  • Dressed with oil (I'm not a purist, so I use mayo)
I really love Italians -- they're one of the foods I miss most now that we're in North Carolina. Sometimes I make them myself, but they're just not as good as the ones that I get, say, at Whipper's on Bangor Street in Augusta (and which isn't just an Italian shop, but a car wash as well). I'm thinking about having a few packed in dry ice and expressed to the Tar Heel State. A little taste of heaven. On a hotdog bun.

The food: Emery's large ham Italian, minus the tomato, with mayo
The verdict: Any Italian is a good Italian; next time I'll ask for extra pickles

NEXT POST, look out for a second Maine favorite: whoopie pies!

Monday, June 2, 2008

That's the Way the Cookie Crumbles

Saturday, after grocery shopping at Harris Teeter, I stopped by the in-store Starbucks to use an about-to-expire gift card. I don't drink coffee, so I bought two slices of coffee cake and one molasses cookie, all of which I intended to share with Ben. But I was really hungry on my way home, so I broke of my half of the cookie and ate it. Then I broke of half of Ben's half of the cookie and ate it. I think you know where this is going.

This was the best molasses cookie I have ever had: soft and chewy and very evenly baked, with a very mellow flavor. Some molasses cookies can be kind of harsh and bitter, but this one was very rich, smooth and gingery, and yet not too sweet. Also, it was perfectly circular, which is impressive, I think.

I'd intended to post a picture of this masterpiece confection, but by the time I got home, there was no cookie left to photograph. Except for this crumb here. Which I ate as soon as the picture was taken.

Sorry, Ben. You can have the next one.

The food: Starbucks Molasses Cookie
The verdict: Two crumbs up!