Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Back-To-School-Snacks: German Chocolate Cookie Bars

Do you remember having major food aversions as a kid? I hated tomatoes, beets, carrots, and flaked coconut. The tomatoes were juicy, squishy, and gross plus my skin always felt itchy if some of the tomato juice spilled on them. Beets were too "bloody" in appearance, carrots were bland and watery, and coconut simply ruined a perfectly nice cookie or cake. It's funny how things like that change, because now I love all those things! I also lament that I did not learn to love carrots sooner, because now I am doomed to wear contacts or glasses for the rest of my life. Perhaps if I had eaten some of that extra beta carotene, I could have avoided this optical handicap!

My kids similarly have issues with certain foods.  However, they definitely have some weird aversions to foods that are generally accepted as "kid-friendly". I shouldn't say "they" because I really just am referring to Matthew. The only thing Emma won't eat is lettuce. Matthew will not touch potatoes in any form (except maybe french fries...maybe), cheese (unless on a pizza), deli meat, and most breakfast cereals. However, he loves tomatoes (he'll eat them whole like an apple), carrots, and coconut. Beets do scare him, however,

However, coconut is one of his favorite flavors! So it came as no surprise that he chose these German Chocolate Cookie Bars to be part of our baking extravaganza. I loved how easy these were to throw together. They utilize a cake mix and although I'm all about making things from scratch, sometimes those cake mix desserts are the greatest! Thanks the the cake mix, this cookie recipe came together very quickly which was invaluable for the small attention span of my little helper.

We waited a good 24 hours to allow the cookies time to cool and chill in the fridge so we could cut them nicely and I assure you the torture was acute. But they were worth the wait! Matthew and I both loved them and how could we not? The gooey, delectable flavors of German Chocolate Cake (which happens to be my favorite) baked into a portable, hand-held form = one awesome cookie!

German Chocolate Cookie Bars
adapted slightly from Favorite Family Recipes

For the Crust:
1 box German Chocolate cake mix (or chocolate cake mix without the pudding added)
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
1 large egg

For the Filling:
1 (14 oz) can sweetened condensed milk
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 large egg
1 cup chopped pecans
1 cup shredded sweetened coconut
1 cup milk chocolate chips

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9x13-inch baking pan or line with parchment.

In a medium bowl, mix together the cake mix, butter and egg, and press into the bottom of the prepared pan. The crust should not come up the sides. Bake for 7 minutes and remove from the oven. The crust will not look done.

While the crust is baking, mix together the sweetened condensed milk, vanilla, egg, pecans and coconut. Pour evenly over the warm crust and sprinkle evenly with the chocolate chips. Bake for 24-30 minutes, until the top is a light golden brown. Remove from the oven and cool completely before cutting into squares. I let these hang out in the fridge for about an hour before they were able to be sliced neatly. Let them come to room temperature before serving.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Back-to-School Snacks: Buttery Blondies with White Chocolate and Peanuts

A new school year is upon us. When the stores started displaying piles of notebooks, folders, crayons, and pencils, it actually meant something to our family this year for our very own Matthew will now be a full-time student. I can hardly believe it. It's truly the end of an era. He will be at school for the majority of the day and it will be just me and the girls at home. Believe me, we'll keep plenty busy but I'll miss my crazy little kid.

Well, partially.

I'm also really excited for him. He loves to learn, he loves to interact with other kids, and he is so, so excited to finally eat lunch at school. It might sound ridiculous, but I think that is what he is looking forward to the most. While I was picking out his polo shirts and slacks, he was carefully selecting the perfect lunch bag. And, above all else, he has requested that I pack him an apple every single day. Gigantic, sweet apples are probably his favorite thing to eat.

However, he has to pack more than just apples! Matthew's reply here: "Well, how about two apples?!"

Smart aleck.

