Monday, April 30, 2012

Chex Creamsicle Buddies

I've always been a Muddy Buddies devotee—I love the combination of chocolate and peanut butter, layered over the crispiness of Chex cereal. But, recently, my eyes were opened to a whole new world of flavor: Chex Funfetti Cake Batter Buddies. Instead of peanut butter and melted chocolate, the recipe calls for vanilla Almond Bark, and the standard powdered sugar coating is combined with Funfetti cake mix. The stuff is insanely sweet, and frighteningly addictive. (When I made it, a pregnant woman in my office went wild—and you can't argue with a pregnant lady's taste.)

      I decided to temporarily set aside my Funfetti obsession, and play with another one of my favorite flavors: orange creme. I combined orange cake mix with powdered sugar, and dusted it over vanilla candy-coated Chex. It's super sweet, but not cloyingly so, and has a refreshing punch of citrus, which partners deliciously with the powdered sugar. It tastes just like a Creamsicle, minus the brain freeze.

Chex Creamsicle Buddies
Adapted from Six Sisters' Stuff

What you need
5 cups Rice Chex cereal

5 squares vanilla flavored Almond Bark
1 tsp vegetable shortening
¼ cup orange cake mix
¼ cup powdered sugar

Put it all together
  1. Melt the Almond Bark and shortening in the microwave on high for 1 minute, stirring after 30 seconds. 
  2. Pour the melted Almond Bark over the cereal in a large bowl. Gently stir until the coating is evenly distributed.
  3. Dump the cake mix and powdered sugar into the bowl, and toss lightly until the cereal is evenly coated.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Family Recipe: Oatmeal Raisin Muffins!

My motto: The more raisins, the better.
This is perhaps the most sentimental recipe in my family cookbook.  As long as I can remember, we've referred to my mom's oatmeal raisin muffins as "Dan's Muffins." Dan was a family friend who had multiple sclerosis, and my mom often looked after him. One afternoon, she left a batch of muffins on his kitchen counter, having expected him to be home. (He'd gone to a gun show, despite being told not to drive.) By the time he came back, the muffins had gone slightly stale, but he loved them, saying the harder texture made them easier for him to eat. The name Dan's Muffins stuck.     

       Now for a little gloating: It's not just Dan who adored these muffins.  I, being the dorky kid that I was, entered Dan's Muffins into a 4-H muffin competition in elementary school. I  took home the blue ribbon for these bad boys. They have a delicious, sticky sweetness, thanks to the trio of brown sugar, applesauce, and dried fruit, that somehow doesn't compromise the light, fluffy texture you expect from a muffin. 

Dan's Muffins

What you need
 cup butter or margarine, softened
¾ cup brown sugar, packed
1 egg
1 cup flour
½ tsp cinnamon
1 tsp baking powder
¼ tsp salt
¼ tsp baking soda
¾ cup applesauce
½ cup raisins
1 cup quick-cooking oats

Put it all together
  1. Preheat oven to 350°F.
  2. Cream butter and sugar in a bowl. Add egg; beat well.
  3. Combine flour, cinnamon, baking powder, salt, and baking soda in a separate bowl. Alternately add the flour mixture and applesauce to the butter mixture, beating well after each addition.
  4. Stir in raisins and oats, only until combined. 
  5. Spoon into paper-lined muffin cups*, and bake for 30 minutes. 
  6. Cool in the pan for 3 minutes, then remove from baking pan. Cool completely before covering.
*To make your muffins prettier—presentation matters!—evenly space a few raisins over the top of each cup of batter. 

Friday, April 27, 2012

Animal House: Funky & Functional Accessories!

I don't like kitschy. But I do like quirky. I buy most of my home accessories at thrift storesmy apartment is scattered with an assortment of vintage toys, funky ceramics, and repurposed frames. In recent years, I've amassed a menagerie of animal-themed accessories: bird salt-and-pepper shakers, egg-shaped bowls, a candy dish with a finch perched on top. They add flair and humor to my space, without being cliché (like, say, a leopard print rug), and they're functional, not useless tchotchkes. 

