Best Ever Shrimp Dip (No Lie)…

I know, there are so many shrimp dip recipes out there and to me they all seem to taste the same. Well I’ve officially broken that mold. True, in order to achieve star status for this dip you have to do a little more work but it’s not that hard and it’s so worth it!

What’s the key? Well the combination of flavors for sure creates this great shrimp dip. But one of main differences I think is I prepared the shrimp from scratch. It all started with having most of a 16 ounce bag of uncooked jumbo shrimp in the freezer that I wanted to use. So instead of buying cooked shrimp or using mini cocktail shrimp (I found a lot of dip recipes call for them) I prepared the shrimp by hand.

In my mind that was the key. It gave the shrimp so much more flavor and the texture was much more robust. You could tell and taste that there was shrimp in the dip. Don’t get me wrong, the ingredients in total played a significant role in the dip’s flavor, but preparing and cooking the shrimp by hand was, for me, the key.

So let’s talk the best ever shrimp dip…

Lesson Learned 1 – This is MAJOR – prepare the shrimp from scratch: Don’t use precooked shrimp. Now of course if you have precooked shrimp on hand you can use it. But the flavor is so much more intense when you cook the shrimp and rough chop it yourself. I used frozen uncooked jumbo shrimp. The shrimp was already de-veined but there were still a few remnants of shell on the flesh. Once the shrimp was defrosted I removed the shells, cut off the small tails and cooked them before chopping them up. I seasoned the shrimp with Old Bay seasoning and garlic infused olive oil.

Shrimp Dip Ingredients

The result was flavorful, meaty chunks of shrimp in the dip. That combined with the other seasonings set the dip over the top. And once you let the dip sit (I made mine the day before) the flavors become more fully developed and the dip is out of this world. I remember tasting it the next day and then going back for a couple more spoonfuls because it was so delicious.

Lesson Learned 2 – Shrimp cooks really fast: Once I put the shrimp in the pan I cooked them on medium high heat for 2 minutes on one side and about 2 minutes on the second side. Now remember I was using jumbo shrimp. If you use smaller shrimp the cook time may be a little less.

When the shrimp is cooked it will be loosely curled. If the shrimp is tightly curled you’ve overcooked it and it will be tough. Shrimp is like calamari – it gets tough when you overcook it. So don’t let it worry you if you think the cooking time is short. If the shrimp has a nice light coral color and is loosely curled you’ve cooked it perfectly.

Lesson Learned 3 – This recipe tastes the best when it’s made the day before: When I made this dip I tasted it right after I made it and it was good. But when I tasted it the next day I thought the flavor was over the top. I actually saved some of this dip and made a sandwich out of it, it was that good. And it disappeared quickly at the gathering where I served it. So do yourself a favor – let this one sit for a day. You won’t regret it!

Lesson Learned 4 – Another key factor in the flavor is pimento cheese: If you’ve never had pimento cheese you’ll see it has a slight kick to it. That combined with the horseradish gives the dip some zip. The zip is ever so slight so don’t worry about people not being able to eat it because it’s too spicy. You could also use a sharp cheddar, but I don’t think it will provide the depth of flavor that the pimento cheese does. I found it in the specialty cheese section in my local supermarket. If you don’t see it, ask for it. I’ll bet it’s there you just never noticed it.

Preparing, seasoning and cooking the shrimp from scratch makes all the difference in this recipe. I am anxious to hear your thoughts on this one. Make it and let me know what you think. You won’t be disappointed.

The Best Ever Shrimp Dip (No Lie)...

  • Servings: Party Size
  • Difficulty: Easy
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INGREDIENTS:

1 – 16 ounce bag frozen raw peeled and de-veined large/jumbo shrimp, thawed

1 -2 Tbs. garlic infused olive oil

1/4 tsp. Old Bay seasoning

1 – 8 ounce package of cream cheese, softened

1 heaping Tbs. horseradish

1 Tbs. shallots, minced

1 cup pimento cheese

1 Tbs. chopped Italian parsley for garnish, optional

DIRECTIONS:

Thaw the shrimp. Remove any remaining shells on the flesh of the shrimp. Cut the tails off (or you can keep it on, basically it’s your choice). In a medium sized bowl combine the shrimp, olive oil and Old Bay seasoning. Stir to make sure all of the shrimp is coated with the oil and seasoning.

On medium heat cook the shrimp for 2 minutes on one side and 1 1/2 -2 minutes on the other. The shrimp is done when it gets a soft coral color and is loosely curled. Cool the shrimp and cut it into small chunks.

In a separate bowl combine the cream cheese, horse radish, shallots, and pimento cheese. Add the shrimp. Stir until well combined. Refrigerate overnight. (you can serve immediately or chill for a short period of time but overnight is the ideal). Garnish and serve with crackers, chips or veggies.

 

 

 

 

Glazed Almond Cookies…

Every year when I bake cookies for the holidays I try one new recipe. I’ve been making cookies for so many years and have countless choices but I always like to experiment with at least one new recipe while I decide what others in my arsenal to make. A few recipes I make every year because they are just my classics. But there are others I switch out or switch around and I always add one new variety to the bunch. This is my new cookie for 2018.

Most of the cookies I make are pretty traditional with straightforward processes. This one varied a little and tested my ability to problem solve. But once I figured it out I was good to go. So I recommend you read my lessons learned carefully   because if you do you’ll be successful right out of the gate. And just in case you’re wondering these cookies taste divine and are well worth the little extra attention you need to pay to them.

So let’s talk glazed almond cookies…

Lesson Learned 1 – This recipe does not use any eggs: I know, I thought it was strange too but don’t worry the combination of ingredients works. You’ll find the dough looks a little different than most cookie dough – sort of like mashed potatoes (see the picture below). That’s ok – that’s what the dough needs to look like.

Lesson Learned 2 – You MUST use parchment paper on your cookie sheet: I have a professional grade non stick cookie sheet and found I still needed to use parchment paper. The cookies did not stick to the sheet, that’s not why parchment paper was necessary. The challenge arose when I tried to place the sliced almonds on top which I will address in another lesson learned. Just make sure you use parchment paper regardless of whether you’re using a non-stick sheet or not.

Lesson Learned 3 – I discovered the best process for prepping the cookies to go in the oven: With this recipe you roll the dough into small balls and then flatten the balls. I found the easiest way to do this was to roll the cookies all at once and then flatten them with the bottom of a tumbler glass. By doing this I was able to not only have a smooth flowing process but also was able to make the cookies a uniform size by using the bottom of the glass as a guide for pressing out the dough. Keep in mind that you’ll need a little bit of flour on hand to dust the bottom of the glass. I placed about 1/4 cup of flour on a small plate and dusted the bottom of the glass regularly. Sometimes the cookies stuck to the bottom of the glass but I was able to peel them off easily because of the flour. Once I had the cookies all flattened I dusted off any residual flour that was on them with a pastry brush.

Lesson Learned 4 – How to make the almond slices stick to the cookies: This is the rub! It’s not as easy as you might think… I found the best way to make the almonds stay on the cookies is to put them directly on the dough the very second they came out of the oven and before transferring them to a wire cooling rack. If you wait any longer they won’t stick. So as soon as you take these cookies out of the oven have the almonds ready. Place them on top of the cookie and gently press them into the cookie. That way as the cookie cools it bonds around the almond slices.

That is also why you want to have your cookie sheets lined with parchment paper. The first batch I made I took the cookies off the sheet, transferred them to a cooling rack and then tried to put on the almond slices. As I pressed them down into the cookie, the bottom of the cookie went slightly through the gaps in the cooling rack so when I took the cookies off the rack they no longer had flat bottoms and the cookies wobbled. Also by that time the cookies had cooled enough that the almonds did not stick. Ugh… When you press the almonds onto the cookie while they’re still on the baking sheet they are still warm enough, the parchment paper prevents them from sticking to the sheet as you press down and you still maintain a flat bottom.  It took me my first failed batch to figure this out.

Also I found if some of the slices were a little loose or did not want to stick, when I applied the glaze and let the glaze set on the cookie, the glaze acted as a binder and the almonds stayed on the cookie. So you really have two ways to secure the almonds. But first try putting them on while the cookies are still hot. That’s the best way.

Lesson Learned 5 – Glaze the cookies on a wax paper lined cookie sheet: Place your cookies on the lined cookie sheet and then with a teaspoon drizzle the glaze over the top of the almonds. Not only does it create a rustic look but also helps to secure the almonds on top of the cookie. Once the cookies are glazed put the baking sheet in the refrigerator for about 10-15 minutes to let the glaze harden. Then you can serve them or freeze them. The glaze has a wonderful almond flavor that accentuates the almond flavoring in the cookie. In the end you have one delicious and festive looking cookie!

Glazed Almond Cookies...

  • Servings: Approximately 3 Dozen
  • Difficulty: Medium
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INGREDIENTS:

Cookie Dough

1 cup unsalted butter

3/4 cup sugar

1 tsp. almond extract

2 cups flour

1/2 tsp. baking powder

1/4 tsp. salt

Glaze

1/2 cup confectioners sugar

1 tsp. almond extract

3 teaspoons water

DIRECTIONS:

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line cookie sheets with parchment paper. Set aside

In a stand mixer, mix together well the butter, sugar and almond extract.

In a separate bowl combine the flour, baking soda and salt. Whisk to combine.

Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture only a couple tablespoons at a time until fully incorporated before adding more.  Otherwise the flour will not incorporate fully into the dough.

Roll the dough into small one inch balls. Dust the bottom of a glass tumbler with flour and flatten each ball. (You will need to dust the bottom of the glass frequently). Bake for 7 minutes only . Although the cookie may not look done, it is. Do not remove the cookies from the baking sheet and immediately take a few sliced almonds and press them into each cookie. Once you’ve finished putting the almonds on top of the cookies transfer them to a wire cooling rack to cool.

After the cookies have cooled mix the glaze ingredients together. With a teaspoon, drizzle the glaze over the cookies. Put the cookies in the refrigerator for about 10-15 minutes to allow the glaze to set. Serve or freeze.

 

 

 

 

Cranberry Upside Down Cake…

There’s nothing that screams the holidays like cranberries. Did you know that 20% of cranberries grown are consumed over the holidays? The fresh ones are only around this time of year and their bright red color makes you want to burst into a Christmas song. And because I love them so much, I’m always looking for new ways to cook or bake with them. This particular recipe hits the jackpot as far as I’m concerned.

I’ve seen various iterations of upside down cakes but this one, in my estimation, surpasses them all. It is so much fun to take this cake out of the oven, let it cool for 10 minutes, and then turn it over and see this gorgeous burst of holiday color decorating the top of the cake. This cake will stand out on any holiday dessert table. And besides looking fabulous, it tastes fabulous! And it isn’t that difficult to make. You just need to follow a few tips and the cake will turn out perfectly. This is the very first time I made this cake and just look at it – holiday perfection! So let’s talk cranberry upside down cake…

Lesson Learned 1 – Grease the bottom and sides of the pan generously: If you don’t do this you’re dead in the water. The cake will never come out clean. Now by generously I don’t mean you need a build up of grease in the pan.  Just make sure your pan (and this recipe calls for one 9 inch round cake pan) is thoroughly greased on the bottom and the sides. And make sure you only use butter to grease the pan, nothing else.

