Monday, December 31, 2012

Seven Things I've Learned During Pregnancy

It's been just over three months since I've shared a recipe or kitchen triumph (or tragedy) with you.  Amazing how life changes as soon as you find out your family is growing, huh?  Well, we've still been at it in the kitchen (and other places - obviously!) and while I hope 2013 will be a year of sharing more of our kitchen (and baby) adventures with you, I thought this would be a good time to write about my favorite thing we're baking at the moment...Baby Coke!

Keep in mind that I'm not a fan of the sappy, mushy, twinkling hearts and Precious Moments clip art writing style (and hopefully my hormones never steer me in that direction).  So in true Kristin fashion - and in no particular order - here's a list of things I've learned over the past 25+ weeks of growing a tiny human inside my body.  Enjoy. :)

Seven Things I've Learned During Pregnancy...

1.  Spaghetti is delicious for breakfast.  I wouldn't say I've experienced any "strange" cravings (I prefer my ice cream with hot fudge and no pickles, thankyouverymuch) but on several occasions, I've had the overwhelming sense of, "I NEED TO EAT THIS RIGHT NOW!"  While staring into the refrigerator one Saturday morning, pondering over several healthy breakfast choices, I saw it...hiding behind the fruit salad and whole grain bread, quietly beckoning to be shoved in the microwave and wolfed down.  It was a  perfect and beautiful container of leftovers with my name (and Baby Coke's) written all over it.  That was the morning I decided to forgo the oatmeal and low sodium V-8 juice...and have spaghetti.  And it was the most heavenly breakfast I've ever consumed.

2.  Our pets know we're pregnant.  Normally, my cats love nothing more than to deploy an aerial assault, landing on my stomach and commencing to make biscuits (that's what we call it when our cats knead).  And, for the first few weeks of pregnancy, a couple of them would still attempt that feat (which I cleverly thwarted with large throw pillows).  But after a while, they realized I wasn't eating too much ice cream and getting a pooch...I was carrying life!  Now, the cats carefully avoid my belly during snuggle time.  Well, except when I'm laying on my side, then all bets are off.  Although, if Baby Coke decides to kick, the cats can feel it, and they're noticeably annoyed.  Maggie, our Collie, has also been clued in to the pregnancy, but a story for another time.

3.  Everything you eat causes indigestion.  Oh sure, I expected it from bell peppers, pineapple, red onions and hot wings...but I did not expect it from peanut butter, bananas, chicken 'n dumplings and chocolate chip cookies.

4.  Am I forgetting to pee?  On more than one occasion, I've gotten up from the couch, gone to the bathroom, peed, returned to the couch, only to find I need to pee...again.  So either I'm forgetting, or Baby Coke is secretly squeezing my bladder, waiting for the most opportune moment to interrupt my day (or night) with the "sudden and frequent urge" to go.

5.  Feeling your baby kick, move and roll around in there is not only incredibly awesome, but it's also incredibly weird.  Yes, you Hallmark watching, Dove chocolate eating, Cozy Comfort tea swilling ladies are correct...feeling your baby move is miraculous, awesome and amazing.  To really know there is life growing inside of you is incredible, and makes me appreciate how great our God truly is.  But, at the same time, Baby Coke does things inside me that really make me think we're getting close to that scene in "Alien" (come on, you know the one...) and I have to ask the baby to PLEASE STOP PLAYING MY RIBS LIKE A XYLOPHONE!  It's weird.  Amazing and awe inspiring, but weird.  

6.  Everyone has advice for you during pregnancy.  Even if they've never had children.  Or have a womb, for that matter.  I think any mom can agree to that...people will give you a plethora of unwarranted (and sometimes completely whackadoo) advice for no reason, other than they assume you must need it.  This is especially true during the first pregnancy.  Everyone from great grandmothers to the guy stocking the freezer section at our Publix has some bit of sage wisdom to share with me.  Some of it is great advice, and some of it...well, I politely smile and nod, sometimes even say "thank you", but in my head I'm wondering if their children would be better off if they'd been raised by wolves...

7.  Enjoy your pregnancy the way you want to.  It's your pregnancy; not your aunt's, not your co-worker's, not your neighbor's.  Share the information you want to share, with who you want to, and don't feel guilty when folks badger you about names, the baby's sex, breastfeeding (seriously, why do SO many people want to know about my boobs?) sleeping arrangements or child don't have to share anything with these people.  Take time to rest, put your feet up, eat bonbons, watch all those lame B horror movies you've been storing in the DVR since October(sorry about that, honey!)...and go on many, many date nights.  

Because in a few months, your world will be turned upside down, and life is going to completely a beautiful, miraculous, endlessly loving (and sometimes exhausting) but blessed and amazing way.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Explaining Cobbler to a Yankee

Of all the desserts I love - and trust me, there are A LOT of them - I must admit, peach cobbler holds a special place in my heart.  Cobbler is one of those "any season" desserts, since you can use just about any fruit that's in season, but there's nothing quite like peach cobbler.  For me, it embodies the sweet, spiced, warm memories of Fall...there wasn't a Thanksgiving that my mom didn't make her famous peach cobbler.  Warm out of the oven with a heaping scoop of vanilla bean ice was heavenly!

