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Spaghetti Sauce and Happiness

18 May

I’ve tried to be a runner over the years, and my body simply won’t do it. I can do 75 minutes of martial arts once a week (that’s something like 11 Weight Watchers points to give you an idea of the exercise involved), but I can’t run a mile. My knees scream and my shins threaten to splinter off and my lungs rebel and I get all kinds of grouchy and begin wondering why in the world a grown woman with a reasonable IQ is trying to hard to do something that makes me so miserable. And so then I don’t.

I do, however, walk. Fast. This morning, I walked 2.18 miles in 24 minutes, dragging an angry 94-pound labrador retriever behind me (SNIFF! Woman, I need to SNIFF!). I used to listen to music on these jaunts, but have recently become addicted to the NPR Ted Radio Hour podcast. And as soon as I heard today’s installment, I had to share it with you.

You all know Malcolm Gladwell, yes? Bestselling author of books about the economy and human nature and life in general? Great stuff. He was invited a year or two back to give a TED talk, which are 18-minute long addresses given by all sorts of fascinating people on all kinds of interesting topics. So Malcolm Gladwell gets up to do his TED talk in front of an audience of several thousand, and do you know what he talked about?

Spaghetti sauce.

Specifically, he talked about food and human nature and believing what we do about what we like, and how all of that makes us happy.

It is fan-flippin-tastic, and I have now listened to it twice in a row. Laughing, nodding along. It’s everything I love about playing with food, boiled down to real science and human nature.  Here it is for all of you–18 minutes of wonderful foodiness and how what’s on our plate relates to the joy in our hearts.

Enjoy!

Twofer! Cilantro-Lime Scented Rice, and Easy-Peasy Burrito Bowls

10 May

My poor blog.

My poor kitchen.

Ignored, ignored, ignored.

Y’all have these weeks, right? (Please say yes.) These weeks when the day starts and you blink and it’s over? Spring seems to be the worst for it. School is insane and work is crazy-busy (which is a good thing!) and activities are ramping up and the things that are non-necessary go right out the window for awhile? It’s been like that around here, and we’ve been eating lots of favorite dishes–the things I can make with my eyes closed and what’s in my freezer and pantry. Stuff I’ve already shared with you.

The other day, though, I moved my office into my kitchen and started playing with food in between returning calls and doing all the must-dos, and do you know what happened? Besides my house smelling glorious and my mood improving immensely (playing with food is zen!)?

My kids declared this the “best dinner ever.” Cleared their plates and asked for more, and it was healthy! Thank you, hour of happiness!

Today, you get a twofer. I’m going to tell you how to make my burrito bowls, which are a combination of cilantro-lime scented rice (I call it that because the flavors are subtle but delicious) and the fixings to turn that into a whole meal. Let’s start with the rice.

To make it, you need:

1 1/2 cups of uncooked white rice

1 tbsp butter

The juice of a lime

A small bunch of cilantro (trust me–it’s not overpowering here)

2 3/4 cups of water

A dash of salt

Put a small saucepan over a medium flame and melt your butter in it. Stir in your lime juice and rice and cook it for just a moment or two, to let the rice soak up the flavors. Once the butter and juice have been absorbed, add your water, put a lid on it, and bring it to a boil. Then lower the heat, crack the lid a little bit (to avoid mushy rice), and let it simmer until all the liquid is gone–about 20 minutes(ish). Once that happens, chop your cilantro (you want a tablespoon or so of very finely chopped herb), remove the rice from the heat, and stir everything together. Eat immediately or pop this in the fridge for later–it reheats beautifully.

Easy, right? Smelling yummy? So now you need to make the rest of the stuff for your burrito bowls.

I’m using beef for this recipe. I bought a 3-pound pot roast and cut it in half. Half went into this dish, and the other half was wrapped tightly and put in the freezer for another night. Pot roast was on sale and we’ll get another dinner out of it. Always good. But you can use chicken or pork just the same–whatever you like. It’s all going to act pretty much the same.

This is one of those dishes, actually, that you should tailor for your own family. Use my directions more as a method than a recipe. Use the veggies you like, the toppings you like, the meat you like. Totally versatile. You could even do this with fish, but I’d recommend grilling it rather than putting it in the slow cooker as we’ll do with meat.