In addition to the apple, the carrot sticks, the box of raisins, and the sandwich that will inevitably fill his lunchbox, I want him to always have a sweet treat that he can either eat with his lunch or have as a special after-school snack. Matthew and I perused through several cookbooks and websites before he selected a few batches of cookies that he wanted to help me make and freeze in preparation for school! The first recipe we made were these blondies.

Now, this is my favorite blondie recipe and I have made it probably a dozen times. However, this time Matthew wanted to choose the mix-ins. He was very specific: white chocolate and peanuts. Peanuts are his favorite nuts and he is pretty obsessed with white chocolate so I wasn't really surprised that this combination appealed to him. But that kid must be a secret genius or something because these were fabulous. I actually really loved the honey roasted peanuts in these - and combined with the white chocolate the flavor reminded me of my favorite peanut butter: the White Chocolate Wonderful from Peanut Butter & Co.

Blondies are awesome because they bake in one pan, slice into cute little bars, and freeze marvelously. Matthew and Emma heavily sampled the first batch (heavily) so I actually made two. These will make an awesome sweet lunch treat or after-school-snack.

Buttery Blondies with White Chocolate and Peanuts
blondie base recipe from Baking: From My Home to Yours

2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 sticks (8 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups (packed) light brown sugar
1/2 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 cups white chocolate chips
2 cups honey roasted peanuts

Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Butter a 9×13-inch baking pan.

Whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt.

Working with a stand mixer, preferably fitted with a paddle attachment, or with a hand mixer in a large bowl, beat the butter on medium speed until smooth and creamy. Add both sugars and beat for another 3 minutes, or until well incorporated. Add the eggs one by one, beating for 1 minute after each addition, then beat in the vanilla. Reduce the mixer speed to low and add the dry ingredients, mixing just until they disappear into the batter. Using a rubber spatula, stir in the chips, nuts and coconut. Scrape the batter into the buttered pan and use the spatula to even the top as best you can.

Bake for about 40 minutes, or until a knife inserted into the center of the blondies comes out clean. The blondies should pull away from the sides of the pan a little and the top should be a nice honey brown. Transfer the pan to a rack and cool completely before cutting into bars. To get really neat cuts, let them hang out in the fridge for a bit until chilled. But it'll be hard not to dig in right away. Trust me.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Back in the Saddle Again

Hello! Did you miss us?

We're back from our intense trip to Colorado! Paul and I spent our anniversary exploring the Denver area and hiking some mountains. I plan on doing a recap of our trip at some point here - once I organize and edit the HUNDREDS of photos I took while we were out there. In the mean time, I am currently haphazardly trying to get Matthew ready for his first day of Kindergarten next week. He will be away from me for eight hours, five days a week. I am simultaneously looking forward to it and dreading it at the same time. As for Matthew? He can't wait to go. He's counting down the days. Every morning he tells me how many days left until he leaves me (my phrasing, not his!).

In honor of the first day of school fast approaching, I will be doing a series on cookie recipes for school lunches. Matthew's favorite treat is a cookie. He could care less about cake, pies, cobblers, and puddings. Give the kid a cookie! When we selected a lunchbox for Matthew, I was already brainstorming healthy and indulgent homemade treats I could stuff in it. I know he'll probably end up taking PB&J and a handful of chips, but initially here I'm going to try to pack the kid some creative lunches. And every awesome school lunch has to include dessert! Matthew and I carefully perused through many different cookie recipes before he selected four types to bake and freeze for his school lunches.  At this point, I think we have enough cookies to last until mid-November. I'm looking forward to sharing those recipes with you in the coming days.

For now, I'm currently cleaning out our closets, donating many items to Goodwill, struggling to assemble a trike for Emma, and enjoying my littlest smiling cherub.

Smiling babies should actually be categorized by the pharmaceutical industry as a powerful antidepressant.
--Jim Gaffigan, Dad is Fat

I couldn't agree more! However, it's been very difficult trying to capture her smiling on camera. She'll be cooing and grinning from ear-to-ear, but as soon as someone whips the camera out she suddenly turns stoical. We have to be super stealthy about it and the two photos above are the best we have! I'm working on coaxing her out of her camera shyness.

