Monday, August 31, 2015

Grape Pretzel Trees

This year, after about 13 years of being an at-home mom, my youngest child began school and my oldest child began junior high. It's been an adjustment for all parties involved. Last week, in an effort to aspire to the noble parenting aspiration of healthy after-school snacks, I determined that I, too, would make healthful after-school snacks. School, after all, left my kids starving and surely immuno-weakened due to their fresh exposure to approximately 10 trillion new germs every nanosecond; besides now I had all this time, so I would don my cap of awesome and make some granola bars and orange smoothies and other beautiful and amazing after school snacks. Unfortunately, my cap of awesome got lost somewhere in my junk drawer and I was forced to don my cap of low-end mediocrity (I'm thinking C- ish). So attired, I made not one, not two, not five, but ZERO after school snacks for my kids of healthful or other varieties (it must be noted that once, on grocery shopping day, I did in fact buy a healthy-sounding, Vitamin C boost juice for my children and fed it to them). That's right, Pinterest. Even with you hovering over our shoulders, we can still strive for low-end mediocrity. And we can still succeed.

So maybe next week you'll get that peach, carrot, and orange smoothie, or some tiny granola bars wrapped up in parchment paper and tied with twine (okay, you will really never get any bars wrapped in parchment paper and tied with twine; sorry). But this week you're going to have to settle for something I did for our Mom co-op preschool last year that was kind of cute and a big success. Behold, the grape pretzel tree. The good news is that it's fully attainable even for parents of low-end mediocrity, (or even other parents of higher ability levels should they become so busy making burlap wreaths and upcycling their Tic-Tac containers that they are in rare instances unable to wrap any food items in parchment paper and tie them in twine).

This grape pretzel tree takes about 3 minutes to do, and even if  you cannot sketch out a stick tree on paper, this will still likely end up looking tree-ish. Good luck.

Pretzel sticks (stale, broken ones are acceptable)
Grapes (preferably green, but you know, some trees like Japanese maples do have purple leaves)

1. Place your pretzel sticks in a tree like manner. It doesn't have to be perfect. You can copy my perfect design from the picture above if you must.

2. Cut your grapes in halves and position them around the pretzel sticks.

3. See if your children notice you have made a grape tree before they eat it (seriously--I'm curious).

Monday, August 24, 2015

Lemon Layer Cake with Lemon Butter Frosting

Because why wouldn't I post two lemon cakes this summer?

And you should absolutely make them both. The first was a simple little sheet cake--a butter lemon cake with an interesting and wonderful frosting. This one is a perfectly moist, perfectly textured layer cake (that, P.S., could also be made as a sheet cake if you wanted to), which uses two oils as its fat, and has a smooth lemon butter frosting. I took it to a baby shower and the next day when I went to take a picture, I just had this teeny tiny little piece left. After the pictures, it was not long for this world.

I let my daughter frost this for me, and she did a fabulous job. However, if I knew I was taking this to a group of coconut lovers, I would have sprinkled toasted coconut on the frosting, and I think it would have made for a fabulous compliment to the lemon cake. Another nice addition might be a raspberry drizzle or raspberry filling.

I must tell you that this calls for pure lemon extract, which is not cheap. The cheapskate in me so so badly wanted to skip it, but since this was for a friend, I didn't, and I'm really glad I didn't because I don't think it would have been the same without it. Even adding lemon juice wouldn't have made for a punchy enough lemon flavor, or so I think. Sorry, friends. If I ever find a good substitute, I'll let you know.

Lemon Layer Cake with Lemon Butter Frosting
adapted from Rock Recipes
serves: 20 ladies and probably fewer men
Prep time: 15-20 minutes
Cook time: 30-35 minutes (then you'll have to cool it before frosting it)
Cost: $4.90 (which is only about $.25/serving depending on whether you're serving ladies, gentlemen, or teenagers)
flour: .30, sugar: .30, oil: .20, coconut oil: .50, extracts: .70, eggs: .30, buttermilk: .40, lemon: .20 powdered sugar: .90 butter: 1.00, other stuff: .10

2 3/4 C all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 1/2 C sugar
2/3 C vegetable oil (I used canola)
1/3 C coconut oil
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 tsp pure lemon extract
3 large eggs
1 1/2 C buttermilk
zest of one largish lemon, finely chopped

For the frosting:

4 C powdered sugar
1 C butter
1 tsp pure lemon extract
1 tsp minced lemon zest (optional--this absolutely makes the frosting more lemony; however, it does add tiny bumps in the frosting. That doesn't bother me at all, but if you know it will bother you, don't add it.
2-4 Tbsp milk

Grease and flour 2 nine-inch round cake pans. Line the bottom with circles of parchment paper or wax paper.

