Jul 30, 2011

A Bounty of Figs

Thank you, author John Boyne for giving the term "flying fig" - and the lack of concern it measures - some historical context. A few years ago, Boyne included the phrase in a novel about the famous mutiny on the British ship, the Bounty, which occurred back in the late 1700s. I can now tell myself the phrase is historically accurate and not just a euphemism for another phrase that is far less polite.

What does any of that have to do with real figs? Why nothing, of course. But I did have a bounty of them drop into my lap this week.

Despite my canning ambiguity this year, I had been mulling over if there was any way I could snag some fresh figs locally (they're a rare bird around here) and by chance overheard a friend talking about a tree loaded with figs, ripe for the plucking. As luck would have it, the tree's owner doesn't give a fig about getting out in this heat and picking them, so my friend/source is welcome to them. And I'm welcome to what he picks as long as I give him back some preserves, including a jar or two as recompense to the tree's owner. It's a sweet deal for everyone.

Yesterday morning I started with this - about 3 quarts of figs, washed and stemmed.

It's a miracle there were any left after I started nibbling on them.
 After a few hours of cooking down (meanwhile I scrubbed and sanitized a dozen jars) and a few minutes of filling, sealing and a quick dip in a hot water bath, I wound up with this pretty array of jars, plus one in the fridge because I misjudged the number of jars needed:

Fig preserves; they're like sunshine in a jar.

But the nice neat stack of jars comes at a price.  This is the kitchen after the preserves finished their water bath.  Canning is not difficult, but it does take time and it is messy.  Very, very messy.

How many kettles does it take to can?  All of them.
Is it worth it?  Oh yes.  I'm not much of a jam/jelly/preserve fan, but I am looking forward to using these preserves in some upcoming cakes and cookies.  And I'm hopeful I might get another batch or two of figs.   Maybe in a year or two my fig tree will reward me with some figs.  Assuming it survives transplant shock, poor baby.

Happy preserving,

Jul 29, 2011

So how 'bout them recipes?

Last week, I test-drove several new recipes, most of which were from the Food Network.

And surprisingly, they were all pretty successful.  (My new recipe ventures are often trial-and-error.  Emphasis on error. But even with an error-strewn wake behind me, I still love plowing into new recipe terrain, especially when I'm tired of fixing the "same 'ol, same 'ol," as my nephews call their favorite foods.)

For starters last week, we had sweet and sour bean salad.  My only gripe about bean salads (not just this one) is that you wind up with a HUGE salad, especially when there are only a couple of us eating on it.  It keeps for several days, but who wants to eat the same salad for days on end?

When I make it again (and I will), I will use Catalina dressing and add a bit of cider vinegar to it in lieu of the dressing, which involved boiling apple cider vinegar, sugar, a can of tomato soup, salt and pepper, then mixing with oil.  The problem is, the recipe makes a LOT of dressing, even for four cans of beans.  Wayyyy too much dressing. And when I was mixing it up, I thought it smelled and tasted a lot like Catalina dressing. 

Sure enough, many homemade Catalina dressing recipes involve the same ingredients, with less vinegar.  Next time around, I'll use a cup (or so) of Catalina dressing with an added boost of vinegar and voila.  I'm also tempted to try this recipe with garbanzo beans instead of butter beans.  So yeah, it's a keeper, especially if I'm feeding a crowd.

The BLT pasta salad was splendiferous as-is. Wouldn't change a thing, except to cut it in half. That recipe makes 8 generous servings, not the 4 indicated.  Also, be sure you get the bacon really crisp.  I was in a hurry and my bacon was just this side of crispy.  It was good, but good crunchy bits would have held their own better.

The Stuffed Chicken Divan was good, but I read the reviews and modified it accordingly - Swiss cheese rather than Gruyere, double the cornstarch and I used half sherry and half white wine and tossed the remaining broccoli and cheese stuffing in the sauce.  My only recommendation is to ramp up the flavor of the stuffing. Not sure exactly what it needs, maybe onion or shallots as some reviews suggested, maybe something else.  A keeper.

Finally, I tried Paula Deen's Peach Cobbler.  It was good, but would have been better if I had paid more attention and remembered the cup of sugar in the dough batter.  And uhhhh....when she says put it in a 3-quart dish, she knows what she's talking about. (The oven needed cleaning anyway.)