Look for my back-to-school cookie recipe series coming up in the next couple of days!

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Chocolate Raspberry Torte

If you are in search of a show-stopping dessert that will appeal to both children and adults alike, look no further. This cake is probably one of the greatest creations to ever come out of my kitchen. I first made it way back in January 2009 for Paul's birthday and it has been one of our favorite desserts ever since. Paul is not a huge fan of chocolate, but he finds this fudgey almost-flourless chocolate cake with a sweet raspberry center and decadent ganache topping to be irresistible. It looks gorgeous, takes like it came from a professional bakery, yet takes almost no time to make. There are a few different steps between making the batter, baking, assembling, and decorating but none of them are difficult in the least. It's actually the perfect dessert to make with kids in the house because none of the components take too much time, leaving lots of opportunities for breaks to feed the baby, play with the kids, feed the kids, or change a diaper.

Maybe I shouldn't mention diapers in a blog post about food. But that is the reality of being both a mother and a personal chef. Sometimes, you gotta do both jobs simultaneously. Don't worry, I'm a firm believer in hand sanitizer.

But this cake! This cake is a play on the famed Viennese sachertorte. This recipe being a tribute to that cake appealed to my husband's German blood and compelled him to request it for his birthday treat. A traditional sachertorte consists of a dense chocolate sponge cake with an apricot filling. The entire cake is then covered in a dark chocolate icing. It is meant to be served with coffee.

Our version nixes the apricot filling in favor of raspberry (a wise decision in my mind), and utilizes almost-flourless (it is made of mainly ground almonds and a teeny bit of flour) chocolate cake layers to sandwich it together. Chocolate ganache is chosen as the rich frosting to engulf the top and sides of the finished cake.

At the time, I did not own a food processor but rather a very, low-power blender which I used to grind the nuts and mix the batter. It was quite the battle getting the almonds to a "flour-like" consistency, but I persevered and the end product turned out amazing. Fast-forward to re-making the cake again this year with a properly working food processor and I was taken aback by how much easier this recipe was to complete with the right equipment. However, the results were very much the same which shows that either one can be used to make this cake - you just might want to defenestrate
your blender out of frustration since it takes a lot longer to get the correct consistency.

But the results are so worth the frustration! This cake is divine. Divine, I tell you. It's rich. It's fancy. It's sweet but not too sweet. It's amazing.

Paul has since visited Austria on business and tried a couple authentic sachertortes. He was so disappointed by how dry and bland every single one of them was. He far prefers this very inauthentic, Americanized version of the cake for its superior taste and texture.

Make it! No regrets will be had.

Chocolate Raspberry Torte
from Cook's Illustrated November/December 2010

For the Cake and Filling:
8 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped fine
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon instant espresso powder
1 3/4 cups (about 7 ounces) sliced almonds, lightly toasted
1/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour (1 1/4 ounces)
1/2 teaspoon table salt
5 large eggs
3/4 cup (5 1/4 ounces) sugar
1/2 cup fresh raspberries, plus 16 individual berries for garnishing cake
1/4 cup seedless raspberry jam

For the Chocolate Ganache Glaze:
5 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped fine
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon heavy cream

Heat oven to 325 degrees. Line the bottoms of two 9-inch round cake pans with parchment paper. n large heatproof bowl set over saucepan filled with simmering water melt chocolate and butter, stirring occasionally, until smooth. Remove from heat and cool to room temperature, about 30 minutes. Mix in vanilla and espresso powder.