Lesson Learned 2 – Can you make this in an 8 inch round pan: The answer is yes and no. This recipe makes a lot of batter and really calls for a 9 inch pan that is at least two inches high up the sides. Once you put the cranberries in the entire batter will come close to the top if you use it all. I wound up leaving a small amount of batter out as I was afraid the cake would spill over the sides of the pan. I left a little less than 1/2 inch of space along the sides.

I’m glad I did. The picture below shows what the cake looked like right out of the oven. You can see the cake is all the way up to the top of the sides of the pan. Next time I make the cake I may add a few less cranberries (the original recipe called for 12 ounces of cranberries – I did not use that either. I used about 10 ounces of the 12 ounce bag). The key to getting a nice top is making sure the cranberries are evenly spread over the brown sugar and butter base. Piling the cranberries slightly on top of each other also results in a few cranberries rising with the cake and creating some nice color throughout the cake, which I liked.

I think you could use an 8 inch pan but keep in mind you will need less cranberries and you will have more batter left over. Either way, leave yourself a little less than 1/2 inch of space along the sides so your cake does not flow over the sides of the pan.

Lesson Learned 3 – Don’t let the cake cool in the pan longer than 10 minutes: You want the cake to rest for a short time when it comes out of the oven. But you also want to make sure you can get the cake out of the pan. Remember what you have on the bottom is really sticky. Cool the cake for no longer than 10 minutes. Then take a butter knife and run it all along the sides of the pan. If you do this, your cake will come out easily. Mine did and it looked gorgeous. Let the cake cool in it’s “upside down” form.

If you follow these simple lessons you should have no problem making this cake. And as always I will include sea level and high altitude amounts for the baking powder. I know you will love this one!

Cranberry Upside Down Cake...

  • Servings: 10
  • Difficulty: Medium
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INGREDIENTS:

Base:

3/4 cup packed brown sugar

4 Tbs. unsalted butter

10 ounces of fresh cranberries (you will not use an entire 12 ounce bag)

Cake:

1 3/4 cups flour

2 tsp. baking powder (1 tsp. for high altitude)

1/2 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp. ground ginger

1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon

Very small pinch of ground cloves

1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature

1 1/2 cups sugar

3 eggs, room temperature

1 Tbs. orange zest (the zest of a large orange)

1/2 cup sour cream

1/4 cup milk

DIRECTIONS:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Generously butter the bottom and sides of a 9 inch round cake pan. Set aside.

In a small saucepan, melt together the butter and brown sugar for the base. Make sure they are mixed well. Pour this mixture into the bottom of the cake pan.

Spread the cranberries evenly over the butter/brown sugar mixture. Set aside.

Whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, ginger and cloves.

In another bowl beat the butter for the cake until it is light and fluffy. Add the sugar and mix thoroughly. Add the eggs in one at a time and mix until combined. Stir in the orange zest.

Mix 1/3 of the dry ingredients into the butter/egg mixture. Once combined beat in 1/2 of the sour cream until combined. Beat in the next third of the dry mixture until combined. Add the remaining half of the sour cream and beat until combined. Add the last third of the dry ingredients and beat until combined. Finally add the milk and beat until combined.

Pour the batter over the cranberries making making sure to leave a little less than 1/2 inch of room from the top of the pan.

Place in preheated oven and lower the temperature to 325 degrees. Bake anywhere from 55 minutes to 70 minutes. (mine took 70 minutes – it will depend on your oven and your altitude). Cake is done when a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

Cool the pan on a wire rack for 10 minutes. Run a butter knife all around the edges of the pan. Place a plate on top of the pan and invert it. Let the inverted cake cool on the plate.

 

 

Easy Homemade Pizza…

If you’re anything like me, pizza is something you either eat at a restaurant or order for delivery. I never really thought about making homemade pizza until recently. I was wandering around Trader Joes, saw some pizza dough in a bag and thought I should give this a try. So I bought some. After leaving it in the refrigerator for a few days I decided to use it before it went bad. And the rest was just pure joy.

Pizza is pretty elementary. It consists of the dough for your crust, your sauce, your toppings and cheese – yep, that’s pretty much it. But not really. How thinly do you roll out the dough? How much sauce and toppings do you put on? At what temperature do you bake it so the bottom crust gets done before the sides get too brown? What I found is there are some basic things to keep in mind when making pizza so your results will be perfect. So let’s talk making homemade pizza…

Lesson Learned 1 – Tips for working with pizza dough: Pizza dough, like most other types of dough, likes to rest before you roll it out. One common mistake with using store bought pizza dough is to take it out of the refrigerator and immediately start working with it. Doing that will result in a tough crust. Let the dough rest on your counter for about 20 minutes before you begin rolling it out. That way the glutens in your dough won’t get overworked and you won’t have a tough crust.

The dough that I bought made a 12 inch round pizza about 1/8 inch thick. That’s probably the thinnest you want to go with the crust. I rolled it out on a silpat non stick silicone mat. My mat gives me circular as well as linear dimensions that helps when I’m working with dough that needs to be rolled out to certain specifications. If I have a cookie recipe that says I need to create a 9 inch roll, I can measure that on this mat. I was also able to roll out my pizza dough to a perfect 12 inch round. And even though the mat is considered non-stick, you still need to use flour when working with bread/pizza dough. Most of the time you don’t need it for cookie dough.

Pizza Crisper

Lesson Learned 2 – If at all possible, use a pizza stone or crisper: Pizza stones are designed to bake pizzas in commercial brick ovens although they also can be used at home. Pizza crispers are designed for “regular” ovens. They are perforated to let air circulate under the crust to cook the bottom of the pizza more evenly. Being that I don’t make homemade pizza on a regular basis I just bought an aluminum pizza crisper at the grocery store. It worked beautifully. Plus I can reuse it a few times before having to get another one. Use either a pizza stone or crisper if you want to ensure that the bottom of your crust is not soggy when the rest of your pizza is fully cooked.

Also when using an aluminum pizza crisper (as shown in the picture) you should lightly oil it  before putting the dough on it. I recommend using canola oil because it has a very high smoke point. I also recommend that after you brush on the oil to take a paper towel and go over the crisper and remove any excess. I am very serious about only lightly oiling the bottom. I’d start with about an 1/8 of a teaspoon and go from there. That amount of oil and a paper towel to spread it and soak up any excess should be more than sufficient. You don’t want the bottom of your pizza to be greasy. You just don’t want the dough to stick to the crisper.

Lesson Learned 3 – Don’t drench the pizza with sauce: I used the smallest jar of marinara I could find, 14 ounces, and I still didn’t use all of it. Now you may ask should I use pizza sauce or pasta sauce. I don’t think it really matters. Some make pizzas with alfredo sauce. I don’t think there is a hard fast rule. It’s really all up to you. What’s more important is to make sure you don’t drown your dough in sauce. Just spread it on to lightly and evenly cover it. You don’t want to create soggy dough.

Lesson Learned 4 – Should toppings be put on cooked or raw: That depends. If you want to have Italian sausage on your pizza definitely cook it beforehand. I cooked mine about 75% done (just a little pink – see below) knowing that the time the pizza cooked in the oven would cover the rest. I did not cook my green peppers ahead of time, but I did cut them into smaller diced pieces. Same thing with my mushrooms. They went on raw but I sliced them thin and they were cooked perfectly in the time allotted. I also put on some pepperoni slices, as is, since they can be eaten right out of the package.

Partially Cooked Italian Sausage

Another mistake common in making homemade pizza putting the toppings on too thick. Now don’t get me wrong, I like lots of toppings on my pizza. Just be careful not to create a huge mound. What happens when putting too much toppings on is the crust will get done before your toppings are cooked or even warmed through. You don’t want that.

Lesson Learned 5 – Cook your pizza at a high heat: I looked over many different pizza recipes and saw a wide variety of recommended cooking temperatures. One recipe even called for the pizza to be cooked at 350 degrees. With the research I did I found the prevailing thought to be that pizza should be baked at higher temperatures. I baked mine at 450 degrees. It was done in 15 minutes and the crust was perfect. Our local take-and-bake pizza store recommends you bake their pizzas at 425 degrees. You could probably do that as well but it will take a little longer for your pizza to cook. If you pile on your toppings it might be better to bake your pizza at 425 to give more time for the toppings to bake. I would guess baking at 425 might add on an additional 5-10 minutes, depending on your oven. The choice is yours, but I would not go under 425 degrees.

It sounds like a lot but it’s actually pretty simple. If you keep these tips in mind you should have a perfect pizza the very first time. This was my first time making it and it turned out perfectly. And how often can you say that about a recipe you’ve tried only once? I really like the fact that I can control what goes on my pizza and so I will definitely make a homemade pizza again. Try this and let me know what you think…

Easy Homemade Pizza...

  • Servings: 4
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

INGREDIENTS:

1 bag of pizza dough (I got mine from Trader Joes – Whole Foods also has them)

1 14 ounce jar of pasta or pizza sauce (there will be some leftover)

1/2 pound sweet Italian sausage cooked almost through and crumbled

pepperoni slices, as desired

1/3 cup green pepper, diced small

2-3 medium sized cremini mushrooms, sliced thin

Mozzarella cheese

Parmesan cheese

1/4 tsp. Italian seasoning (you can add more if you like)

1/8 tsp. canola oil

Flour for dough preparation

DIRECTIONS:

Preheat the oven to 450. Take a large pizza crisper and lightly oil the bottom. Remove any excess with a paper towel.

Flour your surface for working the dough.  Roll the dough to a 12 inch circle. Wrap the dough around your rolling pin and transfer it to the crisper. Cover the surface of the dough with pizza sauce leaving about a half inch around the edges uncovered. Arrange the pepperoni slices on the dough. Arrange the Italian sausage crumbles on the dough.

Sprinkle the meats with mozzarella and Parmesan cheese. Arrange the mushroom slices and green pepper pieces on the dough. Top them with more mozzarella and Parmesan cheese.  Sprinkle the Italian seasoning over the top.

Bake for 15 minutes or until the crust cooked and the cheese is gold brown and bubbly. Slice and serve.

 

Party Appetizers

Thanksgiving and Christmas are right around the corner and that means family gatherings and parties with friends. And if you’re like me whether serving a meal or simply a wine and appetizer affair there’s always a need to have in your arsenal some simple, impressive appetizers. So I’ve created for you a one stop shop blog with seven of my favorite appetizers.  These appetizers will brighten up any of your holiday get-togethers. All you need do is click on the individual picture(s) of the one(s) you like and it will direct you back to the blog I wrote about it that includes a printable recipe. It couldn’t be easier.

I specifically picked these appetizers out of the many in my recipe index for a few reasons. First they are incredibly easy to make. That is key as the holidays are busy enough as it is. Second I picked them for how they look. As I’ve stated over and over in my blogs you eat first with your eyes. I wanted these appetizers to have that holiday wow factor. And last I wanted them to be easy for your guests to put on a plate and eat.

