Thursday, April 21, 2011

Easter: I'm in it for the Sweets

Easter celebrations in my home were always fun.  Dressing up, spending a day with family, great meals, and the feeling that Spring was here (even if it was snowing - we do live in Wisconsin after all).  Easter signifies rebirth, or is it chocolate bunnies and jelly beans?  I don't know about you, but I'm in it for the sweets!  My favorite part of any holiday is the food, and Easter is no exception.  Whether it is the delicious glazed ham and cheesy potatoes that graced our dinner table, or Easter baskets filled with candy that spoiled our dinner before we even got to it.

Our baskets were always hidden somewhere in the house.  Much like an Easter egg hunt, we had to search for our baskets to get the goods.  I'm not sure if that was typical for all families, or just ours.  I think my favorite hiding spot was the year I found my basket in the oven.  Thankfully it wasn't on, so all of the chocolate was fully intact.  Our baskets were always overfilled with hard boiled eggs, a couple of toys or games, candy and other sweet treats.  This year, even though I don't have any baskets to fill, I thought it would be fun to make my own treats.  I made macaroon bird nests using an Ina Garten macaroon recipe and Cadbury mini eggs, homemade marshmallows, and chocolate covered peanut butter eggs. 

Macaroon Bird Nests (printable recipe)
adapted from an Ina Garten recipe

1 14 oz. package shredded coconut
1 14 oz. can sweetened condensed milk
1 tsp. vanilla
2 lg. egg whites
1/4 tsp. salt
Chocolate egg-shaped candies, jelly beans or similar

In a large bowl, combine coconut, condensed milk and vanilla.  Combine egg whites and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment.  Beat at high speed until nearly stiff peaks form.  Gently fold egg whites into coconut mixture.  Scoop by tablespoonfuls onto parchment paper lined baking sheets.  Bake at 325 degrees for 25-30 minutes or until golden brown.  Remove macaroons from baking sheet and top with candies, pressing to adhere them to the macaroon.

Homemade Marshmallows (printable recipe)

3 packets unflavored gelatin
1/2 c. cold water
1 1/2 c. sugar
1 c. corn syrup
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 c. water
1 tsp. vanilla

Grease a 9x13 pan and dust generously with powdered sugar.

Combine gelatin and cold water in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment.  Let the gelatin and water sit while you prepare the syrup mixture.

In a medium sauce pan, heat sugar, corn syrup, salt and water over medium heat until the sugar dissolves, stirring occasionally.  When sugar has dissolved, turn the heat to high and cook until the mixture has reached soft-ball stage on a candy thermometer.

Add the syrup mixture to the to gelatin and turn mixer on at low speed.  Add vanilla, then turn speed to high.  Mix on high speed for 15 minutes, then transfer to the prepared 9x13 pan, spreading marshmallow so it is in an even layer.  Dust top of marshmallow with additional powdered sugar.  Let the pan sit on the counter overnight to allow the marshmallow to set.  Remove marshmallow from pan and cut into cubes.  Roll in additional powdered sugar or colored sanding sugar.

Peanut Butter Eggs (printable recipe)

I wish I had graham crackers in the pantry when I made these.  The addition of graham cracker crumbs would have made the peanut butter mixture easier to work with.  Without the crumbs, the filling of these chocolate covered peanut butter eggs is much lighter and fluffier than what you would find in a store-bought peanut butter cup.  I could have just added powdered sugar until the proper consistency was achieved, but I didn't want the end product to be overly sweet.  Graham crackers would have given me the proper consistency, without adding a lot of extra sweetness.

1 c. smooth peanut butter
1 c. powdered sugar
1/4 c. butter, softened
1/2 c. graham cracker crumbs, optional (see note above)
2 c. semi-sweet chocolate chips, melted

Combine peanut butter, powdered sugar, butter and graham cracker crumbs in a large bowl.  Beat with electric mixer until ingredients are well-mixed.  Add a few more graham cracker crumbs or powdered sugar to get the consistency and flavor you desire.

Refrigerate or freeze the mixture until it is firm enough to work with.  Using a cookie scoop to make sure the end products are similarly sized, form the mixture into egg shapes and place on a parchment paper lined cookie sheet that will fit in your freezer.  The number of eggs you get will depend on how big you make them.  I used a slightly over sized scoop and got 2 1/2 dozen.  Freeze the peanut butter eggs for about 10 minutes before dipping in chocolate.  This will make the chocolate set up faster and will keep the filling firm enough to handle once it hits the warm chocolate.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Lasagna: Simple & Hearty

Why is it that the work days drag, but the nights and weekends fly by in the blink of an eye?  I had such good intentions of making a spectacular Sunday dinner, but it was suddenly four o’clock in the afternoon and I hadn’t started a thing.  I was craving lasagna something awful, and there was no way I was making a labor and time intensive meal during the week.  Once it got past four on Sunday, let's face it...I wasn't making a labor and time intensive meal then either.

