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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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Sneaky squash

Winter SquashThe first signs of fall in the South are not spotted on the trees, with their changing leaves. No, before the maples ever start donning their lovely hues, fall can be found indoors–just walk into your neighborhood grocery store. Boxes of pumpkin pancake mix adorn the ends of aisles, pumpkin creme cakes get their own special treatment in the bakery section and piles of pumpkin, butternut squash, acorn squash and a variety of gourds take center stage in the produce department.

It makes my heart happy when these lovely gourds start appearing. I love pumpkin, and have discovered in recent years that I love squash in general. It wasn’t something we ate much growing up. My earliest squash exposure was pumpkin pie and zucchini bread–both of which are delicious, but neither are particularly healthy. And let’s be honest: when you’re 10, if your mom says, “we’re having squash for dinner,” you’re probably not going to be thrilled. As an adult, I’ve discovered I love squash in all forms–not just desserts laden with fat and sugar.

My best bet to get the healthy benefits of squash AND still have something the Kiddo will eat is to sneak it into meals with clever disguises. Last weekend, I tried three “sneaky squash” recipes out on the Guy and Kiddo. Final results–two of them passed with flying colors, while the third was a hit with the Guy but not the Kiddo.

Squash Attempt #1: Low-Fat Pumpkin Brownies

Low-fat pumpkin brownies

This one was definitely a winner. These brownies don’t taste exactly like regular brownies–they’re denser and fudgier–but they don’t taste like pumpkin either. So how do you make them? Well, it’s unbelievably easy. Take your favorite brownie mix (one that makes a 13″x9″ pan of brownies) and a 15-oz. can of pumpkin. There. You’re done. Okay, it’s not quite that easy, but almost. Blend the pumpkin (make sure you get just plain ol’ canned pumpkin, not pumpkin pie filling) into the brownie mix in a medium mixing bowl until well-blended. Then  just follow the baking directions on the box of brownie mix. Ta-da! Nearly fat-free brownies!

I didn’t tell the Kiddo there was pumpkin in the brownies until after he taste-tested them, but I did mention it was a different recipe and the brownies might have a different texture than he was used to. He agreed they were “different” but loved them, even after he learned my baking secret. These were also Guy-approved.

 Squash Attempt #2: Butternut Squash Macaroni & Cheese

The Guy and I both absolutely LOVED this recipe–more than traditional baked macaroni and cheese, actually. The Kiddo did not share our love, but I believe the issue was not so much the inclusion of squash as it was that it was HOMEMADE macaroni and cheese, and not the processed-cheese-powder, unnaturally-yellow, from-a-box variety. Let’s be honest–as adults we realize that this processed goop is, well, goop. But kids love it for some reason, and tend not to like the real thing. If your munchkin does happen to like real, homemade, melt-in-your-mouth cheesy macaroni and cheese, then this recipe is probably a winner for them. Because it’s frickin’ awesome. Trust me. Overall, it doesn’t have the extra grease of traditional mac and cheese, and it has a “fluffier” texture.

I was inspired by this Cooking Light recipe, but I tweaked it a bit, both to simplify the recipe and work with the ingredients I had on hand. I also subbed in more kid- and budget-friendly cheeses than the Gruyère that was called for. Here’s my version:

3 cups cubed butternut squash
1 1/4 cups fat-free chicken broth
1 1/2 cups skim milk
16 oz. macaroni, cooked al dente
1 1/2 cups cheddar cheese, shredded
1/2 cup monterey jack cheese, shredded
Salt, pepper and minced fresh garlic or garlic powder, to taste
Nonstick cooking spray

Okay, let’s start with a word about the butternut squash. It’s delectable, but if you’ve ever cooked with it, you also know it’s a pain to work with. They do call them “hard” winter squashes for a reason. And butternut squash is probably the toughest of the bunch, partially because it is fairly large but has a much smaller seed cavity then, say, its pumpkin cousin. If you’ve never tackled one before, I would recommend reading this tutorial before you get started. Also, in this recipe, the cubed squash is ultimately going to get pureed anyway. So I would recommend cutting the ends off and splitting the squash lengthwise (following the linked directions), then roasting the squash until it’s cooked about halfway. Put both halves in a large baking dish covered with foil and bake at 400 degrees for about 20 minutes. If you’ve got a decent-sized squash, you’ll probably only need one half for this recipe. Let the squash cool, then remove the peel with a sharp knife and cube the now-softened flesh.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, the rest of the recipe is much easier. Bring the broth, milk and squash to boil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Reduce heat and simmer until squash is fork-tender (the original recipe calls for 25 minutes, but if you’ve already partially roasted the squash, you’ll probably only need 10-15 minutes).

Next step–puree the squash/milk/broth mixture. You can do this in a blender or in a couple batches in a Magic Bullet (my choice, because it’s much easier cleanup). Just make sure you let the hot mixture cool enough that you don’t end up burning yourself!

Transfer pureed squash into a large mixing bowl and stir in cheese, reserving 1/2 cup cheddar. Stir in pasta, salt, pepper and garlic, then spread pasta mixture into a 13″x9″ glass baking dish, coated with cooking spray. Top with remaining cheese. Cover with foil and bake at 375 degrees for 25 minutes, removing foil for last five minutes.

Squash Attempt #3: Whole Wheat Pumpkin Waffles

Canned pumpkinMaking pumpkin pancakes is easy–you basically just sub all the liquid in a pancake recipe with canned pumpkin. I had expected similar when I decided to attempt pumpkin waffles, but after exploring several different recipes, both online and in my collection of recipe books, I realized it wouldn’t be quite that simple. While canned pumpkin is a suitable substitute for the eggs when it comes to pancakes, every recipe I found for waffles required egg whites to maintain the lightness a waffle demands. So, not quite as simple as I’d hoped, but it’s still a fairly easy recipe.

This recipe is adapted from one in the “Secrets of Fat-Free Cooking” recipe book by Sandra Woodruff. You’ll notice that I tend to tweak recipes to make them work with the ingredients I have available, my available time and my family’s personal tastes. Changes I made to the book recipe include using white wheat flour in place of the mix of whole wheat and cornmeal called for, using a little more milk (batter was too thick otherwise), and using a bit of cinnamon, nutmeg and vanilla instead of the pumpkin pie spice.

The result was a fluffy, moist waffle with a slight, but not overpowering pumpkin flavor, which was a hit with both the Guy and Kiddo.

2 cups white wheat flour
2 T. sugar
2 tsp. baking powder
3/4 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
4 egg whites
1/2 cup canned pumpkin
1 1/4 cup skim milk
1 tsp. vanilla

In large mixing bowl, mix all dry ingredients. In a medium mixing bowl, beat egg whites until soft peaks form. You can do this with a whisk (as I did) if you don’t feel like dragging out the mixer, but it does take a little longer. Blend milk, pumpkin and vanilla into dry ingredients, then slowly fold in egg whites. Coat waffle iron with nonstick spray. Spoon batter into iron and bake according to manufacturer’s directions. Note–while normally I need to use the nonstick spray on my iron every two to three waffles, because of the lack of fat in these, you will need to spray between each waffle you make.