I remember the first time I made a peach cobbler for my husband (the Yankee).  First, I tried to explain what a cobbler was.  Much to my chagrin, Evan's response was something along the lines of, "So it's like an upside down pie?"  Now, that sentence would make any Southern girl clutch her upside-down pie?!  No, honey.  A cobbler is nothing like a pie.  But bless your Yankee heart, sometimes we forget you don't have biscuits "up north", and our Southern ways can be confusing.  Let me explain...

My husband has been an eager taste-tester for Southern cooking from the day we met.  The first time I had him over for dinner, I fried porkchops.  Don't you know you're someone special if you're getting bone-in, double-dredged fried porkchops?  Evan sat at the table, and I proudly placed the heaping plate of comfort in front of him...and the first words out of his mouth were, "I didn't know you could FRY a porkchop!"  Heaven help him, I knew then that we had a looong way to go.

About six months after that, we stopped by his parent's house one afternoon.  Evan hadn't seen them much over those six months, but I'll tell you that when we first started dating, he weighed 135 pounds soaking wet. But again, that was before he met me.  The first words out of his mother's mouth that afternoon were, "What have you done to my son?!"  And my simple reply?  "Why, I fed him of course."  Again, those Yankees are unfamiliar with our Southern ways!

Nine plus years and 30 pounds later...Evan is quite the fan of the cobbler.  And so, without further ado, I'm going to share my famous peach cobbler recipe.  Enjoy!

Filling Ingredients
8 large peaches, cut into wedges (I don't peel mine)
1/4 cup light brown sugar
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon cornstarch
Spices as you like.  I use cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and a dash of cloves.  Or, if I'm especially lazy, just use pumpkin pie spice (shhh...that's one of my lazy baker secrets).

Biscuit Ingredients
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup white sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 stick cold, unsalted butter, chopped into pieces
1/4 cup boiling water

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.  Toss all filling ingredients together in a large bowl, then pour into a two quart casserole dish and bake for 10 minutes.  While the filling is baking, blend together the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt.  Mix in the butter with your fingers, until mixture is crumbly.  Stir in boiling water until just combined.  When filling is done, remove from oven and top with spoonfuls of your biscuit topping (it will spread as it bakes).  Pop in the over for another 25-30 minutes, or until your crust is golden brown.

Serve with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream, or all by itself.  Right out of the casserole dish, if you're like me... :)

Happy baking!

Monday, July 30, 2012

Bakin' with Bacon

The title of this post should provide an instant indication of how awesome these recipes will be...because they happen to include a special guest appearance by my all-time favorite breakfast meat: BACON.  Well, unless we're talking biscuits and gravy, then my favorite breakfast meat becomes sausage.  But, unlike its crumbly (yet delicious) step-sibling of breakfast, bacon has two of the qualities I find important in a dessert: salt and crunch.

People have mixed responses to bacon infused desserts.  Some are skeptical; others are curious, and a good handful know that if there's one way to improve upon anything, it's to add bacon.  Think about it...your tomato and mayonnaise sandwich seems a little dull, right?  Add bacon.  Your salad just doesn't have nearly enough protein or crunch?  Bacon would go nicely.  Maple donut seems a bit bland?  Crumble some bacon on top, and you've got a convenient breakfast ring of pancakes, syrup and bacon - to go!  The porky possibilities are endless.

A few weeks ago, we finally took the plunge and had our first bacon baking experience: Maple Bacon Bourbon Cupcakes.  They were just as delicious and sinfully decadent as you're imagining.  A simple (from scratch) chocolate cupcake topped with a maple bourbon frosting, with bacon crumbles on top.  We also added bacon and bacon drippings to the batter prior to baking.  The result was a Kentucky Derby breakfast brunch in one sweet little cupcake.

Be still, my heart!  And arteries.  And cholesterol.

Most recently, we decided to go the brownie route.  Brownies are, quite possibly, my favorite baked good.  There's nothing quite like a gooey, warm, chocolatey, fattening hunk of brownie.  And what could possibly be done to improve upon one of the oven's most perfect desserts than bacon?

Behold...the Caramel Bacon Brownie!
(insert delicious photo here...)

While I wish I'd managed to snap a photo of the entire pan, they just didn't last long enough.  So, imagine a delicous brownie with swirls of caramel, infused with bacon.  Mmmm.

In fact, moments before I wrote this post, I found myself picking the crumbs of caramel, bacon and chocolate out of the brownie pan.   Anyone ever see the episode of Sex and the City, where Miranda can't stop eating the chocolate cake?  She goes as far as to throw the entire chocolate cake in the garbage can, in an effort to banish the unwanted calories.  A few minutes later, she sneaks back into the kitchen, and takes a hunk of cake out of the garbage can.  Then, in utter disgust, she grabs a bottle of Dawn dish soap, squirts it all over the cake and slams the lid to the garbage can.  She then calls Carrie to revel in the embarassment of eating "garbage can cake."  Yes, folks...that's where I was headed moments ago...garbage can cake territory.

