Sunday, August 31, 2014

The BEST Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies

Ever since Matthew started preschool, he has been begging me to make chocolate chip cookies with him. Initially, I told him that we did not have any butter in the house and had to wait until next week (when our budget started over) to buy some. He waited patiently for our shopping trip this weekend and then asked politely while we were at the grocery store: "Mommy! Don't forget the butter for our chocolate chip cookies!" So, we bought the butter, gathered the rest of our groceries and returned home.

Unfortunately, I was having a really bad day. I had just attended the funeral of a priest friend earlier in the day, Emma was being super clingy and whiny, and Matthew was just bugging me. I was in no mood to bake with him and planned on holding off on the project until another day. All I wanted was for them to take a nap (so I could take one too!). When we got home and fed them, it became perfectly obvious that my dear, obnoxious children were not going to nap. So, Paul gently suggested that maybe I should bake with Matthew to "make me feel better." I mustered up as much patience as I could and tried to humor him.

It did not go well.

First, Emma took a bite out of the stick of butter. And then went back for more. Matthew tried to pry it out of her hands and it led to a full-out fistfight between the two of them. Paul had to take a picture of Emma with the butter, claiming: "Photographic evidence that she is my daughter!"

Then, it became perfectly obvious that the kids were more interested in eating the extra chocolate chips than making the cookies.

Finally, while the cookies were baking, Matthew and Emma got into another fight over the vacuum cleaner of all things and Matthew was forbidden from eating any of the newly baked cookies.

This fun baking project turned out to be a complete disaster. However, the cookies themselves are fantastic and as I sit here typing out this post, my kids are sitting together (semi-quietly) by the window, enjoying their cookies and milk happily. It's a rare moment where they are not screaming at each other and I am going to enjoy it. Maybe the baking wasn't such an abysmal failure after all.

These cookies have been a family favorite for about four years now. I went on a search for the best chocolate chip cookie recipe a few years back and these won our hearts. I am a huge fan of thick, chewy cookies. If you are too, this recipe is from you. No surprise it comes from the editors of Cook's Illustrated  and my favorite cookbook. Luckily, in addition to being my favorite cookie recipe it is also the easiest because you do not have to wait for the sticks of butter to reach room temperature before whipping up the dough. The butter is melted instead - one of the apparent secrets to chewy cookies. Make these, serve with tall glasses of milk, and try your best not to eat half a batch at once! (Like my kids are doing right this second)

The Best Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies
From the New Best Recipe

Note: I use my kitchen scale to weigh all my ingredients. It's way easier and accurate than measuring. I highly recommend purchasing one if you are a serious baker. They are not that expensive and will make you feel wonderfully scientific in the kitchen! In fact, the scale I use is the same one I used in my college organic chemistry lab.

2 cups + 2 Tablespoons (10 5/8 oz) unbleached, all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
12 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled until just warm
1 cup packed (7 oz) light or dark brown sugar
1/2 cup (3 1/2 oz) granulated sugar
1 large egg, plus 1 large egg yolk
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 bag semisweet chocolate chips

Heat oven to 325 degrees.  Line 2-3 cookie sheets with parchment paper or silpat baking mats.

Whisk the flour, baking soda, and salt together in a bowl. Set aside.

Either by hand or with an electric mixer, mix both sugars and the butter.  Beat in the egg, the yolk, and vanilla until combined.  Add the dry ingredients and beat on low until just combined.  Stir in the chips.

If you want to make LARGE, delicious, bakery-style cookies, roll a scant 1/4 cup of dough into a ball.  Pull the ball apart, rotate the jagged sides to the top side of the cookie, and press the two pieces back together.  Put on the sheet jagged side up.  This makes them look really pretty and professional when they are done baking.  Be sure to space them 2-3 inches apart. If you don't want monstrous looking cookies, using a tablespoon scoop to gather a heaping tablespoon of dough and follow the directions as stated above. However, be sure to check the smaller cookies earlier as the baking time will be reduced.

Bake until the cookies are light golden brown, the edges are starting to harden, and the centers are still soft and puffy, about 15 – 18 minutes for LARGE cookies. More like 10-11 minutes for smaller cookies.  Halfway through the baking time, rotate the sheets front to back and top to bottom.  Cool the cookies on the baking sheets.  Remove them from the sheets with a wide metal spatula.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Carrot Cake Pancakes

For the past two years, Matthew's favorite book has been Curious George Makes Pancakes. Every single time we go to the library, that cursed book is on the shelf. And every single time, Matthew begs me to bring it home with us. I hate this book. Hate it! Not because it is a particularly bad book in any way, but because we have read it so many times! Matthew has the entire story memorized - he can read it to himself if he wants! I am also completely baffled by what exactly he finds so fascinating about this particular book. It couldn't possibly be the thrilling plot:

George and the Man with the Yellow Hat attend a pancake festival. George sees the man flipping pancakes and thinks it will be fun to make pancakes. George begins making pancakes and - wait for it - puts blueberries in his pancakes. And the people go nuts because nobody has ever heard of blueberry pancakes before. George becomes a hero. The End.

