Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Unintentional Christmas Decoration

I've spent the past several Thanksgivings traveling. During college and when I was working in DC, I'd either go home or visit grandparents in New York. The last two years, I've visited my fiance's family in Boston. The day I returned to my apartment I would religiously go out and buy a Christmas tree. I've always been that person to pull out my decorations the day after Thanksgiving. I was really annoying as a child. My poor mom would cook all day Thursday and Friday morning I would turn the house into a disaster zone by dragging in every box, emptying its continents and leaving the mess for her to sort. Oops. (Sorry mom!). Now that I have my own place I'm responsible for the mess, but my schedule hasn't changed one bit. I start listening to Christmas music in November and I'm itching to take out decorations mid-way through the month. Since I have yet to host Thanksgiving, there isn't much harm.

This tree was my first little baby. The picture is a bit deceiving. It was pretty tiny. And I had maybe ten ornaments and filled the rest with little plastic ones from Target. Each year got slightly larger. And fiance got more and more involved.

Last year I went a little overboard. I sort of forgot that I was by myself. I'm not sure this picture does it justice, but let's just say the next day I couldn't raise my arms above my head because I was so sore.

That brings us to this year. I am going to be traveling a lot in December and it didn't really seem practical to get a tree. I knew it would die quickly and I'm busy. So as much as it seemed sacrilegious to forego the ritual, I convinced myself it was the best course of action.

Then I returned to my apartment after Thanksgiving. Let me tell you a little inside secret about long-distance. You'd think it would be easier to return after spending a lot of time with your significant other. In fact, it's quite the opposite. The longer you are with them and the more time you spend, the harder returning to your "normal" life becomes. I get used to having fiance around. I get used to what a room feels like when he is in it. I get used to having a buddy to go places with.

All of sudden, my cozy apartment feels cold. The room feels empty and I am perpetually waiting for something or someone to come home. And nothing makes it better. Except waiting for the transition period to go away.

Well that really bad day was Tuesday. Monday I was too busy, so the gloominess settled in Tuesday morning. Despite my first inclination to wallow on the couch all day, an empty fridge provided enough motivation to get out of sweatpants long enough to get some food. I went to the store and got my key go-to grumpy foods: pickles, chocolate, cheese, and apple cider. And then this happened.

I'm not exactly sure how. I blame fiance. I was on the phone with him when the little trees caught my eye and he encouraged my impulse purchase. It was definitely against my better judgment. At least this year I managed to restrain myself to a reasonable size. Don't get me wrong, next year I want seven feet. But I needed my arms today, so while I'm still by myself, it was necessary to go small. The ornaments dwarf the tree and it sort of leans to one size. But I love it and it makes me smile. So I guess fiance was right.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Best Apple Pie Ever

I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving. I took last Friday off because I was with family and intended to write this post on Sunday night and post this recipe yesterday, but after a 7.5 hour flight, I was simply too tuckered. Yes, you read that correctly. What should have been six hours at the most became 7.5 hours due to wind or some mysterious evil travel elf. So, a day late, I'm sharing with you my amazing Thanksgiving discovery. If I'm being honest, apple pie really isn't my favorite. I know it's the American dessert, but I'd much rather have pumpkin, pecan, chocolate cream, coconut cream, or any other type of fruit pie. I'm not really sure why, I've just always felt that way. However, it was one of my assignments for Thanksgiving and I was determined to do it well. This recipe may have actually changed my position on apple pie. It was that good. The key is to cook the apples and the sauce in a skillet before filling the crust. Sounds crazy I know, but it turns the goo into this amazing caramel and softens the apples just enough. I will never make another apple pie recipe again. Ever.

