Monday, March 31, 2014

The Best Way to Roast a Chicken

I love roast chicken. To me, it is the type of homey meal one should serve for the family on a Sunday along with biscuits and pie. I have been trying to roast chicken more often especially since Matthew is more likely to eat chicken if it has "bones on it." I should admit that watching him eat his chicken bones is quite unappetizing. He likes to gnaw and suck on the chicken legs like a barbarian, all the while telling us how the "chicken is a dinosaur because he has bones." From an evolutionary perspective, that statement of his is surprisingly accurate. Don't get too excited. I don't think we have a budding scientist on our hands. The other day he was telling me that he is a robot and I made him with a screwdriver and nails. Which is totally ridiculous. Everyone knows you don't put nails in with a screwdriver.

Emma has also developed a taste for chicken. But not for eating it so much as wearing it. During mealtime, bits of chicken end up in her hair, down the front of her shirt, plastered to her get the picture. That's why, immediately following dinnertime, she can be found here:

However, some weekends we spend doing so many activities that we do not have time to plan our schedules around slow-roasting a chicken. Most recipes call for a little advance prep - brining the chicken followed by a 90 minute roasting period in the oven.

I had heard of spatchcocked chicken or turkey before, but had never tried it until last week. Basically, the chicken is cut so it will lay flat in a roasting pan, enabling all areas of the bird to cook evenly and more quickly. We had just picked up some gorgeous-looking chickens from our local market, so it seemed like the perfect opportunity to try a new roasting method.

Matthew was so interested in watching me cut the backbone out of the chicken and then split the breastbone to get it to lay flat in our cast iron skillet. Should that worry me?

I watched this video before cutting my chicken.

Anyway, after getting the chicken to lay flat, season it generously with salt and pepper. In a separate bowl, toss some veggies together with a bit of oil, salt, and pepper. Scatter the veggies in your skillet, lay the chicken over the top, and roast for 35-45 minutes. That's it! The chicken cooks quickly and the skin gets nice and crackly. The vegetables underneath are basted in the chicken juices and come out tender and beautifully seasoned. Served with a green salad and some rolls and you've got one great meal.

Can you tell my oven needs a bit of cleaning?

I love dinners like this because you can use the cooking time to straighten up the kitchen so that everything is pretty clean when you sit down for the meal!

This "recipe" is more of a method if anything. You can season the chicken however you like as well as change up the vegetables. The possibilities are endless! Next time, I'm thinking of slathering the chicken in maple-mustard sauce before roasting.  Yum!

Spatchcocked Chicken
from The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook

Note: For this recipe, do try to find a whole chicken that is no larger than 3 1/2 pounds.

1 (3-3½ pound) whole chicken
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1½ pounds red potatoes, halved if medium-small, quartered if large
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Juice of half a lemon
Heat the oven to 450º. Cut out the backbone of the chicken using a pair of sharp kitchen scissors, then cut through the cartilage to flatten the breast.
Generously season the cavity with salt and pepper, then transfer the chicken to a 10 or 12-inch cast iron skillet, placing the chicken breast-side up. Pat the skin dry with a paper towel, then generously season the skin with more salt and pepper.
Toss together the melted butter, potatoes and more salt and pepper in a large bowl. Scatter the potatoes under and around the chicken. Roast the chicken for 30-45 minutes, stirring the potatoes halfway through (it's a bit tricky, but do your best!). The chicken is done when the thighs reach 165º.
Remove the dish from the oven. Allow to rest for about 10 minutes before carving and serving.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Strawberry Cake with Strawberry Cream Cheese Frosting

After many, many requests for the recipe for Emma's birthday cake, I decided to share it. I had been hesitant about posting it earlier only because the family was rather split down the middle about this cake. Emma and I found it to be divine while Paul and Matthew were not wild about it. Paul claimed that the frosting was just too tart for him while I thought it was the perfect balance of sweet and tart. I usually have issues with layer cakes because they are too sweet but I thought this one was light, moist, and delicately flavored with real strawberries. I was really disappointed that Paul found it so "meh." It shook my confidence in this cake a bit, despite how much the birthday girl and I enjoyed our slices. That's why initially I had decided not to post the recipe.

