Friday, December 31, 2010

Hot Spinach Artichoke Dip

Cheap Eat Challenge Count Down: 1 Day

That's right, tonight was our last night to eat without calculating how much it will all cost. We had spinach artichoke dip on homemade sour dough bread with polska kielbasa. And then Kip went to work. Which is how New Year's Eve often goes in this house.

I realize I'm a little late if you were looking for the perfect dip for your party tonight. Sorry. This is a good one too. Really good. Kip hates artichokes, but Kip loves this dip. However, I couldn't get it up sooner because I've been spending all my spare time the last couple of days doing some (hopefully) careful shopping in preparation for the beginning of the cheap eat challenge. I'm kind of nervous. Kip is kind of nervous. I'm predicting a lot of eggs and potatoes. But tonight. Tonight we dined on meat and cheese and then after Kip had gone, I made chocolate ginger cookies. I'll save that recipe for sometime in January when folks are missing the sweet indulgences of December.

Hot Spinach Artichoke Dip
Serves 6-10

Note on spinach: I personally feel that this recipe is better with de-thawed frozen spinach (hurray for the cheaper option). It's already mushy that way and you get a bunch of spinach in that frozen pack. If you're using fresh, as we did tonight because I forgot to buy frozen, chop it up small, or cook it just until it wilts before throwing it into the dip. Otherwise, it comes out just a little teeny bit more toothsome that I like it in this dip.

Note on cheese: Feel free to mix it up. We've done all Parmesan, a blend of Parmesan, mozzarella, and Romano, a blend of Parmesan and Romano, and sometimes just mozzarella (though all mozzarella isn't my favorite one--still good, but missing the kick of those harder cheese)

8 oz cream cheese
1/4 C mayo
1/2 C mozzarella cheese
1/2 C Parmesan cheese
1 can artichoke hearts, drained and chopped a bit
1 pkg frozen spinach, dethawed with the water squeezed out (or 4 C baby spinach, chopped small or cooked till wilted)
1 clove garlic (or 1/2 tsp garlic powder in a pinch)
salt and pepper to taste (feel free to taste before cooking--it's still good, not quite transcendent yet, but still good)

Beat cream cheese and mayo. Mix in garlic, salt, and pepper. Mix in cheeses. Mix in artichoke hearts and spinach.

Mix it together well.

Bake at 350 for 20-30 minutes until the edges are brown and bubbly. (Didn't get a good edge picture. We were starving and Kip had to get to work soon.)

Serve with crusty bread, crackers, or raw veggies.


Thursday, December 30, 2010

Green Drink

Cheap Eat Challenge Count Down: 2 days

It's not easy being green. My son won't touch these. My husband just started to. They contain no chocolate and usually no added sugar.

They taste good anyway. Plus they're super nutritious--couldn't we all use a few extra cups of greens in our diets. Super adaptable--you can take pretty much whatever greens you've got lying around and combine them with pretty much whatever fruit you've got lying about. Easy to make--throw it in the blender. Oh--and cool people like them.

But they look a little...wholesome. Nevertheless, my sister and I enjoyed several varieties of green drink over our Christmas vacation. She has a Vitamix blender (ooh, aaah), and plenty of lovely greens from her CSA or whatever it is. Over the course of 4 days we consumed (though not all in the same green drink) spinach, kale, chard, avocado, strawberries, bananas, peaches, apples, apple juice, orange juice, lemon and even parsley. I think these drinks are what saved us from sudden death from all of the, um, less healthy choices we made that week.

Below is a simple one that is one of my favorites and can be made tastily in the type of mediocre blender I happen to own. Seriously, give it a try. If the green puts you and yourn off, throw in 1 C of blueberries.

Although I don't believe you need a recipe book for green drinks, they can be kind of fun (especially if you've got a decent blender). If you're interested in getting more recipes for green drinks, you can have a look at or have a look at Victoria Boutenko's books containing recipes. My sister had Green Smoothie Revolution and Boutenko's also got one called Green for Life. [Warning: These women both have STRONG feelings about green smoothies.]

To keep the costs down at this time of year, buy frozen fruit (stuff from Sam's is probably the cheapest, but WalMart is okay too), but not frozen spinach--sorry, but it will make these nasticular. This summer, freeze a bit of the super cheap fresh stuff. You won't be sorry. I've still got peaches in my freezer. Yum.

The cost if you're wondering of a full day's worth (per the food pyramid, so take that for what it's worth) of fruits and vegetables. (And I've been generous in my estimations--I actually think it's cheaper than this.)

Spinach $.50
Peaches $.75
Banana $.13
Concentrate $.07
Total: $1.45

So if you buy a soda at McDonald's or a coffee in the morning, you can easily skip that and make this. If you buy $20 of prescription prenatal vitamins like I used to, you can definitely skip that and make this.

Simple Peach Spinach Green Smoothie
Serves 1-2

Note: The first time I had one of these, I expected it to taste like a Jamba Juice or something. It doesn't. Jamba Juice has a lot of added sugar in it and this doesn't. It is still sweet and so good, but not in a cup of added sugar kind of way. If you have them regularly, you'll get very used to the milder sweetness (and probably a little addicted), and the sweeter mall versions will start to turn you off.

Another Note: If you really can't handle them at first or your kids can't, you can:
a) use more apple juice concentrate
b) sprinkle a bit of sugar into your/their glass
c) use about 6 oz sweetened yogurt and some milk in place of the water (this will naturally make it more caloric, but also add some calcium, protien, bacterial cultures, and Vitamin D

1 C peaches (frozen)
2 C spinach
1 banana
1 T apple juice concentrate
Enough water to make it blendable.
Blend it up.

If you can't drink it all at once and you're kids think you're wonky for even asking them if they want some, it can be tightly sealed and stored for up to 3 days (supposedly--the longest I've stored mine is about 18 hours--it was still great).

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Tips for Great Cinnamon Rolls (or regular rolls if you're going to be that way)

Cheap Eat Challenge Count Down: 3 days
(Check out the menu for January as well as a rough-ish shopping list. We do things rough-ish around here.)

I like cinnamon rolls. I like them a lot. I'm kind of glad I had to leave most of them behind at my sister's house because I would have eaten more. More. MORE. And we all know that cinnamon rolls morning, noon, and night isn't exactly the key to optimal health. Sigh.

