Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Carrot Cake


Sometimes I wonder how certain vegetables have been inducted into the Hall of Acceptable Dessert Ingredients while others stand dolefully outside the gates. Carrots and zucchini, for example, are somehow perfectly admissible in cakes and quick breads, whereas mushrooms and eggplant are not. (Then again, I can't imagine requesting a mushroom cake for my birthday--can you? If you said yes, I'm not sure we can be friends...) I suppose with carrots, it's their innate sweetness that makes them fit alongside butter, sugar, and flour in a cake. For zucchini, I have to dig deep. Maybe some zucchini farmer had a bumper crop and made a convincing sales pitch for grating it up and putting it in bread. And here we are in the 21st century with a National Zucchini Day on the books. (April 25th, if you were wondering.) This zucchini farmer must have been one smoooooth operator.

Although I've never really gotten used to the idea of zucchini in a sweet package, every year my husband requests carrot cake for his birthday and I am happy to oblige. There *may* have been a year or two when I made a box mix while he was at work and passed it off as homemade. But no longer! Now that I have my chopaholic food processor, grating 3 cups of carrots in a matter of minutes takes a major chunk of the work out of making carrot cake from scratch. (It also nearly took a major chunk out of my hand before I located the pusher that had gone missing.)

This particular recipe has been a success for me in the past, so for my husband's birthday yesterday, I tried it again. It totally passed the test--light but moist with a hint of cinnamon sweetness and the perfect amount of rich tang in the cream cheese frosting. Definitely a winner even for those who (like me) remain somewhat skeptical about vegetables in dessert.

Just don't ask me to try carrot pie. That's taking the idea entirely too far.


Carrot Cake
(Adapted from Allrecipes.com)

Ingredients:

For the cake:

4 eggs
3/4 c. vegetable oil
1/2 c. applesauce
1 3/4 c. white sugar
2 tsp. vanilla extract
2 c. all-purpose flour
2 tsp. baking soda
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
2 tsp. ground cinnamon
3 c. grated carrots

For the frosting:

8 oz. cream cheese, softened
1/2 c. butter, softened
4 c. powdered sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
3 Tbsp. milk

Directions:

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease two 9-inch cake pans.

2. In a large bowl, beat together eggs, vegetable oil, applesauce, sugar, and vanilla. Mix in flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, and cinnamon. Stir in carrots. Pour into prepared pans.

3. Bake in preheated oven 30-35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Let cool at least ten minutes in the pan, then carefully remove to a cooling rack to finish cooling.*

4. To make the frosting: in a medium bowl, combine cream cheese, butter, powdered sugar, and vanilla. Add milk a little at a time and mix until frosting consistency is to your liking. Frost cake as desired when it has cooled completely.

I ate this piece. And it was delicious.

*If you'd like to make the cake ahead of time and frost later, here's an awesome hack: spray the inside of two freezer bags with cooking spray and place one cake layer in each. No losing the top of the cake to sticky plastic wrap!



Monday, January 27, 2014

Your Guide to Party Menu Planning


For a dyed-in-the-wool introvert, I really love to throw parties. Giving other people a good time (and feeding them fabulous, fun food) is one of the most satisfying experiences in my life. Do you feel that way? Or do you feel intimidated at the thought of feeding a crowd? It's only natural--I mean, what if it all goes screwy? What if nothing's ready on time, or you put too much gorgonzola in the cheese dip, or aliens beam down and eat your Christmas turkey like the Bumpus's dogs in A Christmas Story? I can't help you with the aliens scenario, but as a veteran party-thrower (and menu planner and cook) I'm happy to offer a step-by-step guide to party menu planning. Here's what I've learned: 

1. Plan Ahead.

Planning a party menu is like planning your wedding. It can be slapped together last-minute, but you're gonna get a sleazy Vegas chapel with pink plastic flowers and Elvis as the best man...when you might really have wanted a tasteful affair with all your loved ones in attendance. Like anything else worth planning, a great party menu requires a solid stretch of time ahead to prepare. My suggestion is at least one month.

2. Determine your Food Event--and tell your guests what it is in the invitation.

What do you plan to offer your guests, food-wise? A meal? A snack? Dessert? Drinks? If you're hosting a dinner party, the answer is obvious: dinner. Other events can be less black and white, but typically start time is one key to making this determination. For a bridal shower at 10:00, guests are likely to expect a brunch. Cocktail party at 5:00? Drinks and appetizers. I get frustrated when I go to a party at 7:00, say, without knowing what to expect. Is it dinner? Or do I eat dinner first? Then, if I already ate dinner first, I don't really want to eat mozzarella sticks and crab dip--I want dessert! (First world problems, I know.) Essentially, you don't want to mess with people's whole daily food schedule by giving them food they weren't prepared to eat.

