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Friday Favorites: Easter Eggs-travaganza

“Friday Favorites” features my favorite great ideas/recipes/etc., from across the giant world wide webs.

Two years ago, I spent my first Easter with the Guy and Kiddo, and we colored Easter eggs. It was the first time I’d dyed eggs since I was a kid, and there were a lot of things I’d forgotten about the process. Like how long it takes for the eggs to turn color. And how much mess it makes–probably because I wasn’t the one cleaning it up back then. There was a bit of trial and error process to get the bright colors we were looking for, and I never remembered it being so complicated when I was 10.

If you’re embarking on the Easter egg-coloring venture for the first time in many years, here’s a good primer to get you started.


If you’re well versed in the egg dying business, but would like to get a little more creative this year, I’ve found some really great ideas for taking your eggs to the next level. You could try this marbling technique using nail polish, create patterns using rubberbands or decoupage your eggs.

Looking for a cheap alternative to commercial egg dyes, you can always use Kool-Aid. If you’re really feeling adventurous, you could forgo the store-bought dyes altogether and make your own plant-based dyes, using onions, beets, coffee, cabbage or a number of other options.

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Brunch for a bunch

Baked oatmeal cups

Baked oatmeal cups

When the Guy and I tied the knot last March, we want to keep things very simple, and make sure the focus was on celebrating our love with our friends and family. We were also budget-conscious, since we there are many other things we’d like to invest our money in that will last longer than one day–like say, the bearded dragon the Kiddo wants for a pet. Cooking for loved ones is one of those simple joys that I take great pleasure in, so the result of our decision to keep things simple, focused on friends and family, and low-cost was that I essentially “catered” most of the wedding weekend.


I did a lot of planning and cooking ahead, making meals that could be prepared in part or entirely in advance and then frozen, so I got the experience of sharing home-cooked meals with my family while not spending every waking minute in the kitchen. The rehearsal dinner involved stuffed chicken breasts that were prepared and frozen a week in advance, then baked that night, with a simple side of pasta. We had a simple luncheon after the ceremony, which was a mix of prepared deli trays and salads, alongside homemade salads and dessert that were made in advance, with no prep needed the day of. Side note: we didn’t have wedding cake until our reception six months later but our dessert–cookie pudding cups–was pure awesomeness (a post on that is in the works)!

My challenge, though, was brunch. I very much liked the idea of having a brunch with both our families the morning after the ceremony. We pondered going out to a restaurant for this, but the small mountain town where we were wed had limited places to accommodate a group our size. At the same time, the beautiful vacation home we stayed in was the perfect venue for a relaxed brunch that would allow us all to chat and socialize more easily than we could at a restaurant. I knew the day of the wedding would be full of excitement, but also long and tiring, so if we did a homemade brunch, I had to find a way to make it simple and fuss-free.


Knowing it would be difficult to get both of our large families together at one time, I treated the affair like a continental buffet–kind of like the free breakfast you get at hotel, but much tastier. There were about 10 of us who had been staying at the mountain house for four or five days, and we’d done a little stocking up on groceries at the beginning of our stay, s0 we still had a good bit of food to go through before checking out, including fresh fruit, yogurt, bagels, toast, Nutella, cereal, juice and milk. That gave me a nice start on a buffet (and a good way to get rid of leftovers). To fill out my buffet, I planned a couple homemade dishes to mix in that could be mostly be prepared ahead of time. Turns out, it was muffin tins to the rescue.

Not long after my world changed because I learned I could bake bacon, I came across an easy way to make eggs and bacon for a crowd, with a little more help from my oven plus some muffin tins. Here’s the idea–instead of frying a batch of bacon and individually frying up eggs for everyone (read: spending your morning in front of a hot stove spitting grease), you wrap a piece of bacon around the inside edge of each cup in a muffin tin, then crack a single egg into the middle and bake the whole batch at once. So you’ve got about 10 minutes of prep, then you pop them in the oven and have time to spend with your guests. A couple of tips to make it work:

  • Coat the muffin pan well with non-stick spray first.
  • Pre-cook the bacon a bit to make sure it’s done by the time the eggs are. I recommend baking the bacon!
  • Bacon freezes well, so you can do the pre-cooking part days, even a couple weeks in advance, freeze it, then leave it in the fridge overnight before your event to thaw. I pre-cooked and froze two pounds of bacon before the wedding (some for brunch and some to may my new M-I-L’s famous chicken salad). I drained the grease on paper towels, then wrapped fresh paper towels around the bacon accordion style to keep the slices from getting stuck together, and put the whole package in a freezer bag.
  • Sprinkle a little salt and pepper on top of your eggs, and feel free to throw a few shreds of cheese on there too, if you’d like.
  • Bake at 350 degrees for 8 minutes for a runny yolk, 10 minutes for soft yolk and 14 minutes for a hard yolk.
Baked egg and bacon cups
They look a little like bacon and egg sushi, but they’re delicious!
The muffin cup eggs added some nice protein to the menu. For some healthy grains, I turned to baked oatmeal cups, also conveniently made in muffin tins. I have tried several different variations of this recipe, and have tweaked them to come up with the version below. These freeze very nicely, so again, they’re perfect to make in advance. To freeze, arrange in a single layer in gallon-sized freezer bags. Put them out to thaw the night before and, if you’d like them warm, 10-15 seconds in the microwave will do nicely. Just don’t be a dimwit like I was the first time I made them and use foil liners for the muffin tray, since you’ll have to take them out to zap them in the microwave. Besides being great to serve a group of hungry brunchers, they are perfect on-the-go healthy breakfast treats. They’re low in fat and sugar (actually there’s no processed white sugar at all–just the natural sugars in the fruit and honey), and the kids at our family brunch gobbled these up.
Baked oatmeal cups
Baked Oatmeal Cups
  •  5 cups rolled oats
  • 1/2 cup ground flax seed
  • 2 tablespoons cinnamon
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 mashed bananas
  • 2 cups applesauce
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 3 1/2 cup skim or low-fat milk
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon butter extract
  • Optional mix-ins (raisins, dried cranberries, chopped dried apples, chopped nuts and white chocolates chips are all good options)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. In a large mixing bowl, blend first five dry ingredients. In a medium bowl, blend next seven wet ingredients. Pour wet mixture into oat mixture and stir until well blended. Stir in any desired mix-ins. Spray muffin cups with nonstick spray or use muffin cup liners. Spoon batter into muffin cups until nearly full. This baked oatmeal rises very little, so you will fill the cups much fuller than you would when baking muffins.

Baked oatmeal cups

Bake for 25-30 minutes until edges begin to brown. Recipe makes about two dozen oatmeal cups, and can be easily halved. I always like to make a bunch, because they freeze so well and the Guy tends to devour them.

Baked oatmeal cups

This recipe has a lot of flexibility for tweaking and ingredient substitutions, so be creative. Ingredients such as the flax seed and butter extract can be omitted and you’ll still have a tasty treat. You can also easily substitute soy milk or almond milk for the skim milk, and you can vary the sweetener, replacing the honey with brown sugar, agave syrup or a small amount of white sugar (this recipe does not need a lot of added sweetness). And while I avoid artificial sweeteners, you can also use Stevia or Splenda if you’d like.

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Make Your Own Baking Mix (Bisquick Substitute)

Make your own baking mix

Until I become a master gardener/farmer or live within a reasonable driving distance of a Whole Foods, it’s doubtful I’ll free my family from processed foods anytime soon. Still, I’m trying to reduce our exposure to all those extra chemical dyes and preservatives added to everything by avoiding the processed stuff as much as possible. My main focus has been to eliminate the “highly processed” products–think boxed pasta mixes with powder that somehow magically turns into sauce. I just decided they really aren’t worth the time-saving trade off they promise. For most of those mixes, it really only saves you 5-10 minutes time in the kitchen and they taste awful. I used to eat them a lot and I loved them, especially when I was a kid. Once I started doing more and more real cooking, I realized just how terrible they are.


