Saturday, May 30, 2009

Virginia Sweet Tea with Mint

Easy Sweet Tea Ice IcedFoodgawker #27109
TasteSpotting #45404

It's time for tea, sweet tea that is!

easy sweet ice iced teaBoiling the sugar and water together will result in crystal clear tea - no sugar floating around in the glass either. Start by bringing 8 cups of water and 1 cup of sugar to a full boil.

Luzianne Iced TeaTurn off the heat and add 8 tea bags - I prefer Luzianne, but you can use your favorite brand.
(I tie the strings together so the tags don't float around in the tea - makes removal easy too)
Steep for 20-30 minutes.

remove bitterness from your teaRemove tea bags and gently squeeze to get all that yummy goodness out of them. Add 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda - yes baking soda. It will eliminate any acidic bitterness and you'll never know it's in there. Add 8 large mint leaves (I like Spearmint); stir well. Pour over ice and serve - equal parts tea to ice.


Sweet Tea
Makes 1 gallon

8 cups water
1 cup sugar
8 tea bags
5-6 mint leaves
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
8 cups ice
Additional mint leaves for garnish

Bring water and sugar to a full boil. Remove from heat and add tea bags. Steep for 20-30 minutes. Add mint leaves and baking soda; stir well. Pour tea over ice and enjoy.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Creamy Fruit Dip

creamy fruit dipFoodgawker declined - lighting/exposure issues
TasteSpotting accepted - photo #45509
This creamy and delicious fruit dip doesn't get any easier - you can mix it up in a about a minute using only 3 simple ingredients that you probably already have on hand.

I like to see the little specks of vanilla bean seeds in my fruit dip so I used vanilla bean paste, but you can substitute pure vanilla extract or the seeds of 1/2 a vanilla bean. Serve with any fruit you like - apples, bananas, pears, peaches, berries, melons... the sky is the limit.

Creamy Fruit Dip
Makes enough dip for 4-6 apples

1 cup sour cream
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla bean paste
(substitute 1/2 tsp. pure vanilla extract or the seeds from half of a vanilla bean)

Mix well and serve with your choice of fruit - for the smoothest dip, mix with a whisk.

fruit dip
This photo was declined by both Foodgawker and TasteSpotting.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Caramel Sauce

easy caramel sauceThere was an ice cream party at the kid's school today and each family was supposed to send in one ice cream topping. I had a feeling a lot of the kids would bring chocolate syrup, but didn't think anyone would bring caramel sauce, so I decided to whip up a batch - no recipe, I just winged it.

making caramel sauceI started by melting 1 stick of unsalted butter (8 tablespoons), 1/4 teaspoon salt, and 1 cup of sugar in a saucepan.

making caramel ice cream toppingI heated it over a medium flame until it reached a nice color and it started to smell kind of carmel-y. I also transferred the sugar/butter mixture into a larger pan because I remembered caramel bubbles up violently when liquid is added, and I planned to add cream in the next step.

caramel and creamI added about 3/4 cup of heavy cream and stirred well. Note: I usually let it get a bit darker before I add the cream, but I needed to get this out the door fast, so I finished it a bit on the light side. I knew the kids would love it no matter what, and they surely did... there was only a drizzle in the bottom of the jar at the end of the party.

vanilla caramel sauceThen I turned off the heat and added 1 teaspoon of pure vanilla extract; stir, stir, stir...

homemade caramel sauceI let the mixture cool for a couple of minutes before pouring into jars. As you can see, this step can be a bit messy, so I filled the jars over a lined sheet tray.

After a quick clean-up, I added the lid and wasn't pleased with the appearance of this reused maraschino cherry jar, so....

dressed up homemade caramel sauceI jazzed the jar up a little with gold ribbon and a couple of squares of recycled star tissue paper, which made for a much more pleasant presentation. I don't usually recycle tissue paper, but this one was too cute to throw away - glad I saved it.