From a Mad Hatter tea party bridal shower brunch for my sister-in-law
3. Determine a serving style and/or theme.

Okay, so you've decided to host a dinner party for ten. Now think about whether you want to plate all ten of those meals yourself in the kitchen, pass dishes at the table, or serve buffet-style. How fancy is the party? (And how fancy are the people coming?) What kind of serve ware do you own?

Secondly, a theme narrows menu planning down considerably, which can be extremely helpful in the overwhelming tide of ideas from Google and Pinterest. Mad Hatter tea party, Asian buffet, and '80s party are all party menus I've had fun planning because they've given me parameters to set a scene.

From my '80s 30th birthday party
4. Variety is the spice life...and of a party menu.

Our annual Christmas party--a buffet of dinner appetizers--is the one party I don't typically choose a theme for. I guess it's just too much fun scouring the internet and my cookbooks for a wide range of recipes. Certain guidelines do help me hone down the menu, though. I always try to offer a variety of meat dishes (beef, chicken, bacon, etc.) alongside several vegetarian options. Some are hearty, some are light. Some are carb-laden, others are mostly protein. Some dishes are old standbys, while others pack an element of surprise. A playful menu is a fun menu--and a memorable one, too.

From my son's Star Wars birthday party--get it? It's Han Solo in the trash compactor!
5. Don't do it all yourself.

For any party of more than a handful of guests, it's dang hard work cooking enough food for all those people all by yourself! This is where your dear friends Costco and Trader Joe's lend a helping hand. Interspersing ready-made dishes with homemade ones lightens your load and allows you to actually sleep the night before your event. Alternatively, if you feel truly compelled to make everything in your own kitchen, consider hiring a friend or your kids' babysitter to come over the day of and do your culinary bidding.

6. Consider your budget.

For most of us, budget is always a consideration. While I might like to go crazy for my husband's birthday and get him a cheesecake flown in from the Carnegie Deli in NYC, that would pretty much shoot my whole budget (plus it wouldn't get here in time--his birthday is tomorrow). Despite the conventional wisdom that making food yourself ends up being cheaper, my experience has generally proven the opposite. Take spanakopita, for example. You can either purchase the phyllo dough, the spinach, the ricotta, the feta, etc. or you can purchase the frozen pre-made version for $4. Some very simple, minimal-ingredient party foods are the exception.

7. Figure out how much food to serve.

The best way to do this is to get yourself a cheat sheet, like the one here. Thanks, Cooking for Crowds for Dummies! It comes down to simple math: take the number of guests you expect (never hurts to pad this number a little if you don't know exactly how many people will make it), multiply it by the amount listed on the cheat sheet, and plan to make that much. 

FYI: for brain cupcakes, the standard is 1 brain per person. (From our Hitchcock Movie Night.)

8. Get cookin'!

And don't forget to do whatever you can in advance, using your freezer if necessary. And don't stress--remember, this is for fun! And even if you burn the rolls (or the brains, as the case may be) your friends will still love you and are sure to have a good time.*

"Boo-nanas" from our preschool Halloween party

*As long as you provide alcohol.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Sweet Potato Enchiladas



Recently I Googled the phrase "enchilada fan club." Why, you may ask? Was I playing that Stump Google game where you type in the most random, unassociated words to try to get zero results? Nope. I just really, really love enchiladas. And believe it or not, "enchilada fan club" yields only 4 results--almost stumping Google. None of them represent an actual fan club for lovers of enchiladas, though. (Boo.) Maybe I just need to start my own. There's a meetup.com group for everything, right? I can see it on my resume now...."President and Founder, Enchilada Fan Club of Arizona." I think that could really open some doors for me.

Enchiladas are fan club-worthy for a variety of reasons. They're the Mexican comfort food with their hot, creamy, savory filling, soft tortilla shell, and gooey, stretchy cheese topping; they're surprisingly easy to make; they travel well; they can be mixed up for variety. To me, they're an ideal entree for a variety of occasions. Cinco de Mayo party? Enchiladas. Birthday party for your teacup chihuahua? Enchiladas. Your nephew's bar mitzvah? Enchiladas.

Today's recipe takes this Mexican classic to the next level with its unexpected filling: sweet potatoes! If you're a vegetarian or serving vegetarians, you still have the option of making hearty enchiladas that aren't just rolls of melted cheese (though, let the record show, I see nothing wrong with rolls of melted cheese.) If you can't imagine sweet potatoes involved in a Mexican-flavored dish, you're in for a surprise. Once you've tasted them with green onions, cumin, and chili powder, you'll never think of them as just a marshmallow-covered Thanksgiving dish again. 