Personally, the brownies were better than the cupcakes, so that's the recipe I'm sharing with you today.  I hope your physician thanks me later...

Caramel Bacon Brownies

Brownie Ingredients:
1 cup sugar
1 cup flour
6 oz. bittersweet chocolate
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
8 tablespoons salted butter, cut into pieces
3 large eggs, room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon almond extract (optional, but delicious)

Bacon Caramel Ingredients:
One package maple bacon, fried crisp (yes, fried)
6 tablespoons salted butter, cut into pieces
1 cup sugar
1/3 cup heavy cream

Directions: First, we need to make the needs some time to cool before getting plopped into all that brownie goodness.  Fry two strips of bacon in a medium non-stick saucepan, then remove (you can fry the rest in a larger frying pan, or if you prefer, bake it at 400 degrees for about 25 minutes - DO NOT MICROWAVE).  Once you've removed the bacon, add your heavy cream (to the bacon drippings), then set aside to cool.  In a medium sautee pan, melt the sugar over medium-high heat.  When the sugar has melted and turned an amber color, and the butter and heavy cream mixture.  Stir until butter has melted, then set aside to cool.  Crumble the rest of your bacon, and set aside.

Next, preheat your oven to 350 degrees.  Melt the bittersweet chocolate in a double boiler (or microwaveable bowl), then transfer to a large bowl and add the cocoa powder, mixing well.  Add the eggs, sugar, vanilla (and almond extract, if using), and then the flour.  Stir until combined.

In a greased and floured 8x8 pan (hint: just use Baker's Joy), pour half the brownie batter.  Drop spoonfulls of the caramel, then a few sprinkles of the chopped bacon.  Add the remaining batter, drop the remaining caramel, and sprinkle the remaining bacon.  Swirl with a knife.

Bake for 35-45 minutes (mine took the full 45 and were still gooey and soft).  Caramel will not seem set when brownies are removed from oven; it will firm up a bit after cooling for about an hour.

These are a perfect blend of sweet, salty and rich chocolate...and definitely "eat with a fork" brownies.


Friday, July 13, 2012

Getting Sauced

Getting sauced in the kitchen is one of my favorite things to do (insert wine joke here).  Very much like myself, sauces add flavor, spice, zest, personality and pizzazz to just about any boring dish.  

I'm going to share a few of my favorite sauces with you, and how I use them...but before I do that, I'm going to tell you a saucy story about my wonderful hubby.  Rated PG, of course.

A while back, I told you about pizza night.  Years ago, and sometimes even now when I'm not feeling incredibly lazy, we make our own pizza sauce.  We'd just get the plain, canned tomato sauce, and add our own fresh herbs from our garden, along with a few spices, and some cayenne pepper, because we do like to keep things spicy in the Coke house (wink!).  Normally, I handle the sauce making.  I love my husband, and I appreciate his culinary efforts endlessly, but there are certain kitchen tasks I just cannot completely trust him with yet...and one of those tasks is anything involving cayenne pepper.

One night he insisted on handling the sauce, and I finally caved.  He poured the plain sauce into the pot on the stove, and dug into the spice cabinet, not allowing me to see anything he was adding (he does the same thing with his turkey burgers - "super secret" recipe, no one can know what goes in).  He stooped over the pot, sauce beginning to bubble, and began chopping herbs and shaking jars.  Pretty soon, my stove was covered in oregano and parsley, and Evan was a whirling dervish cloud of garlic powder.  Despite the mess (which is reason number two I prefer to handle tasks involving seasoning and spicing) the sauce was really smelling heavenly, so I let it go.

We sauced the crust, topped it with our cheese and veggies, and popped it into the oven.  A glass and a half of merlot later, the timer buzzed and we were ready to chow down.  And we were hungry.  Ev sliced up the pie, plopped the piping hot, gooey mess onto our plates, and grabbed some silverware.  A quick blessing, and it was time to TCOB (for the few BTO fans who may be reading this).

I cut the perfect bite - the edge of a corner piece, cheese bubbling and slightly browned, veggies cascading down the side, and plenty of sauce, since I'm an "extra sauce" kind of gal (not a surprise, I know).  Chomp!

Oh man, it was hot...boiling hot, lava hot, 100 yard barefoot walk across an asphalt parking lot in Florida in an August heatwave hot.  "Gee," I thought, "I really should have let this cool down some before taking such a big bite."  Against my better judgement, I continued chewing.  And the heat did not subside.