I also revisited my own creamy dill cucumber salad from memory, adding some tomatoes for good measure.  Maybe it was the last-minute decision to add buttermilk, or the choice of Greek yogurt, but it was too tangy for my tastes.  We're going to have to take another stab at it, especially if oldest son keeps bringing me cucumbers that his neighbor gives to him.  And there's always fresh cucumber "bellyachers"  to use up the surplus.

I'm glad we took a detour last week through these new recipes, and I plan on taking several more scenic routes soon.    To paraphrase Paulo Coelho (don't feel bad - I didn't know who he was either):

"Life is too short, or too long to allow us the luxury of eating the same foods over and over again."

Happy culinary adventures!

Jul 27, 2011

Recipe of the Week: Chocolate Cheesecake Bites

In just a few days (July 30), we will celebrate National Cheesecake Day, otherwise known as The Cheesecake Factory's busiest-day-of-the-year. 

Commercialism aside, it's my favorite cheesecake holiday and should not be confused with White Chocolate Cheesecake Day on March 6, Cherry Cheesecake Day on April 23, Blueberry Cheesecake Day on May 26 or Pumpkin Cheesecake day on October 21.  (Yes, those are actual holidays - I couldn't make this stuff up.)

And so even though I recently posted Dana's cheesecake bar recipe, I thought I'd share my twist on an older recipe from Hershey's.

I will preface this by saying I am not a huge fan of flavored cheesecakes (apparently other people are big fans, given the aforementioned proliferation of flavored cheesecake holidays.)  I will go on the record as a cheesecake purist, and affirm that my belief that cheesecake IS a flavor all by itself. And while I love flavors like pumpkin, strawberry, turtle and anything that has the word "chocolate" in it, I usually aim for the plain, simple cheesecake when I have the choice.

That said, these little chocolate bites are pretty tasty. I was introduced to the original recipe from Hershey's by my mom many, many Thanksgivings ago...late '80s or early '90s.  (Hopefully she's reading this and can give us a more precise timeframe.)  The recipe in its original form is doubled from what I've listed here and it makes one big honkin' chocolate cheesecake.  But I found these were handy for office potluck days or anytime I'm serving buffet-style.  And somehow, having several little bites just feels more virtuous and less fattening than eating a whole slice.  (Just work with me here, okay?)

Chocolate Cheesecake Bites

Crust Ingredients:
3 tablespoons butter, melted
3/4 cup vanilla wafer crumbs (about 25 wafers) crushed finely
3 tablespoons powdered sugar
3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder

Filling Ingredients:
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 can sweetened condensed milk (chocolate, light or plain)
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1 tablespoon butter
1 1/2 packages cream cheese, softened
2 eggs

Heat oven to 300. Create crust by mixing crushed wafers, powdered sugar and t tablespoons cocoa with melted butter. (This recipe pre-dates the introduction of crushed Oreo cookie crumbs - which can be substituted if you can find them.) Divide crust among mini muffin pans (this recipe will make 24 cheesecake bites.) press firmly into bottom of each muffin cup.

For filling, melt 1 tablespoon butter and add 3 tablespoons cocoa powder; stir well. (Once again, the recipe is showing its age - now you can substitute one pouch of Nestle pre-melted unsweetened chocolate.)

In mixing bowl, beat cream cheese and slowly add cocoa/butter mixture; beat well.  Gradually beat in sweetened condensed milk until smooth.  Add eggs and vanilla; beat well.  Divide among muffin tins. 

Bake for 20-25 minutes or until center is set (do not overbake.)  Carefully remove from muffin tins; cool and refrigerate if not serving immediately.

Note:  To make a full-size cheesecake, double the recipe ingredients and use a 9-inch springform pan and bake for 1 hour and 5 minutes; the full recipe makes 12 servings.

Happy baking!

Jul 25, 2011

To can or not to can?

by Dick Williams, War Food Administration, 1944
I grew up watching my grandmother and my mother "put up" vegetables and fruit every summer.

There's a certain irony to the timing - just when you think the thermometer's mercury cannot possibly rise any higher, it's time to pull out your biggest pots and pans (and kettles and vats) and start boiling stuff.  You boil water to sterilize the jars (unless you're really progressive and use your dishwasher's sanitizing cycle); you scald the skins off tomatoes and peaches, you boil the food you're putting in the jars, and then you boil the filled jars to create a vacuum that will preserve the contents until you open them for use.  Who needs a sauna when your kitchen is full of boiling pots and kettles?

