Monday, December 29, 2014

Muffin Monday

I started a new "thing" at work.

It's called Muffin Monday.

Apple-Oatmeal Muffins
Simply, I bake muffins on Sunday afternoon, then bring them to work on Monday to share with my coworkers.

Pumpkin Streusel Muffins
I've received many thank-yous from folks, and even more comments about my generosity -- some people have been downright shocked that I would bake muffins and give them away every single week.

Pumpkin, Millet, and Chocolate Chip Muffins
But, I'll let you in on a little secret ...

Cranberry-Orange Muffins
I don't do it for them ... I do it for me.

Whole-Wheat Gingerbread Muffins
I LOVE TO BAKE.  Always have, for as long as I can remember.  One of my favorite childhood photos of myself was taken at about the age of three, standing at the kitchen counter, helping my dad knead bread.

Eggnog Doughnut Muffins
Baking is in my bones, people.  It's who I am.

Mini Cranberry Cakes
I love nothing more than to whip out the flour and eggs and sugar and mixing bowls on a Sunday afternoon, filling the apartment with delicious smells ... and enjoying delicious treats later.  I also love to try new recipes and new flavor combinations, and welcome any opportunity I have to experiment in the kitchen, whether it is by baking, cooking, or canning.  Wee!

Banana-Walnut Muffins
However, I alone cannot keep up with consuming the quantity of baked goods I love to produce.  So, that's where my coworkers come in.

Bran Cream Cheese Muffins
Thanks, all y'all, for helping me eat all of the muffins I've baked.  I'll keep it up, if you'll keep eating them!

Whole-Wheat Blueberry Muffins

So ... any favorite muffin recipes to share?  What should I make next week?

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Eggnog Oatmeal

While I love a glass or two of eggnog around the holidays, I never can seem to get through a whole quart on my own.  (Why don't they sell eggnog in pints anyway?  It would make more sense for me, and also act as a single serving for others, I assume!)  I made eggnog doughnut muffins, sipped a couple of servings, and made a few eggnog lattes, but still had quite a bit left ... until I discovered eggnog oatmeal!  Rich, creamy, sweet, and subtly spiced, eggnog oatmeal makes a comforting, quick, nourishing breakfast during the busy holiday season.

Eggnog Oatmeal
serves 1

1/2 c full-fat eggnog
1/2 c water
pinch kosher salt
1/2 c rolled oats
dried cranberries and grated nutmeg, for serving

Combine the eggnog, water, and salt in a small saucepan, and bring to a boil.  Stir in the rolled oats, lower the heat, and continue cooking, stirring frequently, until the oats are cooked and the oatmeal is thick, about 5 minutes.  Top with dried cranberries and grated nutmeg.

What are your favorite uses for leftover eggnog?

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas Cookies 2014

I've reached the moment in time where I have made peace with the fact that my iPhone takes better pictures than my 10-year-old Canon point-and-shoot.  Sigh.  I made a huge tray of cookies on Monday to take to work, and tried taking pictures, and they were just ... awful.  (Darkest day of the year certainly didn't help!)  So this year, instead of viewing the entire spread, you get a shot of my "snack plate" that I fixed for myself today, for periodic nibbling in-between meals, walks, knitting, reading, laundry, and maybe, just maybe, a nap.  (Because I got home from singing for Christmas Eve service well into Christmas Day last night!)  Merry Christmas!

Cookies after breakfast?  Yes, please!

Chewy Gingersnaps
I have made this recipe several years in a row now, and they have become a mainstay.  I love gingersnaps, and I love them even more when they are chewy (and STAY chewy several days later.)  Gingersnaps are one of those cookies I believe are actually better a few days after baking ... maybe it's that whole "flavors having a chance to blend" thing?  Anyhow, these are great -- nicely spiced, but not "too spicy."  A cookie for adults and children alike.  I used coconut oil this year (instead of the canola oil called for in the recipe,) and they are perfect.

Magic in the Middles
This fall, I had a peanut-butter stuffed chocolate cookie at a local restaurant, and fell in love -- I HAD to find a recipe!  King Arthur Flour to the rescue!  I strayed from the original recipe a bit, adding an ounce of Neufchatel and a tablespoon of milk to the chocolate dough, (recipe reviewers complained the dough became dry with storage,) and ended up having to add a few teaspoons of milk to the peanut butter filling (using natural peanut butter made the filling a bit dry and crumbly.)  These weren't nearly as fussy as I thought they were going to be to shape, and have been a huge hit with friends and coworkers.  My friend Dora told me, as she dropped me off after church last night, that "the chocolate cookie with the peanut butter surprise" was the best one I made this year!  They were the first to go off the tray at work, too.

Best Cut-Out Sugar Cookies
Thank you, Faith Durand and The Kitchn, because these are, hands-down, the BEST cut-out sugar cookies I have EVER HAD.  The dough is a dream to work with, froze beautifully, and yielded soft, yet sturdy cookies.  I also love that the additions of both lemon zest and almond extract make the cookies themselves more of an event, rather than just an avenue for buttercream and sprinkles.  :)  Decorated sugar cookies are always my favorites, and these have elevated what I've come to think of simply as "Christmas Cookies" to a whole new level.


Peppermint Cream Squares
Another Kitchn recipe I tried this year, and a good one.  For a few years growing up, we made a cookie called "Peppermint Snowballs," which I believe may have been a grandparent to these bars, and Peppermint Snowballs were always a favorite of mine.  I don't love chocolate, although I LOVE mint, and I fell for the buttery shortbread and minty cream filling instantly.  However, we gave up on those cookies after a few tries because they were too fussy and just didn't store well.  I was thrilled to find this recipe, because I missed the flavor of Peppermint Snowballs, but not the fuss and mess.  Bars to the rescue!  I made a few changes to the published recipe, (including using all of the shortbread as the crust and simply sprinkling the peppermint/powdered sugar over the warm cream cheese layer,) but may even make more changes next year.  I wanted a slightly thicker, more cheesecake-like peppermint layer on top, rather than the more moist, sticky layer I got using the original recipe.  I think I will increase the cream cheese and add an egg next year.  Regardless, these have still been hugely popular ... people who love shortbread and mint were coming back for seconds!