However, I do owe the book a small debt of gratitude for making Matthew like pancakes again. Our little picky eater used to adore pancakes when he was about Emma's age, then suddenly he started hating everything that wasn't cereal or dry toast. This, of course, included pancakes. Whenever Paul or I would make pancakes after Mass on Sunday, Matthew would just sit there and shred his (and maybe slurp up some of the syrup). So frustrating. However, once Matthew discovered Curious George Makes Pancakes and realized that George likes pancakes, he has been all about them. It's nice to be able to make a breakfast for my kids without one of them (guess which one) groaning when I set the plate in front of them. 

I have to admit, when I decided to make Carrot Cake Pancakes for the family, I was a little nervous about how Matthew would react to them. Would he refuse to eat them once he noticed the specks of orange throughout? Would he pick out the raisins? Would the spices be displeasing to his delicately sensitive taste buds? Would Emma be enjoying his plate of pancakes in addition to her own for breakfast? 

Surprisingly, Matthew thought these were the bomb-diggity. He actually ate three large pancakes. He definitely noticed the orange flecks in the pancakes, but when I told him they were carrots, he actually thought that was pretty awesome. "I like carrots, Mommy!" he declared, stuffing his face with another big bite. He likes carrots in his pancakes, but the last time I tried putting chocolate chips in there he wouldn't touch them. I'll never figure this kid out.

These pancakes are a great alternative to plain buttermilk pancakes. Fluffy, spiced pancakes with shredded carrot, raisins, and toasted coconut - just like your favorite carrot cake. You can leave out the raisins and coconut if you don't care for them. However, the carrots are not really optional - for obvious reasons. You could even forgo syrup and make a cream cheese icing (use equal parts butter and cream cheese and beat well with powdered sugar to taste) to top each pancake with if you are really feeling like an indulgent morning treat! They're made with whole wheat flour, so they're basically a superfood. 

Carrot Cake Pancakes

1 1/4 cups white whole wheat flour
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon ground ginger
3/4 cup buttermilk (maybe a touch extra if the batter seems a bit dry)
2 eggs
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 cup finely shredded carrots
1/2 cup raisins (optional)
1/2 cup toasted coconut (optional)
1/4 cup toasted pecans, finely chopped (optional)

Whisk together the flour, sugar, salt, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, and ground ginger in a large bowl. In a smaller bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, eggs, oil, and vanilla. Fold the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients just until almost no flour pockets remain. Be gentle and do not overmix! Gently fold in the the carrots, raisins, coconut, and pecans. 

Cook on a griddle set on medium heat until dry on the underside. Flip once and allow the second side to cook until lightly browned. Serve with maple syrup or cream cheese glaze!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The One Where Matthew Makes (and loses) a Friend

The other evening, our entire family went swimming for a few glorious hours at the pool. It was one of the last days before the pool will permanently close for the season and we wanted to soak up as much time there as possible. After we had splashed and dunked and swallowed an ample enough of chlorinated water, Paul told Matthew that we would take him over to the McDonald's for a special treat afterwards. Both kids were so excited - mainly because the McDonald's by the pool has a pretty nice, clean, and large outdoor play structure. We drove over there, ordered a couple cheeseburgers and fries for the kiddos, and then sat outside while they climbed and tumbled all over the child-sized hamster toy. It was a pretty nice way to spend our Friday.

Then, another family entered the play area - two grandparents with their grandson. They had purchased two large cups of coffee in addition to their burgers and after they had unleashed their grandson on the play structure sat there and began talking about how worn out they were from a day of play. That explained the coffee. Anyway, their little angel began running and jumping all over the play structure until he suddenly ran right into Matthew. We heard some chattering and laughing and suddenly the two of them emerged from the slide, holding hands (to Paul's horror), and proclaiming to everyone who could hear: "We are friends!" My little mother heart was so happy to see Matthew playing nicely with another little child - normally he tends to be a bit of a loner, still preferring parallel play.

The two boys disappeared back into the play structure. Paul and I focused our attention on making sure Emma was happy and making her way successfully down the slide. Suddenly, we began to hear some loud wailing: "STOP IT! STOP IT! THAT'S NOT MY NAME!! AHHHHH!"

The screaming continued and suddenly the little boy, Matthew's newly proclaimed "friend" emerged with a huge scowl on his face. He went up to his grandparents and pointed at Matthew perched way up top of the play structure and whined: "That mean kid won't stop calling me names! He keeps calling me pookie!! I am NOT a POOKIE!"

Matthew waved from his spot way up high and called back down to the kid: "HEY! Come back here, pookie!"

"AHHHHHH! There he goes again! My name is not POOKIE! It's BRAYDEN!" The kid yelled.

Now, I can explain the "pookie" bit. Earlier that afternoon, I had taken Emma and Matthew to the library where I read them about 50 books. One of the books was a Sandra Boyton classic called Let's Dance, Little Pookie about a baby pig with the nickname "pookie" who learns to dance with his mother. It is a great book to read and was one of Matthew's favorites of the day. That was where he picked up the name "pookie" from - he thought it was a cute and funny little name. I agree with him - it was actually my nickname when I was a baby. But, obviously this Brayden kid did not share our sentiments.

