Sunday, January 29, 2012

Orange-Almond Shortbread & a Cup of Tea

I love coffee.
It is the gift of my mornings when I first wake up.
It is a reward in the evening sometimes for me.
It is a favorite treat to enjoy with a friend.  It is comfort on a cold, winter day.
I love the richness, the warmth, the depth, the boost!

And then there is hot tea.  I like it. I do.
But I don’t LOVE it.  Not like coffee. Though, I am trying to love it.
I am trying, because I know it is good for me.
I know that it is far better to drink hot tea throughout a cold, winter day than coffee.
And on a winter day, I like to have a warm drink in my hand as often as I can.

I guess it's just that I prefer the strong, bold flavor of coffee to a weaker, blander hot tea. 
But there are some types that I really enjoy – ones with depth to them. Republic of Tea is my favorite line of teas.  Ginger Peach is a winner.  And I like Mango and Blackberry.   Good Earth Tea is yummy, when I'm in a spicy mood.

And tea parties with my girls help me to love tea.
I mean how could they not?  
We had this tea party the other day.  It was one of those cold and gray days.  We made Peach tea with Honey and a "spot of cream". (My girls really would like spoons full of sugar and honey.  I try to tell them that they serve the same purpose in sweetening, but they really want double-sweet).  At our tea party,  I asked them what they thought we should talk about.
I wondered to myself, "What are you supposed to talk about at a tea party?"
So, I decided to pose the question: "What is your favorite season and why?"
It was a fun conversation.  The girls both quickly responded that summer was their favorite because there was a break from school, and they got to swim at the pool, and Lainey loves summer clothing (she likes that she can wear a swim suit or tank top and flip flops everyday). I said my favorite seasons are fall and spring.  Fall used to be my favorite, but in the past few years, spring has taken first place.  After a bleak winter, the relief of spring, (the sunshine and blooming of flowers, trees and grass) is so very needed that spring wins as the best!

This defense made them rethink their choice. So, they decided they loved spring, and fall, and winter for many different reasons.

Our fun conversation made the tea even tastier.

The other thing that makes me really enjoy hot tea is a nice piece (or 2) of homemade Almond-Orange Shortbread to go along with it!
A little salt.
Some powdered sugar.
The zest of an orange.
Almond extract.
Sliced almonds.
Yum. Yum. Yum and yum!

It is easy to mix together and, after freezing, it is simply "slice and bake"! The cookies keep well for a couple of weeks in a container on the counter, to have whenever you put the kettle on for tea.

Also, they are a nice treat for people who don't want a sweet-sweet dessert (like the chocolate sheet cake I posted last week)!

If you aren't so keen on the sliced almonds, you
can omit them or substitute another ingredient in place of them.  If you don't
love a hint of orange in your shortbread, you can
omit or substitute that as well.  The basic shortbread
recipe is worth making.

The recipe is from Martha Stewart, so you know
it's got to be good!

These also go well with a hot cup of coffee.  That is, if you're one of those people.

Almond-Orange Shortbread
2 sticks butter, room temperature
1 cup powdered sugar
3/4 tsp. almond extract
1/2 tsp. salt (use a little less if using unsalted butter)
2 cups all-purpose flour (spooned and leveled)
Grated zest of 1 orange
3/4 cup sliced almonds

In mixing bowl, beat butter, sugar, extract, and salt until smooth.
Mix on low speed, add flour and zest.
Mix just until dough forms.
With spatula or hands, mix in almonds gently.

Form dough into a rectangular log (12 inches long, by 3 inches wide, and 1 inch thick)
Wrap log in waxed paper.
Freeze until firm (at least an hour and up to 3 months).
If freezing longer than a day, double wrap the log in plastic wrap and a ziploc bag

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.  Remove dough from freezer. (If it has been in the freezer a long time, let it sit at room temperature 30 minutes so it slices without crumbling).

With a sharp knife, cut dough into 1/4 inch thick slices.
Place flat on un-greased baking sheet, or baking stone at least 1 inch apart.
Bake until edges begin to turn golden - 20 minutes or so.
Cool on baking sheet for 5 minutes. Transfer cookies to rack to cool completely.



