Halloween is almost here: Kitty Litter Cake for everyone!

It’s creepy. It’s real looking. So real looking you might have to eat some first before anyone else will. Behold Kitty Litter Cake!

Love this for Halloween. I can’t say all the people I’ve served it to are as excited as I am but it always gets a reaction! Each time I make it, I giggle at the finished product because it is just so darn real looking. And it’s so easy!

This time I made Caramel Apple Cake with apple-y dulce de leche for the cake part. First I’ll tell you the easiest way. Then I’ll give you the recipe for the scrumptious caramel apple cake (which you can make as a single layer cake or a bundt cake without anything creepy or gross required)! The apple cake is really easy too – you just need a bowl and a spoon.

Things you need for the easiest version:

box cake mix (your favorite flavor) plus whatever ingredients it calls for on the box
box of pudding (your fav again) plus the milk to make it
package of vanilla sandwich cookies (about 50 – 60)
half gallon sized zip lock baggie
blue food coloring
tootsie rolls (anywhere from 3 – 15 depending on how many pieces of cat “poop” you want)
9×13” pan to bake the cake in
kitty litter pan, brand new & washed (or any 9×13” pan)
kitty litter scoop, brand new & washed

Make the pudding according to package directions and chill until ready to use. Bake the cake according to the box instructions. Let cool 15 – 20 minutes (or until completely cool).

While the cake is baking, place half the sandwich cookies in the baggie and use a rolling pin (or something else heavy) to crush the cookies. You should have them all in very small pieces and some tiny crumbs. Don’t use a food processor for this unless you carefully pulse and watch to make sure you don’t get uniform cookie dust. Add several drops of food coloring to the bag, seal, then shake and massage to distribute the color evenly. The cookie crumbs should be pretty evenly blue when you’re done; add more dye as needed. Place the blue crumbs in a bowl and fill the baggie with the other half of the cookies. Repeat the crushing but do not dye them. Add the un-dyed crumbs to the bowl with the blue ones and mix well. Sometimes I use a fork to break up any clumps and get them mixed properly. Now you have “kitty litter!”

Once the cake has cooled a bit, cut or rip it into pieces about 1” cubes. Spread the cake pieces in the cat litter pan or back in the pan you baked it in. Pour the pudding over the whole thing and stir around slightly to get the pudding down into the crevices between the cake. Pour the “litter” evenly over the top of all of this.

Now for the cat “poop.” Unwrap 3 – 6 tootsie rolls (I use the midgie size but you can use less of the bigger type), place on a plate, and microwave for 10 – 15 seconds. Combine 3 of the rolls together and shape into something that looks authentic. (mwahaha) Add on to your cake and turn over in the cookie crumbs once to get some to stick (I think it looks more real then). Repeat until you have enough “poop” to satisfy your inner evil baker.

Serve with a kitty litter scoop! Sit back and silently (or loudly) giggle at people discussing how/when/if to try and eat your masterpiece.

Perfect for Halloween or as an interesting kids party gag!


Salted Caramel Apple Cake

2 eggs
¾ cup vegetable oil
1 cup white sugar
½ cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
2 cups unbleached flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
4 – 5 cups apples, cored and diced (I used granny smith, about 5 of them)
Apple-y Dulce de Leche:
1 16 oz jar dulce de leche
¼ cup apple cider
2 – 3 tablespoons coarse sea salt (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and flour one 9×13 inch cake pan or a bundt pan.

In a medium bowl, beat oil and eggs with a whisk/wooden spoon until well combined.  Add the sugars and vanilla and beat well.  Add the flour, salt, and baking soda in the bowl. Stir until just combined. The batter will be very thick. Fold in the apples using a wooden spoon. Spread batter into the prepared pan. Bake for 45 minutes or until a toothpick comes out with only one or two crumbs attached.

While the cake bakes, mix together the dulce de leche and apple cider. Set aside.

If using the cake for the kitty litter cake, cool about 20 minutes and the cut/rip into 1” cubes.  Place into your serving vessel and pour the apple-y dulce de leche over it. Sprinkle sea salt over the top, if using.

If you made a single layer 9×13 cake, poke holes all over the cake while still hot.  Then pour the apple-y dulce de leche over the top, spreading if necessary to get every inch covered.  All that deliciousness will soak it the cake.  Sprinkle the sea salt over the cake if using.

If you made a bundt cake, let the cake cool in the pan for 20 minutes then turn out onto a wire rack to finish cooling.  Drizzle the apple-y dulce de leche over the top, saving any extra for individual servings.  Sprinkle with only 1 tablespoon of sea salt.

This cake is also delicious without the dulce de leche. Without it, it’s a yummy breakfast treat. I’ve also made it with itty bitty caramel bits I keep finding at Target instead of dulce de leche on top. A teaspoon or two of cinnamon in the batter is also delicious. Make it yours and enjoy!

Happy Halloween!

Posted in apple, bundt, cake, cakes, crowd pleaser, dessert, Halloween, quick & easy, tailgate friendly | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Baltimore’s Best Grilled Cheese

I got word of a grilled cheese competition happening at Mt Washington Tavern in Baltimore.  Local food competition? Of course I’ll enter! My favorite part of the whole thing? All the proceeds ($10 entry fee for the public) went to Moveable Feast, an organization that provides nutritious foods and other services in order to preserve quality of life for people with HIV/AIDS and other life-threatening conditions.  Their motto is “Feed people, Fight disease, Foster hope.”  It was amazing to be able to compete in a sold out event that drew a crowd of over 100 people benefiting such a tremendous organization.

On hand were 5 professional chefs and their teams, 3 home cooks chosen from over 30 entrants, and lots of grilled cheese fans, young and old.  I met a lot of great people and had a blast!  I also had the pleasure of trying all the professionals’ creations and snapped some photos while I was at it.  One of my recipes was chosen to be made live at the competition.  I brought all my sandwich parts and Mt Washington Tavern provided the table, table cloth, and butane burner.  We each made one sandwich to personally present to the judges and then a few more for them to taste.  It was really cool to go up and talk to the judges and describe what I made.  I tried to channel my favorite Top Chef contestants 😉

I entered a recipe I’ve made before in a slightly different format.  The inspiration comes from a sandwich recipe our friend Mark sent us many years ago.  The inspiration for its name (The Dirty Mushroom) comes from a bar my friends and I frequented in college/grad school, the Olive Branch.  They serve really good sandwiches that you can order “dirty” (on garlic bread) or not.  I liked my sandwiches dirty. Turns out the judges like their sandwiches dirty too: I won the Home Cook Category!

Check out my winning recipe below. I got a TROPHY! Woo! I also won some cash, a Mt Washington Tavern gift certificate and t-shirt, and did I mention… a TROPHY?!

. . .

Baltimore’s Best (from a home cook) Grilled Cheese

Makes about 8 sandwiches. Directions for the sandwich first; directions to make all the components second)

Loaf of good crusty Italian bread, sliced (crisp on the outside & soft on the inside)

4 oz roasted garlic compound butter, room temperature (1 stick of butter plus 1/2 head of garlic)

6 large portabella caps

2 roasted red peppers, sliced very thinly

1 large sweet onion, slice thinly and wilted

3/4 lb mozzarella, sliced thinly

8 ounces herbed goat cheese, room temperature (mine: plain with basil and parsley added)

4 tbl pomegranate molasses

Salt and pepper

To assemble and cook the sandwich

Heat a medium/large skillet (or a griddle) over medium-low heat (err on the side of low heat).  Spread 2 slices of bread with the garlic butter.  To easily assemble the sandwiches, place a slice of bread buttered side up on your work surface.  Place your second slice of bread buttered side down on top of the other slice of bread.  This keeps you from getting butter on your cutting board or counter.  Cover the bread with a single layer of mozzarella then spread with about 3 tbl of the herbed goat cheese.  Layer on a thin layer of onions, roasted red peppers, and portabella caps and brush/drizzle with pomegranate molasses*.  Sprinkle with salt and freshly cracked pepper.  Add another single layer of mozzarella.  Place the “bottom” part of your sandwich in your heated pan, butter side down.  Take the remaining slice of buttered bread and place it, butter side up, onto your sandwich.  Cover the pan and cook the sandwich for about 3 minutes.  Check your sandwich by peeking underneath and see if it’s at the shade of golden brown that you like.  Once it gets there, carefully flip it over and cook for another 3 minutes or so uncovered.  When it’s finished, slice and serve!

Shortcuts: To make this the quick & easy way, make garlic butter by stirring some garlic powder into some softened butter. Buy your favorite jarred roasted red peppers and hearbed goat cheese. Use tiny bit balsamic vinegar in place of the pomegranate molasses (I’ve done this – it’s delicious).

To make the components

Heat your oven to 350 degrees.  Cut a head of garlic in half and place in the center of a large piece of foil.  Drizzle the garlic with olive oil and close the foil around it.  Bake for 60 minutes or until soft.  Once the garlic is cool, you should be able to just squeeze the softened cloves right out of the surrounding paper.  Reserve the cloves from the bottom half for the butter, and use the top half for anything your heart desires (cooking veggies, making garlic bread, sautéing chicken).