However, I sent the remainder of the cake to work with Paul and his co-workers kept thanking him over and over again for bringing it in. They all loved it! Those compliments, combined with the other email requests for the recipe, spurred me to share it with you. That and remembering how weird and finicky my husband and his textural issues with cakes and frostings can be - the problem might just be him, not the cake!

This recipe makes such a pretty cake - it really is perfect for a springtime celebration even if the weather outside certainly is not cooperating. (Emma received 6 inches of snow on her birthday as a present from Mother Nature!)

Most strawberry cakes use strawberry-flavored Jell-O to flavor the cake. I was thrilled that this recipe only used fresh and frozen strawberries! You extract all the juices from the berries and boil them down into a syrup that is strained and then used to infuse the cake batter with sweet strawberry flavor. The strawberry solids are then added to the cream cheese frosting - ingenious! I loved the little flecks of strawberries in the frosting. Emma and I were also eating spoonful after spoonful of the frosting from the bowl. We couldn't stop! I had to pop quite a few lactaids. Historically, lactose and I are not friends - but some things are worth the stomach ache!

Obviously, I added a couple drops of pink food coloring to my cake, but without the food coloring the strawberry juice that is added to the cake batter does impart a light pink hue to the final cake. I wanted a more striking color, so that's why I chose to enhance this effect with the food coloring.

Next time I make this recipe (because I would certainly make it again), I would spread some strawberry preserves in between the layers along with the cream cheese frosting. I think this would really kick up the strawberry flavor a notch!

Strawberry Cake with Strawberry Cream Cheese Frosting
adapted from Cook's Country

Note: As I said above, instead of simply adding some chopped strawberries between the cake layers, I think it would be fantastic to add some strawberry preserves or jam. Simply spread a thin layer of frosting on the bottom of one cake layer. Make a little "dam" with additional frosting around the perimeter of the cake layer, and then lightly spoon some preserves into the center and gently spread evenly. Top with the second cake layer and use the remaining cream cheese frosting to cover the rest of the cake.

For Cake:
10 ounces frozen whole strawberries (2 cups)
3/4 cup whole milk, room temp
6 large egg whites, room temp
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2-1/4 cup (9 ounces) cake flour
1-3/4 cup (12-1/4 ounces) granulated sugar
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
12 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 12 pieces and softened

For the Frosting:
10 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
2-1/4 cups (9 ounces) confectioners' sugar
12 ounces cream cheese, cut into 12 pieces and softened
Pinch of table salt
8 ounces fresh strawberries, hulled and sliced thin

To Make the Cake:
Adjust oven rack to middle position and preheat oven to 350°F. Butter two 9-inch round cake pans and line the bottom with parchment.
Transfer strawberries to microwave-safe bowl, cover, and microwave until the berries are soft and have released their juices (about 5 minutes). Place strawberries in a fine mesh strainer or sieve set over a small saucepan. Firmly press fruit dry (juice should measure at least 3/4 cup). Reserve the strawberry solids. Bring juice to a boil over medium-high heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until syrupy and reduced to 1/4 cup (about 6-8 minutes). Whisk milk into juice until combined.
Whisk strawberry milk, egg whites, and vanilla in bowl. Using a stand mixer fitted with the paddle, mix flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt on low speed until combined. Add butter, 1 piece at a time, and mix until only pea-size pieces remain, about 1 minute. Add half of milk mixture, increase speed to medium high, and beat until light and fluffy, about 1 minute. Reduce speed to medium-low, add remaining strawberry milk mixture, and beat about 30 seconds, until incorporated. Give batter a final stir by hand.
Scrape equal amounts of batter into prepared pans and bake until toothpick inserted into center comes out clean, 20-25 minutes, rotating pans halfway through baking. Cool cakes in pans on wire rack for 10 minutes. Remove cakes from pan (discarding parchment) and cool completely, about 2 hours. Cooled cakes can be wrapped tightly in plastic wrap and stored at room temp for up to 2 days.
To Make the Frosting:
Using stand mixer fitted with paddle, mix butter and sugar on low speed until combined, about 30 seconds. Increase speed to medium-high and beat until pale and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add cream cheese, one piece at a time, and beat until incorporated, about 1 minute. Add reserved strawberry solids and salt and mix until combined, about 30 seconds. Refrigerate until ready to use, up to 2 days.