Now, instead of having a mouthful of blazing hot asphalt, I thought I may have inadvertently used jalapeno peppers as a topping.  Nope, hotter.  Habanero?  Hotter still.  Scotch Bonnet?!  The heat was causing my eyes to water; I could feel my throat closing up, my sinuses becoming an endless waterfall of snot, and the skin on my lips melting right off of my face.  I looked at Evan, and he looked at me...and for that brief moment we shared the same thought: CHEESE AND CRACKERS, WHAT ARE WE EATING?!

Some of you may have spit the food out, and that's probably what I should have done, as it would have prevented the six hours of heartburn I suffered through later that night.  But, in an effort to support my husband's attempt at saucing the pizza, I swallowed.  After swallowing, our shared thought became my very vocal outcry.  I immediately went to the kitchen for a glass of milk.  There was no stinkin' way I could finish that pizza.

Evan knew it was too hot, and he profusely apologized.  But, lip skin be damned, he soldiered on and ate his pizza.  I distinctly remember him telling me, through huge mouthfuls of pizza and gulps of milk, "It's not so hot if you just keep just can't stop eating it.  Once you stop, the heat comes back.  Just keep chewing."  No sir.  I value my lip skin; my lips are one of my best features, and I wasn't going to have them marred by your "Cayenne Pepper SMD" - Sauce of Mass Destruction.

Since the Saucetastrophe of 2005, Evan has toned down his seasoning frenzy.  He likes to season with flare; grand sweeping gestures, sprinkling from high above the pan, just like they do on Food Network.  But, he's learned that you can accomplish the same thing with a pinch that you can with a hearty shake of the can.  Those hearty shakes are for herbs, not cayenne.  Then, a few years ago, we discovered Barilla's jarred Arrabiata sauce, and we've rarely made our own since then.  Arrabiata is a spicy marinara, and it's fabulous, with the perfect amount of heat (and my stove top doesn't even look like someone emptied their lawnmower bag all over it).

Sauces aren't just Italian, and the aren't just for pizza or pasta (although I will share my favorite quick Italian sauce for pasta).  A quick note on our recipes: we only use extra virgin olive oil; any sauce using chicken broth was made with fat free reduced sodium broth, and all sauces are made in a large sautee pan (with the exception of the first sauce).

So, without further ado, here are my top five sauces for busy weeknights...

Lemon Yogurt Sauce - Perfect, chicken, lean pork chops.
1/3 cup plain yogurt (we prefer Greek)
2 tablespoons honey (we prefer orange blossom)
Juice of one lemon (we prefer yellow...ha, just making sure you're paying attention!)
1 teaspoon chopped fresh parsley (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste 

Directions: Whisk together in a bowl, then top your meat.  Simple, right?

Raspberry Balsamic Glaze - Perfect for...chicken or lean pork.
1/3 cup seedless raspberry preserves (you can use with seeds as well, just floss really well after dinner)
2 tablespoons Balsamic vinegar
Sprinkle of thyme
Salt and pepper
Minced red onion, sauteed (optional)

Directions: If using red onion, sautee until tender, approximately 2-3 minutes on medium-high heat.  Reduce heat to medium-low, and add all remaining ingredients, whisking until combined.  Pour over your meat.  You can also cube or slice your meat, and toss it in the sauce.

Fig and Marsala Sauce - Perfect for: pork loin or lean cuts of beef.
Medium Vidalia onion, sliced
10-12 figs, chopped
Three slices uncooked bacon, diced
8 oz. baby bella mushrooms, sliced
3/4 cup Marsala wine
1/2 cup chicken broth
2 tablespoons butter
Olive oil

Directions: On medium-high heat, sautee the onion, figs, bacon and mushrooms together until onions begin to carmelize.  Add wine, and cook until liquid has reduced to half.  Add broth, continue cooking an additional 2-3 minutes.  Remove from heat, add butter.  Pour over meat (include onions, mushrooms and figs - super yummy).  We only get this one a few times a year, when figs are in season.  This is from an Apron's recipe Publix had a couple years ago, they used a whole pork loin roasted with rosemary - superb!  We've found the sauce goes great with other cuts of meat as well.

Creamy Swiss Sauce - Perfect for: chicken, lean pork, or veggies.
2 teaspoons olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons minced Vidalia onion
2 tablespoons flour
1 cup chicken broth
1 cup skim or fat free milk
6 oz. Swiss cheese (we buy the block and shred it ourselves)
Splash of dry white wine (optional, but you can always just pour a glass for yourself)

Directions: Heat olive oil on medium heat, add onion and garlic, cook until onion is translucent.  Add flour, whisk until combined.  Add broth, milk and wine, bring to a boil, then remove from heat.  Add your cheese, stir until melted.  If serving over meat, pour.  If serving with veggies, add veggies to pan and stir to combine.  Great with broccoli, cauliflower and baby carrots.  This is from a Skinny Taste recipe for Chicken Divan, but we've found the sauce is great on its own or with veggies.