Fig and Cream Cheese Bars
These babies are unassuming at first glance, but folks who are brave enough to try them are richly rewarded.  I think people either love or despise figs; I am a lover of figs, both fresh and dried, and consequently, LOVE these bars.  (Plus, hello lemony cream cheese topping!)  A day after delivering tins and gift bags of cookies, I received a text message from my friend Stephanie: "It's like a fig newton but better!  Yummmm."  Agreed.  I follow the recipe as printed, baking the bars in a smaller 8- or 9-inch square pan, rather than the 9x13 called for.

Golden Vanilla Bean Caramels
Salted caramels almost seem like a cliche these days, but maybe for good reason -- starting around Thanksgiving, I start getting the "are you going to make caramels this year?" questions.  This recipe from Alice Medrich's Pure Dessert is a hit, and in my opinion, both reliable and relatively easy to make.  (The hardest part of making caramels, in my opinion, is CUTTING THEM.  Sigh.)  I love the gentle flavor golden syrup lends to baked goods, (it's the not-so-secret ingredient in my pecan pie,) and these caramels are no exception.  I decided to salt the caramels using Maldon sea salt this year, instead of the coarser salt I've used in the past -- and I love the gentler flakes, instead of the crunchy chunks.  Last year, my friend's (then) 4-year-old daughter scarfed three of these caramels in one sitting while no one was looking ... smart girl.  :)  (They got a whole bag of extra caramels this year!)


Apricot Coconut Bars
I have wrestled with these bars for years, because I love the dense, chewy, sweet, rich, apricot-coconut topping, but DESPISE the crust as written -- it is crumbly and difficult to work with, and literally shatters and disintegrates when cutting.  This year, I added an extra ingredient (an ounce of Neufchatel,) and changed my technique (creaming softened butter, cream cheese, and 1/4 cup sugar together, before stirring in the flour,) and was promptly rewarded by a sturdy, flavorful shortbread crust for that glorious topping.  (P.S. flipping the bars out of the pan upside-down on a sheet of parchment paper to cut also helped.)  Success!  Only took me three tries to figure that one out.  I think we will call this holiday season the year of Neufchatel, since it became a key player in many of my cookie recipes, all of a sudden.  :)

Cream Cheese Meltaways with Lemon Glaze
This is another one of those frequent repeats, as I get several "are you making the lemon cookies this year?" requests, again beginning at Thanksgiving.  One of my work friends reported these were her husband's favorites, and I "caught" at least one coworker rushing back for seconds of this one just moments after returning to his desk with his first selections from the tray.  I decided rather than toss out the surplus glaze this year, I would simply double-dunk the cookies.  More sugar!  Yes.


English Toffee (from the Betty Crocker Cookbook)
The toffee is not pictured, because it is gone!  It's gone for several reasons, really -- I have a couple of gluten-free treat recipients who deserved extra toffee and caramels this year, and well, I just really like toffee.  It's easy to sneak a bite here and there, you know?  :)

Off to eat a post-breakfast cookie now.  Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Survival Tips for Marathon Kitchen Days

I did it again -- I conquered a ridiculously long Christmas cookie and candy baking list in one day.  Typically, I do this every year the weekend before Christmas, and this year was true to tradition.  I love to bake, I love to share the variety of treats I make with friends and coworkers, I love the opportunity to try out new recipes, and I love tackling the challenge of a big baking day.

To some, a big baking day, (or any marathon kitchen day, for that matter,) seems daunting and sort of crazy -- like, why would anybody want to spend 10+ hours in the kitchen covered in flour and sugar? It is intense, but totally worth it, in my opinion.  Why, you ask?

For starters, when I'm giving treats as gifts, I like them to be freshly-baked.  It would be nearly impossible for me to deliver cookies still warm from the oven to all of the important people in my life, but one- or two-day old cookies?  That is definitely doable.  Then, my people can take their time savoring their treats -- no worries that things will get stale or spoil on them!  (Why go to all of that trouble if the finished product isn't enjoyable?)

Second, you only have to break out the big guns once.  Dig out and clean up those rarely used kitchen items like the 9-inch silicone pan, electric mixer, large storage containers and platters, rolling pins, cookie cutters, sprinkles, food coloring, batter bowls, and removable-bottom bar pans.  Get them out, use them, clean them, then stash them away again until next time.  Done!  One day of digging in the back cupboards and climbing around on the step stool, and then you can say good-bye to those items for a while.

Third, you only have to clean up once.  Now, don't get me wrong -- my kitchen is the size of a postage-stamp and I don't have five sets of mixing bowls, so I probably did four (five? six?) sinks of dishes during the course of the day yesterday.  However, the state of my kitchen floor today?  EEEEEEEEEEEWWW!  Sticky, crunchy, grimy, and who knows what else.  That just happens, you know, when you make that many treats in one day.  And that's okay, because today tomorrow (ahem, cough, cough,) I will sweep, mop, and wash the rug, and all will be right with the universe.  :)  However, if I had stretched my baking out over a week or more, I would have had to live with that disgusting floor for days on end, or I would have had to mop multiple times.  Neither option sounds good if you ask me!

Last, I really enjoy the challenge.  My brain loves to plan, organize, multitask, and tackle large projects as efficiently as possible.  And after several years of pre-Christmas baking marathons, I've discovered a few tips, tricks, and hacks that have been game-changers -- changing the marathon from something dreaded, disorganized, and stress-inducing to something exciting, challenging, and fun!

Clean dishes, and my iPad mount hack.  Bless you, 3M, and your Command Adhesive.
Survival Tips for Marathon Kitchen Days

Be Prepared: Several days, or even a week before your marathon kitchen day, pull together all of your recipes, make a shopping list, and check your cabinets to see what you have on hand.  When I do my big baking days, I don't simply write "butter," "flour," or "eggs" on my shopping list ... I do the math and write "5 lb butter," "12 c flour," "9 eggs" etc. on my shopping list.  I also recommend double-checking your stock the day before baking day, just to make sure.  (Because, you know, I didn't buy enough cream cheese last weekend, and would have ran out yesterday had I not double-checked!)  Running out or missing an ingredient when you are in the midst of a marathon kitchen day is the WORST.  Check on things like spices, vanilla, food coloring, sprinkles, even salt ... things you always assume you have on hand, but may actually run out of from time to time!