Anyway, the point is that I don't have one recipe that I consider the end all in cinnamon-roll-dom. I like the ones from pioneer woman. I like my sister Rebecca's cinnamon rolls. And I like my other sister Katie's cinnamon rolls. I like my friend Brandy's cinnamon rolls. I like the cinnamon rolls my mom used to make for us on Christmas morning. I like pumpkin cinnamon rolls. I'm guessing I'd like your cinnamon rolls (you know, if you'd like to bring some over just to see).

However. However. Even though a variety of roll recipes can turn out a perfectly lovely batch, there is a technique to making good cinnamon rolls (or just good rolls in general). If followed this technique will make a good recipe into great cinnamon rolls and a mediocre recipe into something you can still be proud of. If not followed, you might end up with dry lumps of white flour. Which, not to put too fine a point on it or anything, is kind of like a paler version of a lump of coal. And we wouldn't want that. Unless of course you've a household of very naughty post-Christmas children. In which case, go ahead and let them dry out even more, so they'll be good and solid by next year.

1. Find a decent recipe. That's right. I'm not even going to require that you find a perfect recipe. In the cinnamon roll department, decent will do. What is decent? Try to avoid shortening. Shortening does not belong in bread (even if you can get away with it in frosting). You might even be able to make margarine work for you in cinnamon rolls, though I'm not saying I recommend it. I'm just saying, don't start with a total loser of a recipe, okay. Think: Yeast. Flour. Milk. Maybe a few eggs. No shortening.

2. Do not add too much flour to the dough. The dough should be just to the point where it's not sticking to your hands. Just to the point that it is workable. No further. It should be pillowy, mother-bosomy. That sort of thing. If you add too much flour, it will end up heavy at best and dry at worst. If you have a Kitchenaid, as both my progressive sisters do, it's easier to get a perfect dough by using the dough hook. Add flour until it begins to pull away from the sides of the bowl, not until it's a solid blob in the middle of the bowl that could be used for a paper weight. If you, like my non-progressive self, have no Kitchenaid or Bosch or the like, it will be (and it pains me to admit this) a bit trickier to get a perfect dough, but you can do it. Add flour just until the dough is workable and knead it for 6-8 minutes, adding a dusting more of flour if the dough becomes too sticky to work in the process. In the end it should be a loose pillowy ball. It should not blub through your fingers when you pick it up, but it should not be a tight ball you could throw to your child either. It should be a loose lump. For more blabbering--I mean detailed information--along this line, have a read over here. Next time I make rolls, which may be soon considering we're going to be making more bread than usual soon due to our cheap eat challenge, I'll try to get a picture.

3. Allow them to rise fully. If they don't, they'll be heavy and possibly dry. The dough should double in size the first time and then when you roll them out and place them on the pan, you should leave a bit of space between (perhaps 1/8-1/4 of an inch) and then let them rise until they're touching. It's better to let them rise too much and have to punch them down a time or two than to not get enough rise. So start earlier than you think you should. Or give them a little boost by putting the dough in the microwave for 30 seconds or a 200 degree oven for 1-2 minutes (turn the oven off afterwards--don't cook your dough--after 8 cups of flour and 8 minutes of kneading, you'll be sad if you toast your dough).

4. When you roll them out, don't roll the crap out of them. Don't misunderstand. They're fairly forgiving. It's not like a pastry. You don't have to do it just right and barely touch it or anything. You can roll it out and roll it some more. That's not a big deal. But don't roll it out and then get mad it's not the right shape and ball it up and roll it out again and repeat that a hundred times or anything. Your dough will get tough and stiff and funky. Just roll it out till it's thinnish (1/4 inch is good, though if you like them thicker that's okay too--just remember they'll poof out when they rise the 2nd time, so don't roll them too thick or you'll have more of a roll than a cinnamon roll--which isn't the end of the world either, mind you).

5. Don't overbake them. For the love of all things flour and yeast. They should be lightly (LIGHTLY) browned at the edges. Then take them out. This is usually between 10 and 15 minutes, but--especially if yours are thin or you got the dough a little stiffer or more flour-y than you wanted--check earlier. In fact, not overbaking will cover a multitude of roll sins. Too stiff, too heavy, too flour-y, not enough time to rise, used margarine--just make sure they're not overdone, and they'll still taste good. If you must, err on the side of being underdone. You can always cook a few minutes more, but you can never take the time away. A roll pulled out, cooled, and then put back in because it is dough-y in the middle will taste better than an overdone roll. Am I making myself clear? (P.S. The picture above--I would have given those a minute or two less. Fortunately, the recipe was a good one, so they forgave me.)

Bec's Buttercream Frosting

Cheap Eat Challenge Count Down: 4 days

(Bad picture alert)

You know I have strong feelings against shortening, but my sister told me to give this frosting a shot and I did. It was very good. She said with all butter it wasn't right--too buttery. I believe this. And it was really really awesome. However, I do intend to mess around with it--maybe try a combo of cream cheese and sour cream or something--you know, just as a matter of principle. 

We used this frosting on our cinnamon rolls, but I think it'd be a great base for a coconut cake or any cake that needs a light airy frosting that doesn't scream shortening. It would also be amazing between the layers of something super chocolatey, or as the outside frosting of a cake that had some sort of fruit something inside. The possibilities are limitless.

Bec's Buttercream Frosting

1 C shortening
1 C butter
1 tsp vanilla
2 lb (8 C) powdered sugar
3 Tbsp milk
1/2-1 tsp grated lemon rind (optional)
1-2 Tbsp squeezed lemon juice (optional)

Mix together (you want to beat it together until it's nice and fluffy) and spread on cooled cinnamon rolls.

I felt it needed a little something, so I added some lemon rind and juice. I thought it made it super awesome, but Bec preferred the original.


Monday, December 27, 2010

Rebecca's Apple Cinnamon Rolls

Cheap Eat Challenge Count Down: 5 days

These were really good. Would that I had pictures to match their perfection. But we've been busy. And there are many small children about.

Apparently, San Antonio is the land of the 3 pound cinnamon roll. At least this is something you'd know if you watched "Man Versus Food." Ours weren't 3 pounds (thank our post Christmas stars), and according to my sister, ours tasted a heck of a lot better than the three pound block they bought when my brother came to visit.