Lazy Pasta Sauce - Perfect for...pasta.  Use it with spaghetti, rotini, or as your lasagna sauce.
28 oz. can crushed tomatoes (we use Tuttorosso - get the green label, it's the absolute best)
3 garlic cloves, smashed
4-6 plum tomatoes, chopped or sliced
1 pound hot Italian turkey sausage (we use Jennie-O)
16 oz. Ricotta cheese (you can use full fat, we go with part skim, and it's still delish)
Fresh basil

Directions: Remove sausage from casing, and cook until brown.  Add garlic, cook an additional 2-3 minutes on medium-high heat.  Reduce to medium-low, add chopped tomatoes, crushed tomatoes and ricotta.  Combine well, allow to simmer 5 minutes.  Top with chopped fresh basil.  This is my husband's all-time fave sauce, and it is beyond easy to throw together on a busy weeknight.  The Jennie-O sausage is so perfectly seasoned, we never have to add a thing to this sauce!

And there you have you're in on my saucy secrets.  Cheers!

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Makin' a Pizza!

The Cokes are pizza lovers; but, because I'm also super conscious about the food we eat (read: Weight Watchers brainwashed me forever...) we don't indulge in pizza very often.  Twice a month, always on a Saturday night, we'll make our own deep dish pizza at home.

I like eating out, but I love eating in.  I love eating in when it's a meal we've spent time perfecting; when we've created something that we truly do love because it has our favorite spices, flavors, etc.  And after a few years of experimenting, we have become the Pizza Masters.

It started off as a basic supreme pizza on a hand-tossed crust, and evolved into the deep dish vegetarian monster we have today.  I'm going to share the foundation for our recipe with you, but first, I thought I'd share a funny pizza story.  That's what you're really here for anyway, right?

Now, there are two funny pizza stories I could tell you.  The first involves Evan making the sauce, and consequently causing all of our taste buds to melt in a Mount Vesuvius frenzy of cracked red pepper.  The second involves Evan...well...makin' a pizza.  Because I have a few sauce recipes I'll be sharing down the road, I think I'll save the cracked red pepper tale, and go with what's behind door number two (lifetime supply of Turtle Wax!) :)

Evan asked me to marry him in August 2004, and two months later, we went on our first vacation together to Bryson City, NC (a combo engagement-birthday-Kristin is FINALLY 21-trip)...and PS, the "Kristin is FINALLY 21" is also a story to share...maybe I'll do a wine post one of these days.

I digress.  In this early-ish stage of our relationship, we weren't living together yet (we became heathens the following year) but we did spend most of our time together, and had started cooking dinner together as well.  One of the meals we'd done was, in fact, pizza.  We get our pizza dough in the Publix bakery...their fresh dough is fabulous, and waaay easier than making it yourself.  Back then, we were still in our "hand-tossed" phase, which meant lots of stretching, pulling, rolling, and yes, tossing the pizza dough into the air.

Back to vacation.  We'd arrived at our cabin after a 12 hour drive.  We were definitely ready for some R&R.  Evan decided to take a shower while I unpacked.  I made a few trips to the truck, bringing in bags and cleaning out the remains of our road trip, and each time I came into the bedroom I could hear Evan talking.  Now, I talk to myself frequently, so I thought nothing of it to hear Ev in there, scrubbing away and yammering on.  I tuned him out.

Finally, I brought the last suitcase to the bedroom, and began putting clothes away in the armoire.  My ears perked up as I heard what I thought was a jolly Italian man - in our bathroom.  I slowly opened the door, and tiptoed inside.  I stood there, staring at the shower curtain, positive the noise I'd heard was coming from that direction.  All of a sudden, the washcloth came flying up into the air above the shower, then sailed back down.  "Well that's a very strange way to shower", I thought to myself.  It happened a couple more times in silence, and then, I heard my jolly Italian man...

"I'M-AH MAKIN-AH PIZZA!"  (washcloth up, washcloth down)

Excuse me?  Did you say what I think you said?

"I'M-AH MAKIN-AH PIZZA!!!"  (washcloth up, washcloth down)

Oh yes, he did.  He said exactly what I think he said.

I stood in the bathroom, in awe and disbelief, as my fiancee of two months tossed "pizza dough" into the air while he showered.  I was in love!

From that day forward, every single pizza night in our house has started with the phrase, "I'm-ah makin-ah pizza!"  It's the kitchen equivalent of, "Gentlemen, start your engines!"

I'm sure my husband will be thrilled to know I've shared this story with you all.  Coincidentally, it was shared today in the same manner it's been shared in the past - after two glasses of shiraz. :) And now, because you've been so patient, here's how the Cokes do pizza...

Deeeep Dish Pizza
Pizza dough (no recipe, I'm lazy - go to the Publix bakery)
One jar of Barilla Arrabiata pasta sauce (still lazy - also, sauce story and recipe to follow)
One 16 oz. block of Sorrento whole milk mozzarella
Olive Oil (no measuring)  Hint: I am in l-o-v-e with the Crisco Olive Oil spray (like Pam, but better)
Parmesan Cheese (no measuring)
Italian Seasoning (you get the idea...)