Let me take you through my choices in the picture above by starting with the upper left corner of the collage. First is my tangy bacon cheddar yogurt dip. Next to it are my hard salami roll ups with olive garnish. In the center row left is my salted caramel cheese ball. Next is my Christmas creamy spinach and red pepper dip followed by my no bake pizza bites. Last on the bottom left is my vegetable pizza and finally my basic bruschetta. Make any or all of these and your party will be a hit. So let’s take each one individually…

TANGY BACON CHEDDAR YOGURT DIP:

I like this appetizer for a few reasons. First you have the option of making it as spicy as you like. Hot or mild it is absolutely delicious. Second if you use precooked bacon making this dip is even easier. Third I found that people really go for the veggies straws instead of the traditional crackers. It’s fun, tasty and easy to eat making it a great party appetizer.

HARD SALAMI ROLL UPS WITH OLIVE GARNISH:

I found this appetizer to be very popular not only because it’s tasty but also because of its pop in your mouth and go factor. All you have to do it grab it by its decorative pick and put it in your mouth. You don’t even need a plate for this one. You can just walk by and grab it. For the holidays you can add a little pzazz by using holiday themed picks. Any way you serve it, this appetizer will quickly disappear.

SALTED CARAMEL CHEESE BALL:

This one is a show stopper and a crowd pleaser! This appetizer touts the killer combo of granny smith apples, caramel sauce, cheese, lemon juice and nuts. And if that isn’t enough, drizzling caramel sauce over it takes this cheese ball over the top. Also, this can be made ahead of time so you don’t have to fiddle around with it the day of your party. And last but certainly not least, this can be served as an appetizer or dessert. You can’t go wrong with this one.

CREAMY SPINACH AND RED PEPPER DIP:

I will admit up front I got this recipe from another site. I acknowledge that in my blog and include a link to the recipe. I normally don’t do this but it was such a hit when I served it I just had to share. I also like it because it features the colors of Christmas. So if you’re looking to inject the color of the holidays not only in your decorations but also in your food, this is the recipe for you. Oh, and one last thing, it tastes divine!

NO BAKE PIZZA BITES:

This is one of my personal favorites. You can’t beat a simple to assemble appetizer that tastes like you’re eating a piece of pizza. You can be somewhat flexible in the ingredients you use (I used a basil and pepper feta cheese instead of just adding mozzarella cheese and fresh basil) and the results were fabulous. I’ve found that this particular appetizer is very popular with the younger set. It can be assembled in no time and you’ll be amazed at how flavorful it is!

VEGETABLE PIZZA:

Earlier this year when I first posted this recipe I got a lot of comments. People mostly said that they use to make this appetizer “back in the day” but have not made it in a long time and were not sure why. But how can you resist making something that looks as good as this and tastes even better. I also found this is a great way to use up some of stuff lying around in your refrigerator. This is another appetizer that allows your guests to just pick up a piece and go. But I guarantee you one thing. They will be back for more!

BASIC BRUSCHETTA:

And last but certainly not least my basic bruschetta. We tend to eat a lot over the holidays and that can lead to feeling full and bloated. This appetizer is different. It is refreshing, light and filled with simple clean ingredients your guests will love while not feeling stuffed. This is definitely an appetizer you should consider.

And there you have it – some of my favorite appetizer recipes just in time for your holiday get-togethers. I also have other appetizer recipes that you can find under my recipe index tab on the top of this page. I hope you make one or all of these during the holidays and as always, I would love to know what you think of them.

 

Scrumptious Cranberry Nut Bread…

It’s that time of year again. I know this sounds silly but I get a little wave of excitement every time I see bags of cranberries in the grocery store for the first time. To me it’s heralding the holiday season, my favorite time of year.

Immediately my thoughts go to making a cranberry bread. It’s tradition, sort of like making Christmas cookies every year. And each year I fiddle with the recipe a little but I think I’ve got it down to something I really like.

I love the tartness of cranberries and when you combine them with orange juice, orange zest, nuts and all the other regular cast of characters you have in a sweet bread loaf that’s simply heaven. So let’s talk cranberry nut bread…

Lesson Learned 1 – Process the cranberries in a mini food processor: In my estimation this is the quickest way to get the job done with minimal mess. I pulse the cranberries so that I can get some nice sized chunks. You don’t want to pulverize them, that would defeat the purpose of the bread. The pictures below show how I processed them.

Lesson Learned 2 – Use the zest of 1 medium sized orange: I’ve seen different amounts of zest called for in various recipes and I just made it easy and said use the zest of one medium sized orange. That will render a generous table spoon which noticeably adds flavor to the bread. Quit fooling around with measuring spoons on this one. Just use one orange!

Lesson Learned 3 – I adjusted the leavening in my recipe: Again after looking at several recipes I adjusted the leavening (baking powder and soda) for high altitude. I will give you the amounts I used and also the recommended amounts that I saw on various recipes for sea level. As you can see from the pictures my bread turned out great with no cave-in in the middle (which is a result of too much leavening at high altitude). Those of you at sea level – just use the “normal” amounts I listed.

And that’s it. This is one of my all-time Fall classics. I make it every year when cranberries arrive at the grocery store. I hope you enjoy it and please, let me know what you think…

Scrumptious Cranberry Nut Bread...

  • Servings: 1 Loaf
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

INGREDIENTS:

2 cups flour

1 cup sugar

1 1/2 tsp. baking powder (1 tsp. high altitude)

1/2 tsp. baking soda (1/4 tsp. high altitude)

1 tsp. salt

3/4 cup orange juice

2 Tbs. vegetable oil

Zest of one medium sized orange

1 egg, room temperature, beaten

1 1/2 cups fresh cranberries, coarsely chopped

1/2 cup chopped pecans

Baking spray

DIRECTIONS:

Preheat oven to 350. Spray an 8 x 4 inch loaf pan. In a medium bowl combine flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and baking powder. Set aside.

In another bowl combine orange juice, oil, zest and egg. Pour into the flour mixture and stir until combined. Fold in the cranberries and nuts until they are all throughout the batter.

Bake for 55 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Let the loaf cool in the pan for 15 minutes. Remove the loaf from the pan and cool completely.

 

 

 

The Best Sausage And Onion Quiche…

I only started making home made quiches recently. Normally I would just pick one up at the grocery store and heat it for either breakfast or dinner. But I found that not only could I control what goes into the quiche, but also the texture and flavor of the quiche is so much better when I make it.  And it really isn’t all that hard if you know a simple few tricks which I will share.

The best thing about quiche is it can be a great dumping ground for leftovers. And there isn’t just one way to make one or only certain ingredients you can use. Making quiche is like painting on a blank canvas – create what you want and it will all be good.

This recipe is about as basic as you can make it. But even with that, my husband said that my homemade quiche is so much better than the fancier ones I’ve been buying at the store. So, I think it’s pretty much home made quiche from now on. But that doesn’t bother me because it really is so simple to make.  So let’s talk easy sausage and onion quiche…

Lesson Learned 1 – Frozen pie crust shells work perfectly for this recipe: Now I’m not saying that you can’t make crust from scratch but why go through all that work when the frozen shells work equally as well. But you definitely have the choice. You can make your crust from scratch, or use the packaged pie crust rounds or get the pie crust shells that are pre-made and frozen. All will work.

Lesson Learned 2 – Cook the breakfast sausage until you see only a little light pink: Remember the quiche is going to bake for an hour so the sausage will continue to cook during that time. I like to cook my sausage first, mix it with the cream cheese and let it sit a little before I put it in the pie crust. I normally use that time to put the egg mixture together.

An 8 oz. tube of breakfast sausage is more than enough. You can go a little lighter on the sausage and only use 4 ounces at a time. We like a lot of sausage in our quiche so I prepare the whole tube and use the leftovers to put in my scrambled eggs for breakfast during the week. But just a warning, if you cook all 8 ounces there will be leftovers.

Also, make sure you drain the sausage on paper towels to get all the grease out before adding it to the quiche. It’s important that the sausage is as dry as possible.

Lesson Learned 3 – Beat the eggs really well: I found if you want the fluffiest quiche you need to beat the egg mixture until it foams. This may take a couple of minutes but it is definitely worth it. When the eggs are that light and airy, so is the quiche.

Lesson Learned 4 – Use a good melting cheese: You can use a wide variety of melting cheeses in a quiche. I like this particular recipe because it pairs a little cream cheese with another melting cheese. I used muenster in this recipe but you can also use cheddar, gruyere, swiss, or mozzarella. That’s the beauty of making a quiche. The choice is yours!

Lesson Learned 5 – I used pearl onions for an extra pop of flavor: You can definitely chop and saute some onions and add it to the quiche. I prefer using frozen pearl onions. You can drop them in frozen and they give a noticeable pop of flavor when you bit into one. Pearl onions are quick and easy.

Lesson Learned 6 – Let the quiche stand for 10 minutes when it comes out of the oven: For ease of cutting you need the quiche to set before you serve. Once you take the quiche out of the oven cover it with foil and let it sit for 10 minutes. The consistency will be perfect and cutting the quiche will be a breeze!

And that’s it. Pretty simple actually – simple but oh so good! Try it and let me know what you think.

The Best Sausage & Onion Quiche

  • Servings: 6
  • Difficulty: Easy
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INGREDIENTS:

1 9 inch frozen pie crust

1 – 8 oz. tube of breakfast sausage (I used Jimmy Dean)

1/2 cup frozen pearl onions

4 oz. of cream cheese, room temperature

1 cup shredded melting cheese (I used muenster), divided

4 eggs

1 cup heavy cream

2 Tbs. sour cream

DIRECTIONS:

Preheat the oven to 350. In a skillet, cook the sausage until only slightly pink breaking up the sausage as you cook it. Drain the sausage thoroughly. Combine the sausage and cream cheese. Set aside.

In a medium size bowl beat the eggs, sour cream and heavy cream thoroughly (at least a minute).

Place the sausage and pearl onions in the bottom of the pie plate. Cover with 1/2 of the cheese. Pour the egg mixture over the sausage, onions and cheese. Add the remaining cheese on top.

Bake for 1 hour. Check the quiche about half way through to make sure the cheese on top is not getting too brown. If it is, loosely cover the quiche in foil for the remainder of the cooking process.

IMPORTANT: Allow the quiche to rest covered in foil for 10 minutes before serving.

 

 

Garlic and Rosemary Balsamic Roasted Pork Loin and Potatoes…

The one thing I really love about Fall is cranking up the oven again. I do a lot of grilling over the Summer and I love that too. But those smells in the house when something is roasting in the oven just can’t be beat. It makes a house a home.

So I decided to crank up the oven the other day. I haven’t had pork in a while and I thought I’d try that. More often than not when I make a pork roast I use a pork loin. The meat is so tender and I perfected roasting it so that it’s cooked but not dried out. And if you want my secret for roasting a perfect pork loin every time just click on my blog’s tips and tricks post and you’ll never have a dry pork loin roast again.

But although pork loin is moist I find it always needs a little help in the flavor department. And whether you marinate it or use some sort of rub, that’s usually enough to up the flavor factor. And that’s exactly what this recipe does.

I also like this recipe because for all intents and purposes it is a one pot meal. You can also make your potatoes and carrots in the same roasting pan and I’ve always liked that convenience. You just have to follow a couple of tips in order to make sure they cook properly.

