Monday, February 19, 2018

Baked Meatball Parmegiana


Comfort food season is almost over, so you better take advantage while you've got the chance. This recipe gives some serious vavoom to an otherwise fairly nothing-special-Tuesday-night meal. While still keeping it simple. Because I think we all love comfort food if, you know, your grandma makes it. But then when you have to hang out for four hours breading the meat or dicing 800 potatoes or shredding two pounds of cheese and simmer down the sauce until it's a nice balsamic glaze and then get everything onto the table at just the right moment so nothing gets cold--well then fried eggs start to sound a lot better. And while there's nothing wrong with fried eggs, how about some hearty comfort food that's a little easier to pull together.

Baked meatballs are a new and glorious thing for me in general. In the past, I've always stood by the oven, rolling meatballs around in a skillet while the fat spit everywhere and the balls got too brown on the outside while still being a bit too pink on the inside. No more. Now that baked meatballs and I have been introduced, there's no turning back. They're so much easier and neater, juicier, and more evenly cooked.

This dish builds on the beauty of baked meatballs and adds to it. All you've got to do is roll meat in to balls. It takes about 15 minutes and then you're "work" is done. You do need 45 minutes to for these to cook, so plan for that. Otherwise, a pot of pasta later, you're done.

Baked Meatball Parmigiana
adapted from Hugs and Cookies
Serves 4
prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 45 minutes
Cost: $6.50 (even with a box of pasta, this comes up to less than $2.00/serving)
beef: 3.00, bread: .05, Parm cheese: .75, eggs: .20, tomato sauce: 1.50, mozzarella: 1.00

1 lb ground beef
3-4 cloves garlic, chopped
3/4 C bread crumbs (I just used one slice and put it in my little blender)
3/4 C Parmesan cheese (I used the shredded, but in this recipe the powdery stuff might work too)
2 eggs
salt to taste
36 oz. your choice tomato sauce
1-2 C mozzarella
some pasta to serve it on if you're too proud to just spoon it out of the dish and eat it

Preheat oven to 400.

Combine ground beef, garlic, bread crumbs, Parmesan, eggs, and salt. I squish it together with my hands like a boss (naturally). Then roll it into meatballs. Larger meatballs will have a slightly longer cook time than smaller ones. We made 14 or 15. [Note: That means if you really want to speed up this cook time, call in some little helpers and roll you some tiny meatballs.]

Put a tiny bit of olive oil on the bottom of a 9x13 inch baking dish. Then add your meatballs.

Cook for 15 to 20 minutes.

Then add sauce, stir around the meatballs to coat and cook for another 15 minutes or so. (Note: Around this point, you want to start boiling your pasta water, so your pasta will be ready in time.)

Then throw on the cheese and cook for another 10 minutes or so. Cut one open to check for meatballs doneness and, uh, while you're at it you better taste it to make sure it's okay and stuff.

Serve over pasta or with bread.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Cookies and Cream (Icebox Cake)


If a river of cream marries a cloud of sugar and they hop into a bed of chocolate, well then, not to be too graphic, but you get this baby.

Today is my mother's birthday. Generally, I try to make something she loved on her birthday. I can't think of a better way to remember someone you loved than through food. You could try this wacky cake or these cookies. But I think that probably what she loved most of all was this here dessert. We called it Cookies and Cream, and everyone always thought it was ice cream. But it isn't. Since then I've heard it called an icebox cake because you layer the whipped cream with the cookies and leave it in the refrigerator for a day. The cookies get soft and you just get a pillow of creamy, chocolate-y sweetness.

The great news about this is that it's crazy easy to make. The bad news is that it probably contains approximately ten million calories per bite. The other bad news is that the cookies you really need to use are often hard to find. This recipe requires Nabisco chocolate wafers. And it really isn't as good with any other substitute (not Oreos, not chocolate graham crackers; trust me; I've tried it all). Nabisco chocolate wafers tend to be in the gourmet cookie section and I can often find them at Christmastime (and then I stock up like a chocolate-addicted lunatic). They can also be expensive. Which makes this not as cheap as most of the Best of the Tasty Cheapskate recipes are going to be. But I do find the cookies on sale every once in a blue moon, so I'm going for this. For the sake of my mom's legacy and all.