And while I have your attention, can I interest you in membership in Arizona's newest elite foodie fan club? No money down, low commitment--you just have to be able to eat 6+ enchiladas in one sitting. Video applications accepted.



Sweet Potato Enchiladas
(Inspired by Allrecipes.com)

Ingredients:

5 sweet potatoes
5 oz. cream cheese, softened
4 green onions, chopped
1 tsp. chili powder
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. dried oregano
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. black pepper
12 6-inch corn tortillas
1 10 oz. can red enchilada sauce
6 oz. shredded cheddar cheese

Directions:

1. Place sweet potatoes in a large stock pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil over high heat; reduce heat to medium and boil gently for 25-30 minutes or until tender. Let cool. When cooled, peel skins off and place sweet potatoes in a large bowl.

2. Mash sweet potatoes. Add cream cheese, green onions, chili powder, cumin, oregano, salt, and pepper and mix well.

3. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

4. Cover the bottom of a large baking dish with a layer of enchilada sauce. 

5. On a microwave-safe plate, individually microwave 1 tortilla 10-15 seconds, or until pliable. (This is so you don't have to fry them in oil...much healthier!) Place about 1/3 cup sweet potato filling down the center of the tortilla, roll it up, and place seam side down in the prepared baking dish. Repeat with all remaining tortillas.

6. Drizzle remaining enchilada sauce over rolled tortillas. Sprinkle with shredded Cheddar.

7. Bake in preheated oven 25-30 minutes until enchiladas are bubbling and cheese is beginning to brown.

Makes 12 enchiladas.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Creamy Crock Pot Tomato Soup



Remember that ad campaign Campbell's Soup ran a few years ago, "Make it Campbell's Instead"? I'm sure all sorts of market research and lots of money went into creating it, and maybe there was more to it than just that phrase, but it always seemed like kind of a lame slogan to me. Like, really? Like their marketing team was tired one night and just said, "We got nothin'. Just tell 'em to choose Campbell's instead of something else." And then it always made me think, Well, maybe it's because it doesn't have that much to recommend it, so there was nothing else to say...?

That being said, I love tomato soup and used to eat lots of the iconic Campbell's variety. Every time I watch Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, I thrill at the thought of trying Violet Beauregarde's Everlasting Gobstopper with the tomato soup that runs down her throat (then again, I'm not crazy about the idea of turning into a giant blueberry...so scratch that). Up until a few years ago, I would buy Campbell's tomato soup and eat it with a passion, despite the fact that it left my microwave looking like a scene out of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. As I became more aware of the downsides to processed food, however, I eventually realized that, like most canned soups, the classic Campbell's tomato is not a particularly great choice. The sodium in just a 1/2 cup is 20% of the daily value, plus it contains high fructose corn syrup and some funky additives. I've since converted to the Trader Joe's variety (organic, no HCFS, only one not-so-awful additive) but am always on the lookout for a homemade version to provide that perfect hot, creamy cup of comfort.

Of the recipes I've tried, this one is the clear winner:


Not only is this crock pot gem creamy and delicious, it also clandestinely contains 3 full cups of vegetables, not including the tomatoes, which is great for kids or other picky eaters! (Though I'm not really into the whole hide-vegetables-in-your-kids'-food movement. I think beets belong in salads, not in brownies. ...Actually, no. Beets belong in the trash. They're disgusting.) Regardless, you really can't taste the other vegetables in this soup. The flavor that comes through loud and clear is tomato. We had it with homemade bread (pictured) and I'm sure you couldn't go wrong with garlic croutons or grilled cheese. All in all, a huge improvement over anything you'll find in a can.

Creamy Crock Pot Tomato Soup
(Adapted from Skinnytaste)

Ingredients:

1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 c. finely chopped celery
1 c. finely chopped onion
1 c. finely chopped carrot
28 oz. can whole plum tomatoes with juice
1 tsp. dried ground thyme
1/4 c. fresh basil, chopped
3 1/2 c. chicken broth
Parmesan or Romano cheese rind (optional)
1 bay leaf
2 Tbsp. butter
2 Tbsp. flour
1/3 c. grated Parmesan cheese 
1 3/4 c. 2% milk
garlic salt and black pepper to taste

Directions:

1. Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the celery, onion, and carrots and sauté 5-6 minutes or until onions begin to turn golden. Add to slow cooker.

2. Pour the juice from the tomatoes into the slow cooker, then roughly crush the tomatoes with your hands and add. Add thyme, basil, chicken broth, cheese rind, and bay leaf.