Prep as Much in Advance as You Can: Take a look through your recipes and figure out what you can do ahead of time that will save you time and help you be more efficient during marathon day.  This year, I made both candies last weekend, (because candy keeps infinitely longer than cookies do,) and prepped and froze three of my cookie doughs.  Thursday night, I pulled the doughs out of the freezer and was ready to roll (literally ... ha ...) first-thing Friday morning.

Wear Shoes: This may sound silly, but seriously ... your knees, hips, and back will thank you for wearing comfortable, supportive shoes at the end of a long day on your feet.  My tendency is to wear socks or slippers around the house, but NOT on marathon kitchen days!

Get Dressed: This may also sound silly, but getting dressed, even if in just jeans and a t-shirt, can be a game-changer for me, mentally.  It would be easy to stay in PJs or sweats for marathon kitchen days, especially since I don't typically leave the house on these days.  However, getting dressed tells my brain it's time to wake up and get down to business.  Getting dressed helps me feel sharper and more focused.  Since I am tackling so many projects all at once, I need to feel as sharp and focused as humanly possible!

Drink Water and Eat Meals: Here's another "duh" piece of advice, but it is easy to get busy with what you are doing and forget to stay hydrated.  I also always make sure I eat a good breakfast and stop for lunch.  I try to make sure I have something on hand that is nutritious, quick, and simple (leftovers, soup, etc.) for marathon kitchen days.  You need to eat, but you don't really want to stop and prepare anything, either!  (And I confess ... I had Jimmy John's for dinner last night.  That's totally acceptable, of course!  Desperate hunger calls for desperate measures.)

First Things First: Before I even made my coffee yesterday morning, I took ALL of the butter, eggs, and cream cheese I needed for the day out of the fridge, allowing them to come to room temperature.  Nothing "bad" happened to those things while sitting out at room temperature for the day.  Think about little tasks you can do RIGHT AWAY that will make your life easier in a couple of hours.  Then, after I had my coffee and my breakfast, I preheated the oven and took the first cookie dough I needed out of the fridge, so they could both warm up while I got dressed.  So basically, think ahead a little bit!

Clean Before You Start, and Clean as You Go: Make sure you wash up any breakfast dishes and do a quick wipe-down of the counters before you get started.  (Nobody wants cat hair or toast crumbs in their sugar cookies.  Just saying.)  Remove any and all clutter from the kitchen you can -- give yourself as much workspace as possible, 'cause you'll use every square millimeter.  Also, run a sink full of hot, soapy dish water immediately, so you can drop in sticky, dirty dishes as you go.  (And as your dishwater cools and becomes greasy?  Dump it and immediately run a new sink full!)  When you find yourself with a few idle minutes, wash a few dishes.  When you find yourself with a few more idle minutes, dry and put away a few dishes.  Notice that the counter is cleaned off?  Give it a quick spray and wipe, even if you're not done working for the day.  (15-minute old spilled molasses is a LOT easier to clean than 15-hour old spilled molasses.  You know.)  Keep this up throughout the day.  Run the dishwasher (if you are lucky enough to have one) when you sit down for lunch, then empty it before you dive back in.  The clean-up becomes much less overwhelming if you can tackle it in fits and spurts throughout the day.

Make Sure You Have Enough Equipment: I use my holiday baking extravaganza as an excuse to buy myself one new item off my baking "wish list" each year -- last year I invested in three Chicago Metallic half-sheet pans, this year, in silicone liners for said sheet pans.  (Next year, I'm pretty sure it's going to be a Thermapen.  Because all serious candy makers need a $100 thermometer.  Merry Christmas to me!)  If you don't have enough equipment, (baking sheets, mixing bowls, bar pans, etc.) consider finding a friend to borrow pieces from for the day.  Most people will happily loan kitchen items for a few days, especially rarely-used items such as specialty bakeware (tube or Bundt pans, mini-muffin tins, etc.)  You don't want to find yourself stuck waiting for one pan of bars to cool before you can make another batch!  And, if you are a cookie-baker, invest in (or borrow) three sheets (so you can have one in the oven, one you are prepping, and one cooling.)

Do the Complicated, Fussy Stuff First: Pick the trickiest, fussiest, most complicated projects on the list and tackle those first, while you are fresh.  Do the projects that require the most brain power when you have it.  :)  9 am yesterday?  Tons of brain power.  7 pm yesterday?  Mush.

Post Your Recipes: Either print out your recipes in advance and tape them to the wall or your kitchen cupboards, or have a tablet or other device handy.  Did you see my iPad hack in the picture?  Did you?  You did?  I'm SO excited I figured this out.  Wee!  Serious game changer in my kitchen.  Who wants their tablet on their kitchen counter anyway?  Not me!  Too many spills and splashes and gunk on the counter for expensive electronic devices.  No one wants to be rifling through stacks of paper with sticky fingers, or rummaging around underneath mountains of dirty dishes to figure out what temperature the oven needs to be at for THIS recipe.  I highly recommend the app "Recipe Box," if you have a tablet you use in the kitchen.  It's relatively simple to use, not too buggy/crashy, affordable, and probably my favorite part is that it DOESN'T GO TO SLEEP in recipe mode.  Ever.  You can walk away for two hours, come back, and there's your recipe! (Battery drain, I realize, but SO nice to be able to glance up and see your ingredient list without having to wake the tablet back up.  Again, sticky fingers and all.)

Have Fun: Yes, yes ... that should probably go first on this list, but it can be easy to forget, especially if things don't go according to plan -- big spills, recipe flops, major errors, and the like can make me feel flustered and grumpy.  I will always remember the year I had to clean molasses off the ceiling.  (It was Oliver's fault, I swear.  I can laugh now.)  (Getting to the laughing part took a couple of years.)  Marathon kitchen days are a lot of work, but they should also be fun!  Take it easy on yourself, and enjoy your time.  Play some music, enjoy a favorite beverage or snack while you are working (I picked up a case of LaCroix for myself as a treat Thursday evening,) and be proud of your accomplishments!  Look at what you did!  Even if you have a recipe flop, make a big mess, or some other tragedy happens, no one will ever know.  :)  (Unless you blog about it.  Right.  Molasses on the ceiling?  Never happened.  Right!)