Pat strawberries dry with paper towels. When cakes are cooled, spread 3/4 cup frosting over 1 cake round. Press 1 cup of sliced strawberries in even layer over frosting, then cover with an additional 3/4 cup frosting. Top with second cake round and spread remaining frosting over top and sides of cake. Garnish with remaining strawberries.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Happy Birthday, Emma Rosie!

When I started this post, I did not intend for it to turn into a birth story but as I began typing, the words just began "flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup." (Kudos to the person who catches that reference!)

It may sound cliche, but this first year with my little Emma-bean just flew by.

It seems like just yesterday that Paul and I were heading into the hospital, excited that I was finally in active labor nearly two weeks after my due date. Of course, we made a "pit stop" at the Panera to eat something before checking in - labor and delivery takes a lot of energy and I knew that ice chips just wasn't going to cut it for me, especially if everything ended up taking as long as it did with Matthew.

A smoothie and a sandwich later, we were soon all set up in our hospital bedroom and the contractions were quickly progressing from being about five minutes to three minutes apart. I had been experiencing horrible back labor, and that seemed to only build and intensify as labor progressed. The nurse suggested that I try using a "birthing ball" for a while because some women found relief from back labor if they sat on one of those while their spouse gently rubbed on their lower back. Well, Paul and I gave that a try and his idea of a lower back massage felt to me like he was scraping a brick up and down my spine. I think that was one of the only times that I snapped at him during the whole process: "Ok, ok, STOP! You are NOT helping!!!" His massages have always been a bit of an ordeal for me - I don't know why we thought that would suddenly change.

One of the midwives came in and asked if I was interested in an epidural. Even with the horrible back labor, I am terrified of having a needle in my spine, so I declined. It was a little unnerving when my attending nurse asked me: "Are you sure? Because now is the time to get one." I declined again, but that honestly made me question my decision just a bit - especially since the nurse's "okey dokey" response to my wishes was dripping with the underlying message: "You're going to regret that!"

Anyway, I ended up just getting into my zen mode by sitting cross-legged in the bed, eyes closed, a pillow behind my back, and focusing on breathing and relaxing. I actually really enjoyed Emma's labor from this point on because I was totally able to mentally disconnect myself from everything else that was happening in the room and simply focus on breathing, praying, and thinking of holding my baby girl for the first time. Paul was amazed by how peaceful I was acting (very different from our labor with Matthew). He was even able to take a short nap. The time flew by and about three hours after sitting down in that Panera, it was time for Emma to make her appearance!

As much as I enjoyed her labor, when it came time for transition and actually pushing, I felt as if something was very, very wrong. The pain was exponentially greater and I did not feel that "urge" to push as I had with Matthew. My midwife told me that I was fully dilated and asked me to try pushing on the next contraction. I was shocked by how painful it was to push - it completely took me by surprise. With Matthew, the pain was alleviated by pushing and I could feel the progress being made as I did so. However, with Emma, no such relief came and the stabbing pains in my back, torso, and hips were excruciating. The midwife then informed me that Emma was "orientated improperly" and must have flipped during labor. She gave me a little pep talk: "You can do this, sweetie. She's going to make you work for this and it's really going to hurt, but you can do this!"

And hurt it did. Holy cow. Paul actually thought it was a bit funny how pissed off I was by the whole situation. At one point, they put an oxygen mask on me and he could just see how angry that made me by the ferocity in my eyes. The whole process felt like hours, but in reality I think I only pushed for 45 minutes before Emma finally arrived, screaming loudly! They placed her on my chest, and I will never forget the relief that instantly poured over me. My entire body was shaking and I felt incredibly weak, but I lifted my crying baby girl up and cradled her close to me, telling her: "Oh my baby...I'm your Mommy. I'm your Mommy."

And then the best thing happened.

She stopped crying and slowly, her eyes squinting and blinking, unadjusted to the light, looked up at me. Paul and I both were astonished - she clearly recognized my voice and it comforted her! It was the most amazing moment. Paul then began to speak to her and she slowly turned her head to look at him. She knew us. And we instantly fell in love with her - she was our daughter, our little Emma Rose.