So. Burrito bowls. Best dinner ever. Ready? You need:

1.5 pounds of beef (use chicken, pork, or turkey if you’d rather)

2 cups of beef broth (use chicken broth if you’re going with white meat)

1 tbsp fajita seasoning (I get mine at the Spice Hunter; use the grocery store stuff if you want, but watch the salt)

1 tsp ground cumin

1 tsp garlic powder

1/2 tsp onion powder

1 onion, halved and cut into half-moon slices

2 peppers (I used red bell. Use whatever veggies you like)

Toppings: We used cheese, salsa, and chopped avocado.

Spray your slow cooker with olive oil. Pour the broth into it.

Combine all the spices above and gently rub your meat with them on all sides. Let it sit for 15-20 minutes at room temperature (you won’t die unless it’s a super hot day. Room temp for a bit lets the meat and rub get to know each other. If it’s super hot and you don’t have your A/C on, do this in the fridge for an hour or two.). Gently put it in the slow cooker and cook on low 8 hours or high 4, or a combination of the two.

I suspect you could pitch the veggies in the crock right along with the meat–if anybody tries that, please come back and let us know. But I made mine on the stovetop:

Heat a heavy skillet (I like cast iron for this) over medium heat and add a little olive oil. Immediately stir in your onions with a pinch of salt. Let those cook until they’re nice and dark brown and crunchy-like around the edges. Remove them from the pan and set aside.

Cut your pepper into strips and lay them, skin-side down, in the same skillet. Let them cook about 5 minutes or until charred. Put those to the side with the onions.

When your slow cooker time is done, carefully remove your meat to a cutting board and shred it with two forks. You’re ready to assemble your burrito bowls!

Put a scoop of rice into each bowl and top it with the charred veggies, meat, and toppings. How stinkin’ easy is that? Happy dinner! Ole!

 

Chicken Enchilada Pie

1 May

Y’all are going to have to forgive my photos today–it’s been one of those days. Apologies.

You know how you have those weeks (months, whatever) when you try to be inventive in the kitchen and you work with ingredients that everybody in your family likes, and then you put a steaming dish of deliciousness on the table and somebody under four feet tall pronounces it “disgusting”?

Been there. Been there a lot lately, actually. My daughter has decided that really, only mac n cheese (out of the blue box) and ham sandwiches are worthy of her increasingly discriminating palate. I’ve been doing a lot of shrugging and “more for me, then” talking, but it’s terribly frustrating, especially because she’s rejecting food I know she actually likes. And after awhile, it starts to wear a person down to the point that approaching the stove comes with a sigh, because the cook already knows that nothing is going to be good enough.

Right? If it makes you feel any better, we all go there. Plowing through is tough, I know (especially if you kind of put your heart and soul into dinner), but must be done. So today, I bring you our dinner from last night, which my little darling actually ate without complaint. I’m not sure if she actually liked it or she was just tired of being hungry, but she ate it. I’m calling it a success; I liked it, anyway.

This is a great dinner to make ahead and there are several stopping points along the way. This is awesomeness for working parents or busy parents who may not have the full 45 minutes or so all in one shot to make this. If you do, rock on and get ‘er done in one fell swoop. It’s all good.

The inspiration for this was a Cooking Light recipe. That one used ground beef; I’m using whole chicken breasts. It also had one more tortilla layer in there and used commercial taco seasoning, which the rest of us know is mostly salt and pretty well horrendous and expensive. They called for canned broth. Because I started with chicken, I could skip that.  I used a few different methods than they did as well, to further cut calories and to simplify things a bit.

The result is a chicken enchilada dish without the rolling, that bakes in a pie plate. Kids think real food that looks like pie is cool. Who am I to argue?

To make chicken enchilada pie, you need:

1 pound chicken breasts

1 tbsp chili powder

1 tsp ground cumin

1/2 cup chopped onion (I used half a Vidalia)

2 cloves of garlic, minced (I used frozen Dorot garlic–look by the veggies in your grocery freezer)

1 1/2 tbsp flour

1 8-oz can tomato sauce

2 tsp fajita seasoning (I get mine at the Spice Hunter and use it for all sorts of things–it’s salt-free)

1/2 tsp dried oregano

2 tsp chili powder

1 tsp ground cumin

3 whole-wheat or regular flour tortillas

1/2 cup shredded Mexican cheese (cheddar, jack…whatever you like)

Garnishes of your choosing: Guacamole, salsa, olives, onions, jalapenos, sour cream, etc.