Back in the day, canning and drying was the best and sometimes only way to have fruits and vegetables for eating the rest of the year.  Store-bought produce was limited and expensive, especially when you're a housewife feeding a house-full on a very limited budget, which was the case with both my grandmother and my mom.

Instinctively, I took up canning when I had my own garden.  I made strawberry preserves in the spring, bought a bushel of local peaches each summer to make preserves and canned peach slices.  I've scratched and clawed my way through thorny brambles to pick wild blackberries for preserves and vinegars.  Our old house had muscadine grapes, which do make fabulous jelly.  And sometime in August, jar upon jar of tomatoes, tomatoes with peppers, and salsa would begin to line up proudly on my pantry shelves.

I never bought a pressure canner, so I've never ventured into canned corn or beans, although I have frozen corn, beans and fresh-picked blueberries from time to time.  Roasted and peeled green chilies are commonly found in my freezer, too.

But here's the irony:  our family rarely eats jams, jellies or preserves.  It's just not our thing.  So I finally realized it made no sense to put up a dozen jars of preserves that I'd wind up dumping out the next season in time to wash the jars and do the same thing all over again.

When we moved from the old house, I tossed several jars of home-preserved jellies and tomatoes and salsa that were of questionable vintage.

And so here I am, at a crossroads.  My pantry is much smaller now but I do have shelf space in the garage.  (It's where my canning jars are sitting in storage tubs, waiting for me to wash and sterilize and fill them with something.)

The call to can is strong.  And I am thankful I know how to go about it - that could prove to be a handy bit of knowledge if our society ever teeters off its axis and we are forced to revert to the "good old days"  of self-reliance and self-sufficiency.

Nesco FD-60 dehydrator
I want my children to have an inkling of how food can be made to last from one harvest to the next.   But does it make sense to preserve batches of stuff if I'm going to eventually throw them away?  Aye, there's the rub.

A friend recently showed off a bag of dried peach slices she dehydrated with fresh peaches she bought from a local stand. The fruit looked so much more colorful than the commercial dried peaches that it nudged me to buy a dehydrator of my own. It should be here early this week, and once it is, that's the green light to snag a box of peaches to dry, and a box of tomatoes to roast, puree and freeze.  I guess I've answered my own question!

Happy Monday,

Jul 22, 2011

Birthday Week: Basking in the aftermath

After all three birthday cakes were consumed (a big thank you to Mr. Official's co-workers who helped us with that last hurdle) and the special cake plates and servers were put away, I had one remaining loose end:  take middle child back to the store to swap out some shorts he got.  Bad me, I bought soccer shorts instead of basketball shorts.  Who knew?

While he was looking for satisfactory replacements, I wandered around the home section and what to my wondering eyes did appear, but a miniature....no, not a sleigh or any tiny reindeer.  Christmas has taken over Hobby Lobby already, but not at Marshall's - at least not yet.

It was even better than that.

It was....

a miniature cake pan!

Meet the baby pan
This pan is almost 8 inches tall but only 3 3/4 inches across, compared to the typical cake pan, which is 2 inches tall and 8 inches wide.  Almost completely reverse proportions.  See why I was so excited?

See how tall and small it is?


Keep reading...maybe you'll catch the cake pan fever.

When I saw it, I snatched it off the shelf before anyone else could.  (And I had some women eye-balling it as I strolled by.  Sorry ladies - I saw it first.)

This is quite possibly the cutest cake pan ever.  And it was a whopping $5.99.

The bottom comes out, but it's not a springform cheesecake pan - I have a set of those, of course... 
The cheesecake trio

What a fun time I can have now, trying my hand at some old-fashioned chiffon cakes and other recipes that need the taller shape.

And I can test a small batch of batter without worrying about who's going to eat all that cake, like I do with my big ol' angelfood tube pan.

I bet I know what you're thinking.

Because I'm thinking it too.

Given that this is only a sampling of my collection of cake pans, and does not count all the square and rectangle, metal and glass cake and jelly roll pans, or my (rather extensive) collection of cupcake tins and silicon liners (big and small, I got 'em all), I think I need to find a Baker's Anonymous meeting and go introduce myself.

"Hi, my name is Terry and I really like to bake."