In the bowl of a food processor, process 3/4 cup almonds until coarsely chopped, about eight 1-second pulses; set aside to garnish cake. Process remaining cup almonds until very finely ground, about 45 seconds. Add flour and salt and process until combined, about 15 seconds. Transfer almond-flour mixture to medium bowl. In the now-empty food processor, process eggs until lightened in color and almost doubled in volume, about 3 minutes. With processor running, slowly add sugar until thoroughly combined, about 15 seconds. Using whisk, gently fold egg mixture into chocolate mixture until some streaks of egg remain. Sprinkle half almond-flour mixture over chocolate-egg mixture and gently whisk until just combined. Sprinkle in remaining almond-flour mixture and gently whisk until just combined.

Divide batter between cake pans and smooth with an off-set spatula. Bake 14 to 16 minutes or until center is firm and toothpick inserted into center comes out with few moist crumbs attached. Transfer cakes to wire rack and cool completely in pan. Run paring knife around sides of cakes to loosen. Invert cakes onto cardboard rounds cut same size as diameter of cake and remove parchment paper. Using wire rack, re-invert one cake so top side faces up; slide back onto cardboard round.

In a medium bowl coarsely mash ½ cup raspberries with a fork. Stir in raspberry jam until just combined. Spread raspberry mixture onto cake layer that is top side up. Top with second cake layer, leaving it bottom side up. Transfer assembled cake, still on cardboard round, to wire rack set in rimmed baking sheet.

To make the glaze, in a medium heatproof bowl set over saucepan filled with simmering water, melt chocolate and cream together, stirring occasionally until smooth. Remove from heat and gently whisk until very smooth. Pour glaze onto center of assembled cake. Use offset spatula to spread glaze evenly over top of cake, letting it flow down sides. Spread glaze along sides of cake to coat evenly.

Using a fine-mesh strainer, sift reserved almonds to remove any fine bits. Holding bottom of cake on cardboard round with one hand, gently press sifted almonds onto cake sides with other hand. Arrange raspberries around circumference. Refrigerate cake, still on rack, until glaze is set, at least 1 hour and up to 24 hours. Transfer cake to serving platter, slice, and serve.

Recipe Note: If refrigerate the cake for more than 1 hour in step 6, let it stand at room temperature for about 30 minutes before serving.

Friday, July 31, 2015

The Beechwold Salad

Ok, here's the deal with this salad.

It is the most unusually delicious thing I have eaten all year. It is a strange, unusual combination of ingredients that you might not think of throwing together in one bowl. But trust me when I tell you that it is basically an entire farmer's market in one dish. All the sweet, creamy, salty, crunchy elements mingle together with a basic vinaigrette to create the experience that is the devouring of this salad.

I went to visit my sister Catherine a week ago and she took me to this cute little cafe that specializes in organic, fresh, healthy meal preparation. I ordered this salad because it sounded so different and was blown away by how much I loved it. The salad had everything: avocados, dates, roasted almonds, chicken, tomatoes, scallions, goat cheese, fresh corn, kale, napa cabbage, and a zippy champagne vinaigrette. A bowl full of awesome.

So, of course, I had to recreate it as soon as I got home.

I paid careful attention while I was eating it and this is my version of this amazing salad. I think I got it pretty darn close. We've enjoyed this for dinner two nights in a row this week because I can't stop eating it. So good.

Like all salads, it's a bit of a pain to make just because there is quite a bit of work involved with washing, drying, chopping, and dicing all the various components. I wait until Paul is home before I start working on it so the kids ambush him and leave me to chop alone in peace. It's great therapy until I hear the loud sucking noises coming from Lucy's swing as she angrily eats her fist ("hint hint MOM").

Bottom line: make this salad while you can still find beautiful corn, tomatoes, and avocados this summer. Guess what we're having again for dinner tonight? I have a feeling that Paul's going to need to compensate for this by grilling steak or brats this weekend. He likes my salads, but can only eat so many bowls of kale before his inner carnivore begins to scream for proper sustenance.