Bec's Apple Cinnamon Rolls
Makes 48

3 Tbsp yeast
1 C lukewarm water (110 degrees or so)
2 C milk
10 Tbsp butter (for dough)
1 tsp salt
2/3 C sugar
4 eggs, beaten

8-9 C flour
1/2-3/4 C butter (for spreading on dough)
1 1/2 C brown sugar (for spreading on dough)
4 Tbsp cinnamon (for spreading on dough)
2 large apples, peeled and chopped very small (for putting on dough)

Put yeast in water and dissolve.

Warm milk with butter in it until butter melts. Add salt and sugar until dissolved.

Pour liquid in a bowl and add 2 C flour. When it's cool enough (120 degrees or so), add beaten eggs and yeast mixture. Add remaining flour 2 C at a time until you can't mix it any more. Then dump it out and knead it adding more flour as needed. If you've got a Kitchenaid use the dough hook. My sister does and that's what we used. But you can knead the dough for 6-8 minutes instead. (I'll get some tips up for cinnamon rolls tomorrow or the next day.)

Let it raise until doubled (ours was fast, but it usually takes about an hour).

Separate into two balls (or blobs as it were). Roll each out into rectangle (ours were bigger than 12 inches by 18 inches). Spread with melted butter, brown sugar, cinnamon, and apples. Roll up, cut in slices (ours were about 1/2 inch). Put on cookie sheet and let rise again.

Bake in oven at 350 for 12-15 minutes.

Frost if desired, though a good cinnamon roll doesn't need it.

We did frost and I'll get that to you later, but my sister wants me to hang out right now, so it must wait.


Friday, December 24, 2010

Non-alcoholic Eggnog

Cheap Eat Challenge Count Down: 8 days

We're a bunch of teetolarers here. Which means I grew up drinking eggnog for breakfast on Christmas morning. It was awesome.

If you've only ever tried the eggnog they sell in cartons at the store, you may think it is the Grinch's boogers. As well it may be. The store bought stuff is super nasty. Beyond nasty. I don't know what they do to it. It must be due to some anti-eggnog lobbyists or something. But homemade, it's like holiday ice cream in a mug. 

In the years since my childhood, I've worried a bit about the raw eggs, which considering how much raw cookie dough I've eaten these last weeks without even a thought, seems a little ironic.

Nevertheless, tonight after my first glass (teetotalers like drinking their non-alcoholic drinks out of glasses for alcohol--don't ask; maybe it makes us feel rebellious), my sister wondered aloud what would happen if we heated and then chilled the drink to cook the eggs. So we did. It's a bit more effort (and time), but I'll be darned if it didn't work.

And if you've got a little ice cream maker, I think it'd be pretty awesome if you threw the eggnog in and froze it. Possibly beyond awesome.

Non-Alcoholic Eggnog
Serves 2

3 eggs
2 C milk
1/4 C sugar (I added an extra couple tablespoons, because we go for a different kind of buzz around here)
1-2 Tbsp cream (optional)
1/2 tsp vanilla
nutmeg for garnish

Combine all ingredients except nutmeg in blender and blend.

If you're the bold, devil-may-care sort, you can just sprinkle it with nutmeg and drink it like that.

If you're a more cautious type, heat this in a saucepan just until it reads 160 on an instant read thermometer. If you go much over 160, it may start thickening or get really funky, so I really really recommend a thermometer.

When it hits 160 take it off the heat and chill it. You might want to give it another spin in the blender to get it frothy again.

Sprinkle with nutmeg (do not skip that part) and enjoy.


Thursday, December 23, 2010

Cheap December Foods

Cheap Eat Challenge Count Down: 9 days

For many people, December is a time for blowing budgets and blowing diets. While I haven't exactly been helpful in the diet department (sorry--you could try freezing the cookies, or just give them away as soon as possible, or maybe you could jog in place while they're in the oven:)). Anyway, I'm going to offer a tip for helping you budget in the year to come. Below is my list of several foods that go on sale in December.

1. Chocolate chips. They're always cheaper at this time of year. They freeze well if you don't have the type of family that will eat them all within the first few months of the year.

2. Nuts. They're on sale and they freeze well.

3. Shredded coconut.

4. Pumpkin. Some of the real sugar pumpkins are still hanging around for reasonable prices. They can be stored in a cool place for several months. And the canned pumpkin is generally on sale at this time of year.

5. Sweet potatoes. They're not as cheap as they were right before/after Thanksgiving, but they're still about half as much as usual in these parts. (Regular potatoes tend to be on sale at this time too, though also not quite as much as before Thanksgiving.)

6. Fancy cheese. Last year we got 8 oz of mascarpone for $2.50. It's usually at least $5.00. I've actually found plenty of plain old cheese on sale this time of year as well.

7. Cream Cheese. Great for dips and I usually enjoy a good January cheesecake. It freezes, but the consistency will change somewhat. This is fine if you'll be cooking, not spreading, it.

8. Cream. Stores like Aldi will carry it seasonally for very cheap and at other stores, it goes on sale as well. As with the cream cheese, you can freeze it, but the texture changes somewhat.

9. Crackers. We're not big cracker people, but if you are 'tis the season to stock up.

10. Citrus fruits. These also last well, especially if refrigerated.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Full-Proof Caramel and Thumbprint Cookies in 4 Movements: Original, Chocolate, Peanut Butter, Caramel

Cheap Eat Challenge: 10 days

Some people find a good recipe and like to leave it lie. Some people are incapable of such culinary simplicity.

Several weeks ago, I saw a link to these Caramel Thumbprint Cookies. I like caramel. I like sea salt. But I also like chocolate. And I had extra peanut butter filling from my homemade peanut butter cups.

So you've got movement 1: The original caramel sea salt thumbprint cookies

Movement 2: To make these chocolate, substitute 1/2 C of the flour for 1/2 C cocoa.

Movement 3: Peanut butter. This works for the blond or chocolate varieties. Add a blob of the peanut butter filling from my homemade peanut butter cups.  You'll want to put the peanut butter filling in while the cookies are hot, whereas if you're working with caramel, you'll want to put it in when they're cool.