Friday, January 20, 2012

Grandmother Simpson's Texas Sheet Cake

I have a student, who just got married over  Christmas break. She asked me what desserts she should make in her new "married" kitchen, and told me that she is limited in her baking tools at this point.  I was trying to decide what to suggest. I thought immediately of Sour Cream Poundcake. You just can't go wrong with it.   I also thought of Texas Sheet Cake.  It is a great cake.  A southern classic.  It's not fancy in its presentation, but what it lacks in esthetics, it makes up for in decadence.  It is a moist, rich chocolate cake with thick fudge frosting.  It's called by different names, but the recipes seem to be pretty much the same. I've always referred to it as Texas Sheet Cake, but some people call it Chocolate Sheet Cake. Maybe it's called Texas because if you make it in a jelly roll pan, it is Texas.  (Everything seems to be big in Texas. Even Texans are big about their state pride!)  

The only difference in recipes that I have found is that some people add cinnamon to their Texas Sheet Cake, and I just don't agree.  I love cinnamon, don't get me wrong. But I just don't think cinnamon and chocolate are meant to be together.  It's somehow not fair to the chocolate to interfere with its creamy bold greatness.   I love cinnamon in rolls, and pastries and with apples, and raisins, but I would rather not have it with my chocolate cake. I got this recipe from my friend, Suzanne.  It was her grandmother's recipe.  

I asked Suzanne to tell the story behind the cake and she wrote this beautiful memoir of Grandmother Simpson and chocolate cake:

I got this recipe from my Grandmother Simpson. She and my Grandaddy moved to Oklahoma right before my mother's senior year of high school. So, once my brothers and I came along, we always made the trek 7 hours west to Oklahoma to visit them. My Grandmother always, always, always had this cake frozen in individual pieces in her freezer. I LOVED this cake as a little girl (and still do, for that matter!!). I can still remember defrosting a piece in her microwave and topping it off with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. I can still taste the warm chocolate icing, slightly melted from its time in the microwave, scrumptiously married with the cold ice cream.

A few years ago, I wanted to expand my repertoire of freezable recipes, both desserts and non-desserts. One of my first thoughts was my Grandmother's Texas Sheet Cake! I love heirloom recipes, recipes that are pillars in a family and are passed along from one generation to the next. Not only did I love the idea of being able to make this cake, slice it up individually, and throw it in the freezer for a homemade dessert in a pinch, but I loved the idea of having this particular cake because it's my Grandmother's recipe. By serving this cake to my 3 sons, I'm serving them up a little piece of my childhood, a memory from my Grandmother Simpson, their great-grandmother. 
My Grandmother Simpson just celebrated her 80th birthday this month, so this is a special tribute to her!  I love my Grandmother and love to hear my mom tell me that I'm like her in some way. Despite being separated by hundreds of miles, I have always felt extremely close to her. This recipe is just another way that makes me feel close to her. With each warm, delicious bite, it takes me back to sitting on my Grandmother's stool devouring her yummy scrumptious Texas Sheet Cake. 

Zoe's Kitchen, a favorite restaurant chain, has a nice varied menu of healthy meal options and ONE dessert.  They serve this cake, which they call Ya Ya Cake (such a fun name).   It's a slab of chocolate sheet cake, packaged in a plastic to-go container, stacked by the register.  The only choice about it, is deciding which piece to purchase.  So, after ordering my Greek Salad, I sometimes give in and add a piece of YaYa Cake.  And of course, I quickly scan the stack and find the biggest piece... to go with my salad. 

It is their signature dessert, kinda like it was Grandmother Simpson's.

I love when people’s recipes become “signature recipes”.  Sometimes we intentionally purpose these into being and other times they claim us as their own.  Ginger Snaps are Lisa’s, Cold Coconut Cake is Gretchen’s, Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies are my sister’s,  Plum Cake is Connie’s, Tea Cakes are Melissa’s, and so on and so on.