A few weeks ago, I picked up a ceramic cow's head for four bucks at Goodwill. It's admittedly a strange piece, but I couldn't leave it behind. (Just look at those sad yellow eyes.) It's now mounted on my bathroom wall, where it serves as the perfect necklace hanger. 

Therein lies the secret: Shop for eccentric pieces that don't just take up space (especially if you live in a small apartment). That way, your quirky accessories look less like grandma's freaky clown figurines, and more like artful, organic design elements. 

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Quick & Easy Craft: Tiered Teacup Dessert Tray

I'm embarrassed to admit that my flatware is cheap and pink-handled. Most of dishes are vintage thrift-store finds, and I don't own a single cloth napkin. In other words, I'm a sad excuse for a hostess. For years, I've used my kitchen skills as a crutch, convinced that presentation doesn't matter, as long as my food tastes delicious. But, recently, I took a long, hard look at my 1982 Bud Light insulated mug, and realized: It's time to ditch the dorm-room dishes. I started with big-girl tumblers, Williams Sonoma plates, and a trio of cake stands—but I still need a tiered serving stand for smaller desserts. So I decided to make one.

     Bite-size desserts—truffles, mini cheesecakes, cookies—have a playful quality that I wanted to capture in my serving stand. My inspiration: two Bailey's Irish Cream cups I found at a thrift store. The whimsical, winking faces have an Alice-in-Wonderland feel, which I complemented with three quirky plates—one colorful and floral, another scallop-edged and white, and finally, a dainty tea plate. (I bought them at Christmas Tree Shop and T.J. Maxx for $7 total.) 

Tiered Teacup Dessert Tray

What you need
1 large plate
1 medium plate
1 small plate
Two teacups 
E-6000 glue

Put it all together
  1. Apply a liberal coating of glue to the bottom of one teacup. Adhere it to the center of the large place, wiping away any excess glue that squeezes out. Allow to dry for at least an hour.
  2. Squeeze glue along the rim of the first teacup. Firmly place the medium plate on top, making sure it is centered and level. Wipe away any glue that drips onto the teacup. Allow to dry for at least an hour.
  3. Repeat steps 1 and 2 with the second teacup and the small plate. Let dry overnight. 

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Fat Witch Bakery Lime Squares

My family has a problem with lemon squares. A problem, meaning a total lack of self control. My mom once scarfed an entire batch by herself, then punished the family by refusing to make them for years. I never understood her lemon-square mania until I made them myself. When I bake, I develop a sense of both entitlement and responsibility—a feeling of freedom but also of obligation to eat my desserts. What I'm saying: I ate the entire pan of lemon squares with little assistance and no regrets.

I've since learned my lesson, and only make lemon squares when I have an event to attend. I made these guys for a soldier's coming-home celebration, so traditional lemon didn't seem festive enough. I swapped in limes, and instead of powdered sugar, dusted the tart tops with turbinado sugar to mimic the texture of a margarita's salty rim. 

Fat Witch Bakery Lime Squares
Adapted from Fat Witch Brownies 

What you need

1 cup flour
½ cup powdered sugar
½ tsp salt
1 stick unsalted butter, chilled, cut into pieces

3 large eggs
1 cup sugar
½ cup fresh lime juice (5-6 small limes)*
½ Tbsp lime zest
3 Tbsp flour
Big pinch of salt
2 drops of green food coloring
Turbinado sugar (for dusting) 

*Hint: Zap the limes in the microwave for 10 seconds before juicing them. The heat will get the juices flowing!