Now, she is a stubborn, determined, active 1-year-old. She does not let her older brother (or anyone else for that matter) push her around. She is a tough little cookie with an appetite unmatched by pretty much everyone else in this family. We love her spunk, her sweet personality, and how much she enjoys showing off to everyone. She has been such a blessing to our family.

We celebrated her birthday in a small, intimate fashion with pancakes for dinner (her favorite) and strawberry cake for dessert. It was a pretty, pink cake - perfectly fitting of such a pretty little gal! She slowly (very slowly - so slowly Paul jumped in to help her because he "couldn't take it any longer") opened her gifts - a Maui shirt and sweet little apron from Grandma and Grandpa Nistler, a cat keyboard from Paul and me, and a pair of fashionable sunglasses from Matthew. She loved each and every gift.

She was so excited to see Paul light the candle and then bring it towards her. We had to hold the cake at a distance for her while we sang or else I think she would have tried to pick up the flame. That would not have ended well.

She dove right into her piece of cake. I think she enjoyed it. She certainly loves strawberries! And cake. She'll be happy when we have her big birthday fiesta in a little over a week. More cake!

Yes, this year has certainly flown by but simultaneously I find it odd to think about a time "before Emma." Perhaps it is because she has always been in my heart, long before her birth. As much as I will miss the tiny baby I used to snuggle and rock to sleep, I am looking forward to seeing what God has in store for my little girl. She is a gift - not only to my husband and me - but also the world!

Happy Birthday, dearest Emma!

Friday, March 21, 2014

Seven Super-Quick Takes

1. Emma turns her right foot inward when she stands or attempts to walk. To try to fix that bad habit, we bought her a pair of shoes. Matthew calls them her "Minnie Mouse shoes" and insists on always being the one to put them on for her.

2. Emma was totally rocking her "Shea Stadium" outfit today.

3. I'm getting ready to take down all the paper snowflakes we had decorating the windows during this horrendous winter. Although I'm worried that if I do, I might jinx us and wake up to another ridiculous snowstorm.

4. Have you heard of Coursera? I have been taking a couple classes online through them and am totally hooked. I just finished a nutrition course where I diligently listened to all lectures, meticulously completed all assignments, finished all my exams. and received a 105%. I'm still an overachiever.

5. Emma turns one on Tuesday of next week and I can barely believe it! I still remember walking around nearly two weeks over my due date thinking she was never going to show up. Matthew and I will be making a strawberry cake for our little pink princess on Tuesday. The cake flavor was Matthew's idea: "Emma needs a pink cake, Mommy!"

6. My sisters and I are trying to start an annual tradition of getting together for a "sister weekend." I will be hosting it at my home this year and Catherine has already volunteered to host at her house the following year. We are planning on getting our nails done, spending some time at the beach, making a yummy dessert together, and simply enjoying each other's company. I am beyond excited!

7. I am known for killing plants. Every plant I touched seems to instantly die (unless, of course, the problem is that I don't touch them at all and dehydration claims them). So, naturally, when Paul brought home a beautiful orchid (my favorite flower) for me last week, instead of being pleased I instantly broke out into a cold sweat. It's so beautiful...and certainly too young to die. I am definitely planning a call to my Mother-in-law to beg her for some tips and tricks for keeping this thing alive. Last summer during her visit, she showed us how to prune our new rose bushes and suddenly they started flowering and growing like mad. She has the magic touch.

Here is a picture of my beautiful plant as it appears this morning...

And here is a picture of what the future holds for my poor plant should I not get some serious help. It's stressing me out! I can't have the death of another potted organism on my conscience.

Well that's it for me. Head on over to Conversion Diary for more quick takes!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Thai Chicken Wraps

These wraps have been my go-to lunch this week. I am in love with them and could not wait to share the recipe with you!

I cooked up 10 pounds of chicken earlier in the week to make a very large batch of chicken taquitos. I used some of the chicken that did not make it into the taquitos for these wraps and now I want to eat these all the time.