Fill a saucepan 2/3 of the way with water. Bring that to a boil. Add in the first amounts of chili powder and cumin, and then carefully drop in your chicken breasts. Poach them until they’re cooked through, about 15-20 minutes. Carefully fish them out (don’t dump the liquid–you need some) and shred them with two forks (do this while they’re hot–it’s easiest). If you’re stopping here, put the chicken in a bowl, cover, and refrigerate, and do the same with one cup of the cooking liquid.

Coat a pan with olive oil, heat it over a medium burner, and cook your onions until they’re soft, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, give it a stir to incorporate it into the oil, and add the flour, stirring constantly for about two minutes (to get rid of the raw flour taste). After that, stir in the rest of your spices. Stir in the tomato sauce and one cup of the chicken poaching liquid, bring everything to a boil, and let it cook for about two minutes. Turn the heat off.

Scoop out 1/2 cup of the tomato sauce you just made and set it aside. Into the pan with the rest of the sauce, stir your chicken to coat it all–it will not be super wet.

Spray a deep pie dish with olive oil and lay a tortilla in the bottom. Spread half the chicken mixture over the tortilla, Top with another tortilla, and layer the rest of the chicken on top of that. Your last tortilla goes on top. Pour the reserved 1/2 cup of tomato sauce on top of that, sprinkle your cheese over the sauce. If you need to stop here, cover the pie with plastic wrap and pop it in the fridge. Otherwise, keep going.

When you’re ready to finish dinner, heat your oven to 400 degrees. Put your uncovered pie dish on a cookie sheet (just in case it bubbles over), and bake it for about 15-20 minutes, until the cheese is melted and everything is hot. Pull it out of the oven, let it sit for five minutes, cut into wedges (I got eight out of mine), and serve with your garnishes.

Easier, Healthier Oven-Cooked Bacon

24 Apr

Y’all still here? Sorry I haven’t been around. We headed out of town for spring break and then spent last week playing catch-up, and I haven’t cooked anything new in awhile. But today, I have a great tip for you!

Bacon has been the hot food for awhile, and while stovetop frying is still a delicious way to cook it up, it’s hugely greasy and very, very messy. And I for one do not enjoy splatter burns all over my hands, which is what I get frying bacon.

You probably already know you can “fry” bacon in the oven. The problem with that, of course, is that you generally end up with bacon that’s submerged in a pool of grease on the sheet pan. Not great for crisping, and, quite frankly, disgusting to contemplate.

Enter your cooling rack. Yes, the same one you use for cookies and breads and baked amazingness. Note: if you don’t have one of these, they are a true multi-tasker and make a huge difference in the kitchen–great for baking but also good for many other things. They’re like $5, and I highly recommend procuring one or two.

Here’s the trick: Line your baking sheet with foil and put your cooling rack on top of it, just like you would if you were cooling cookies on it. Spray it with olive oil or other nonstick stuff; bacon has a lot of fat, but it’s all going to run off and if you don’t spray your rack, you’re going to be scraping bacon bits off it for a good long time.

Lay your bacon on the sprayed rack and bake it at 425 degrees for about 20 minutes–start checking on it after 10, because your oven is going to cook differently than mine. When it reaches its desired done-ness and crispyness, pull it out. See how all the fat is on the baking sheet where it’s not touching your yummy bacon?

Neat, eh?

I hope you’ll try this soon. And I have an amazing recipe for you later this week–I promise!

 

Breakfast Quinoa

16 Apr

I have a super-healthy friend who loves quinoa (which makes total sense–the nutritional stats on this whole grain are unbelievable and it’s tasty too), and she mentioned to me this weekend that she was going to try to do something with it for breakfast. That sounded like an outstanding idea to me. I mean, if egg protein is good for you first thing in the morning, quinoa protein must just about knock breakfast out of the park from a staying-full-all-morning standpoint.