So let’s talk garlic and rosemary balsamic roasted pork loin and potatoes…

Lesson Learned 1: Slightly par boil your potatoes before roasting them: I don’t know about you but I’ve found that roasting potatoes can be tricky. I usually wind up with hard or semi hard potatoes that are not cooked through. In this recipe it is important to cut the potatoes as evenly as possible (mine were approximately one inch squares). Once I do that I put them in a pot with water, bring the water to a boil and boil the potatoes for about 5 minutes or just until they start to turn tender around the edges. Then I drain the potatoes and let me cool slightly in the strainer. I’ve found when I do this my potatoes come out perfectly when making this recipe. After I strain off the water I transfer them into a bowl so that I can coat them with the balsamic mixture before putting them in the roasting pan. It’s a little extra work, but definitely worth it.

The same rule applies for when I use sliced potatoes in a casserole. I used my mandolin slicer to get even slices. Then I par boil them just for a couple of minutes before adding them to a casserole dish that is ready to go into the oven. Try this little trick and you’ll have beautifully roasted potatoes all the time.

Lesson Learned 2 – This recipe roasts the carrots to crisp tender: Carrots are also tricky to cook and although I prefer mine to be crisp tender, some people prefer their carrots to be soft. If soft is your preference roasting them this way will not give you that consistency unless you either cut them into thin rounds or use small baby carrots. I cut my carrots into about 2 inch chunks, cut each chunk into half and then half again. This produced a somewhat softened crisp tender carrot, which I love.

You can also do the par boiling trick described above for larger carrots if you want them to be soft. That might be a little too much muss and fuss for one recipe. But it’s totally up to you. Just something to think about…

Lesson Learned 3 – Browning the pork loin is totally your preference: Some recipes call for browning your pork loin before roasting it. It helps to seal in the juices. The reason I say this is totally your preference is that if you cook your pork loin according to my directions you will always get a juicy pork loin without browning it ahead of time. Plus when you add the balsamic mixture you cannot tell if the roast has been browned or not. So why bother. The choice is yours.

Lesson Learned 4 – Make the balsamic mixture in your mini food processor: This is really the easiest way to ensure all the ingredients are well combined. Combine them in the processor until the mixture becomes paste-like as seen below. Then you’re ready to go…

And that’s it. This recipe is a Fall classic. Try it and tell me what you think…

Garlic & Rosemary Balsamic Roasted Pork Loin & Potatoes...

  • Servings: 6
  • Difficulty: Medium
  • Print

INGREDIENTS:

1 1/2 pound boneless pork loin

3 large russet potatoes, peeled and diced into 1 inch square pieces (can also use 2 pounds of baby reds)

3-4 large carrots cut into chunks, then halved and halved again (or 1 bag of small baby carrots not cut)

1/4 cup good olive oil, plus 1 Tb. for the carrots

3 Tbs. balsamic vinegar

5 large garlic cloves (or 10 small), smashed

1/2 cup fresh rosemary leaves

Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper to taste

1 tsp. Herbs De Provence

Cooking spray

DIRECTIONS:

Preheat the oven to 375. Peel, chop and par boil the potatoes for 5 minutes. Drain and set aside.

Combine olive oil, vinegar, garlic, rosemary, salt and pepper in a food processor until it forms a paste.

Coat the pork loin on all sides with the balsamic mixture. (You will have some left over for the potatoes). Lightly grease a large roasting pan with cooking spray. Place the pork loin in the center of the roasting pan. Coat the potatoes with the remaining balsamic mixture. Place them on one side of the pork loin.

Coat the carrots with olive oil and season them with salt and pepper and Herbs De Provence. Place the carrots on the other side of the pork loin.

Roast for 1 hour. Remove from the oven and cover with foil for 5 minutes. Transfer the roast to a cutting board, slice and serve with the potatoes and carrots.

 

 

 

Cheddar Bacon Ranch Cheese Ball…

Want something quick and easy to bring to your next get together? This recipe is the one for you. I like this recipe for a wide variety of reasons. First, it is very easy to assemble. Second, and this is perhaps my favorite reason, it’s small enough to minimize waste but large enough so that everyone can have some of it.

I think that has been my bug-a-boo about most cheese balls. A lot of recipes make a cheese ball that is big enough to feed an army. And what always seems to happen is a lot left overs. So, with good intentions you wrap it up and put it back in the fridge. The problem is I don’t know a lot of people who eat cheese balls outside of a party venue. So the remainder sits in your refrigerator until you wind up throwing it away. But not with this one. It’s just the right size. And if you need a bigger cheese ball, just double the recipe. But my experience has been that when there are lot of appetizers to choose from, making an appetizer that is smaller in size eliminates a great deal of waste.

So let’s talk cheddar bacon ranch cheese ball…

Lesson Learned 1: I found a great shortcut for adding bacon to recipes. The last time I was at the grocery store I noticed a package of Boar’s Head fully cooked bacon. It comes in a box and is not refrigerated. Inside there are two vacuumed sealed packages of cooked bacon with approximately 6 pieces per pack. One pack was perfect for this recipe. I avoided all of the grease and clean up associated with cooking bacon. Since then I’ve used it on salads and in other recipes. I love the taste and convenience of it. You may want to try some. It really makes putting together this cheese ball a snap.

Lesson Learned 2 – Grate your own cheese versus using the packaged kind. Although I just touted the convenience of using precooked bacon, I don’t recommend using the grated cheese you get in a bag in any recipe. It may take a few seconds more to grate your own cheese but for flavor and  health reasons I strongly recommend it.

First, grating your own cheese is less wasteful less expensive and it tastes so much better. But the main reason I grate my own cheese is an additive put in bags of grated cheese know as cellulose. Cellulose is actually derived from wood pulp, yes wood pulp, and is added to packages of grated cheese to prevent the cheese from clumping together. Now I don’t know about you, but I’m not a big fan of adding wood pulp to my diet if I can avoid it. So next time, take the couple of extra seconds and grate your own cheese. Your body will thank you for it.

This recipe couldn’t be any easier, is perfect in size and is tasty as all get out. So try it and let me know what you think…

Cheddar Bacon Ranch Cheese Ball

  • Servings: 25
  • Difficulty: Easy
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INGREDIENTS:

1- 8 ounce package of cream cheese, room temperature

1/2 cup sharp cheddar cheese, shredded

5-6 pieces of cooked bacon, chopped

1/2 package of ranch dressing mix (you can add more to taste if you like)

1/8 cup fresh chives, chopped

1 cup chopped pecans

DIRECTIONS:

In a medium bowl combine all of the ingredients except the chopped pecans. Mix well and form into a ball.

Roll the cheese ball in the chopped pecans until the ball is completely covered. Cover the ball with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour before serving.

Mixed Ingredients

Roll Into A Ball And Place On Top Of Chopped Pecans

Completely Cover With Pecans

 

 

 

Cranberry Orange Cake Topped With Fresh Plums…

Those of you who followed my blog over the years know that early on in my cooking/baking days I was heavily influenced by the Food Network. The early shows they produced were more about learning to cook and less about cooking contests and road shows. I miss those days. Remember Semi-Homemade with Sandra Lee? I really liked that show. I felt Sandra showed people how to take a few simple ingredients, add it to something store bought and make it into something special without all the muss and fuss. In today’s world that is such a gift for the busy cook.

Well, that is what this recipe is all about. I wish I could take credit for this but I can’t. I was at the grocery store looking for something to make, like a quick bread or muffins and I picked up this box of Krusteaz Cranberry Orange Muffin Mix. I looked on the back of the box to see if I could use this to make a quick bread and lo and behold on the bottom right hand corner was the recipe for this cake. All it required was a few extra ingredients, namely almond extract and fresh plums. The picture of the cake looked so good I just had to try it. Needless to say, it was fabulous and very easy to make so I felt I had to share it with all of you. Nobody has to know that this cake is semi-homemade.

So let’s talk Cranberry Orange Cake Topped With Fresh Plums…

Lesson Learned 1 – Pick plums that are not overly ripe: You want plums that are hard. Hard plums are easier to slice and cook beautifully in the oven. It’s very difficult to get good slices with soft plums, even if you have a very sharp knife. The pieces tend to get mushy. So be aware of that.

Also when you cut the plums, cut them like you would an avocado. I found it very hard to get the stones out of the plums. But if you cut the plum all around at the center and twist the two halves in the opposite direction, just like you do with an avocado, the plum halves will separate easily. You may have to dig a little with a sharp knife to get the stone out of the one half (be careful) but the harder the plum the easier that will be.

Lesson Learned 2 – Create the plum arrangement you want on top of the cake on a paper plate first: I found I had to play with the plums a little to create the arrangement I wanted. You don’t want to be doing that on top of the batter. I took a dinner size paper plate and created my plum arrangement on that. When it came time to put the plums on top of the batter I simply moved them from the plate to the cake just like I arranged them. It was a piece of cake, no pun intended!

Lesson Learned 3 – You could also add chopped nuts to this recipe: I did not make it with nuts this time but you could add 1/2 cup chopped nuts to this cake as well. It’s all up to you!

And the rest is easy. Just follow the directions on the box. I’ll write out the recipe here just in case the packaging gets changed. This is a quick, impressive and delicious semi-homemade recipe. I will definitely make this one again. Enjoy!

Cranberry Orange Cake Topped With Fresh Plums...

  • Servings: 12
  • Difficulty: Easy
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INGREDIENTS:

1 box Krusteaz Cranberry Orange Muffin Mix

2 eggs, room temperature

1/2 cup water (plus 2 Tbs for high altitude)

1/2 cup vegetable oil

1/2 tsp. almond extract

1 can cranberries (included in the box), undrained

2 under ripe plums, sliced

baking spray

DIRECTIONS:

Heat oven to 350. Mix well the muffin mix, eggs, water, vegetable oil and almond extract. Fold in the cranberries.

Spray a 9 inch springform pan with baking spray. Spoon the batter into the pan. Arrange the plum slices evenly over the batter.

Bake for 45 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Let cool in pan for 15 minutes before removing.

 

 

Apple Cake With Praline Glaze…

There are many reasons why Fall is my favorite time of year. First, I love the crisp Fall air with its milder temperatures. Second, I love the spectacular bursts of colors the trees and bushes provide.  And third, I love Fall cooking and baking. The aromas in the kitchen at this time of year are like no other, from the smell of the first pot roast braising in the oven to the sweet smell of baked apples providing that warm feeling of comfort and home. Fall is definitely the best season of the year.

So let’s start out the season by focusing on Fall baking! I chose this particular recipe because it embodies everything I love about Fall – apples, cinnamon, cream cheese, vanilla… need I go any further. The ingredients scream Fall and the smell of this cake when it’s baking in the oven beats any apples and cinnamon air freshener you could ever buy.

So let’s talk apple cake with praline glaze…

Lesson Learned 1 – Be organized when you make this recipe. This recipe has several components and the best way to make it is to be organized. First, that means reading the recipe thoroughly. Second, and I know this may sound silly, is to create a strategy for putting everything together. When I made this I did things in stages to stay on track and to keep the kitchen from being turned upside down.

The first thing I did was shred the carrots. (If you can find carrots already shredded at your local store you can certainly use them). I used my food processor for that. Make sure you used the shredding disc as shown below.

Cut the carrots and put them into the processor’s feeding tube.

With the processor on, push the carrots down the feeding tube using the round plastic tool that comes with the processor. You will wind up with shredded carrots as seen below.

I am going into such detail about this for a couple of reasons. First to show the correct disc to use to get shredded carrots. You don’t want to use the processor’s main blade for this. Second because this step takes up time and space. I found the best way to stay organized when making a recipe is to see if there are any components that require a machine other than a mixer and determine how using that machine may affect your work space.