So, what survival tips would you add to this list?

Thursday, December 04, 2014

the great Christmas cookie conundrum of 2014

Every year.  (shakes her head)

Christmas 2013
WHY do I do this to myself every single year?  I get way too ambitious with my holiday baking, find way too many new recipes I want to try, and end up with a "to bake" holiday cookie list longer than my forearm.  Both a little ridiculous and a lot impractical, I need to pare the list down, STAT.

Christmas 2102
That's where you come in.

Here's what made my final cut this year ... but we're still at ten items.  I'd like to cut the list back to eight, if that's humanly possible.  ;)  I do like to keep a variety of different things on the cookie tray -- some bars, some cookies, some candies, -- of a variety of different flavors/pairings/key ingredients (like lemon, chocolate, nuts, fruit, mint, molasses, etc.)

What would you cut?  What would you keep?

Magic in the Middles
Cream Cheese Meltaways with Lemon Glaze
Sugar Cookies (with buttercream and sprinkles)
Potato Chip Cookies
Apricot-Coconut Bars
Chewy Gingersnaps
Fig and Cream Cheese Bars
Peppermint Cream Squares
Golden Vanilla Bean Caramels
English Toffee (using the recipe in the Betty Crocker Cookbook)

Thursday, November 27, 2014

on gratitude

roasted brussels sprouts
Thanksgiving is a time to pause — to gather with those most important to us, to prepare a celebratory feast, and to reflect on our lives and recognize what we are most grateful for.

Gratitude seems simple, at first — it is easy to feel grateful for family, friends, favorite foods, good books, funny films, good health, and the privileges associated with a first-world lifestyle — clean drinking water, access to nutritious food, relative physical safety, ease of transportation, important work for which we are compensated, and time and energy to pursue hobbies, interests, and passions.

However, I believe, gratitude is much more complex.  It is very, very difficult to feel grateful for stress, transition, pain, illness, and loss.  Why should one try?  Stress, transitions, pain, illness, and loss are unpleasant at best, and at first glance, seem contradictory to the spirit of gratitude.  In fact, I have noticed many over the years encourage others to “get through” periods of stress, transition, pain, illness, and loss by practicing gratitude — by focusing on all of the good things they still have in their lives.

mini nut loaves
In my opinion, this type of gratitude practice is spectacularly unfair to the person going through a challenging time.  Yes, we do always have plenty to be grateful for, but, in my opinion, ignoring, distracting from, or “gratitude washing” that pain is disrespectful to that person’s experience, and leads to incomplete healing after that period of stress, transition, pain, illness, or loss has come to its conclusion.

Why do we practice “gratitude washing?”  Because, I believe, the alternate choice — coming to a place where we are truly grateful for that stress, transition, pain, illness, or loss — seems impossible to many.  How is one supposed to feel grateful for the loss of a job at a time of economic uncertainty?  How is one supposed to feel grateful for the death of a loved one?  How is one supposed to feel grateful for a miscarriage?  How is one supposed to feel grateful for cancer?  How is one supposed to feel grateful for a divorce that you didn’t want?

It’s tricky, and in my experience, it takes time.  I’m here to tell you, however, that it is entirely possible to feel grateful for a divorce that you didn’t want.  How, you ask?

creamy corn pudding
Simply, I refuse to live my life with regrets.  I have made a million mistakes in my lifetime, some of them big, some of them small, but I choose to never play the “if I could go back in time” game.  Why?  Because all of those mistakes I have made have been mine, and have made me the person I am today.  I would never choose to go back and erase bits and pieces of my life — who knows what would happen?  If I knew three years ago what I know today, I would likely make all of the same choices I made, in regards to my marriage.  (If you had asked me that question three months ago, however, I’m certain I would have answered differently.)

So, how is it that I find myself in a place where I feel grateful for a divorce that I didn’t want?  

I am grateful because of how much I have learned about marriage, about love, about life, about others, and about myself.  I am grateful because I have landed in a season of “radical self-care.”  If I hadn’t had this experience dealing with a divorce I didn’t want, I may never have learned the importance of self-care, and exactly what I need to do to take care of myself fully and completely.

spiced sweet potato casserole
This seems like a silly thing to say at the age of 35, but I am realizing I am just beginning to learn how to take care of myself properly.  I got the basics at a younger age, obviously — I shower, go to the doctor and dentist, eat reasonably, stay active, etc.  However, in processing the loss of my marriage, I found that I really hadn’t been taking all that good of care of myself, despite knowing “the basics.”  

At first, I found myself almost feeling “lost” without my husband — without someone to take care of.  As a woman working in a helping profession, you can imagine how much time I have devoted over the years to caring for others — so much time, in fact, that it comes second nature to me.  Self-care seems to be practiced by few teachers, I believe because it is looked down upon by so many in the field — many believe the children should come first, always.  Work yourself to the bone, skip your breaks, come in early, stay late, shovel in your lunch as quickly as possible so you can get back to work, because, after all, it’s FOR THE CHILDREN.  I disagree, wholeheartedly, with this attitude.  Why?  For two reasons: first, because if the children always come first children learn to be selfish, and second, because it is physically and emotionally impossible to always put another person’s needs before your own.  Sometimes, you just need to eat a snack, take a break, go to the bathroom, or have a bad day, regardless of whether another person needs you at that particular moment in time.

caramelized onion and herb stuffing
In retrospect, I believe I entered my marriage physically and emotionally depleted from years of teaching and not practicing proper self-care.  My cup was empty, and I looked to my husband to fill it.  Others can “top off” our cups from time to time, but expecting another to fill our cup is unreasonable and a recipe for disaster.