 Now, let me say that I made this pretty for you, but it's not super practical to put it on a pedestal cake display thing because you've got to shove this bad boy in the fridge for a full day. What we honestly usually do is throw it in a big salad bowl with a lid (just to spite salad and all) and then put that in the fridge and just scoop it out when it's ready).

For some tips on laziness and/or making this look nice without having to shove the pedestal cake holder into some corner of your fridge go HERE. For some really dreadful pictures and more self-indulgent stories about this dessert in our family, go HERE.

Cookies and Cream (Icebox Cake)
Serves: Um, my family of 6 (but it should serve more; it really should; we have issues)
Prep time: 15 minutes
Fridge time: 24 hours
Cost: $6.40 (about $1/serving)

(cookies: $4, cream: $2, sugar: .12, vanilla: .28)

1 box Nabisco Chocolate Wafers
1 pint cream
3/4 C sugar
2 tsp vanilla

Beginning by whipping your cream. Pour it in a bowl and blend it until soft peaks form. When they do, add the sugar and vanilla. Whip or beat until firmer peaks form.

Put a blob of it on the bottom of a salad bowl and spread that around. Make one layer of cookies, breaking some if you need to so they don't overlap. Add more whipped cream and spread. Add another layer of cookies. Repeat until you top it off with a thin layer of whipped cream.

Cover and refrigerate for 24 hours or until the cookies are perfectly soft.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Crockpot Greek Yogurt for Dummies


I mean, really. It's so easy it will change your life forever

Before I begin with this INCREDIBLY LONG post, let me say that this is super easy. In a nutshell, this is what you do. 
1. Heat 1 gallon milk in crock pot to 180 degrees.
2. Let cool to 120 degrees. 
3. Whisk in 1/2 C yogurt. 
4. Put lid on crock pot and put crock pot in oven (an oven that is OFF). 
5. Let sit for 6-10 hours in oven. 
6. Strain through tea towel to desired thickness. 

But below I've detailed all those steps and tried to trouble shoot and everything. 

(Note: If you want something EVEN EASIER that doesn't involve actually making yogurt, scroll to the bottom for a trick to make normal store bought yogurt into Greek yogurt.) 

Now on to the post. 
Besides being life-changing in every way, this yogurt will save you a stinking butt load of money if you like Greek yogurt. For $2 (TWO DOLLARS!) I got no less than 10 cups (TEN CUPS!) Greek yogurt--that's $.20/cup if you're math impaired (don't worry--math unnecessary for this recipe; brains in general unnecessary for this recipe). Twenty cents for creamy, perfect Greek yogurt.

You can eat it with anything. I like it for breakfast with some jam mixed it. My kids like it best blended with jam and put into popsicle molds and frozen. My friend serves it as a dessert. She mixes it with jam and then adds a squirt of whipped cream to the top. But don't think it can only be served sweet. This thick Greek yogurt can be used as a substitute for sour cream and cream cheese. It can be used in savory dips, for ranch dressing, with tacos.

And in case you missed the whole Greek yogurt bandwagon (or were maybe too poor to buy a ticket), Greek yogurt is awesome and loveable because it is a) delicious and creamy, b) higher in protein, lower in sugar (lactose), and lower than sodium than regular yogurt. And did I mention creamy awesomeness? It's also just way versatile--it can really be subbed for a lot of things.

Let me say that making yogurt is not entirely new to me. I even have a yogurt maker (which I may now sell) that has cute little cups with lids. I used it faithfully when we lived in California, but when we moved here, it became cost INeffective. I couldn't find small amounts of plain yogurt and after I'd bought 32 oz of plain yogurt, well then it seemed silly to bother making little cupfuls of yogurt. And my homemade yogurt always came out somewhat runny. This is true of yogurt. Most (if not all) of what we find in the store has been artificially thickened--cornstarch and gluten are both in Dannon. Homemade yogurt tends to be thinner. Real Greek yogurt, on the other hand, is thick because much of the whey has been strained out of it. But because of that, it is often very expensive. Thus, for the last several years I haven't made my yogurt; I've just bought it. Until the fateful day when my friend (the dessert yogurt making one) brought over some yogurt with raspberry jam in it. It was better than ice cream. Oh, yes, it was. Thick, creamy, and beautiful. And it had cost her almost nothing. And it had been stupidly easy. Now that's what I'm talking about. Because many of the other homemade yogurt recipes I knew of (the ones without the handy yogurt-maker) seemed hard. There seemed to be lots of variables that could cause it to fail. Some required you to double boil your milk (I double boil nothing, people, nothing). Some gave detailed instructions for putting it in a cooler or oven and then keeping it consistently warm but not hot. If you got too cool or too hot, you'd wind up with curdled, runny nasties instead of yogurt. Yes, it was all too frightening. I needed fail proof. I needed dummy proof. I needed distracted mom proof. My friend provided that. 