So, what’s your signature recipe? Or what do want it to be? Claim it. Perfect it. Own it. Share it...maybe for generations to come.

the Cake
2 cups sugar
2 cups all purpose flour
1 stick butter
3 1/2 Tbsp. cocoa
1/2 cup shortening (Crisco)
1 cup water
2 eggs
1 tsp. vanilla
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 cup buttermilk
(or substitute 1/2 cup milk + 1/2 tsp. white vinegar)

the Icing
1 stick butter
3 1/2 Tbsp. cocoa
6 tsp. milk
1 lb. powdered sugar (4 cups)
1 tsp. vanilla
1 cup pecans, chopped  (optional)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.  Mix sugar and flour in a large bowl.  Set aside. Combine butter, cocoa, shortening, and water in saucepan.  Bring to boil 2-3 minutes, stirring constantly.  Add cocoa mixture to flour mixture and stir well.  Add buttermilk, vanilla, baking soda and eggs.  Beat well.  Coat 11 x 16 (jelly roll pan – cookie sheet with a lip) with cooking spray.  Pour cake batter into pan.  Bake for 18 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean. 

For icing, put butter, cocoa and milk in saucepan. Bring to boil for 2-3 minutes.  Remove from heat.  Stir in powdered sugar, vanilla and nuts.  Mix well.  Pour over cake while cake is still warm.  Let cake and icing sit until icing begins to harden before serving. 

(my mom does the melting in the microwave)

stove top cooking
This recipe is so interesting.  You make both the cake batter and the icing on the stove (I use the same pan twice) and many of the ingredients are the same in both.

ready to eat

Friday, January 13, 2012

Macaroni & Cheese Comfort

As I was packing up to leave my office Wednesday I got a message from my kids’ bus driver, Mr. Gary.  This was unusual. He was calling to let me know that Asher was visibly upset on the bus that afternoon. They had announced in the last hour of the day that Ms. Barbara, one of office assistants, had died that morning.  This came as a great shock to the children and many kids were upset.  Lainey said she cried all through P.E. when they told them.  Asher, I found out, was “just so emotional that everyone was so emotional”. He had helped his classmate pack her backpack at the end of the day because she was too upset to do so.  When he got on the bus, he then began to cry. 

I stood in my office so overcome.  Overwhelmed at the terrible news that the lovely, young Ms. Barbara, who had been the sunshine in the office and the bright spot in the cafeteria everyday for my kids and for the entire school, was gone. In a moment, gone.  I was touched that our public school bus driver would be so attentive to “his kids” (as he lovingly calls all of his riders), that he would get my number and call me.  I was sad for my kids at their loss and glad that they had had a lady like Ms. Barbara in their school.  I was moved by my children's depth of feeling and compassion.  I told my co-workers what happened and all the questions unanswered at that point.  

I grabbed my things and pulled my door closed. The sky was gray. The dark was coming. I said goodbye.  My dear co-worker, Debbie, who is insightful in these moments asked, “So what's comfort food at your house?” “Hmm.” I said, “I guess Pizza… or homemade Macaroni and Cheese”.  She said, “maybe tonight is a Macaroni and Cheese night”.  “Maybe so,” I replied.

When I got home, things were hectic.  We had a guy coming to give us an estimate about a fence we are planning to have built and a porch that we dream of getting to have built.  I was digging around in the kitchen to see if I had everything to make Mac & Cheese or what ingredients we had for dinner.  Dave needed me outside and I was trying to fix dinner and keep our newly adopted dog, Scout (who joined our family 2 days ago), from following me outside. 

meet our sweet Scout
It was chaos.  I found a bag of Orzo and thought, it might end up more like risotto, but there’s nothing more comforting than that! I found ½ a bag of frozen peas and starting making a simple but hopefully comforting dinner.  

With bowls of Cheesy Orzo in colorful bowls and lots of petting Scout, I believe the needed comfort was found for my family.
This Mac & Cheese isn’t fancy, it isn’t layered with 3 types of cheeses, breadcrumbs or tomato slices like some (which I love, by the way) but just to warn you: this is like a homemade version of Kraft Shells and Cheese.