True story: that disaster happened to me.  And here I am, on the other side, just now learning how to fill my own cup.  I spend an incredible amount of time alone, walking, reading, practicing yoga, cooking, journaling, and just thinking.  I wallow in my introversion, and do not feel guilty for a second.  I have always been a healthy eater, but I have never been so planful, so careful, so thoughtful about the meals I prepare for myself as I have lately.  I floss.  This seems like a ridiculous thing to be proud of, but hey — I’ve had dentists telling me to floss for 35 years, and I now, for the first time in my life, floss regularly.  I get monthly pedicures.  I buy myself little treats from time to time.  I make exercise a priority — I get out for walks even when the weather is lousy, even when I am tired, because I know I need to.  Even though I spend so much time alone, I say “yes” to more and more than I ever did before — more regular attendance for church choir, more meals and outings with friends, more responsibilities at work.  And surprisingly, I don’t find myself dreading this “more” any more, complaining about these joys in my life like I used to.  Why was everything so hard before?  Because I was depleted.  My cup was empty, and I didn’t have the energy or resources to fill it.

scalloped poatoes
No longer.  I am learning how to fill my own cup again.  Once I feel like I’ve got the hang of this, I will let someone else in again; this time, someone who knows how to fill his own cup, and who can help top off mine from time to time.

For now, I practice gratitude for this season I am in.  A season of radical self-care.  This is why, despite four different invitations to join others for Thanksgiving dinner, (all of which I am grateful for,) I chose to stay in and cook for myself this year.  I am choosing to remind myself that, in my world, I am the most important person.  I am grateful for myself.

the feast
And pie.  I’m always grateful for pie.  :)

crustless pumpkin pie

Monday, November 24, 2014

Crustless Quiche with Sweet Potato and Kale

Sweet potatoes and kale are just made for each other, in my opinion.  The contrast of the soft, sweet, orange spud with the toothsome, slightly bitter, dark-green kale is gorgeous, delicious, and nutritious.  I love baked sweet potatoes stuffed with sautéed kale and white beans, a couple of poached eggs with roasted sweet potatoes and sautéed kale for breakfast, and most recently, quiche loaded with cubes of sweet potato and ribbons of kale!  And what could be a more perfect contrast to the sweet and bitter notes in sweet potatoes and kale than tangy, creamy goat cheese?  I can't think of a better trio.

I decided to eighty-six the crust this go 'round, so I could enjoy a heartier portion with fewer calories. (Still a slave to MyFitnessPal.)  However, this quiche would also be delicious in your favorite homemade or store-bought pastry crust, and stands up especially well to the more robust flavors and textures found in a whole-wheat crust.  Enjoy!

Crustless Quiche with Sweet Potato and Kale
serves 4

1 small to medium sweet potato
1 cup finely chopped onion
1 bunch kale, stemmed and finely chopped
salt, pepper, ground nutmeg, and cayenne pepper
4 large eggs
3/4 cup half-and-half (whole milk works, too)
6 ounces goat cheese

1. Heat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.  Peel, cube, and dice the sweet potato.  Toss with a bit of olive oil or spray with cooking spray, season with salt and pepper, and roast the sweet potato on a parchment-lined baking sheet until tender and beginning to brown, about 20 minutes.  Cool.
2. Turn the oven temperature down to 375.  Grease and flour a pie plate.
3. Saute the onion in a bit of olive oil or cooking spray until the onion is translucent; add the kale and continue sautéing until the kale is tender and most of the water in the kale has cooked off.  Cool.
4. Whisk together the eggs, half and half, a hefty pinch of salt, a few cranks of freshly ground pepper, and dashes of nutmeg and cayenne.  Fold in the cooled sweet potato and kale-onion mixture.  Roughly crumble the goat cheese, and fold into the egg mixture.
5. Pour the quiche into the prepared pie plate and bake for about 40 minutes, or until completely set in the center and beginning to brown on top.  Let rest for 10 minutes before slicing and serving.

Quiche keeps well and reheats beautifully.

What are your favorite things to add to quiche?  I am always looking for new combinations to try!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Crustless Pumpkin Pie

I love pie.  Wait, no, let me say that again ... I.  LOVE.  PIE.  Pie has to be my most favorite dessert of all time.  At the top of that list?  Definitely cherry pie -- homemade all-butter crust and filling bursting with a mountain of tart-sweet sour cherries.  It's best served slightly warm or room-temperature, with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.  Other favorites?  Double-crust apple pie (keep your streusel topping away from my pie, people!), strawberry-rhubarb, fresh strawberry, any double-crust berry, lemon-merengue, banana cream, coconut cream, peach, shoo-fly, custard, sweet potato, aaaaaaand ... pumpkin.

Pumpkin pie has got to be one of my favorite parts of Thanksgiving dinner, and growing up, pies were almost always homemade.  (My dad happens to be the pie chef -- thanks for teaching me that making pie crust is not a scary endeavor, Dad!)  Can I just say what horrors rocked our Thanksgiving table when my grandmother decided we were going to have pumpkin ice cream one year?  GAH.  No good.  I also have a fond memory of my grandfather, typically a pretty quiet guy who loves to eat, working his way through his second plate of Thanksgiving dinner several years ago.  There was a lull in the conversation, grandpa looked up from his plate, said quietly, "oh ... there's pie ...!" and promptly set down his fork, leaving the remaining turkey and sides on his plate, untouched.  Fantastic!  A man who has his priorities straight, if you ask me.  :)

This Thanksgiving, I've been trying to figure out how I can enjoy Thanksgiving dinner without making myself totally ill ... I've found that, after months of healthy eating, my body just can't handle desserts and heavy, rich foods like it used to be able to.  Kind of a good thing and kind of a bummer at the same time!  I decided to try a crustless pumpkin pie a few weeks ago, and I was thrilled with the results.

I can't wait to make another one of these next week!  I seriously love Thanksgiving, maybe even more than Christmas.  It's a holiday devoted entirely to food!  Weeeeeeeeee!  Anyone else ridiculously excited for the impending cooking extravaganza?

