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Baking Beauty: Tips and Tricks

24 Aug

I made a loaf of chocolate chip banana bread yesterday and realized I hadn’t shared my favorite baking tips with y’all yet. Which is not good, because a few simple hints can make baking so much more fun for everyone.

Baking is zen, and I know a lot of people who feel that way–it’s about the process more than the result. Measuring and mixing and sifting becomes meditation. You can’t think about anything else and get baking right, so it’s a great way to give your brain a break, and a fantastic de-stresser. And at the end, you have something yummy to share, which is just as much fun. Having a few tricks up your sleeve boosts that fun even more.

Floating Mix-Ins

Let’s start talking about those chocolate chips up there. How many times have you stirred chips or berries or nuts into batter, only to have them sink to the bottom of the pan by the time the treat comes out of the oven? It’s a bummer, but there’s a really easy way to keep that from happening and getting baked goods like the one up there, where the mix-ins are mixed throughout. Here’s the trick: reserve a quarter-cup of flour from the recipe (so if you’re adding 2 cups of flour, only add in 1 3/4, and save the other 1/4). At the very end of the recipe, when you’re ready to stir in your chips, candy, berries, nuts, or whatever, gently toss them with that last quarter-cup of flour in a bowl, and then stir the flour and the treats into your batter. The flour on the outside of the mix-ins grabs onto the batter and holds tight, keeping them from sinking down to the bottom. Yum.

Room-Temperature Eggs

So you know you’re best off baking with room-temperature butter and eggs, right? The room-temp butter spreads better through your dough, and the room-temp eggs help keep the butter from getting cold in the bowl. Butter’s easy–a second in the microwave and voila. But you can’t nuke eggs, and (I, at least) rarely think to take them out of the fridge a few hours before I bake.

Easy solution: Put your eggs (whole–not out of the shell) in a bowl and cover them with hot tap water. After 10 minutes or so, you’ll have perfectly room-temperature, but not scrambled, eggs. Perfect for baking.

Trash Towel

I’ve never understood the garbage bowl that’s not ubiquitous on Food Network shows. Yes, it collects the trash, but it also gives you another bowl to wash! No thanks. Instead, spread two layers of paper towel on your counter near where you’re baking. Put your butter wrappers, banana peels, apple cores, egg shells, and other food trash on the towel, and use one end of it to rest spatulas, measuring cups and spoons, and other tools that might have food on them but aren’t finished being used yet. When you’re done, fold the whole towel into itself, put the dirty tools in the dishwasher, and chuck the trash in a compact bundle. Your counters are clean, and there’s nothing extra to wash. Awesome.


You’ve heard me go on and on about my KitchenAid mixer before–I really can’t live without it. Best baking tool ever. But there are other tools you should consider if you’re going to be baking: a sturdy set of metal measuring cups, a sturdy set of metal measuring spoons (don’t use your flatware–it’s not accurate and you’ll be disappointed). The new love of my life is that spatula you see up in the trash towel photo. It’s silicone from the bottom to the top, and it’s one solid piece. It’s dishwasher-safe, never gets hot, and won’t fall apart (I have a collection of silicone tops and wood or metal handles that have fallen apart–ugh!). I got mine at Target, but am seeing them all over the place, and I adore them. The right tools make such a difference.

Give these tricks a shot and let me know if you have more to share! Happy baking!

Party Idea: DIY Brownies

14 Aug


My daughter wanted a cooking party for her birthday this year, bless her heart. And the dessert she chose was so much fun and such a hit that I had to share it with you.

We thought about a cupcake bar, but that’s not really cooking (baking their own cupcakes wouldn’t have left enough time for them to cool to the point that frosting would have worked well), and we thought about making cookies, but that’s not very birthday-ish. We settled on make-your-own brownies, which were super simple and really fun for the girls.

We had a small handful of close friends for this party–trying to cook with more than four or five children at once sounded stressful. Each girl received a red apron and a white chef’s hat to wear during the festivities and take home later (check–they’re inexpensive). Together, we made individual pizza crusts and topped them with sauce, cheese, pepperoni, bacon, and veggies and baked them up for dinner.

After dinner, we all worked together to make a big batch of brownie batter–any one you like will work. I then ladled the batter into ramekin dishes. Each girl got a ramekin of batter and a spoon, and made her way to our stir-ins bar, with bowls of M&Ms, chocolate chips, white chocolate chips, peanut butter chips, mini-marshmallows, and crushed Oreos, to customize her brownie. The candy and cookie pieces were stirred in, the ramekins went onto a baking sheet (I put parchment on it and wrote each girl’s initials next to her ramekin), and the brownies were baked up. They cooled, we topped them further with whipped cream and sprinkles, popped a candle in one, and sang Happy Birthday.

The girls had a wonderful time, the party was super easy to put together, they all ate every scrap of the dinner they’d made, and everybody learned a bit about playing in the kitchen. Happy birthday indeed!





14 Aug


Dinner in Dante’s Inferno

30 May


Well, hi there, summer!

We enjoyed an exceptionally cool and pleasant spring here in the mid-Atlantic, but summer showed up last week. All at once. Like, on Friday. You could almost hear the sound of millions of thermostats switching to cool simultaneously, and the peaceful quiet of my morning walk was instantly replaced with the hum of AC units.