That’s a really rambling introduction to my main point. Once I started zapping the low-hanging fruit of the “add water and stir” processed j-u-n-k, I started focusing on other ways I could make sure we are eating real food. Little by little, I’ve looked at the food products we use on a daily basis, and started figuring out what it reasonably made sense for me to make myself–trying out recipes for homemade granola, energy and protein bars, for instance. My latest challenge was a replacement for Bisquick. Really, it’s just a pre-measured, pre-mixed blend of a few ingredients, minus the preservatives. This project was pretty easy–just a matter of looking at standard recipes for biscuits and pancakes and getting the right ratio of dry ingredients.

Bonus: It’s cheaper to make your own baking mix than to buy it. I do most of my shopping at Aldi, and even with their significantly lower prices, it’s about $0.40 per cup of their baking mix versus about $0.12 a cup making my own (with their prices on flour, sugar, etc.). If you’re buying brand name, you’ll probably save even more.

Make your own baking mix

Homemade Baking Mix

  • 6 cups flour
  • 1/4 cup baking soda
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup butter or shortening

Sift together all dry ingredients, then cut in butter/shortening with a pastry blender or fork until mixture resembles coarse crumbs.

Make your own baking mix

That’s it. You’re done. Well, except for the storage part. Store your baking mix in airtight container, and since you’re not using all those nasty chemical preservatives, you’ll need to keep it in the refrigerator. You can use your baking mix as a one to one replacement in any recipe that calls for Bisquick, or as listed below for basic biscuits or pancakes. If you’re a frequent baker, you may want to make a double batch, but it’s easier to cut in the shortening one batch at a time.

Make your own baking mix

Biscuits

For every one cup of baking mix, use 1/3 cup water. Stir together until well-blended and drop by the spoonful onto an ungreased baking sheet. Bake at 450 degrees for 10-12 minutes. Makes about four biscuits for each cup of mix + 1/3 cup milk.

Pancakes

For every one cup of baking mix, use 1 cup water and one large egg. Stir until well-blended.  Pour batter by 1/4 cupfuls onto hot, lightly greased griddle (medium-high heat) and cook until bubbles form throughout batter and edges appear dry. Flip and cook until golden. That’s the basic recipe. To make them extra delicious, mix in one teaspoon vanilla and a 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg. Or fancy ’em up with your favorite fruit mix-ins.

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Marshmallow Dumplings (aka super easy sticky rolls)

Marshmallow dumpling sticky rolls

Marshmallow dumpling sticky roll

I picked up a couple packages of refrigerated crescent rolls on my last grocery outing, with plans to use them for pizza pockets. But they were out of pepperoni at the store, and I wasn’t motivated enough to make an extra stop, so I decided to use the rolls for a quick and easy stick roll recipe I learned way back in middle school home ec class. Then I made them even more delicious by adding a dab of Nutella.


I call them marshmallow dumplings because when you put them together on the baking sheet, that’s what they remind me of–apple dumplings, with a giant marshmallow instead of an apple. If you don’t like marshmallows, don’t worry–I’m not a fan myself, but I love these sticky, gooey creations. The marshmallows melt away into the crescent roll,  leaving behind sweet and sticky goodness.

Side note–these are what I’d call a once-in-awhile/weekend breakfast treat, since they’re pretty loaded with sugar and not much substance. You can cut the fat some by using reduced fat crescent rolls and margarine rather than butter.

Here’s what you need:

  • 2 packs of crescent rolls
  • 8 jumbo marshmallows
  • 4 T. butter/margarine, melted
  • 2 T. brown sugar
  • 1 tsp. cinnamon
  • ~1/4 cup Nutella

And here’s all you do. Mix the melted butter, brown sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl and set aside. Unroll the crescent dough and separate each tube into into four rectangles, with two crescent triangles forming each rectangle, like so:

Marshmallow dumpling sticky rolls

Using your fingertips, work the middle seam together to seal the dough into one big triangle.

Marshmallow dumpling sticky rolls

If you’d like to try the Nutella version, spread a teaspoon of Nutella in the center half of each rectangle.

Marshmallow dumplings with Nutella

Marshmallow dumpling sticky rollsI made half with Nutella and half without, because I wasn’t sure the Kiddo would like the Nutella version. Turns out he loved them, so I’ll make them all that way from now on. Just so you’re not confused though, I should explain that the rest of my pictures are of the non-Nutella version. Now take one jumbo marshmallow and dip it in the butter mixture (make sure it’s cooled enough that you won’t get burnt), then place it in the center of dough rectangle.

