Mints & Fudge (or "Why I'm on a Sugar Buzz That Will Last Till Next Tuesday")

Merry Christmas!
For the past month, I've been telling Steve that it just doesn't feel like Christmas, and I couldn't put my finger on why that was. Maybe because there was no snow, or maybe I was just feeling grinch-y, but I finally figured it out.  Two weeks ago, I was elbows-deep in a batch of banket when it finally started to feel like Christmas. Turns out, the key to it all is going crazy with cooking and baking - then it feels like Chrismas is upon us!

The banket was a total bust this year (fortunately there are certain members of my family who will simply scrape off the disastrous crust and eat the almond filling), but I did have two smashing successes - homemade peppermint patties and, as always, fudge.

Tomorrow (or maybe Monday...) I'll share the peppermint patties recipe, but today, for the fudge. Now, the recipe is pretty standard, but it was my Grandma Smits' specialty, so even if the recipe is well-known, the fudge itself is special. This year, I made it with 60% cocoa, so it wasn't as super-sweet, and it really nice! I like the bit of dark chocolate. And Henry didn't seem to mind either.

The recipe will come in a sec, but first, I've gotten lots of comments about how perfectly porportioned it is when cut, so as an early Christmas gift, I'll show you step-by-detailed-step how I do it:

1. Prepping the Pan
Even before mixing up the fudge, line two 8x8 pans with plastic wrap. I use two pieces, one going each way, and then spray them lightly with canola spray (it has the lightest taste). Make sure you use pans that have squared corners, not rounded, to get the best corners on your candy.

2. Make the Fudge
See recipe below.

3. Prepare to Cut
Once the fudge has cooled to room temperature, put it in the fridge for 15-20 minutes, to let it harden a little more. Then, using the overhang of the plastic wrap, lift the fudge out of the pan and on to a cutting board.

 4. The Tools
In addition to the cutting board, you'll need a ruler (clean, please!) that is 1" wide (most school rulers are), a pizza cutter, and hot water.

5. Marking it Off
Start with the ruler on one edge of the fudge.

Turn it on its edge without moving the ruler over. While its standing vertically, press down lightly, just enough to mark it, not to cut through.


Next, turn it onto the other side...

...and then stand it vertically again.

 Continue until you've reached the other edge of the fudge.

Turn the fudge and repeat going the other direction.


6. Cutting the Fudge
Run the pizza cutter under hot water, or dip it into a small bowl of hot water.
Then, run the pizza cutter along the ruler markings going one way first...
... and then the other direction, re-dipping/rinsing the pizza cutter as needed.
After cutting along all of the marks throw the fudge in the fridge for a few minutes to let it re-harden along the lines you just cut.

Note that my work has been carefully monitored every step of the way. This is to ensure the highest-quality results for you, of course. No personal interest on his part whatsoever.

7. Finishing Up

Once you're ready to plate or package up your candy, bend the plastic wrap from underneath to pop off a piece at a time.

Finished product!


Of course, mine is packaged up in the Rijksmuseum tin from Grandma - it wouldn't taste as good otherwise!

Grandma Smits' Fudge

3/4 cups (1 1/2 sticks) Butter
3 cups Sugar
2/3 cup Evaporated Milk
12 oz. dark chocolate chips*
7 oz Marshmallow Creme
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Combine butter, sugar, and milk in a large saucepan; bring to full rolling bail, stirring constantly. Continue boiling over medium heat, stirring constantly, until a candy thermometer reads 234 degrees (about 5 minutes).

2. Remove from heat, stir in chocolate until melted; stir in remaining ingredients until completely combined. Pour into prepared baking pans. Let cool and cut into 1-inch squares using above method.

Yield: 3 pounds, 98 pieces

* Use different flavor chips for different flavor fudge (example: peanut butter chips, butterscotch chips, mint chocolate chips, you get the idea...)