Caramel Sauce
makes 1 1/2 cups

8 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Melt butter, sugar, and salt together in a large sauce pan. Bring to a boil and cook without stirring until desired color is achieved. Remove from heat and stir in cream. Cool for a couple of minutes before adding vanilla; stir to combine. Enjoy!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Stuffed Shells with 3 Cheeses

stuffed shells with 3 cheesesMmmm, Stuffed Shells - a family favorite any time of year. Great when you need to feed a crowd too!

jumbo pasta shellsFirst boil 1 box of jumbo pasta shells (properly salted water please... add enough kosher salt so the water actually tastes salty - like the sea). Under cook the shells a bit so they don't turn to mush later in the oven. It's really important to cool these shells completely before proceeding. I do this by running them under cold water. I'll even throw in an ice cube or two. Then drain and move on to the next step.

making stuffed shellsIn the meantime, gather all your ingredients together. Here I have my homemade sauce (or "gravy" as some family members insist on calling it), Mozzarella cheese, Parmesan cheese, Ricotta cheese, eggs, dried parsley, red pepper flakes, and s & p. I didn't have any frozen spinach on hand today, but I usually throw a 10-ounce box of that in too (thawed and squeezed of course).

stuffed shell or manicotti fillingFor the filling, mix the eggs, ricotta, 1/2 the mozzarella, 1/2 the parmesan, parsley, red pepper flakes, salt and pepper, and optional spinach together. Mix, mix, mix.... you don't want any bites with too much red pepper... or worse, not enough cheese!!!

Haha, that reminds me of the time my 2 year old son said to me (with the most concerned tone in his voice), "But mommy, if you die, who will buy me cheese???" (ah, the love of cheese). For the record, I was not dying. I wasn't even sick... it just randomly occurred to my toddler that I was the prime cheese provider, and he was quite concerned that his cheese provisions could very well be hindered at some point in the event I should cease to exist.

That 2 year old is now nearly 16, and he's still a cheese fiend. I literally have to hide the fresh mozzarella from him!
Okay, back to the stuffed shells...

manicotti or stuffed shell fillingHere is the filling all nice and mixed. See how yummy :).

simple way to stuff pasta shells or manicottiI usually place the filling into a large, disposable pastry bag, but since most of you probably don't have one of those hanging around, I'll demonstrate with a gallon size zipper storage bag. This will help you to fill the shells with slightly less mess. Note I said slightly - unless you have a helper in the kitchen to hold each shell open, you are going to get a little messy, so if you're brave (or desperate) enough to try this alone, do yourself a favor and use a pastry or storage bag.

Before we go any further, put a layer of sauce on the bottom of your baking dish. This will prevent the shells from sticking to the dish.

tip for filling stuffed shells or manicottiNow, cut a fairly decent size hole in the corner of the bag and start filling the shells. See how large I made this hole? I probably cut a good inch off the corner of the bag. Put the open corner into the shell and squeeze to fill. The bag will help you keep the shell open. So much easier than trying to fill them with a spoon.

preparing stuffed shells or manicottiIf you have any filling left over, just squeeze it into the gaps between the shells. Waste not, want not.

making stuffed shells or manicottiTop the shells with the remaining sauce, remaining mozzarella and parmesan cheeses, and a sprinkling of dried parsley. IMPORTANT - place the baking dish on a sheet pan. Your oven will thank me later.

non-stick foilI like to use Reynold's Wrap Non-stick Foil whenever I make stick or cheesy things.  Nothing sticks to it.

Reynold's non-stick foilSeriously, one side is printed "non-stick side" (the dull side). Put the non-stick side against the cheese and you'll never have to worry about the foil ripping all the melted cheese off your dinner again!

No more lost cheeseThis is the side of the foil that was in direct contact with all that melted cheese. Look - you can click on the photo to see that there isn't one speck of cheese stuck to that foil. Not one speck! Great stuff!

keeping the oven cleanAnd THIS is why your oven is happy you put that baking dish on a cookie sheet. You'll thank me too :). Mmmm, yummy. I hope you enjoy this recipe!