Paul yells up to Matthew: "HEY! Don't call him pookie! He doesn't like it. It's not funny unless both of you are laughing. His name is Brayden. Call him Brayden!"

Matthew giggled: "Come up and play with me, Brayden. Come back!"

Brayden wiped up his snotty nose and proceeded to race back to the top of the tower to join Matthew. All seemed well for the moment.

About 10 minutes later, Matthew suddenly started crying and came out of the slide slowly, holding a hand over his eye. Brayden followed out ahead of him looking defiant and marched right up to Paul:"He called me pookie again, so I punched him."

Paul didn't say anything. He just scooped Matthew up and told him "We're leaving" and then carried him out to the car without so much as another look at Brayden the self-appointed vigilante of the McDonald's Playland. It's a good thing Paul can keep his cool in these situations. I was about ready to give that little twerp a piece of my maternal mind.

Matthew continued to bawl in the car as we drove home. This of course caused Emma to bawl as well and what had been a happy little family outing quickly turned into a pathetic catharsis.

Which brings me to my ultimate worry. How can Matthew make and lose a "friend" so quickly? How will I deal with him getting hurt by other children in the future? I know that to a certain extent it is part of life - who has not experienced a tumultuous relationship with a classmate or two while growing up. However, I cannot stand to see my child in pain and I worry that I will not be able to handle it without turning ultra-defensive. I also worry that Matthew will not socialize very well at school. He tends to play better with girls or babies. Ultimately, he prefers to be undisturbed in his own little world of trains, dinosaurs, and ninja turtles. I just worry, worry, worry about him. I am not ready to give up control of him - to unleash him on the world. I have had him at home with me, 24 hours a day, ever since the day he was born. And now, tomorrow, he begins preschool and will never, ever again be all mine. It's the end of a very special time in both our lives. I worry that I won't be there to protect him and guide him every hour of the day but also know that I need to allow him to spread his wings, for only then will he truly be able to fly!

And after reading this, Paul laughed at me and said: "He's going to preschool, honey."

Preschool or not, you'll still probably find me drowning my sorrows in a carton of frozen yogurt and hugging the baby that has not left me yet.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Lentils and Rice with Caramelized Onions and Yogurt Sauce

This dish will probably only continue to perpetuate the numerous jokes I get from my side of the family regarding all the vegetarian dishes I serve my poor, suffering, carnivorous husband but I don't care. It was delicious, healthy, and - in the words of my deprived husband - "quite tasty!"

Little Miss Emma, who is becoming quite adept with the spoon and fork, ate two servings. She inhaled her first serving before picking her bowl up and begging me all Oliver Twist-style for "more...more...mooooooore?" Too cute. She may like her cheese puffs and french fries, but this baby also likes her some lentils.

She's trying to feed me here. So appetizing.

I initially made this dish because I have been challenging myself for the last few weeks to see if I could feed our family for just 30 dollars each week. My credit card has been stolen twice already this year and I have begun purchasing our grocery items using cash only just to lessen the chances of that happening again - especially since I pretty much only shop at the grocery store. In addition, I'm trying to see if I can cut down on our monthly grocery bill while simultaneously continuing to feed our family healthy and nutritious meals. It's been a bit challenging but also fun - and successful so far! We've been eating a lot of peanut butter for lunch.

Anyway, whatever your feelings are regarding lentils this really is a fantastic dish and one I plan on making again! The original recipe called for deep frying some onions to make them crispy in order to add a bit more texture to the final dish, but I'm pretty adverse to deep-fried anything. Especially if we're eating lentils. I feel adding a deep fried component would cancel out the health benefits of the meal. Plus, I might have attempted to make the crispy onions and ended up completely burning them, sending billows of smoke so dark and intense that they filled my home and leaked out through my windows into my yard forcing my neighbor to come over and ask if everything was hunky-dory. That might have something to do with why I ended up using caramelized onions instead. And it was delicious and much healthier so that's just going to be my permanent alteration to this recipe.

Rice and Lentils with Caramelized Onions and Yogurt Sauce
adapted from Cook's Illustrated Magazine September/October 2014

For the Yogurt Sauce:
1 cup plain whole-milk yogurt
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon salt

For the Rice and Lentils:
8 1/2 ounces (1 1/4 cups) green or brown lentils, picked over and rinsed
Salt and pepper
1 1/4 cups basmati rice
2 onions - preferably a sweet onion like vidalia, sliced into 1/4 inch thick half-rings and caramelized
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon sugar
3 tablespoons minced fresh cilantro (optional)

To make the yogurt sauce, whisk all ingredients together in a small bowl. Refrigerate until ready to serve. The flavor is really awesome if you make this a few hours before serving.

Be sure to caramelize your onion before proceeding with the rest of the recipe. Just add the onion slices, a little oil, a teaspoon or two of sugar, and a little salt to a skillet over medium heat and slowly cook the onions until they are richly browned. Drain on paper towels and save. The onions will be added to the dish in at the end.

Bring lentils, 4 cups water, and 1 teaspoon salt to boil in medium saucepan over high heat. Reduce heat to low and cook until lentils are tender, 15-17 minutes. Drain and set aside. While lentils cook, place rice in medium bowl and cover by 2 inches with hot tap water and let stand for 15 minutes.