I came home and started thinking about making quinoa a little bit sweet and a little bit cereal-like, and that led to thoughts of rice pudding. If you’ve never had rice pudding, you should give it a try–it’s sweet and cinnamony and really not so bad for you as far as desserts go. Since quinoa cooks like rice and takes up flavors like rice, I decided to make a quinoa pudding out of it, using coconut milk (which is also really good for you) and similar spices to what I’d cook in a rice pudding.

To be honest, my first try was less than stellar. Quinoa needs a lot more liquid to get pudding-ish than rice does and I ended up with a good-tasting but too-dense bowl of grains. Whoops. But I made a second batch, let it chill out in the fridge overnight, and dished myself out some this morning with a little extra milk and some banana.

Yummy. A little bit goes a long way, what with the whole grain and the protein, and this has the outstanding benefits of being gluten-free and casein-free if you go with all coconut milk (which, for the record, does not taste like coconut. It’s just a sweeter milk than cow milk). Bananas were great with it, but blueberries would also be super yummy. Peaches or apples too.

My kids won’t touch this. Be prepared for that reaction. It’s fine, though. More yumminess for me without anybody asking to share. I got about four bowls from this recipe, and am looking forward to breakfast all week as a result. Which makes me happy. 🙂

Want to try quinoa for breakfast? You need:

1/2 cup quinoa, very well rinsed (it’s bitter–rinsing it really really well will get rid of that)

1 14-oz can of light coconut milk

3/4 cup regular milk (or more coconut milk if you’re going for dairy-free)

1/2 tsp cinnamon

1/4 tsp nutmeg

2 tsp brown sugar

1/4 tsp salt

1/4 cup coconut flakes (optional–I really like coconut, but skip this if you don’t)

In a medium-sized saucepan, whisk together your milks and spices. Stir in your rinsed quinoa, turn your burner on medium, and let it come to a boil. Keep an eye on this–coconut milk comes to a very fast, violent boil just like milk. As soon as you start seeing bubbles, lower your heat to medium-low and stir every 10 minutes or so for 30 to 45 minutes, or until the mixture takes on a cream-of-wheat kind of texture. I made this while we ate dinner, so the time and stirring wasn’t such a big deal.

Take it off the heat and stir in the coconut if you’re using it. Cool, cover, and pop into the refrigerator overnight. In the morning, dish yourself out a bit and add fruit and extra milk as desired. Be happy.

Leftover Magic: Honey Roasted Sweet Potatoes as Breakfast

5 Apr

See that up there? It doesn’t look like much, I know. But break the eggs and stir it all together and you have one of the most decadent-tasting, satisfying breakfasts I know of, and it’s a healthy way to start off your day. Swear.

I don’t have a cute family story to tell you about this one–my kids won’t touch this. Which is totally fine with me, because it’s one of my favorites and their disinterest means more for me, quite frankly, without anybody asking me to share. We moms share very well, but once in awhile, it’s nice to have something delicious that’s only touched by your own fork.

That said, we’re going to move straight onto the recipe, which is the best part of this–it’s so stinkin’ easy and such a great way to empty out some leftovers that I can’t wait to share. You need:

Leftover honey roasted sweet potatoes. Click on that if you need the recipe for those. I’d say about a half-cup, but any amount will work.

Eggs

Olive oil

That’s it.

Heat a small pan over medium heat and drizzle it with a little olive oil to keep things from sticking. Stir around your leftover potatoes until they warm through–keep them moving for a few minutes so the honey doesn’t burn.

Once they’re warm, spread them out (or bunch them up, depending how many you have) into a solid layer. Very carefully break your egg or eggs on top. Lower the burner to low, and pop a lid on that puppy.

Wait about three minutes and then start checking your eggs for doneness–you want them cooked through but with runny yolks. Once you get there, slide the whole beautiful shebang onto a plate, cut the yolks open, and smile because this, my friends, is good stuff.

Don’t-Tell-‘Em-They’re-Whole-Wheat Pancakes

2 Apr

Before you shake your head and mutter about whole wheat flour and head off to Paula Deen’s site for some real pancakes for the love of Bisquick, give me a second to tell you about Friday night.

