Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Cookie Cutter Ham and Cheese Pockets


At our play group Halloween party, these little gems got quite a bit of buzz. I had several people request the recipe, so I thought I would share it here! I've been making these for four years, since I first saw them in a Woman's Day issue (back when I inexplicably received that magazine in the mail--it just began appearing one month, then disappeared a year or so later. Some anonymous benefactor must have thought I needed help being a woman?)

Anyway, for a four-ingredient recipe, these ham and cheese pockets really shine. The flaky-on-the-outside, tender-on-the-inside pie crust melts in your mouth with the gooey cheese and salty ham. Their greatest virtue is their versatility. You can use any cookie cutter you choose, as long as it's big enough and not too weirdly shaped (reindeer shaped pockets for Christmas might pose a challenge). And of course the filling can be modified as well. If you're a turkey and cheddar fan rather than ham and Swiss, knock yourself out. They store well in the fridge and can be reheated in the oven on warm if you've made them ahead of a party. I like to serve them with a side of honey mustard.

Cookie Cutter Ham and Cheese Pockets
(Adapted from Woman's Day)

Ingredients:

1 box (15oz.) refrigerated pie crusts
8 oz. thinly sliced deli ham
8 oz. sliced Swiss cheese
1 egg, lightly beaten

Directions:

Heat oven to 400 degrees.

On a large surface, unroll pie crusts. Using a rolling pin, roll dough out to approximately 1.5 times its original diameter. Cut crusts into shapes using desired large cookie cutter (3 inch works great). Collect scraps and roll out again to get as many shapes as possible. You will need an even number.

To form pockets, place one slice Swiss cheese and one small portion ham on one cut-out shape. Place a second cut-out shape and on top and press edges together firmly. Place on a greased cookie sheet. Repeat until all dough is used. Cut slits in top crust to allow steam to escape.

Brush tops of pockets with beaten egg. Bake 12-15 minutes.

Makes 9-11 pockets.


Preschool Halloween Party (Games and Recipes!)

The partiers (minus a few who had gone home for naps)

What do you get when you combine Halloween costumes, spooky treats, crazy games, and 20 preschoolers? Chaos! A whole lotta fun! (And one pretty exhausted mama.) This morning was our play group's annual Halloween party. For the last four years, I've been a member of the East Valley Catholic Stay-at-Home Moms' Group (yeah, we have a long name) and had attended this annual event at my friend Marsha's a couple of years ago. Her effort and creativity are the envy of everyone in the group...and oh yeah, she's also an environmental scientist. Did I mention she's awesome? Last year she made 40 Halloween gingerbread houses for the kids to decorate. Dedication, I tell you! So this year, since she moved into a new house only weeks ago, I volunteered to host the party at my place--with a lot of help from Marsha, thankfully! I have to say I think the event was a success. (And get ready--this is a long post.)

Once the dozen or so moms and their little ones gathered at our place at 10, we started out with a craft. For preschoolers, I'm a believer that simpler is better. This craft was decorating an orange paper plate with stickers to make it look like a jack-o-lantern.



Or at least an approximation of a jack-o-lantern...


Next, we headed to the backyard for some games. The lineup was:

1. Pumpkin Penny Toss



This is basically skee-ball on a much smaller (preschool) scale. Have the kids stand behind a line and do their best to toss pennies into the different point level spaces. Super easy!

2. Pin the Nose on the Pumpkin



It's not rocket science, but it sure is fun! This game was store-bought, but you could easily DIY with some tagboard, markers, and double-stick tape.

3. Tootsie Ghost Hunt


The Halloween version of an Easter egg hunt! Kids searched for Kleenex-wrapped Tootsie pop ghosts hidden throughout the yard. The good thing about this kind of hunt is that even if you find the missing Tootsie pops 6 months later, they won't be rotting in a pile of stinky goo like eggs.