Movement 4: And if you've got a little of everything, you can do the peanut butter and then drizzle caramel over the tops of the cookies.

Now, a few quick notes on caramel.

-I love it.

-I always mess it up.

-I blame my stove which is not quite level--thus, part of the sugar cooks faster than the other part.

-I blame my pots, some of which are not heavy-bottomed.

-I blame the cute little distractions that often fill my kitchen.

-It is surely not my fault that my first batch of sugar crystalized like so:

Or that my second batch of sugar burned like so:

The fact is that I have a full-proof method for making caramel, but I didn't do it. I followed the recipe. I'm sure the recipe's instructions usually work for normal people with level ovens and decent pans. But I need to follow this method from America's Test Kitchen Cookbook.

1. Fill bottom of saucepan with shallow layer of water--just a centimeter or so will do. It just has to be covered.

2. Pour the sugar in the center of the pan--just in a heap. Don't bother to stir or smooth it.

3. Cover pan.

4. Turn burner on medium high.

5. Sugar will start to melt and bubble. When bubbles just begin to color, take lid off and turn heat down.

6. Allow it to get to a nice amber color. I'm always worried about burning, so mine tend to be a little lighter. But the darker you get it without burning the more complex and perfect the flavor of your caramel will be.

7. When it's the right color, take it off the heat.

8. Add specified amount of butter and incorporate completely.

9. Add specified amound of cream and mix it in.

10. You're done. Don't lick the spoon too quickly. This stuff is hot.

11. To clean pan, let it soak. It'll come off.

(Printable instructions here.)

P.S. I'll be hanging out with my sister over the next few days so these posts will most likely be a bit short. But probably still plenty sweet:).

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Kip's Chocolate and M&M Cookies--Christmas Style

Cheap Eat Challenge Count Down: 11 days

Tell me those don't say HoHoHo.

Kip makes really good chocolate chip cookies. One of the great things about them is that if you add M&M's they're instantly appropriate for any occasion. Thus, in true man fashion Kip has managed to take one great recipe and make it useful for pretty much anything. That way he only has to know how to cook one cookie. Really well. As opposed to me. In true woman fashion, I keep trying different Christmas cookie recipes obsessively and often trying 3 or 4 variations on a theme--caramel, sea salt, peanut butter, wheeee. (More on that tomorrow.) I'm not saying either way is better. Both yield pretty awesome results most of the time. Though I will say this: The man way tends to be a little more reliable and sometimes less frustrating. Kip's cookies--they're good every time.

A few notes displaying my ego and various points of marital discord:

1. This recipe is adapted from my sister Katie's recipe. Katie's recipe kicks butt. However, in it she replaces half the butter with shortening. We don't usually have shortening; I am generally opposed to it. I just love that buttery taste especially when the edges are just browning and...yum. But. But The shortening does give the cookies just a bit more volume when cooked as well as a slightly nicer bite when you bite in (and as I said I dislike shortening, so I hate to admit this, but it's true). I believe it also makes the cookies keep better. Kip's are amazing the first day, but lose life quickly thereafter. Fortunately, we eat them at a rate where they don't need to keep too much life for too long.

2. If you want to use all butter, but don't plan to eat 48 cookies in a day (you prudent person you), you can a) freeze the cooked cookies as soon as they're cool (they freeze wonderfully) or b) keep the dough in the fridge and make more fresh ones when the mood strikes, or c) roll into balls and freeze in a freezer bag; then you can whip them out and make them whenever you like. You'll need to add a few minutes baking time to the frozen ones (probably 4-6 minutes).

3. Kip cooks his cookies for about 10 minutes (and he makes them large). They tend to be very blond--too blond, in fact, for me (not that I wouldn't eat them if there were a gun to my head or anything). It's just that if I'm going to eat mostly raw cookies, I'll just take the dough. I like mine cooked 1-1 1/2 minutes longer so the edges have a bit of brown--I think this really brings out the buttery flavor--you can practically feel all the buttery-ness bursting between your teeth. However, this is not an excuse for overbaking. This recipe (or any recipe) overbaked just isn't that great--a bit of brown on the edges is all you need.

4. If you replace 1/2 C of the flour with 1/2 C oat flour (grind some oats in the blender if you don't have oat flour), it adds a really nice flavor/texture/touch (do you see how I'm trying to edge in on Kip's recipe here--ego manifested).

5. If you use margarine, you will have a flat lifeless cookie and might as well go eat a piece of whole wheat bread. Stick some chocolate chips in the bread if it makes you feel better, but don't waste your time or calories making cookies with margarine. Once when we had a yard sale, the kids wanted to sell cookies. We bought margarine specifically for this purpose--to make them as cheaply as possible and thus increase our bottom line. It was an interesting life lesson for me. They were ugly--they lost all the form the butter or butter/shortening cookies have and were smooth and sort of thin at the edges. They were gross--no flavor, bad texture. This is what the food industry does. If I want to eat cookies food industry style, I should just go to the lovely WalMart bakery and help myself. I was embarrassed to put our margarine patties out, but we did anyway. And the kids sold a few, but only because our children are adorable. Life lesson learned: If you're going to make a cookie, make a cookie. Make it good. Make it pretty. Spend the extra $.50 (that's how much we saved by using margarine). And enjoy it.

6. Kip would say don't skimp on the chocolate chips. However, I have to confess that if you use less or don't even use them at all (Heresay!Blasphemy!Divorce!), these cookies are still wicked good. (Please don't tell Kip I said so.)

7. Another holiday variation, courtesy of my sister Katie. Skip the chocolate chips entirely and frost the plain cookies in green and red/pink. Again, wicked good (shhh).

Kip's Chocolate Chip and M&M Cookies
Makes 36-48

1 C butter
1 C brown sugar (packed)
1 C sugar
2 tsp vanilla
2 eggs
3 C flour
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 bag chocolate chips
1/2 bag M&M's

Preheat to 375. Cream butter, sugars, and vanilla. Add and mix in eggs. Sift, then add flour, salt, and baking soda. Stir in chocolate chips and M&M's. Bake 8-12 minutes until barely golden. DON'T OVERBAKE AND DON'T EVEN THINK ABOUT USING MARGARINE.