Put it all together 

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 °F. 
  2. To prepare the crust, combine the flour, powdered sugar, and salt in a bowl. Fold in the butter, using a fork or your hands. 
  3. Press the flour mixture into the floured pan, and bake for 15 minutes. Allow to cool completely.
  4. To make the filling, beat the eggs until frothy, then slowly stir in the sugar. Add the lime juice and zest, and mix until thoroughly combined.
  5. Add the flour, salt, and food coloring to the filling mixture, and mix well. Pour over the baked crust, then bake for 20 to 25 minutes. The top should be bubbly and without any liquidy spots. The edges should be brown and pulling away from the pan's edges.
  6. Remove from the oven, and cool for an hour. Sprinkle with turbinado sugar, then cut into squares before serving. 

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Maple Cinnamon Peanut Butter Pie Parfaits

Much to my delight, I recently received the entire line of Peanut Butter & Co. peanut butter in the mail. That's 12 incredible jars—a lot, even for a daily peanut butter eater. So, to ensure no spoonful goes uneaten, I'll be featuring peanut butter in my baked goods for the next few months. I'm not complaining. 

     This recipe, devised in the middle of the night due to lingering jet lag, features both PB&C Mighty Maple and Smooth Operator (classic creamy) peanut butter. The authentic maple flavor, combined with Sweet Cinnamon Cool Whip, gives the parfait a bit of an autumnal taste. I know, it's springtime, but you won't mind the cool-weather vibe once you taste the rich, creamy flavor. It's like peanut butter pie with a whole new dimension.

Maple Cinnamon Peanut Butter Pie Parfaits

What you need
2 cups graham cracker crumbs
3.5 Tbsp butter, melted
6.5 ounces cream cheese, softened

½ cup Peanut Butter & Co. Mighty Maple peanut butter

½ cup creamy peanut butter
¾ cup sugar

2 cups Sweet Cinnamon Cool Whip* 

*You can also use regular Cool Whip, mixed with ½ to 1 teaspoon of cinnamon. 

Put it all together
  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. 
  2. Combine the graham cracker crumbs and melted butter, and press into a 9" square baking pan. Bake for 10 minutes. Allow to cool completely.
  3. Thoroughly combine the cream cheese, both types of peanut butter, sugar, and 1 ½ cups of the Cool Whip. 
  4. Break up the graham mixture until crumbly. Spread about a tablespoon of the crumbs in the bottom of a parfait glass,* then layer the peanut butter mixture on top. Continue alternating the graham and peanut butter mixtures until the glass is full. The top layer should be the peanut butter mixture. 
  5. Use a small ice cream scoop to place a dollop of Cool Whip on top of the parfait. Sprinkle with cinnamon. Repeat in additional parfait glasses.
*I used brandy glasses. 

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Inspired by Istanbul: Ikat Pattern!

My new ikat pillows
On my recent trip to Istanbul, I visited the Grand Bazaar, one of the largest (and oldest) covered markets in the world. I originally set out to buy jewelry, but I quickly spotted the gorgeous ikat pillows, made of silk and linen. The exotic zig-zag pattern is created through a combination of ancient dyeing and weaving techniques, yet it still has a modern aesthetic that I love. I managed to snag a pair for 90 lira, or about $50. It was a steal: The same Grand Bazaar pillows are sold online for $180 apiece. 

       The gorgeous pattern isn't confined to pillows. A few years back, ikat started showing up on runways, and more recently, it's begun trickling down to the design world, dressing everything from chairs to napkins to plates. While some designers maintain the tribal, natural-dye look of old-school ikat, others are experimenting with bolder, modern iterations of it. This new wave of ikat is both colorful and contemporary—the perfect way to add punch to your wardrobe or home.


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Thursday, April 19, 2012

Indulging in Istanbul: Turkish Delights!

Room-service Turkish delight, courtesy of the Four Seasons.
Ever since I read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as a kid, I've been intrigued by Turkish delight. In the book, the White Witch enchants the little boy, Edmund, with the treat, so I've always imagined it as being seductively sweet and insanely decadent. After my arrival in Istanbul last week, I didn't have to wait long to try it—as soon as I checked in at my hotel, the desk clerk presented me with a silver platter of the stuff.