This, I know, doesn’t do any of us any favors in the kitchen. I still have a pot roast in the freezer, and who wants pot roast when it’s a billion degrees and eleventy-hundred percent humidity outside? By the same token, cereal only sounds appealing for dinner so many nights in a row.

I don’t claim to have all the answers–hot is still hot–but there are a few simple strategies and meals that work particularly well when the weather goes all center-of-the-sun like it has:

  • Cook ahead. This is the time of year I have dinner going by 8 a.m. Lots of things reheat beautifully (roast chicken, meatloaf, all sorts of casseroles and such, most pasta sauces), and if you can get those dishes cooked and popped into your fridge early in the morning, the kitchen will recover its cool by lunchtime, and the microwave steps in to get hot food on the table without incinerating the chef in the process.
  • Cook even more ahead. Work in an office? Figure out a few dishes you can cook all at once and get hopping on Saturday or Sunday morning. Get one thing going in the oven and one or two on the stovetop with perhaps a third on your outdoor or indoor grill, and then package it all up into portions and freeze it all for the week. This takes planning, I know, but it can be done. Promise. (The other option, of course, is to cook at 9 or 10 at night, right before bedtime. Yes, the kitchen will heat up. But in most cases, the bedroom won’t, and you can run away right when the oven shuts off.)
  • Embrace your slow cooker. You can (I’ve done it) plug your slow cooker in out in your garage or on your deck or patio (watch for rain), and it works just as well as on your kitchen counter. Most of my Crockpot recipes work just as well in the summer as they do in the winter, and you can select that category in the drop-down menu to the right to see them all. If you then buy ready-cooked rice at your grocery store. you can even have a side without heating up a single burner (and stop looking at me like that–it’s fine).
  • Rethink leftovers. That chicken you roast on Monday will make fine fajitas, quesadillas, or tacos on Tuesday with just some salsa, cheese, guacamole, and lettuce. It’ll also be lovely in a big salad full of fresh veggies, and so will the fish you grilled or roasted, that pot roast that’s in the freezer (and that can be cooked in the aforementioned Crockpot outside)…just about anything. There’s no shame in a cold salad or sandwich dinner, y’all, and it’s a great way to get some extra nutrients in.
  • Embrace your broiler. Didja ever hear Alton Brown talk about broiling? Broiling is grilling upside-down (the man is a genius, I swear). Only most of the heat is contained in your oven. Beautiful. Think fish, steaks, burgers, chicken, veggies. Put your cookie cooling rack on a baking sheet (with sides), spray it with nonstick yumminess, stick your oven rack about 4 inches below the broiler flame or element, and grill away right there in your oven. If it’ll work on your grill, it’ll work under your broiler.
  • Think quick. I can have a pizza on the table in 10 minutes if I have dough ready at dinnertime. Ten minutes of oven is nothing. Crank that puppy up to 450, load up that crust with veggies and garlic, and enjoy a light summer dinner without a ton of heat. You can also make pizza on your outside grill, which is another option for summer.
  • Love your Foreman. I know. Infomercial city. But they do a decent job of indoor grilling and really generate almost no external heat. I use mine as a panini press, too. Tons of possibilities thanks to boxer George.

Finally, spend some time in your grocery store to see what possibilities exist there. Mine, which has shelves that are just this side of a third-world country, will steam seafood while I wait and offers hot rotisserie chicken every day of the week for something like $5. The gourmet market across the street has a beautiful steam bar and an entire deli counter of ready-to-go hot foods. It’s not an every day solution, but really, when it’s 10 billion degrees out, you use what you have, yes?

Any of you have hot-weather strategies? Leave them in the comments–we’re all looking for ideas!

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.


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.

Plastic-Free Microwave Steaming

11 Apr

ImageThere was a post on my local Freecycle list yesterday for a box of microwave steaming bags, which are essentially zip-top bags that have been vented a bit, so you can fill them with vegetables, pop them into the microwave, and have a steamed side dish. And all I could think was, “Yuck.”

Plastic and the microwave and your body are not friends. Something about nuking food in plastic seems to cause all sorts of chemicals and nasties to leach into your food. Plastic isn’t edible, you know?

Thankfully, you can nuke your veggies and get beautifully steamed lovelies without introducing all sorts of who-knows-whats into them. I thought that it would be a great time to chat about this again, what with springtime vegetables starting to make their way into markets and CSA boxes. It’s super simple, just as fast as microwaving in baggies, and without the ick factor.

All you do is place your vegetables in a microwave-safe bowl or covered dish–I use Corningware casserole dishes, which are well worth the investment for their amazing versatility. Put your food in the dish, season as you wish (I like a tiny sprinkle of olive oil and lemon pepper on almost everything), add a tablespoon or two of water in the bottom, pop the lid on (or cover with wax paper if your dish is lidless), and nuke it for anywhere from two to five minutes, depending on the vegetable and how much you have of it.

Once it’s done, take the lid off (watch yourself–steam is going to rush out and it can burn you if you don’t get your arm out of the way) and enjoy your beautifully steamed vegetables, without the chemicals. Win-win.

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