Monday, December 20, 2010

Homemade Peanut Butter Cups

Cheap Eat Challenge Count Down: 12 days

Don't have a mold? Worry not.

Yeah, these are good. To say they are merely better than the store bought kind would be to stab me in the heart. They are in a different league. Also, they are easy to make. And gluten-free if you've got a Christmas friend in need of such a treat. My gosh, does that make them a health food? Just don't ask your scale.

Seriously, though, if you've never made your own candy, you ought to give it a go. All homemade food is beautiful in its own right. Which is partly what makes home cooking somewhat spiritual in nature. To cook food is a small act of creation. In this, as well as other ways, it can be deeply satisfying. Which is why, even though there will be a fair amount of eating-too-many-of-these jokes throughout this post (because some in this family--who have metabolisms to handle it--can pop these babies into their mouths whole as though the peanut butter balls were wee chocolate chips), I usually just eat just one. Slowly. Happily. And that's all I need.

It's a much different experience that tossing something into your cart at check-out and, honesty--HONESTLY--it doesn't take much longer. Not including the periods of waiting for chocolate to set up, these probably took me 7 minutes to make. Not counting chocolate melting times, they probably took me 4 minutes.

And if making your own food is good, is spiritual, decorating your food is just one step further. If it were perfectly healthy, it'd be, like, food nirvana. Beautification is its own little department in the bureau of home cooking. It's not a step I always take, but with these it's easy. The melted chocolate does all the work. I believe that beautiful chocolates make women feel beautiful. If they made us feel like gross, piggy slobs, they wouldn't be given on Valentine's Day, now would they. Make them yourself and you'll feel better than beautiful. You'll feel powerful and beautiful. Now that's a food worth savoring.

If you're using a mold (they cost a buck or two at Michael's), you'll fill them with melted chocolate on the bottoms and sort of paint it up the sides with your finger. Let it harden.

  While the chocolate is setting, mix up the peanut butter filling. It won't be rock hard, but it'll be rollable.

Once your chocolate is set, add a blob of peanut butter goodness.

Then pour more chocolate on the top and voila.

Bang the mold on the counter a few times to get any air pockets out. And let it harden. Then turn the mold over and press them out.

If you're making balls, roll the peanut butter delight into balls, place them on wax or parchment paper, then dribble melted chocolate on the top.

After they've set you can flip them over and do the bottoms, but by the time I got to that step there were only 4 left (true story) and that didn't seem worth bothering about. (Though I do like the contrast of the shelled outside and the soft middle--if, you know, you and yourn have 30 minutes or so of willpower.)

If you'd like the outside to be a thinner chocolate, put a smear of melted (and not extremely hot) chocolate in the palm of your hand and roll the ball around in it.

A note on chocolate. You can buy tempered chocolate. That way your chocolate won't get light-colored splotches on it in a day or so. (Also, I hear that using very high quality chocolate helps with splotching.) You can temper your own chocolate by cooling it off at the right rate. I hear that this can be done by melting the chocolate (either in the microwave or over a double broiler), then taking it away from the heat source and adding about an ounce of hard chocolate and mixing it in until it's melted.
But you'll have to read up on the internet for more information on this because I never mess with it. First of all, it doesn't change the taste, only the appearance of the chocolate. Secondly, did you miss the part about how I couldn't even do the bottoms of my chocolate balls because there were only four left. Ahem.

Homemade Peanut Butter Cups
Makes (I forgot to count) at least 30


Note: If using a mold or if you want a really creamy center, you can scale back the sugar to 2 C. With the reduced sugar, you might have to get it good and cold in the refrigerator if you're rolling it into balls. It will be worth it because it is so creamy and awesome, but it requires foresight, which can be lacking in this household.

3 oz. cream cheese
2 1/2 T butter
2 1/3 C powdered sugar
1/4 C peanut butter

Beat cream cheese and butter together. Beat in powdered sugar, then peanut butter.

Roll into balls and cover with melted chocolate. You'll probably use about 1 C or 6 oz. chocolate.

How to melt chocolate:

I do it lazy style. I pour chocolate chips (semi-sweet or bittersweet) onto a plate and microwave in 20 second intervals, mixing each time the microwave dings until they're melted.

You can also use a double boiler and just pour them into the top and mix until melted.

If you don't have a double boiler or a microwave, you can put a bowl over a pan of boiling water (as in find a bowl with a top just bigger than your pan's top so the bowl is suspended above the bottom of the pan). Then get the water boiling and mix the chocolate in the bowl until it melts. But seriously, this is the type of instruction that keeps people from doing this sort of thing. Just put it in the microwave. 20 second intervals.

Dribble and harden. And eat. With joy. With love. Power. Beauty.


Saturday, December 18, 2010

Gingerbread Cookies

Cheap Eat Challenge Count Down: 14 days

I let my kids decorate our cut out cookies. I guess I figure that's what cut out cookies are for, right? Since as an adult, I would happily eat any old tasty circular blob. But maybe I am just mature. Anyway, our kids do our cut outs and as you can see from the picture above, they always come out a little... highly accessorized.

Oh, sure, I commandeered a few (by the way, I don't know how to spell commandeered).

But as you can see the kids' look just as tasty in their chocolate sprinkled gingerbread blob kind of way.

And they tasted really good too.

Other than that, our day was a bit of a train wreck.

So, without further ado...

Gingerbread Cookies
Adapted from The Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook
Makes 24-36

1/2 C butter
1/2 C sugar
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp ginger
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp cloves
1/2 C molasses
1 egg
1 Tbsn vinegar
2 1/2 C flour, plus plenty for rolling and cutting.

Cream butter and sugar. Add bakind soda, baking powder, ginger, cinnamon, and cloves. Beat till combined. Beat in molasses, egg, and vinegar. Add flour. I beat in a cup and stirred in the rest.

Chill the dough at least an hour. Roll out to 1/4 inch thickness and cut. Accessorize if you wish. I'd either grease the cookie sheet lightly or place the cookies on a piece of parchment paper on your cookie sheet, since ours were a bit difficult to get off and then you lose gingerman arms and what not and that's never fun.

Bake at 375 for 6 minutes for a moist tender cookie (that's the way I like them, though they're more fragile that way. If you want a tougher, crispier cookie, bake 8-10 minutes).