Yeah, I'll get right on that - just as soon as I decide if I've got a submission-worthy recipe for this:

Oh and yes, in case you're wondering...the birthday boy found some shorts that will come down to his knees.  Everyone came home happy.

Happy caking,

Jul 20, 2011

Recipe of the Week: Saving the Turtle (Cake)

Dana Carvey in Master of Disguises
Turtle cake is:

a. an enigma,
b. a conundrum,
c. a non sequitur,
d.  all of the above.

Let's go with d: Turtle cake is not shaped like a turtle.  It isn't even tinted green.  It was not created by nor served at the Ancient and Honorable Order of Turtles. (Like Dana Carvey, it may not even be turtley enough for the Turtle Club.  Uhhh, you'd have to see the movie to get the line, and it's about the only memorable line in the movie so I'm not recommending a viewing.) 

Turtle meat is not an ingredient in the cake and absolutely no turtles were harmed in the making of this cake.

Who really knows why the Hoopers thought calling a chocolate/caramel/pecan candy a "turtle" would make it appealing.  But strangely enough, their plan worked out well and most any confection that combines these three ingredients is now bestowed with the name "turtle" in its title.

What I do know is that turtle cake is decadent and delicious.   It's kind of like German chocolate cake with more gooey-ness and no coconut.  And it's fairly easy to make, as cakes go.  Our first exposure came from - you guessed it - an Oklahoma friend - -the same one who gave me this delicious chocolate chip cookie recipe .

And Middle Child wanted a turtle cake for his birthday last week.

But this is also a story of rescuing this poor cake from the jaws of disaster.  It started off innocently:  just cake mix, eggs, oil and water, plus the filling (caramels and evaporated milk.)

About an hour later, I pulled the finished cake from the oven and sprinkled milk chocolate chips over it, hoping to shortcut the frosting step since Swimmer Girl was going to be late for a dentist appointment otherwise.

On my way out the door, I instructed the Birthday Boy to GENTLY smear the chocolate chips when they softened.  Key word:  GENTLY.  He called me and said the chips were not smearing.  I advised him to microwave it for 30 seconds and try again.  Key words:  30 SECONDS. No. more. 

This is what I came home to find.
It actually looked worse in real-life.  Like crusty moon craters.
 Fortunately, this cake is forgiving and will adapt to a soaked-in glaze frosting. So I carefully scraped off the chocolate mess down to the cake.
Poor thing had looked like it had third-degree burns all over the top.

And placed said mess in the double boiler with some cocoa, butter, milk and powdered sugar.  Heated to boiling while vigorously whisking it to something fairly smooth, then poured it back over the cake to achieve a fudgy glaze.

Thank heaven (and mom!) for double boilers!

What lesson did I learn? Do not entrust my male family members with frosting the cake.  They do many, MANY things well, but making confectioneries are not their forte.
Happy birthday, birthday boy!
I also learned that turtle cake is just as delicious as I remembered.

Turtle Cake

Cake Ingredients:
1 box German chocolate cake mix
3 eggs
1/2 cup oil
1 1/3 cups water

Filling Ingredients:
1 package caramels, unwrapped
4 ounces evaporated milk
6 ounces semi-sweet chocolate chips

Have 9x13 pan greased and ready.  Preheat oven to 350.  Mix cake ingredients together at low speed for 30 seconds, then at medium speed for two minutes.  Pour half of cake batter into pan and bake for 20 minutes.

While the bottom of the cake is baking, melt caramels and milk in heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-low heat, stirring frequently.  As soon as cake springs back to touch, pour caramel mixture over the top, sprinkle with chips and then top with remaining cake batter. Continue baking for 20-25 minutes or until top layer is done.  Frosting is optional.  (Gilding the lily and all that.)

Note:  in my rendition, I saved the chips for the top of the cake.  When salvaging it, I made a glaze similar to the boiled frosting I use on chocolate sheet cake.

Happy baking and rescuing,

Jul 19, 2011

Slow down: new recipes ahead

No mosquitoes, I'm sure.
Summer is supposed to be synonymous with lazy days stretching into long evenings.   Some of my best childhood memories are of sitting on my grandma's glider with my cousins, shelling peas and snapping beans.  It was hot, we inevitably got sweaty and sticky during those days that seemed to go on forever.  An early evening bath and cool, clean PJs, and we were set to do something exciting, like have a rootbeer float and watch the fireflies for a few minutes before bedtime.

