Sunday, October 25, 2009

Pumpkin Bars: Cooking with Alicia & Annie

It's time for another Cooking with Alicia & Annie post! Considering the time of year, I decided to go with pumpkin bars with cream cheese frosting. I really wish these were scratch-and-taste pictures. Yum. Yum. Yum! I took plates to several friends, which was a very good thing. As it was, I ate way too many of these delicious morsels.

I didn't change as many things as I did with the Peach Crisp (I almost re-wrote that recipe), but I did decrease the amount of sugar by 1/4 cup, and the oil by half. I just could not in good conscience put a whole cup of oil in the batter. I also decreased the amount of nutmeg, cloves, and ginger, which are pretty strong spices. The measurements for the cream cheese frosting were a little off, so I changed those, too.

Pumpkin Bars (Adapted from Alicia's Recipes)
Printable Recipe

for the bars:
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1 3/4 cup sugar
4 eggs
1 15-oz can pumpkin (not pumpkin pie mix)
1/2 cup oil

for the cream cheese frosting:
1 8-oz package cream cheese, room temperature
1/3 cup butter, room temperature
4-5 cups powdered sugar (start with 4, and add up to 1 more cup if needed)
1 teaspoon vanilla
2-3 teaspoons milk

1. Heat your oven to 350. Line a 10x15-inch baking sheet with foil, with the short ends folded over the sides, and spray the foil with non-stick spray.

2. Combine all of the dry ingredients in the bowl of a stand mixer. Add the wet ingredients to the bowl and mix on low until everything is combined. Scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl and mix on medium for 2 minutes.

3. Transfer the batter to the prepared baking sheet and spread it evenly. Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool completely before frosting.

4. While the bars are cooling, prepare the cream cheese frosting: In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream together the cream cheese and butter. Add 4 cups of the powdered sugar, and mix on low until it's mostly combined. Add the vanilla and 2 teaspoons of the milk. Mix on low for 60 seconds; scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl. Mix on medium-low until the frosting is very smooth and creamy. If it seems too wet add a little more powdered sugar; if it seems like it is too thick and will be hard to spread, add another teaspoon of milk. Be careful, though; cream cheese frosting is gooey by nature, so it can be tricky to know when you have the right consistency. If in doubt, try spreading some on the bars.

Makes about 36 bars.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Perfect Steamed Rice

Maybe it's just me, but why is rice such a tricky thing to make? I've had to change the way I make rice depending on where I live (California, Germany, North Carolina), and Utah has been no exception. When we moved here in 2002, not only did all of my cookies turn out like frisbees (more on that adventure someday), but my rice was never right. It was overcooked or undercooked, no matter what I tried--more water, less water, more time, less time. I turned to the internet, and kept finding instructions that included rinsing and soaking the rice before cooking it. Nooooooo! Please don't make me rinse and soak my rice! I finally gave in, and my rice has been perfect since.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I only soak white rice (long grain, basmati, etc.). I didn't have the same problems with brown rice, and found that soaking it didn't change my results in any discernible way. I do rinse the brown rice, though, to get rid of any "floaties".

Oh, and I have to take issue with the whole 1 part rice/2 parts water deal. I don't think that ratio has ever worked for me, regardless of where I've lived. You may have to experiment to get the perfect ratio for where you live, but please do experiment. Don't settle for soggy rice. For me here in Utah, the perfect rice-to-water ratio is 1 part rice/1 1/4 parts water (brown rice is 1 part rice/1 1/3 parts water).

Perfect Steamed Rice
Printable Recipe

1 cup long grain white rice
1 1/4 cup water
1/4 teaspoon coarse salt
1/2 teaspoon olive or canola oil

1. Measure the rice into a medium pot. Add enough water to cover the rice by an inch, gently swish the rice and water, and pour off the water. Repeat 4 or 5 times, or until the water is almost clear (picture on the right).

2. Add enough water to cover the rice by an inch and let it soak for 20 minutes.

3. Drain the rice well (I use a fine metal sieve). Add the water, salt, and oil to the pot. Bring it to a boil over high heat, cover the pot, turn the heat down to low, and simmer for 20 minutes--don't lift the lid. For anything.