If you like to frost yours, you can use royal frosting, but we don't like it so we use normal frosting even though it takes longer to set up and be non-goopy.

Here's the recipe I used:

Barely Lemon Gingerbread Cookie Frosting

1 1/2 C powdered sugar
1 Tbsp butter, melted
1 to 1 1/2 tsp lemon juice
3-4 Tbsp milk (to desired consistency--mine was fairly wet because I just wanted to sort of loosely dribble it on--or perhaps 'stream' is a better word)

Whisk or beat it all together. I put mine in a frosting thingy (train wreck day, remember), but you can spread or use fancy frosting thingy attachments.

By the way, if you don't like gingerbread cookies (I'll cover my ears) or if you're just looking for a good sugar cookie recipe, check out this one from i am baker. I have to confess that one of the reasons we've always made gingerbread cookies is because I never had a sugar cookie recipe I really liked eating (dough excepted--I always liked eating the dough). I found that recipe from i am baker, and it was very good. I found myself actually tempted by the sugar cookies sitting on the counter, which I never had been before. I'm not sure that's a good thing. Because soon our family will look like this.

At least we're smiling.

Well, those of use who aren't pock-marked all over with chocolate chips.

(Uh-oh, that's the big one wearing a skirt--I think it's me.)

Friday, December 17, 2010

Kip's Brownies: The Mix

Cheap Eat Challenge Count Down: 15 days

The first gift my husband ever gave me when we were dating was a plate full of brownies. At that point in my life, I rarely ate sweets at all and, perhaps because of this, when I did I was happy with any old boxed sugary whatever that someone made. But those brownies that Kip gave me, even to my untrained, unrefined tongue, were something different. Something special. Apparently (four kids later) that theme continued throughout our courtship.

This year I wanted to give them as a mix. Which is easy to do. Because homemade brownies are embarrassingly easy to make. They come with a warning, however: If you get used to them, you might start turning your nose up at the stuff that comes from a box. Turns out that homemade brownies, like marriage, kids, and love, are one of those things you can't really return from, one of those things you get used to in your rich, sweet, homemade life, and you never want to do without. But I think that's a gift worth giving.

Kip's Brownie Mix
Makes 16

Note: Kip would be disappointed I'm giving you the 8x8 inch recipe. He always doubles it. Because that's the kind of love we have in this house. True love. Chocolate love. Big love. Double the love.

1/2 C cocoa
1 C sugar
3/4 C flour
dash salt
1 C chocolate chips (optional)

Put mix in a Ziploc bag and shake it up. If you want to doll it up by putting it in a jar or some such thing, go for it. Below is how mine would have looked if I wasn't trying to be cute for this blog. Trying, being the key word there.

Note: If you expect it to be eaten within a month or so, you can even add the butter (1 stick) to the mix in chunks. (To prepare with butter in, you'll probably have to beat with beaters or a stand mixer. It would also be helpful to soften it by throwing the mix in the microwave for 20 seconds or so.) When I put mine in the mason jar, I actually smashed the butter on the bottom of the jar and then cut out a circle of parchment paper to go on top of it--the idea being that the recipient of the gift can dump the mix out and then melt the butter in the jar in the microwave. This, I should note, is an untested theory. After Christmas, I'll let you know how it went.

The order in my mason jar (mine was a little less than a quart because it's a weird size) went like this:
butter, 1/2 C sugar, cocoa, flour, 1/2 C chocolate chips, 1/2 C sugar

To prepare: (Be sure to include instructions if you're giving these away):

1 stick (1/2 C) melted butter (unless it's included in the mix)
2 eggs
Mix together and pour into a greased 8x8 inch pan. Bake at 350 for 20 minutes.

Or--if you've included the butter in the mix:

Pour mix into bowl. Heat in microwave 20 seconds. Beat in 2 eggs.
Pour into a greased 8x8 inch pan. Bake at 350 for about 20 minutes.


Thursday, December 16, 2010

Citrus Carrot Juice

Cheap Eat Challenge Count Down: 16 days

I think it's time for a little detoxification.

I know that it seems we just sit around here inhaling sugar and cocoa and almond paste all day. But we actually do eat many healthy things. We eat, or at least put on the table to be eaten, spinach potato soup. We eat winter smoothies. And when the citrus goes on sale, as it has recently done, we make juice.

I know what you're thinking: Homemade juice isn't cheap. Which, compared to some store bought juice or water, is certainly true. First of all, you're saying, there's the juicer. And those things can be pricey. Secondly, there's the produce, some of which goes unused in the making of juices.

Now, allow me to defend myself. And perhaps make an argument for homemade juices as well.

First of all, while homemade juice is expensive compared to some store bought juices or water, it's quite cheap compared to soda or bottled water or Welch's or any juice you buy in the refregerated section and not the frozen juice section.

Secondly, juicer's can be pricey--very pricey. But they needn't be, especially for our humble purposes of just getting an added burst of nutrition. I got mine off of freecycle from the nicest lady ever. It's a Juiceman II juicer and not the greatest juicer in the world, but it gets the job done. My brother and sister-in-law love their Black and Decker juicer, which cost them $50 last winter from WalMart. They claim to get twice as much juice from their fruits/veggies as I do from mine and I believe them. Furthermore, you can get a simple citrus juicer for cheap and that can give you a nice dose of all the nice citrus fruits that are in season this time of year. I see these things at yard sales all the time. And even though they're only good for citrus, they're a heck of a lot easier to clean than the other juicers.

Thirdly, citrus fruits are on sale at this time of year, sometimes for very very cheap. I got 4 lb or oranges for $1.49 this week from Aldi. Grapefruit are well under $1/lb as well. And carrots are usually cheap. I made about 12 oz of juice yesterday for about $.50. People often spend that or double that on a soda or bottled water without thinking twice.

Of course, you may also be asking, Why Juice? (And, yes, you are definitely asking it with capital letters.) This is a good question. In our family, there are many answers.

First, it's a great way to use produce that you realize isn't very good when you bring it home--that bag of oranges that looked so promising, those apples that are all bruised, the grapefruit you bought from Sam's that your kids don't like and that you can't finish off before it goes bad. Juicers are a great way to use the orange you may or may not have given your baby to play with one morning when you were busy in combination with that apple that your toddler only half ate. This was one of my main reasons for getting a juicer and also a reason I didn't want to spend a lot on mine. I wasn't sure how much I'd use it.

