Friday, February 27, 2015

Out of the Box: Homemade "Box" Brownies

Like many people, I prefer the ooey-gooey richness of box mix brownies to (oh, dear) homemade brownies. It's a true fact, and I can't deny it. The main difference, of course, is the use of oil instead of butter for the source of fat. However, box mixes generally have a whole host of other ingredients that we can all live without - so, with a little thought and a few minor calculations, I set out to re-engineer my family's original brownie recipe to something a bit more "boxy":

Homemade "Box" Brownies

Homemade "Box" Brownies

3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cup neutral-tasting oil (grapeseed, coconut, extra light olive or similar)
1 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter an 8x8-inch baking pan and set aside.

In a small bowl, mix flour, cocoa, salt and baking powder until combined. In a medium bowl, mix oil, sugar, eggs and vanilla until blended, then add dry ingredients all at once and stir util just about smooth (you may have a little lump or two, which is fine). Scrape batter into prepared pan and bake for about 30 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Remove and let cool to room temperature before serving.

Notes: These brownies have all the right stuff—crispy edges, crackly top, and a fudgy interior. For a higher yield, double the amounts listed above and bake in a 9x13-inch pan.


Monday, February 23, 2015

From the Top: Carrot Top Pesto

I had just bought a lovely bunch of organic carrots—slender, crisp, and everything carrots should be—when I noticed that the tops were just as lovely and delicate as the bottoms. I knew I had to trim them off before storing the carrots, but I couldn't bear to compost them or toss them outside for the critters to enjoy. However...I vaguely remembered reading that carrot tops were poisonous. Eek! But even though this was alarming, I wasn't quite ready to give up on keeping them for myself. I searched online and found that (phew) this had been a misconception a few years back, and that it's now agreed the tops are not only suitable for human consumption, but provide a number of vitamins and minerals as well.

I wanted to make a carrot top pesto, and had already washed, prepped, and stuffed the greens into my blender. Then I poured in the olive oil only to find there was just a splash left in the bottom of the bottle—and I didn't have any more in the house. Then I looked around and realized the only lemons I had for juice were safely tucked away in the freezer...after which I just plain forgot I had walnuts in the fridge. This was not going well! But I couldn't stop now, so I poured in some red wine vinegar for acid, added a small handful of pistachios I had taken out for a snack, and blended away. The result was not what I had intended, but nevertheless a tangy, vibrant sauce I could enjoy drizzled into soups and stews, as a condiment to chicken, fish and meat, or stirred into sour cream for a quick and easy dip. So even though the practice run turned out fine in the end, next time I will be better prepared and take it from the top, like this:

Carrot Top Pesto Sauce

Carrot Top Pesto

1 1/2 - 2 cups packed carrot tops (trim tops a few inches from the carrots, coarsely chop, rinse clean, then measure)
1/4 - 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 Tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup walnuts
Salt and pepper

Blend tops with oil, juice and nuts until mostly pureed, taste and adjust with more oil/lemon juice if needed, and salt and pepper, if desired. Store in an airtight container in the fridge for up to a week, or freeze in ice cube trays, pop out and store in a resealable bag in the freezer for up to three months.

Notes: This is more like the French persillade, without the garlic (which you could certainly add). As mentioned above, these were organic carrot tops—I wouldn't want to try this with conventional carrots!


Thursday, February 19, 2015

A Sticky Situation: Sticky Toffee Pudding

So I'd invited a friend for dinner, and while I wondered what to make for the main course, I knew I wanted to serve something special for dessert. I thought about Sticky Toffee Pudding, but there was a slight hitch - my recipe makes a full 9 x 13 pan of the stuff, which (even for me) is a bit excessive for just two people. But I really liked the idea, and hadn't had it in a long time myself, so there was only one solution - try making a smaller batch! Thankfully, it worked a treat:

Sticky Toffee Pudding cake

Sticky Toffee Pudding

For the date cake:
1/2 cup pitted dates, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup boiling water
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon ground cardamom (optional)
3 Tablespoons butter, softened
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg, room temperature
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

For the sticky toffee sauce:
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 Tablespoon butter
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Stir the chopped dates and baking soda together in a small bowl; add boiling water and mix to combine. Let stand while preparing the other ingredients.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter an 8 x 8-inch square baking pan. Set aside.