4. After 20 minutes the rice should look like this. If there is any water still left in the bottom of the pot, taste a few grains of rice. If the rice is done, leave the lid off and simmer off the rest of the water. If the rice isn't quite done yet, replace the lid and simmer for another 5 minutes, or until the water is absorbed and the grains are tender.

I've found the best tools for fluffing steamed rice are chopsticks. They fluff and separate the rice without making it clump onto the fork or spoon, and they don't break the delicate grains (especially important with very long-grained basmati rice).

1 cup dry rice makes about 2 cups cooked rice.

I almost always make more rice than we need for dinner so I can freeze the extra for later. I measure it out in 1/2 cup measurements (1/2 cup rice = 2 WW points) in zip-top bags, and then freeze the bags. Once frozen, 30 seconds or so on High heat in the microwave and you're in business :) Having frozen rice ready to go can make quick lunches or dinners that much easier.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Salmon Chowder

This is a variation on my Mom's clam chowder. She doesn't enjoy cooking--she never has--but clam chowder is something I remember her making often. It's also one of the only things I remember her teaching me how to make. It's an easy, delicious soup I'm already teaching to my oldest daughter--got to pass it on :)

Salmon Chowder
Printable Recipe

2 teaspoons olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
2 ribs celery, diced
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
1 1/2 pounds russet potatoes, peeled and diced
1 8-oz bottle clam juice
32 oz (4 cups) chicken broth (I used homemade I had in the freezer)
3/4 teaspoon dried thyme
1/4 cup butter
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
2 cups milk (I use 2%)
1 6-oz fillet salmon

1. Heat a large pot over medium-high heat for 2 minutes; reduce the heat to medium. Add the oil and let it heat for 10 seconds. Add the onion, celery, and salt, and cook until the onion has started to soften, about 5 minutes, stirring often.

2. Add the potatoes, clam juice, chicken broth, and thyme. I put my broth in straight from the freezer (I defrosted it in the microwave just long enough to be able to get it out of the zip-top bags and break the blocks in half) and let it melt in the pot. Bring it all to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer until the potatoes are just barely tender, 15-20 minutes.

3. Meanwhile, make the white sauce: Melt the butter in a small pot. Add the flour, mix it into the butter, and cook the mixture for 2 minutes (it will be very thick and pasty), stirring constantly to keep it from burning.

4. Add the milk and whisk it into the flour until there aren't any lumps. Cook, whisking constantly, until the mixture is very thick. A drizzle should sit on top of the sauce and take a long time to melt back into the rest of the sauce (see the picture).

5. Add the salmon to the pot with the potatoes and onions. Simmer until the salmon is cooked through, 5-8 minutes, and break it up into bite-sized pieces with a wooden spoon (we like big, juicy pieces).

6. Add the white sauce to the big pot and stir it in to combine it well.

Makes 4-6 servings.

Thanks, Mom :)

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Gingerbread House Festival 2009

I got an email yesterday from the lady in charge of the Thanksgiving Point Gingerbread Festival held in Lehi, Utah. The festival is a charity event that benefits Utah's Learning for Life and PTA programs. People and organizations make and donate gingerbread houses (plus other big-ticket items), which are then auctioned off (there's a big, super-fancy, super-expensive dinner involved), and the money donated to the programs. She was checking in to see how things were going with me...she really wanted to see if I was still planning on doing a house this year.

I made my first real gingerbread house for the 2007 festival. I was working as a journalist for The Valley Journals at the time, and I made the house on behalf of the paper. They have a running contest called "Where do you read YOUR journal?" People take pictures of themselves in different places reading their local edition of the journal (there are 13 editions), submit the pictures, and someone is the winner. While trying to decide what kind of house I would do, I thought about the contest, and the first thing that came to mind was the bathroom (hee, hee), and that led me to the outhouses.

The best part about my house was watching people as they walked by at the festival. They'd stop and look...then look harder...then laugh... My favorite was the little old man who really got a good chuckle out of it :) And there was the Den Mother, who called all her little Boy Scouts over to see... "Boys! Come see the outhouses!"