4. Mummy Surprise


What, you may ask, is mummy surprise? Good surprise or bad surprise? For this activity, I wrapped prizes (small Halloween foam stamps) in strips of an old white sheet, trying to make the wrapping as convoluted as possible. Kids had to unravel the strips to reveal their prize.

5. Donut Dare



This was, without a doubt, my favorite part of the party. I played this game at camp in junior high and have wanted to play it again ever since. Tie a donut on a string, then hang it from the ceiling with a thumbtack. The idea is for the kids to eat it without using their hands--it's harder than it sounds and hilarious to watch!

After the games were done, everyone headed inside for a lunch of creepy Halloween-themed treats. (I said the donut game was my favorite part...but this might actually be my favorite part.) Dividing the work with Marsha made for a much lighter workload when it came to feeding 20-25 people a themed lunch. So let's get down to the real business: the food!

The menu:

Main Dish:


Pumpkin-Shaped Cheese Ball with Crackers and Veggies (recipe here)

Spider Deviled Eggs (recipe here)

Pumpkin-Sage Flatbread (recipe here)

(No pics of any of these--sorry! I guess I was busy supervising children eating donuts on strings.)


Boo-nanas



These were adorable...yet tragic. I had pre-made these and frozen them. In getting ready for the party, I unwittingly set them out too early and they got bent and slimy and basically inedible--more like banana worms than banana ghosts. Lesson learned: either eat these fresh or, if you freeze them, eat shortly after taking them out of the freezer.

To make these, slice a banana in half and insert a popsicle stick. Press two chocolate chips in the top for eyes. For presentation, I wrapped blocks of flower foam with patterned scrapbook paper and stuck the boo-nanas into them. 

Eyeball Grape Salad



Cream cheese, sour cream, sugar, vanilla, grapes--that's all it takes to make Eyeball Grape Salad. (Adapted from allrecipes.com)

Ham and Cheese Pumpkin Pockets



I got several recipe requests for these, so I've posted the recipe here. They were a hit!

Desserts:


Desserts! The best part of every holiday!
Pumpkin Chocolate Cupcakes (pictured on the left)

Apple Cake



I baked this delicious recipe in a pumpkin-shaped cake tin. Yeah, it was apple in the shape of a pumpkin. You got a problem with that?

Witch Hat Cookies


Super cute and super easy: take an upside-down Keebler chocolate shortbread cookie, frost with a little bit of peanut butter or orange frosting, top with a Hershey's kiss. 

Chocolate Pretzel Fingers

For this one, you need a mold to get the bony finger effect (pictured above on the right). Experience has taught me that any time you use a mold, SPRAY the dickens out of it with cooking spray before filling. I used chocolate with a little vegetable oil to fill the mold, then added a pretzel rod and coated with the chocolate mixture.

Whew! You still with me? Hopefully this crazy-long post provides some inspiration if you're looking for Halloween treats and activities. Our little party was some good, wholesome fun for some adventurous preschoolers. And if you ask me, that's way more enjoyable than the give-you-nightmares-for-a-week variety of Halloween. I'm for it. :)

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

5 Totally-Worth-It Small Kitchen Appliances

Probably most people who have a kitchen have a few basic kitchen appliances. I'd be willing to guess that if you're reading this on a computer somewhere in the First World, you probably own a blender, a toaster, and maybe even a crock pot, if you're married. (Crock pots just seem like one of those things people love to give as wedding presents.) But for the serious-ish cook, these few basics really don't cover the spectrum of cooking you're likely to want to do. As I've become more experienced in the kitchen, I've found that my repertoire of small appliances has become pretty varied. Still, I don't believe you need to amass an army of kitchen robots to do your culinary bidding. Allow me to share the few special ones I think are worth going the extra mile for. If this were a playlist, these small appliances would be the "deep cuts."

P.S. For the pictures, I really wanted to top each of these off with a party hat to show enthusiasm...but I didn't have any party hats and I don't actually know how to use Photoshop. So, you know, use your imagination.