And can you blame me? First, a spread made with Thai sweet chili sauce and mayo is slathered onto a wheat tortilla. Next, thinly sliced chicken, julienned carrots, and homemade pickles are layered on top. Finally, a generous handful of spicy arugula is added before the wrap is rolled up tightly. Each bite is a fantastic combination of sweet, tangy, and crunchy. Truly delicious - it sure beats my normal "mom lunch" of cut-off crusts from Matthew's PB&J, an apple, and some cereal. I am especially in love with the "pickles" made with seedless cucumbers, seasoned rice vinegar, and sugar. I might just keep a batch of those hanging out in the fridge for snacking!

If you have some leftover chicken and are looking for something fresh, healthy, and quick for the next meal, then give these wraps a try!

And this has nothing to do with the recipe whatsoever, but here is Grumpy Cat and Paul imitating grumpy cat. I think it's hilarious. This might embarrass him a bit.

Thai Chicken Wraps
adapted from Mel's Kitchen Café

1/2 cup seasoned rice vinegar
1 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 english cucumber, halved and cut lengthwise into thin ribbons
1/3 cup light mayonnaise
2 tablespoons sweet Thai chili sauce
2-3 large tortillas (I like wheat!) 
1-2 cups cooked, sliced chicken (or turkey~)
3/4 cup thinly sliced or julienned carrots (about 10 baby carrots)
A couple handfuls of baby arugula
In a bowl, whisk together the vinegar, sugar and salt. Add the cucumbers, tossing to cover with the liquid. Let them stand for 10-15 minutes while you prepare the other ingredients. The cucumbers can be made a few days in advance and kept refrigerated. I put mine in a large mason jar!
Combine the mayo and chili sauce. Spread a couple tablespoons evenly on each tortilla. Top with the chicken, cucumbers (lightly patting dry, if needed), carrots and arugula. Roll up tightly and cut in half. Serve immediately!

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Italian Brunch Torte with Capicola, Salami, and Roasted Red Peppers

Emma is allergic to the library.

I have always enjoyed taking a weekly trip to the library with Matthew. He loves reading books so much and it has always been great bonding with him over the stories I enjoyed reading with my mother when I was younger. Thursday is our designated day to go. Matthew gathers up all the books from around the house that we checked out the previous week and then we load them in the car and head on out. We normally spend at least an hour or two at the library - casually perusing the bookshelves, looking at the large tanks of fish, reading stories together, and then deciding which materials to take home with us. I love library time.

Scratch that. I used to love library time.

Now, I kind of hate it.

I feel really bad that I dread going so much. Matthew loves books more than ever and still looks forward to our weekly trips. He is also very well behaved, quiet, and obedient during our time there. However, Emma is a completely different story.

That little tiny person turns into a monster of epic proportions from the moment we set foot inside the library. She is a little happy angel everywhere else, smiling and being her normal calm, easy-going self. However, at the library, she suddenly starts to whine. And complain. And gripe. Arch her back and squeal like a little piggy. If I set her down, she crawls as fast as she can to the nearest bookshelf and angrily swipes everything off the shelf. As I am trying to clean that mess up, she'll angrily crawl to another shelf (whining the whole time), forcefully swipe a book off and then proceed to violently tear at the pages.

Poor Matthew will be sitting at one of the miniature tables, quietly looking at books, and Emma will come over to him and start trying to take the book away from him. A full-out fight ensues, ending with me picking Emma up only to have her loudly voice her disapproval. This leads to every other person in the library to stare at us or to come over and gently tell me: "Sounds like naptime!" Thank you, very much. Is that your secret code telling me: "Please remove your child from the premises?"

Then when it comes time to checkout, Matthew has selected his normal stack of 20-150 books, all with thin spines that are more slippery than melting ice cubes. Of course there are about 10 people in line ahead of us at checkout, so I am standing holding a squirming baby, my purse, and the stack of books because Matthew claims they are "too heavy" for him to carry. It's a spectacle for sure.

Emma is certainly not allergic to popcorn. Here she is stuffing
her face while completely mesmerized by An American Tale

The worse part is when we have to walk across the parking lot to our car. I am still juggling a crying Emma and all the books while simultaneously trying to ensure that Matthew does not run ahead. And since we live in a polar vortex, it is freezing cold outside and incredibly windy - which means Matthew walks extra slow while screaming: "It's too cold! I can't walk! Hold me!"