Combine flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, and sugar.

Beat together oil, coconut oil, vanilla, and lemon extract.

Beat in the eggs one at a time.

Mix in lemon zest.

Alternate adding dry ingredients with the buttermilk (so dry ingredients, some buttermilk, dry ingredients, some buttermilk, dry ingredients). Don't overmix this. Beat or mix it just until the ingredients are combined and not lumpy.

Bake at 325 for 30-35 minutes or until a toothpick (or blade of any variety) comes out clean or with a few moist crumbs attached.

Allow to cool in pans for 10 minutes, then turn them out on a rack to cool completely.

For the frosting:

Melt the butter, or mostly melt the butter. Beat in sugar, zest, and lemon extract. Now beat in the milk, starting with a couple tablespoons and then adding more if the frosting is too stiff.

When your cake is cool, frost it.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Five Ways to Use Mediocre Fruit

(yeah, some of them are healthy--I'm just trying to draw you in with this picture)

You know that 1/2 pint of blackberries you got for $1.69. Maybe it was even a bit of a splurge. I mean, it's such a tiny bit of fruit--just a serving or two, but you'd been unable to walk past them without tossing a clam shell into your cart. And they'd been so good all summer. Well, they're not anymore--when you open this batch, it's tart and/or bitter, with a few moldy ones thrown in for good measure. Yes, you could take them back to the store, but the cost of gas would be nearly as much as the blackberries themselves. And then there's the precious precious cost of your time. You'll just have to toss the blackberries. No! Wait! says your friendly, cheapskate friend (um, that's me, in case you were wondering why you let a crazy voice into your head). There are plenty of awesome things you can do with that fruit that comes to you in less than perfect form. Here are some ideas.

1. Baked goods. Fruit like berries, apples, pears, peaches, plums, and--of course--bananas go very well in muffins, sweet breads, and pancakes. Crumbles, crisps, and pies can also rock your mediocre fruit. Even if you only have a handful, that'll be great with pancakes. Or to add a pop of color to a pie with some other type of fruit. You can just throw a handful into your favorite baked goods. Or try them in one of these recipes. No-rise blueberry cinnamon rolls. Blueberry Pie Bars. Raspberry bars. One Bowl Oat Muffins. Peach Crisp (works with apples or pears too). Pancakes (this is a simple go-to pancake that holds fruit well; there are others on this site like Quinoa pancakes that also rock)

2. Smoothies. I often freeze my imperfect fruit and then throw it into the blender with milk or apple juice to make smoothies. You can keep your different fruits in different bags, or throw them all into the same freezer bag and make a "garbage" smoothie--a smoothie from all those ends or imperfect fruits you've got hanging around. The big appeal here is that you don't have to think about what to do with the fruit immediately. It's just sitting there waiting for you to get a smoothie craving.

3. Flavored syrup. This one's kind of my favorite. It's just so awesome and foody and sexy, but not too hard. This works best with berries or soft fruits. This is the type of pretty little thing you can gift a friend if you'd like because it's pretty and interesting. And so much 10 million times better than those colored corn syrups you'll find on the tables at Ihop. Use them as pancake toppings or ice cream toppings. Or pancakes topped with ice cream toppings if you have, you know, problems. Use this recipe for your berry syrups. In the picture above I used my very mediocre blackberries (the very blackberries that may or may not have inspired the start of this post). If you'd rather have more of a sauce, go here.

4. Salads. Fruit doesn't have to be perfect if you'll be pouring a savory or sweet dressing over top of it. I think that fruit works well with many lettuce-based or grain-based salads. So next time you're ready to toss your fruit, consider throwing it into your salad bowl instead. Berries go great with spinach. Apples or pears are nice with crispy sweeter greens. And I think most fruit would add a nice touch to arugula. Throw on some goat cheese or feta if you want to feel even more awesome and sophisticated. And try one of these dressings with your fruity salad. Lame citrus (or even pears or apples) could go in this Citrus Quinoa Salad. This Orange Vinaigrette would work with bland citrus, pears, apples, or berries. Use it with lettuce or leafy greens or both. This Balsamic Vinaigrette would be lovely with strawberries (or other berries). Ditto this Hot Honey Vinaigrette. This sweet Tree House dressing could rock any fruit (or nut). And this Rainbow Salad already calls for apples and could handle any other fruit you threw at it too.