Crustless Pumpkin Pie
serves 6

2 eggs
one 15-ounce can solid-pack pumpkin (NOT pumpkin pie filling)
1 c full-fat coconut milk or half-and-half
1/2 c maple syrup (the real stuff)
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp pumpkin pie spice

1. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.  Grease and flour a pie plate (or six 8-ounce ramekins.)
2. Whisk together the pumpkin pie filling ingredients until smooth and well-blended.  Pour into the pie plate (or divide evenly among the ramekins.)
3. Bake a whole pie for about 45 minutes, ramekins for about 25 to 30 minutes, or until a knife inserted near the center comes out clean.  Cool completely before serving.  (The pie will cut best after chilling.)

What is your favorite pie on Thanksgiving?  Or do you prefer a different dessert?  (I'll forgive you, I promise...!)

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Pasta with Kale, Squash, and Blue Cheese

Saying "I love pasta" seems like kind of a generic statement, because really, who doesn't love pasta?  It's carby, chewy, comforting, and filling, comes in a variety of sizes, shapes, and colors, and more and more lately, made from a wide variety of healthy ingredients.  I love a plate of spaghetti smothered in marinara just as much as the next person, but chunky pasta with veggies and cheese will always take first place in the great pasta battle, in my opinion.

"Pasta with veggies and cheese" is one of those meals I feel like I don't even really need a recipe for -- boil up some pasta, cook up some veggies, add some cheese, and call it dinner.  Am I right?  However, I felt like I had to share this recent "pasta with veggies and cheese" meal I made, because it was just so darn delicious, so perfectly balanced in all of its complimentary flavors, I couldn't help but want to shout from the rooftops, "I MADE PASTA!  WAHOO!"

Since I don't actually know how to access the roof of my building, you get a blog post instead.

Enjoy.  :)

Pasta with Kale, Squash, and Blue Cheese
serves 2 to 4

1 lb butternut squash
1 tsp olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
6 oz chunky pasta
1 bunch lacinato kale, stemmed and sliced thinly
1/4 cup reserved pasta water
4 oz blue cheese
2 oz walnuts, toasted and chopped
extra-virgin olive oil (optional)

1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.  Peel and dice the squash into bite-sized chunks.  Toss with the olive oil and season with salt and pepper.  Spread the squash out on a parchment-lined baking sheet and roast, stirring once, about 20 to 30 minutes, or until the squash is soft and beginning to brown.  Reserve.
2. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.  Add the pasta and cook, stirring frequently.  Three minutes before the pasta will finish cooking, dip out 1/4 cup pasta cooking water and add the kale to the pasta pot.  Stir, and continue cooking until the kale is tender and the pasta is al dente.
3. Drain the pasta and kale, and return to the pot.  Add the blue cheese and reserved pasta water, if needed, and stir, allowing the cheese to melt and make a creamy sauce.  Fold in the squash.
4. Divide the pasta among plates or bowls, and top with the walnuts.  Drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil, if you would like.  Serve immediately.  Devour enthusiastically.

This is a pasta for lovers of blue cheese.  However, in my opinion, the dish is quite balanced, with creamy, salty, pungent, sweet, and bitter flavors all present in equal amounts, and lots of contrast between soft, crunchy, toothsome, and chewy textures.  I LOVE it.  I hope you do, too!  (If you don't love blue cheese, you could likely try goat cheese, or add a big dollop of whole-milk ricotta to each plate before serving.  Both would also be delicious.)

What is your favorite "pasta with veggies and cheese" combination?

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Red Lentil Soup

It snowed this week.  A LOT.  Winter has arrived aggressively and without warning this year -- it went from sneakers and puffy vest weather to boots and parka weather overnight!  Gah!  How to respond?  It is Minnesota, after all -- winter lasts for nearly half the year here.  Might as well embrace it!  Pull on the boots, don the parka and head out into the winter wonderland; later, when you get home, make soup.

Red lentil soup, to be precise.  In my opinion, red lentil soup is one of those meals that is so complex, flavorful, and warming you forget how HEALTHY it is -- warm spices, lentils, greens, veggies, and just enough coconut milk to smooth things out.  Red lentil soup is delicious after a day spent out in cold, blustery, wet weather, or after a day (or several days) of too much indulgence (ahem, Donut Crawl!)  This would be a welcome post-holiday-indulgence meal to jump-start healthier eating, or a post-snow-shoeing meal, or any time you need warmth and nourishment all in one tasty package.

Red Lentil Soup
serves 4

1 tbsp olive oil
1 c finely chopped onion
1 c finely chopped celery
1 c finely chopped carrot
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp brown mustard seeds
1 tsp anise or fennel seeds
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp salt
2 to 4 dried chilis
4 tsp grated fresh ginger
1 c red lentils, rinsed
14 oz light coconut milk
2 c water
1 bunch swiss chard, stemmed and sliced thinly

1. Heat the oil in a 3 1/2 to 4-quart soup pot over medium-high heat.  Add the onion, celery, carrot, garlic, mustard seeds, fennel seeds, turmeric, salt, dried chilis, and ginger.  Cooking, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are soft and beginning to brown.
2. Add the lentils, coconut milk, and water.  Bring to a boil.  Lower the heat, cover, and simmer the soup for 40 minutes, stirring occasionally.
3. Remove the chilis from the soup and stir in the chard.  Heat through just until the chard is wilted.  Serve with buttered naan or toast for dunking.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Salt and Vinegar Roasted Chickpeas

I have eluded to this several times lately, but I've been working hard since July at losing some weight.  There are a hundred different ways to "diet" in this world, and I choose none of the trendy ones.  I prefer to eat healthy, high-quality, minimally-processed vegetarian food, chock-full of fresh, local, in-season produce.  Lately, I have been eating just a bit less than I typically would, and focusing much harder on getting in enough exercise on a daily basis.  (Lunchtime walks?  Check.  Weekend bike rides?  Check.  21-day yoga challenges?  Check.  Running errands on foot?  Check.)

I have been using My Fitness Pal to track my meals and exercise, and people, it's working.  Not as quickly as I would like, but well ... I'm 35 years old and have a job that is primarily sedentary.  Slow metabolism?  Check.  Lack of movement in my daily life?  Double-check.  Wah.  It's frustrating sometimes, but watching the number on the scale go down, feeling stronger, feeling more physically-fit, feeling healthier, is definitely winning out most days.