Hold you? I haven't carried you around in over two years. Not to mention, do I look like I have any spare room in my arms after being your beast of burden?

Needless to say, it is a nightmare. I can only conclude that Emma must somehow be allergic to the library because this has happened every single week this year. I will continue to take them week after week because I know it is a good activity for Matthew and I can't let the bad behavior of my child dictate everything.

Of course, all this was put into perspective the other day when I was shopping for craft supplies at Michael's. We were in line waiting to check out and there was a mother with three children in front of us who was having a lot of trouble controlling her 8-year-old daughter. The girl kept begging her mother to let her buy some make-your-own jewelry set but the mother firmly kept telling her no. The girl proceeded to scream at the top of her lungs: "Oh my GOD! You're a witch MOM! You ruin everything!"

The mother just ignored her but the girl was relentless: "GRAAAAAHHHHHHHH! I FEEL LIKE KICKING SOMETHING!"

And kick something she did - a nearby cardboard sign displaying all the free crafting events held at the store for the month of March. It toppled over with a huge crash. The mother grabbed her arm and firmly told her to knock it off. But the girl continued to scream and curse as they left the store. Matthew was in awe of the spectacle, but I took him aside and tried to distract him from watching by telling him: "You're a good boy, Matthew and I love you.Thank you for being so good." The whole scene made me realize how wonderful my kids really are, even on their really bad days. It was the perspective I needed after having another bad day at the library. Only five more days until our next trip!

The recipe I wanted to share with you today is another one of those dishes that has been banned from our home until Easter because it is made with cheese: Italian Brunch Torta with Roasted Peppers, Capicola, and Salami. I made this first and foremost because it just sounded interesting and I am a sucker for capicola. In fact, after I delivered Emma, I immediately requested a salami and capicola sandwich. I had it all planned out before heading to he hospital and the thought of eating all that deliciousness might just have helped me through those last few agonizing moments of delivery! (Alright, the sandwich was probably the last thing on my mind, but's a great sandwich!)

This gigantic sandwich is made with storebought crescent roll dough or puffed pastry. It takes about 10 minutes to layer everything together and then it bakes in the oven for a little over an hour. Afterwards, the torte can be served either chilled, warm, or at room temperature. I tried it all three ways and while I definitely liked it best slightly warm, it was wonderful either way! This would be an excellent brunch dish - especially if you are feeding a crowd. I cannot wait until our cheese fast is over so that we can make this again!

Italian Brunch Torte
adapted from Shugary Sweets

2 packages crescent rolls or 1 package puffed pastry.
1/2 lb sliced genoa salami
1/2 lb sliced provolone
1/2 lb sliced capicola
7 eggs
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
3-4 cups fresh spinach
24 oz jarred roasted red peppers, drained and patted dry
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Unroll one package of crescent rolls and line the bottom of a lightly greased springform pan.
Saute the spinach in a small saucepan with a splash of olive oil over medium high heat until all the liquid cooks off. Squeeze dry with paper towels.
Cover roll with half of the spinach, salami, provolone and ham. In a small bowl, lightly beat together 6 eggs and parmesan cheese. Pour half evenly over top of ham. Top with half of the roasted red peppers. Repeat layering with remaining spinach, salami, cheese, ham and egg mixture, then peppers. Top with remaining package of crescent rolls.
Lightly beat remaining egg and brush over top. Cover with foil, bake for 30 minutes. Uncover and bake an additional 30 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to sit for about 10 minutes. Run knife around edge of pan, remove springform pan. Cool for 30-60 minutes.
Allow to sit at least 30 minutes before slicing.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Corned Beef and Cabbage for Saint Patrick's Day!

For some odd reason, Matthew has had a fascination with leprechauns for a little over a year now. I think it might have something to do with the discovery that leprechauns leave pots of gold laying around for little boys to find - my son is already a bit of a miser. I'm a little afraid that when those April showers show up, I might find him packing his backpack with provisions in preparation for a trek to find what is at the end of all the rainbows painting the sky.