In a medium bowl, stir together flour, baking powder, salt and cardamom, if using. In a large bowl, cream butter and sugar together until light and fluffy, then mix in egg and vanilla. Stir in flour mixture until combined, then blend in the date mixture until the batter is smooth. Scrape into prepared pan and bake for 25-30 minutes, or until evenly golden on top and a toothpick comes out clean.

While the cake is baking, combine the brown sugar, cream, butter and salt for the sauce in a large saucepan. Stir to melt and combine over medium-low heat, then bring to a boil over medium heat. Continue to boil, stirring constantly, for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in vanilla.

When the cake comes out of the oven, let stand for about 5 minutes, then prick all over with a toothpick. Pour the sauce evenly over the cake, using the back of a spoon to spread it around (you can reheat the sauce gently over low heat if it has started to thicken while waiting for the cake). Serve warm or at room temperature with additional heavy cream or vanilla ice cream.

Notes: The cake can certainly be made on its own and served with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream; the toffee sauce can absolutely be made separately and poured over ice cream as well! Though I haven't yet tried it, I imagine other dried fruits could be substituted, like apple, pear, or even fig - sticky figgy pudding for the holidays??? :-)


Monday, February 16, 2015

Worth Your Salt: Rosemary-Grapefruit Body Scrub

I love how more people are interested in making bath and beauty products from scratch. It's better for you, it saves resources, and it doesn't even take much time. I have several friends who make lovely concoctions, soothing to both body and soul, and I enjoy using them tremendously. I'm not as skilled as they are, but thankfully there are lots of simple things to try!

The dry winter air can be unforgiving on your skin, and sometimes it needs a little boost. Both exfoliating and moisturizing, a body scrub is easy to make from ingredients you probably have already:

Rosemary-Grapefruit Salt Body Scrub

Rosemary-Grapefruit Body Scrub

2 cups kosher salt
1 1/2 cups grapeseed oil
1/4 cup dried rosemary
zest of one pink grapefruit

Mix all ingredients together in a large bowl until thoroughly combined. Store in airtight containers (you will have enough for yourself and a friend). Keep by the tub or in the shower. After washing, scoop some out with your fingertips and massage gently into your skin, then rinse off completely with hot water. Use once or twice a week to provide a barrier between your skin and the elements. Do be very careful—this stuff is slippery! Whatever oil is left on the surface of your skin after using will be absorbed, leaving your skin supple and smooth without the need for additional moisturizers.


Thursday, February 12, 2015

Sugar and Spice: Homemade Spiced Hot Cocoa Mix

Although I alluded to homemade hot cocoa mix during the holidays, I never actually provided a recipe. Yikes! But since the days are still cold, and the nights perfect for snuggling by the fire, it's still a great time to have this on hand. I experimented with a couple of flavors back in December, but this Spiced Hot Cocoa was my personal favorite. The spices are warming, the cocoa not too sweet, and all of it together is very comforting. As a bonus, the mix takes only minutes to make—last-minute Valentine's gift, anyone? So, without further ado, here it is!

Spiced Hot Cocoa Mix

Spiced Hot Cocoa Mix

1 cup unsweetened cocoa
1/2 cup vanilla sugar (regular sugar is fine)
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

Mix all ingredients together until combined; store in an airtight container.

For each serving, combine 2 Tablespoons mix with 1 cup milk of your choice in a small saucepan. Whisk over medium heat until smooth and hot. Top with whipped cream and a few shavings of chocolate, if desired.

Note: This cocoa mix is adapted from this wonderful recipe—how easy is that?


Monday, February 09, 2015

Under My Thumb: Cream Cheese Thumbprint Cookies

A thumbprint cookie is a great treat to make, providing all the flavors of a sandwich cookie with just a fraction of the effort. The vibrant color of the jam also looks great against the creamy complexion of the cookie, and you can't have Valentine's Day without lots of red! Instead of just my thumb, though, I wanted to make heart-shaped cookies. There are various methods for creating the heart impression, and I would have used one, but then I remembered: I had decorative glass hearts that would do the work for me in just one go!