Broil the red peppers, as in this recipe. Let cool.  Slice very thinly, about an 1/8″ thick.

Preheat a skillet on medium high heat.  Slice the portabellas very thin, as thin as you can.  I sliced mine on an extreme bias so that there was a large cap to gill ratio.  Saute the mushrooms in a tiny bit of olive oil (they’re like sponges so if you use a lot of oil, you’ll end up with oily mushrooms. yuck.).  Let them sit in the pan, without fussing with them, for a good 3 – 4 minutes to sweat some water out of them.  By not stirring them around, they’ll have the chance to caramelize a bit.  Flip them over and cook for another minute.  Set aside to cool.

Slice the onion very thinly and cook in the same pan you used for the mushrooms.  Add a bit of olive oil and about a 1/4 of water.   The water helps the onions soften and cook without getting brown.  Cook the onions to your desired doneness, adding more water as needed.  Mine were quite wilted with a tiny bit of crunch left in them.

Finely chop about 3 tbl basil and 2 tbl parsley.  Mash the goat cheese in a medium bowl and stir in the herbs.  Mix well and set aside.

Assemble the sandwich as described above.  Hope you try it… and enjoy it!

. . .

Chef Kevin Miller‘s winning (my fav of the day too) grilled cheese: The Dutch Toasty made with aged Gouda, Jarlsberg cheese, and herbed goat cheese on homemade brioche.  He served it with a spring pea soup presented in an adorable little copper pot.  Kevin’s been collecting copper cookware since he was young, most of it from Paris.  For all my Baltimore readers, Kevin was the chef at Ixia, now closed.  I used to love Ixia for its inventive food and cocktails.  I was very sad when it closed because it filled a void for well-made, imaginative cocktails that I used to get at Catherine Lombardi in NJ.  He’s with Widespread Concierge Services now and working a new project opening (and name revealed) in two weeks.  I’ll update with the info once it’s available.  I do know it’s a store front and they’ll have cooking classes, among other things!

. . .

There was a lot of butter going on today.

. . .

Setting up for the competition in the Garden Room at the back of Mt Washington Tavern.  The room has a retractable roof and since today was beautiful, we cooked under the blue sky!

. . .

A look at all the grilled cheese creations from the professional chefs. From left to right:

Chef Opie Crooks from Roy’s in Fells Point made an Applewood Smoked Bacon Grilled Cheese with munster cheese on brioche.  There was a smoky, spicy sauce underneath that was really nice but I didn’t get a chance to chat with Chef Crooks to see what it was.

Chef Chad Gauss from the City Café in Mount Vernon made Soup in a Sandwich grilled cheese.  It had sautéed onions in a French onion soup broth/sauce that tasted like it had brie in it and was served with a truffled French onion soup. This was the Crowd Favorite winner (I think – it was announced right after my victory so I was in a brief daze and it was so loud in there!).

Chef Darrick Granai from Baldwin’s Station in Sykesville, MD made The Vermonster.  He made (for the first time ever) his own vanilla scented brioche and filled it with maple pork belly and 3 Vermont cheddar cheeses from Cabot.  The sandwich was served on a cedar-smoked yellow tomato puree.

Chef Carl Gray from Mt Washington Tavern (the host of the event) was there to make their Veggie Melt served with sweet potato fries.  It’s got marinated eggplant, roasted red peppers, artichokes, pesto, and Monterey jack on thick wheatberry bread.  You can order it every day from their menu.

Chef Matt Milani from The Rumor Mill in Ellicott City, MD made the Rumor Mill Fusion Grilled Cheese, a sandwich filled with bacon jam and Gruyère.  He served it with a vanilla-tomato mousse sprinkled with house-smoked sea salt (so delicious!) and a mini-grilled cheese made by his Pastry Chef Megan that weren’t grilled cheese at all.  They were a white chocolate mousse and mango puree made to look like little sandwiches.  I’m sad that I didn’t get to taste those (they were gone by the time I got down there) but I did get a picture while Matt and I were chatting before the event started.  Matt won the Kid’s Choice award at the event.

. . .

The vanilla-tomato mousse chillin’ on the anti-griddle (pun intended). I love me some molecular gastronomy on a Sunday. Matt also added some crazy MG stuff to his olive oil that was spread on his sandwich to grill it. It pulls the water out to kind of “powder” it. Wish I had my little notebook while we were talking!

. . .

Two other fun pictures from the day:

Bacon Jam from Matt Milani

Kevin Miller’s mini copper pots

I’d like to say thanks to Mt Washington Tavern for putting on such a fun event.  I had a great time talking with the chefs and lots of people in attendance.  I got a lot of nice feedback from people and walked away with a win.  Most importantly, I got to be a part of an event that raised $1000 for Moveable Feast and got some of their literature to bring back to my work.  Special thanks to Mikey, the wonderful coordinator for the event.  She was totally awesome and made sure everyone was taken care of.  Despite being a home cook (and not one of the esteemed chefs in attendance), she still made me feel pretty special.

*A note on pomegranate molasses: you can find this tasty, interesting ingredient in Middle Eastern markets or possibly in high-end supermarkets.  If you find pomegranate concentrate (not the frozen stuff in the juice aisle) you could use that.  You could make your own out of POM juice, sugar, and lemon juice.  If you find it there are plenty of uses for it: drinks, dressings, marinades, baked goods, and Muhammara dip.

Posted in cheese, condiment, crowd pleaser, goat cheese, mozzarella, pomegranate molasses, portabella, quick & easy, red pepper, vegetable, Vegetarian | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Timpano… also known as Delicious Extra DEEP Dish Pie Full of Italian Goodies

My Maryland Cooking Club theme this month was “Food from a Movie.”  I had come across mention of the Timpano from Big Night years ago and remember many people commenting on how they’d never made it because it seemed daunting. Cooking Club is the perfect excuse to make something daunting! Well, sorry to disappoint… it totally isn’t daunting. It isn’t even hard; it just takes a little while to make. The fun part of it is that you can totally customize it for what you like.  It can be totally vegetarian or filled with a variety of Italian meats.  Apparently, Timpano recipes are unique to families and each claim to have the best recipe.  I loved how mine turned out so I’ll make the same claim. 🙂

Timpano means drum (actually “eardrum”) in Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian.  The final dish should look like a timpani drum (band geeks know what I’m sayin’).  If you read online, many people talk about enamel dishes to bake this monster in but I certainly didn’t want to buy a baking dish only useful for this one thing. Sooo I used a giant stainless steel bowl I use to make salads in and it worked perfectly.  A big Pyrex bowl might work too but it might take a little longer to bake and it might not get as brown as it would in enamel or stainless steel.  Hey, if it doesn’t get golden brown, you can add some tomato sauce once it’s been unmolded.  It’ll taste great though!

The recipe you’ll find most online consists of pasta (usually ziti or penne), meatballs (beef), cubes of salami and provolone, and hard boiled eggs. Hard boiled eggs? Not my favorite. Cubes of salami? Extra work and probably weird to cut through in the finished product.  This was my Timpano so I made it full of things I would like!

Extra equipment: You’ll need a big cooking vessel.  I used an 8 quart stainless steel bowl that I filled to the 6 quart level.

Michelle’s Timpano

Serves a lot. Seriously, probably 12 – 20 people depending on what else there is and hunger levels.

Dough (feel free to use your favorite pie crust recipe if you have one; below is what I used)

1 lb of AP flour

16 tbl butter, frozen and cut into ½”  cubes

1 tsp salt

1 tbl sugar

3 – 5 oz water, ice cold

Cling wrap to wrap the dough in

Turkey Meatballs

1 lb ground turkey

1 medium onion, minced

2 cloves garlic, minced

½ c  bread crumbs (I use panko)

5 tbl fresh basil, chopped finely (can use the basil in a tube but def not dried basil)

2 tbl ketchup (or tomato paste if you’ve got it)

½ c shredded cheese (your fav, I used a mozzarella and smoked provolone mixture in these)

1 tsp salt

1 tsp black pepper, freshly ground if possible

Spinach layer

2 lb frozen spinach

1 small onion, minced

1 clove garlic, minced

½ cup heavy cream

1 tsp salt

½ tsp black pepper, freshly ground

½ tsp nutmeg

Other Filling Stuff

1lb of pasta, cooked for half the time listed on the package (I used ziti rigati)

50 – 60 oz tomato sauce (I made my own but you could use your fav jarred sauce)

12 oz shredded cheese (I used a mozz and smoked provolone blend)

4 oz pepperoni, sliced thinly

4 oz parmesan cheese, grated

To make the pie crust:

In a food processor, add the flour, salt, and sugar. Pulse once to combine.  Sprinkle the cubes of butter over the flour and pulse 6 – 8 times, each about 1 second long.  The consistency at this point should look sandy with pea sized pieces of butter throughout.  Next, pour 4 oz water, a little bit at a time, while pulsing the dough another 6 – 8 times.  Grab handfuls of dough and press lightly together. Place whatever holds together on a clean, floured surface.  Once you’ve grabbed all the handfuls you can, press all the handfuls together gently so they form one mass.  If you have anything left (dry flour and butter) in the food processor, add a little bit of water and gently press together. Place the entire pile in the center of a piece of cling wrap and wrap up tightly.  Let the dough rest in the fridge while you work on the other parts, at least an hour.