Stuffed Shells with 3 Cheeses

1 box jumbo shells (not quite fully cooked - rinsed and cooled completely)
2 eggs
32 oz. ricotta cheese
16 oz. shredded mozzarella cheese, divided
4 oz. grated parmesan cheese, divided
3 tablespoons dried parsley
2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 teaspoons ground black pepper
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
10 oz box frozen spinach, thawed and squeezed dry (optional)
3-4 cups of your favorite tomato sauce (try my homemade version), divided

Preheat oven to 350F. In a large baking dish (approx. 10x13 or 11x14), spoon 1/2 of the tomato sauce; set aside.

In a large bowl, combine the eggs, ricotta, 1/2 the mozzarella, 1/2 the parmesan, parsley, salt, pepper, red pepper flakes, and optional spinach. Mix well. Fill the partially cooked pasta shells and place them on top of the layer of tomato sauce in the baking dish. Top with the remaining sauce, mozzarella, and parmesan. Sprinkle with dried parsley. Cover well with non-stick foil. Place baking dish on a sheet pan. Bake covered in a 350F oven for 50-60 minutes, or until the shells are hot and bubbly. Remove foil and bake an additional 5-10 minutes until the cheese is golden brown. Remove from oven and rest for 10-15 minutes before serving. Enjoy!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

La Petite Wedding Cake - a rush job with a really long story

petite chocolate wedding cake
This past weekend our family gathered together to celebrate my little brother's College Graduation. A few days earlier, my newly engaged sister decided it would be a good idea to take advantage of the fact that the whole family was going to be together, so she announced she and her honey would be getting married the day after the graduation. It was to be an informal family affair - nothing fancy, picnic type food and a small cake. Simple, right?

Naturally, since I make wedding cakes, everyone expected that I would make her cake (which I was more than thrilled about and quite looking forward to doing), but the fact that I live out of state, and would be driving there a day and a half before the wedding, put a real kink into things because I strive to make only the freshest cakes possible. And as anyone who makes tiered cakes can attest, the thought of making one in a foreign kitchen was simply out of the question - I'd have to pack up my entire kitchen - recipes, ingredients, cake pans, parchment, insulated cake strips, KitchenAid mixer, bowls, attachments, heavy duty turntable, spatulas, piping bags and tips, etc, etc, etc. I'd surely forget some vital piece of equipment in the process, so no, this was not a viable option (and even if I was willing, I really didn't have time).

Feeling torn and not knowing what to do, I came up with Plan B - make and freeze the components ahead of time and assemble them in my very accommodating Mother-in-law's newly renovated kitchen. That was actually a fairly decent plan until I realized a) I didn't have enough time to make/freeze the components, and b) the frozen components (or should I say semi-frozen) would be sitting in our vehicle, in the sun, for 7-8 hours before we would arrive at our final destination (not so much a problem for well wrapped cake layers, but the BUTTERcream would never survive).

Plan C was to skip the graduation all together, which would give me an extra day and a half to make the cake - that was really the best solution, but the graduation was the whole reason for going there in the first place, so I quickly erased that idea from my mind.

Finally my hubby, the logical one, the analytical one, the tell-it-like-it-is one, said, "Why are you worrying so much about it... you don't have time... you can't do it". Well, I didn't want to disappoint my sister, but I knew he was right. I had to go empty handed and hope to find a solution once I got there.

Immediately after the graduation, I started visiting all the area bakeries to see what they had available. I noticed most of the pre-made cakes were graduation cakes decorated with tacky blue flowers (hello, graduation week... duh). Not exactly what I was looking for, however I did manage to find a fairly neutral sheet cake, so I went ahead and purchased it. I wasn't happy with it at all, but I was exhausted and relieved that I had found something to bring to the wedding the next day.

After a full night of much needed sleep, and still unhappy with the sheet cake, I started thinking about what I could do with a couple of cakes I spied at a gourmet grocery store the day before. Here are pictures from the store's website - the small one is 4" in diameter; the other 7". Not exactly like my cakes, but they were the prettiest I could find, they actually tasted good (real ganache), and I knew I could dress them up a bit.
So 2 hours before the wedding I drove all the way back to the gourmet grocery store, hoping they would still have both of these cakes available - score, they did! Oh, and I found the perfect 9” footed cake pedestal there too! I begged the bakery staff to sell me a couple of clean cardboard cake rounds, and then quickly ran over to the craft store for silk mini roses, a wooden dowel, and a can of yucky pre-made frosting to use as glue (I normally would NEVER buy canned frosting, not to mention one that cost nearly $4, but I was in the middle of a cake crisis and was willing to pay any amount for anything that would help).

I zoomed back to my in-law's house with about 15 minutes to spare, cut the clean cake boards to be slightly smaller than the cakes (so they wouldn’t be seen), then I used a hot knife to quickly release the cakes from their original cake boards. I cut all the flower heads off their stems while my father-in-law cut and sharpened the dowel and my mother-in-law searched for 2 paper wrapped straws she had stashed away. My husband stood by closely monitoring (and constantly announcing) the time while all the little cousins watched. A dab of frosting glue on the pedestal and between the layers, straws inserted into the bottom tier to support the top, a dowel hammered down through the middle of both to keep the layers from shifting in the car, and quick placement of all the little mini roses to hide the gap between the tiers.

Shew…. we were only 5 minutes late for the wedding - thankfully the ceremony hadn’t started yet.
I tell you, Never Again!

small petite wedding cake chocolate
PS - my self-proclaimed "ever wise daughter" would like to add the following:
In the midst of her not-so-mini-meltdown, my mother was having trouble deciding on which flowers to get. Should she get the pink ones, the red ones, oh, those over there are nice..... On top of that, the lady working at the flower stand was completely useless. She said "May I help you?" My mother, desperate for any help she could get, replied "Yes, we're looking for some flowers." The lady responded, "Oh, our sunflowers are right over here..." "No-no, some flowers". "Yes we have very fresh sunflowers right here...." ugh, and so it went. Being the only sane one around, I had to bring some sense back to the equation. "Um, why don't we just go with the small ones you liked at the craft store?" "Yeah, but they're fake." "Yeah, but they're the right color and size." "Uh, good point. Let's go!"
So, I would just like to receive some credit for helping my mother with this whole mess. :)
Thank you dear - love, Mom

Monday, May 18, 2009

Blue Monday - College Graduation

This past Saturday, my youngest brother graduated from College, earning both an Associate's and Bachelor's Degree. I'm immensely proud of him, so today's post is in his honor.
Congratulations John-John!!!

The venue for the graduation ceremony was an ornately decorated Community Art Center. What a stunning facility!

This is a zoomed in shot of the huge arch topped wall grill in the photo above (center of photo).


Plush seating and ornate brass railings.

One of the many ceiling medallions.

Look at the stack of Diplomas ready to be given to the graduates. When it was announced the ceremony would last 90 minutes, one of my sisters immediately pulled out a book and began to read, while the other sister said she felt compelled to clap for each and every graduate (can you guess which sister is the mother of 3, and which one has no children?).

Whoo-hoo!!! Way to go Kiddo!

Here my brother poses with his wife and 3 month old baby. Isn't he precious! His shirt says, "My Daddy is a Super Hero". Proud Grandpa in the back.

Time to drive home for a Grandma's huge cold cut sandwiches before starting all the prep for our sister's wedding the next day.
(it was a crazy weekend)

Check out this cute little parking lot located near the art center. That's a mural painted on the side of a brick building. I snapped this shot because the mural had so many wonderful shades of blue, but now I realize all the vehicles in the photo are blue too.

This is probably a dead giveaway, but can you guess which University?
(We Are, P _ _ _ S _ _ _ _!)

Here's another hint - the PENNsylvania STATE flag.