Using your hands, gently swish rice grains to release excess starch. Carefully pour off water, leaving rice in bowl. Add cold tap water to rice and pour off water. Repeat adding and pouring off cold tap water 4 to 5 times, until water runs almost clear. Drain rice in fine-mesh strainer.

Heat olive oil, garlic, coriander, cumin, cinnamon, allspice, 1/4 teaspoon pepper, and cayenne in Dutch oven over medium heat for about 2 minutes or until fragrant. Add rice and cook, stirring occasionally, until edges of rice begin to turn translucent (about 3 minutes). Add 2 1/4 cups water, sugar, and 1 teaspoon salt and bring to boil. Stir in lentils, reduce heat to low, cover, and cook until all liquid is absorbed (about 12 minutes).

Off heat, remove lid, fold a large dish towel in half, and place over pot. Cover once more and let stand for 10 minutes. Fluff rice and lentils with fork and stir in cilantro and the caramelized onions. Transfer to serving platter, top with remaining crispy onions, and serve, passing yogurt sauce separately.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Buttery Scones with Blueberries and White Chocolate

Why does summer have to end? This summer has been chillier than most which means we've enjoyed fewer beach days than normal. However, with the beginning of the school year fast approaching for Mr. Matthew, I've committed to spending as much time as possible doing fun summer-themed outings with the kids before we are no longer able to do them! This has meant lots of time at the beach.

All the stores are featuring discounted prices on summer toys. I took the kids shopping and had them each pick out a couple sand toy sets. They each were below a dollar and the kids were so happy. Matthew was especially thrilled with a plastic "claw" reminiscent of a steam shovel that can be used to scoop sand. Emma picked out some tiny shovels and a little dump truck and has just enjoyed scooping sand into the back of the truck. Both kids also love seagulls. I personally think those birds are evil.

Paul was able to join us at the beach after he got off work the other day. It was so nice to sit and enjoy the beautiful weather (and a gorgeous view!) while the children entertained themselves. Emma only tried to eat sand once and learned her lesson quickly.

I packed these beautiful scones to enjoy as a snack on the beach that afternoon. Scones are one of the easiest pastries to make - but also the most easy to mess up. I've had a lot of bad scones - a lot of times they can be too dry and dense. But not these scones! They were so moist - thanks to the addition of sour cream to the batter. The other secret to perfect scones is keeping everything chilled so that the end result is a perfectly flaky dough with butter flavor evenly distributed throughout. To achieve this, the butter is frozen before baking and then grated. This makes for easy, even distribution throughout the flour with some quick work of the fingertips. The dough is also folded a couple times, similar to how croissant dough is treated, and then chilled in the freezer for a few minutes before being rolling and shaping. This helps the baked scones rise more dramatically. The berries and white chocolate are scattered on top of the dough after it is rolled out for the final time and then the whole thing is rolled up cinnamon-roll style, flattened slightly, and then cut into the traditional scone shape. It's a brilliant way to incorporate those delicate, juicy berries!

These scones did not last long! Paul especially thought they were fantastic. Emma also seemed to enjoy her scone, choosing to continue chewing on it even after she had dropped it in the sand. The looks on her face as she crunched through some sand particles was priceless. I only baked half the scones and froze the remaining for a special breakfast treat sometime in the future. I have a feeling they won't be sitting in the freezer for long!

Buttery Scones with Blueberries and White Chocolate
adapted slightly from Cook's Illustrated Magazine June/July 2007

Note: Even though the recipe calls for two whole sticks of butter, only eight tablespoons are incorporated into the dough with an additional two tablespoons melted and brushed over the top prior to baking. The whole sticks of butter are used in order to make the grating process easier.

16 tablespoons unsalted butter (2 sticks), frozen whole
1 1/2 cups fresh blueberries (about 7 1/2 ounces)
1/2 cup chopped white chocolate
1/2 cup whole milk
1/2 cup sour cream
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (10 ounces), plus additional for work surface
1/2 cup sugar (3 1/2 ounces)
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon table salt
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest (optional)
1 tablespoon coarse sugar, for sprinkling

Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 425 degrees. Score and remove half of wrapper from each stick of frozen butter. Grate unwrapped ends on large holes of box grater (you should grate total of 8 tablespoons). Place grated butter in freezer until needed. Melt 2 tablespoons of remaining ungrated butter and set aside. Save remaining 6 tablespoons butter for another use. Place blueberries in freezer until needed.

Whisk together milk and sour cream in medium bowl; refrigerate until needed. Whisk flour, 1/2 cup sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and lemon zest in medium bowl. Add frozen butter to flour mixture and toss with fingers until thoroughly coated.

Add milk mixture to flour mixture; fold with spatula until just combined. With rubber spatula, transfer dough to liberally floured work surface. Dust surface of dough with flour; with floured hands, knead dough 6-8 times, until it just holds together in ragged ball, adding flour as needed to prevent sticking.