To make the meatballs:

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.  Combine all the ingredients together.  Loosely shape 1½ – 2 tbl of the mixture into a ball and place on a baking sheet.  Repeat until you’ve used all of the dough.  Cook for about 8 minutes.  Remove from the oven and leave on the counter to cool to room temperature.  Note: You can make the meatballs a few days in advance to save time on the day you make the Timpano.  If you do this, keep them tightly covered in the fridge.  Let them come to room temperature before placing them in the Timpano.

To make the spinach:

Sauté the onion and garlic in olive oil over medium heat until translucent, about 5 minutes.  Add in the spinach and cook and until the spinach has defrosted and cooked off some off its water.  Add in the cream, salt and pepper and cook for a few minutes until bubbling.  Add in the nutmeg and take the mixture off the heat to cool down.  Like the meatballs, this can be done ahead and brought to room temperature before assembling the Timpano.  If you don’t want to use cream, just skip it.

To assemble the Timpano:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Add just enough sauce to the cooked pasta to coat it.  When the meatballs are done, add just enough sauce to coat these as well.  Grease your cooking vessel liberally with butter.

Take the dough out of the fridge and place on a well-floured surface.  Roll out in a circle shape as thin as you can get it, constantly checking to make sure that it is not sticking to the surface you’re working on.  It’s best to work quickly with the chilled dough because as it warms up, it will begin to stick to the board and your rolling pin.  Add a dusting of flour only when necessary.  When you’re done rolling out the dough, gently fold it in half to make a semi-circle then fold in half lengthwise again to make a wedge shape.  You can fold it in half again if needed.  Place the dough in your cooking vessel with the tip of the wedge near the center of the vessel.  Carefully unfold the dough so that it covers the entire vessel with some hanging over the edges all around.

It’s time to fill your Timpano!  Start with the pasta – I ended up with 3 layers of pasta.  Next I added some sauce, then 1/3 of the cheeses, then ½ of the spinach, then a layer of pepperoni, then ½ of the meatballs.  I started again with the pasta, sauce, another 1/3 of the cheese, another layer of pepperoni, the rest of the spinach, meatballs, sauce, the rest of the cheese, and the remaining pasta and sauce.  Layer any which way you want. I started and ended with the pasta because it seems that’s the way everyone does it.  Now, you take all the excess dough hanging over the edges and fold it over to cover all that goodness.  Bake it in the oven for an hour and a half.  If the dough seems to be getting too brown on top, cover it with foil (check about 60 minutes in).  I left mine uncovered the whole time and it was fine.   Note: this sucker is really heavy. I put it on my kitchen scale which reads up to 10 pounds and I got an error reading!

After baking, remove the Timpano from the oven and let it rest and cool on the counter for at least 30 minutes. I found instructions to then flip it onto your serving dish and leave the cooking vessel on it for another 30 minutes before trying to pull it off (it shrinks a tad when cool) BUT  my TImpano didn’t come to the tippy top of my bowl so I just let it cool down in the bowl for about an hour.  Don’t worry, this thing is so dense it is still STEAMING hot inside.  I flipped mine over once I got to my cooking club destination.  I wish mine was a little more brown but I had to get it out of the oven in time for cooking club.  I’d say if the top isn’t brown at 90 minutes, let it go another 15 minutes in the oven.

Apparently you can let it rest in all it’s uncovered glory for up to an hour. I think mine probably rested about 25 minutes uncovered then it was time to cut into it! The inside is glorious! You could really  see all the layers and the green of the spinach is awesome against the other fillings.  The bonus? It tasted awesome… total comfort food that looks really cool too.  How can you go wrong with ziti, cheese, meatballs, and spinach wrapped in a flaky, buttery, delicious pie crust? You can’t!  I will definitely be making this again for a party since it’s not only delicious but it’s so cool looking.

This could be a great use of leftovers (meatballs, sausage, veggies, sauce, whatever) – just make sure you make half-cooked pasta unless you don’t mind using pasta you’ve cooked to eat that will get very soft and overcooked in the Timpano.  You should totally make this for your next crowd.  In total, the assembly (rolling the dough and layering the Timpano) took about 20 minutes.  The rest is baking and resting time.

Here’s our Food from a Movie spread (we were a wee group this month).  Everything was really yummy!  From the top left, clockwise we have the Timpano (Big Night), Chiles en Nogata (Like for Water for Chocolate), Aloo Gobi (Bend It Like Beckham), Caramelized Onion Tarts (Le Pianiste), Fried Red Tomatoes (Fried Green Tomatoes), Dark Chocolate & Caramel Truffles with Sea Salt (Chocolat; not pictured).  Here’s a close up of Rachel’s Chiles (poblano chiles filled with ground turkey, apple mixture and a nut sauce) and Siiri’s Truffles (homemade caramel and hand rolled).


Posted in cheese, Cooking Club, crowd pleaser, Holidays, Leftovers, main course, meat, party, Party Ideas, special occasion treat, spinach, Uncategorized, Vegetarian | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Thanksgiving Empanadas

Empanadas are filled savory pastries common in Spain, Latin America, and Portugal.  The word ‘empanada’ comes from the Spanish verb emapanar which means “to coat in a pastry” which is better known as “delicious.”  I was first taught to make empanadas by a Dominican friend in grad school.  Hers were filled with ground beef and cheese (and of course some sofrito, green olives, and raisins) then fried on the stovetop and so very tasty. My version for the holidays have turkey, sage, and cranberry… Thanksgiving in a pastry.

Friends in New Jersey were always saying how they wished they had a cooking club up there.  So, we finally started one.  We’re using the same rules as the one in Maryland that I belong to: make something from scratch that you’ve never made before, follow the theme the hostess chooses, and bring containers to take home leftovers.  The first one was held at my parents’ house in October and was a great success.  There will be more on that in blog post soon J It was a smashing success and has started a new tradition in NJ.

The fabulous girls from NJ Cooking Club.
Some I’ve known since Kindergarten, some since High School, and some since College. Love you girls!

My long-time (since Kindergarten!) friend Amy hosted the second one at her lovely new house in early November.  The theme was Thanksgiving Feast – sort of a tryout for things you might want to be making for your family on Turkey Day this year.  I love this cute line Amy put in her evite:  “So get the elastic banded pants out girls, Thanksgiving is coming early this year!”  I should have heeded her advice, we sure did have a feast!  I felt like I needed to be rolled out of there and couldn’t even really eat dessert; I actually had to bring it home to eat.


There wasn’t anything interesting I wanted to try out so I decided to put all the flavors of Thanksgiving into one little bite:  Thanksgiving empanadas! They turned out great and apparently some friends dreamt about them. How’s that for a compliment?!

I promised the recipe, so here it is. These would make a great appetizer to the Turkey Day meal or a fun party appetizer or a fabulous use of Thanksgiving leftovers.  I used ground turkey in my original recipe but I think dicing up leftover turkey and using that instead would be awesome.

Thanksgiving Empanadas


2 tbl oil

1 medium onion

1 large rib celery

2 carrots (or about 15 baby carrots)

1 clove garlic, minced

1 lb ground turkey

½ cup green olives, chopped

½ cup craisins (dried cranberries), chopped

¼ cup ketchup

⅔ cup chicken/turkey stock or apple cider

2 star anise, freshly ground (or ½ tsp pre-ground)

2 tsp cumin

2 tsp black pepper

2 tsp salt

¼ cup fresh parsley, finely chopped

2 tbl fresh sage

Pastry dough (adapted slightly from Cooks Illustrated):

3½ cups flour, plus extra for work surface

½ cup ground tortilla chips (or masa harina if you have it)

1 tbl sugar

1 tbl salt

12 tbl (1 1/2 sticks) cold butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

½ cup cold vodka or tequila (all I had was citron vodka and it worked fine)

½ cup cold water

5 tbl olive oil (for baking empanadas)

To make the filling: Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Chop all vegetables into a small dice (remember they have to blend in and fit inside a dough pocket). Saute the onion, celery, carrot, and garlic together until fragrant and almost translucent. Add in the ground turkey, stirring and breaking it up. After cooking for a few minutes, add in the green olives, craisins, ketchup, stock(or cider), and all the herbs and spices. Continue to cook, stirring frequently, until the turkey is just cooked through. Check the seasoning and add more salt, pepper, or other flavor to your taste.  Remove from the heat and let the filling cool while making the dough.

To make the dough: Process 1 ½ cup flour, tortilla chips, sugar, and salt in food processor until combined, a couple of pulses. Sprinkle the cubes of butter in and process until the mixture is homogeneous and looks like wet sand, about 10 seconds. Add remaining flour and pulse until mixture is evenly distributed around bowl, 4 to 6 quick pulses. Transfer to a large bowl.