1. Juicer
See? The top is almost like a party hat--or a sombrero!
This little guy has been going strong for over 20 years. It was a hand-me-down from my mom, who received it as a gift for her wedding in 1991. To my knowledge, it has never been repaired or had any parts replaced (nor, until this photo, had it been cleaned in 22 years...ahem). So yay Oster "Designer" Citrus Juicer! You win the prize for durability.

I have to say I'm surprised how often I use this thing. Granted, I live in Arizona, where citrus abounds, so I might be a little biased in the direction of frequent usage of a juicer, but no joke, I find I get this out at least once a month. Obviously, it's a workhorse for when someone gives you a giant bag of grapefruit you're not going to eat every day at breakfast--but it's also a handy gizmo for the smaller fresh-fruit-juice jobs, too. I don't actually drink fruit juice, but I'm a big ban of fresh when it comes to juice in recipes. Fresh lemon juice in a lemon meringue pie or fresh lime juice in a salad dressing far has so much more pep (or dare I say "zest"?) than the bottled variety. So the juicer makes the top five.

2. Food Processor

Am I just imagining it...or is that another party hat?
Yes, I know I waxed poetic in a previous post about my food processor, but I'm gonna say it again: this is one heckuva kitchen appliance. It is the Slicer-Dicer-Chopper-Cutter of infomercial legend. (Call now and you'll receive THIS FREE GIFT!!!) Hummus, pesto, black bean puree, shortbread dough, and shredded carrots are just a few of the things I've made with mine recently. New York Times columnist and cookbook author Mark Bittman says, "after the refrigerator, and maybe the dishwasher, it's the most useful kitchen appliance invented in the twentieth century." You could make baby food and kill a man with this machine. 

3. Ice Cream Maker


"Yeah, it makes ice cream," you might be thinking. And you'd be right. It makes ice cream and not much else (unless you count sherbet, sorbet, and gelato). Obviously, an ice cream maker is not as multifunctional as some of the other appliances on this list, but it's still worth getting. If you, like me, enjoy ice cream and care about the ingredients in your food, making your own starts to look pretty attractive. Ice cream should not contain artificial colors or flavors, hydrogenated oils, or anything else wacky--and it doesn't have to. All it needs is to start is cream and sugar...and this little machine.

4. Electric Griddle


Have you ever tried cooking pancakes for a crowd on a stovetop skillet? You'll get three good-sized pancakes at a time, max, and then everyone is sitting there waiting wondering how long this is gonna take while those three pancakes get cold at the bottom of a dish while you make three more at a time until finally everyone can eat. Whoa, this sounds like a pancake stress dream. Enter the electric griddle. I was skeptical about getting this--believe it or not, it was my husband who wanted one of these--but since we have owned one, I've become a believer. I thought this black monolith would sit in our pantry collecting dust, but we use it surprisingly often. In addition to pancakes (which it helps with beautifully), the electric griddle works like a dream for eggs, bacon, French toast, grilled cheese and other hot sandwiches, tortilla warming, and even funnel cake, in case you're feeling like a trip to the state fair without involving carnies and hog judging. 

5. Immersion Blender

Meet my new baby--er, blender. I don't want to put a hat on this one. I want to knit it its own special blender cozy and tuck it into its sweet little blender bed. I want to keep it safe and snug where no one can ever hurt it. Because this, THIS, is my favorite kitchen appliance. Partly because I love its playful turquoise color; partly because I saved up and bought it for myself after lusting for it on Amazon for months...but mostly because it is fabulous. As a soup lover who has made the hot, messy mistake of trying to puree soup in a blender, I can say that that one function alone makes this gadget worth it. But really, the sky is the limit with this thing. Besides blending soups, an immersion blender does the job on mashed potatoes/sweet potatoes, smoothies, sauces, berries, and whipped cream. It's extremely light and (at least in this model) the bottom detaches so it can go right in the dishwasher. Plus, on Amazon you can get it in something like 25 colors, from sage green to sugared plum to metallic pink. 