5. Coat it with sugar. I know, I know. You just had to add a point to your Weight Watchers chart when you read that. Still,  even though this might not be the picture of perfectly healthy fruit, it's a heck of a lot better than fruit snacks. In fact, I think it makes for a nice after school snack. I mean, it does beat the classic chocolate chip cookie in healthfulness. And these are really pretty for guests too. You can simply coat them in sugar or whipped cream. Or you can go pure awesome, and candy them like this.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Secret Recipe Club--Creamy Corn Dip

Thank goodness for Secret Recipe Club to keep me from posting only dessert recipes all summer long (not that there's anything wrong with that). This month I had An Affair from the Heart--a beautiful blog with stunning pictures and fabulous recipes. Michaela is an at-home mom who has always valued motherhood and family life. I love that.

So as I was looking through her blog, I was tempted by this Purple Cow Smoothie (love the name) and this Cauliflower Mash (which I'm still dying to try, but we ate all our cauliflower and I haven't gotten more yet). What I finally settled on, however, was this amazing, fabulous dip. Michaela called it "crack dip" due to its addictive qualities and all. I couldn't agree more. It's fabulous. It's also incredibly quick to prepare and there's no cooking, which is great for hot August days.

But what drew me to it most of all was that I had a refrigerator full of ears of summer corn. Some of it was good--tender and young, but some of it was past its prime--you know the type of corn you eat and it gets all stuck in your teeth because it's just not at its peak anymore. Yet it was still summery and flavorful. This was the perfect place to put it. And the great thing about this recipe is that you could use that or some leftover corn, or Mexicorn per the original recipe.

Creamy Corn Dip
adapted from An Affair from the Heart
makes a lot--probably 4 cups
prep time: 15 minutes
Cost: $5.00
corn: 1.50, mayo: .50, sour cream: 1.00, chilies: .70, green onions: .30, cheese: 1.00

Note: This makes a good amount and is quite filling, so if you're making it for a party, great. If you're making it for your family, you may want to halve it.

2 cans Mexicorn, drained (I subbed this with freshly cooked corn that I cut off the ears--about 2-2 1/2 cups)
1 C mayonnaise (not low-fat)
1 C sour cream (full-fat Greek yogurt might work too)
tops of 3 green onions, sliced
1 can green chilies
1/3 C jalapenos (the jar kind), chopped (I used one jalepeno with just a few seeds, chopped)
8 oz Mexican blend cheese
tortilla chips for serving

Combine all dip ingredients together and place in the fridge. Michaela suggested making it a day ahead because the flavors deepen nicely, but we ate it about a half hour after making it and I thought it was amazing.

Serve with tortilla chips, or even sliced veggies.


Monday, August 3, 2015

Easy Home-Canned Grape Juice

Once upon a time, I bought a grape plant. It was labeled as a seedless green table variety. Well, they did turn out to be green, but other than that were a complete disappointment. Each grape has several huge seeds and the skin is thick and leathery. The grapes themselves are edible, but sour and hard to chew with that skin and those seeds. There was really just about nothing to do with these awful grapes and I considered ripping the plant out and cutting my losses (namely the three years it took me to get an actual crop from my original little plant). We couldn't eat them, or at least no one wanted to. I used them in my juicer and made a raw juice that was almost undrinkable in its awfulness.

But I remembered that my husband had said that his mom used to can concord grapes for juice. Naturally, this conjured up nightmarish images of me peeling grapes and then squeezing them through cheesecloth like some kind of Roman slave girl. But wait--Kip said that his mom had just put the grapes into jars with some sugar and water and canned them. Then, when they wanted the juice, they poured out the liquid and there it was.

And that, my friends, is pretty much how it is. Grapes, sugar, boiling water into a jar. Process for 25 minutes. Done. 

The first year I made these, I followed the recipe I will give you below. This recipe will give you juice at just the right sweetness and consistency. However, Kip said that his mom put more grapes into the jars and made a sort of grape juice concentrate, which they then added water to until it was just right. I liked this idea because it saved on jars and canning time. This is what I have experimented with this year (I'll let you know how it turns out later). The reason I'm telling you this is to invite you to experiment as well if you wish (or have limited jars or time for canning stuff). But if you want the tried and true recipe, then go with the one below.