Sprinkle vodka or tequila and water over mixture. Using hands, mix dough until it forms sticky mass that holds together. Divide dough into quarters to make it easier to work with later. Put on a plate and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate until firm, about 45 minutes (can make ahead and store for up to 2 days).

To assemble your treats: Turn oven on to 425 degrees. Adjust oven racks to the two middle positions, if necessary. Cover two baking sheets with foil and place in the oven to pre-heat. Meanwhile, remove ¼ piece of dough from refrigerator. Lightly flour your work surface and roll dough out into a rectangle that’s about ⅛” thick. Using a large biscuit cutter or other round cutter, cut as many circles in the rectangle of dough as you can. I found that 3 – 4” circle of dough worked best. You can make much larger ones to use as a main course. These are appetizer sized.

Place about a tablespoon of filling in center of each dough round. Brush edges of dough with water and fold dough over filling. Press edges to seal and trim off any excess. Crimp edges of empanadas using a fork. You can also complete this step with an empanada press (a little plastic doo-hickey that looks like a bear trap). I made them both ways but did the majority with the empanada bear trap because I really wanted to use my $3.75 (75% off!) find at Bed Bath and Beyond. 🙂 Repeat with the remaining dough. You can even re-form the dough scraps a couple times, then re-roll out to get the most empanadas out of your batch.

Now, at this point you can go traditional and fry these little guys up in some oil. Put about an inch of vegetable oil in a deep skillet and fry them until they are golden brown. Or, you can go the healthier, yet still delicious, route and bake them.

To bake’em: Drizzle 2 tablespoons oil over surface of each hot baking sheet and spread around with a pastry brush. Line your empanadas up on the baking sheet and brush lightly with oil to help them get a tan in the oven. Cook until golden brown – about 20 minutes. Cool empanadas on wire rack 10 minutes and serve.

These would be really tasty dipped in some leftover homemade cranberry sauce (quick recipe below) or cranberry dip (combine a ½ cup of mayo, ½ cup of sour cream, and ½ cup cranberry sauce). Yummm. Is it Thanksgiving yet?!

Quick (and EASY) Cranberry Sauce

3 cups fresh cranberries

¾ cup white sugar (more if you like it on the sweet side)

¾ cup water (or orange juice)

Pinch salt

Pinch cinnamon

Put everything in a small saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring regularly. The cranberries will heat and begin to burst open (fun!). In about 10 – 15 minutes, they’ll really start breaking down. Cook until mixture is a little thickened and the cranberries have fully broken down. Pour into a bowl, cover and chill at least an hour. It will thicken as it cools. Enjoy!


Posted in appetizer, Brunch, Cooking Club, cranberry, dip, Holiday, Holidays, Latin American, Leftovers, Mexican, Party Ideas, Portuguese, Thanksgiving, turkey, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

The Donut Project

The October 2010 Daring Bakers challenge was hosted by Lori of Butter Me Up. Lori chose to challenge DBers to make doughnuts. She used several sources for her recipes including Alton Brown, Nancy Silverton, Kate Neumann and Epicurious.  I went with the Alton Brown yeast recipe (adapted to suit my tastes) and pumpkin cake-style donuts from Bon Appétit.

I never would have made donuts on my own.  They are such a rare treat for me that the thought of making 4 dozen myself seems crazy.  But when I saw this month’s challenge, I was so excited!  Donuts are fun and everyone loves them… a great recipe to have in your back pocket.  Now that I know how easy they are, I would totally make them for guests visiting for a weekend.  I may even bust some out on Thanksgiving morning… maybe Christmas morning.  They seem celebratory to me and fitting.  Then again, they seem fitting for a random weekend now too.

As I was saying, donuts are really easy to make.  I must admit though, donut holes are not easy to make.  Does that surprise you? Because it surprised me.  Sure, they are easy to cut out since they have to be anyway in order to get a traditionally shaped donut.  They are NOT easy to fry.  The little suckers did not want to turn over after cooking on one side.  After fighting with some while also frying whole donuts (and almost burning the whole ones because I was fighting with their demon spawn), I ditched the idea of making any more.  I think you could probably bake the holes in the oven though if you just can’t bear the thought of wasting them.  However, you will have plenty of full size donuts to satisfy your needs.

In real life (and by that I mean the life where I don’t just whip up 4 dozen tempting treats that will surely increase the number on scale since it’s impossible to resist eating more than one when there is four freaking dozen on the counter staring at me), I prefer yeast donuts.  Those are the light, airy glazed ones (think Krispy Kreme-type).  Between the two types I made (2 dozen each… if you make one kind you’ll only have TWO dozen staring at you), I preferred the yeast donuts still.  The pumpkin cake ones were pretty darn tasty though!

I made a gingerbread glaze for my yeast donuts because I love the spiciness of gingerbread and gingersnaps. Plus, I thought it would be fitting for the season.  If you’d like a plain glaze recipe (powdered sugar and milk, pretty much), you can go here.

Now, go heat up some oil and get to makin’ some donuts. Okay, fine.  You can bake the donuts.  The texture isn’t the same, but some of the other Daring Bakers tried it and said they were good.  Sur La Table sells a donut baking contraption.  If you know me, you know I’m not one for frying things but in this case I went with “Go big or go home” and dumped a quart of oil in my Dutch oven.  I think it was well worth it for such delicious treats.  You will taste your homemade donuts and say the same thing I did: “These are the best darn donuts I’ve ever tasted.”  That wasn’t me tooting my own horn, they are just that good freshly made. 

. . .

Yeast Donuts with Gingerbread Glaze

Adapted from Alton Brown’s recipe here. 

Preparation time:
Hands on prep time – 25 minutes
Rising time – 1½ hours total
Cooking time – 12 minutes

Yield: 20 to 25 doughnuts & 20 to 25 doughnut holes, depending on size

1½  cup milk
1/3  cup butter
4½ tsp Active Dry Yeast  (2 pkgs)
1/3  cup warm water
2  eggs,beaten
¼  cup white sugar
1½  tsp salt
1  tsp vanilla extract
23 oz all purpose flour (just shy of 5 cups, weight it if you can; extra flour for dusting)
~1½  quarts vegetable or canola oil (this really depends on what you’re frying in; I used a 2.5 qt Dutch oven; you need 2 -3 inches of oil)

Heat milk in the microwave for 1 – 1½ minutes until warm.  Add butter.  Milk should be warm enough to melt the butter. If not put the milk-butter mixture in the microwave for another 30 seconds.  Set aside.

 In a small bowl, sprinkle the yeast over the warm water and let dissolve for 5 minutes.  If it gets foamy you know the yeast is alive and you’re good to go.  After 5 minutes, pour the yeast mixture into the large bowl of a stand mixer and add the milk-butter mixture (mixture should be luke warm – you don’t want to kill the yeast!).  Add in the eggs, sugar, salt, and half of the flour.  Using the paddle attachment of your mixer, combine the ingredients on low speed until flour is incorporated and then turn the speed up to medium and beat until well combined.  Add the remaining flour, combining on low speed at first, and then increase the speed to medium and beat well.

 Change to the dough hook attachment of the mixer and beat on medium speed until the dough pulls away from the bowl and becomes smooth, approximately 3 to 4 minutes.  If you don’t have a dough hook/stand mixer – knead by hand until the dough is smooth and relatively not sticky. 


RESIST the urge to add more flour.  Do not do it.  This dough has a high water content and will be sticky – that’s what makes it good.  If it seems like it’ll never pull away from the sides of the bowl (say after 5 minutes of beating), let the dough rest for 5 – 10 minutes and turn the mixer on again until it pulls away from the sides.  Do not worry if the dough is sticky, it just shouldn’t be wet.  Transfer to a well-oiled bowl, cover, and let rise for 1 hour or until doubled in size. (I turn the oven on to 200 degrees, let it heat up for about 5 minutes, turn it off, then stick the bowl with my dough in with the door cracked. Helps expedite the process.)


On a well-floured surface, roll out dough to ¼” thick. (Make sure the surface really is well-floured otherwise your doughnuts will stick to the counter).  Cut out dough using a 2 1/2-inch (65 mm) doughnut cutter or pastry ring or drinking glass and using a 7/8-inch (22 mm) ring for the center whole.  I couldn’t find my biscuit cutters so I used a drinking glass for the donut and then either a shot glass or a pastry bag tip for the inner hole.  I preferred the pastry bag tip for the inner hole because it had a relatively sharp edge and cut cleanly.  Set on floured baking sheet, cover lightly with a tea towel, and let rise for 30 minutes.


Preheat the oil in a deep fryer or Dutch oven to 365 °F.  This will probably take about 10 minutes to get to temperature in a Dutch oven (not sure about a deep fryer).  Gently place the doughnuts into the oil, 3 to 4 at a time. Cook for 1 minute per side or until golden brown.  Transfer to a cooling rack placed in baking pan. Allow to cool for 15 to 20 minutes prior to glazing, if desired.

. . . 