Secondly, my husband and kids have a little problem getting enough fruits and vegetables in their diets. But they like juice and it's easy to give them a glass and nice to know that they're getting a good punch of raw fruits (and sometimes veggies depending on how good I am at getting that stuff in). In the summer we make smoothies with summer fruits, but in the winter those are expensive and not very good. Juicing seems the logical way to fill that gap.

Thirdly, there's a very convincing argument for juicing. It goes like this: Some nutrients are bound up in the fibers of fruits and vegetables. Thus, when you eat the fruits and vegetables whole, they are not absorbed, but rather travel through your digestive track with the undigestible fibers. When you juice, you remove the valuable vitamins, minerals, and enzymes from the produce and absorb 100% of it. The statistic I kept finding on the Internet was that if you ate a carrot, you'd get about 1% of the beta carotene, but if you juiced it you'd get 100%. I think those numbers are a little sketchy, since most of us do spend a couple of minutes chewing our carrots, but the principle (that fiber can inhibit the absorption of some vitamins, etc.) seems sound to me. Furthermore when you juice you get the vitamins, minerals, and enzymes into your system faster since there's no fiber to work through. By the way, most of the juicing advocates are not saying to do away with fiber completely. They are only saying that it can inhibit the absorption of some vitamins, etc. and that therefore juicing is a very good addition to a healthy diet.

And as a last question, Why Not Buy Cheap Juice From the Store?

First, it has been pasteurized and stored. Heating the juice makes it no longer a raw food. That means the enzymes get destroyed and that the food simply isn't as nutritious as it would have been.

Secondly, it has additives/preservatives.

Thirdly, sometimes sugar is added. And there are those who believe that even in juices that claim to be 100% fruit juice, there is a use of extra sugars from the fruits to make it sweeter. So, yes, it's 100% from fruit, but they've used extra fruit sugars to sweeten it. I don't know if it's true, but I certainly wouldn't put it past the food industry.

Fourth, the the homemade stuff tastes something awesome.

Now, before we get to the juice recipe, which is itself very simple and can be jimmied in 1000's of ways, let me give a few tips for juicing and using the refuse.

1. Drink your juice quickly. Homemade juice oxidizes quickly, meaning the enzymes and nutrients start to die. The sooner you drink it, the better.

2. Clean your juicer quickly. The stuff will harden on the little bitty holes and the stickiness with be there forevermore. If you don't have time to clean it immediately, soak it till you do.

3. You can use the refuse in soups or smoothies. I personally don't like it in smoothies as I miss the juicy stuff. But the carrot juice refuse is good in soups.

4. Compost it. This is what I do. It breaks down quickly. If you have even a small garden, you can put it in a large rubbermaid bin outside and compost it in that.

And now for the recipe.

Citrus Carrot Juice
Serves 1

1 orange, peeled
1 grapefruit, peeled
1 carrot

Feed them into your juicer and drink up.

My sister-in-law makes great juice. She adds a few strawberries and about a cup of spinach. If I'd had spinach I would have added it too, but strawberries are too rich for my blood at this time of year.

Only have a citrus juicer, skip the carrots. You're kids will like it better that way anyway:).


Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Oma van der Wouden's Dutch Almond Bars

Cheap Eat Challenge Count Down: 17 days

No, she's not my Oma. Remember Chaliese from our previous almond bars. Remember her grandmother, Carolina Hujyboom van der Wouden. Well, I finally got to making the authentic recipe using the almond paste. And then tonight it was my duty as a food blogger to try the more American version (a stash of which lives in my freezer) and the authentic recipe. Yes, the life of a food blogger is difficult, challenging, sometimes even grueling. Fortunately, I have risen to the meet the obstacles, my friends; I have conquered all odds. And I have lived to tell you about it.

They were both good. Very good. And they were both almond-y. Very almond-y. The texture of both was also surprisingly similar--quite dense and moist, almost creamy if a cookie bar could be described as such.

I took it upon myself to taste the almond paste, which immediately brought back many food memories and reminded me of the fillings the Dutch use in, well, just about everything--sweet-wise at least. I don't know why it surprised me--maybe it seemed too simple that that elusive flavor/texture that I'd been missing ever since I came home from The Netherlands 11 years ago was sitting right there on the baking shelf at Schnucks. Once I'd even gone looking for a recipe for the filling and the one I made was okay, but it wasn't as right on as this paste was. Nevertheless, as something that got creamed in (instead of acting as a filling), this gave a surprisingly similar almond-y-ness to the cookie.

Oma Carolina Hujyboom van der Wouden's recipe, however, also used brown sugar, which gave the bars a more complex flavor, and added to the overall nuttiness of the flavor. Incidently, I've made the Americaniezed almond bars before with brown sugar and it didn't have the same effect. I'm not enough of a food scientist to be able to tell you why, but it didn't--there was something about the brown sugar/almond paste combo that did it.

Finally--and, for me, most surprisingly, the authentic bars had a butter-y flavor that was amazing. The recipes use the same amount of butter and yet in Oma van der Wouden's, you could really taste it in all it's buttery perfection. (Pardon me for the brilliant use of adjectives here: buttery, almond-y, nutty).

In short--they're both amazing bars. They also both taste fairly European to me (of course, that's coming from an American, so take it with a grain of salt.) The Americanized version can be made anywhere there's a grocery store with a mediocre baking aisle, and they're cheaper to make. The almond paste is going to cost you. Mine was $3.89 on sale. But. But. Oma van der Wouden's version was a richer and more perfect cookie. It was also just a bit more, well, Dutch. Make it for your dearest friends, or hide it in the freezer and consume it yourself. No one will ever know.

Oma van der Wouden's Dutch Almond Bars
Makes 24-36 bars

1 C butter
8 oz almond paste
2 C brown sugar, packed
2 eggs
dash salt
2 C flour
1/2 C sliced or whole almonds

Cream together butter and almond paste. Add brown sugar and cream with fatty stuff. Beat in eggs. Mix in salt and flour.

Spread batter in 9x13 inch pan and press almonds into dough.