I guess we didn't get the lazy-days-of-summer edict this year.  (Come to think of it, I don't think we've gotten one for several years.)  This summer - even more than most - has been lived and measured with the fast-moving second hand on the clock, not the hour hand. Every day since we moved in early May has felt like a race against time, from the moment our feet swing out of bed until we collapse exhausted sometime after the late news has ended without us watching.  Our days are packed full of activity; and as the saying goes, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing.

However, this week we're going to savor the flavor of summer with some new recipes, including a BLT pasta salad (what can possibly go wrong when you combine bacon, tomatoes and pasta?), a new version of Chicken Divan and a sweet-and-sour bean salad (TYVM Paula Deen), and my own tomato-ey take on a traditional yogurt/cucumber salad. And someone recently mentioned that Papa Murphy's pizza are really good when grilled, so that seems like a good choice for our usual Friday night fare.

New recipes force me to slow down: I have to actually measure ingredients and follow directions instead of zipping my way through a tried-and-true favorite, with only a few prompts and hints along the way. And we tend to slow down when we come face to face with a new food on our plates. Instead of scarfing it down like we're in an eating contest, we take time to contemplate the  presentation, the aroma, the flavors and texture and decide: is the recipe a keeper or does it need some tweaking to suit our tastes?

We can't slow down the clock.  But most of the time, we can choose to slow down our pace and enjoy the season we're in.  It's definitely worth a try before summer completely slips away (the UT football reminders and bulb catalogs arriving in the mail herald the approaching fall.  It's just around the corner.)

Happy slower eating,

Jul 18, 2011

To tell the truth...

The Casey Anthony trial apparently captured the nation's attention, but not mine.

By all accounts, Casey was a neglectful, selfish, immature mother. That's not news, it's what countless children endure every day and no one in the media gets their knickers in a knot over the plight of all of them, or of the babies casually aborted every day in this country.  I found no reason to watch the trial unfold on television or keep up with the news recaps.

When the verdict was read, there was an outcry from onlookers around the world.  Everywhere I went in the days that followed, the same question was plaintively posed:  where was the justice for Caylee?

Justice is blind, but do we turn a blind eye to justice?
What is justice?  Do we even know what it looks like any more?  The dictionary says it is the quality of being just; righteousness, equitableness, or moral rightness.

How much justice exists within the perverted labyrinth of our legal system? We expect and accept trials like this one to be a three-ring circus with the defendant stone-walling and posturing throughout.  It was the OJ Simpson trial all over again.

In our convoluted idea of "justice" it's a game where the accused are supposed to try to wriggle free while we hope the system can snare the guilty ones.  When someone gets away with a crime, we express disappointment in the system.  Is it really the system's fault, though?

It's enough to turn us all into jaded cynics.  But I think there's another way to look at this.  (Call me Pollyanna - it wouldn't be the first time.)  What if we as a society look at these outrageous, atrocious travesties and start expecting some moral rightness from the accused?
Is it too much to expect adults to tell the truth, especially when it counts the most?
Stay with me - this isn't as far-fetched as it sounds.  When we were children, a broken lamp did not mean our parents were going to collect DNA and fingerprints before convicting us of the crime. The lamp was broken, it didn't break on its own, it's time to start talking.

If they found us with an item that they knew they hadn't bought, it would not have gone well for us to demand they prove - beyond a reasonable doubt - that we stole it.  They asked us where we got it, and expected an honest answer, even if the consequences were going to be painful or embarrassing.

I was taught - as I think (hope!) most children were and are - that if you were asked a point-blank question, invoking the 5th amendment was not a viable option.  You were expected to answer the question honestly, without prevarication. In fact, parents encouraged children to 'fess up BEFORE we were confronted by anyone. That was considered somewhat noble and honorable, although not committing the crime at all was always preferable.

We raise our children with the admonishment to always tell the truth. And then when they grow up, our legal system tells them to hide behind their "right" to be assumed innocent until proven guilty and use it as a legal ploy.  Zip their lips, deny everything, lie through their teeth, and dare their accuser to present enough evidence to convince a jury to convict them, but only if there isn't a scintilla of "reasonable doubt."
Think of how much money and time could be saved if we - as a society - expected as much from adults as we do from children. Just tell the truth and accept the consequences of your actions. Get it over with, learn your lesson and move on.  Confession can be good for the soul.
For starters, we wouldn't put victims and their families through months and years of court cases and legal shenanigans.