Gingerbread Glaze

2  cups powdered sugar

¼  cup milk

1  tsp vanilla extract

1½  tbl molasses

1  tsp cinnamon

1   tsp ginger

½  tsp nutmeg

¼  tsp ground cloves

½  tsp white pepper

1  tsp salt

Whisk together all ingredients in a microwave safe bowl (it doesn’t need to be smooth yet).  Microwave for 30 seconds or until mixture is very warm.  Whisk again until smooth.  Glaze one donut at a time, being sure to completely coat each one.  Set on a cooling/draining rack over something to catch the excess glaze that will drop off.  Let set up for at least 5 minutes before serving.


. . .

Pumpkin Cake Donuts

Original recipe found here.

Preparation time:
Hands on prep time – 15 minutes
Chilling time – 3 hours
Cooking time – 10 minutes

Yield: About 24 donuts & 24 donut holes

3½  cups flour
4  tsp baking powder
1  tsp salt
1  tsp cinnamon
½  tsp ginger
½  tsp baking soda
¼  tsp nutmeg
1/8  tsp ground cloves
1  cup sugar
3  tbl butter
1 egg
2 egg yolks
1  tsp vanilla extract
½  cup buttermilk
1  cup pumpkin  (Canned pure pumpkin or fresh cooked and pureed pumpkin – DON’T use pumpkin pie mix!)
~1½  quarts vegetable or canola oil (this really depends on what you’re frying in; I used a 2.5 qt Dutch oven; you need 2 -3 inches of oil)

Whisk together the first 8 ingredients in medium bowl to blend.  Beat sugar and butter in large bowl until blended.  Beat in egg, then yolks and vanilla.  Gradually beat in buttermilk; beat in pumpkin.  Using rubber spatula, fold in dry ingredients in 4 additions, blending gently after each addition.  Cover with plastic; chill 3 hours.

On a well-floured surface, press out 1/3 of dough to 1/2- to 2/3-inch thickness. Using 2 1/2-inch (65 mm) -diameter round cutter, cut out dough rounds.  Using 1-inch (25 mm) diameter round cutter, cut out center of each dough round to make doughnuts and doughnut holes.  Or use a glass and shot glass to cut them out, as in the above recipe.  Arrange on sheets.  Repeat with remaining dough in 2 more batches. Gather dough scraps. Press out dough and cut out more dough rounds until all dough is used.

Line 2 baking sheets with several layers of paper towels.  Pour oil into large deep skillet to depth of about 2 inches.  Attach deep-fry thermometer and heat oil to 365°F to 370°F . Fry doughnuts, 3 or 4 at a time, until golden brown, adjusting heat to maintain temperature, about 1 minute per side.  Using slotted spoon or tongs, transfer doughnuts to paper towels to drain.  Cool completely.

You can enjoy these as-is but I dipped mine in cinnamon sugar once they were cooled.  About 1 cup of white sugar (or powdered if you prefer) and a tablespoon of cinnamon.  Yum!

Posted in Breakfast, Brunch, Christmas, coffee, Daring Bakers, Daring Kitchen, dessert, Holidays, Party Ideas, pumpkin, special occasion treat, tailgate friendly, Thanksgiving, Vegetarian | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Daring Cooks: Stuffed Grape Leaves

First, apologies for my absence: my camera has been broken 😦 It’s still not right after getting a new lens and I’m gonna try another lens before I buy a whole new camera.  Keep your fingers crossed for my little guy.  In the meantime, some pictures below are a little fuzzy but I’ll take what I can get right now!

I recently joined a website called The Daring Kitchen.  Each month a different food blogger “hosts” the challenge and decides what crazy, daring thing everyone will make and post about.  I joined both sections: Daring Cooks and Daring Bakers.  This is my first challenge and I’m so in love with the concept and that each month I’ll have 2 crazy things to make. Love it!!!

Our October 2010 hostess, Lori of Lori’s Lipsmacking Goodness, has challenged The Daring Cooks to stuff grape leaves. Lori chose a recipe from Aromas of Aleppo and a recipe from The New Book of Middle Eastern Food.  They can be found here.

I can never stick to a recipe much like I can’t stay on topic while telling a story. So, as is my way, I made up my own version of stuffed grape leaves.  I wanted to stick with making a meat-filling and a vegetarian one so I went Vietnamese and Greek on this little daring adventure.

Stuffed vegetable leaves show up in cuisines all over the world: Polish, Greek, Iranian, Israeli, Turkish, Vietnamese and many others.  Some use grape leaves, some use cabbage leaves, some stuff other veggies like peppers and zucchini.  Stuffing ingredients are quite varied as well with telltale hints of the originating culture in the spices and other ingredients used.   It’s all yummy in my book.  I don’t know when the mood would have struck me to try making my own stuffed grape leaves (I’ve made stuffed cabbage, peppers, squash… everything but grape leaves) so I was so excited to have a reason to try it out. 

Tom and I have enjoyed grilled stuffed grape leaves at our favorite local Vietnamese restaurants on more than one occasion.  In Vietnamese I’ve seen them called Bo La Nho, Thit Bo Cuon La Luop, Luop, Cha Gio Chay.  I know very few words in Vietnamese so I’m not sure why these are different but if you see stuffed grape leaves on a Vietnamese menu, order them.  They are really tasty.  I decided to recreate the flavor of the ones I’ve had and add rice to the mix.  The list of ingredients is long but these are really easy to make.  You’ll need about 2 hours to roll them all, less if you’re a speed racer.

. . .

Vietnamese Stuffed Grape Leaves

Makes about 60.

 1 jar grape leaves

1  lb ground beef

⅓  cup brown short grain rice (you could use any short grain rice like Arborio)

1  medium onion, diced finely

2  cloves garlic, minced

1  tbl brown sugar

1  tbl fish sauce

1  tbl Sriracha

1  tbl basil, chiffonade

1  tbl mint, chiffonade

1  tbl cilantro, finely chopped

2  tsp ginger, freshly grated

1  tsp salt

1  tsp white pepper

For cooking the stuffed leaves:

I liked the idea from the host’s choice recipe of the apricots and tamarind to cook these.  It’s not traditional for a Vietnamese spin so omit these if you want.

10  dried apricots (optional)

1  tbl tamarind concentrate (optional)

With lots of patience, remove the grape leaves from the jar.  They are rolled and packed in their tightly so it make take a little wriggling to get them out.  If they are in a brine, soak them in boiling water for about 20 minutes.  Then drain and add cool water.  Change the cool water every 10 minutes or so for half an hour.

While the grape leaves are soaking, combine all other ingredients except the ground beef in a large bowl.  Once these are mixed together, add in the in the beef and mix gently until thoroughly combined.  You don’t want to mix it too roughly or tightly compact the filling as it will make it too tough.  Once this filling is mixed and the leaves have soaked, you are ready to roll! (See what I did there?)

I got about 65 good leaves out of one jar.  You will have some smaller ones, some larger ones, and some will be shredded and unusable.  Choose your first specimen and lay it flat on a cutting board or your counter.  The vein side of the leaf should be facing up so that when it’s rolled the pretty, shiny, and flat side is on the outside.  If there is any bit of stem still attached, use a paring knife to remove it.  This will make rolling easier.


Place about 1½ tablespoons of filling on the base of the leaf near where the stem was.  You might need to use more or less filling depending on the size of the leaf.  Fold up the bottom of the leaf to cover the filling.  Next, fold in the left and right sides of the leaf towards the center.  Now roll it up like a little cigar and you have your first stuffed grape leaf!

Once you’ve got all your grape leaves stuffed (or you’ve run out of filling, whichever comes first), you can either freeze them at this point or cook them.  If you’re freezing them, place them in a single layer on a sheet pan and freeze for about an hour.  Then place in freezer bags and store until you’re ready to cook them.  To cook them, place a large saucepan on the stove.  Line the pan with the stuffed leaves, flap-side down to help them stay rolled up.  The grape leaves should be packed in tightly.  Cut the apricots in half and stuff the halves in between the grape leaves. 

Cover and begin to cook the grape leaves over low heat.  When they start to “sweat” (about 5 minutes), add in the tamarind concentrate/paste dissolved in about 2 cups of water.  The liquid should come up ¾ of the side of the pan, add more water if necessary.  Place the largest heat-safe plate that will fit inside your pan on top of the grape leaves to keep them from unraveling.  Cook on high heat until the water boils, then turn to low and simmer for about 40 minutes.  Every once in a while, spoon the liquid over the leaves.  They’re done when just about all the water has been absorbed.  Take one out and cut in half if you’re unsure if the rice is cooked through.


Using a spoon or tongs, gently remove from the pan, pile up on a plate, and enjoy with your favorite accompaniments (a big salad, maybe some pho).

. . .

If you want to really make these authentic, serve with a traditional Vietnamese dipping sauce: Nuoc Cham.  Every Vietnamese family has their own version of nuoc cham.  I’ll give you the ratio we like but adjust it to suit your tastes.

Nuoc Cham

Makes about ¾ cup

2  tbl fish sauce (don’t be scared, it smells fishy but mixed into things it adds an awesome umami component)

2  tbl sugar

2  tbl vinegar

Juice of ½ a lime

¼  cup water

1 clove garlic, minced

1  tsp Sriracha

Mix all ingredients until well combined.  Store in fridge. 