Caramel Apple Pie
recipe from here
note: I had a crust on hand from the pumpkin pie recipe, but you could also use store bought

6 -7 cups tart apples, peeled and sliced
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon vanilla
4 tablespoons heavy cream (I used light and it was just great)
4 tablespoons butter

I started by peeling and slicing the apples. I must say, this task sucks. But I made fiance talk to me while I was wielding my knife and it helped pass the time.
Squeeze the lemon juice over the apples and toss. Then, add the brown and white sugar, the spices, and the salt and toss until all of the apples are coated. There will be some extra of the dry ingredients in the bottom. That's ok. Add the vanilla and the cream and mix again.
Melt the butter in a large skillet. When the butter is hot, add the apple mixture and cook on medium for about 8-10 minutes. It will start to sizzle and you will see the filling liquid turn thick and begin to resemble caramel.
At this point you can go right ahead and fill the pie shell or put the mixture in a bowl and let it sit at room temperature for a couple of hours until you are ready to bake the pie. I found it very help to be able to get that step out of the way and just assemble later. When assembling make sure you leave plenty of room around the crust because it will shrink in the oven.

Lay the second piece of pie shell on top or make a criss-cross pattern with strips. I went for the full cover because it seemed easier and I was trying this for the first time. Trim off a little of the extra crust around the edges, but leave enough so the rim of the dish is just covered. Using a fork, or your fingers, press the pieces together to seal. Next time, I'll brush a little cream in between the layers to seal extra tight. Make a few slits or poke some holes with forks on the top to allow the steam to escape. Brush the top with cream to help turn a lovely brown.

Bake at 450 degrees for 15 minutes and then turn the heat down to 350 and bake for another 45. I'd recommend you check on the pie about half way through and either used a pie crust shield or wrap some tin foil around the edges so it doesn't get too burnt. I meant to get a mid-slice picture, but the eating got in the way. Take my word for it, you'll love it! Enjoy!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Thanksgiving Cookie Bonanza: Part II

This recipe immediately caught my eye when I saw it on The Baker Chick's website. I've shared my sugar cookie recipe before, which will always be a favorite, but a chocolate option seemed amazing. I thought this recipe would be perfect for a tailgate with tons of men who like chocolate. The white frosting would also be the perfect base for 49ers-themed sprinkles. I absolutely loved these cookies, although they are incredibly rich and decadent. So perhaps not for the faint of heart.

I think they are adorable and round and fluffy. The frosting is very thick (I think I would add another tablespoon of milk next time, just to make it easier to spread). I will be making these babies again.

Soft Frosted Chocolate Sugar Cookies
recipe from here

2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup cocoa powder (dutch process/Valharona power highly recommended)
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup light-brown sugar
9 Tbsp butter, softened (1 stick + 1 Tbsp)
2 Tbsp sour cream
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
1/2 Tbsp vanilla extract

12 tablespoons of butter, softened. (1 stick and a half)
4 cups of powdered sugar
2 teaspoons of vanilla extract
1-2 tablespoons milk or cream
gel food coloring (optional)

In a small bowl, I whisked together the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder, and salt.
In a large bowl, I mixed the sugars, sour cream and butter until creamy. Add the egg, egg yolk and vanilla and mix again.

Add the flour-cocoa mixture and beat until combined. The batter will be thick.
Scoop the dough into balls, or use a cookie scoop. Best. Invention. Ever. My cookie scoop is about 1.5 tablespoons and I was able to make 24 cookies. But you can do as small as one tablespoon or as large as two tablespoons. Place the dough onto parchment. They don't need to be too spread out because the cookies really don't flatten too much. 
Bake for about ten minutes at 350 degrees. The cookies will be done when the outside looks like it's drying. If you touch the cookie, it should be slightly squishy, but not firm. Let the cookies cool completely before frosting.
When you are ready to frost and decorate, beat the butter until it's fluffy. Add the powdered sugar, a cup at a time, and beat until mixed. The frosting will be crazy thick. Add the vanilla and milk. I only used one tablespoon, but in the future will use two. Mix again.
Frost the cookies and add sprinkles. My mom gave me this adorable set which would be amazing for fall cookies. Decorations like these would work great for Thanksgiving!