Roll dough into approximate 12-inch square. Following illustrations, fold dough into thirds like a business letter, using bench scraper or metal spatula to release dough if it sticks to counter-top. Lift short ends of dough and fold into thirds again to form approximate 4-inch square. Transfer dough to plate lightly dusted with flour and chill in freezer for 5 minutes.

Transfer dough to floured work surface and roll into approximate 12-inch square again. Sprinkle blueberries evenly over surface of dough, then press down so they are slightly embedded in dough. Using bench scraper or thin metal spatula, loosen dough from work surface. Roll dough, pressing to form tight log. Lay seam-side down and press log into 12 by 4-inch rectangle. Using sharp, floured knife, cut rectangle crosswise into 4 equal rectangles. Cut each rectangle diagonally to form 2 triangles and transfer to parchment-lined baking sheet.

Brush tops with melted butter and sprinkle with remaining tablespoon sugar. Bake until tops and bottoms are golden brown, 18 to 25 minutes. Transfer to wire rack and let cool 10 minutes before serving.

To Make Ahead: Freeze unbaked scones on a baking sheet. When ready to bake, heat oven to 375 degrees, brush the tops with melted butter, sprinkle with sugar, and extend cooking time to 25-30 minutes.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Six Years

Six years ago today, I married my best friend and soul mate. I remember waking up the morning of our wedding feeling excited, happy, and so incredibly joyful. Since I woke up before anyone else in the house, I immediately went into the kitchen and baked a couple loaves of banana bread for the family to enjoy for breakfast. I remember being so impressed that I did not feel nervous in the least! The butterflies that had taken up residence in my stomach over the previous couple of weeks had suddenly departed and I was peaceful, calm, and happily looking forward to the beginning of my new life as a Mrs.

Across town, my husband-to-be was in a completely different mental state. He was anything but zen.  Unable to eat, unable to relax, he was driving his poor family crazy with his stressful demeanor. He was practically having a full out anxiety attack while getting ready to head over to the church. When I arrived at the church and saw my sister-in-law Amy, I asked her how Paul was doing that morning and she replied: "Ummm...he's a little grumpy."

Happy Me.

Stressed Paul.

Long story short, Paul managed to walk calmly down the aisle at the appropriate time and stand next to Peter, his identical twin, while waiting for his bride (me!) to arrive. He claims that the moment he saw me walking towards him, all his nerves suddenly calmed and he felt peaceful and happy. It's kind of funny, because I had the opposite reaction when I saw him. Suddenly, I was very nervous - still excited - but very nervous and in a state of disbelief that we were actually, finally to be married! Walking down the aisle while clutching my father's arm was so surreal. We had known we wanted to marry one another for three years - and now it was finally happening!

And here we are, six years later. We have two pretty cute kids - which shouldn't be surprising given how incredibly cute my hubby is. I knew he'd make some adorable children. I love him more and more each day and cannot imagine walking through life without him. I could not have chosen a more loyal, honest, hard-working, dedicated husband and father than my Paul. He is always striving towards self-improvement and cares so deeply for me and the kids. How lucky I am to be married to my favorite person in the whole world!

I love you, Paul! Happy Anniversary!

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

DIY Coconut Milk

I am so psyched about how wonderful homemade coconut milk tastes that I simply had to share the method as soon as possible. I use coconut milk all the time - in baking, cooking, or even poured over my cereal as a non-dairy substitute. The problem is that coconut milk normally runs at around $2.99 per can, which is a little bit steep. When I came across an article detailing how easy it is to make coconut milk at home, I had to test it immediately. Now I can't stop. Shredded coconut is so cheap in the bulk section of our store (like $0.99/pound) that this may very well become a way to cut down on our grocery budget. As an additional incentive, homemade coconut milk tastes so much better than canned coconut milk. I have no idea why - and maybe this is all completely in my head just because I feel so proud of my homemade batches - but I do find it more creamy, pure, and rich tasting.

Coconut milk could not be more easy to make. All you need are equal parts shredded, unsweetened coconut and water. Plus a dash of baking soda at the end. That's it.

First, the water is brought to just under a boil - or to about 200 degrees. The temperature is important since water that is too hot will cause the mixture to take on a curdled appearance. The hot water is mixed with the shredded coconut and the entire mixture is blended at high speed for two minutes. Then, it is poured through a fine-mesh strainer. Be sure to press on the solid coconut left behind in the strainer with a spatula to extract as much of the yummy liquid as possible. Discard any remaining solids and allow the milk to cool for about 15 minutes.

Whisk in a touch of baking soda to keep the milk mixture more alkaline and thus further discourage the proteins from clumping. Voila! Coconut milk!

Keep it in the fridge for up to two weeks. Delicious in all kinds of Thai dishes, oatmeal, smoothies, curries, rice pudding...oh the list is endless!