What I Did on My Summer Vacation

As the date of my last post grows smaller and smaller in my rear-view mirror, it becomes harder and harder to jump back in. Sure, it was a busy summer, what with the addition of a little girl into our family, but I've also had a lot of time to try new recipes and experiment with the food we eat. Which is also why I'm a little overwhelmed jumping back in. But when I was at the pool yesterday, I realized that no matter how cold the water looks, once you jump in, it feels amazing!

So here's what I've been up to this summer, in a nutshell. Some of these will find elaboration in the coming weeks.

~ 10 Days of Real Food Challenge: This was the biggest deal for me. Check out this blog, and if you find it overwhelming, take a look at the mini-challenges, such as giving up refined sugars, eating locally, whole grains, the 5-ingredient rule, doing each for one week. (www.100daysofrealfood.com) I had great success with this, and felt great at the end! However, on the evening of the last day, I had a decaf nonfat latte from Caribou, and poured in some sugar. I never put sugar in my coffee. What possessed me to do so is beyond me. But I'm still counting the 10 days as a success!

~ Fresh fruit coming out of our ears!

~ Grandma's Recipes: I asked my mom to look through my grandma's recipe box, partially to reminisce, partially for new ideas. Now I find myself looking through four boxes of handwritten recipes and its so interesting! Especially the recipe titled "Veggie Salad" which lists the first ingredient as lemon jello. Interesting, but don't know if I'll be adding that to my repertoire. I will, however, need to try the recipe titled "Just Good Cookies."

~ Yogurt & Granola: This has been my staple snack this summer. I really like Brown Cow and Stonyfield because they are organic and don't use any artificial sweeteners, stabilizers, or preservatives. And once you make your own granola, you are going to smack yourself in your head for ever buying it off of the grocery shelf. And you can completely make it your own!

I've used a few recipes, but I really like the result using the Barefoot Contessa's Homemade Granola Bars as a starting point.  It does use brown sugar, which does violate the "real food" definition, but you have to do what works for you. I found that when I just used honey or agave, the granola was chewy and didn't have much crunch at all. When I used a little brown sugar, however, it cools into a really nice crunchy cereal. I think (in my own unscientific way) that this is because sugar is a solid at room temperature, and honey and agave are not. So once it cools, the sugar solidifies and gives granola a crunch that makes it perfect with yogurt.

Five-Cup Granola
Using the recipe from Barefoot Contessa: Back to Basics as a springboard

3 cups oatmeal (rolled oats or old-fashioned)
2 cups of whatever else you'd like to use in your granola! Here are some things I like to throw in: sliced or slivered almonds, chopped walnuts, Grape Nuts cereal, wheat germ (don't use more than 1/4 cup), unsweetened coconut flakes)
3 Tablespoons unsalted butter
2/3 cup honey
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup chopped dried fruit such as cranberries, dates, raisins, or apricots (optional)

Heat oven to 350. On a rimmed cookie sheet, spread out the oats as well as any nuts that you may be using. Bake for 10 minutes, stirring every few minutes, until lightly toasted. Lower oven temperature to 300.

In a small saucepan, melt and stir together butter, honey, brown sugar, and vanilla, just until combined. 

In a large bowl, combine toasted oats and nuts (if using) with your other ingredients to total 5 cups.  Pour the butter mixture over the cereal mixture, and stir to coat.

Evenly spread the cereal in the sheet pan. Bake for 20-25 minutes, stirring after every 7 minutes or so. Remove from oven and set the pan on a cooling rack. As the cereal cools, give it a stir every 10-20 minutes until it is crunchy and cooled. Stir in dried fruit if using.

Serve with milk or yogurt and fresh fruit.