The Beechwold Salad
Inspired by the Northstar Cafe

For the Salad:
1 small head (2 pounds) napa cabbage, thinly shredded
1/2 bunch of kale, cleaned and stems removed, thinly shredded
2 cups cooked, shredded chicken (use a rotisserie chicken or your favorite roasting method)
1 large tomato, diced fine
1 large avocado, diced fine
1 bunch of scallions, sliced on the bias (white and light green parts only)
4-5 whole dates, pits removed and diced
2 ears of corn, husked, and the kernels cut from the cob
3/4 cup roasted, salted almonds
4 ounces goat cheese (or feta if goat is not your thing)

For the Champagne Vinaigrette:
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon honey
1/2 teaspoon minced garlic
3 tablespoons champagne vinegar
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1⁄4 teaspoon pepper

Whisk the dressing together in a large salad bowl. Add the napa and kale and toss to coat completely. Let stand for about five minutes. Add the remaining salad ingredients and toss to coat. Garnish with additional almonds and cheese and serve immediately.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

What's in Emma's Purse?

My little Emma is a girly girl. She did not get this trait from me - I was so very the opposite when I was younger. Instead of dress-up and princesses, I preferred pretending I was Joe Hardy solving mysteries with my brother Frank (played by Michael and Raymond at different times). In fact, I remember getting really angry at my sister Catherine for obsessing over jewelry and make-up at a very young age because I had such an aversion to such things (ironically, Catherine now works for Chanel). I never even wanted to get my ears pierced until I was randomly talked into it during my sophomore year of high school.

But Emma! My goodness, if she goes a day without wearing a necklace, she cries herself to sleep. She spends a good 10 minutes selecting an outfit in the morning and another hour after that obsessing over what shoes to wear. She loves to wear bows in her hair even though she plays so rough and tumble that they barely stay attached to her hair. She raids my makeup bag on a regular basis and insists on wearing the reddest color of lipstick she can find. And now, she has started carrying her own purse (she has two that were gifted to her) and is thrilled that she can carrying her most prized possessions of the moment along with her as we go about our day.

When she came downstairs all dolled up for the day, I thought it would be fun for Emma to show us what she is carrying with her today.

Here is Emma with her purse and selected outfit for today. Note the Minnie Mouse slippers that she deemed worthy to wear with her sundress. Her reasoning? They are both pink. I am going to be in trouble later when I inform her that she cannot wear her slippers outside. But for now, we'll go with it. Notice also the yellow bow she stole from her sister Lucy ("Baby Woosie is sharing with me!" she declares).

She is also sporting her favorite necklace. Seven years ago, I wore that necklace when I was the Maid of Honor in my best friend's wedding. Now, Emma has officially claimed it as her own.

So, Emma. What's in your purse?

"Wook at my sunglasses. They're for my eyes. I put them on!"

Oh so lovely. What else is in your purse?

"My binky! It goes in my mouth! There's water in there. I wear it like this!"

I hate to inform her that it is not a binky but rather a broken teething toy. And she has never ever used a binky but for some reason really likes the idea of one now that Lucy is around (even though Lucy does not use a binky either although I sometimes wish she would!).

Alright Emma...what's the last thing you have there in your purse?

"My toys! I need toys when I go in the car! Wook at my big ring! For my finger!"

And of course she pulls out Lucy's rattle. Which is a pretty bling baby rattle. That certainly explains why Emma likes it so much.

So there you have it! Today's accessories of my two-year-old. And where was she going so dressed up and fancy? To bed for her afternoon nap! No, really. She has been wearing her purse to bed, tucked tightly under her arm. Sometimes she sleeps with her sunglasses on. That girl is ready for anything.

Never a dull moment with these beautiful kids!

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Grilled Peach Shortcakes

This past weekend, Lucy and I headed out of town to spend a couple days with my sisters while Paul watched Matthew and Emma. I was shocked by the number of people who seemed genuinely surprised that I would leave two of my children alone with their father. Maybe it has something with how fathers are always portrayed in the media as inept, bone-headed, man children who are completely incapable of being responsible parents. Sure, they may give their best attempt, but utter chaos always ensues. I can assure you that for as much as I like to poke fun at my Paul, he is more than capable of taking care of the children all by his lonesome.