The traditional Vietnamese version of these doesn’t have rice in them and are grilled.  Since I added rice, I cooked them on the stove top but quickly grilled them for the charred marks and flavor.  Serve these with some lettuce leaves to wrap them in (yes it sounds weird to wrap a self-contained food item in something else but the cool crisp lettuce leaf around the hot beef-filled grape leaf is awesome… and traditional), some chopped peanuts, and the Nuoc Cham.

. . .

Aaand another type for my vegetarian friends! I was inspired by the beautiful Greek Isles for this version: feta, Kalamata olives, pistachios, dill.  These are served cold.

Greek-style Stuffed Grape Leaves

Makes about 60

1  jar of grape leaves in brine

1¼  cups long grain white rice

⅓  cup feta cheese

12 kalamata olives, diced

⅓  cup pistachios, shelled and chopped

1  small tomato, chopped finely

1 medium onion, diced finely

1  clove garlic, minced

1  tbl basil, chiffonade

1  tbl mint, chiffonade

2  tsp dill, chopped finely

½  tsp cinnamon

Juice of one lemon

Soak the rice in very hot water for 10 minutes, drain and rinse in cold water.  Mix all other ingredients together and set aside until the rice has soaked.

Lay a grape leaf on a cutting board or your counter.  The vein side of the leaf should be facing up so that when it’s rolled the pretty, shiny, and flat side is on the outside.  If there is any bit of stem still attached, use a paring knife to remove it.  This will make rolling easier.

Place about 1½ tablespoons of filling on the base of the leaf near where the stem was.  You might need to use more or less filling depending on the size of the leaf.  Fold up the bottom of the leaf to cover the filling.  Next, fold in the left and right sides of the leaf towards the center.  Now roll it up like a little cigar.  It’ll be about 2½” wide and 1” in diameter.  

Once you’ve got all your grape leaves stuffed (or you’ve run out of filling, whichever comes first), you can either freeze them at this point or cook them.  If you’re freezing them, place them in a single layer on a sheet pan and freeze for about an hour.  Then place in freezer bags and store until you’re ready to cook them.  To cook them, place a large saucepan on the stove.  Line the pan with the stuffed leaves, flap-side down to help them stay rolled up.  The grape leaves should be packed in tightly. 

Cover and begin to cook the grape leaves over low heat.  When they start to “sweat” (about 5 minutes), add about 2 cups of water.  The liquid should come up ¾ of the side of the pan, add more water if necessary.  Place the largest heat-safe plate that will fit inside your pan on top of the grape leaves to keep them from unraveling.  Cook on high heat until the water boils, then turn to low and simmer for about an hour.  Add in more water every so often as needed (about a cup at a time). They’re done when just about all the water has been absorbed.  Take one out and cut in half if you’re unsure if the rice is cooked through.

Chill in the refrigerator and serve cold alongside a big, fat Greek salad and some warm pita bread.

Posted in appetizer, beef, Daring Cooks, Daring Kitchen, Greek, main course, Middle Eastern, party, pistachios, side dish, Vegetarian, Vietnamese | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Teeny Taco Cupcakes

I set out to make some pumpkin spice cupcakes today but apparently there is a shortage of pumpkin and it won’t be back until maybe the end of September.  Really?  That is some sad-face foodie news.  Well, as we say in our house when we have our heart set on a particular food, I was ‘secreting enzymes’ for an Autumn-flavored cupcake.  I set out to find some canned sweet potatoes.  I ended up with canned yams.  Here in the US the term ‘yam‘ refers to sweet potatoes.  Actual yams are dry and starchy – a far cry from the sweet things we call yams here.  And, when using ‘yam,’ you must follow it with ‘sweet potato’ in the US.  That’s fine with me because I like the sound of Sweet Potato Spice Cupcakes better than Yammy Cupcakes.  When they’re hot out of the oven in your kitchen, you get to call them whatever you like.  No matter what you call them, I bet every year after Thanksgiving (and maybe now in preparation?) you there is a can of yammy yams or sweet potatoes lurking in the pantry.  Here’s the perfect use.

Also, I decided to try out some powdered buttermilk in these. Buttermilk powder is an awesome alternative to keeping fresh buttermilk around all the time.  I like to use buttermilk, yogurt, or sour cream in my cupcake and cake recipes because it keeps things moist and adds the slightest tang, which nice balanced against the sugar.  You can find powdered buttermilk in with the baking stuff.  I saw it one day and picked it up to try it out.  I’ve tried it in a cake, waffles, and these cucpakes and really like it.  Need more convincing?  Check out this taste test by some experts.  After opening you pop it in the fridge and it’s good to go for about a year. Awesome.

These cupcakes are a creation for a surprise Groom’s party for a co-worker getting married on Saturday.  He loves tacos and in my covert/I-really-did-want-to-know conversation on Friday about his wedding cake I found out he also really loves pie.  This is a guy that smells some food and comes-a-running so I was just planning on making whatever struck my fancy until I heard taco and pie.  With their wedding cake will be apple and pumpkin pies.  How yummy and how Autumn.  So, pumpkin sweet potato yam sweet potato pie spiced cupcakes it had to be… with little tacos on top.  Of course!

 . . .

Sweet Potato Spice Cupcakes

Makes 30 cupcakes (because 24 go to the party and the rest are kitchen treats!)

3  cups flour

2  tbl buttermilk powder

2  tsp baking powder

1  tsp baking soda

2  tsp cinnamon

1  tsp ginger

½  tsp ground cloves

½  tsp allspice

1  tsp salt

1¾  cups sugar

4  eggs

¾  cup water

1  tsp vanilla extract

1  cup vegetable oil

1  can sweet potatoes or yams

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Line your cupcake pan(s) with cupcake liners.

In a medium bowl, combine the first 9 ingredients (flour down to the salt); set aside.  Puree the sweet potatoes/yams in a food processor; set aside.  In another bowl, beat the eggs and sugar until pale yellow and really fluffy.  Stir in the water, vanilla, oil, and pureed sweet potatoes.  Turn the mixer on low and slowly add in the dry ingredients; mix until just combined and there are no more traces of flour, scraping down the sides as needed.  Place about ¼ cup of batter in each cupcake liner; it should be a little more than ¾ full. 

Bake for 18 minutes.  The tops should spring back when touched gently and a toothpick will come out clean.  Cool in the pan for 10 minutes then remove to finish cooling on a rack.

. . .

Sugar and Spice Cream Cheese Buttercream

Makes enough for 30 cupcakes

8  oz cream cheese (low fat okay)

8  tbl butter, room temperature

½  cup brown sugar

2  tsp salt

2  tsp cinnamon

1  tsp vanilla extract

6  cups powdered sugar, sifted

3  tbl heavy cream or milk

Beat the cream cheese, butter, and brown sugar until light and fluffy.  Beat in the salt, cinnamon, and vanilla.  Add in the sifted powdered sugar and start mixing on low so you don’t end up covered in white stuff.  Once it’s mixed in a bit, turn it up to high and add in the heavy cream.  Beat for a minute until light and fluffy.  Taste and add more cinnamon if you’d like.

I call this “Cream Cheese Butter Cream” because it’s not just cream cheese frosting and it’s not just buttercream.  Most cream cheese frosting recipes call for twice the cream cheese.  So I combined a typical buttercream and a typical cream cheese frosting recipe.  I like the combo.  Plus, I always have 1 package of cream cheese on hand but not always two.

. . .

Teeny Tacos

You’ll need:

Marshmallow fondant (full recipe below) for the taco shell and tomatoes

Gel food coloring (green, red, yellow, brown)

Cinnamon (to make the taco shell look like corn)

Shredded coconut (for the lettuce)

Very finely shredded coconut (for the cheese)

Chocolate cake crumbs, crumbled chocolate shortbread, crumbled chocolate graham crackers or teddy grahams (for the meat; hey, you could use tan cookies/cake if you make teeny turkey tacos!)

. . .

I use the marshmallow fondant recipe from Allrecipes, adapted to my whims.  You only need a very small amount of fondant to make these little tacos.  You can make just a bit or make the whole (or half) recipe and save the leftovers.  It will keep in a well-sealed plastic bag for weeks.

. . .

Marshmallow Fondant

Adapted from Allrecipes; full recipe – enough to cover at least a 2 layer 9” cake

1  16 oz bag marshmallows (regular or mini)

4  tbl water

1  tsp vanilla

½  tsp almond extract

1  tsp salt

2  lbs powdered sugar, sifted

Place marshmallows in a microwave safe bowl and microwave for 30 – 60 seconds to being melting the marshmallows.  Add in the water, vanilla extract, almond extract, and salt and carefully stir into the hot marshmallows.  Begin beating in 1 cup of powdered sugar at a time (I do it by hand with a whisk then a wooden spoon).  Reserve about a cup on the side to use while kneading the fondant.  The fondant will get very stiff and hard to stir by the second to last cup of sugar.  Powder your counter with powdered sugar and begin kneading the fondant.  Keep your hands powdered also.  Keep adding powdered sugar as you knead whenever the fondant feels sticky.  If you can’t keep your hands from getting sticky, you can coat them in butter to keep kneading.  Keep kneading until the fondant is smooth and no longer feels sticky.  Store it in a tightly sealed container or bag until you need it.  It will keep for at least a month.