Friday night starts in the mountains of western Maryland where, about 10 minutes outside of a lakeside area that makes its money almost purely on tourism, stands Annie’s Kitchen, which is a third-generation (I think) working-class, meat and mashed potatoes, over-easy eggs and scrapple kind of restaurant. Linoleum floors, mismatched tables and chairs, diner coffee cups from before Crate & Barrel started making them, and waitresses who know everybody in town, and every thing about every body. You know the kind of place–the hole-in-the-wall you only tried because you wanted something off the beaten path, and any shake-shack of a dive with that many pickup trucks in the parking lot had to have something going for it.

Once you try it, of course, you understand that this may well be the best breakfast joint you’ve ever had the supreme pleasure of visiting, and that unless you want a heart attack before your 50th birthday, you’d best not visit all that often.

We were not in western Maryland on Friday night, but our story starts there because when we are, my kids beg to go to Annie’s for breakfast. Pancakes, they say. At Annie’s.

So. Friday night was a meat-free night for our family. DH and I had enjoyed a large, late lunch and weren’t particularly hungry at 6 p.m., but the kids were starving. Wanting something simple in both the cooking and the clean-up department, I promised them pancakes; we’ve talked before about how I always make a mess of them and stow the extras in the freezer for very fast hot breakfasts later on. Pancakes for dinner become a two-fer in my house, and two-fers are gold this time of year.

I pulled out my handy-dandy copy of How to Cook Everything and flipped to the basic pancake recipe, and decided right then and there that it would be an outstanding night to muck around with it and see if there was any magic to be had in the healthy-but-good department. And so I swapped out this for that, upped this other thing over here, figured out how to add in a simple chemical reaction to give me lots of air bubbles in the batter and lighten things up (thank you, years of Alton Brown), messed with the mixing part a little bit, and produced a whole-wheat pancake. Which I spread with a little butter and a touch of syrup and served, without a word, to my little guys.

The 8-year-old took a bite and nodded and told me hers were really good. And the 10-year-old…guess what he said about these healthier pancakes with their grainy goodness?

“Mom…you made Annie’s pancakes! These are Annie’s!”

We had not, for the record, talked about Annie’s in weeks. Just so you know. And I am 99.99 percent confident that Annie’s pancakes are most definitely not whole wheat.

My kitchen smelled divine and I’ll have you know that my kids stuffed themselves with whole-wheat pancakes. The ingredient swaps and changes made them just as light and fluffy as regular flapjacks, and they froze and reheated beautifully so I still got my twofer. This recipe is absolutely our family’s new pancake standard, and I feel pretty darned good about that. I hope your family likes them just as much, because they are no more difficult than normal pancakes (which are really very easy). To make them, you need:

1 cup whole-wheat flour (I prefer King Arthur brand, which is soft and very easy to work with)

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 tbsp plus 1/2 tsp baking soda

1/2 tsp salt

1 egg plus two egg whites (the extra whites mean fluffy goodness with wheat flour)

2 tbsp vinegar mixed with enough milk to equal 1 1/2 cups (this’ll react with the baking soda for more fluffy stuff)

2 tbsp melted butter

Get your griddle heating up first–you want that bad boy to be screaming hot when the first pancake hits.

In a large bowl (I use my batter bowl), whisk together all the dry goods. Then, stir in the wet stuff with a whisk. Voila–your pancakes are ready to cook. Told you it was easy! Cook them on a hot griddle or fry pan until you see dry bubbles around the outer edges, and then flip them until they’re done.

Hint: The batter is going to fizz up a bit between batches as the baking soda and the vinegar get to know each other (and no you do not taste vinegar in these at all–trust me, my kids would revolt). Give the batter a quick stir before you pour each round of pancakes to get it to settle down and pour nicely for you. These are also going to want to stick to your griddle a bit, so give it a swipe of your nonstick goodness of choice between batches.

And don’t tell anybody our little wheat secret!

Deli-Style Potatoes and Onions

29 Mar

I was watching Anne Burrell yesterday (my current favorite TV chef–food is fun, yo!)  making this very fancy-sounding French dish with sole, and she said, “This is French. French, of course, is code for ‘lots of butter.'”