But.....the 49er game was my focus. As you can see, my initial attempts at frosting were less than pristine. Tasty? Yes. Perfect? No.
My frosting definitely got better as I went along and the frosting softened a bit. I still think they are cute as a button! Enjoy!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Thanksgiving Cookie Bonanza Part I

I've noticed when I bake, it tends to come in waves. I will go weeks without turning on my oven and then all of a sudden my kitchen explodes with baked goods. I don't intend for this pattern to emerge, it just so happens that I guess opportunities to pawn of desserts on others come in bunches. Who knew? Anyway, I made two batches of cookies this past weekend. One for a family dinner and one for a tailgate party before the 49er game tonight (wooohooo!). I thought it might be fun to share them as possible Thanksgiving treats this week. I think cookies are a really nice complement to pie because they are more casual and easier to eat. So it provides a nice alternative and balance. The first recipe, Snickerdoodle Cookie Sandwiches with Pumpkin Filling, would be great if you aren't a fan of pumpkin pie, but still want some pumpkin flavor, because it is Thanksgiving after all. I know a lot of people who don't like the texture of pumpkin pie, but do like pumpkin flavor. So this recipe is a great option. Tomorrow's recipe is a great chocolate sugar cookie with amazing frosting that is the perfect base for fall sprinkles or decorations. That recipe would be a great option for a chocolate dessert to accompany a pumpkin or pecan pie. Of course, you can do anything you want, but I just thought I would provide a few suggestions in case you were suffering through a major menu brain freeze!

Snickerdoodle Cookie Sandwiches with Pumpkin Filling
recipe from here

1 1/3 cups all purpose flour
1/2 tsp. cream of tartar
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/8 tsp. salt
1/2 cup unsalted butter- room temperature
1/2 cup plus 2 Tablespoons sugar
2 Tablespoons light brown sugar
1 egg
1 tsp. vanilla extract

for rolling:
1/4 cup sugar
2 tsp. cinnamon

pumpkin filling:
4oz cream cheese, softened.
2 tablespoons of softened butter
2 cups powdered sugar- sifted
1/4 cup pumpkin puree
1/4 teaspoon of cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon of ginger
1/8 teaspoon of nutmeg
pinch of cloves

I started by whisking together the flour, cream of tartar, salt and baking soda, then setting that bowl aside. In a large bowl I creamed the sugars and the butter until nice and creamy.
 Add the egg and vanilla and mix. Add the flour and mix until smooth. Put the bowl in the fridge for about 15 minutes.
While the dough is chilling, mix together sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl and preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Form the dough into balls. I made mine about an inch. They were too big. Trust me. You want the balls to be about 1/2 of an inch. Which seems crazy tiny. But they really flatten and since they are sandwiches you want the cookies small. Roll the balls in the cinnamon sugar mix.
Bake for about 10 minutes until they start to form lines in the dough. You can see the creases and that generally means they are done.
Cool completely on racks.
In a bowl, cream together the butter and the cream cheese. Add the powdered sugar and mix. Add the pumpkin and the spices. The mixture is pretty runny for frosting, but that's ok.
Match together your cookies by size and scoop a dollop of frosting into the center of the cookie. You don't want to spread it out too much, because when you put the top of the cookie on, it really spreads.
Leave out for an hour or two to harden a bit. It will never be completely solid, but will firm up a little.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Banana Oat Breakfast Muffins

I've struggled with breakfast. I've documented these struggles lately and shared my Apple Cinnamon Crumble Bread as one possible solution. However, I've also mentioned that I'm trying to be healthy and watch what I eat. The Apple Cinnamon Bread could be way worse. That being said, the calorie count isn't fantastic. Fiance and I have been using My Fitness Pal and it is making me keenly aware of how many calories bread eat up of my daily total. But alas, I had several bananas sitting on the counter rapidly ripening and screaming for some sort of baked good. I didn't want to do banana bread, because of the aforementioned calorie issue. So when I found this recipe for healthy banana oat muffins, it seemed like the perfect option.