I got this recipe when I was in elementary school.  I was at my school friend’s house and her mom was working as a sales lady at a microwave store and this was a “microwave recipe”.  Yes, you read it right, a microwave STORE.  This was when microwaves were first starting to enter people’s home kitchens. They were not yet being sold at Target or department stores. [If you are old enough, you might remember the large boxy appliances with the large dial on front.]  And with this new appliance came the need for microwave recipes, to instruct people as to how to use it as an oven, because it was so very different than a stovetop.  I remember being at her house and having this macaroni and it was so good that I asked the mom for the recipe.  I brought it home and we started making it, and have ever since.  I love it.  I have tried different cheeses in the recipe to take it up a notch from the processed cheese spread that Velveeta is.  (Which bothers me to some degree).  But the Velveeta really does melt the smoothest.  I like to use Velveeta and Cheddar (or Co-Jack).
Amy D., my former student who is completing a Master's of Social Work program in Colorado asked for some comfort food recipes.  Amy… this one’s for you.

Macaroni & Cheese
6 Tbsp butter
6 Tbsp flour
2 cups milk (I use 1 % because that's what
    we have, but any kind is fine)
16 oz. cheese (Velveeta melts most 
    smoothly, but I usually use part 
    Velveeta, part Cheddar or Co-Jack)
1 lb. pasta (shells or macaroni – or any 
    pasta, really)
Salt and Pepper to taste.

Cook pasta as directed on the package.

Meanwhile, melt butter in a large microwave safe bowl. 
Stir in flour. Stir in milk.
Cook in microwave until thickened.
Cut cheese into cubes and add to the sauce.  Stir until melted. You might need to return bowl to microwave to completely melt cheese.
Pour over cooked pasta noodles.
Season with salt and paper to taste.
(If you are a purist and don't want to use the
microwave, feel free to make this sauce in a pot on the stove.  Just be watchful that it doesn't stick to the bottom of the pan and burn.)

**I have included the photos of the process of the traditional Mac & Cheese as well as this week’s Cheesy Orzo.  
Depending on the pasta used, you might
have extra sauce. If so, it can be used
for cheese sauce on ANYTHING!

a big bowl of cheesy comfort

Cheesy Orzo

topped with green peas

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Tricky Chicken Tenders

Happy New Year! With all the desserts, and cheese, and white chocolate covered-everything, and cheese, and sausage filled, and cream cheese-filled treats that I have consumed over the past month, my body is screaming for Healthy Food! I am telling my kids that their bodies are too (even though they might not hear their bodies screaming as loudly as I hear mine). I adore the notion of sneaking healthy ingredients into foods, for kids and adults alike.  However, this pursuit hasn't always been the simplest or most successful with my family.  I don't know if it's because my kids are so very sensitive to tastes and textures, or because they are persnickety, OR because they have such discerning palates that they are able to identify the added or altered ingredient.  Regardless, they are hard to sneak up on in the kitchen.  I will say, I am blessed with good eaters.  My Lucy's favorite foods are bell peppers and tomatoes. But anytime I can add some fiber, veggies or umph to a dish, I want to try.

ready to bread
There have been a few books on the market filled with suggestions of how to sneak beans, wheat germ and cauliflower into dishes.  One is The Sneaky Chef. The author even uses pureed white beans in her chocolate chip cookie recipe.  They are surprisingly chocolate chip cookie-tasting, but the texture is more soft and cakey.  It's almost as if they have some healthy ingredient substituting the 2 sticks of butter used in traditional Chocolate Chip cookie recipes! (Imagine that!)

Jessica Seinfeld (wife of Jerry) wrote a cookbook a few years ago, Deceptively Delicious that also catalogs ideas for this tricky pursuit.  My friend Melissa brought over some Mac and Cheese that she made from that cookbook, where she snuck in some pureed cauliflower.   She thought it was yummy enough that it might pass by my kids without notice.  I had a hunch it wouldn't work, as I guessed Asher would sense the difference.  And within one bite, Asher said "something is different about this mac and cheese".  He noticed a difference in the taste and texture.  Urg! How does he do that!?  I think his discernment/critical thinking skills are great LIFE SKILLS, but annoying when trying to sneak in some added healthiness.