A Turkish sweetshop
       What I discovered: Turkish delight is nothing more than a glorified gummy bear. A local baker confirmed my suspicions—she said it consists of cornstarch, sugar, fruit puree, and water, simply melted down and coated with sugar. Not exactly decadent. In fact, the most exciting part of my Turkish delight experience was smuggling it through customs. Apparently, drug dealers coat the candy with cocaine instead of sugar, so it's often confiscated.

Turkish delight display @ the sweetshop

       The sweeter side of Turkey didn't fail me entirely, though. The baklava, for one, was to die for. And I discovered sekerpare, or "sugar bit"—little pastry balls, drenched in syrup and often coated in poppy seeds. (This was my personal favorite). Then there was kabak tatlisi, an odd but tasty poached pumpkin dessert, and badem tatlisi, an almond cake moistened with syrup. All of these treats were bite-sized, and they were collectively referred to as Turkish delights, though they weren't all gelatinous. Delightful, indeed.

       The best part: Each day, a different plate of sweets was left waiting in my hotel room. On the first day, it was chocolate-covered hazelnuts, which I promptly inhaled. Then, it was a baklava variety plate—honey, pistachio, and chocolate—that sustained me after a lunch consisting entirely of fish (which I hate). And, the last day, I received more Turkish delight. Re-gifting victim, to be determined.

Baklava variety plate
Dessert tray @ the Four Seasons Bosphorus
Armut tatlisi: Poached pears with bourbon
Irmik tatlisi: Milky semolina dessert
Dessert buffet @ the Four Seasons
The gooey, delicious middle

Almond cake, poached pumpkin, & poppy seed sekerpare

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Funfetti Cheesecake Squares

We've established my obsession with Funfetti. Which means a glowing review of Funfetti Cheesecake Squares from me might seem slightly biased. So I'll open with an outsider opinion:

       "Those bars are so. darn. good. I grew up in a house where cake mix of any kind was verboten, so I'm new to the whole Funfetti thing. A whole wonderful world of baking is opening up!"

       Full disclosure: This email came from an intern who happens to report to me. So she's kind of obligated to like my desserts. (And use words like "verboten.") That said, another taster made a special trip to my office to praise my Funfetti Squares. And this taster feels no obligation to like my desserts (or me). So, I have full confidence in saying:

       This is one dessert you do NOT want to miss out on. 

       The bottom cake layer, where the Funfetti resides, is dense, almost crust-like, while the top tastes similar to cheesecake but with a flakier, creamier texture.  The combination is like crack to my sweet tooth.

Don't even start eating the dough. You won't have any left.
Funfetti Cheesecake Squares

What you need
1 box of Funfetti cake mix
1 stick butter, melted
3 eggs
8 oz cream cheese, softened
1 box powdered sugar (1 lb)
1 tsp vanilla

Put it all together

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F.
  2. Mix cake mix, melted butter, and 1 egg into a doughy mixture. Press into a 9x13" pan. 
  3. Beat cream cheese, 2 eggs, sugar, and vanilla together until thoroughly combined. Pour over cake mixture in pan. 
  4. Bake for 40 minutes. 

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Louis Osteen's Toasted Pimiento Cheese Sandwich

For years, I've had a personal vendetta against pimiento cheese. It started in second grade, when I was still faithfully eating a PB&J every day for lunch. My mom had a moment of premature senility, and swapped my sister's sandwich with mine. While my sister happily devoured my PB&J (at least that's how I imagined it), I tearfully suffered through pimiento-cheese hell. I swore to never touch the stuff again. 

     I recently stepped out on a limb, though, and (conservatively) smeared pimiento cheese on a cracker at a party. Just one cracker, for the sake of social graces. But then something strange happened. I found myself eating a second, and a third. The spread was shockingly addictive. 