Homemade Coconut Milk
adapted slightly from Cook's Illustrated

1 3/4 cups water
1 3/4 cups unsweetened shredded coconut
1/4 teaspoon baking soda

Pour the unsweetened coconut into a blender. In a small saucepan, bring the water to near boiling, or to about 200 to 205 degrees. I used my instant-read thermometer to keep track of the water temperature. Don't let it get too hot before adding the coconut or it will curdle. Pour into the blender with the unsweetened shredded coconut. Process for 2 minutes. Transfer to fine-mesh strainer set over large measuring cup and press to extract as much liquid as possible; let cool for 15 minutes. Transfer shredded coconut to clean dish towel in large bowl. Gather sides of dish towel around coconut and squeeze remaining milk into measuring cup. Whisk baking soda into milk. Discard shredded coconut and use milk as desired or refrigerate for up to 2 weeks. This recipe makes the equivalent of one 13.5 ounce store-bought can of coconut milk but doubles or triples easily!

Monday, August 11, 2014


Emma is growing up too fast.

Overnight, she has suddenly shown a very grown up interest in books. She asked to be read to constantly, sitting still and listening intently to the entire story. Whenever I notice that she has left the room and is no longer playing with Matthew, I often find her in one of the rocking chairs - either the one in the living room or next to her crib - sitting calmly while paging through a book (usually upside-down). She no longer abhors trips to the library, but rather enjoys them. While Matthew picks out the books he wants to take home, she will peruse the board books until something catches her eye. Last week, we ended up checking out a gigantic 500-page encyclopedia on domestic cats because it was filled with pictures of kittens and she insisted on bringing it home with her. I think the book is half her height. However, to her credit, she has spent quite a bit of time looking at it. When she found a picture of a cat that resembled our Riley, she started pointing at it enthusiastically while declaring: "Ryeee! Ryeee!" That is now her favorite page - it sports a gigantic wrinkle as a permanent memento of Emma's affection.

While I'm seriously enjoying reading to both kids (sometimes for what may seem like hours on end), I can't help but feel sad knowing that my little baby is no longer a baby! This time last year, she was still such a helpless little angel - still so new to the world! Now, it is honestly difficult for me to remember a time when she was not here!

The normal bedtime routine: Prayers, story, screams, silence.

However, now that she is growing up and becoming more of an equal to her big brother every day, I am able to truly enjoy the sibling interaction between them. I'm not talking about the fighting - even though that happens a lot and is often comical to me because they get so worked up about the most ridiculous things. I'm talking about real, bona fide sibling affection. For example, we were at Mass  on Sunday and the two of them were sitting in the pew next to one another paging through the missalette. Suddenly, Emma wrapped her arm around Matthew and gave him a kiss on the cheek. He in turn gave her a hug which they held for several seconds. After they released their embrace, Matthew touched his forehead to Emma's and whispered: "I just love you, Emma." They did not know I was watching so I know it was not put on as a show for me. It was a truly sincere display of the affection they have for one another. My little mommy heart nearly burst with joy at the sight. Those little monsters might drive me crazy most of the time, but they are certainly my pride and joy.

Guess which child was not afraid of the dinosaurs at this museum?

But not my pride and joy when it comes to their hatred for everything I have been baking lately. Matthew was bugging me all week to make blueberry muffins with him. We finally got around to baking them - and had a grand time while doing so - but then Matthew just completely refused to even try his creation.

"No thank you, I just look at them!" he told me nonchalantly as Emma happily began gulping down her fourth muffin.

What is wrong with this kid? As much as I enjoy cooking and baking with him, I want him to also enjoy the end product. Now he is requesting to bake sugar cookies (with frosting!) but I'm pretty sure I'm going to ignore him for fear the same thing may happen again.

Matthew's pickiness is precisely the reason I have begun baking desserts with more adult tastes because, let's be honest, the kids are probably not going to touch it anyway! Which is why I made my very first tiramisu the other night! Now, I have never ever eaten tiramisu before so I have no idea how this version stacks up against other, more authentic variations. However, I can state with full confidence that this was ridiculously delicious! Paul and I were in heaven while stuffing our faces with this fantastic dessert -full of coffee, whipped cream, chocolate, and booze! I eventually broke down and sent the remainder of the pan into work with Paul because otherwise we would have finished off the whole thing and I'm not sure either of us could deal with the guilt! The pan returned empty with many compliments from Paul's co-workers. I am beginning to build up quite a fan base over there. What a contrast from the upturned noses I get from my children. I love feeding engineers.

This recipe will definitely be made again soon! I'm already thinking that it would be perfect as a non-traditional addition to the Thanksgiving dessert table or possibly a fantastic sweet ending on Christmas Eve!

adapted from Cook's Illustrated, As seen on Brown Eyed Baker

2½ cups strong brewed coffee, room temperature
1½ tablespoons instant espresso powder
6½ tablespoons Kahlua, divided
6 egg yolks
⅔ cup sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
¾ cup cold heavy cream, divided
24 ounces mascarpone cheese
14 ounces dried ladyfingers (savoiardi) - not the puffy, soft ladyfingers
3½ tablespoons Dutch-processed cocoa powder

Stir coffee, espresso, and 2½ tablespoons Kahlua in a wide bowl or baking dish until espresso dissolves; set aside.

In bowl of standing mixer fitted with whisk attachment, beat yolks at low speed until just combined. Add sugar and salt and beat at medium-high speed until pale yellow, 1½ to 2 minutes, scraping down bowl with rubber spatula once or twice. Add ⅓ cup of the heavy cream to yolks and beat at medium speed until just combined, 20 to 30 seconds; scrape bowl.