Meat & Potatoes

Believe it or not, I actually have a few blogs up my sleeve that I have yet to post. Looking through other blogs, however, I realized that most of what I post here is either a baked good of some sort, or its vegetarian.  While we are not at all vegetarians, we do only eat meat 3 or so times per week - I read an article recently that called this type of diet "flexitarian" - not totally willing to give up meat, but making an effort to eat less of it.  I think there are a few reasons why people are trying to cut meat out of their diets: 1) Its cheaper to eat vegetarian (while this is definintely true, it may be hard to convince some folks that this is reason enough to eat a black bean burger), 2) It is healthier to eat vegetarian (as long as you get your protein from elsewhere, I suppose), or 3) Its more sustainable and eco-friendly to eat vegetarian (having to do with the amount of our agriculture goes towards growing corn to feed livestock. I don't think this is the top reason people eat vegetarian, but it yields a good result in addition to 1 & 2). So, usually half of our meals are vegetarian, as long as you don't count chicken stock, and the other half have a regular protein on the plate.

All that being said, this is a recipe for chicken and potatoes! Usually, when we do eat meat, I don't do anything inspiring to it - some seasonings, olive oil, and lemon juice suffice, if even all that.  But, I decided to try a few recipes that feature a meat and really make it the centerpiece. I wouldn't call the chicken here the "centerpiece", but the whole thing together makes for a good meal.  And as long as you use cremini/baby bella mushrooms, that flavor won't be too strong. So don't let that scare you or any folks in your family from this meal!

Portobello Chicken with Red Potatoes
Adapted from Simple & Delicious, Jan/Feb 2010

1 1/2 pounds red potatoes, cubed
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/4 teaspoon salt, divided
1/2 teaspoon pepper
4 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves (6oz each)
3 Tablespoons olive oil
1 Tablespoon butter
3/4 pound sliced baby portobello mushrooms
1 package (8oz) softened cream cheese, divided
1 1/4 cups chicken broth, divided

Place potatoes in a large saucepan and fill with cold water until just covered. Salt the water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover, and cook for 10-15 minutes until fork-tender.

While potatoes cook, in a large resealable plastic bag, combine flour, 1 teaspoon salt, and pepper. Add chicken, one piece at a time, and shake to coat.

In a large skillet, heat oil over medium heat, and add chicken to skillet. Cook for 5-8 minutes on each side or until a meat thermometer reads 170. Remove and keep warm. (I had a hard time getting the meat up to temperature, so I heated the oven to 350, popped the chicken in a baking dish, and let it finish in the oven while I made the sauce.)

In the same skillet, add butter and mushrooms - saute until tender and reduce heat. Add 4 ounces cream cheese, 1 cup broth, and remaining salt and pepper. Cook and stir until cheese is melted.

Drain potatoes; mash with remaining cream cheese and brot. Serve with chicken and mushroom sauce.

Serves 4


I Made Pound Cake

Strawberries were only $1 for a whole pound today, and they were good strawberries too! I suppose some people would go home with these strawberries and make a nice fruit salad, or eat them on top of some yogurt, or even plain. I made pound cake to eat with the strawberries. It balances out the salads we had for dinner tonight. I should note that I planned on making salads for dinner tonight after seeing the strawberries at the store and deciding that I would make pound cake to be their date for the evening.

Who better to turn to than Paula Deen? I mean, pound cake got its name from using a pound of butter after all, and why not go straight to the self-proclaimed expert on this one. Granted, it doesn't use a pound of butter, but there's plenty in the recipe to make up for that. Here's the thing, though. Its really light and (at the risk of sounding like a Food Network host) has a perfect crumb to it. And when you take it out of the oven and let it cool on the counter, it gets this crispy crust that you can peel off because you're going to invert it onto a plate anyway so no one will know the difference (well, now you do, but it still tastes great!).

P.S. Will we ever be able to make anything in a bundt pan without thinking of My Big Fat Greek Wedding?

Buttermilk Pound Cake
From Paula Deen & Friends: Living it Up, Southern Style

3 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened
1/2 cup vegetable shortening (otherwise known as Crisco - I can never keep "shortening" and "oleo" straight.)
3 cups sugar
5 eggs
1 Tablespoon vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 325. Grease and flour a 10-inch Bundt pan (make sure to get the shortening/flour into all of the creases).

With a whisk, lightly mix together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt and set aside.