Dave cutting those nasty cartilage pieces off of the tenderloins

dredging in egg 
So when I found this recipe for chicken tenders a few years ago in my Every Day Food Magazine, containing ground wheat germ, flax seed and bran, I wanted to give it a try.  However, I had LOW, I'm talking SLIM, expectations of the kids digging them.  And to my surprise, and great delight, they loved them.  Especially Asher, my meat-eating, not-as-adventurous eater!! He requests them. He calls them Crusty Chicken Tenders, I guess in comparison to my mostly grilled or baked chicken tenders, they are the "crusty" ones at our house.

dredging in crumb mixture
I have tried to come up with a fun name for these that would communicate to adults the healthiness of them and yet communicate to kids the yummy "normalness" of them.  It made me think of KIX cereal, whose slogan claims, "Kid Tested, Mother Approved".  I thought, what about KIX Chicken?  But then that is a little misleading, since they are not rolled in crumbled Kix cereal.  Or Healthy spelled backwards: Yhtlaeh Chicken, thinking that would be sneaky, but I couldn't pronounce it.  I thought of using Pig Latin. (Are you familiar with Pig Latin, the language? If not, click here to further your education). So I thought of ealthy-hay chicken. But that is hard to pronounce and kinda wierd, and potentially kids would un-code it before parents could pronounce it correctly.  So then I thought of simply Tricky Chicky, or Tricky Chicken Tenders, or Tricky Chicken.  I asked what my kids thought about all of my name options (albeit without telling them what ingredients were in it, or even revealing how healthy it is).   They liked the name Tricky Chicken. So, that's what we are going to call them at our house.

I encourage you to come up with a name that works for your house, if you think this is lame.  I think there is power in a name.  My friend, David, calls it Marketing.

ready to bake
Oh, and I must say, dipping sauces really enhance these tenders! The recipe originally suggested they be served with BBQ sauce.  I think BBQ, Honey Mustard, Ketchup, Ranch...the usuals all are yummy with it. AND, thanks to Brandi, a reader who replied to my request for homemade Chick-fil-A Sauce, back in August, we now have Chick-fil-A Sauce at our house!!!  It is the most popular sauce at our table, our "house sauce", if you will.
(Thank you, Brandi!)

Tricky Chicken Tenders
1/2 cup wheat germ
served with my childhood mac and cheese,
(which I'll post soon) and a fruit kebab
1/2 cup unprocessed bran
1/4 cup plain dried breadcrumbs
2 Tbsp. ground flax seed (meal)
2 Tbsp. grated Parmesan
1/2 tsp. onion powder
1/2 tsp. garlic powder
1 ½ tsp. coarse salt
¼ tsp. ground pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 large eggs
1 1/2 pounds chicken tenders (about 16)
Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

In a food processor, combine wheat germ, bran,
breadcrumbs, flax seed, Parmesan, onion and garlic powders, salt and pepper; pulse to combine.  
Add oil; pulse to combine.  Transfer crumb mixture to a large bowl.  Set a wire rack on a 
rimmed baking sheet.  In a shallow bowl, lightly beat eggs.  Dip chicken in eggs (allowing 
excess tro drip off), then dredge in crumb mixture, patting to adhere.
Place on rack, and transfer to oven.
Bake until chicken is cooked throughout, 12 to 14 minutes.  Serve with your sauce of choice.

**** You can also freeze these, once you have battered them.  Then you can pull out and bake as many as you need at a time.  (I wouldn't suggest you do this with chicken you bought frozen...the double freeze situation is one I'd avoid).

one of the place cards that Lainey made while I prepared
the meal... evidently it was a special occasion to her
Simple Home-made Chick-fil-A Sauce

Ken’s honey mustard sauce (you must use this brand, not compromising)
Hickory BBQ sauce (any brand, just make sure it’s smoky)

Mix together 2 parts honey mustard to 1 part BBQ, stir until fully combined and tweak as needed to arrive at desired taste. Dip, eat, & refrigerate any leftover sauce.