So if you don't have some of these, go get working on your Christmas list! Awesome cooking awaits! 

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Pumpkin Oatmeal Muffins



Well, it's mid-October and pumpkin season is in full-swing. Good thing, too, because I haven't forgotten my previous commitment to go "pumpkin craaaaaazy"!! But we'll get to that in a minute.

Around here, pumpkin patches are appearing on street corners faster than you can say "Why am I paying so much for pumpkins?" I do enjoy our annual visit to the pumpkin patch, though. This year, our family (plus my dad and step-mom in town from Illinois) headed out to the far East Valley to check out the festivities at Vertuccio Farms. For $8 admission, you can't do better than this place. Their fall festival boasts games, a bounce house, pedal race cars, farm animals for petting, a barrel train ride, 

This is what I mean by "barrel train." It's made out of barrels.

and a 2-mile corn maze complete with a mystery modeled after the game Clue (in this case, it was which animal kidnapped Farmer Joe--I think it ended up being the chickens with the rat poison in the outhouse...or something similarly macabre. The instructions stated that "fowl play" was involved). The kids had a blast and we were all pretty wiped out by the end of the afternoon, so we finished our visit the way any sensible person would on a Phoenix-area fall day: with sno-cones. 

Elliot had cherry. Gabe had cotton candy flavor.


At any rate, here's another recipe involving everyone's favorite orange vegetable. I wish I could say I made these muffins with pumpkin puree from a pumpkin patch pumpkin (try saying that three times fast), but no, they were created with the humble canned variety. But you know, they still turned out great! Very moist and pumpkin-y with the hardy texture of oats, these were super satisfying for a fall morning when you've been bitten by the pumpkin bug.



Pumpkin Oatmeal Muffins
(Adapted from Peanut Butter Fingers)

Ingredients:

3/4 c. whole wheat flour
3/4 c. all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. pumpkin pie spice (mix cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and cloves)
1 c. old-fashioned oats
1/3 c. brown sugar
1/3 c. white sugar
1 egg
1 c. pumpkin puree or canned pumpkin
3/4 c. milk
1/3 c. canola oil

Directions:

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Grease 12-cup muffin tin or line with paper liners.

In a large bowl, thoroughly mix whole wheat flour, all-purpose flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, pumpkin pie spice, oats, brown sugar, and white sugar. 

In a separate bowl, mix egg, pumpkin, milk, and oil. Pour pumpkin mixture into flour mixture and mix well to incorporate.

Fill muffin cups and bake for 18-20 minutes or until muffin tops spring back when touched.

Makes 12 muffins.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Nut-Free Spinach Basil Pesto


Recipes like this one are the reason I'm so happy I got a food processor for Christmas last year. What a handy-dandy little workhorse it is, mixing and grating and chopping and generally doing all the work while I push one little button. I've always had a blender, of course, but blenders are suited for more liquid-y foods and drinks, and my poor little blender would get pretty worked up when I used to try to make thicker, food-ier foods in it. (Extra-loud whirring, discomfiting burning smell, tears, bargaining, pleas for me to stop, etc., etc.) So when I got my food processor, I felt like a woman on the frontier who'd been doing laundry with a galvanized tin and one of those ribbed washboards you see on the walls at Cracker Barrel--and was suddenly given a Whirlpool washing machine!

I've particularly come to enjoy making pesto in my food processor. This week I wanted to use some to fancy up a chicken dish, so I went looking for a spinach and basil version (also had some spinach to use up, thanks to the giant Trader Joe's bag I can never seem to get all the way through). While the traditional definition of pesto is a sauce made with basil, pine nuts, olive oil, and Parmesan cheese, the word pesto comes from the Italian pestare, which means "to pound"--hence our English word "pestle," the instrument that executes the pounding. So really, if you want, you can think of a pesto as any sauce that was made via pounding, regardless of the ingredients. (That's why this spinach-heavy version counts. My food processor pounded it into submission.) Still, I'm here to tell you, if you're looking for a basil pesto recipe, you're going to have to do some looking to find a recipe that doesn't call for an ingredient that is typically expensive and rarely used in American home kitchens: pine nuts. 