She had used a pot to make the yogurt. You can too if you don't have a crock pot. A regular pot works great, but it requires more of your attention. A crock pot, on the other hand, requires only a one-minute attention span and perhaps and IQ of 32 or so.

Now, what do you do? Let me pull back the curtain so you can be amazed.

1. Put 1 gallon whole milk into your crock pot. Put lid on. Heat until 180 degrees. (Note: I recommend heating it on low. You can heat it on high, but sometimes that means the bottom will get a little too hot, which is--honestly--fine, but sometimes it makes your yogurt come out browner in color.) This should take between two and four hours (depending on your crock pot). If you don't have a thermometer (though one is useful), it will be bubbly/foamy all over on top without actually boiling.) Note: If you get this too hot, it's okay. It does turn into a browner colored yogurt, but tastes normal, unless you were to actually burn the bottom, which I never have in a crock pot.)
2. Remove lid and let cool to 110-120 degrees (if you don't have a thermometer, this will feel warm when you stick your finger in, but not hot--this is the temperature you'd kind of want to get baby formula to--warm, but nothing that would scald a baby's throat). Note: It will sometimes form a skin. My kids hate this because they claim it makes chunky bits in the finished product, so I take a slotted spoon and scoop it off. 
3. Add 1/2 C PLAIN yogurt and whisk it in. (I add yogurt to a small amount of milk in a bowl and whisk in order to keep it from lumping up. Then I put that into the big pot of milk and whisk.)
4. Put lid back on.
5. Put crock pot in oven for 6-10 hours. You don't have to heat your oven or leave the oven light on (though you can and it makes for a steady, warm temperature). You don't have to do ANYTHING. The crock pot provides natural insulation, so it doesn't cool too quickly and the oven provides a space to trap the necessary warmth for your yogurt to yogurtify (it should be kept at a fairly stable 110 degrees; it does this naturally in a crock pot in the oven, so don't worry). That said, I would not recommend you put it into a cold oven (not a problem for us in the summer, but in winter it gets chilly around here). If your oven is cold, turn it on for 1 minute BEFORE you put the yogurt in. Then turn it off. Then put the yogurt in. (Ah, now the IQ requirements have moved up to 45). It will need 6-10 hours to yogurtify. It's nice if you can time this overnight. If you do it during the day, you may want to put a little post it note on your oven that says, "Do not turn on." I do this (yes, I do) because if you or someone you love comes in and decides to make cookies and pre-heats the oven before realizing there's yogurt in there, your yogurt will be ruined and you will be sad. 
A few notes: 
Note #1: Since the original post, I have legit turned the oven on and forgotten I had yogurt in there. Guess what? It was still okay. The yogurt didn't have enough time to get too hot in the preheat stage. Just get it out of there as soon as you remember. 
Note #2: Occasionally, for reasons only the universe understands, my yogurt comes out either very thin, or a little clumpy. Who knows... Imprecise temperature, atmospheric shifts, unhappy yogurt gods. But the great thing is that once strained, this yogurt is still delicious. If it's extra thin, you'll have a little more whey and less yogurt--but still a lot). And the clumps won't matter once it thickens.) 
6. When you take it out, you'll have regular yogurt. Reserve 1/2 C of this for your next batch of yogurt and put that 1/2 C in the fridge.

 (It will look like this.)

7. Now: You can eat the rest of the yogurt regular-style if you want (it was actually a little thicker than that which my yogurt maker used to make). But I HIGHLY recommend straining it and making Greek yogurt (because it's awesome, that's why). Get a tea towel. Put it over a colander, and strain your yogurt. You can do this in the sink if you don't want the whey. Or you can strain it over a pan or large pot/bowl if you want the whey (Note: Whey can be used as a milk or buttermilk substitute in some recipes. It works well in muffins and things like that. It's also good in smoothies. I usually save a cup or two because that's all I use. And I throw it away in a week if I haven't used it by then. Straining will take between two and six hours depending on how thick you want your yogurt. I like mine thick. You might give it a stir after 2 hours to get it to strain more quickly. 