       Naturally, I began probing my mother for answers. I'm normally quite loyal to her cooking, but this time, she led me astray. Turns out, she includes pickle juice in her pimiento cheese. And I despise pickles. In fact, I once had a showdown with my mother at Cracker Barrel over a plate-side pickle spear that had tainted my entire grilled cheese. (She cruelly withheld my Reese's Pieces until I ate the sandwich.) All of these years, I've been unknowingly deprived. Tragic, really. 

      In commemoration of my culinary breakthrough, I whipped up a batch of Chef Louis Osteen's (pickle-free) pimiento cheese, chilled it, and sandwiched it between two slices of toasted, thick-cut bread. (My now-mature taste buds warrant grown-up grilled cheese. None of that processed-cheese junk.) Osteen's pimiento cheese has the perfect balance of tanginess and sweetness, and its cold creaminess contrasts deliciously with warm toast. It's like the pickle-juice debacle never happened. 

Pimiento Cheese
From Louis Osteen's Charleston Cuisine: Recipes from a Lowcountry Chef 

What you need
6 cups freshly grated sharp Cheddar cheese (about 1 1/2 pounds)
1/2 (8 oz) package cream cheese, softened
3/4 cup mayonnaise
1 Tbsp grated yellow onion
1 tsp ground red pepper
1 (7 oz) jar whole peeled pimiento, drained and cut into fourths
Freshly ground pepper

Makes about 4 cups. 

 Put it all together 
  1. Beat the Cheddar, cream cheese, mayonnaise, onion, and red pepper at medium speed for 1 to 2 minutes. The mixture should appear blended but not smooth.
  2. Add the chopped pimiento, and beat the mixture until the peppers are shredded. The spread should now be somewhat smooth. 
  3. Chill, and serve on warm toasted bread. Garnish with freshly ground pepper. 

    More chef-approved grilled-cheese ideas:

    Croque Monsieur
    Layer Virginia ham and Gruyere cheese on two slices of bread. Grill, then drizzle with Mornay sauce—a creamy sauce often made with Parmesan, Gruyere, or Swiss—both inside and out. 

    – Chris Jakibiec, The Jefferson, Washington, D.C.

    Croque Madame

    Sandwich black forest ham and Gruyere cheese between two slices of sourdough bread. Grill, and top with a fried egg.   
    – Silvan Kramer, Café Dupont at the Dupont Circle 
    Hotel Crawfish Grilled Cheese 
    Place Louisiana crawfish tails, Vermont White Cheddar, and smoked Gouda on two slices of multi-grain bread. Grill, and serve with a cup of tomato soup.  
    – Steven Marsella, Ralph Brennan's Heritage Grill 

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    9 Southern-Cooking Secrets

    Dinner, courtesy of my mama.
    Some of my fondest childhood memories are in the kitchen. While my mom cooked, I would stand on a wooden chair watching, eagerly absorbing my first lessons in Southern cooking. This is how Southern women have learned to cook for generations—simply by observing their mothers or grandmothers at work, hoping for the occasional nugget of unsolicited wisdom: Always pack your brown sugar. Never buy store-brand flour. Don't grease the cookie pan. 

          Unfortunately, most of these stove-top secrets are never written down. And because Southern women tend to cook by feel, rather than by rules, their recipes are often imprecisea fistful of flour, $2 worth of apples. Church cookbooks can be even worse. More often than not, at least one ingredient has been forgotten entirely. The church ladies that write them probably stopped using recipes decades ago, so when they type out instructions, the flour or baking powder simply slips their mind. 

          I don't want to risk losing the foods that defined my childhoodcornbread, fried okra, banana nut breadso I set out to learn the techniques to perfect them. On a recent trip home to Tennessee, I sat down with my mom at our old Formica kitchen table, where she shared her secrets, some passed down from my grandmother and great-grandmother.

    Season your skillet.

           New skillets are a gray, dull hue. Seasoned skillets, on the other hand, are shiny and black. This greasy coating keeps food from sticking to the pan, so it browns more evenly. To season your skillet, rub it liberally with Crisco, and place it in a 250°F oven for an hour. Use only a small amount of soap and water when washing your skillet, never allowing it to soakthis will wash away your Crisco coating, and may even cause your cookware to rust. Re-season as needed, usually once or twice a year. 
    Befriend bacon grease.