I have never bought pine nuts. Ever. And frankly, I really don't want to. They're like $7 a pound, which I don't want to spend, and it would probably take me until my kids are in college to go through a whole bag. Thankfully, they are not actually necessary to make pesto, as evidenced by this lovely spinach-basil pesto recipe. It's extremely simple, with just a handful of ingredients, and as mentioned before, in a food processor it comes together with just the touch of a button. 

Ta-da!
So ready your food processing engines, racers! Here comes a savory treat that's an ideal complement for so many foods: on top of chicken or fish, in pasta or vegetables, or as an alternative sandwich spread. You just might find it addictive. 


Spinach Basil Pesto
(Slightly adapted from Two Peas and Their Pod)

Ingredients:

4 c. spinach
2 c. fresh basil
2 cloves garlic
1 Tbsp. lemon juice
1/4 c. grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. black pepper
1/3 c. + 1 Tbsp. olive oil

Directions:

Place all ingredients except olive oil in a food processor or a sturdy blender. Turn on the machine and blend for 30 seconds. Slowly stream in the olive oil while the machine is running. Process until smooth.

Store in a covered container in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.

Yields 1 cup.




Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Pumpkin Sherbet


I realize there have been a lot of dessert posts on here lately, but indulge me (or indulge yourself) with one more. Today is October 1st, a day I have been impatiently awaiting for quite awhile now. It's not that anything in particular is actually going to happen today--it's just that now that it's October, I officially feel like it's fall. (September temps in Phoenix are mostly still in the 100's, so now that it's under 100, I can pretend I live in a place where fall-ish things will start happening, like color-changing trees and sweaters and a chill in the air. It's a farce, but it's an enjoyable farce.) Anyway, if it's finally Fall™ I'm going to feel free to go out of my gourd.....that's right,
PUMPKIN CRAAAAAZZYYY! 

Let's take this opportunity for the following confession: in the last 24 hours alone, I made three pumpkin recipes: this pumpkin sorbet--an ideal choice for those of us still experiencing 90 degree weather--pumpkin muffins, and pumpkin snickerdoodles. (Hopefully I don't get any calls from my kids' schools from an alarmed nurse informing me my children have turned orange.) The slightly embarrassing thing about this is that I have been complaining to anyone who will listen lately about the Pumpkin Spice Juggernaut. You know what I'm talking about. If you live on planet Earth, you will have seen how Starbucks has been tooting its own pumpkin spice horn for like a month already...and then M & Ms got on board with its own version...and Hershey Kisses...and See's is making pumpkin spice lollipops. I'm telling you, it's 

PUMPKIN PANDEMONIUM!

But you know what? Why fight it? It's inevitable. Pumpkin is here to stay. And I'll proudly state that several of my family members hail from the Pumpkin Capitol of the U.S., Morton, Illinois. This pumpkin sherbet is a great way to spice up your pumpkin repertoire. (Get it?) It's a creamy, very pumpkin-y, lightened up alternative to pumpkin ice cream. 

Let's do this. It's ON, pumpkin. IT'S. ON. 

Pumpkin Sherbet
(Adapted from Skinnytaste)

Ingredients:

2 1/4 c. 2% milk
1/2 c. plus 2 Tbsp. sugar
1 c. canned pumpkin or pumpkin puree
2 tsp. vanilla
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
pinch cloves
pinch salt

Directions:

In a saucepan, combine milk, sugar, pumpkin, and heat over medium heat. Bring to a full boil while whisking, then reduce heat to low, and simmer for thirty seconds.

Remove from the heat, and add the vanilla, nutmeg, cinnamon and clove, and stir.

Transfer the mixture to a bowl, and chill in the refrigerator until cold, anywhere from 3 hours to overnight.  When chilled, freeze in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

Makes 2 3/4 cups.