Once I shredded the carrots I put them in a bowl, washed my food processor and put it away. If you’ve ever worked with a food processor you know it’s comprised of several pieces and all those pieces needed to be washed. Washing them, reassembling the food processor and putting it away freed up a lot of work space for me – space that I could use to comfortably assemble the other components of the cake.

After using the food processor I put together the cream cheese filling and set it aside, assembled the wet and dry ingredients, greased and floured the bundt cake pan, measured out the pecans (I purchased pecan pieces so I didn’t have to worry about chopping them) and lastly I cut up the apples. I saved the apples for last because I wanted as short of a period of time between when they were chopped and when they were incorporated into the batter. Apples, when cut, will oxidize meaning they will start to turn brown the longer they are exposed to the open air. By cutting them last I still had nice light green apple pieces to put into the batter. There are altogether seven major components of this cake and so the more organized you are the smoother the process of making the cake will go.

The Seven Major Components Of The Apple Cake

Lesson Learned 2 – Check each egg before putting it into the batter: There are four eggs in this recipe and each one should be checked separately by cracking it into a small dish before adding it to the batter. You don’t want to add them all at once just to find you have one bad egg and then have to throw out all the batter. It only takes a few seconds to ensure that all the eggs you’re using are good.

Lesson Learned 3 – For high altitude baking decrease the baking powder by 1/4 teaspoon. The baking soda amount can stay the same.

The major point to consider when making this recipe is being organized. Otherwise everything is relatively simple. I can assure you this cake is delicious. I gave some to a neighbor who said it was so delicious that she wanted the recipe. I’m sure you’ll want to print this recipe and keep it as part of your Fall lineup of baking…

Apple Cake With Praline Glaze...

  • Servings: 12
  • Difficulty: Easy To Medium
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INGREDIENTS:

CAKE

1 8 oz. package of cream cheese, room temperature

2 cups sugar, divided

4 eggs, divided

1 cup canola oil

2 cups flour

2 tsp. baking powder

2 generous tsp. ground cinnamon

1 tsp. salt

1/4 tsp. baking soda

2 cups green apples, peeled and chopped (2 medium size granny smith apples)

1 cup shredded carrots (2 large carrots)

1/2 cup chopped pecans

PRALINE GLAZE

1/2 cup brown sugar, packed

1/4 cup butter, cubed

2 Tbs. milk

1/2 cup confectioners sugar

1/2 tsp. vanilla

1/4 cup chopped pecans

DIRECTIONS:

Preheat the oven to 350. Grease and flour a 10 inch fluted bundt pan. Set aside.

In a small bowl beat the cream cheese and 1/4 cup of sugar until smooth. Beat in 1 egg. Set aside.

In a medium bowl combine the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, salt and baking soda. Whisk together until thoroughly combined. Set aside.

In a large bowl beat together the oil with the remaining sugar and eggs until well blended. Gradually beat the flour mixture into the oil mixture until blended. Fold in the apples, carrots, and pecans.

Put half of the better evenly around the bundt pan. Put the cream cheese mixture on top. Add the remaining batter on top of the cream cheese mixture.

Bake 50-60 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool 10 minutes in the bundt pan before removing the cake from the pan.

To make the glaze – in a large saucepan bring the brown sugar, butter and milk to a boil. Cook and stir for 1 minute. Remove from the heat and whisk in the confectioners sugar and vanilla until smooth. Drizzle over cooled cake. Sprinkle with pecans.

 

 

Tangy Bacon Cheddar Yogurt Dip…

Fall is just about here. I can already see the difference in the angle of the sun that brings about darkness much earlier. You can feel the change in the air. But there’s still some time to fire up the old grill and have a late Summer party with great appetizers and good ole BBQ.

I’ve had a lot of practice making appetizers this Summer as my condo association hosts a happy hour every Thursday and although you’re not obligated to bring anything I like to use it as my recipe tester event. So last Thursday I made this dip and it was a hit.

Nothing very difficult about this one. It’s super easy, has tons of flavor and goes well with cocktails. So let’s talk tangy bacon cheddar yogurt dip…

Lesson Learned 1: Make this as tangy as you like. In my experience light heat is the most effective when making a recipe for a crowd. You can never judge the heat quotient of your guests so it’s best to give it just a little zip to a recipe so the greater majority of people will eat it. But if you know you’ve got a group that loves spicy, feel free to add as much heat as you like. It’s all up to you.

Lesson Learned 2: Used precooked bacon as a shortcut. I found a package of Boar’s Head precooked bacon and I used it when I made this recipe. It is a great time saver, you eliminate the grease and mess you get cooking bacon and the flavor is just the same. So if you’re really looking to cut your prep time, try that. If not, cooking bacon the old fashioned way is perfectly fine.

Lesson Learned 3: Serve this with veggie straws. I’m not sure how I got the idea to use veggie straws but they were the perfect compliment to the dip. I think people just get tired of the usual potato or nacho chips and this was a welcome change. They also lend themselves well to scooping some dip on the straw which makes this appetizer great finger food.

Lesson Learned 4: As with any dip, make it ahead of time. I know I’ve said this time and time again, but dips, cheese balls and the like always taste better when you give the ingredients time to get acquainted. So make this dip a few hours ahead of time and let it chill in the refrigerator before serving. The dip always tastes better a few hours after its had time to chill.

What I like about this appetizer is it’s quick and easy. You don’t have to spend a lot of time on this one and your guests will love it. Try it at your next get together. Enjoy!

Tangy Bacon Cheddar Yogurt Dip

  • Servings: Party Size
  • Difficulty: Super Easy
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INGREDIENTS:

6 bacon slices, cooked, crumbled and divided

1/2 cup low fat Greek yogurt

1/2 cup sour cream

1 tsp. garlic salt

1-2 tsp. hot sauce

2/3 cup sharp cheddar cheese, shredded

2 Tbs. chives, divided

1 package veggie straws

DIRECTIONS:

In a medium bowl combine yogurt, sour cream and garlic salt. Add hot sauce to taste. Stir in cheese and 1 1/2 Tbs. of chives. Add all but about 1 Tbs. of crumbled bacon. Stir to combine.

Transfer the dip to a serving bowl. Cover and chill for at least 1 hour. To serve garnish with reserved bacon crumbles and chives. Serve with veggie straws.

Beefy Tater Tot Casserole…

Be careful when you send your husband to pick up something at the grocery store. You might be surprised at what he brings home. The other day I asked my husband to pick up a bag of tater tots for dinner. I thought he would go to the local grocery store but his brilliant idea was to go to Sam’s Club. He brought home tater tots all right – an 8 pound bag of them! What the heck was I going to do with all those tater tots? We’ve been systematically using them over time, but we were starting to get tired of them as simply a side. So I thought I’d try making a tater tot casserole.

This particular recipe is very easy and guaranteed to be a family favorite. If you have kids, I’m sure they will enjoy this. I mean ground beef, cheese and tater tots – what’s not to like? So let’s talk beefy tater tot casserole…

Lesson Learned 1 – This recipe serves 4 people: But don’t despair. You can easily change the ingredients for larger crowds – just double or triple the amounts depending upon what you need.

Lesson Learned 2 – Make sure you put the dish under the broiler for the last few minutes to get the tater tots crispy: The taters tots are cooking on top of bubbly beef and melted cheese so they will be slightly soggy at the end. Simply put the broiler on and keep the dish under the broiler for a few minutes and you’ll get your desired crispiness for the tater tots.

Lesson Learned 3 – Feel free to experiment with this recipe: Add ingredients to the ground beef that you and your family like. If you don’t like mushrooms, don’t use them. If you like sweet peppers, dice them up and use them. If you’re not a big fan of spicy don’t use the hot sauce. But if you want some real tang add some crushed red pepper to the beef. If you prefer pearl onions, add them. You can use cheddar cheese instead of muenster cheese (I find cheddar cheese to be somewhat greasy) or any melting cheese you prefer. The beauty is this recipe can be very versatile to include anything you enjoy.

The process for this recipe is pretty straightforward and I know it will be a family favorite. Try it and let me know what you think…

Beefy Tater Tot Casserole...

  • Servings: 4
  • Difficulty: Easy
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INGREDIENTS:

2 Tbs. olive oil, divided

1 1/2 pounds ground beef, 93% lean

1/4 cup brown sugar

2 heaping tsp. tomato paste

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 cup beef broth

1 medium onion, diced

2 Tbs. Worcestershire sauce

Muenster cheese slices – 4-6 depending on the dish you use

1 small bag of tater tots – you may have some leftover

2 dashes hot sauce

salt and pepper to taste

cooking spray

DIRECTIONS:

Preheat the oven to 375.

Over medium heat, add one tablespoon of olive oil to a large skillet. Add the onions and cook until translucent. Remove the onions and add the mushrooms. If you need more oil add it. Brown the mushrooms and remove them from the skillet.

Add the ground beef and cook until browned, breaking up the beef into crumbles while cooking it. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, approximately 1 minute.

Add the Worcestershire sauce, brown sugar, tomato paste, hot sauce, beef broth and salt and pepper.  Cook until combined. Fold in the onions and mushrooms. Taste for seasoning and add more salt and/or pepper as needed.

Place the meat mixture into a 1 1/2 – 2 quart casserole dish sprayed with cooking spray. Cover the meat with the cheese slices. Take the tater tots out of the freezer and cover the top of the casserole with tater tots.

Bake in the oven for 30-40 minutes. Once nice and bubbly, turn on the broiler and place the dish under the broiler for approximately 3-5 minutes to crisp up the tater tots.

Serve and enjoy!

Frosted Blueberry Muffins…

This time of year brings an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables to your table. Sometimes its hard to pass them up, especially when the prices are low and the quality is high. And because of that, sometimes I find I buy more than I can actually use. Or sometimes I’m positive I don’t have what I want at home only to find after I buy it I have more than enough in the refrigerator already.

Such was the case the other day when I looked in my refrigerator and found and I had pints of blueberries – way too much for me to use by myself before they spoiled. My solution was to make frosted blueberry muffins…

I have to say I really like this recipe. The muffins are just the right texture and the cream cheese frosting is the perfect compliment to the tart blueberries. So let’s not waste any time and start talking about blueberry muffins…

Muffin Ingredients

Lesson Learned 1 – This recipe make A LOT of muffins: If you’re making muffins for a crowd or have large family the proportions in this recipe will be perfect for you. This recipe can make anywhere from 36-40 muffins, which for me with only two people in my household, was way too much. I didn’t realize how much the recipe made until I started filling the muffin cups. OOOPS!

But the good news is you can easily cut the recipe in half and have a more manageable amount of muffins for a smaller family. Either way, they will still come out tasting delicious.

Lesson Learned 2 – This recipe would also be good using fresh cherries: I chose blueberries for this recipe because they are more readily available during the course of a year and I had some I need to use. But you could also use fresh cherries. All you would need to do is make sure the cherries are pitted and chopped. For the full recipe I would add 4 cups of cherries.

Lesson Learned 3 – I recommend frosting these muffins: The frosting is a great compliment to the tartness of the blueberries. And although you can leave them plain the frosting, in my opinion, takes them over the top.