We also wouldn't need droves of crime scene techs gathering microscopic bits of detritus and running them through extraordinarily sophisticated (and expensive) machinery in the hopes of linking the suspect to the crime scene by a tiny fiber or single strand of hair or drop of blood.

And we wouldn't need attorneys spending (and billing) countless hours preparing witnesses and evidence for trials. If the "norm" was for guilty people to confess their guilt, either voluntarily or at least when they are caught, our courts dockets would shrink to a fraction of their current size and only those who were genuinely innocent would have to have their day in court.

In fact, the law enforcement and legal industry could be shrunk dramatically if we all acted with justice and moral rightness.  (Hmmm, that might have something to do with why we're in the messy predicament we're in.  The status quo provides job security for everybody in that food chain - everyone from Supreme Court justices all the way down to the guttersnipes chasing ambulances.)

And - for those of us who profess to be Christians - our relationship with our creator and each other would be far stronger and healthier if we confessed our sins to one another and sought reconciliation for our transgressions.  A clear conscience is far better than any anti-depressant, anti-anxiety or sleeping aid foisted on us by the pharmaceutical companies.

Maybe it's delusional to think it could happen, but what's the point of teaching our children to tell the truth, if the rules of the game change when they become adults? Isn't THAT the ultimate in delusional and futile thinking?

Happy pondering,

Jul 16, 2011

Loose ends: Inch by Inch, Yard by Yard

This week, time ran through my fingers like sand - the tighter I tried to hold onto it, the faster it went.  The remainder of our summer vacation is now measured in days, not weeks.

Swimmer Girl was home for a week between church camp and a mission campaign trip.  She heads out tomorrow with steel-toed work shoes, bug spray and sun screen, Ibuprofen and lots of scrunchies (because it's going to be hot and messy and showers will be few and far between), and a confirmation that her tetanus booster is up-to-date.

We celebrated middle child's birthday a day late on Thursday night and we'll celebrate my mother-in-law's birthday and oldest child's birthday with a combined cookout meal tonight.  (Two more cakes, coming up!)

Not many (okay, none, nada, not any) loose ends were actually tied off this week. But look what came in the mail on Thursday.
The fabric for the chair cushions!  Fabric.com is awesome - they were less than half the price of everybody else for this fabric, and I got free shipping. 

No more excuses - I have the new foam cushions and the fabric and I'm pretty sure the staple gun works just like it always has.  Now to find an hour or two to rip off the old fabric and padding, and re-do them. 

Happy Saturday!

Jul 15, 2011

The good, the bad, the say-what?

I get three "domesticated" (read: home/garden) magazines each month:  Better Homes and Gardens, Southern Living and Martha Stewart Living (it was a free subscription when I purchased something from somewhere this year.) Each month I flip through them, and try to find tips or recipes that are worth trying out.  In fact, it is my goal to try SOMEthing from each magazine - otherwise, it isn't earning its keep, and will be discontinued at the next possible renewal.

As I went through the July issues of each, here's what I found:

BH&G stole my heart with their treillage pillows on the cover.  (Me and trellis fabrics are tight these days.)  They lost me on the elaborate stenciling, though.  I've done a little striping with tape and  varying sheens of same-color paints - thanks, but no thanks.) The recipes were ho-hum; however, their flower arranging was pretty inspiring.

Southern Living had some great decorating tips (they also got the turquoise memo, just like BH&;G's cover), and their recipes for easy pork chops were the impetus behind me buying some chops and whipping up a "Tuscan-style" dish last week.  Their feature on magic lilies left me wanting (and already knowing) more information.  I love surprise lilies, and there's a lot more info to be had than what they shared.

This month, Martha had a few recipes that looked achievable - charred Romaine was high on my list of things to try. But...her cover photo was way over-the-top.  C'mon Martha - who on earth has time to make those elaborate swirled cookies?  And her story about owning Skylands (Edsel Ford's place in Maine) was a little braggadocio to say the least.

So there's my run-down of the good, bad and the "you-must-be-kidding" I found between the covers of my three favorite all-purpose magazines this month.  What are your favorite mags, and why?  And what nifty ideas or recipes caught your eye this month?