I really love mine thick (almost as thick as cream cheese), but the great thing about this recipe is that you can get it to any thickness you like. Here are some pictures from another post on cheater Greek yogurt I did (with a much smaller amount of yogurt). 


(See how super thick it CAN get if you want it to.)

Leave it for 8-24 hours and it will get super thick--to the consistency of a soft cheese. You can then use it as a substitute for cream cheese (it has more protein and more healthy bacterial cultures.)

And you're done. You will have a TON of Greek yogurt. In Evansville, we can currently get milk for $.99 at Aldi. And then you'll need a bit of plain yogurt as a starter. Greek yogurt from the store occasionally goes on sale for $1.00/6 oz., but is usually much more. The nice brands can cost as much as $5.00(ish) for 16 oz. or so.

Now to answer some questions:

1. Do I need an instant read thermometer? No, but it is helpful; it takes any and all guesswork away from the process. And you will pretty much earn back the cost of your $9 thermometer in the first yogurt making, so it's a reasonable purchase. Still you don't have to have one. You just might need an IQ slightly higher than 32.
2. What will I do with all that yogurt? The sky is the limit. If you make this stuff, you can stop buying yogurt, sour cream, and (in some cases) cream cheese. You can make amazing smoothies and popsicles. You can do tons of stuff with it. 
3. Do I have to use whole milk? Probably not, but I always do. Still, I'm pretty sure you can make it with any type of cow's milk . However, I won't vouch for taste. True Greek yogurt is whole fat. It's only us Americans who've freaked out about that and developed lower fat versions. It is my opinion that skim Greek yogurt isn't really Greek yogurt at all. It is skim, strained yogurt. Eat it if you want. But my other opinion is that fat (without a lot of sugar) is NOT the enemy. I think natural fats are healthy and filling and great.
4. Why do I heat it and then let it cool? I don't have a complete scientific answer for you. All I know is that if you heat it to 180 you wind up with thicker yogurt than if you don't. I imagine you don't have to heat it that much. I know there are even raw yogurt recipes out there. You'll just likely end up with thinner yogurt. Of course, you'll be straining it, so will still end up with thick Greek yogurt--you'll just have a bit less of it because more will have strained out. Note: Since the original post, I've tried making this recipe "raw" meaning that you only heat it to 110 degrees and then just add the yogurt. It is thinner, but it works. 
5. How do I make it on the stove top? Let's say you don't have a crock pot. You can still make this stove top. It's best to do when you have other jobs to do in the kitchen because it takes a while to heat and needs to be stirred occasionally so you don't want to burn on the bottom. (You can cook it faster, but you'll have to stir frequently or even constantly so it doesn't burn on the bottom.) Also, you'll want to make it in a heavy pot. The time I made it on the stove top, I used a porcelain-covered Dutch oven pot (WITH A LID). You need to do this because when you put it in the oven, it needs a sort of heat-holding pot. Otherwise it will cool too quickly and not set properly. I suppose you could use a normal pot and insulate it with towels or something, but for me the IQ requirements and fail factor get too high with that.
6. Can I make less? Probably. The problem you're going to come up against with this no fail method is that if you only have a little milk/yogurt in your pot, it will cool off faster. If it cools off too fast in your oven, you'll wind up with runny, curdled mess, not yogurt. If you really really want to make less, I recommend putting it in a small cooler instead of an oven. Or you might just have to babysit your oven a bit more and turn it on here or there throughout the setting process to ensure that your yogurt doesn't get too cool. Anyway, I'd really encourage you to make more simply because yogurt lasts a long time, which leads to...
7. How long does it last? I don't know. Ha. Because it's never gone bad on us and we've kept it in the fridge for upwards of two weeks. I imagine it would last a good month, maybe two, but can't promise that. I will try to do a little experiment next time I make yogurt and set some aside and see how long it takes for it to go bad.

Did you get discouraged with all those steps? Do you want something even easier, albeit not quite as cheap (but still cheap). Here's a method for making regular plain yogurt into Greek yogurt. It's not quite as cheap, but still much cheaper than buying it from the store (where it often has various thickeners mixed in). Also this post has handy-dandy pictures about how it will look as it strains. 

Want to take this to a level of unrighteous decadence. Try this Almond Joy variation

Or you could use cashews, which is my absolute favorite.


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