Lesson Learned 4 – You can also make jumbo muffins: If you’re worried about the amount of muffins this recipe makes try making jumbo muffins. You can make approximately 18-24 jumbo muffins from this recipe. The only difference will be in the baking time. Bake the jumbo muffins for approximately 25-30 minutes.

Other than that this recipe is pretty standard in terms of how it is structured. As always you need to use less leavening for high altitude (cut the baking powder by 1/2 Tbs.) but other than that you mix the ingredients, fill the muffin cups three quarters full and bake.

Since I had so many of these I brought some to hour community happy hour that we have each week. People raved about them. One person told me she only took one home with her and in retrospect she wished she had taken many more. I guarantee this will be a hit when you serve it. Or better yet, just keep them to yourself as a guilty pleasure. Enjoy!

Blueberry Muffins...

  • Servings: 36-40 muffins
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

INGREDIENTS:

Muffins:

4 1/2 cups flour

2 Tbs. baking powder (1 1/2 Tbs. for high altitude)

1/2 tsp. salt

1 1/4 cups sugar

3/4 cup butter, room temperature

4 eggs

1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

1/2 tsp. almond extract

Zest of 1 lemon

2 Tbs. fresh lemon juice

3/4 cups milk

2 cups sour cream

1 cup chopped walnuts

1 pint fresh blueberries, washed and drained

Frosting:

1/2 cup butter, room temperature

1 – 8 oz. package of cream cheese, room temperature

1 tsp. vanilla

2 cups confectioners sugar

DIRECTIONS:

Preheat the oven to 375. Put paper liners into the muffin tins.

Combine the flour, baking powder, salt and sugar. Whisk until combined. Set aside.

Put butter, eggs, vanilla and almond extracts, lemon zest, lemon juice, milk and sour cream into a mixing bowl. Beat on medium speed until blended. (You can use a hand mixer for this).

Add the dry ingredients and mix by hand until combined. Fold in the nuts and blueberries. Do not over mix.

Spoon the batter into the muffin cups filling them 3/4 full. Bake for 15 – 18 minutes or until lightly browned on top. Let muffins cool on a rack before frosting.

To make the frosting, combine the butter, cream cheese and vanilla in a mixing bowl. Beat until smooth. Gradually add the sugar beating until smooth.

 

 

 

Luscious Zucchini Bread…

I know, I know, by now everyone has their own zucchini bread recipe. I mean, it’s a must especially if you grow zucchini or have access to a farmers market. It is definitely zucchini time of year, that glorious time when you are so grateful to have your first harvest but by the end of the season are looking for ways either to use them or get rid of them.

Fortunately (or unfortunately) for me, now that I live in a condo I can’t grow zucchini so I can control the amount of zucchini I am willing to use. So last week when I went to the farmers market I got a couple of them and used one as a vegetable side dish and the other to make a couple of loaves of zucchini bread.

So what makes this recipe better than most. A secret ingredient that I use to up the flavor factor. So let’s talk luscious zucchini bread…

Lesson Learned 1 – The secret ingredient is vanilla bean caviar: Most zucchini bread recipes call for vanilla, as does mine. But I decided to try adding the caviar from the inside of a vanilla bean to try to enhance the flavor. And let me tell you, it really ramped up the taste factor. That’s why I call this zucchini bread luscious.

These days you can buy vanilla beans at your local grocery store but not so long ago you had to go to a specialty spice store to get them. The picture below shows you what a vanilla bean looks like.

Step 1: The shaft of the bean is quite small and kind of hard so you’ll need a very sharp knife to extract the caviar from the pod. First you need to straighten out the pod.

Step 2: Using a sharp knife, cut a slit all the way up and down the bean pod

 

 

Step 3: Pry the slit open with your hands and scrape the tip of the knife up and down the open shaft of the pod making sure to get as much of the caviar out of the inside as you can.

A whole vanilla bean will give you the equivalent of approximately one teaspoon of vanilla extract. Adding this to the two teaspoons of vanilla already in the recipe and it gives a wonderful but not over powering vanilla flavor to the zucchini bread. And that’s what makes it so luscious.

Now can you make this without the caviar? Of course… but I compare this to adding some espresso powder to a chocolate recipe. The recipe would be good without it but with it there is a fuller, richer flavor. Now I will warn you, vanilla beans are expensive, but they are worth it.

Lesson Learned 2 – Use a food processor to shred the zucchini: Although you can use a box grater, a food processor is a faster and easier way to shred the zucchini for this recipe. One medium to medium-large size zucchini will give you the two cups needed to make the bread. The food processor shreds the zucchini to just the right size so there are small strands in the bread. You don’t want to the zucchini shreds to be too big. They are designed to add moisture to the cake without providing any noticeable flavor. Also, make sure to pat down the zucchini shreds in your measuring cup. You want them slightly compacted.

Lesson Learned 3 – You can use shredded carrots in this recipe as well: I chose not to use carrots this time but you can add them as well. Just substitute one cup of shredded zucchini for one cup of shredded carrots. You can also add one cup of semi-sweet chocolate chips to this recipe. Try it a variety of ways and see what you think.

Try this version of zucchini bread and compare it to yours. I’d love to know what you think!

Luscious Zucchini Bread...

  • Servings: 8 Slices Per Loaf
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

INGREDIENTS:

1/2 cup plus 2 Tbs. orange juice

1/2 cup canola oil

1/2 cup unsweetened applesauce

3 eggs, slightly beaten

1 tsp. vanilla bean caviar (the caviar from one pod)

2 tsp. vanilla

3 cups flour

2 cups sugar

5 tsp. ground cinnamon

1 1/4 tsp. baking powder (1 tsp. for high altitude)

1/2 tsp. baking powder (1/4 high altitude)

1 tsp. salt

2 cups shredded zucchini, lightly packed

1 cup chopped pecans, optional

Cooking spray

DIRECTIONS:

Preheat oven to 350. In a large bowel combine orange juice, oil, applesauce, eggs, vanilla extract and vanilla caviar. In another bowl combine flour, sugar, cinnamon, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Mix to combine. Fold the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients. Stir to combine. Do not over mix.

Fold in the zucchini and pecans.

Pour the mixture into two 8 x 4 inch loaf pan coating with cooking spray. Check loaves at 45 minutes. Depending on your oven they may need to bake anywhere from 45 – 55 minutes. Loaves are done when a toothpick inserted in the center of a loaf comes out clean.

Let cool  in the loaf pan for 15 minutes. Remove loaves from the pans and let cool on a wire rack.

Zucchini Bread Batter

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No Bake Pizza Bites…

It’s been really hot here recently, averaging temperatures in the upper eighties and lower nineties. The one good thing about living in this part of the country is there is relatively little humidity so even though the days are hot the mornings and evenings tend to be gorgeous. But even with that I find that often I look for ways to make things that won’t heat up the kitchen or the house.

As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, we have a group of residents that get together every Thursday for happy hour. We meet in our outdoor pavilion, bring what we want to drink and many people bring appetizers or finger food. We drink, eat, talk and have a grand old time.

I try to bring some kind of new nibble for people to enjoy each week. I have to admit there are times when I just don’t have the energy to make something and so I’ll buy some chips and salsa or something like that. But there are also times I like to try something new and see if it works so that I can blog about it. This particular recipe came into my mind out of the blue and it went over very very well.

With weather this hot you really don’t want to be eating anything too hot, especially when you’re eating outdoors. It just doesn’t seem to work. But even in the hot sticky weather you still get a taste for something like pizza. You just don’t want to heat up your house making it. So how to you get around that?

Most people like cold pizza, right? It’s the combination of flavors and not necessarily the melting cheese that makes a pizza special. So I put together an appetizer that brings together all the flavors of pizza without being hot and all on a bite size cracker. I knew I succeeded when a little girl ate one of them and said, “Wow, pizza!”

And making these couldn’t be any easier. So let’s talk no bake pizza bites…

Lesson Learned 1 – Go ahead and be creative with this recipe: I had some leftover pepperoni in the refrigerator that I wanted to use. The rest I put together as I walked through the specialty cheese section of my grocery store. You can vary the meat (or not use it at all), the cheese, the crackers – whatever you want. You’ll still come up with a great little appetizer.

Lesson Learned 2 – I used pre-made roasted tomatoes: In the specialty cheese section I found some roasted tomatoes marinated in garlic olive oil. Bingo! The package had about 7 ounces of roasted tomatoes that I diced up and put on top of the pepperoni. It was fabulous. If you can’t find them pre-made you can roast tomatoes yourself and then let them marinate in some olive oil. You’ll still get the same result. But this was a whole lot less work and gave the bites a great flavor!

Lesson Learned 3 – I used a specialty feta cheese: You can certainly use plain feta cheese but I found a roasted pepper and basil feta cheese and I decided to use that. What I liked about this choice was that it added the flavor of basil to the appetizer without having to use basil leaves. You could certainly use basil leaves as well. If you do I would put the basil leaf on top of the pepperoni and then put the tomatoes on top of that. That way the leaf is secured. The great thing about this appetizer is that you can be creative and it will still be fabulous!

Lesson Learned 4 – Right before serving drizzle the bites with some garlic infused olive oil: This is the finishing touch that adds so much. You don’t need a lot, just a slight drizzle over them and the olive oil just adds that special touch that rounds out all the flavors. You can also use the oil that the roasted tomatoes were packed in, but that may not be enough for all the rounds. I had to use both the oil from the tomatoes and some garlic olive oil to drizzle over all the rounds.

And that’s it. Layer the ingredients, drizzle them with some olive oil before serving and watch them disappear. Enjoy!

No Bake Pizza Bites...

  • Servings: Approximately 30 Rounds
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

INGREDIENTS

1 box crackers, preferably round and not overly thin

Pepperoni, pre-packaged or a log you can cut into rounds

1 container of fire roasted tomatoes approx. 7 ounces

Feta cheese (I used a roasted red pepper and basil feta)

Garlic infused olive oil, for drizzling.

DIRECTIONS:

Dice the fire roasted tomatoes into small pieces. Lay out the crackers on a large plate or 9 x 13 baking sheet. Place a slice of pepperoni on each cracker. Top the pepperoni with some of the fire roasted tomatoes. Crumble the feta cheese and sprinkle pieces over each round.

Right before serving drizzle with oil. You could used the oil that was used to pack the tomatoes. If that is not enough, drizzle the remaining with the garlic infused olive oil.

Cover Each Cracker With A Piece Of Pepperoni

Put Some Diced Roasted Tomatoes Over The Pepperoni

Sprinkle Each Round With Feta

No Bake Pizza Bites

 

Homemade Garlic Dill Pickles…

It was so much fun at the Farmers Market this past weekend. It’s that time of year when you start to get a lot of great things there like fresh herbs, green beans, early girl tomatoes and of course cucumbers and zucchini.

I stopped at a stand that offered a deal of $10 per bag, fill it with what you want (and a fairly large bag I might add). Needless to say I loaded up. Since I don’t have the space to grow zucchini anymore I got a couple of them so that I could make my Double Chocolate Zucchini Bread. They had some fabulous fresh green beans and I got some of them as well – great for steaming. They also had some Yukon gold potatoes that I couldn’t resist. And they also had some great looking pickling cucumbers and so I thought I’d try my hand at that.

Pickling is a rather easy process and if you decide not to can for preserving purposes the pickling process is even easier. I really had no idea how many little cucumbers I should get as I wanted to try to fill two pint jars, so I guessed at four and I happened to be right (this time).