Happy browsing,

Jul 13, 2011

Recipe of the Week: Cheesecake Bars

This is another recipe from another Oklahoma friend. (Good friends and good cooks, all of them!) Dana made this for a progressive dinner at the holidays many years ago, and it was love at first bite.  I have lost her original recipe but not the memory of what it tasted like, and I've tried many times to re-create it - this comes pretty close, I think. Or maybe it's totally different and she'll see this and l send me the real recipe and then I can make them both. Either way, we all win, right?

Sorta-like-Dana's Cheesecake Bars

Crust Ingredients:
1/3 cup brown sugar, packed
1/3 cup slightly softened butter
1 cup flour, sifted
1/3 cup finely chopped nuts (I like pecans, but walnuts are good too)

Filling Ingredients:
3, 8-ounce packages cream cheese, softened (you can substitute some or all low-fat or no-fat cream cheese)
3/4 cup white sugar
3 eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
8 tablespoons buttermilk  (or 7 tablespoons heavy cream, half and half or milk + 1 tablespoon lemon juice)

Preheat oven to 350.  Line 9x13 pan with parchment paper (you can serve from the pan, but this makes it easy to lift them out and cut them into squares for serving.)

In a bowl, cream butter and brown sugar. Add flour and work in well.  Add chopped nuts and blend; press into bottom of pan and bake for 12-15 minutes.  Let cool slightly.

For filling, beat cream cheese and slowly add sugar until it's blended in. Add eggs one at a time, mixing well after each. Add vanilla and buttermilk or cream/milk and lemon juice and mix well.  Pour over crust and bake for 25 minutes - do not overbake; you want the filling to remain creamy and moist.  Let cool completely and cut into squares.  Makes 18 cookie-size servings or 36 bite-size squares.

I like serving these with slightly sweetened fresh fruit (strawberries, raspberries, blueberries or cherries), or set out a DIY topping bar with an array of sauces (chocolate and caramel are good), plus fruit and whipped toppings.

P.S. - A very happy 23rd birthday to our middle child.  One turtle cake coming up just for you! (Maybe I'll post the recipe to it one day soon, too!)

Jul 11, 2011

Let them eat cake.

And if it's your birthday, you really should eat cake!

It's time for the annual cake-a-thon.  It started with a lemon-berry 4th of July cake, then continued  last Saturday when I made a red velvet sheet cake, thanks to the recipe I spied on Pioneer Woman's blog. (I opted for traditional cream cheese frosting - I previously tried the "best-ever-frosting" she recommended and found it just so-so.  Maybe it's just me.)  Next Monday, I'll make a second red one to take to Secret Sisters.
It's much, much redder than it looks here.

Wednesday, I'm making a turtle cake for my "baby boy" who is turning a whopping 23.

Saturday is Memaw Katie's birthday. And that means...yes....another cake is coming up!

Sunday is our oldest son's birthday (he turns 26). As soon as he tells me what kind of cake he'd like, I'll make it, too.

I'm so glad I got the half-bowl and beater-thingy for my Kitchen-Aid. Looks like it's going to get broken in good this year!

Happy baking!

Jul 9, 2011

A large loose end was lassoed last weekend

Try saying THAT three times fast.  (And I don't mean "that, that, that.")

Last weekend was a long one, so we used it to stain our new picket fence. Whew.  Before we began this project, I estimated it would take a five-gallon bucket of clear sealer and two gallons of stain (I always cut the stain with clear sealer because I think it's too opaque otherwise) to do the deck AND the fence.

This is why I should not go into the painting business, or become an estimator.  
Sing with me: "16 gallons of stain and sealer on the fence, 16 gallons of stain and sealer..."
All-told, it took twice what I originally bought, plus two more gallons of sealer.   That's my tower of empties to prove it and I could really use another quart for touch-ups.

R.I.P, old sprayer!
This project also took two paint sprayers.  The trusty old sprayer (on top) was purchased when we painted the outside of our first house way back in 1987.

In the 24 years since, it has painted a lot of walls and siding and ceilings and trim in several homes, so we weren't too surprised when it conked out halfway through this job.

The new replacement sprayer (in the box on the bottom) looks and sounds almost identical to the old one, but Mr. Official said it worked better.  He would know, since he was the man holding it all weekend.  Hopefully, normal sensation will return to his right hand and fingers in the next few days. 