Using an electric mixer, cream the butter, shortening, and sugar until fluffy. Add tghe eggs one at a time and mix well after each addition. Add the dry ingredients and the milk mixture/buttermilk alternately to the butter and sugar, beginning and ending with the flour. Add the vanilla and mix well.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan.  Bake for 1 hour 45 minutes, or until the cake is done. (The cake will slightly pull away from the sides of the pan when its ready, and a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean.)  Remove the cake from the oven and let cool in the pan for 10 minutes.  Invert onto a cake plate to serve.

Top with macerated strawberries. (Clean, hull, and slice strawberries; mix with some sugar and allow to sit until juices form. If needed, add more sugar to increase the amount of juice. Just be warned that the more sugar you add and the more juice it makes, the less firm the strawberries will become.)

Paula Deel says it serves 8. I'd go more with 10.


Sharing the Wealth

There are so many interesting, funky, helpful, and appetizing food blogs out there - there's never enough time to read them all. I was turned on to a few new ones while I was looking through the Bloggie nominees, and then I started to pay attention to sites that other bloggers recommended. Its overall overwhelming. But, here are (in the order in which I discovered them, not necessarily by any other ranking) a few blogs and some favorite blog posts to show you what I've been reading! Of course this is an incredibly small sampling, but I hope it whets your appetite!

Banana Bread with Chocolate Chips and Candied Ginger
This one was a little too strong on the ginger for me, but Steve still talks about it. I'm going to give it another go with a little less candied ginger. I'm fairly certian it will be a special-occasion staple.
Bouchons au Thon
Wow, I just realized how long its been since I made these. Too long. These are wonderful, easy, and loved by everyone in our house.

Summer's Last Hurrah Panzanella
What's not to love about toasted bread and fresh veggies?
Smashed Chickpea Salad
I just made this last week and it made for some amazing sandwiches. And some spoonfuls inbetween meals. But when its pretty good for you, its probably nothing I need to feel guilty about.
Couscous and Feta Stuffed Peppers
Really hearty and again, pretty good for you. I haven't made this one in a while either... I'm glad I'm going through my personal archives!

I told Steve I'd be making this during the summer... I'd better not go back on my word!

Pico de Gallo & Guacamole
Everyone has their own spin on these two items, but I highly recommend these as go-to renditions, or a jumping-off point for your own variety. 
Cinnamon Rolls
I've posted on these before. Go make them.


These blogs I've only just discovered, so here are a few ideas from their recipe archives that I very much look forward to trying:
Food in Jars
Granola and Fruit Studded Pancakes
Canning Whole Peeled Tomatoes
Dilly Beans

5 Second Rule
Oven-Baked Oatmeal

Simply Recipes
Grilled Tomatoes
Veggie Tacos

Apple Walnut Gorgonzola Rustic Tart


Making Up for Christmas/New Year's/Super Bowl Eating

In an effort to make up for all of the baked goods, candy, and really rich foods we ate during the holidays (yes, I do realize that was one month ago, but who's not regretting a bit of that overindulgence?), I'm trying to make a few meals this week that are on the lighter side. While the meatballs I made might not qualify, this dinner definitely does. I don't know how kid-friendly it is, since Steve and I ate it after Henry went to bed, but for us anyway, it was great. I think it would go really well with a glass of white wine and crusty french bread, but as Steve pointed out, my glass of white wine would have to be really really light. As in clear. Like water. :)

Also, thanks to mom and dad for the cookbook for Christmas that this recipe came from!

Tuscan White Bean and Tuna Salad
From The Dinner Doctor

1 cup (4 ounces) whole wheat pasta (I use penne)
1/4 cup olive oil
Juice of 1 lemon (2 Tablespoons) or more to taste
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 can Great Northern beans, rinsed and drained
1/2 cup chopped tomato (seeded)
1/2 cup chopped fresh basil
1- 6 ounce can tuna, drained and broken up

Bring a large pot of water to boil over high heat and add a few pinches of salt for flavor. Stir in the pasta and reduce heat to medium-high to cook it, uncovered, about 8-10 minutes.