These muffins were incredibly easy to pull together and are very tasty. They are pretty dense and hearty, so if you are looking for something really sweet, this recipe probably isn't your thing. But the chocolate chips add a nice tough of richness and I've gladly eaten one of these babies for breakfast for several mornings in a row. They are good straight from the fridge, but also very tasty warmed up. I think they'd also freeze pretty well. Give them a shot!

Banana Oat Muffins
recipe adapted from here

3 mashed bananas (the more ripe the better!)
1 cup skim milk
3 packets truvia, or other natural, calorie-free sweetener
2 eggs
1 tbsp baking powder
3 cups Old Fashion or Rolled Oats
1 tsp vanilla extract
4 tbsp semi-sweet chocolate chips

Mash your bananas in a large bowl, then add the eggs, baking powder, oats, vanilla extract, milk and sweetener. Stir until mixed.
Prepare your tin with spray or liners. Once you have the tin ready, add the chocolate chips and stir.
Scoop the batter into the muffin cups, I used a 1/4 cup scoop and it worked nicely. I was able to make 12 muffins.
Bake for about 20 minutes at 375 degrees, until the edges are slightly browned and the muffins feel firm.
Don't they look yummy!?! And in case you were wondering, these muffins have 144 calories per serving and are super filling. So, I will definitely be making these again!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Cheap and Easy Weeknight Dinner: Farro Salad with Asparagus and Sugar Snap Peas

So have you all heard of farro? Apparently a lot of people haven't. Given that my mom's pantry could easily be classified as the newest Whole Foods store, I'm pretty familiar with random grains. She introduced me to this particular option over the summer and I've been searching for it in stores for months. I finally found a bag at the local Nugget and was pretty darn excited. I love farro because it's really healthy and filling and has this amazing flavor and texture. It's not crunchy, but has a good thickness when you bite down. I'm not sure that makes any sense, but it definitely makes you feel like you are eating carbs. Which I need because I love carbs. This dinner was super quick, hence the weekly series classification. It works nicely as a vegetarian main course or a great side option. It's great room temperature or cold, so pretty much any season will work. The leftovers are also super tasty, so it's a great lunch option. My only complaint is that the asparagus browns slightly, so the bright, beautiful colors do fade slightly. But that only really matters for food bloggers who forgot to take a final picture the first night.

Farro Salad with Asparagus and Sugar Snap Peas
recipe from here
1 1/2 cups semi-pearled farro

12 ounces asparagus, trimmed, cut into 1 1/2-inch lengths
1 8-ounce package sugar snap peas
12 ounces grape tomatoes, halved
1/2 cup chopped red onion
6 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup Sherry wine vinegar
1 7-ounce package feta cheese, crumbled

Start by filling a small pot with water. Bring to a boil and then add the farro. Cook for ten minutes then drain. Put the farro in a bowl.
At the same time, bring another saucepan to boil and add the sliced asparagus and sugar snap peas. Cook for about 3 minutes, drain, and add to the bowl.
Add the halved tomatoes, feta, and chopped dill. To be honest, I left out the onion because I didn't want it in there. In a small bowl, whisk together the olive oil and vinegar and then pour over the top. Mix to coat everything. Eat the salad right away or let sit for a while to absorb the flavors.

Monday, November 12, 2012

How's It Hanging?

So I must confess, I really don't drink alcohol. That reality is in no way a moral stand, I just really don't like the taste of it. I love Diet Coke and would almost always rather drink that. Additionally I get really tired when I drink alcohol and so I become less entertaining, rather than more. Which is really the opposite of the goal, no? And, no one in the history of the automobile has turned down a designated driver. Be that as it may, I do have wine in my apartment for cooking and guests. I've been searching for over a year for a good storage solution. And sticking them in a corner was not what I had in mind. I wanted a wall-hanging rack, but I wanted it to look rustic. 99.9% of the wall-hanging wine racks are very modern/industrial looking. Which is totally fine, but not for me. So when I saw this rack on Joss and Main a few months ago, I pounced on it. It was back ordered a bit and it just arrived a week or so ago. Then I was lazy and didn't hang it until yesterday. I finally got my act in order and hung the darn thing.