Fold each corner of the rectangle over the top of the marshmallow and seal edges together with fingers. Place on baking sheet and repeat until all of your dough rectangles look like delicious dumplings.

Marshmallow dumpling sticky rolls

Marshmallow dumpling sticky rollsBake rolls 11-13 minutes at 375 degrees.

The marshmallows will melt into the dough and create sweet, sticky cinnamon and Nutella goodness! Tip–eat these while they’re still fresh and hot for the full flavor experience!



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Friday Favorites: We’re Gonna ‘Starter’ Revoloution (aka Learning to Bake Sourdough)

Baking Sourdough Bread

“Friday Favorites” features my favorite great ideas/recipes/etc., from across the giant world wide webs.

The evolution of the Internet is often both a blessing and a curse. It has completely changed how we, as an entire global population, communicate, and in the process enabled amazing social change and the organization of grassroots movements on any number of issues. It’s also resulted in countless hours of wasted time watching cat videos, taking surveys to find out our secret superhero power and besting each other at SongPop.

But with all its good and bad, my favorite thing about the Internet is that now it is possible to learn how to do absolutely anything, without leaving your home. I’m harnessing that power right now to learn how to make sourdough bread (maybe that will ultimately be my secret superhero power?).


A word of warning–this is a project still in the works, folks. I’ll have to give you an update on success later. Right now, I’m working on “starting” a starter. In case you’re not much of a baker and unfamiliar with what a starter is,  it’s basically fermented dough that is used to “start” sourdough (as well as a number of other recipes). The starter creates a culture to grow naturally occurring yeast and bacteria (the good kind), which serves as the leavening agent for the bread (in other words, helps the bread rise), and gives the bread that wonderful distinctive tangy taste.

sourdough starter
The start of my starter. This is just after a “feeding,” so there isn’t a lot of bubbling…yet.

Years ago I tried to get a starter going, based on a short two paragraph set of directions from a cookbook somewhere. It didn’t go so well. On one hand, starting a starter is a pretty basic process–you mix flour and water, give it some time, add more flour and water, more time, more flour/water, and so on. On the other hand, it’s an inexact science and there is a lot of conflicting information out there, so  a lot of it is experimentation. All of my research indicates you can count on it taking at least a week to develop a “stable” starter, and that’s if everything goes right on your first try–which it may not. It can also take one to three months for the flavor to fully develop. So, if you plan on serving some authentic sourdough for a big family dinner this weekend, you probably should find a good local baker.


Anyhoo, I’m still trying to get my starter to the “stable” phase (meaning it will reliably double between additions of more flour and water–aka “feedings”), but hoping I might be able to try baking a loaf this weekend–that’s still up in the air though. In the meantime, I’ve identified a few more “favorite” resources I’ll pass along to you, if by chance you want to try your hand at sourdough.

The most exhaustive resource I found was at SourdoughHome. The level of narrative and explanation on the sourdough process was a little overwhelming and almost exhausting, but it definitely covers a lot of ground and provides a good understanding of the art and science of sourdough baking.

While SourdoughHome was the most comprehensive guide out there, Nourished Kitchen and Wild Yeast both offer a simple, concise guide to starters, so they’re worth checking out as well.

UPDATE: I baked my first sourdough today with my starter. It was not an “authentic” sourdough recipe, which would use only the rising action of the wild yeast in the starter, since 1) my starter isn’t rising reliably enough yet to use without added yeast and 2) that takes a lot longer and I didn’t really have that kind of time, since I wanted to have a loaf ready for the Kiddo to try before he went back to his mom’s this evening.

Baking Sourdough Bread

 

I used this recipe from King Arthur Flour. FYI, King Arthur Flour also offers a great tutorial for starting a starter, which I missed including in my earlier links. I had to give the bread about twice as long for the first rise as called for in the recipe, since my starter isn’t very strong yet. My bread had only a slight bit of that familiar sourdough twang, again because I’m working with a new starter, but it was still both Kiddo- and Guy-approved. Oh yeah, I kind of loved it too. 🙂

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Friday Favorites: Handmade Photo Coasters

Photo coasters

“Friday Favorites” features my favorite great ideas/recipes/etc., from across the giant world wide webs.