So let’s talk making homemade garlic dill pickles…

Lesson Learned 1 – Make the cucumber slices of equal thickness: Best to use a mandolin slicer for this job. I set my slicer to 3/16 of an inch (use whatever setting you have that is close to 1/4 inch) and all the slices came out perfectly proportioned. Of course you can use a knife and if some of the slices are not the same thickness it won’t harm the process but I think this is a perfect thickness for the pickle slices. They’re pretty much the same size as you buy in jars at the store. And as I like to always remind you, be very careful using a mandolin slicer and use the finger protector so you still have them once you’re done slicing!

Lesson Learned 2 – Pack the jars as firmly as you can without crushing the slices: You want all the slices to be able to soak up the pickling brine and once you add the brine they will tend to separate from each other a little. Four cucumber pickles, medium sized, for two pint jars should be sufficient for what you need to have the pickles layered firmly in the jar and still be able to close the lid.

Pack the jars tightly without crushing the slices

Lesson Learned 3 – Once the jars are filled and sealed turn them over a couple of times: I like to see that the pickling spices are sitting throughout the jar and not just stuck on the bottom. I’ve not read anywhere that you have to do that, but I think it creates better all around pickling.

Lesson Learned 4 – Leave the refrigerated jars of pickles alone for at least 48 hours: I know you will be tempted to see what they taste like long before that, but you want to give the pickling spices and brine plenty of time to get acquainted with the cucumber slices. And if you can leave them alone for 72, well that’s even better. Believe me, it’ll be worth the wait.

Other than measuring out the spices and boiling the vinegar water and salt, that’s basically it. It couldn’t be easier and you control the ingredients. So much better than buying jars at the store.

Homemade Garlic Dill Pickles

  • Servings: Many
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

INGREDIENTS:

4 medium sized pickling cucumbers

4 large cloves of garlic, peeled and smashed

4 teaspoons dill seed

1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes (optional)

1 cup apple cider vinegar

1 cup water

1 1/2 Tbs. kosher salt

DIRECTIONS:

You will need two wide-mouth mason jars with lids for this recipe. Make sure the jars and lids are clean.

Wash and dry the cucumbers. Make sure any blossoms or remnants of blossoms are removed. Cut the cucumbers into 3/16 inch coins. Divide the garlic, dill seed and red pepper flakes in half. Put equal amounts into the bottom of each jar. Pack the cucumbers into the jars as much as you can without crushing any of them and so the lid of the jar can be closed and sealed.

Bring the pickling brine (apple cider vinegar, water and salt) to a rolling ball, whisking it until the salt is incorporated into the liquid.

Pour the hot liquid into the jars, filling each to about 1/2 inch from the top. (I found I used all the brine but depending how you pack your pickles you may not use all of it). Gently tap the jars on the side to remove any air pockets and add more brine if necessary.

Place the lids on top of the jar and screw on the rings until tight. Let the jars stand until they reach room temperature. Refrigerate the jars for a minimum of 48 hours. Refrigerate the jars after opening.

Slow Cooker Pork Tenderloin With Vegetables And Apple Butter Gravy…

I’ve been offline for a little bit. I was having technology issues and found out that my trusted Mac has now become so old that it cannot support html 5 which is the platform now used by WordPress. Oh well… but I’ve developed some work arounds and should be fine now.

Summer is in full swing, and that includes those warm summer temperatures. During Summer I like to grill but not every day. But what do you do when it is so hot and you don’t want to heat up the house when making dinner? That’s when I rely on my trusty slow cooker. You can have a great meal and never create more heat in the house.

I am a big fan of pork loin. Like beef tenderloin, it is the the most tender, flavorful and versatile cut of pork. Cooking it in the slow cooker is so easy, but you need to pay attention not to overcook it. So let’s talk pork loin with vegetables and apple butter gravy…

Lesson Learned 1 – Brown the pork and potatoes before putting them into the slow cooker: The slow cooker cooks food but doesn’t create crust or color. If that is not a big deal for you than you can skip this step. But I’ve always espoused that you eat with your eyes first and so I like to provide that extra step to make the meal even more pleasurable.

I put a little canola oil in a cast iron skillet and browned the pork loin – about 4-5 minutes on each side. Doing that gives it a nice brown crust as you can see from the picture above. I also brown the potatoes a little. I don’t brown the carrots. I don’t think that’s really necessary. The potatoes also take about 4-5 minutes per side and I usually do two sides just enough to give it great color.

Lesson Learned 2 – Cut your carrots small or use baby carrots: This recipe will only cook for 6 hours on low so you need to consider how tender you want your carrots. If you want them crisp tender you can cut them in larger pieces. If you want them fork tender you will need to cut the pieces small or use baby carrots. I like to use the larger sized carrots and I buy only what I need for the recipe, about 3 carrots. If the carrot has a thick base, I cut it into a log and then I cut the log in half down the middle. That way I minimize the thickness and the carrots come out fork tender. When you come down to it, it all depends on how you like your carrots.

Lesson Learned 3 – Do not cook this for more than 6 hours on low: That is plenty of time to cook the pork loin without drying it out. And the sauce made with apple butter is a great accompaniment to the pork.

This is a great meal that is easy to prepare and will not heat up your kitchen on these warm Summer days. Try this recipe and let me know what you think.

Slow Cooker Pork Loin With Vegetables And Apple Butter Gravy

  • Servings: 4
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

INGREDIENTS:

1 1/2- 2 pounds pork loin

4 yukon gold potatoes, peeled and sliced into chunks

3 large carrots, cut into small chunks (you can use baby carrots as well)

I medium size yellow onion, peeled and cut into large chunks

3 large garlic cloves, minced

1 9.5 ounce jar of apple butter

1/3 cup dijon mustard (you can mix dijon with seeded mustard)

1/3 cup low sodium soy sauce

1 cup beef broth

1-2 Tbs. canola oil

Non-stick cooking spray

Salt and pepper to taste

DIRECTIONS:

Heat a large cast iron skillet. Add 1 Tbs canola oil. Salt and pepper the pork loin and put that side down in the hot skillet. Salt and pepper the other side of the pork loin. Let the pork loin sear for 4-5 minutes. Turn it over and sear it on the other side. Remove from the pan and set aside.

Check to see if the skillet needs more oil and add it if it does. Place potatoes in the pan being careful not to crowd them. Let them sear for 5 minutes and flip them to another side. Let them sear for an additional 5 minutes and remove them from the pan.

Spray the crock of the slow cooker with non-stick spray. Add the onions, potatoes and carrots into the crock. Place the pork loin on top of the vegetables.

In a small bowl whisk to together the garlic, apple butter, mustard, soy sauce and beef broth. Pour the mixture over the pork and vegetables.

Cook on low for six hours. Remove the pork and vegetables from the crock. Slice the pork and plate it with the vegetables. Taste the gravy in the crock and add more salt and pepper if needed. Pour the gravy over the pork.

 

Homemade Challah…

I’ve always loved home made bread. Who doesn’t? I was never good at making it. And just when I thought I was getting the hang of it we moved to Colorado and altitude. Yuck. Altitude and bread do not mix. Well actually they do, but altitude can add some additional problems. Just what I wanted.

So I decided to take a braided bread cooking class. Am I glad I did. The class itself was a little slow in the participation area, but I came away with one nugget of information that’s changed the whole ball game. So now I’m working on making bread again.

So let’s talk homemade challah…

Lesson Learned 1 – Learning how to know when the glutens in the dough have been developed properly: This was the biggest take away for me from the cooking class I attended. I learned you can underdeveloped, develop and overdevelop the glutens in your dough. Underdeveloped glutens will give you a heavy dense dough that may fall in on you when you bake your bread. Overdeveloped and your bread will be too dry.

So how do you tell? Simple. Just take a small piece of dough in your hand and begin to pinch it and spread it with your fingers. You should be able to work the dough so that it is smooth and paper tin without the dough tearing or breaking.

That was a big breakthrough learning for me especially since I live in high altitude and its tougher to make bread in my climate.

Lesson Learned 2 – Pay attention to the humidity the day you make bread: The higher the humidity the less moisture you’ll need in your dough. I know it sounds like a lot of work, but if you pay attention to these two factors, gluten development and humidity, soon you will just be able to tell if your dough is of the correct consistency or not.

Lesson Learned 3 – Most people don’t knead their dough enough: Once I mixed all of the ingredients together I used the dough hook on my machine and kneaded the dough for five minutes. That, on average, is a good time to test the dough for gluten development. If the dough falls apart it will need more moisture, if it is too gloppy (technical term) it will need a little more flour. Once you think you have the correct consistency do the gluten test I refer to above. Chances are you’ll be right on the money.

Lesson Learned 4 – If your dough is completely stuck on your dough hook, stop your mixer and scrape the dough off: Some people think that if the dough is on the dough hook it is kneading the dough. That’s not true. The dough hook as to be working it’s way through the dough in order to be kneading it. Be mindful that you’re just not having your dough spin around in a circle without actually being kneaded.

Lesson Learned 5 – You can separate your dough into as many strands as you want for braiding: I did a traditional 3 strand braid. You braid it just like you braid hair. The picture to the right shows my strands. In hindsight I should have made the bottom one thinner and all the strands more even in size. In the end it really didn’t hurt anything as you leave the braided bread to rest on a parchment paper lined cookie sheet for at least an hour and the dough rises and sort of fills itself in.

I will admit that this recipe is a little more challenging than what I normally post, but hopefully as a fledgling cook you are confident enough in yourself to try something a little more difficult. This was the very first time I ever made challah and it turned out magnificently. But if you’re does not, go back and try it again because once you master the art of making home made bread, you’ll never turn back.

Homemade Challah...

  • Servings: 1 loaf
  • Difficulty: Medium
  • Print

INGREDIENTS:

1 1/8 cup warm water

3/4 Tbs. instant yeast

6 egg yolks, one for the egg wash

2 1/2 Tbs. vegetable oil

3 -6  Tbs. sugar, depending how sweet you want your bread

1 Tbs. vanilla extract

3 3/4 cup flour

1 1/4 tsp. salt

1 Tbs. water for the egg wash

DIRECTIONS:

Combine the water and yeast in a mixing bowl, whisk and let sit for a couple of minutes. Add the 5 eggs, oil, sugar and vanilla and whisk to break up and incorporate the eggs. Add the flour and salt.  If using a stand mixer use the paddle attachment and mix for about 2 minutes. Let the dough rest in the bowl for 5 minutes.

Switch to a dough hook and mix on low speed for 5 minutes (my mixer particularly specifies that whenever using the dough hook do not go above speed level #2. You may want check the directions that came with your mixture to see what they recommend. The speed should not go above medium low).

Use a bowl scraper and scrape the dough onto a floured surface and continue kneading the dough by hand for about 2 minutes. Form the dough into a ball and place it in a clean, lightly oiled bowl. Cover the dough with plastic wrap and let it rise until it doubles in size, approximately 2 hours.

After the dough has risen, transfer it to a lightly floured surface and cut it into the desired number of pieces you will need for your braids – I made 3 braids of 10-14 inches in length. It is important that the braids are all the same length.