I turned to my America's Test Kitchen cookbook, expecting to find a recipe that was equally as involved as my family recipes which require boiling noodles, pulling out the blender to make the cheese filling, and simmering the sauce for hours on end.  Alas, the cookbook did not disappoint with its "Simple Lasagna with Hearty Tomato-Meat Sauce."  After a slight misread of the recipe, and a few substitutions, the end result was a wonderfully hearty, yet fresh tasting lasagna that was ready in about an hour.

Simple Lasagna with Hearty Tomato-Meat Sauce (printable recipe)
adapted from The Complete America's Test Kitchen TV Show Cookbook, Season 3


2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 onion, chopped
3 lg. garlic cloves, pushed through a garlic press (about 2 Tbsp.)
1 lb. ground beef
1/2 lb. ground pork or bulk italian sausage
1/4 c heavy cream
1 lg. can tomato puree (28 oz)
1 lg. can diced tomatoes, drained
1 Tbsp. Italian Seasoning
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. ground black pepper

Ricotta Filling
1 15 oz. container fat free ricotta
1 5 oz. container freshly grated parmesan cheese
1/2 c chopped fresh basil (one 3/4 oz. package)
1 lg. egg, lightly beaten
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. ground black pepper

Noodles & Cheese
12 no-boil lasagna noodles
4 c reduced fat mozzarella cheese, shredded

Adjust an oven rack to the middle-top position and heat oven to 375 degrees.

Heat olive oil in a Dutch oven over medium heat.  Add the onion and cook until softened.  Stir in the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds.  Stir in the meats, salt and pepper.  Use a wooden spoon to break up the meat as it cooks.  Cook until the meat is no longer pink, but not browned.  Stir in the cream, bring to a simmer and cook until the liquid evaporates and only the fat remains, about 5 minutes.  Stir in the tomato puree, diced tomatoes and Italian seasoning.  Bring to a simmer and cook until the flavors have blended, about 3 minutes.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.

While sauce is simmering, you can easily put together the ricotta filling.  Combine all ingredients in a small bowl and set aside.

To assemble lasagna, spread 1 cup of the sauce over the bottom of a 9x13 baking dish.  Place 3 noodles in a single layer over the sauce.  Spread 1/3 of the ricotta mixture over the noodles, then sprinkle with 1 cup of the mozzarella.  Spoon another cup of the sauce evenly over the cheese layer.  Repeat the layers two more times.  Top with 3 remaining noodles, the rest of the sauce and the last cup of mozzarella.

Cover dish tightly with a sheet of aluminum foil that has been sprayed with cooking spray.  Bake for 15 minutes, then remove the foil and continue baking until the cheese has browned in spots, about 25 to 30 minutes longer.  Let cool for 10 minutes before serving.

To make ahead:  Prepare lasagna as directed, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.  When ready to bake, remove plastic wrap and cover dish with foil.  Increase initial baking time to about 25 minutes, or until the edges begin to bubble.  Then remove foil and continue baking as directed.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Come For Brunch

Every other month, my book club gets together to discuss our latest read.  I think we usually end up spending more time eating and socializing than we do actually discussing the books we read.  A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of hosting a brunch for our group.

I have a chronic habit of undertaking too many projects at once when it comes to having people over to my home for any reason.  Whether it is my mom coming over for a simple supper, a birthday dinner or a holiday spread for family, I always tend to overdo it, resulting in my still being in the kitchen an hour or two after people have arrived.  I don't think that creates a very welcoming environment.

When making brunch for our "Chick Lit" book club, I realized that it is all about the prep work or mise en place if you want to get all technical about it.  If you read over all of your recipes, prepare what you can ahead of time, have all of your ingredients in place for the day of, and create a simple schedule, it will make preparing for a party or any meal a breeze.

The Brunch Menu:
Homemade Granola
Honey Vanilla Yogurt
Fresh Fruit
Super-Size Cinnamon Rolls (by far, the star of the show)
Stuffed Baby Bellas
Potato, Bacon, & Spinach Frittata

 The Recipes:

Honey Vanilla Yogurt (printable recipe)
from Ina Garten

2 c plain yogurt
2 Tbsp. clover honey
1/2 tsp. vanilla
Seeds scraped from 1/2 vanilla bean (optional, but adds a really nice touch)

Combine the ingredients in a bowl and set in the refrigerator until ready to serve.

Fresh Fruit
I used a mixture of strawberries (cut into 1/2 inch pieces), blackberries and blueberries.  I combined them in a large bowl and then placed a ring of sliced kiwis around the rim.  This made for a pretty presentation.  Use whatever fruit you like or whatever looks good at the market that day.

Super-Size Cinnamon Rolls (printable recipe)
1 c milk, warm
1 packet active dry yeast
1/2 c sugar
1/3 c margarine, melted
1 tsp. salt
2 eggs
4 c flour

1/2 c margarine, softened
1 c brown sugar
2 1/2 Tbsp. cinnamon

Cream Cheese Icing:
1/2 pkg (4 oz) cream cheese, softened
2/3 c margarine, softened
1 tsp. vanilla
3 c powdered sugar
Pinch of salt

Combine dry ingredients for dough in large bowl.  Dissolve yeast in warm milk (I use fast-acting yeast so that the dough rises quicker).  Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients, then add eggs, margarine and milk/yeast mixture.  Mix well, then knead with hands into a large ball.  Put in greased bowl, cover and let rise until the size has doubled, approximately 1 hour.