Photo coasters

If you recall, “Friday Favorites” features my favorite great ideas/recipes/etc., from across the giant world wide webs. Today’s favorite actually features an idea I found last November, and transformed a bit for my own purposes.

It started out with a search for “homemade Christmas presents,” which of course turned up a lot of things we’ve all seen a million times before, and given to teachers, co-workers, etc., or received ourselves. The results were primarily dominated by multiple versions of “cookie mix in a jar” or “brownie mix in a jar.”

I was, however, looking for something to give the adults in our family for Christmas, since we have all, at this point in our lives, agreed that we’d rather spend our money on the youngest family members. I wanted something meaningful, not something that would be forgotten about the next day, and within my limited crafting skill set. The last part was probably the hardest of the criteria.

The winner was this idea for Christmas coasters, made from tile, Christmas napkins, corkboard and a coating of Mod Podge. BUT, I didn’t really want to make something that could only be used at Christmas, and I was looking for something more personal. So I used the instructional as a jumping off point to make photo coasters. Since I’m a shutterbug, and since there had been two weddings in the family in the past year, I had lots of great photos to choose from. I wasn’t quite sure how the thicker photo paper would work with the Mod Podge compared to the napkins, but I picked up a couple tile squares from Lowe’s and did a test run, with great results!

I ended up making eight sets of these, so it took a bit of time and planning, but it was something I could work on a little at a time in the evenings while relaxing with the Guy watching TV. Both our families loved them, and everyone wanted to know how I’d made them (or where I’d ordered them!). FYI, the link instructions call for 4″x4″ plain white tile. I found slightly smaller and more decorative tiles that were on clearance, and I think the size was more suitable for a coaster, and I liked the look of them better.

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Re-Purposed Bulletin Board

Re-purposed Bulletin Board

Re-purposed Bulletin BoardThis bulletin board was kind of beat up and I didn’t have a good use for it, so we gave it a new look with a bit of acrylic paint, and re-purposed it as a “memory board,” where the Kiddo can pin favorite photos, ticket stubs from baseball games, etc. 

It was a pretty easy project, even for those of us who aren’t overly talented in the art department, and it was simple enough that the Kiddo, the Guy and I were all able to work on it together. I’d recommend painting the sides first, with some masking tape or painter’s tape around the inside edges. Painting the board itself will involve substantially more paint, since the corkboard soaks up a lot of paint. We used three coats of paint on the sides, but you may need as many as four for the corkboard to get it opaque enough.

The Bears’ “C” was made with stencil from an image I found online. The yard line markers on the top, as well as the field goal at bottom were freehand, but you could always decorate with decals instead. The Kiddo’s name is also painted along the bottom, but I have cloned that out for privacy reasons.

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Friday Favorites: Freezer Meals

spinach lasagna freezer meal
spinach lasagna freezer meal
Spinach Lasagna Rolls, ready for the freezer.

“Friday Favorites” features my favorite great ideas/recipes/etc., from across the giant world wide webs.

Yeah, that’s a lot of Fs. Okay, I admit, I’m a sucker for alliteration.

Now on to business. I think we’ve already established that I love to cook. As much as I love it, though, there are days when time, energy or both are running short, and it’s hard to pull together something healthy and satisfying.

Which is why I also love freezer meals. Making a double portion and freezing the extra, or investing an hour or two over the weekend prepping a meal or two for the week ahead can add up to big relief when you end up working late or come home with a headache from the strain of a crazy day.


I’m working on some adapting some recipes of my own as freezer meals and posting them here, but for the time being, here are some good places to look for freezer inspiration.

Slow-Cooker Freezer Meals. This awesome post from the Test Kitchen of Melissa Fallis will leave your freezer stocked with half a dozen or more “ready to throw in the crock pot” meals. The five featured recipes include a lot of common ingredients, so you can devote a bit of time chopping some produce and cutting/prepping the meat, then divvy up the ingredients in gallon freezer bags. Label the bags with the appropriate day of cooking directions and stash them in the freezer for a busy day. Transfer your bag of choice to the refrigerator the night before you’re ready to cook it. The next morning, dump the bag’s contents in slow cooker, adding sauce or other liquid per the directions on the bag.