3. Cover and cook on Low for 6 hours, until vegetables are soft.

4. Remove cheese rind and, using an immersion blender, blend the soup until smooth.

5. Melt the butter over low heat in a saucepan. Whisk in flour and stir constantly for 4-5 minutes. Pour about 1 cup of the hot soup into the saucepan, then add the milk and stir until smooth. 

6. Pour entire mixture into the slow cooker, along with grated cheese. 

7. Continue cooking until warmed through. Season with garlic salt and black pepper to taste.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Better-Than-Store-Bought Biscuits




Over the Christmas season, we were fortunate enough to spend quite a bit of time with my husband's high school friends, a group they call "The Core" (which always reminds me an '80s band or a trendy gym). Our friend Eric and his wife Christa were in town for the wedding of another Core member, and since they're the only ones who live out of state, it's always a good excuse to get everyone together when they're in town. During a little dinner party at our house, somehow Christa and I ended up talking about how you can never make homemade biscuits turn out quite as delicious as the store-bought ones that come in the tube you smack with a spoon. Seriously, they're never as good. What does Pillsbury put in those tubes that makes their biscuits come out all airy and fluffy and buttery? (Do I actually want to know?) Christa is from Alabama, which I figured meant she would have a slam-dunk biscuit recipe--don't they eat biscuits all the time in the South? But even she agreed that store-bought always turns out best.

A week or so later I was making a turkey soup that needed some kind of accompaniment and remembered my conversation with Christa. Thus far in my life I had never made a successful biscuit. They always come out more gluten-y doorstoppers than buttery showstoppers. This time I turned to Mark Bittman's trusty How to Cook Everything Vegetarian to see if his recipe could bring me out of my biscuit funk. And indeed it did! Any guesses for the secret ingredient that made the difference? More baking powder? The lately-super-popular coconut oil? Eye of newt?

Nope, the thing that made the difference was none other than that most versatile of dairy products: yogurt. (Wish I had known this when I wrote about unexpected uses for Greek yogurt.) Then again, the use of the food processor may have also made a difference--though even Mark Bittman says it's the yogurt. These came out light, buttery, and yes, even fluffy! With the addition of some fresh herbs, they made for a hearty sidekick to turkey soup--and from now on, I'm sure I'll be using them to accompany many other dishes, because they actually were... 

better than store-bought!


Better-Than-Store-Bought Biscuits
(Adapted from How to Cook Everything Vegetarian by Mark Bittman)

Ingredients:

2 c. all-purpose or cake flour
1 scant tsp. salt
1 Tbsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
2 tsp. dried herbs, such as rosemary or thyme (optional)
4 Tbsp. butter
7/8 c. yogurt
3 Tbsp. milk

Directions:

1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

2. Mix the dry ingredients in the bowl of a food processor. Cut the butter into small pieces and pulse it in the food processor until thoroughly blended.

3. Transfer mixture to a large bowl. Stir in the yogurt and milk and form dough into a ball. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead it 10 times.

4. Press the dough to a 3/4 inch thickness and cut into 2-inch rounds with a biscuit cutter or open end of a glass. Gently reshape the leftover dough and cut again. Place the rounds on an ungreased baking sheet. Bake 9-10 minutes or until biscuits are golden brown.

Makes about 10 biscuits.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Orange Marmalade

Drenched in sunshine!
While the rest of the country seems to be entrenched in a real-life version of Disney's Frozen--a nightmare of blizzards and record low temps--we here in the Phoenix Valley are enjoying our 9th or 10th day of sunshine with temperatures in the upper 60s/low 70s. It was actually getting a little too hot for me this afternoon as I sat on my patio in a light sweater. (Yeah, I am going to be that person who rubs it in. The rest of you get gorgeous summers, falls, and springs while we hide in our air conditioning, the sun turning our iPhones into molten heaps in our cars.)  

As I mentioned last time, winter in the valley is the time for citrus--mountains of citrus in every grocery store, citrus dropping from trees and rolling giddily in the street, and bags of excess citrus dropped at your door. After taking care of my free grapefruit, it was time to move on to the oranges included in the bag. It didn't take long to formulate a plan: marmalade! Having made a batch last year, I wanted to try it again with less sugar. The sickening post-breakfast sugar crash every time I ate marmalade on my toast just wasn't working with my schedule--you know, the one where I actually need to take care of my children and run errands and all that jazz. This time I decided to slash the sugar by half of what Ina Garten calls for in her recipe (the one I used last year). I must say I'm pleased with the result. While cutting back so significantly on the sugar definitely increased the cooking time--I'm sure there's some chemical reason why--it was worth it. It came out sweet enough with the real taste of citrus behind it, like a tangy lemonade. Also, if you're looking at this recipe and wondering when you'll find the time to make it (yes, it is time-consuming, though not labor-intensive) like most jam/jelly recipes, it yields a high quantity, so your labor is not in vain. But if you're a planner, a weekend day might be the best choice for when to make this particular recipe.