(Donut Crawls aside.  Yeah.  Sometimes you gotta splurge.)

What have I learned from using My Fitness Pal?  Well, for starters, I figured out why I gained so much before -- I just ate way too much.  Sometimes, it sucks being short.  My calorie needs are much less than a tall person's, (and MUCH less than a tall man's,) and well, on a 5'1" frame, there's only so many places where those extra calories can go.  (I was having a conversation with a coworker, who happens to be pretty tall, the other day, and stated, "if you gain 5 pounds I bet you don't even notice." She replied, "I don't."  I continued, "if I gain five pounds, my pants don't fit!")  The really crappy part about this is, a scoop of ice cream, or a chocolate chip cookie, or a bowl of popcorn has the same number of calories regardless of whether you are tall, short, or in-between.

So, yeah.  I have been paying attention.  I hate that I have to, because I would prefer to just eat and enjoy my food, but given my sweet tooth, propensity towards preferring carbs, my genetics, my age, and my sedentary job, I don't have much of a choice at this point in my life.  Boo.  (Anyone else out there feel me?)

What else have I realized?  I DON'T EAT ENOUGH PROTEIN.  Oh, yes, it's that horrible question every vegetarian dreads -- "but WHERE do you get your protein?"  See, thing is, it's really dead easy to eat enough protein as a vegetarian.  It's really easy not to, too, when your body tends to crave carbs.

So, I have been paying WAY more attention to my protein intake these past few months, and you know what?  It's working.  Protein does help you feel full.  Protein gives you energy, clear skin, healthy hair and nails.  So, I eat more protein.  My Fitness Pal wants me to eat upwards of 60 grams per day, (there's research about protein helping fuel weight loss out there, which is why I think the recommendation is so high,) but I consider it a good day if I go over 50 grams.  Some days are more, some days are less.

I have a whole new relationship with string cheese I never thought I would have.  Cottage cheese and I are BFFs (sometimes I go through two cartons in a week.)  I bought an all-natural, vegan protein powder for my smoothies.  (I don't much care for it, though.  Do you have one you like?  Please share!)  I eat eggs for breakfast ... often.  Sometimes I eat eggs for dinner, too.  I have consumed more hummus in the past four months than I think I have in the past four years.  And beans?  Heck yes.  Tofu.  (Super firm tofu, even, 'cause it has more protein.)  Tempeh.  Almonds.  Peanut butter.  Bring it on.  I can do this "protein thing."

I have realized that, as I have increased my protein intake, my intake of carbs has decreased.  No longer do I scarf down two slices of toast for breakfast.  I have one slice of toast with two eggs.  And you know what?  Breakfast #2 keeps me full much longer than breakfast #1 used to.  I will never, ever be "low-carb," but I definitely think "less-carb" is working for me.

In the quest for protein-rich snacks that are relatively low in calories and NOT string cheese, I have been crunching through batch, after batch, after batch of roasted chickpeas.  Not just any, ordinary chickpeas, mind you ... SALT AND VINEGAR ROASTED CHICKPEAS.  'Cause if roasted chickpeas can taste like my all-time favorite flavor potato chip, well, they should!

I started with this recipe from Oh She Glows, with good results initially.  I did grow frustrated, however, that sometimes my chickpeas on the outside edges of my pan would burn while the chickpeas near the center would still be soft, despite frequent stirrings mid-bake.  What's a roasted chickpea-loving gal to do?  Turn down the oven, increase the time, and work low-and-slow to her advantage.


Salt and Vinegar Roasted Chickpeas

2 cups cooked chickpeas
white vinegar
2 tsp olive oil
1/4 - 1/2 tsp fine-grain sea salt

1. Pour your chickpeas into a small saucepan, and add enough white vinegar just to cover the chickpeas.  Bring to a boil, then remove the chickpeas from the heat, cover, and allow the chickpeas to sit in the white vinegar for 20 minutes (or longer, if you want a stronger vinegar flavor.)
2. Preheat your oven to 250 degrees Fahrenheit.
3. Drain the chickpeas, and toss with the oil and salt.  Arrange the chickpeas on a parchment-lined baking sheet.
4. Bake the chickpeas, stirring every 20 minutes, until they begin to brown and dry out.  Keep baking, stirring every 10 minutes or so, until the chickpeas are completely dry and crisp.  (This may take 45 minutes or over an hour, depending on your oven, your baking sheets, etc.)  Cool the chickpeas completely, then store in an airtight container.

What are your favorite flavor combinations for roasted chickpeas?  (Because I'm sure, eventually, I'll get sick of salt and vinegar.  That just hasn't happened yet.  Mmmmmm....)

And, what are your favorite protein-rich vegetarian snacks?

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Twin Cities Donut Crawl

Pub crawls?  Pshaw.  Who needs to wander around and drink beer when you can wander around and eat DONUTS?!?!

I heard about the inaugural Twin Cities Donut Crawl a few weeks ago, and quickly made plans with a friend and her daughter to attend.  A good thing, too, as tickets went FAST!  My friend picked up a regular ticket, which included three exclusive donuts from three local donut shops, t-shirt, and donation to Second Harvest Heartland, and I went for the VIP pass -- double the donuts (thankfully I had my friend's daughter there to help me eat them,) t-shirt, donation, and hoodie -- sa-weet!  (Both literally and figuratively.)

As Donut Crawl Day drew closer, the excitement was mounting -- people who had purchased tickets grew more and more fired up for the event, people who hadn't were sorely disappointed, as the crawl sold out in only a week.  That is, until ... the organizers opened up a second crawl date (tomorrow!) to meet the high demand for tickets!

The weather was was damp, cold, and grey this morning, but no amount of crummy late fall weather would stop hardy, hungry Twin Citizens on the hunt for amazing donuts!

Registration was speedy and well-organized -- we picked up our swag, punch cards, and complimentary coffee from Five Watt in a matter of minutes, and headed out to our first stop.