Matthew also likes leprechauns because they are affiliated with the color green, which, as he will enthusiastically tell you, is his second favorite color (blue takes the prize for top color only because it is the color of Thomas). Every time something is green, Matthew points out: "Look! That leaf is green like a leprechaun!" All his green polos and sweatshirts are his "leprechaun shirts." When Paul wore a greet button down for work the other day, Matthew pointed out: "LOOK! Daddy is a leprechaun today!" You get the idea.

He also loves visiting our family doctor because he was the Notre Dame leprechaun for the class of 1988 and thus has his office and patient rooms completely decked out in Notre Dame gear. Matthew calls him "Doctor the Leprechaun." Well, he might not love visiting the doctor so much anymore. He just had his booster shots at his 4-year-old checkup and made such a fuss, complete with tears and wails, that I'm pretty positive he is not too keen on going back anytime soon.

So for Saint Patrick's Day this year, I thought it would be fun to do a couple crafts and activities with Matthew while he is still on his leprechaun kick. First up, Matthew wanted to make green cookies. I had already helped him make sugar cookie cutouts over Christmas, so this time I let him make a complete batch all by himself. He did all the measuring (with my guidance), mixing, rolling, and cutting into shamrock shapes. I was so proud of him - he was very meticulous. I only got a little peeved at him at one point because he dumped half a bag of flour on the countertop because the dough was too sticky. I had to explain that a small palm full of flour is more than enough to adequately dust the surface. At least flour is cheap.

The entire batch took about 2 hours to make because he was so meticulous, but I think he did a fantastic job! The cookies looked great! Next, per Matthew's request, we made a green-tinted buttercream frosting to spread onto the cookies. At this stage, Matthew, completely exhausted from his cookie baking, decided to eat half the batch of frosting before decorating any of the cookies. However, turns out he knew what he was doing because there was plenty of frosting for each cookie. This little boy could not have been more proud of his very first batch of cookies completely made on his own. I am not going to include a picture of my kitchen following his little project - I don't think it has ever been messier!

Even though Paul and I gave up sweets for Lent, we had to at least try one of Matthew's cookies since he was so proud and wanted to share. They were pretty good! He did a great job! Baby Emma especially liked them. She voraciously devoured the cookie Matthew selected for her and probably would have finished off the whole batch if we let her. That girl likes to eat.

The second activity I planned for Matthew was to decorate our dining room with shamrocks. We just made a bunch of looped paper strip hearts and then formed them together to make shamrock shapes. We then attached them to string and hung them from the ceiling. Both kids have enjoyed dining beneath the floating shamrocks. Again, this project was a little tedious because Matthew is not too great with scissors, but we were stuck inside anyway thanks to the arctic air that has once again returned to these parts.

This morning, Matthew awoke to find his milk green and pancakes green. He was not nearly as surprised as we thought he would be when we told him a leprechaun had snuck into the house and colored our food green! He just demanded: "Where did the pot of gold go?"

Lucky for him, I bought some gold coins and made a little "pot of gold" for him to find tonight after he finishes all his corned beef and cabbage.

Speaking of corned beef and cabbage, it is one of my favorite meals ever. I am honestly sad that we do not make it more than once each year. I remember trying to convince my brother Raymond that we should request it for our birthday dinner when we were little (he never complied...but at least I could normally get him to agree to German Chocolate Cake!). This version of corned beef and cabbage is my favorite - it is so comforting, homey, and just plain delicious. The leftovers are awesome to have too for corned beef hash, reubens, or simply old-fashioned corned beef sandwiches on rye with pickles and mustard.

Happy Saint Patrick's Day!

Corned Beef and Cabbage
adapted slightly from Beantown Baker, originally from Cook's Country

4-5 pound corned beef brisket (preferably flat cut), rinsed, fat trimmed to 1/4 inch thick
4 cups low-sodium chicken broth
4 cups water
12 carrots, peeled (3 chopped, 9 halved crosswise)
2 celery ribs, chopped
1 onion, peeled and quartered
3 bay leaves
1 Tbsp whole black peppercorns
1 Tbsp minced fresh thyme
1 tsp whole allspice
3 Tbsp unsalted butter
1 1/2 pounds small red potatoes
1 head green cabbage, cut into 8 wedges
Freshly ground pepper
Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 300 degrees. Combine beef, broth, water, chopped carrots, celery, onion, bay leaves, peppercorns, thyme, allspice and the spice packet that comes with the brisket in Dutch oven. Cover and bake until fork slips easily in and out of meat, 4 1/2 to 5 hours.