There's really no way to make this picture pretty. I'm sorry about that. This stuff looks super ugly in the jars. It probably looks prettier if you have concord grapes, but even then the grapes are going to get wrinkly and pale and burst and just generally look like grumpy grape spinsters. However, once you strain them out and just have the juice, it's really perfectly normal-looking. I hope to get a pretty picture of that for you in a week or so when we can't wait any longer and open up our first jar. But until then you have these ugly pale bald grapes to look at. So, sorry.

An opinion: I realize that this has added sugar. I realize that if you go to the store and buy grape juice it will say that it's 100% juice and doesn't have any added sugar. This may lead you to believe that that juice is more healthy than this one, but I'm not so sure it is. I'm not sure how store-bought juices get their mega sweetness,but it has something to do with using a concentrate (aka--syrup, which is, yes, made from fruit, but still a concentrated sugary form thereof) and then has water re-added. It's processed and pasteurized, and I suppose that's good since you're buying it from the store, but you've lost a lot of the good stuff juice can have through that process. We've processed (cooked) our grapes too, but in this processing process, we've left on the skins and left in the seeds, which will sit there for months imparting their goodness (that's what makes for all those good anti-oxidants in wine and grape seed extract) to your juice. Anyway, sugar or no sugar I just think this is better for you. And you don't have to add the sugar. My grapes are kind of the grossest grapes ever so I do, but if yours are kind of alright, then you can leave the sugar out. If you taste the juice after it's done and decide that leaving the sugar out was a terrible mistake, you can always add it and stir it into your juice.  

Easy Home-Canned Grape Juice
adapted from Cooking, Canning, and Gardening
Makes: recipe for 1 quart sized jar--multiply as necessary
Prep time: This depends on how many grapes you have. One thing I like about this recipe is that it can be done with a small or large amount of grapes. So if a friend gives you a few clusters of extra Concords from her garden, you can whip up a few jars of this and it's no big deal. Or you can do a bunch if you've got the grapes and time/inclination for such a project. If you're doing a batch of five jars, the prep is going to be about 30 minutes if you know what you're doing and can multi-task (sterilize jars as you pluck the grapes off the stems and clean them).
Processing time: 25 minutes
Cost: My grapes are free, so I don't know what it would be if you bought them, but who buys grapes to can them? You'll also need to buy jars, but--again--if you're canning you probably already have those. Sugar is about $.05/jar, and you'll need fresh lids, which will cost a couple bucks for 12 lids.

Note on grapes: As I said above, I have no idea what kind of grapes I'm using since they were obviously mislabeled at the store where I bought them. I know that Concords work beautifully in this recipe. And I'm guessing that any grape with seeds and a thick skin is going to juice well with this process as long as it's not some crazy wild grape.

1 1/2-2 C grapes, cleaned, stems removed
1/4-1/2 C sugar
boiling water to fill the jar

Sterilize as many quart jars as you think you'll need for the amount of grapes you have. You can do this by washing them in the dishwasher or putting them in a pot of boiling water. You'll also want to sterilize your lids.

Clean your grapes. I put mine in water and rinse them off. Then you remove them from the stems (yes, friends, that is a pain, but not as much as squishing your grapes and/or putting them through some frankensteinian machine would be). As I remove them I rinse them again. You want all the dirt and bugs and spiderwebs off. (Unless spider juice is your thing--I'm not here to judge.)

Put 1 1/2-2 C worth of grapes in your sterilized jars.

Add 1/4-1/2 C sugar. (Note: You can always add more sugar after processing if you strain out your juice and find it too tart.)

Pour boiling water into your jar, leaving 1/2 inch head space.

Put your lids on. Then put your metal rings on.

Put jars into a big pot full of water to process. You should have enough water in the pot that the water is about 2 inches above the jars you're processing. You'll process (boil) for 25 minutes (so don't start the timer till the water is boiling).

Take them out and put them on the counter. The lids will pop and seal. If they don't for some reason, just put that jar in the fridge and drink it within the next couple weeks.

I think this juice is best when it's had a week or two at least to sit and do whatever it does, but you could pop one open that night and drink it if you wanted.

When you want to use this, pour the juice through a fine-mesh strainer. I wouldn't crush or press too much on the grapes--if you do, a cloudier, more potent tasting, pulpier part will come through--that's fine if you're okay with it, but if you want juice that looks like juice, not cloudy weird stuff, then just pour your juice through the strainer.



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