Preheat your oven according to the Publix directions.  Drizzle or spray your olive oil in a 9x9 pan.  Sprinkle parmesan cheese and Italian seasoning in the bottom of the pan, liberally.  Really liberally.  Then, when you think you have enough...add more parm.  Trust me, the crust will be fab.  Work your dough (punch, knead, stretch, whisper sweet nothings) into the pan, and bake for about 10 minutes.  While the dough is baking, prepare your toppings and shred the entire block of mozzarella cheese.

Once the dough is out (won't be done, but this helps to ensure it won't be raw in the middle) pour your sauce on top...all over, there's no crust, so we don't need to be polite.  Once the dough is sauced (like me - haha!) sprinkle one third of the cheese on top, then add all your toppings, and finish with the remainder of the cheese.  Sprinkle some parsley on top, and toss that puppy back in the oven for another 20-25 minutes.  You'll know it's done when it's oozing over the side of the pan, sizzling in the bottom of your oven.  We always let our pizza rest about five minutes before slicing.

Vegeterian Monster Toppings
We don't do sausage, pepperoni, ham, etc. on our pizza (anymore...sorry, Ev!).  We're a veggie-only household now.  Our faves?  In no particular order...Roma tomatoes, green pepers, Vidalia onion, portabello mushrooms, black olives, zucchini, yellow squash, broccoli and cauliflower, along with some fresh basil.  And sometimes, some spinach.  You should see the mess in the bottom of my oven!

Cheers! :)

Monday, June 11, 2012

Leftover Peanut Butter and Overripe Bananas

In our open-concept kitchen pantry (read: no doors or cabinets - totally open, and beautifully constructed by my hubby) we have what's called a "baking basket."  Let me see if I can find a photo... left corner, that's the baking basket!
 Of course I have to show off a little bit more...

Have I mentioned how awesome it is being married to a handyman?  This also reminds me I should update the rest of our remodeling photos, now that the construction is finished.

Anyway, back to the basket.  So this baking basket holds exactly what you'd think: sprinkles, coconut flakes, chocolate chips, brown sugar, pecans...everything I need for holidays, birthdays and special occasions.  It gets used pretty frequently from October through December, then again from March through May.  After that, there comes a lull in baking.  But, in good Southern spirit (and with my mom's voice in the background reminding me that I should never waste anything) I'll haul that sucker down and take a peek at what's inside.  And that, my friends, is how many of my husband's all-time favorite cookie recipes are born.

Since "Baking Basket Day" began a few years ago, we've had some really tasty treats come out of this oven...all in oatmeal cookie form.  So today, I thought I'd share the coveted basic oatmeal cookie recipe that all my BBD wonders are made of...

Basic Oatmeal Cookies
1 cup light brown sugar
1 cup dark brown sugar
2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 cups rolled oats (aka "quick cooking" oats, in the oatmeal section)
2 cups all-purpose flour (wheat flour works, too)
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 eggs

Directions: Preheat your oven to 375 degrees.  In a medium bowl, combine the salt, baking powder, baking soda and flour.  Using a hand mixer in a medium bowl, or a stand mixer, cream together the butter, white and brown sugars, then add the eggs one at a time, then add the vanilla extract.  Add the sugar mixture to the flour mixture, stir together, then add your quick cooking oats.  Add your favorite baking basket goodies.  Scoop by tablespoon onto a greased baking pan, then bake for 8-12 minutes, depending on whether you like chewy (8ish minutes) or cripsy (12ish minutes) cookies.

So, what can you add to a baking basket oatmeal cookie?  Well, here are the ingredients I've added to the basic recipe in the past:

Coco-Choco Oatmeal Cookies: Added the rest of a bag of coconut flakes (I'll guess a bit more than 3/4 full) along with half a bag of large semi-sweet chocolate chips, and a full bag of mini semi-sweet chocolate chips, along with a dash of pumpkin pie spice.  Yes, pumpkin pie's a super lazy way to get all my fave spices in one shake!

Triple Chipperdoodles: Decent amount of white chocolate, semi-sweet chocolate and butterscotch chips, two teaspoons of cinnamon, a dash of nutmeg and a dash of allspice (note: I am a big fan of allspice).

Graceland Oatmeal Cookie: Two very ripe mashed bananas, half a jar of chunky peanut butter, a bag of jumbo semi-sweet chocolate chips and half a bag of walnuts (crushed) and I'm certain some allspice...just a tad.

You may notice there are no real measurements to the basket ingredients...and that's because I am literally cleaning out the basket.  So, whatever half-empty bags of chips, flakes, sprinkles, etc., are in there, go into the cookie.  It's really about feeling the cookie; getting that cookie vibe, knowing whether it needs coconut or peanut butter.  Is it a sweet little butterscotch cookie, or a ticked off ginger cookie?  Dark chocolate, or white chocolate?  Where are my dried cranberries?  And just how many chocolate chips is my husband going to think I didn't see him eat?!