As luck would have it, I’d made potatoes and onions the day before, and told my kids they were deli-style. Which is a phrase I use the same way my girl Anne uses French. Code. Butter. Salt. Decidedly not healthy. But fine for a treat every now and then.

Side note: Yes, I mean that. Every once in a great while, you should eat something that’s chock full of unhealthy, delicious ingredients. I do not mean chemicals. Don’t go using butter and sugar substitutes or fat-free this or that, because all of it’s been crammed full of crappy chemicals you can neither pronounce, define, nor guarantee aren’t eating you from the inside out while you eat it the other way ’round. Real food, boys and girls. The stuff your great-grandparents lived on back when we all moved enough to justify it.  Every so often.

These are not healthy. But I had a bag full of potatoes and a big Vidalia onion laying around, and this is one of the few side dishes my kids beg for. We, my friends, have been known to drive an hour away to get deli potatoes like this, because there’s only one restaurant we know of that does them perfectly right and it’s in Annapolis, which is a heck of a long way to go for breakfast, but you have to do what you have to do sometimes.

So. Occasional treat. Which is FINE. Two or three times a year. Without guilt.

Onward.

This is a pretty basic dish: you take potatoes and onions and you cook them up in butter and salt until they get all golden brown and delicious, and then you stuff yourself with them because they are just that good. They should definitely be on your list of 10 things to have on a deserted island. And your kids…let me tell you, your kids are going to think their real mother or father was kidnapped by aliens and replaced with an amazing chef-mom or dad, and you will not hear a peep out of them for the entire meal because they’ll be cramming these amazing ‘taters into their mouth like the world might end tomorrow, before anybody else takes what might even remotely be part of their share. These potatoes are, in a word, a miracle. The deli angels brought them to earth or something. I promise.

Ready to treat yourself? Of course you are. You need:

Potatoes. I use regular white baking potatoes, about 1/2 large or 2-3 baby per person

Onion. One large Vidalia.

Butter. Don’t even ask.

Salt to taste.

Pepper if you want it.

Bring a big pot of water to boil on the stove. While that happens, wash your potatoes and slice them into about 1/4 inch slices. Leave the skins on.

Once the water boils, dump your potatoes in and let them cook about five minutes, until you can pierce them with a fork easily but before they soften up and fall apart completely. Drain them really well–you don’t want any water in the next steps.

While the potatoes boil, heat a large skillet over medium until it’s really good and hot–a too-cool pan will steam your potatoes, which is not at all what we want here. Cut your onion in half through the stem, and then cut each half-onion into slices across their grains (you should end up with half-circle slices). Plop about two tablespoons of butter in your hot pan, use your fingers to separate those half-circles into onion strips, and cook them until they start to soften, adding a pinch or two of salt.

Once your potatoes drain, mix them up with the onions in the pan. Here’s where this gets a little odd, but trust me: To get them golden crunchy brown, you want to smoosh them down onto the pan. To do that, carefully lay a dinner plate on top of the potatoes and onions, and weight it down with a big can of tomatoes or something from your pantry–don’t use a plate that touches the sides of the pan, or it’ll crack. Yours should look like this:

Every three or four minutes, use an oven mitt to remove your can and plate (the plate will be hot!), give the veggies a stir, and put everything back together. If the pan gets dry, add more butter.

When the potatoes look crunchy brown and yummy, it’s time to eat and soak up the accolades. Once in awhile. Which is fine.

Baked Eggs Florentine

28 Mar

You know those mornings when you wish you could snap your fingers and have a healthy, hot, delicious breakfast appear? This is kind of like that. You dump everything into a ramekin and toss it in the oven, and voila. Eggs and vegetables that magically bake together into something that’s sophisticated and yummy, and jam-packed with nutrients to boot.

This is a riff off the baked eggs I posted not long after this blog was born. That’s still a great recipe, but I had a bunch of spinach and mushrooms in the fridge this week. They, I decided, looked like breakfast. And so it was. The result reminds me of something you’d get in a fancy restaurant–chi-chi places love putting eggs over salad–and it’s perfect for breakfast, brunch, or lunch. If you have a bunch of ramekins, you could do this for a party–they’re quick and easy and the single portions are perfect for a late morning gathering. And because they’re low-carb, they should work for just about everyone you’d want to entertain.