I made a half recipe today.  Why?  I don’t know since I didn’t even need that much.  I knew it’d be too much but now I have an excuse to make little fondant pumpkins in celebration of the return of pumpkin to the stores.  The ratio in this recipe is really not critical.  If you want to make a ¼ of the recipe above you could without stressing out about the amount of water, etc.  The main point is melted marshmallow, flavoring, and powdered sugar.

To dye your fondant:

Get yourself a pair of gloves unless you don’t mind a little bit of color of your fingertips.  Pull off a piece of fondant about the size you think you’ll need.  It’s always better to take a bigger piece than to try and dye another piece the same color because you ran out of the first one.  Using a toothpick, get some gel food coloring and wipe it onto your piece of fondant.  It’s important to use gel food dye, liquid will not work.  Knead the dye into the fondant, adding in extra powdered sugar if needed to counteract the wetness of the dye.  Continue to knead until the color is even all the way through.

. . .

For the taco parts:

I used red dye (with a tiny touch of yellow) for the “tomatoes.”  I rolled out my red fondant very thin and sliced really thin strips from it then cut it crosswise into tiny squares.

For the taco shells, I used mostly yellow dye with a bit of brown dye.  I also mixed in cinnamon until I thought it looked appropriately speckled for a corn taco shell. I rolled it pretty thin and cut it into 1½” circles.  

The “lettuce” is just some shredded coconut mixed with some green (and a touch of yellow) dye.

The cheese is some dried, very finely shredded coconut I found in a Middle Eastern market.  I bet you could finely chop regular shredded coconut and get a cheese-esque look.

Build your teeny tacos and then use a tiny bit of water to get the taco shell to stick to itself and stay closed.

Frost your cupcakes, throw on some colored sugar if you wish, and nestle a teeny taco on top. Unwrap and enjoy!

Posted in cupcakes, Latin American, Mexican, party, Party Ideas, special occasion treat, sweet potato, Uncategorized, yam | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Muhammara Dip

Muhammara dip

Let me start by saying I just love this Middle Eastern dip.  It’s not like any other dip you’ve had but it’s not out of left-field-weird either.  It’s just really tasty and sadly not well-known.  I think it’s perfect to serve at Sunday/Monday football party with all your other party fare, perfect to bring along to a tailgate or potluck, and also perfect to serve at a dinner party.  I’m posting this nice and early on a Sunday early during football season in hopes you might read, think ‘yummmm’, and whip some up for today’s game-watching.

Its fancy name is Muhammara which means “reddened” or “brick-colored” in Arabic.  If you have picky/skiddish eaters, tell them it’s roasted red pepper dip and let them munch away.  There are some strong flavors that go into this dip, but they meld so beautifully together you can’t really say “Whoa! Cumin! Garlic!”  I usually make mine with almonds because we always have them around the house.  Traditionally, this is made with walnuts.  Use what strikes your fancy or what’s available in your pantry.

I’m going to give you two ways to make this: the tastiest and the fastest.  The fastest is still tasty, but not as tasty as the tastiest. Got me?  First, the tastiest.  Slightly more time and effort but definitely worth it.

. . .

Muhammara dip

Makes 2 – 2½ cups

2 – 3  red bell peppers

½  cup almonds, toasted (traditionally walnuts, use whichever you like)

½  cup bread crumbs, toasted

2  tsp cumin

1  clove garlic, more if you love it

½  tsp cayenne, more or less to your taste

½  tsp salt

1  tbl pomegranate molasses*

1  tbl lemon juice

2 – 3  tbl extra-virgin olive oil

* pomegranate molasses can be found in Middle Eastern markets or possibly in high-end supermarkets.  If you find pomegranate concentrate (not frozen in the juice aisle) you could use that.  You could make your own out of POM juice, sugar, and lemon juice (cook and reduce to a syrup – comment below for a recipe).  You can also substitute with a teaspoon of regular molasses, a little extra lemon juice, and a teaspoon of honey.  If you find the real stuff there are plenty of uses for it: drinks, dressings, marinades, baked goods.

First we’re going to roast the red peppers.  It’s easy, I promise.  If you really don’t want to roast your own, buy a jar of them (just roasted, not marinated).  Home-roasted pepper flavor is worth the little bit of extra work though.

Turn on the broiler on high.  Position an oven rack as close as you can get it to the broiler.

Cut the tops and bottoms off the peppers, pull the stem out.  Next, remove the seeds from the middles and cut them once from top to bottom.  You’re left with a wide rectangle of pepper.  Cut it into 2 – 3” wide pieces.  Lay all your pepper parts skin side up on a foil lined baking tray.  Place on the rack you’ve positioned closest to the broiler.  Broil the peppers for 10 – 15 minutes, until the skins are quite black and charred.  If you don’t let them get dark enough they’ll be harder to skin. Get a large bowl and some saran wrap ready while they’re roasting away in there.  As soon as they are blackened enough, remove the pan from the oven and transfer all the peppers to the bowl you set aside.  It doesn’t have to be pretty, just dump them in.  Cover the bowl with saran wrap and let them steam for 10 minutes.  No peeking.  This part of the process helps the pepper skin separate from the pepper meat.

Meanwhile, toast your almonds (or walnuts) in a dry frying pan on the stove top over medium high heat.  Stir them or shake the pan every 15 seconds or so.  Once you smell that amazing toasted almond smell, you know they’re done.  Shake them around for a few more seconds then remove from the heat.  They’ll keep toasting as long as they stay in that hot pan.  I dump mine right into a food processor and let them cool a bit while I get everything else prepped. In the same hot pan, throw in your cumin and put back over medium high heat.  If you need to toast your bread crumbs too, throw them in now.  Stir the cumin and/or breadcrumbs pretty constantly.  Again, when you smell toasted cumin/toasted breadcrumbs/both you’re pretty much done.  Take the pan off the heat and set aside.

I like the grind up the almonds first to make sure they get evenly pulverized.  Pulse the almonds several times in the food processor, using longer and longer pulses, until the almonds are like coarse sand.  Peel the peppers and add those in.  Add in the rest of the ingredients: garlic cloves, toasted cumin, breadcrumbs, cayenne, salt, pomegranate molasses, lemon juice, and oil.  Blend together in the food processor until you get a beautiful smooth brick-colored dip.  Taste to see if it need more salt, cayenne, or lemon juice.  Add in if necessary.

Place in a bowl covered with saran wrap in the fridge until ready to serve.  The flavors meld together during this resting time. Yum!  You can keep this in the fridge for 2 – 3 days.  Serve with warmed soft pita wedges, pita chips, crackers, and/or veggies.

. . .

Okay, now for the I-must-have-this-now-for-a-football-party directions.

Use jarred roasted red peppers,

Italian bread crumbs/panko/crushed-up leftover crackers/regular old bread torn into pieces,

cumin straight from the little jar

and already roasted almonds or regular walnuts.

Don’t toast anything.  Throw these quick substitutes along with the rest of the ingredients listed in the longer version in the food processor all at once and whirr it up.  You’ll have a really fast version of this dip and something pretty darn tasty to feed those hungry guests.

. . .

This dip is great as a sandwich spread if you have any leftover.  Last time I made this was for a vertical Zinfandel wine tasting.  We started off with this, some sweet-hot almonds, and a Indian-spiced lentil dip.  It went perfectly with the wine, a 2003 Jessup Cellars Estate Grown Zinfandel.  This dip can hang with the fancy folk or next to some chicken wings and beer on a Sunday afternoon.


Posted in almonds, appetizer, dip, Middle Eastern, nuts, party, Party Ideas, quick & easy, spicy, tailgate friendly, vegan, vegetable, Vegetarian, walnuts | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Thirsty Thursday: Green Tea Latte

This week we’re going non-alcoholic… still adult but no booze.  Tonight I made my first green tea latte.  Not just any green tea though, Matcha green tea.  I’ve been on the hunt for the stuff for years in tea shops and other specialty stores.  I didn’t want to buy it online… yet.  I finally found some at Wegman’s a few weeks ago and have been waiting for the right time to open up that little gold can.

What is matcha?  Matcha is a very finely-milled (and highly priced) Japaneses green tea.  It has staggering amounts of the antioxidant EGCG in it.  It’s found in some plants, mainly tea, but only in green teas (not black teas).  By now everyone’s heard of it, it’s a media-darling and the topic of much research due to its potent antioxidant properties. You can get a decent overview here (wikipedia to the rescue!).

Beyond it’s therapuetic potential, EGCG has a special place in my heart.  Many friends in my graduate program (including myself) have done research on the benefits of EGCG… skin cancer, lung cancer, Parkinson’s (that was me), lots of things.  One of my dearest friends in grad school and lab mate did work on intestinal tumors and EGCG.  We had many talks about it over the years and EGCG always makes me think of her. In fact, this drink is something we should have shared during one of our many talks but we were too busy studying (chatting) it to drink this fancy version. 🙂 Good for the body, and good for my heart!