I learned about gingerbreading as I went, which was very fun and very stressful. I found an incredible resource on the web called Franky's Attic, that had recipes, pictures, and how-to articles; there's no way I could have pulled it off without it. The website is now called Ultimate Gingerbread, but it still has all the same awesome information. She also has many, many patterns that you can download (they were free back them, but she's since gotten smart, and now charges for them). I used one of her patterns for the barn my daughter made for the same festival (see below).

I ended up not participating in the 2008 festival because we thought we were going to move and we all know how everything stops when you're trying to buy a house and sell a house and get ready to move all your stuff...I was able to help them write an awesome press release, but that was about all I could do.

So now it's 2009, and it's almost time for the festival. It's a month away, and I'm getting ready to start on my house, get my 13 year-old daughter started on her design, and help my 6 year-old daughter and 7 year-old nephew with a team-effort gingerbread train. Right now I think I'm a little (read "a lot") crazy, but I'm going to do it anyway :) I'll probably have several anxiety attacks by the time we're done, but it's all good, right? Oh, did I mention I agreed to make 2 wedding cakes for next month, too? How many anxiety attacks did I say?

Stay tuned for updates and pictures of the process. If you've never seen a big gingerbread house constructed you're in for a treat :)

I made little Valley Journal's replicas out of fondant. You need reading material while in the loo.

Each stall had a pair of little feet peeking out from under the doors.

One of the greatest things I learned from Loreta at Ultimate Gingerbread is how to make bushes and shrubs. Rice-Krispie treat, made with corn flakes, tinted awesome is that?! Don't they look so realistic? The holes in the back were for light blubs.

A view from the top.

Full frontal. Boo-ya! To be honest, it just about killed me. My baby (now a strapping 2 year-old) was about 5 months old, and my husband had to go out of town on a business trip the week of the festival. I had many very late nights finishing up.

This is the barn that my daughter, who was 11 at the time, made for the festival. She is horse-crazy to her very core, which is reflected in her amazing fondant horses. And before you ask, yes, she did almost everything herself (with guidance from me, of course) and we've got process pictures to prove it :) She won 3rd place in her age category, 11-17 year-olds. Awesome!!

Fondant horses, Rice-Krispie-treat-shrub-and-chocolate-covered-pretzel fence to keep the critters where they're supposed to be, and some lovely Tootsie-Roll window boxes in front of butterscotch candy windows.

Every barn needs a hay loft.

She was so happy when it was done :) And I was so proud of her.

The barn set up at the festival.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Sheree's Fruit Salad

The colors are gorgeous, aren't they? I'll give you a moment to soak it in...

This is my sister's fruit salad. It doesn't have any fancy sauces, and if you ask her about it she'll say, "It's just the things I like." Well, sister, the things you like make an incredible treat for my eyes :)

I recruited my 13 year-old to make the salad while I finished the rest of dinner.

My 2 year-old was her helper. Notice the princess crown...

There isn't a real recipe for this. Just put in as much as you want. For this salad we used:

1/2 large container strawberries, green tops removed, berries quartered
1 small container blackberries
4 kiwis, peeled, quartered, and sliced 1/4" thick
1 large bunch red grapes, halved width-wise
2 10.2 oz cans mandarine oranges, drained

Combine the first 4 ingredients in a medium bowl and toss gently. Add the oranges and very gently mix them in. Chill and enjoy!

Makes about 6 servings

Some more eye candy :)

Monday, October 12, 2009

Pumpkin Bread

I made pumpkin bread for my 6 year-old who stayed home from school today with the flu. Some pumpkin bread for my little pumpkin pie :)

I didn't have a recipe on hand, so I looked around online. Nothing for a plain, simple pumpkin bread. Recipes with orange, candied ginger, chocolate chips, cream cheese, but nothing basic. So I turned to my trusty Better Homes and Gardens hardcover cookbook (that I mail-ordered, without my mother's permission, when I was a teenager. You know, one of those "bill me later" deals. She was less than pleased when it arrived.).