Transfer meat to 9x13 inch baking dish. Strain cooking liquid through fine-mesh strainer into large bowl, discard solids, and skim fat from liquid. Pour 1 cup cooking liquid over meat. Cover dish tightly with aluminum foil and let rest for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, return remaining cooking liquid to Dutch oven, add butter, and bring to simmer over medium-high heat. Add potatoes and simmer until they begin to soften, about 10 minutes. Add carrot halves and cabbage wedges, cover, and cook until tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Transfer vegetables to serving platter and season with pepper to taste.

Transfer beef to carving board and slice against grain into 1/4-inch-thick slices. Serve with vegetables.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Baked Cinnamon-Sugar French Toast

For Lent this year, Paul and I have done away with both cheese and sugar. Paul gave up cheese since he can be found munching on a wedge at any given time of the day (in fact, I think he often dreams of eating his way through a gigantic cheese forest). While I can resist the urge to eat a pound of cheese at a time, I do have a huge sweet tooth (just look at all the sweet recipes featured on this here blog) and decided that the greatest sacrifice for me would be bypassing sugar for the entirety of Lent. This includes adding sugar to oatmeal, coffee (gah!), and pouring syrup over pancakes. Now, since we are married, live under the same roof, and eat the same meals, when one spouse gives up something the other one pretty much has to go along with it as well. So, Paul and I are going without both cheese and sugar for Lent. And alcohol too, but that's more for Paul anyway. He's the one who has dedicated 1/4 of our fridge to his collection of favorite craft beers. My alcohol collection consists of a lone dusty bottle of Riesling laying waste somewhere in the basement.

The kids, however, are completely exempt and are thus free to eat their Lucky Charms and Macaroni & Cheese. I may have seen Paul staring longingly at Matthew's bowlful of artificially dyed cheese food last weekend.

In order to get our sugar and cheese fixes "out" before Lent, we had a couple cheesy and sugary meals on the days leading up to Ash Wednesday. For breakfast one morning, we had one of my favorite treats: Baked French Toast. Instead of dipping and frying individual pieces of toast to order, stale bread is instead cubed and allowed to soak overnight in an egg custard before being baked in the morning. When it is finished, it resembles more of a bread pudding than traditional French toast: warm, puffy, and slightly sweet. Pour over a generous portion of warmed syrup and add some sliced fresh bananas and/or strawberries and you have my idea of a perfect brunch dish.

This version of baked French toast is very simple, adding only a bit of cinnamon and sugar in addition to the vanilla custard base. But don't let the simplicity fool you: this is some seriously delicious stuff. Of course, you can always add in whatever fruit you'd like: blueberries, raspberries, mangoes, sautéed apples and pears, or bananas. You could also throw in some dried cranberries, chopped pralines, raisins, walnuts, or chocolate chips. A basic streusel topping would also send this over the top. Whatever you may try, it will turn out fantastic and you'll find yourself unable to resist going back for a second or third piece!

Baked Cinnamon Sugar French Toast
adapted from Taste of Home

For the French Toast:
1 pound white bread, cut into 1-inch cubes (I highly recommend Challah, King's Hawaiian, or another sweet white bread)
8 eggs
3 cups milk
2 tablespoons maple syrup
1 teaspoon vanilla
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Pinch of nutmeg

For the Topping:
2 tablespoons of butter
3 tablespoons white sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon

In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk, syrup, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt. Add in the bread cubes and use a large rubber spatula to carefully mix everything together. Pour bread mixture into a 13x9 casserole dish, cover tightly with plastic wrap, and refrigerate overnight.

In the morning, remove the casserole from the refrigerator and let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes before baking.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Dot the top of the casserole with the butter. Combine the cinnamon and sugar in a small bowl and sprinkle evenly over the top. Cover the casserole tightly with foil and bake for 45-50 minutes, uncovering during the last 10 minutes of baking. The casserole is done when a thin knife inserted in the center comes out clean.

Let stand for 10 minutes before slicing and serving with lots of syrup!