My brother 18-year-old brother Mark had the complete opposite reaction. He could not believe that I was taking Lucy with me. The conversation went something like this:

Mark: "So are you looking forward to a weekend without the kids?"
Me: "Well, I'll still have Lucy with me."
Mark: "Lucy? You're bringing her with you!?"
Me: "Well...yeah."
Mark: "Oh. Are you still breastfeeding her?"
Me: "She's only 9 weeks old! Of course I'm still breastfeeding her!"
Mark: "Oh. How long do you keep doing that?"
Me: "About a year."
Mark: "A year!!?"

You would never have guessed that Mark is one of eleven children. You'd think he'd know that where mommy goes, the baby shall be attached to her hip for the first 12 months of life.

Lucy and I had a grand time with all the sisters - we wined, we dined, we shopped. It was a great break for me! When I returned home, I was so pleased to hear that Paul's weekend had been just as great with the kids. He had taken them to the lake, the zoo, out for breakfast, and out for ice cream. Emma informed me that she had even driven a motor boat at the lake and Matthew had enjoyed his first time tubing! After hearing about all their adventures, I was beginning to worry that the kids would find me boring after all the fun times and sweet treats they had just enjoyed with their daddy. But not really. I was happy that he had spent the time bonding with them - it was such a good weekend for him too!

Lucy was so happy to see her daddy again after a weekend away. I had missed him a bit myself..

When I returned home, Paul was grilling a delicious dinner of pork chops and salad. He also planned to serve a grilled peach cobbler. He grilled the peaches with brown sugar and butter, then peeled and chopped the peaches before tossing them in their own syrupy juices. He served the peaches with freshly baked sugar biscuits and generous scoops of pistachio ice cream. Oh my, this was heavenly! Paul and I inhaled our portions - we loved this so much! The kids for some reason were much more dainty and slow in their dessert eating that night, but they licked their plates clean as well! I told Paul that he should make a grilled cobbler every Sunday. It was such a great, low-fuss dessert, and the grilled flavor in the fruit was awesome. I can't wait for him to make this again.

Grilled Peach Shortcakes
from the Weber Grill Cookbook

2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
5 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoons kosher salt
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cold, cut into small pieces
½ cup half-and-half, cold

1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted
4 large freestone peaches, firm but ripe, cut in half lengthwise, pits removed
¼ cup packed golden brown sugar

Preheat oven to 400°F.

In a large bowl combine the flour, granulated sugar, baking powder, and salt, and blend well. Add the butter and mix with a fork or a pastry blender just until the mixture resembles coarse bread crumbs. Add the half-and-half and gently stir it in (the mixture will be crumbly). Then use your hands to mix the dough quickly and gently in the bowl just until it comes together.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface. Lightly dust your hands with flour and gently pat out the dough to about ¾ inch thick. Dip a round biscuit cutter, 2½ to 3 inches in diameter, in flour and cut out rounds of dough. Gather scraps of dough and pat out, using a light touch so you don’t overwork the dough; cut to make a total of eight shortcakes. Place the shortcakes about 2 inches apart on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Brush the tops with the melted butter. Bake the shortcakes for 15-20 minutes. Set aside to cool.

Prepare the grill for direct cooking over medium heat (350-450 degrees F).

Brush the cooking grates clean. Sprinkle the cut side of the peach halves with the brown sugar. Grill the peach halves, cut side up, over direct medium heat, with the lid closed, until the sugar melts and the peaches are soft, 8 to 10 minutes. Carefully remove from the grill and pour the melted brown sugar from the peaches into a medium bowl.

Pull the charred skin off the peaches and discard. Cut the peaches into bite-sized pieces and add them to the bowl with the melted brown sugar. Gently toss to coat. Split each shortcake horizontally and top each bottom half with equal portions of the peaches. Add the shortcake tops and garnish with a generous scoop of ice cream (we loved pistachio!).