This setup was what I had before. Not very attractive and very annoying. Plus wine bottles are supposed to be stored horizontally.
I taped a piece of paper to the back of the rack and poked two holes where the hanging slots were located. I also put two pieces of tape facing outward on the side of the piece of paper, so when I pressed the rack to the wall, the paper stuck.
Then, I hammered in two of those wall anchor/screw combination things. You just hammer in the whole piece, then unscrew the screw slightly and slip the screws into the holes in the back of the rack. (Wow could that sentence sound worse?). This contraption could certainly hold the weight of this thing, but I just needed it to keep the rack upright since the rack was resting on the counter.
Finally, I slipped a few bottles in place and was done! Actually, I still need to get a bit of chalk to write "cheers" on the little blackboard. I love that I can write seasonal messages! Fiance and I will almost certainly want a bigger bar in the future, but this little piece will always work great for the kitchen!

Friday, November 9, 2012

Snack Time

One of the most frustrating things about trying to eat healthy is that horrible moment when you aren't hungry enough for a meal, but an apple just won't cut it. And let's be honest, one can only eat so many cereal bars. So I've been on a mission to find healthy and easy snacks that make me feel full. I've heard of roasted chickpeas before and fiance has even mentioned them, and one afternoon I could not get the idea out of my head. So I did a bit of googling and cobbled together a recipe. I wasn't really sure how it would turn out, but I was pleasantly surprised. They were crunchy on the outside, but still soft on the inside and the flavor was amazing. Salty and lots of kick. I made one can of chickpeas, which was enough for two decent sized snacks. If you wanted to make more, the recipe is easy to adjust!

Roasted Chickpeas

1 can chickpeas, rinsed and patted dry
1 tablespoon olive oil
3/4-1 teaspoon garlic salt, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon cumin
dash of cayenne (optional of course, I skipped)

Put chickpeas in bowl, add olive oil and toss. Add the spices and toss until coated.
Bake on cookie sheet for 20 minutes at 400 degrees. Stir the chickpeas to make sure they cook evenly and bake for another 10 minutes. Put into a bowl, wait a few minutes until they cool a bit and enjoy!

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Slow-Cooker Black Bean and Zucchini Chili

I originally pinned this recipe for fiance. He has been requesting relatively healthy slow cooker recipes and I thought this one would be right up his alley. He ended up making a totally different chili, but I thought I would give it a try. Only one tiny problem, I don't have a slow cooker. I originally bought one for us this summer, but left it in DC. I thought about getting one for out here, but I'm moving over the summer and I figured we would register for a nice one. So I decided to just adapt this recipe for a soup pot. It worked out pretty well. The chili was pretty tasty, although I think it tasted more like stew and not like traditional chili. My final product needed a bit of salt and I really liked it with cut up fresh avocado and a dollop of sour cream on top. The two fresh and cold ingredients really brightened it up, so I definitely wouldn't skip that step in the future. You can definitely make this recipe with a slow-cooker, or go my route. It's pretty flexible, so either way works great!

Slow-Cooker (or not) Black Bean and Zucchini Chili
recipe from here

1 1/2 pounds ground beef (I used two pounds because that's the size available at the store and I was lazy)
1 28-ounce can diced fire-roasted tomatoes
2 15.5-ounce cans black beans, rinsed
3 zucchini (about 1 pound), cut into 1/2-inch pieces
2 medium onions, chopped
1/4 cup tomato paste
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon chili powder (otpional)
1 teaspoon dried oregano
kosher salt and black pepper
sour cream, cut-up avocado, and chopped fresh cilantro, for serving

You'll need to forgive me. I was really hungry when I was making this dinner. I'm pretty sure all of my energy was devoted towards actually making food instead of caving and having Ramen. Anyway, I went to download my pictures and evidently I only caught the final product. I suppose it's better than nothing. But you'll just have to trust my instructions for the various steps.