           When my mom was a kid, my grandma kept a jar of bacon grease on the stove top. Now, my mom keeps a Mason jar of the fat in her refrigerator, and uses it for everything from greasing skillets to flavoring beans. After frying a batch of bacon, simply pour the leftover grease into a tightly sealed glass jar. A word of caution: If you're using it to grease a baking pansay, for cornbreadsprinkle cornmeal over top of the bacon grease; otherwise, your food will stick to the pan. 

    Don't toss the ham bone.
            The truly Southern way to prepare beans: Add pork to the pot. To make perfect pintos, rinse off dry beans, pour them into a large saucepan, and cover completely with water. Bring the beans to a boil, then add either a ham bone (with a little meat intact), a 2" by 4" rectangle of fatback, or a little bacon grease. Allow the beans to cook down 'til tender, about 3 to 4 hours, season with salt and pepper, and serve with cornbread and chow chow.

    Pick your potatoes.

           Buying the wrong spuds is the fastest route to lumpy mashed potatoes. Russet potatoes, which are usually the cheapest, have an unfortunate tendency to cook unevenly when boiled. And the uncooked areas are what create lumps. Stick with Idaho, Yukon Gold, or red potatoes—you'll have to shell out a little more for these guys, but it's worth it for the smoother texture. 

    Flour before you bread. 

           People mock Southerners for frying everything. What they don't realize is that it takes talent to do so. Cooking with scalding oil and coming out unscathed is tough! Foods that have high water contenttomatoes, squash, zucchinirequire an extra step before being breaded and dunked in hot oil. Before dipping 'em in the egg/milk mixture and cornmeal, coat water-rich veggies in flour to absorb some of the moisture, which is what causes hot oil to pop (and burn you). 

    Properly heat your oil. 

           Allow your frying oil to heat up too long, and you'll "cook the hound dog out of your okra," my mother warns. But if you don't let it heat up long enough, the batter will either become mushy or just fall off altogether. Neither is your goal. So perform a test run: Drop a spoonful of batter into the hot oil. Does it crisp and rise to the surface? If so, you're ready to start frying. If it burns, you need to turn the heat down, or if it just sinks, you need to heat the oil a little longer. Once you start frying, only immerse a spatula-full of battered veggies at a time. If the pan is too crowded, your food won't be sufficiently crisped.

    Paper your pans.

           Even the most delicious cake recipe is a failure if it sticks to the pan. Avoid leaving half your cake behind: First, coat the bottom and sides of a round cake pan with Crisco. Then, place a large piece of wax paper over the pan, and position a second cake pan of the same size on top. Press it down to create a pan-and-paper sandwich. Trim the edges of the wax paper, then remove the top pan. Coat the wax paper with Crisco and flour before pouring your batter into the prepared pan. While the pan is still warm after cooking, flip it upside down, peel the wax paper off of the cake, and place the finished product on a cooling rack.

    Select bananas with care.

    Perfect for banana nut bread.
           Two Southern classics require the yellow fruit: banana nut bread and banana pudding. But the two dishes may as well use a different fruit entirely. The ideal peel for banana nut bread is dark, almost black, whereas the bananas in your pudding should have green skin. Since you mash the bananas in bread, they need to be extremely ripesoft and slightly squishy. (Hint: Make sure to remove the fibrous strings before mashing.) But you want banana pudding to last as long as possible, so the bananas should still be slightly green. If the fruit is already ripe, your dessert will stay fresh for only a day or two. 
    Coat raisins in flour.

           If a bread, cake, or muffin recipe calls for dried fruit, toss the shriveled guys in flour before stirring them into the batter. The flour coating helps suspend the fruit in the batter, so all of your raisins don't end up in the bottom of the pan.