I used the pumpkin bread recipe in the Better Homes book as a starting place. And then I changed it. I added whole wheat flour, changed the types and amounts of spices, changed the shortening to canola oil (trans fats and all that), then decreased the oil and added some apple sauce, and finally added a splash of vanilla. Oh, and changed the cooking temperature.

My bread cooked up sweet and moist, without the usual "smooshyness" these types of bread can have when made with a bunch of oil (not to mention the oil slick they can leave on the roof of your mouth). And the whole wheat flour gave the loaf a very nice texture. Most important, my poor, sweet, sick pumpkin head thought it was awesome.

Pumpkin Bread
Printable Recipe

1 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 cup whole wheat flour
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1 cup canned pumpkin (NOT pumpkin pie mix)
1/4 cup milk
1/4 cup applesauce
2 eggs
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 teaspoon vanilla

1. Heat your oven to 325. Spray a standard, 9x5-inch loaf pan with non-stick spray.

2. Combine all of the dry ingredients in a medium bowl. Combine all of the wet ingredients in a separate medium bowl and whisk well. Add the wet mixture to the dry and mix well.

3. Turn the batter out into the prepared pan and spread it evenly into the corners. Bake for 50-55 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean with just a few moist crumbs sticking to it.

4. Cool the bread in the pan for 10 minutes, and then remove the loaf to a wire rack to cool completely.

Makes 12-14 servings

Friday, October 9, 2009

Polenta with Mushrooms and Eggs

OMG...just looking at this picture makes me want to eat it again!

My inspiration for this came from a picture I saw on The recipe was for Kasia's Parmesan Polenta with Eggs & Roasted Mushrooms posted on I love polenta, and I eat it often, with a variety of "toppings", even with my mushroom sauce, but I'd never thought of putting an egg on top. In fact, my first reaction was, "Ewwwww!" But then I couldn't get the picture out of my head. Also, when I married my husband, I was horrified to learn he liked to have an over-easy egg on top of his pancakes...with syrup over everything. But then I tried it one day and was very surprised by how good it was. So my lesson is 'sometimes eggs on things can be good'.

This dish is very similar to the one on TheKitchen; polenta is polenta, and an egg is an egg. The difference is in the mushrooms. The mushrooms in the recipe from TheKitchen are roasted in an oven, and I used my mushroom sauce (slightly adapted).

And if you think the whole "egg thing" is weird, give it a try anyway, you might like it :)

Polenta with Mushrooms and Egg
Printable Recipe

for the mushroom sauce
1 tablespoon olive oil
24 oz crimini mushrooms
1 teaspoon coarse salt
3 cloves garlic, pressed
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/2 cup dry white wine
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups chicken broth
1 tablespoon cold butter
4 green onions, thinly sliced
fresh ground pepper

for the polenta
3 cups water
1 teaspoon coarse salt
1 cup polenta (corn grits-DON'T use cornmeal)
splash olive oil (about 1/2 teaspoon)

for the eggs
4 large eggs cooked over-easy

to prepare the mushroom sauce
1. Wash the mushrooms with water ( my mushroom test). Trim the stems and quarter the mushroom caps.

2. Heat a large (12-inch) non-stick skillet over medium-high heat for 2 minutes; reduce the heat to medium. Add the oil to the skilled and heat it for 10 seconds. Add the mushrooms and salt and cook, stirring often, until all of the water released by the mushrooms has evaporated, 12-15 minutes.

3. Add the garlic and red pepper flakes, and cook for 3 minutes.

4. Add the wine and simmer it until it's almost gone.

5. Add the flour, and stir to coat the mushrooms. Cook, stirring often, for 5 minutes (this keeps the flour from having a starchy, raw flavor).

6. Add the chicken broth and stir the mushrooms well, dissolving the flour into the broth.

7. Bring it to a simmer and cook until the sauce is thickened, about 5 minutes (sometimes it goes faster, so watch the sauce). Take the skillet off the heat and stir in the butter and green onions.

to prepare the polenta
Bring the water and salt to a boil in a medium sauce pan. Add the polenta and oil, reduce the heat to low, cover the pot, and cook for 5 minutes (don't lift the lid). Stir well before serving.