This SkinnyTaste post on adapting recipes to make freezer meals offers a sample of freezer-ready made meals, including Spinach Lasagna Rolls. I tried these out a few months ago when I was looking for something that I could make for a friend whose wife has a long-term illness,so he would have something easy he could just throw in the oven for dinner. I made an extra batch for home, and got a thumbs-up from the Guy. Bonus–they are a good bit simpler than a full lasagna, and if you’re not cooking for a crowd, you can bake just the amount you need.


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Warning: Construction Zone

This blog is still relatively new, and as such, it’s still a work in progress. And there’s a lot of work to be done.

On the content side, I’m trying to develop some variety, and add a few themed features, like the newly-added “Friday Favorites.”

Looking at my visitation stats, it’s interesting to note that the most popular post to date has been “DIY CoCo Wheats.” With that in mind, I’m planning another feature, called “Make Your Own.” These might not be every week features, like “Friday Favorites,” but I think you’ll find them handy. We’ll look at how to make your own baking mixes, energy bars and a whole host of other things that can easily be made at home healthier and usually cheaper than the store-bought varieties.

On the design side, there may be even more work to be done. I need to develop a memorable header to start building my “brand,” and I desperately need to find a theme that is a little more flexible and functional.

It might be slow progress at times, but I’ll get there eventually!

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Friday Favorites: Cake, Hazelnut and Wedding Memories

Homemade Wedding Cake

“Friday Favorites” features my favorite great ideas/recipes/etc., from across the giant world wide webs.

A week from Sunday, the Guy and I will be celebrating our first wedding anniversary! I truly cannot believe it’s already been almost a year. Our whole day was very simple and very special. We kept the celebration small, with only immediate family members and a handful of our closest friends. Even then, since we have lots of siblings with lots of kiddos of their own, there were still around 30 people there.

Keeping the guest list short was key to keeping the day simple. And that was critical to us, since we wanted to make sure everything was stress free and focused on what was important–starting our new life together. At the same time, we really wanted to celebrate with as many friends and family as possible, so we came up with a compromise, and hosted a reception celebration six months later.

We had an informal luncheon for our attendees after the ceremony, and most of the food was made by myself or family. In keeping with that feel, much of the food at our later reception was made by friends who volunteered their services, and I decided to tackle the formidable–our cake.

I know how to bake a delicious cake, but I’ve never been great at decorating, so I turned to the Internet for help, and found this great tutorial on frosting a layered cake from Whisk Kid. If you’re like me and are crazy enough to make your own wedding cake, this tutorial is a great place to start.

Instead of attempting a tiered cake, I bought a cake stand with three layers, and made two layered cakes, with cupcakes adorning the top layer of the stand. I also kept my decorations simple–no fancy frosting techniques–by using a stencil along with colored sugar and chocolate shavings to create a sunflower design (in keeping with our wedding theme). A pretty ribbon around the bottom made it almost look professional.

Homemade Wedding Cake
The two cakes I made for our wedding reception–one chocolate and one butter pecan. Both had hazelnut espresso frosting.

One of the cakes and all of the cupcakes were chocolate, and made from scratch using Hershey’s classic “Perfectly Chocolate” Chocolate Cake recipe. It’s hands-down the best chocolate cake I’ve ever had, and it is well named–it comes out perfectly every time I make it. The second cake was made from a mix–Betty Crocker’s SuperMoist Butter Pecan flavor. I usually prefer scratch-made, but this mix is sooo good, I don’t think I could beat it at home.

The Hazelnut Espresso frosting was what put the whole thing over the edge. The idea originally came from this post on Erica’s Sweet Tooth. But she used a hazelnut mousse for her cake, and I needed a buttercream frosting in order to make a cake that I could actually decorate, and would hold up to sitting out for a bit during the reception. So, I took a basic buttercream recipe and mixed in 1/2 cup of Jif’s Mocha Cappucino hazelnut spread.

The end result? The cake didn’t look perfect, but I was pretty pleased, considering my lack of experience. And as far as taste, well…that was absolutely perfect. 🙂