Braid the pieces of dough together and transfer the loaf to a parchment lined sheet pan. Make an egg wash by combining the last egg (you can do the whole egg or the yolk) and the water. Brush the entire surface of the loaf, including the sides with the egg wash. Refrigerate the remaining egg wash. Let the loaf stand uncovered for about 1 hour.

About 20 minutes before baking time preheat the over to 350. Brush the bread one more time with the egg wash. Bake the bread for 20 minutes, then rotate the pan and bake for an additional 15-30 minutes (I only needed an additional 15 minutes).

Let cool on a wire rack and enjoy the beauty of homemade bread!

 

Skewered Italian Appetizer Bites…

Sorry I’m a little off my game this week. I was waylaid by a bug bite that gave me an allergic reaction and I’ve been fighting this itching rash. Needless to say I’ve not been a happy camper. The meds I take for itching make me groggy and so it’s been hard to sit down at my computer and crank out my blog. But I’m thinking I’m on the mend, although still not itch free after almost 5 days. But I have noticed improvement and so that’s what I’m focusing on.

This weeks recipe is so darn simple and great for your backyard parties. In the warmer weather, the last thing you want to do is heat up the kitchen. Dishes that are cooler like potato salad and cole slaw seem to be more in demand. Also finger foods are more popular, especially when eating outdoors. You don’t have to mess around with a lot of utensils, just take the food and pop it in your mouth. Which is exactly what this recipe is all about.

So let’s talk skewered Italian bites…

Lesson Learned 1 – This is a great way to use some of the homemade pesto you’ve made from growing basil: pesto is what adds zip to this recipe and homemade pesto is the best. If you don’t have your favorite go-to pesto recipe feel free to use mine. But pesto gives these morsels just the kick they need.

Some things to keep in mind when dredging the mozzarella balls in pesto – my mozzarella balls were in a small plastic container stored in liquid. I bought a small container that had about 20 balls. I put the balls in a strainer and drained the liquid into another dish (just in case I had some balls leftover, I wanted to store them back in the same liquid). I then drained the balls on a paper towel.

This time I did not have fresh pesto on hand so I bought a small 6 oz. jar of traditional pesto. I spooned half to it into a small wide rimmed bowl and dropped some of the balls in the pesto. I rolled them around with a spoon and then skewered them on my decorative pics. Couldn’t be easier.

Lesson Learned 2 – If you want to serve these standing up versus lying down you will need to cut a flat surface on the bottom of each mozzarella ball: I learned this lesson the hard way. I started assembling the skewers and found that they would not stand straight. The round bottom of the ball prevented them from doing so. I tried pushing the bottom flat but that didn’t seem to work so I started cutting the bottoms off the balls and then figured out that I liked the presentation of the skewers better with the skewers lying on their sides. So I opted to serve them lying on one side versus standing up. There is no right way to serve these, but I found that serving them on their side created quite an impressive looking appetizer as you can see from the picture below…

And that’s it really. As I’ve said many times before sometimes the simplest of recipes are the most impressive. This will be a great recipe to use when you harvest your basil and cherry tomatoes. It’s an easy, pop in your mouth bite that will disappear off your party table in no time.

Skewered Italian Appetizer Bites...

  • Servings: Approx. 20
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

INGREDIENTS:

1 small container of cherry tomatoes

1 – 6 oz. jar of basil pesto (or make your own)

1 – 4 oz. package of sliced pepperoni (you will have some leftovers)

1 – 12 oz. container of mozzarella balls

Garlic infused olive oil

decorative picks for skewers

DIRECTIONS:

Put the basil pesto in a wide rimmed bowl. If using jarred pesto, start with half the jar and add more as needed to the bowl.

Strain the mozzarella balls making sure to save the liquid in case you need to store any leftover balls.  Place a few mozzarella balls in the pesto and roll them around with a spoon until they are covered with pesto (you will need to repeat this process a few times).

Assemble the skewers in the following manner – first skewer the tomatoes. Then add a pepperoni slice to each skewer. Lastly add the basil covered mozzarella ball and plate the skewers.

Store tightly wrapped in the refrigerator for a couple of hours or serve immediately. Drizzle with garlic infused olive oil right before serving.

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Shrimp Dip…

Graduation parties and summer cookouts boast of fun and food. And if you’re in the position to be hosting one, you’re probably thinking about what you can do that is delicious but easy to make. That way you can spend more time with your guests and less time in the kitchen.

This recipe fits the bill. It’s a really easy dip that takes no time to make and is loaded with flavor. Serve it with a combination of chips, pretzels and crackers for an appetizer that looks casual but tastes decadent.

So let’s talk shrimp dip…

Lesson Learned 1 – Use LOTS of shrimp: I used a 12 oz. bag of frozen cooked and deveined shrimp. I thawed the shrimp in the refrigerator overnight and then chopped it up into small bite sized pieces. I kept a couple of shrimp to garnish the top of the dip (of course you don’t have to do that) and all the rest went into the dip. My point being this is a shrimp dip – the more shrimp the better.

If you’re lucky like I was you can catch the shrimp on sale. The twelve ounce bag only cost me $7.99 so I got a deal. Keep a look out for sales on the frozen shrimp if you’re looking to keep the cost down on this dip. I already had all the other ingredients in my refrigerator and pantry except the celery so I was able to splurge a little with the shrimp.

Lesson Learned 2 – If your celery stalks still have the green leaves on them use them as well: For this particular recipe all you really need is one medium sized celery stalk chopped. Normally you can buy individual stalks at the grocery store instead of buying a whole head of celery. When I only need a little celery I always try to buy a stalk that has some leaves on it. Those leaves chopped up and put into the dip add additional depth of flavor. So don’t be afraid to use them as well.

Lesson Learned 3 – If you can, make this recipe the day before: Like almost any dish, the more the ingredients are acquainted directly relates to upping the wow factor of the flavor. So it is with this dish. It is such an easy dish to make that it shouldn’t be too difficult to make it the day before and let it sit overnight in the refrigerator. But if you’re in a rush and need something quick, you can serve this the same day and it will still be very good.

The recipe itself is very straightforward so there’s not a lot of lessons learned to share with it. Just follow the directions, use some creativity in your presentation (you can dress it up with a combination of chips, pretzels and crackers) and watch it disappear. This one is a no brainer. Try it and tell me what you think.

Shrimp Dip...

  • Servings: Multiple
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

INGREDIENTS:

1 – 8 oz. package of cream cheese, room temperature

1 – 12 oz. package of frozen cooked and deveined medium sized shrimp, thawed and chopped

1/2 cup mayonnaise

1/4 tsp. garlic fleur de sel (you can substitute garlic salt)

juice of 1/2 lemon

1 lemon slice for garnish, optional

1/4 cup celery, chopped (one medium sized stalk)

1/4 cup scallions, chopped

1/8 tsp. paprika, for garnish, optional (you can also use some sprigs of fresh herbs like thyme)

Crackers, potato chips and/or pretzels for serving

DIRECTIONS:

With an electric mixer, beat the cream cheese until fluffy. Add the mayo, lemon juice and fleur de sel. Mix to thoroughly combine. With a wooden spoon stir in the shrimp, celery and scallions.

Place mixture in a serving dish. Garnish with paprika and a lemon slice or some sprigs of lemon thyme. Serve with pretzels, chips and/or crackers. (If making the day before wait to garnish the dip until you’re ready to serve.)

cut shrimp into small bite sized chunks

serving suggestion with fresh thyme sprigs as garnish

 

 

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Skillet Irish Soda Bread…

There’s no doubt about it, the recipes that are handed down from generation to generation are the best. And sometimes that’s an impossible task as the old fashioned cooks would simply say, “Oh I just eyeballed what I needed and used a pinch of this and a little of that” leaving you to try to assimilate the exact ingredients to recreate the recipe.

This recipe is one of those handed down gems. A neighbor of mine served it at her St. Patrick’s Day party and the rest is history. I remember looking at all the wonderful things she laid out on her table but only eating the soda bread with some fresh Irish butter. It was heaven. I found out later it was her Mother’s recipe and she had been making this for years!

I’ve tasted many iterations of soda bread over the years and, to be honest, most of them were less than stellar. There was only one other time that I can remember having fabulous soda bread. That was when I was working at the Chicago Park District and one of my co-workers, Carol Diver, brought some to work. Carol was Irish through and through with an infectious laugh and a heart as big as all outdoors. And her soda bread was to die for. Unfortunately Carol is not longer with us and I’d never asked her for her soda bread recipe. But from then on, her soda bread was the standard to which I held all others. As time went on none would ever compare, until now.

So this time I made sure to get the recipe and with permission I am sharing it with you. I made it the other night and it was just as fabulous as I remember, moist with just the right amount of sweetness. I hope you enjoy this recipe and make it often.

So let’s talk Irish Soda Bread…

The dough did not reach the sides of a 10 inch skillet

Lesson Learned 1 – The size cast iron skillet you use is important:  The recipe I got said it made two loaves and my neighbor said she used a 10 inch skillet to bake the bread. But once I made the dough and put it in my 10 inch cast iron skillet I knew that couldn’t be the case. The only way there would be enough dough for two loaves is if you used a smaller cast iron skillet – probably an 8 inch skillet. With a 10 inch skillet there is only enough dough for one loaf.

With using a larger skillet it will take longer to cook, approximately 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 hours. If you use a smaller skillet I would begin checking it at 45 minutes. You want a nice gold brown on the top. Once you see that you know the bread is done.

Don’t get me wrong, the bread turned out beautifully and was so delicious as you can see from the pictures in this blog.  I just think the directions I got were for a smaller pan than what I used.

Lesson Learned 2 – Do not use self rising flour in this recipe: The second time I made this I decided to experiment and use self rising flour – BIG MISTAKE! The bread did not rise and the top of it looked like a battle had been fought on it, all lumpy and messy looking. And although I baked it for the correct amount of time, it did not cook through and was gooey inside. So take a tip from me, stick with regular flour and you’ll be just fine.

That’s the only advice I have for making this as the recipe is pretty straightforward. And let me reiterate, this is the best Irish Soda bread I have ever tasted since I had my friend’s, Carol Diver’s, bread all those years ago. I know you will enjoy this one!

Skillet Irish Soda Bread...

  • Servings: 12-14
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

INGREDIENTS:

4 cups all purpose flour

1 cup sugar

1 tsp. salt

1 tsp. baking soda

2 Tbs. cold butter

1 1/2 cup raisins

1 1/2 cup buttermilk (you may need to add a little more)

Shortening, to grease the skillet

DIRECTIONS:

Preheat oven to 325.

Whisk together the flour, sugar salt and baking soda until well combined. Cut in the butter. Add raisins and buttermilk and mix until moist. (You may need to add more buttermilk. I found I needed to add about a 1/4 cup more to get all the ingredients moist).

Lightly grease a cast iron skillet with shortening (use a 10 inch skillet for one large loaf or an 8 inch skillet for two loaves). Transfer dough to the skillet. Brush the top of the dough with a light coating of buttermilk. If desired, cut a cross on the dough.

Bake for 45 minutes for the smaller loaves and 75 minutes for a large loaf. Check the loaves at 45 minutes and 60 minutes respectively to see if you need to add extra time.

Let bread sit in skillet for about 5 minutes after taking it out of the oven. Remove the bread from the skillet and let it cool on a wire rack.

Serve with Irish butter for a delectable treat!

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