While pasta cooks, place the olive oil, lemon juice, and black pepper in a large serving bowl and whisk to combine. (At this point, taste this vinaigrette mixture to see if its lemony enough - add more juice if needed. Just remember, you can always add more once the salad is mixed, but unfortunately its much harder to remove the juice once poured in.) Set vinaigrette aside.

Drain the pasta well, mix with vinaigrette, and stir until coated. Add beans, tomato, basil and tuna. Stir until all ingredients are coated with dressing. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Serves 2-4 as a main course


Don't Judge

I use this title for a two reasons.

1) It has been more than one month since my last blog posting.
2) The brownies I'm going to show you are pretty amazing. Translate: they are great for your sweet tooth, awful for your waistline.

These come out of the Pioneer Woman cookbook that my brother-in-law Seth got me for our Smits' family Christmas exchange. I have used this book so much already that some of the pages have drops and splatters on them. But in my book (literally), that's a good thing. That means its well-used and well-liked! Just like my Betty Crocker cookbook. That poor page with the chocolate chip cookies never stood a chance...

The thing I like about these recipes is that they are unpretentious. And while I like going out on a limb once in a while and trying something that challenges me, both in ability and in taste, I like comfort food a lot too. And these brownies are nothing if not comforting.

And the bonus is that they are so dense and gooey and heavy that you can burn off the calories just by lifting the pan up a few times.


Okay, not even close.

But really, these are not brownies that you should have around if you have even a chip out of your self-control. Which is why Steve took the remainders to work today!

The brownies on their own are good, but not overly sweet. So if you like chocolate a little more on the semi-sweet side, I'd leave the frosting off altogether. The frosting is reeeaaallly sweet and its laid on nice and thick (if I could get my picture to upload, you would see its about a 50/50 ratio between brownie and frosting). But you could easily halve this recipe for frosting and no one would be the wiser. Also with the frosting, if you're not a coffee fan or don't have coffee sitting around your house, you could just as well sub in some milk for the coffee at the end of the frosting recipe.

One word of warning - be careful not to overmix the brownie batter. I think this is why the top of my brownies look like fallen souffle instead of nice and cakey. Taste not affected:)

Mocha Frosted Brownies
Not at all adapted from The Pioneer Woman Cooks and The Pioneer Woman

For Brownies:
4 - 1 oz squares unsweetened chocolate
1/2 pound (2 sticks) of butter, softened
2 cups sugar
4 large eggs
3 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups flour

For Mocha Frosting:
1/2 pound (2 sticks) of butter, softened
5 cups powdered sugar
1/4 cup cocoa powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2-3/4 cups brewed coffee, cooled to room temperature

Preheat the oven to 375. Spray an 8-inch square baking pan with non-stick spray.

To make the brownie batter, place the squares of chocolate in a microwave-safe bowl.  Melt the chocolate in the microwave in 30 second increments, stirring between, and being careful not to let it burn. Set aside to cool slightly.

In a medium bowl, cream the butter and sugar. Beat in the eggs.

Add the flour to the bowl and mix just until combined; do not overmix.

Pour the batter into the baking pan. Spread it to even out the surface. Bake for 45-50 minutes, or until the center is no longer soft. (It may look underdone, but as it cools, it will firm up a bit more. I ended up baking mine for 60 minutes on my second batch and that worked well.) Set the brownies aside to cool completely before icing.

To make the icing, in a large mixing bowl, combine the butter, powdered sugar, cocoa powder, salt, and vanilla. Mix until slightly combined and then add 1/2 cup of the coffee.  Whip until the icing is the desired consistency. If the icing is overly thick, add 1/4 cup more coffee. It should be very light and fluffy.

Ice the cooled brownies, spreading the icing on thick.  Refrigerate until the icing is firm, then slice the brownies into squares.

Makes 16 brownies