Bake at 300 degrees for 40-45 minutes.


Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Gingerbread Houses without Royal Frosting

Cheap Eat Challenge Count Down: 18 days

Right away you're going to notice something suspicious about these "gingerbread" houses, so called. Namely, they are not made of gingerbread. They're made of graham crackers. The reason isn't that I hate gingerbread. And it's only partly that I am lazy. The biggest reason is that I LOVE gingerbread and it's so heartbreaking to me to have to overbake it to hardness and then to let it sit for weeks (or perhaps just days depending on your family) and then be just pure nastiness when/if you go to eat it. So I save my gingerbread for cookies that are both fun to make and perfectly edible.

(The other thing you may notice about these houses is that they are stacked full with candy on the inside. My kids are no dummies. They know an efficient way to get the most bang for their buck.)

But this post isn't about gingerbread. It's about the stuff you use to stick the houses together. Traditionally you use a type of frosting called royal frosting that uses powdered sugar, cream of tartar, egg whites, and water.  This must be whipped up for a painful 8 minutes or so. And then it hardens up right quick so you can stick the houses together. But it never is quite quick enough for kids who are eager to get their candy on the houses. The result for us is that our houses tend to be a bit, um, crooked. Or perhaps caved in. Also, royal frosting tastes gross and it's pesky to work with since it tends to get globbed over your fingers, your table, your kids' hair and clothes.

So this year my sister, Katie, sent me a tip she found online. Instead of royal frosting, you melt sugar and then glue the houses together with it. It hardens as it cools, which is very fast. It makes for non-globby, quickly assembled houses. (Just be careful with your fingertips because melted sugar is VERY hot.) Also, it tastes really good. I didn't think I'd like it that much, but--especially when stuck to a cookie-like cracker--browned sugar is something else.

Now, I always burn my sugar when I try to melt it but I figured it'd still glue and that burned sugar wouldn't taste any worse than royal frosting, so we decided to give it a go.

If you've never melted sugar before, your world is about to open up to many possibilities (candied nuts, caramel, butterscotch, lollipops). Here's how you do it.

First, throw some sugar in a pan and turn the heat to medium. I wasn't too concerned about burning and was in a hurry so I turned it a little higher than medium.

Then stir it around with a spatula that will not melt (wood, silicone, metal if your pan won't get scratched). Don't mix it like crazy. Just give it stir every 20 seconds or so until you start to notice the sugar crystals on the bottom becoming liquid-y. Start to stir it more frequently and it will begin to clump together like so:

Keep stirring and it will turn brown and clumpy. Turn the heat down a bit to medium low or so.

Don't freak out. Just keep stirring. Remember if it burns, you don't have much to lose. This isn't caramel; it's just gingerbread house, which will is mostly about looks (and being filled to the brim with extra candy of course). It'll start to get melty and golden.

And then...

It will be melted and ready to have the sides of your houses dipped in. This has a few lumps left, which wouldn't have worked for caramel sauce, but didn't matter here. By the way, even if you're using real gingerbread, this will work great.

Take it off the heat.

Dip the edges in.

And stick the sides together. Remember, watch your fingers. This stuff is hot. Also, have a plate or whatever you're going to set it on nearby so you don't put it on the counter and have to pry it off.

You'll need to work a little quickly, but don't stress out because if the sugar in the pan starts to harden, you can just heat it again and it will liquidify again. As a bonus, while you work, it will make lovely strings of candy that you can eat. Or feed to your kids if you're nice. See that drop in the picture above. It was hardened and so pretty I wished I could have hung it on the tree. Instead I gave it to my 3-year-old. Because I'm nice.

Here are the houses. After the sugar was melted (which took only about 5 minutes), they took a mere 5 minutes to assemble. And then another 3 minutes to cool. (I did do this part while my kids watched a movie. That made life a little easier.)

Now for the candy, you'll probably want to use a pretty white frosting. Because it looks like snow. I was about to whip up a batch or royal frosting. But Kip hates it so he told me to just make some regular frosting really thick. I didn't think it'd work, but sure enough it did.

I used about 1 T butter, with about 2 C powdered sugar and then added milk by the 1/2 tsp until it was good and thick. Ours was thick enough to roll into balls. 

I think you could get away with it a little thinner that that too, but it can't be normal frosting consistency or the candy will just drip off the houses. We globbed ours on with our fingers and it worked fine.

Then we let the kids have at it and decorate them. (For printable instructions, go here.)

I went to the stove to clean up and there was some melted sugar, miraculously unburned (probably because I didn't care if it burned this time). Perfectly browned sugar. That's the start of good caramel and it called to me.

I warmed it up a bit so it was runny again. Then I threw in a tablespoon of butter, which I mixed till it was smooth. Then I tossed on a glug of cream, which I mixed till it was smooth. I'm sorry I don't have actual measurements here, but I wasn't planning to make caramel and didn't measure the original sugar we poured in. Even if we had I wouldn't have known how much was left after our gingerbread gluing.

I let the caramel cool for a minute or so and then poured it on some parchment paper to cool more.

And after it had cooled again, I formed it into little balls, which I plan to use in this chocolate caramel cookie recipe from Two Peas in a Pod. Because I am an overachiever. Not really. But I hated to waste it and the kids were still working on their houses, so I had a few minutes. And I'd had my eye on that recipe for a few weeks. Serendipity.

You could form it into candies to give away or add a bit more cream and make it a caramel sauce.

Or, heck, don't add the butter or cream and just slather the browned sugar on some extra graham crackers or gingerbread or sugar cookies.

Or throw some of your favorite nuts in the browned sugar and roll them around for candied nuts. (Put on parchment paper to cool.)

Or let it the sugar harden on parchment paper and cover it with a layer of melted chocolate, then break it into bark.

Or--if you really are an overachiever--dye it red or green and make lollipops (this is with just the melted sugar, not the caramel substance I made). Or cut "windows" out of your gingerbread houses and pour this sugar in them to make a glass windowpane.

The possibilities--they are limitless.

But if you think that's crazy talk, just put the pan with the stuck on sugar in the sink and soak it over night. That hard sugar will come right off. Promise.

P.S. I'm not sure where my sister got this tip. If she knows, I'll be sure to link it here and give credit where credit is due. 


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