BBD has taught me which spices I love (cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, allspice, cloves) and which I hate (okay, none...).  It's an awesome way to get creative, come up with a recipe of your very own, and really understand how flavors can work together.

If my mom is reading this (as she should be...) she's probably surprised I shared a recipe.  Normally, I won't share the true recipe; I always omit something, or change a measurement (I know, I know).  I'm pretty big on keeping family secrets close to the vest; I usually only share the real-deal recipe with the closest friends, and only when asked repeatedly (also, after bargaining for cat-sitting services or bottles of wine).  But this is one recipe I'm happy to share, because it's really not's yours.  Yours to create something utterly decadent, or totally screw up (stay away from dried apricots).  The choice is yours.

Finally, I'll share one teensy little baking tip that I've found makes cookies and breads even more delicious.  If you come across a recipe (such as the basic oatmeal cookie) that calls for both brown and white sugars...take the white sugar amount, and cut it in half.  Now, add that amount to the brown sugar.  That's it.  It gives the cookies or bread a warm, sweet, molasses taste, without the super sweet, teeth gritting kick you'll sometimes get from just plain old white sugar.

And now you know my BBD secrets.  The next time you see a cookie post, rest assured that the inspiration truly was, "what am I supposed to do with three bags of Christmas M&M's in July?!"

Happy baking!

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Blood Loss and Brownies

Preface: I am not a health “nut” per se, but I do pay very close attention to the foods we eat, in the least OCD way I can manage. J
 Every once in a while, I’ll read about something new in the world of healthy living…could be a new workout routine (damn you, Jillian Michaels), a new vitamin supplement, a new vegetable I can add to our “salad in a blender” breakfasts, or a new way of eating (I refuse to call it a diet – Weight Watchers trained me well).  About a year ago, I met one of those “ways of eating” that I knew we just had to try.

 It was going to change our lives.  It would cure Evan’s (undiagnosed) gluten intolerance.  It would help us thwart the (conspiracy theorist’s idea of) government’s control over the nation’s grain industry.  We would sleep better, feel better (after three weeks of the “Atkins Flu”), and look better.  It was a revolution in food…a foodolution, if you will.

 We were going paleo.

 What is Paleolithic eating, you may ask?  Simple, really.  It’s following the same diet as our hunter-gatherer ancestors.  You know, spearing free range, grass fed buffalo; gathering nuts, berries and twigs.  Catching salmon with our bare hands from cool, Alaskan streams.  Did you know Paleolithic man was in better physical health than today’s average man?  Eating all-natural whole foods, protein without chemicals and hormones, and never, ever under any circumstances ingesting dairy (Louis Pasteur wasn’t around back then).  Also, never eating potatoes.  Or legumes.  Or grains of any sort (no flour, wheat, barley, etc.)  No alcohol (gasp!), caffeine or sugar.  Big deal if the average life expectancy was only 34, right?  They were in rockin’ good shape!  Probably from being chased down by mountain lions, setting up camps and literally fighting to survive.  Sort of like a trip to Publix on a Saturday morning when the Apron’s lady is prepping the “meal of the week.”  I know that I always seem to find myself surrounded by ravenous senior citizens on those days.

 Fruits and veggies: If you can eat it raw, it fits (hence no potatoes or legumes).

Meat: If you can catch it, you can eat it.  I’m looking at you, annoying raccoon who won’t stop sneaking through the pet door and drinking out of our pool every night…

 So, paleo we went; albeit my husband, begrudgingly so.

 For a few weeks we did lots of fish, free range chicken and organic veggies.  With veggies on the side.  Topped with veggies.  And veggies for dessert.  Oh, and some fruit.  I’ll admit, I lost three pounds and wanted to keep on…but that little voice inside me kept telling me there was no stinkin’ way I could keep this up.

 Southerners, imagine a life with no baking or starches.  No cornbread, no biscuits, no cakes, no cookies.  No chicken ‘n dumplings, no chicken pot pie, no shepherd’s pie (gosh, we love pie for dinner, huh?), no baked potato with your steak. 

 Others, imagine a life with no coffee (gasp!) or wine (double gasp!) or ice cream (faint!)

 Oh yeah, it was exactly as much fun as you think it was.  By the way, we had also taken on the challenge of P90X at the time (oh, that will be its own post, trust me).

 After spending the better part of an afternoon at work totally goofing off and reading paleo blogs, I found the solution to my weakening fortitude – PALEO BROWNIES!  Yes!  Finally, I could bake something besides tilapia and cauliflower.  I was stoked.

 Evan took me to Mother Earth so I could get the necessary supplies: coconut oil, walnuts (LOTS of walnuts), eggs, unsweetened cocoa squares (80% caocao?  Something like that), and some other items that are still hiding in the back of my pantry.  Now, the recipe called for zero flour, zero sugar, and zero butter.  But I would not be deterred.  I was baking brownies, and because baking is one of my many talents, I knew they would be awesome.