I've been familiar with cake donuts from A Baker's Wife for some time now, as they make frequent appearances at my place of employment on "donut Friday."  I was thrilled to learn Baker's Wife would be on the crawl, because their cinnamon-sugar cake donut is one of my top-10 all time most favorite treats EVER. Probably the best donut I've ever had!

At each shop, we were greeted by tables full of exclusive "specialty" donuts just for us "crawlers" (crullers?) and willing helpers ready to punch our passes.  At Baker's Wife, we chowed down on their fabulous cake donuts, smothered with vanilla icing and sprinkles.


Inside Baker's Wife, there's barely enough room to turn around, but that's ok -- you get in, you order, you pay, you're on your way!  They have their incredible donuts, plus breads, cookies, pies, cakes, and other pastries for pre-order or grab-n-go.  My friend picked up two loaves of their double-sourdough bread -- a few sliced of which she shared with me, and ohmigosh, this bread is worth going out of your way for!  (She also surprised me with an extra donut -- cinnamon-sugar --  "for tomorrow."  'Cause I need extra donuts after today?  :)  I can't wait for breakfast tomorrow morning!)

Our second stop, Bogart's Doughnut Co, was just as exciting as the first.  Bogart's has been receiving quite a bit of buzz and positive press since they first opened, as they employ a genius marketing technique -- they are open early in the morning until sold out! Get there and buy yer donuts, quick!

Bogarts treated us crawlers to their from-scratch yeasted brioche dough smothered in a dark chocolate glaze (an off-menu creation just for the event.) Although I'm generally not a fan of chocolate donuts, (they always seem to taste a little "fake" to me,) this was one delicious donut.  No fake-chocolate taste at all -- just rich, fluffy, slightly tangy dough, covered with a not-too-sweet chocolate glaze.  Although I tend to prefer cake donuts over raised donuts, this treat was a definite winner.

I can't wait to get back to Bogart's to try their lavender cake donut!

Our final destination, Mel-O-Glaze Bakery, has been serving up donuts to south-Minneapolitans for many, many years.  I had never heard of Mel-O-Glaze before signing up for the crawl; I am always excited to try someplace new!

Here we have a still-warm apple fritter.  Do I even need to say more?  Even though I was pretty full from the first two stops, I managed to gobble up this baby no problem.  Mmmmmm ....

Mel-O-Glaze had a variety of donuts, breads, cookies, cupcakes, and other treats available -- my friend picked up a loaf of cheddar-jalapeno bread.  I can imagine that would make a righteous grilled-cheese sandwich or stellar accompaniment to a steaming bowl of chili!

My VIP swag is so awesome!  The hoodie is soft, cozy, and comfortable, and I love the graphics on both!  (And that the tee and hoodie have different designs!)

The first annual Twin Cities Donut Crawl far surpassed my expectations -- the event was skillfully planned and totally snafu-free, the donuts were delicious, and the shirts are awesome!   (I also wasn't sure I could safely consume three donuts in one morning ... I needed a cup of peppermint tea and a walk when I got home, but I managed to tuck into all three with gusto!)  I also appreciated that Second Harvest received a hefty donation from crawl proceeds -- I'm excited to learn how much was raised by crawlers!

Can't wait until the second Twin Cities Donut Crawl in April!

(I hope they serve decaf next time ... I'm still buzzing, since I quit caffeine 10 months ago!  Wee!)

(Please note ... I don't know whether any of these three shops are actually serving vegetarian donuts.  Many bakeries do still use lard for making donuts, and I am well aware of this fact ... let's just call this a "visual vegetarian" moment, m'kay?  If you are planning on visiting one of these shops and are a more strict vegetarian or vegan, I'd recommend calling first!)

Friday, November 07, 2014

Cheddar Grits with Greens and Caramelized Onions

One of the things I love about my place of employment is all of its wonderful quirks -- we potluck once a month, have chili cook-offs, Wednesday afternoon walks, donut Fridays, "Monster Chases," Muffin Mondays, send out way too many agency-wide emails, (and occasionally hit "reply all" to those agency-wide emails,) write haikus about salad, have an agency vehicle named "Marge," (and we talk about her like she's a real person,) enjoy epic holiday parties with gourmet, homemade food and a talent show, have unusual names for our large meeting and conference rooms, and rush the front desk en masse when someone's toddler accidentally presses the "panic" button.  However, one of my most favorite quirky things about my place of employment is "Grits Club."

What is "Grits Club," you ask?  Well, Grits Club is nothing more than a bunch of folks who love grits, band together, and order cases, stone-ground to order, en masse from Hoppin' John's.  I had the opportunity to join Grits Club this year, and I'm so glad I did.  I can't think of a better supper on a cold, blustery, damp, late fall evening than a big plate of cheddar grits, covered with sautéed greens and caramelized onions, can you?

Cheddar Grits with Greens and Caramelized Onions
serves 2

1 c whole milk
1 1/2 c water
1/4 tsp salt, or to taste
1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper, or to taste
1/2 c stone-ground grits
1/2 tbsp unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 oz shredded sharp cheddar cheese, at room temperature
sautéed greens (kale, collards, chard, spinach, whatever)
caramelized onions (at least 2 tbsp per serving)

1. Bring the water, milk, salt, and pepper to a boil in a medium saucepan.  Whisk in the grits slowly, and continue whisking constantly for about three minutes.  (You may need to turn the heat down to medium-ish at some point.)
2. Turn the heat down to low (and use a heat diffuser,) cover the grits, and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 40 minutes.
3. Whisk in the butter and cheese.  Serve big plates of grits covered in sautéed greens and caramelized onions.  Eat immediately.

I recommend making only as many servings of grits as you will consume in one sitting.  (So, if you are cooking for just yourself like I am these days, cut the grits recipe in half.)  I find leftover grits much less appetizing, although many don't mind them at all.  Greens and caramelized onions both keep beautifully, so feel free to make a big batch of each up front.  (Caramelized onions freeze well, too -- I recommend making TONS in the fall, freezing them in 1/4-cup size plops on a parchment lined baking sheet, then transferring to a zip-top baggie to be enjoyed throughout the winter.)

What are your favorite toppings for grits?  What makes your workplace quirky?