The final casualty of our  weekend project was this 3-inch brush brandished by yours truly.  This brush was in pretty good shape until I used it to stain between the deck planks.  It went downhill from there.  By the time I had slathered on the last bit of stain, I felt like this poor brush looked: frayed, frazzled and permanently stained redwood color, although I'm sure the spots on my toes and hands will come off sooner or later.  

And now we can put this to-do in the ta-done category, at least for another year or two - hooray!  (Note to self:  when it comes time to stain again, we should definitely aim to tackle it in April or May, or September or October. Definitely not in June, July or August.) Here are the results:  front and side yard views.  I already showed off the deck a couple of weeks ago.

At least the other loose ends are indoor or shady spot projects.

Happy lasso-ing your loose ends!

Jul 8, 2011

8 weekends + 2 hands = 6 projects

Granted, the math doesn't work, but let's hope my plans do.

As of today, there are eight precious weekends before Labor Day weekend. (And I am determined that Labor Day weekend is not going to be a weekend of labor for us this year.)

So what loose ends do I really really want to wrap up by the time the Vols kick off their opening game in 50 days?
  • Finish refinishing a bedroom dresser. After languishing for a year, this has drifted to the top of my priority list only because I am tired of feeling guilty every time I pass it in the garage.
    • Put the finishing touches on our new master bathroom: paint walls, hang a shelf, re-do the cabinet storage and hang a chandelier. Easy peasy, right?  Don't answer that.
      • Recover the dining room seat cushions. By hook or by crook, they're gonna get done this summer. I have the new foam cushions, I just need fabric and some quality time with the staple gun.
        • Power wash and paint the porch rails and front door. This is one of those jobs I really have to psych myself up for. But the good thing is, the porch stays shady all day long.
          • Find the perfect couch for Mr. Official's man cave.  It will make it the bees' knees up there.  And once it's installed upstairs, the final loose end for the summer is....
            • Paint the stairwell areas and hang pictures. I promised myself these areas should wait until we were moved in. Well, we're moved in and the days are slipping past.
              So there you have it:  my top weekend projects to finish before September 2, not counting the garage cleanout at the old place.  Most of these will take about a weekend to do, if I use my time wisely (and maybe get a little help. Hint, hint.)

              I just noticed that everything except #3 and #5 involves paint or stain. Guess I better stock up on brushes and rollers and paint thinner.  Joy.

              But I'm not going to think about any of these until we wrap up the next housewarming party, which happens tomorrow night.  It's gonna be great to see some old friends of ours and get acquainted with some other Friday night football widows as the men in striped shirts swap gridiron war stories.

              Happy project-ing!

              Jul 6, 2011

              Recipe of the Week: Grilled Tomato Towers

              I honestly don't remember what these are really called or which magazine inspired me to make them years ago, so we'll go with "tomato towers." They are a wonderful summer accompaniment to almost any meal, especially grilled meats.  Close your eyes and imagine slices of juicy ripe tomatoes and Vidalia onions, melded together with some soft fresh Mozzarella cheese. Throw in some basil leaves and balsamic vinegar for flavor and you've got a warm, gooey tower of goodness.  In fact, we had one last night...

              Tomato Towers

              1 large beefsteak tomato, cored and sliced into 4, 1/4-inch slices
              1 small Vidalia onion, sliced into 4, 1/4-inch slices
              Soft fresh Mozarella cheese, sliced into thin layers
              4 basil leaves, washed and patted dry
              1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
              salt and pepper to taste

              Place onion slices in balsamic vinegar to marinade for a few minutes; be sure to turn to coat. When ready to assemble, layer as follows:

              1 slice of onion
              1 basil leaf
              1 or two slices of cheese (if they are small use two)
              1 slice of tomato
              1-2 slices of cheese
              1 basil leaf
              1 slice tomato
              1-2 slice of cheese
              1 slice onion

              Homely but handy!
              Place on hot grill (I like to use this perforated grilling tray so nothing falls through the grates), and grill covered until the onion caramelizes a bit and the cheese softens; carefully flip over and repeat; Season with salt and pepper and serve immediately. This recipe make 2 large side portions, or split them apart to serve four.

              Note: It is a given these will not stay neatly stacked once you start slicing into them, so don't worry if they look a mess. Messy is good, especially when it's yummy and messy.

              Happy eating!