I’ve been sick this week and figured tonight was a great time to bust out an antioxidant powerhouse like matcha.  Matcha contains a crazy high amount of EGCG compared to other green teas.  Bring it on!  Originally, I wanted matcha to get concentrated green tea flavor in baked goods and ice cream mainly, but also to drink it on its own.  I really enjoyed my first home experiment with it tonight and will surely need to buy a bigger tin now!


There are two ways to make matcha: thick or thin.  The thick version only has a small amount of water in it and is thicker than Turkish coffee, for example.  I made mine the thin way with some hot, frothed milk.  No fancy bamboo matcha whisk (my apologies to traditionalists) needed.  The flavor of my matcha was smooth and not too bitter – matchas from different regions can have different flavors much like coffee and chocolate.  It most certainly tasted like green tea but was also ‘green’ tasting, reminding me a bit of spinach.  I really liked it plain.  I had already frothed the milk for a latte so on I went.  After adding in the milk and tasting it that way (which also was good), I added about a teaspoon of honey (tasted it again, still tasty) and then a few drops of vanilla extract.  Totally yummy and comforting.  And gorgeous.  It’s a beautiful emerald green color.  You can’t help but feel healthier just looking at it.

To froth hot milk at home without a fancy milk steamer is easy.  Heat the milk in the microwave until hot, about a minute or two.  Use a regular whisk  – whatever size that juuust fits in your milk-containing vessel.  Put the whisk between your two palms and roll it quickly back and forth.  Keep doing this for about a minute and you’ll have beautifully frothed milk!  Keep going for another minute if you want more froth.  You can use any fat content level of milk.  Whole milk will give you a softer froth while skim milk will result in a stiffer froth.  I happened to have whole milk on hand from some recent baking so I used that today.

I used the same technique to froth the tea.  The amount of froth in your matcha is a personal preference.  I had some froth but not too much.  The foam had this pretty rainbow going on in each bubble.  It just made me smile.  I think the wire whisk did a fine job mixing the matcha – some day I’ll get my own fancy bamboo whisk and compare.

One more tip: EGCG is temperature sensitive.  Without getting all science-nerd on you guys, if you overheat the green tea, you’ll breakdown the EGCG and be left with none.  So when the instructions on your green teas read a certain temperature, they mean it.  The tea will also taste different to a trained taster if you use boiling water versus 140 degree water.  I heated my water to boiling in the microwave and then let it sit out on the counter to cool until it was still hot but I could comfortably put my finger in it.

. . .

Matcha Green Tea Latte

½  cup hot water, not boiling

2  teaspoons matcha powder

½ cup milk, any kind (you won’t use it all unless you like it on the weak side)

1  tsp honey

couple drops of vanilla extract

Heat the water in the microwave for 1 minute.  Remove from the microwave and let cool for a minute or two.  Water should be hot but not boiling.  Feel free to bust out your thermometer and get the temp to the desired temperature listed on your matcha. 

While the water is cooling a bit, froth the milk in a seperate tall, deep container.  To froth, use a wire whisk and roll quickly back and forth between your palms until you have you desired amount of foam. 

Add the matcha powder to the hot water and whisk in using the same technique as used for the milk.  Be sure all the matcha is mixed in and you do not have any lumps.  If your matcha seems lumpy to start, press it through a fine seive before adding to the water. 

Next add in the honey and vanilla if you wish to use them.  If you’d like to try the latte sans-extra flavoring first, just add these two at the end.  Pour in your desired amount of hot milk then spoon the frothed milk foam on top of your latte. 

That’s it! Easy and good for you.  If you love tea, especially green tea, I hope you try this.  You can make an iced version, put it in smoothies, milkshakes, or straight up.  Comment below and let me know how you like your matcha!

Posted in beverages, drinks, Thirsty Thursday | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

Thirsty Thursday: Fresh Watermelon Margarita & Jalapeño-Lime Sorbet

It’s Thirsty Thursday!

Fresh Watermelon Margarita with Jalapeño-Lime Sorbet

I love watermelon – the real deal, not the hot pink fake flavoring found in everything from gum to toothpaste (gross, right?).  If I want a watermelon-flavored something, I need to figure out how to use actual fruit to get there.  Watermelon pucker in a drink?  No way, José.  It’s gotta be made with the sweet, crunchy, fresh flavored real stuff.

When one of my best friends (and fellow foodie) got married in 2005, I dreamt up a few cocktails for her bachelorette party (well, the pre-party to the party).  One was a Fresh Watermelon Margarita and the other I call Thai Coco-Cocktail.  The latter involves lemon grass-infused syrup and will probably be a Thirsty Thursday drink one of these days.  Whenever I make a watermelon margarita, I still think of Daniella and all our crazy times over the years.  We’re all grown-up now with different kinds of crazy going on (houses, babies, jobs).  In honor of our grown-up-post-graduate-school-selves, I thought the Watermelon Margarita I served 5 years ago needed some growing up too.  I could’ve just added more tequila but that wouldn’t be fun enough so I added jalapeño!  Actually, jalapeño-lime sorbet.  It’s the perfect cool (yet warm!) addition.  I don’t really dig on frozen drinks of any kind so I rely on ice to keep my drinks cold.  The sorbet is a built-in chiller full of flavor.  Who needs wimpy ice whirred in a blender?!

I served this grown-up version at my Fire & Ice Cooking Club in August.  No need for such a theme… Go grab up a watermelon and a jalapeño then get yourself some tequila!

Watermelon Margarita

(Original recipe from the 2005 bachelorette party)

1 part tequila

2 parts watermelon puree*

½ part triple sec

½ part lime juice

½ part simple syrup**

Margarita salt & lime wedge (optional)


Equipment: Martini shaker (aka a Boston shaker)

Add some ice to your margarita glass and set aside to chill.  Add more ice to your martini shaker along with all the ingredients.  Shake vigorously for 30 – 60 seconds.  Dump the ice out of your glass.  If you like salt, run the lime wedge along the edge of the glass to get it wet.  Roll the edge of the glass in the margarita salt.  Strain your margarita into your glass and enjoy!

 . . .

Grown-up Watermelon Margarita

(Slightly modified version due to the sweetness & acidity that will be added from the sorbet)

1 part tequila

2 parts watermelon puree or juice*

½ part triple sec


Jalapeño-Lime Sorbet (recipe below)

Margarita salt (optional)

Equipment: Martini shaker

Add some ice to your margarita glass and set aside to chill.  Add more ice to your martini shaker along with the tequila, watermelon juice, and triple sec.  Shake vigorously for 30 – 60 seconds.  Dump the ice out of your glass.  If you like salt, run the lime wedge along the edge of the glass to get it wet then roll the edge of the glass in the margarita salt.  Add a scoop of Jalapeño-Lime Sorbet to the bottom of your glass.  Strain your margarita into your glass and enjoy! 

. . .

Jalapeño-Lime Sorbet

Makes enough for 10 – 15 drinks depending on your scoop size

1  cup sugar

1  tbl lime zest

1  jalapeño, seeded and finely minced (if you don’t want it spicy, just leave this out)

½  tsp salt

1½  cups water, at warm room temp

½  cup fresh lime juice (5 or 6 limes)

1  tbl vodka (or tequila)

Equipment: Ice cream/sorbet maker***

Stir all ingredients together until the sugar is dissolved.  Chill the liquid mixture in the fridge for 30 – 45 minutes.  With the ice cream maker running (and following any other instructions specific to your machine), pour the liquid into the machine and let it churn until it resembles a thick, smooth slush.  Place the sorbet into an air tight container with plastic wrap pressed against its surface (and the container’s lid on as well).  Remove from the freezer about 5 minutes before you want to use it.  If you can’t wait, microwave on defrost for 30 seconds.  Scoop away!

* Watermelon puree/juice – I used watermelon juice leftover from cut up watermelon.  It’s a great way to use up all that flavorful liquid that seeps out of the fruit.  Alternatively, you could puree some watermelon and use that.  If you get any watermelon foam (it happens!), scoop it off and use the remaining juicy puree.  And as one final alternative, you can freeze chunks of actual watermelon or the juice and make a blender-friendly frozen version.

** simple syrup – Boil ½ cup water with ½ sugar until sugar is melted and the mixture is syrupy.  Cool and store in the fridge (for weeks!) for all kinds of uses (mainly adult beverage uses J)

*** No ice cream maker? Do not fret!  You have two options: 1) make the same mixture and freeze it in ice cube trays.  Then you can either use the flavored ice to shake up your drink and serve it with OR make a frozen margarita with the flavored ice. Or 2) make a granite with the mixture.  Pour the cooled mixture into a shallow dish and chill in the freezer for an hour.  Use 2 forks to scrape the semi-frozen mixture into little ice shavings.  Freeze for another 2 – 3 hours, scraping the mixture every hour or so.  When you’re ready to serve, scrape it all up again into a pile of pretty, sparkling, speckled shavings.

Posted in alcohol, beverages, cocktail, spicy, Thirsty Thursday, watermelon | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment