Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Merry Christmas!

I don't often share my beliefs here because that's not what we're here to talk about. But it would be disingenuous of me not to share something so close to my heart on this day of family and faith.

To me, the holidays are a time to refocus my life on Christ and the peace that comes through following in His divine example. If, like me, you are a believer in the divinity of our Lord and Savior, I hope you will find this short video edifying.

Whatever part of the world you come from, and whatever faith you practice, I hope this holiday season has been filled with warmth and love. I hope it has brought you together with loved ones and helped you refocus your life on those things which are most important: Family, Service, Worship and Love for your fellow men.

Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas to one and all, with my love.

PS: More Christmas inspiration can be found here.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Very Merry Spiced Cherry Cider {Slow Cooker}


Back before I was a home-bound stay-at-home Mommy, I used to entertain. They were golden days, when most of my friends still lived at home or at least within an hour or so. I used to throw fun-but-laid-back holiday parties, which I miss terribly. Maybe someday soon I'll bring it back.

I always needed something festive to drink, and I used to make this recipe with cranberry juice. And I love it with cranberry juice, so if that appeals to you, by all means, make it that way. But just for kicks I threw in some tart cherry juice I had kicking around the fridge instead.

It. Was. So. Yummy! I loved the tart, yet almost floral taste of the cherry juice, combined with the apple cider and spices. Mmm Mm! Just throw it in the slow cooker and sip on it all day long. And if you've got some soft ginger cookies to accompany it, so much the better.

Very Merry Spiced Cherry Cider

2 parts unfiltered apple juice or cider
1 part tart cherry juice
cinnamon stick
allspice berries

Scale the recipe as desired for the number of people you need to serve. I usually do 1 quart (4 c.) apple cider to 1 pint (2 c.) cherry juice. Pour liquids into slow cooker. Toss in a cinnamon stick and several allspice berries. If you're making a large quantity, do 2 sticks of cinnamon and about 10 allspice berries. Let mull all day on low or a couple of hours on high. Your house will smell like heaven.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Christmas Spaghetti

So I mentioned that my family traditionally does a big lasagna feast on Christmas Eve. I love that, but I have to admit that I find lasagna making tedious. I don't really understand why, since I enjoy many another tedious task, but I just prefer not to make lasagna. I'm strange like that, I guess.

Last year I set out in search of something fun and kid-friendly to incorporate into our immediate family tradition -- it seemed like time considering it was the first Christmas in my life not spent with my parents and brother.

When I set eyes on this recipe it was like kismet. It was meant to be, and I knew it would be amazing. We LOVE it. It's got tender spaghetti, savory beef and tomato sauce, creamy cream cheese, and crunchy fried onions. Those onions just put it over the top for me. They're my favorite part. (I always sneak extras onto my plate -- I just can't help it!) And I also love that it uses up the rest of my can lingering in the pantry from Thanksgiving.

If you want to fancy it up a bit, you can certainly replace the cream cheese with mascarpone and make your own crispy onions or shallots. And I suppose your could substitute some other variety of pasta in place of the spaghetti, maybe ziti? But I wouldn't mess with it. ;D

Christmas Spaghetti
from Salad in a Jar

8 oz. uncooked spaghetti
1 lb. ground beef
1 jar prepared spaghetti sauce
1 Tbsp. butter
1/2 c. diced green peppers (small dice)
1/3 c. diced onions (small dice)
8 oz. cream cheese
2 Tbsp. milk
2 c. shredded mozzarella or cheddar jack cheese blend
Grated Parmesan cheese
French-fried onions (small can)

Cook spaghetti according to directions on the package. Cook to al dente, drain and set aside.
Brown ground beef. Drain excess grease. Add spaghetti sauce to skillet and heat.
Combine onions, peppers and butter in small glass bowl. Cover and microwave 4 minutes on HIGH until soft.
Add cream cheese and milk to vegetables and stir well. (If cream cheese is not soft, nuke it for 20-30 seconds to make it easy to spread.)
Using a 12 x 8-inch baking dish (or something close), assemble in the following order: thin layer of spaghetti sauce, cooked spaghetti, cream cheese/vegetable mixture, remaining spaghetti sauce, parmesan cheese (amount subject to your own taste)
Bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes. Top with french-fried onions and continue baking 5 more minutes. (This is the secret ingredient–don’t let them burn.)

Monday, December 17, 2012

Easy Homemade French Baguettes {+ Homemade Garlic Bread}

Breadmaking can be an addiction. I love the smell of the yeast, the feeling of the dough under my hands, the house filling with the scent of baking bread, and the finished product, slathered in fresh creamery butter. (Is there anything more comforting?)

That said, however, I don't do it all that often unless I have a good excuse. But this baguette recipe is so simple and straightforward that I can easily justify the effort. Particularly at this festive time of the year. I love to go the extra mile to make the holidays special.

On Christmas Eve, my family usually has an Italian feast of lasagna, and nothing rounds out a carb-fest like lasagna like more carbs covered in garlic and parmesan cheese. And in that spirit, I'll also share the secret for turning this into homemade garlic bread that will rock your socks right off! (Because I seriously dislike the premade store-bought stuff, and this is SO much better.)

Wednesday I will share with you another Christmas Eve favorite. Don't forget to stop by again!

Easy Homemade French Baguettes
from Kelsey Nixon

2 envelopes dry active yeast (1 1/2 tablespoons)
2 Tbsp. honey
3 1/2 to 4 c. all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
2 tsp. salt
Canola oil, for greasing bowl
Cornmeal, for dusting pan
3 to 4 ice cubes

Combine the honey, yeast and 1/2 cup warm water. Stir to combine and let the mixture stand until the yeast is activated and begins to foam, 5 minutes.

Mix the flour and salt in a large mixing bowl with a dough hook and slowly add in the yeast mixture. Gradually add 1 cup warm water and mix until the dough comes together into a ball that is not too wet (you may not need all of the water). If the dough is sticky, add a little bit more flour. Turn out the dough onto a floured surface and knead until the dough is smooth and elastic, 2 to 6 minutes. You can do the thumbprint test: press in the dough with your thumb and it should bounce back when it's ready.

Form the dough into a ball, place it in a lightly-oiled bowl and cover with a dishcloth, so it doesn't dry out. Let rest in a warm environment until doubled in size, 25 to 30 minutes.

Punch down the dough and divide it in half. Shape into 2 baguettes by making a flat rectangle out of your dough, then folding the top and bottom towards the middle, like an envelope, and sealing the seam with your fingers. Keep repeating the folding and sealing, stretching the rectangle lengthwise as you go, until it's about 12 to 14 inches long and 2 inches wide. Fold and seal either end to round. Flip seam-side down and place on a sheet pan or baguette pan that has been dusted with cornmeal. Score the tops of the loaves, making deep diagonal slits 1/2-inch deep, cover with a dishcloth and let rise in a warm environment until they have doubled in size, 25 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F and position your oven racks with one on the bottom and the other in the middle. Place an oven-safe (non-glass) bowl or pan on the bottom rack.

When your bread has doubled for the second time, remove the towel and quickly and simultaneously, slide the sheet tray with the baguettes onto the middle rack while carefully throwing the ice cubes into the bowl on the bottom rack (honestly, I skip the bowl and throw it directly on the bottom of the oven, but this is probably safer and stuff). The ice will create a burst of steam that will give you a nice crispy crust. If you have a glass window on your oven, place a towel over it when throwing the ice in, hot glass can shatter if ice touches it. Quickly shut the oven door so no steam escapes. Bake the baguettes until golden brown, 15 minutes. Let cool completely.

Now that that's done, make it in to garlic bread! Here's how:

Homemade Garlic Bread

6 lg. cloves garlic, minced
1/4 c. fresh Italian parsley, chopped
3/4 tsp. kosher salt
1/8 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1 loaf French bread, cut lengthwise
6 Tbsp. unsalted butter, softened
1/4 c. parmesan cheese, grated (plus more to sprinkle on top if desired)

Preheat your oven broiler on the Low setting (or if your broiler only has one setting like mine, set your rack down from the broiling element a bit).
In a small mixing bowl, combine all the ingredients except for the bread to make a paste/spread (you can also use a food processor if you’d prefer).  Using a flat knife or spoon, spread the butter mixture evenly over the non-crusted portion of the bread. Sprinkle with additional grated parmesan if desired.
Set both sides of the bread, spread-side up, on a baking sheet lined with aluminum foil and place in the center of the oven under the broiler until the butter is melted and the top starts to becomes golden brown, about 3-5 minutes. Take care to pay attention to the bread so it does not burn — it can cook quickly under the broiler.
Once golden, remove from the broiler and set on a cutting board. Allow to cool for 2-3 minutes in order to handle. Using a serrated bread knife, cut the bread into portions and serve.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Gingerbread with Caramel & Bananas

So, I'm sure I talked you into making some Vanilla Bean Caramel Sauce, and now you have this delicious sauce, which you're guiltily eating straight from the jar, and you're thinking, "I need to make something awesome to put this on. But what?"

Worry not. I'm here to help, yet again.

 What you need is gingerbread.

The Lion House is a historical home in downtown Salt Lake City. They put out a cookbook (back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth) that included this recipe, among many, many reliably showstopping others. My mom used to make this gingerbread for us. She would serve it to us with Cool Whip and bananas, and it was lovely, but it needed something. Something gooey.

Enter caramel sauce.

Now you have perfection in every bite: Dense, spicy gingerbread; fluffy whipped cream; creamy, fruity bananas; and sticky, gooey, heavenly caramel.


And though the bananas might seem strange at first, give them a chance. They will change gingerbread for you.

Lion House Gingerbread

1/2 c. butter, softened
1/2 c. sugar
1 egg
1 c. molasses
2 1/2 c. flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1 1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. ginger
1/2 tsp. cloves
1 c. very hot water

Cream together butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in egg, then molasses. Scrape down bowl and mix again, if needed, until blended.
In a separate bowl, whisk together flour, salt, and spices. Add to molasses mixture in two additions, mixer on low, until just combined. Slowly mix in hot water until smooth.
Pour batter into greased 9 x 13" pan, and bake at 350 for 25-30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out cleanly.
Serve with a drizzle of caramel sauce, a dollop of whipped cream, and sliced banana.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Easy Vanilla Bean Caramel Sauce

I love to make my own sauces and such. Every time I do it makes me want to make a gigantic ice cream sundae -- like Kevin in Home Alone. With sprinkles. And whipped cream.
It feels like a good excuse, too.
Not that it's terribly difficult.

This sauce was very little effort and took about 10 minutes from start to finish. It has a velvety smooth texture with little pops of vanilla flavor. I have very little trouble finding an excuse to drizzle this over top of whatever I'm eating. Apple cider? Yes, please. Hot chocolate? Don't mind if I do. Oatmeal? How bad could it be? (Mostly kidding on that last one, but...)

A little later, I'll let you in on my favorite way to enjoy this sauce, but here's a little extra inspiration. (Because you need some extra excuses to enjoy it. Seriously):

Caramel Apple Nachos from Shugary Sweets
Croquembouche from Martha Stewart
Caramel Swirl Marshmallows from Sophistimom
Double Chocolate & Caramel Rice Krispie Treats from Makoodle

Lip-smackin' good stuff.

Easy Vanilla Bean Caramel Sauce

1 c. brown sugar
1/2 c. butter, diced
2/3 c. heavy cream
seeds of one vanilla bean
generous pinch flaky sea salt (such as Maldon), crumbled (optional)

In a medium sauce pan, combine brown sugar, and butter. Heat over medium heat, stirring constantly. Meanwhile, scrape vanilla bean seeds into cream and stir to combine. Once butter is melted and mixture comes together thickly, add cream and vanilla mixture. Stir to combine, and continue to heat and stir for about 2 minute more, until mixture is smooth and no longer grainy. Stir in salt, if desired, being sure to crumble it so that no large flakes remain intact. Pour into jar(s) and store in the refrigerator. Warm before serving.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Homemade Oreos

When my husband was asked to bring his favorite dessert to a gathering a while back, I teased him about his wife having to bake something for a boys-only event. When I asked him what he wanted me to make, he told me that he would call his mom to get the recipe for a childhood favorite cookie -- the first cookie he learned to make himself.

I love the visual that pops into my head of my husband's younger self mixing these up, his hands shiny from rolling them between his palms, his pink tongue licking the extra frosting from his fingertips.

Five years married and I have never heard him mention these. And it's a shame, because they are so yummy! I couldn't leave them alone!

One of the things hubby likes best about this recipe is the large amount it makes. You roll the cookies pretty small, but they spread and puff. I think he got about 50 sandwich cookies out of this batch! And that's one thing I can get on board with. Especially with holiday baking and the ensuing burnout.

This makes an easy but impressive plate of cookies to share -- pile them nice and high and the recipient will feel extra special.

This recipe calls for shortening. I hate to fiddle with anything so beloved from my husband's childhood, so I'll simply suggest that butter or margarine would likely work well as a trans-fat-free alternative. ;D

Homemade Oreos

2 boxes Devils Food cake mix
1 1/2 c. butter, softened (or shortening)
4 eggs

Combine all ingredients and mix until well combined. Roll into grape-size balls and place on parchment-lined baking sheet (or unlined and ungreased baking sheet) 2" apart. Bake at 350ยบ about 8 minutes.

Cream Cheese Filling

8 oz. cream cheese, softened
1/2 c. butter, softened
3 c. powdered sugar
1 tsp. vanilla

Whip together cream cheese, butter, and vanilla until well combined. With mixer on low, add in powdered sugar a little at a time until stiff. Turn mixer on high and whip for a minute or two until fluffy.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Mom's Chicken Chili

We interrupt your regularly-scheduled holiday sugar rush with, well, chili.

White Bean and Chicken Chili.

I've been dreaming of this for a while now, and when I finally did make it it was like a fresh breeze through the haze of sweet, rich holiday fare. Tender chicken, hearty white beans, slightly spicy green chiles, all spiced with a hit of cumin and swimming in a flavorful broth.

It all starts in the crock pot, which is a very comfortable place to start in my view. If you're anything like me it's pretty rare to have plain cooked chicken hanging around, so I must cook it specifically for this purpose. I have a small slow cooker, which works perfectly for 2 or 3 chicken breasts and about a quart of liquid. Just right for this recipe. And while the chicken cooks in the crock pot, it also makes a lovely broth. Two for one! Of course, it doesn't have to go down that way. You can use up leftover chicken and store-bought stock (or even bouillon cubes -- no judgement here) and end up with something fabulous.

My mother's recipe, and still a favorite of mine. I hope you like it, too.

Mom's Chicken Chili

2 or 3 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
veggie or chicken stock
bay leaf
salt and pepper

1 Tbsp. oil
1 medium onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 c. flour
more veggie or chicken stock, if needed
1, 4 oz. can green chiles
1 1/2 tsp. cumin
2, 14 oz. cans white beans (liquid and all)
more salt and pepper to taste

Place chicken in small crock pot, season with salt and pepper and pour over chicken or veggie stock to just cover. Sprinkle in some cumin (just a little -- no more than 1/8 tsp.), and drop in a bay leaf. Cook on high 3 or 4 hours (on low 5 or 6 hours), or until chicken is cooked through. Remove chicken and dice, reserving liquid (discard bay leaf).

Heat oil in large pot over medium heat. Add onion, a pinch of salt and pepper, and saute 5 minutes or so. Add in garlic and continue to saute for a minute or two more. Add flour to pan and cook until raw flour smell is gone. Stir in liquid from crock pot all at once, adding additional stock if needed to equal 3 cups. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally, and continue to simmer until thickened slightly. Add in chiles, cumin, beans and diced chicken. Heat through, taste and adjust seasoning. Serve.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Hot Orange Drink

If we were living back in Salt Lake right now, we would be enjoying some of my favorite things about that city -- snow falling softly, free parking downtown, shopping at the new City Creek Center, and the Christmas lights at Temple Square.
(Not to mention my family. And my in-laws. And my friends.)

I miss all that.

When we were young, my family would go see the lights together for family night. When we came home shivering from the cold, mom would heat up this drink. The Hot Orange Drink. We would also sometimes have it on Christmas morning with cinnamon rolls.
So I thought I would bring a little bit of "old home" into our new home by mixing some up for myself.

It's so simple and delicious. No spice, but everything nice. Simple syrup, orange juice, lemon juice, vanilla and almond extract. It perfumes the entire house. It's also good for staving off colds, homesickness, heartache, and scurvy, in case that was a concern for you. This drink also makes a great addition to a holiday party in place of cider or hot cocoa.

I used freshly-squeezed, but you can easily substitute bottled juices -- that's what my mom always uses. Freshly-squeezed juice results in a much paler drink, but no less flavorful. Serve it with some almond biscotti for a treat!

Hot Orange Drink

1 1/2 c. water
1 1/2 c. sugar

8 c. water
2 c. orange juice
3/4 c. lemon juice
1 tsp. almond extract
1 tsp. vanilla

Combine 1 1/2 c. water with 1 1/2 c. sugar in a large pot. Bring to a boil and let boil 4 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Add remaining ingredients to pot, stir to combine, and bring to a simmer. Serve hot.