I am making this again today, gang. It is that good. For one serving, you need:

A small handful of spinach leaves, rinsed well

Two mushrooms, sliced or broken

Two eggs

A pinch of Parmesan cheese (omit if you want, but I wouldn’t)

Olive oil

Other veggies you have laying around–tomatoes, broccoli, onion, asparagus would all be nummy.

Heat your oven to 400 degrees. Spray your ramekin with olive oil. Put it onto a small baking pan to make moving it into and out of the oven easier.

Smoosh your spinach leaves into the dish–it’ll cook down quite a bit, so put in a little more than you think looks reasonable. Give them a small drizzle of oil, and top with the other veggies. On top of that, carefully break your eggs.

Sprinkle with a touch of Parmesan cheese (it’s salty–you don’t need extra salt) and pepper if you so desire. Bake it for about 10 – 15 minutes, depending on your oven; take it out when it looks slightly undercooked, because it’ll keep cooking in the dish for a minute or two after you take it out of the hot box. Grab a spoon and enjoy.

Perfect Lemon Cake

26 Mar

I noticed yesterday that the leaves on the Japanese red maple tree outside my dining room window have burst open from their buds. This makes me a bit giddy for two reasons: First, I wanted a Japanese red maple for years and finally received one as a Mother’s Day gift, and it’s right outside that window where I can see it from both my dining room and my kitchen, turning my happy place even happier this time of year (I am not a gardener–things that spring alive with color year after year without any intervention on my part are my favorites). And second, it’s the last tree in our yard to leaf out. When its little red leaves pop open, spring is officially here. And that, my friends, means it’s time for lemon. Lots and lots of lemon.

I become a lemon freak when the weather turns warm and the trees get their leaves and things seem lighter and fresher all-around. Salmon with lemon. Pasta with lemon. Asparagus with lemon. Lemon everywhere, and especially mixed with flour and sugar and butter and eggs, because lemon cake is among the most perfectly perfect desserts this time of year. This one I especially like because it’s light and airy and doesn’t put me into a food coma half an hour after eating a slice (or two).

I made this for dinner with friends on Friday night. It took about 10 minutes to put together the cake, which I cooled, wrapped in plastic, and let sit on my counter overnight; this is a great trick with anything lemon, because it lets that amazing citrus flavor develop and shine. The next morning, the icing came together in five minutes (Side note: this is the most amazing lemon frosting I’ve ever tried. I could easily eat it all by itself with a spoon and be very very happy). The cake was frosted, wrapped gently, and put in the fridge to await dinner.

This really is best served cold. It also dries out after day 3, mostly because you only frost the top of the layers, leaving the cake’s sides exposed. I doubt eating it all before then will be a problem. The recipe came from Cooking Light magazine, and I haven’t changed a thing except some of the more onerous directions that seemed pointless to me (we’ll talk about that soon). Definitely worth adding to your personal recipe box–it’s a favorite around here. To make it, you need:

For the cake:
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
3 large eggs
1 cup buttermilk (or 2 tbsp vinegar mixed into enough regular milk to measure 2 cups)
The zest of one lemon
2 tablespoons lemon juice

For the icing:
3 cups powdered sugar
1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted
The zest of one lemon
1/4 cup lemon juice

Preheat your oven to 350. Spray two 8-inch round baking pans with Baker’s Joy or another flour-added spray.

Beat sugar and butter together until they’re light and fluffy. Beat in your eggs.

Stir in 1 cup of the flour and all of your baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Then mix in your buttermilk (or substitute), and then mix in the last cup of flour–stir in the flour on your mixer’s lowest speed so it stays light and fluffy and doesn’t activate the glutens. Finally, stir in your lemon zest and juice.

Split your batter between the two pans. Give each one a good, firm whack on the counter to get rid of any air bubbles (this helps you get an even-topped cake). Bake for about a half-hour, or until a toothpick stuck into the center comes out clean. Let cool, wrap, and leave on your counter overnight (if you have overnight–if not, just let them cool all the way before you frost them).

To make the frosting, dump all of your ingredients into your mixer and let it beat it all together. Gently frost the top of your bottom cake layer, then carefully stack the layers and frost the top of layer #2. Wrap carefully and store in the refrigerator.

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