 We got home, and immediately went to work.  By now, you might be wondering how you can have a brownie with no flour.  Well, in the paleo world, it’s rather simple.  You grind two pounds of walnuts in your food processor until they turn into nut butter (yes, you read that correctly) then you mix everything in with it.  Seriously.

 So, Evan processed the walnuts into oblivion while I finely chopped the dark chocolate squares.  Normally when I bake, I have a glass of wine.  But, this is restricted on the paleo diet, so I’m blaming this injury completely on the lack of fermented grapes in my kitchen at the time.

 I was on my very last square when it happened.  My knife skills have slowly improved, but in my famished-brownie-craving state, I slipped.  The 7” Santoku slipped off the chocolate, and into my ring finger.  Blood.  Everywhere.

 Evan quickly grabbed a kitchen towel, and instructed me to apply pressure and hold the gaping wound over my head.  All I could do was stare as blood dripped into my $12 organic dark chocolate squares.  I finally took a good look at the damage I’d done to my finger, and my knees began to buckle.  He slowly guided me to a chair, wrapped my finger, and held my arm up for me.  Because I was nearly catatonic, I stayed in that chair and in that position while he finished the brownies (side note: he finished the brownies at my request…something about not letting the chocolate go to waste…)

 Finally, the brownies were in the oven.  With my arm still draped over the top of my head, my finger throbbing and screaming, cursing me for ever buying things like coconut oil and brussel sprouts, I joined Evan in the living room to watch Jeopardy.  Eventually, the excitement of a “true Daily Double, Alex” took my mind completely off my wounded finger.  I would periodically pay closer attention to the smells coming from the kitchen, waiting for that delicious brownie odor to fill the house.  It never happened, but I was not deterred.

 At last, the timer buzzed…the brownies were done!  Man, I was so excited to have a big old brownie with a glass of…water. And a scoop of…bananas?  But it was still a brownie!

 I won’t lie; they actually looked delicious.  Tall, gooey, dark brown…exactly what I expect to see in a brownie.  We carefully cut them, with no difficulties (probably because of the lack of butter, flower, sugar and milk) and served ourselves our very first paleo baked goods.  Back to the living room for Final Jeopardy.  I hoisted our soon-to-be new favorite dessert to my piehole, and took a great, big bite.

 It. Was. Awful.

 Absolute worst baked good I’ve ever put in my mouth (and I’ve had SPAM cupcakes).  I could taste walnut butter, coconut oil, and that horrific 80% pure cocoa those paleo nuts tried to tell me was “just as good as Ghiradelli!”  LIES.

 I spit it out.  Evan didn’t even try his.  It was that terrible.

 And that was our last day of paleo.  Nearly losing a finger in my craze to have a simple baked good told me one thing…if my body was that starved for something decadent, this was not the “lifestyle change” for us.  And we’ve never looked back.

 Oh sure, I regained the three pounds.  But I also got to eat things like sweet potato soufflĂ©, cornbread, ice cream, Belgian waffles, and cous cous.  I could also have wine and coffee again.  I was finally sane again.

 I know a few folks who stick to the Paleolithic lifestyle, and kudos to them.  But I won’t lie; every time I have a glass of merlot with a giant hunk of brie, a fistful of Pepperidge Farms crackers and a cupful of grapes, part of me cries a little for those people. 

Thanksgiving must be miserable.


Hey there!  Thanks, friends and family, for taking the time to read my ramblings on not one, but two blogs.  I’m so thrilled to put my thoughts on paper for the world to critique. J You may be wondering why I’d decide to have a second space filled with nonsensical ideas…well, it’s simple, really.  This afternoon, I was reminded of the time I nearly sliced my ring finger off while attempting to make brownies.  I realized what a funny story that was (to me – mostly because I didn’t lose my digit) and that I’d really like to share it with the folks who pop by on occasion…but I was struggling with finding a way to parlay that story into a devotional.  Well, aside from the obvious: God did not want me to eat those brownies.  And while that could have been a fitting, “the body is a temple” story, I started recalling other tales of the kitchen that could be fun to share…and realized that there are some stories (burning off a layer of skin while searing pork loin – damn you, Food Network, and all your clever ideas!) that I just couldn’t work into a daily devotional.

And so, “Just Add Merlot” was born.  Originally, I thought the title “Just Add Wine” was cute and clever, but I found that someone else had beaten me to the witty and fermented punch.  After a careful taste-testing, I narrowed it down to merlot (because cabernet sauvignon is too lengthy and, let’s face it, difficult for *some* of my friends and family to spell).

Occupying this space on a semi-regular basis will be my kitchen triumphs and tragedies, recipes (both my own and others I’ve fallen in love with), and, depending on the amount of merlot I’ve had, a few anecdotes about my amazing, incredible, loving and supportive husband, and our collective “zoo” of children.

So again, thank you…and enjoy the show. J

PS – For those wondering, “Coke and a Smile” was also taken…and not by a fellow Coke.  Travesty.