Lastly, cool fact: the word "marmalade" has been in use in English since 1480 and was originally a Portuguese specialty made from quince. Ever had a quince? Me, neither. Though surprisingly, this marmalade includes both oranges and lemons. Yum! 


Aaaaand one more of the marmalade in the sun-drenched backyard, thank you.
Orange Marmalade
(Adapted from Ina Garten)

4 large seedless oranges
2 lemons
4 c. sugar

Cut the oranges and lemons in half cross-wise, then into very thin half-moon slices. (Use a mandoline if you have one.) Discard seeds. Place fruit slices and their juices in a large stainless steel pot. Add 8 cups of water and bring to a boil over high heat, stirring often. Remove from heat and stir in the sugar until dissolved. Bring to room temperature and leave covered overnight.

The next day, bring the mixture back to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer uncovered for two hours. Turn the heat up to medium and boil, stirring often, another 30-45 minutes, or until it reaches 220 degrees F on a candy thermometer. (Alternatively, if you don't have a candy thermometer, you can use the cold plate test: scoop a small amount of the mixture onto a spoon and place on a plate in the freezer. Test marmalade consistency when cool but not cold. If it is too runny, it needs more boiling time. If too sticky, add more water. If consistency is to your liking, you're done!)

Pour marmalade into clean canning jars and seal with the lids. If canning, process the jars in a water bath for 15 minutes. Otherwise, store in the refrigerator for best results. (And give a few away as gifts!)

Makes 3-4 pints.

My daughter's plastic dinosaur was a BIG fan.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Warm Grapefruit "Tea"


Here in the Phoenix area, it's inevitable--every winter, some friend or neighbor WILL give you a giant grocery bag of extra citrus from their tree. There are just no two ways about it. It goes along with living in the Valley like getting used to the idea of scorpions and thinking of 87 degrees as normal October weather. It's a blessing and a curse. But if you like citrus like I do, mostly a blessing. Every season when the bag shows up in my home, I engage in a frenzied scouring of the internet to determine how I will use up a gazillion oranges/lemons/grapefruit before they all go bad.

This year my citrus grab bag included quite a bit of grapefruit. Last year when this happened, I made several loaves of grapefruit bread (which surprisingly ended up being the hit of a bridal shower I threw--who knew?), ate grapefruit halves broiled with brown sugar (meh--okay), and made one heinously inedible grapefruit-tofu stir fry. (Please DON'T. EVER. TRY. THIS.) This year I went straight to Martha Stewart, remembering a grapefruit granita of hers I also made last year. Yeah, so I made a lot of grapefruit...it was a weird time in my life. 

Anyway, one of Martha's 30 grapefruit recipes (or should I say her staff's 30 grapefruit recipes--no one in their right mind has 30 grapefruit recipes of their own) sounded intriguing. Warm Grapefruit Tea. I figured this must be an infusion of a regular tea with grapefruit juice. Nope. This, ladies and gentlemen, is a recipe for how to make hot grapefruit juice. There is no tea involved.

Gross, right?

Well, like I say, I was intrigued. Reviewers raved about it, and I judge a lot by reviews--and who am I kidding, I have like 9 freaking grapefruit to get through! Throw me a bone here! Plus, as mentioned in previous posts, I do enjoy the element of surprise and/or trying something new when it comes to cooking. So I went for it. You'll never guess...

It was amazing! 

It really does taste like tea, but like the most refreshing hot tea ever. And with cold and flu season upon us, it certainly can't hurt to get some vitamins and antioxidants in a new and unique way. Grapefruit is loaded with Vitamin C, as you may have guessed, but what you might not know is that it contains lycopene, the same antioxidant found in tomatoes (makes sense when you realize their flesh is in the same color family of pink/red). Grapefruit also contains plenty of Vitamin A and has a low glycemic index, which has been indicated in weight control and disease prevention. 

Now what to do with all those oranges...



Warm Grapefruit Tea
(Adapted from Martha Stewart)

Juice from 2 large pink or red grapefruit (about 2 cups)
2-4 Tbsp. honey
1 cinnamon stick
1/2 tsp. whole allspice or cloves
1/2 c. water

In a medium pot, combine all ingredients and bring to a boil over high heat. Strain and discard solids and enjoy carefully--it will be very hot!

Serves 2.