If you are using a slow-cooker, combine the beef, tomatoes, beans, vegetables, and spices and cook on high for 4 to 5 hours, or on low for 7 to 8 when the veggies are tender. If you are using a pot, chop the onions and put in a large pot. Add the beef and brown until veggies are soft and the meat is cooked through. Add the tomatoes, beans, veggies and spices and simmer covered for about 1 hour or until the veggies are soft and the soup condenses.

Top with chopped avocado and sour cream and enjoy!

Monday, November 5, 2012

Apple Spice Crumb Bread

Before I share this recipe, I need to give a bit of a blog shout out. I always give credit for recipes, but I feel like I need to go beyond credit and tell you guys about one of my favorite blogs. The Baker Chick is my go-to resource for baked goods. I get tons of dessert and breads recipes from her and with the exception of one mini-disaster that I'm certain was my fault, they have all turned out wonderfully. She also is a very no-fuss baker, so the recipes don't take hours to make. Which is great, because let's be honest, who has hours to waste? No one. This recipe is just another success story from her kitchen and although I made a few tiny tweaks, the genius is all hers. I just wanted to give credit where credit is due.

Anyway, this bread is delicious. I've been really good lately with giving away almost all of my baked goods and was in the mood to make something for myself. But since I'm trying to eat more healthy, I didn't want it to be too decadent. This recipe really fit my requirements. It also freezes beautifully, so I sliced it up, wrapped each slice in cling wrap, and then put all of the individual packets in a freezer bag. In the morning, I can take one out and just pop it into the microwave or a toaster oven. That allows me to really monitor my intake and make sure I only have one piece per day and the bread doesn't go bad.

A few notes: I used three massive honeycrisp apples (which are by far the most delicious apples ever) and they were plenty juicy and the bread was full of apples. If you are using a smaller apple, I'd suggest using 4. I used all whole wheat flour and it worked great, but you could do half whole wheat and half regular if you so desire. Because the bread has whole wheat flour and tons of apples, it isn't overly sweet so it makes a great breakfast or would go amazingly well with an afternoon tea break. Enjoy!

Apple Spice Crumb Bread
recipe adapted from here

1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup granulated sugar
2 eggs
2 cup all-purpose flour (whole wheat can be used too.)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/2 cup buttermilk
4 medium sized apples - peeled and cored. 2 of them chopped and 2 grated.

crumb topping
1/8 cup flour
1/8 cup oatmeal
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 tsp cinnamon
2 tablespoons butter- cut into small bits

I started by mixing together the dry ingredients in the crumb topping and then cut in the butter.
Basically, I just use two knifes and cut the butter until the pieces are roughly the size of peas. Set the mix aside.
In a large bowl, whisk together the oil and sugars until smooth.
Add the eggs and vanilla and mix again until smooth.
In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, baking soda and spices. Add to the sugar mixture and stir. Add the buttermilk and mix until smooth. I just used a spatula for two reasons. One, I was lazy and didn't want to get more dishes dirty (which a hand mixer would have done). Two, breads shouldn't be over mixed, which is nearly impossible to do with a spatula.
Peel and core your apples. Chop up two and add to the bowl. Shred the next two and add to the bowl. (If you only use three like me, I chopped two and shred one and it worked well). Fold the apples into the batter. Pour into a greased loaf pan. Sprinkle the crumb topping over the top.
Bake at 350 for 60 minutes or until a toothpick comes out cleanly. Cool for about 15 minutes in the pan, and then completely on a rack.
Slice and enjoy! This piece was an end piece, so you can really see the crumb topping, but it's there and delicious. I always save the top for the last few bites because it's so tasty.