Set the bowl with yolks over a medium saucepan containing 1 inch of gently simmering water; cook, constantly scraping along bottom and sides of bowl with heatproof rubber spatula, until mixture coats back of spoon and registers 160 degrees on instant-read thermometer, 4 to 7 minutes. Remove from heat and stir vigorously to cool slightly, then set aside to cool to room temperature, about 15 minutes.

Whisk in remaining 4 tablespoons Kahlua until combined. Transfer bowl to standing mixer fitted with whisk attachment, add mascarpone, and beat at medium speed until no lumps remain, 30 to 45 seconds. Transfer mixture to large bowl and set aside.

In now-empty mixer bowl, beat the remaining cream at medium speed until frothy, 1 to 1½ minutes. Increase speed to high and continue to beat until the cream holds stiff peaks, 1 to 1½ minutes longer. Using a rubber spatula, fold one-third of the whipped cream into mascarpone mixture to lighten, then gently fold in remaining whipped cream until no white streaks remain. Set mascarpone mixture aside.

Working one at a time, drop half of ladyfingers into coffee mixture, roll, remove and transfer to 13 by 9-inch glass or ceramic baking dish. (Do not submerge ladyfingers in coffee mixture; entire process should take no longer than 2 to 3 seconds for each cookie.) Arrange soaked cookies in single layer in baking dish, breaking or trimming ladyfingers as needed to fit neatly into dish.

Spread half of mascarpone mixture over ladyfingers; use rubber spatula to spread mixture to sides and into corners of dish and smooth surface. Place 2 tablespoons cocoa in fine-mesh strainer and dust cocoa over mascarpone.

Repeat dipping and arrangement of ladyfingers; spread remaining mascarpone mixture over ladyfingers and dust with remaining 1½ tablespoons cocoa. Wipe edges of dish with dry paper towel. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate 6 to 24 hours. Cut into pieces and serve chilled. Leftovers can be stored, tightly wrapped, in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Summer Vegetable Lasagna

My entire family makes fun of the fact that I do not cook or serve a lot of meat-based dishes. This is not based on any food philosophy, dietary restriction, or generalized abhorrence of animal products but rather simply because I enjoy eating fruits and vegetables much more than meat. Thus, they normally take the center stage at mealtime. Everyone in my family feels sorry for Paul. Naturally, being a male, Paul must feel deprived by not being able to eat his fill of bloody, rare steaks on a regular basis. After all, a man has to eat man food - not effeminate dishes full of beets, carrots, and quinoa! I wish I was kidding when I admit that my parents are known for stocking our freezer full of bacon in honor of Paul's birthday.

However, I believe that meatless meals can still be just as flavorful and satisfying as those featuring chicken, beef, or pork. This vegetable lasagna is just one example - but it's a good one! It's packed full of awesome summer produce - zucchini, eggplant, summer squash - and then sandwiched between layers of pasta, chopped kalamata olives, a Parmesan cream sauce, a tomato-basil red sauce, and a generous sprinkling of Mozzarella. Oh my word, it's fabulous!

We made this lasagna for a dear friend who came over to dine with us earlier this week. I decided upon a vegetarian dish simply because I could not pass up on the beautiful produce at the farmer's market and because I love using the time the lasagna needs to bake in the oven to clean up all the mess from the dinnertime preparations. Nothing is worse than sitting down to dinner with a mountain of dirty dishes piled up behind you. Especially when company is over.

Anyway, our friend arrived with a bottle of imported Italian wine in hand, a bottle he had carefully selected to be paired with a good steak dinner since he was positive that Paul was going to be grilling that night. But instead, we plopped down a casserole dish of vegetable lasagna. I have to admit, I think he was a bit skeptical. He's definitely more of a "meat and potatoes" type of guy. However, he was a good sport and talked about how beautiful and delicious it looked. Then he took a bite - and the compliments continued - only this time, I could tell that he meant it! He kept talking about flavorful the entire dish was - the perfectly cooked vegetables, the perfectly seasoned sauce! He couldn't stop and was already digging into his second generous piece before I could finish my salad. I'm telling you folks, this meal is enchantingly delicious. It's not just me!

Do yourself a favor and make this. Make it, make it, make it! If you're not feeding a crowd, you might be eating lasagna for a few days. But that's ok! These are leftovers you'll look forward to enjoying!

Summer Vegetable Lasagna
from Cook's Illustrated Magazine

For the Tomato Sauce:
1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes

For the Cream Sauce:
4 ounces Parmesan cheese, grated (2 cups)
1 cup whole milk cottage cheese
1 cup heavy cream
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper

For the Vegetable Filling:
1 1/2 pounds eggplant, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes (about 7 cups)
Kosher salt and ground black pepper
1 pound zucchini, cut into 1/2-inch pieces (about 4 cups)
1 pound yellow squash, cut into 1/2-inch pieces (about 4 cups)
5 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme
12 ounces baby spinach (about 12 cups)
12 no-boil lasagna noodles
1/2 cup minced pitted kalamata olives
12 ounces low-moisture whole-milk mozzarella cheese, shredded (about 3 cups)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil

To make the tomato sauce, whisk all ingredients together in bowl. Set aside.