To serve, spoon 3/4 cup of the polenta onto your plate. Spoon 1/4 of the mushrooms on top of the polenta, and top with 1 cooked egg. Garnish with more red pepper flakes if you want.

The money picture again. Mmmmmm....

Judging Foodie Fights #13

Phew! I'm all done with my job as Foodie Fight judge for Battle Black Bean and Coconut! Judging is so much harder than competing, especially as someone who has competed several times because I know all of the work (and sometimes sweat and tears) that get poured in the recipes. In the end, I, the guys from Om-Nom-Nomnivore (who combined as the guest judge), and the voting public chose the same first place winner: Marilyn from Just Making Noise for her Bizarre Love Triangle Brownies. All of the competitors did right by the fight and the ingredients, but I was completely blown away by Marilyn's post. Just awesome. To see all the results for this battle, and read all of the judges' comments, go here.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Chocolate-Pumpkin Muffin Tops

The recipe for these has been floating around for a while, but I only learned about it a few months ago when my sister was visiting from Texas. We're both Weight Watcher's ladies, and these muffin tops work out to be 1 WW points each (2 points for 2; 2 points for 3). There are other great things about them: some people eat them in place of cookies (and they are good enough to be considered a cookie); there is a whole can of pumpkin in the batter, so you're getting all the good things pumpkin has to offer; there are only three ingredients, and they are all pantry items. And they are super moist, and super yummy.

Is it a cookie or is it a muffin? Depends on who you ask. I call it a muffin because it doesn't have the right texture for me to consider it a cookie. I also give them to my kids for breakfast, and it just wouldn't be right for them to be eating cookies first thing in the morning. And, since I'm used to making muffin tops on baking sheets, and not regular muffins in muffin pans (I own only one muffin pan that I almost never use), it's not a stretch for me to think of these as muffins.

This recipe is a 3-ingredient wonder, requiring only a cake mix, a can of pumpkin, and miniature chocolate chips. Because we go through them so fast I use a large can of pumpkin and 2 cake mixes for each batch. This time I used chocolate, but I also make them with spice cake mix.

When made with the spice mix they taste just like pumpkin pie, and even my 6 year-old, who don't like anything with flavor, gobbles them up. I can hardly taste the pumpkin when I use a chocolate cake mix, so I call them "chocolate muffins" when talking to my kids (If you have kids you know sometimes you have to...smooth out the edges...when describing food). When my daughter saw these pictures she said, "What's the orange?" "Pumpkin." "There's pumpkin?" betrayal. "Yes. But they just taste like chocolate, don't they?" "Well, yeah..." "And don't you love them?" "Well, yeah..." "OK, then." Phew!

Chocolate-Pumpkin Muffin Tops
Printable Recipe

1 chocolate fudge cake mix (I'm a Betty Crocker snob)
1 15 oz can pumpkin (NOT pumpkin pie mix)
1/4 cup miniature chocolate chips

1. Heat your oven to 375. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

2. Put the cake mix, pumpkin, and chocolate chips in a medium bowl...

... and mix it all together until it's smooth. It can take a little while to get the dry mix incorporated with the pumpkin, so be patient.

3. Use a medium-sized cookie scoop to drop the batter on the prepared baking sheet.

4. Bake for 12-14 minutes (mine were done more to the 14-minute side). Remove them to a wire rack to cool.

You should get about 48 muffin tops (I have to scrape the bowl for the last one). You can also make these in a muffin pan. Use a muffin-size scoop and cook them at 400 for a little longer, maybe 18-20 minutes. My sister says she checks them after 10 minutes.

I keep them in the fridge because we eat them fast enough, but they also freeze great.

Per 1 of 48: 41 cal/1g fat/0.5g fiber/1 WW point
Per 2 of 48: 82 cal/2g fat/1g fiber/2 WW points
Per 3 of 48: 123 cal/3g fat/1.5g fiber/2 WW points
Per 4 of 48: 164.5 cal/4g fat/2g fiber/3 WW points
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