Combine brown sugar and cinnamon in small bowl.  When dough has risen, remove from bowl and roll with rolling pin into a large rectangle that is a 1/4 inch thick.  It should be somewhere around 21 x 16 inches in size.  Spread the dough evenly with 1/2 c margarine, leaving about a 1/2 inch edge at the bottom of the dough.  Top evenly with sugar/cinnamon mixture.

Starting from the top (which should be the 21 inch side), roll tightly and evenly until you have reached the bottom.  By leaving the 1/2 inch gap at the bottom, the roll should sort of seal itself.  Slice the roll into ten 1 3/4 inch thick slices.  I find the best way to slice the rolls is to use unwaxed, unflavored dental floss.  Slide the floss under the roll, then criss-cross the ends like you're tying a knot.  You'll get perfect slices every time!

Place rolls in buttered 8 or 9 inch round or square pans with five rolls per pan.  Bake at 400 degrees for 10 minutes or until rolls are light brown.

Combine all icing ingredients in mixing bowl.  Starting on slow speed, begin mixing.  When ingredients start to come together, beat at high speed until mixture becomes soft and creamy.  Top warm cinnamon rolls with 2 Tbsp. icing each.  Serve remaining icing in small bowl in case people want extra! 

Stuffed Baby Bellas (printable recipe)
1 lb. baby portabella mushrooms
1 lb. breakfast sausage
1/2 pkg. (4 oz.) cream cheese
2 tsp. chopped parsley
1 tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp. onion powder
1/4 c parmesan cheese, grated
1/4 c panko bread crumbs

Clean mushrooms with a damp cloth and remove stems.  Chop stems into a fine dice and reserve.  Cook breakfast sausage until barely pink, then add reserved mushroom stems and continue cooking until sausage is fully cooked and mushrooms have released a majority of their liquid.  Transfer sausage mixture to a bowl and add cream cheese, parsley, garlic, onion, and cheese.  Mix ingredients until well combined, then add salt and pepper to taste.  Toast bread crumbs in the same skillet that you cooked the sausage, until they just begin to turn golden brown.

Fill mushroom caps with a heaping spoonful of sausage mixture so that each cap has a mound of it, then top with toasted breadcrumbs.  Place on baking sheet and bake at 375 degrees for 30 minutes, or until  mushrooms are fork tender.

Potato, Bacon & Spinach Frittata (printable recipe)
1 med. red potato, scrubbed clean and cut into 1/4 inch dice
1 pkg. frozen chopped spinach, thawed and drained
6 slices bacon, chopped
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 c Gruyere cheese, shredded
9 eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 tsp. pepper

Place potato on microwave safe plate, and cook until just shy of done, about 3 minutes.  Meanwhile, begin cooking bacon in skillet set over medium heat.  Cook for about 2 minutes, then add onion and cook another 2 minutes.  Add potato and continue cooking until onion is translucent and potatoes are fully cooked and beginning to brown.  Add spinach, stirring with a wooden spoon to break up pieces and combine ingredients.  Let cool slightly, then add eggs, cheese, and pepper, making sure ingredients are well combined.

Transfer mixture to a lightly greased 8" pie plate.  Bake at 350 degrees for 20 to 25 minutes or until eggs are fully cooked.

The Planning:
If this all seems like a lot of work, don't be scared.  It may seem like a lot of steps, but if you read over the recipes, and make yourself a simple schedule, it really won't seem like that much work.  With a little planning, you'll even have time to enjoy a mimosa before your guests arrive!   

Two Days Ahead

One Day Ahead
Prepare Honey Vanilla Yogurt
Prepare Cream Cheese Icing, then store in an air-tight container
Cut up fresh fruit and keep in refrigerator
Measure out dry ingredients for Super-Size Cinnamon Rolls
Shred cheese for frittata and keep in refrigerator

Brunch Day
You'll want to start about 2.5 hours before your guests' scheduled arrival.  This will give you enough time to complete everything, but not enough time for food to get cold.

Start by mixing up the dough for the Super-Size Cinnamon Rolls, so it has time to rise.  While the dough rises, you can prepare the mushroom and frittata ingredients.  About a 1.5 hours ahead of time, bake the mushrooms.  When they are done, cover them with foil and place on the stove top, since the oven will be warm while you bake the cinnamon rolls and frittata.

While the mushrooms bake, you can put together the cinnamon rolls so that when the mushrooms come out of the oven, the cinnamon rolls go in.

While the cinnamon rolls bake, put together the frittata.  When the cinnamon rolls come out, frittata goes in.  While the frittata bakes, frost cinnamon rolls.

Put out plates, glasses, serving pieces, etc., do a little clean up (may require hiding some items in the dishwasher for the time-being), and make yourself a mimosa for a job well done!

Just as your guests arrive, pull the frittata out of the oven and voila...brunch is served!