To make the cream sauce, whisk all ingredients together in bowl. Set aside.

Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 375 degrees. Toss eggplant with 1 teaspoon salt in large bowl. Line surface of large plate with double layer of coffee filters and lightly spray with vegetable oil spray. Spread eggplant in even layer over filters. Wipe out and reserve now-empty bowl. Microwave eggplant, uncovered, until dry to touch and slightly shriveled, about 10 minutes, tossing once halfway through to ensure that eggplant cooks evenly. Let cool slightly. Return eggplant to bowl and toss with zucchini and squash.

Combine 1 tablespoon oil, garlic, and thyme in small bowl. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add half eggplant mixture, ¼ teaspoon salt, and ¼ teaspoon pepper; cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are lightly browned, about 7 minutes. Push vegetables to sides of skillet; add half of garlic mixture to clearing and cook, mashing with spatula, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir to combine garlic mixture with vegetables and transfer to medium bowl. Repeat with remaining eggplant mixture, 2 tablespoons oil, and remaining garlic mixture.

Return skillet to medium-high heat, add remaining teaspoon oil, and heat until shimmering. Add spinach and cook, stirring frequently, until wilted, about 3 minutes. Transfer spinach to paper towel–lined plate and drain 2 minutes. Stir into eggplant mixture.

To assemble the lasagna, spray 13" x 9" baking dish with vegetable oil spray. Spread 1 cup tomato sauce in bottom of baking dish; shingle 4 noodles on top of sauce. Spread half of vegetable mixture over noodles, followed by half of olives, half of cream sauce, and 1 cup of mozzarella. Repeat layering with 4 noodles, 1 cup tomato sauce, remaining vegetables, remaining olives, remaining cream sauce, and 1 cup mozzarella. Place remaining 4 noodles on top layer of cheese. Spread remaining 1 cup tomato sauce over noodles and sprinkle with remaining 1 cup mozzarella. Lightly spray large sheet of aluminum foil with vegetable oil spray and cover lasagna. Bake until -bubbling, about 35 minutes. Cool on wire rack 25 minutes. Cut into pieces, sprinkle with basil, and serve.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Matthew's Favorite Snack

Matthew often gets ideas into his head for things he would like to do, see, or create and does not stop bugging me until they happen. For a while, he was determined to ride a roller coaster even though I'm' pretty sure he had no idea what a roller coaster was. Paul and I finally took him to an amusement park and fulfilled his dream. After completely terrifying him on that coaster ride, I think Matthew has had his fill of coasters for the next decade.

Then, he decided that he wanted a pet spider after seeing a caged Tarantula at the pet store. I worked for weeks trying to talk him out of that idea (and I never told my arachnophobic husband about it since I know the thought alone would keep him up at night). When I told Matthew the spider would eat Riley (our cat), he finally agreed that owning an arachnid was probably not the best idea. Now he's deathly afraid of spiders. Good job, Mom.

Note the lettering on Matthew's t-shirt.

Then there were the three months leading up to Emma's first birthday where Matthew talked nonstop about making her a strawberry cake. He even had me search Google for pictures of strawberry cakes so he could select the right one. It was cute at first, but quickly became irritating. I almost decided to move up her birthday celebration by a couple months just so we could bake it and be done with it.

Which brings me to the story behind Matthew's favorite snack, a snack that Matthew has been determined to make for over a year.

Matthew has been checking out the same 10 books from the library for what seems like forever. They are a variety of Thomas, Curious George, and Little Critter books that he just enjoys reading over and over. When we get to the library, I turn him loose in the Children's Section and then take Emma to the book return to drop-off our old books. By the time I have returned, he is sitting at one of the little tables with a stack of books completely identical to the ones we just returned. Goodness gracious, child! Variety is the spice of life!

One of these books is Curious George Picks Apples. The book is just about as exciting as it sounds. In fact, the title pretty much gives away the climax. At the end of this gripping tale, there are three "recipes" that kids can easily make using apples. One recipe in particular for "Apple Teeth" caught Matthew's attention and he would not stop begging me to make some apple teeth with him. "You need go to the grocery store, get some marshmallows, get some apples, and then we make the teeth!" he would remind me every time we entered a grocery store.

Finally, I got around to buying a bag of mini marshmallows and this has been Matthew's snack every single day this week. I think they're a bit disgusting looking, essentially some gruesome apple dentures. Although, I have to admit, the marshmallow and peanut butter combination is killer.

To make these delightful snacks: slice an apple. Spread a thin layer of creamy peanut butter on one side. Stick marshmallows along the curved side to resemble teeth. Repeat with all slices. Sandwich slices together to make a smiling mouth of teeth! Eat!

And Matthew's latest obsession? He wants a pet turtle. He's actually laying on the couch now "reading" a National Geographic Book on turtles while every once in a while making a plea for his case: "Mommy, turtles are nice. They don't bite. I pet the turtle. I sleep with the turtle. Turtles make eggs. We can eat the eggs for breakfast. Riley can't make eggs. Turtles do. Turtles swim in the bathtub with me....."

Not happening.