Cream Cheese Thumbprint Cookies jam hearts valentine's day

Cream Cheese Thumbprint Cookies

1 cup butter, softened
8 oz. cream cheese, softened
1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup jam, stirred until smooth (I used seedless raspberry)

Cream butter, cream cheese and sugar together until light and fluffy. Stir in vanilla extract, then blend in flour until smooth. Cover dough and chill in the fridge for 45 minutes (the dough is very soft, so this step is important).

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit, and line baking sheets with foil or parchment.

Using a one-Tablespoon scoop or measuring spoon, scoop dough and roll into balls, then place on lined sheets a few inches apart. Press down in the middle with your floured thumb (or whatever you're using the make the indentation—see notes below). Fill each indentation with a scant 1/2 teaspoon of jam, and bake for 12-13 minutes, or until just golden. Remove and let cool on sheets before moving. Once completely cooled, store cookies in an airtight container between sheets of waxed paper.

Notes: These cookies are adapted from this recipe. The original calls for using two Tablespoons of dough per cookie, but one Tablespoon was perfect, and yielded exactly 56 cookies. It's better to underfill slightly than to overfill with jam—use the tip of your spoon to gently spread the jam evenly throughout the indentation before baking. Instead of your thumb for a round impression, you can try using your index finger to make a "V"-shaped impression to look like a heart :-)


Thursday, February 05, 2015

10 Little Buttons: How to Make a Country Heart Garland

I had ten little buttons—RED buttons, the only ten of their kind in a multi-pack of assorted buttons. They were petite, pretty, and instead of saving them in a jar like some crazy button-hoarder, I wanted to use them! Being red, a Christmas craft was the obvious answer, but then again...

Country Heart Garland handmade felt buttons valentine's day

It was a simple idea, very "country" in style, and easy to execute. And there's no reason it can't adorn a Christmas tree when the time comes. But for now, it will be festive in February for Valentine's Day:

Country Heart Garland

Tan craft felt
Dark brown embroidery floss or No. 5 mercerized cotton thread
Small red buttons
Waxed twine
Heart-shaped template or cookie cutter, 1-2 inches in diameter
Doll needle
Straight pins
Sharp scissors

Trace and cut two heart shapes for each finished heart you would like on your garland. Center and sew a button on the front side of half the heart shapes, then pin the fronts to their backs and blanket stitch around the edges of each pair. Once all the hearts are done, thread the waxed twine through the topmost stitch on the back of each heart (you may need to use the needle to help you). Slide the hearts along the twine until you have the spacing/length you would like, then cut the twine. The garland is now ready to hang!


Monday, February 02, 2015

A Snowball's Chance: Mexican Snowball Cookies

Need a little something to melt your true love's heart this season? Give these Mexican Snowballs a try! Like a Russian Teacake's spicier cousin, these little devils go down well with a good cup of coffee (or a nice glass of red wine). The cayenne pepper adds a pleasant warmth, without being too hot to handle ;-)

Mexican Snowball Spicy Cookies

Mexican Snowball Cookies

1 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
3/4 cup finely chopped pecans
1 additional cup powdered sugar, for rolling

Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

In a medium bowl, stir together flour, cocoa, cinnamon, cayenne pepper and salt. In a large bowl, cream butter and sugar together until fluffy, then blend in vanilla. Add flour mixture until combined, then stir in the pecans. Bring dough together with your hands (wrap tightly in plastic and chill for a few minutes if dough seems to soft at this stage).  Roll dough into one-inch balls and place an inch apart on lined baking sheets. Bake until set and just barely colored, about 8-10 minutes. Let cool on baking sheets for two minutes, then roll immediately in powdered sugar and place on lined racks; once completely cooled, roll in powdered sugar again and store in an airtight container.

Notes: These are not overly sweet or chocolate-y, but you could certainly substitute 1/2 cup finely chopped chocolate (or mini chips) for the pecans to make them more decadent. If you have a favorite dried, ground chili, such as ancho or chipotle, use it in place of the cayenne.