Friday, December 31, 2010

Chocolate Chip Cookie Bars

These bars are a revelation.  Yes, they are that good.  My resolution for 2011 is to start being more obvious about recipes that are my staples.  This is one of them.  I'm giving up the secrets with this one, so promise me you'll try this.

The basis of this cookie bar recipe is the the chocolate chip cookie recipe that I've adapted over the past 10 years or so and that my husband claims is the reason he married me.  I spoiled him with batches of these cookies (and my Coconut Pound Cake) while we were dating.  I can resist most of my own baked goods, but these cookies are the exception.  When they are warm and the chocolate is melting all over the place I'm ready to attack the whole plate and chase it with a cold glass of milk or a cup of coffee.

Until this week I always made this recipe in traditional cookie form, but then I noticed that some food bloggers were making chocolate chip cookies as bars and I decided to try this technique with my classic recipe.  Not only is it easier to make cookie bars, but the cookies end up being thicker, chewier, and less labor intensive to bake.  They're also more durable for storage and travel and dare I say they actually taste better.  I'm sold on this method.

The dough is a chocolate chip cookie dough that relies on semisweet chocolate chunks instead of chips to provide bigger bursts of chocolate in every bite.  It also has more brown sugar than white sugar to have a chewier bite.  My secret ingredients are toffee bits (which you should be able to find in the baking aisle of a well-stocked grocery store) and chopped nuts.  I don't even love nuts in baked goods, but they work perfectly in this cookie.  Trust me.  It all works out.  Everyone will be happy. 

Once you make the dough, you can let it sit for up to three days before you bake it.  Some recipe writers swear that cookie dough is best if left to "marinate" for a few days in the fridge before baking.  I couldn't wait, so I did a half batch immediately and baked the other half a few days later.  Do what you've gotta do.

I just lined a baking pan with parchment paper and pressed the dough flat into the pan.  No dropping batches and batches of cookie dough in the oven for me...

Bake for about 30 minutes and you have this pan full of gooey, chocolatey deliciousness...

 At this point you need to resist the urge to cut into the cookie, or you'll risk making a mess (although it will still taste good).  Let it cool on a rack for at least 45 minutes before you attempt to lift the cookie from the pan and onto a cutting board...

Cut the cookie bars into squares and try not to eat them all in one serving.  If you have leftovers, just store them in a cookie tin or similar airtight container.  If you're really into the melted chocolate thing (I am!), pop cooled cookies into the microwave for 15 seconds before eating.  

These cookie bars are too delicious.  Please make them for someone you love. 

Chocolate Chip Cookie Bars
a Keeley original

1 cup (2 sticks) butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
1 1/2 cups brown sugar
2 eggs
2 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups flour
3/4 teaspoon salt (omit if using salted butter)
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
12 ounces chocolate chunks (I use 1 bag of Nestle Semi-Sweet Chocolate Chunks)
1/2 cup toffee chips (I use Heath, look in the baking aisle)
1 cup chopped pecans or walnuts

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Line a 9 by 12 inch baking pan (or two 8 by 8 inch baking pans) with parchment paper.  

Sift together flour, salt (if using), baking powder, and baking soda.  Set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer (or with a hand-held mixer) whip together butter, sugar, brown sugar, and vanilla until light and fluffy.  Mix in eggs, one at a time.

Gradually beat flour into butter mixture.  Once flour is incorporated, slowly mix in chocolate chunks, nuts, and toffee.  At this stage you can put the dough in the fridge for up to three days, or you can continue with the recipe.

Press dough into the prepared baking pans.  Dough should be about 3/4" thick and compacted into the pan.  Bake for 30-35 minutes or until golden brown.  The dough will be soft in some spots when finished, but it will firm up once it cools.  Let the bars cool in the pan for at least 45 minutes before removing the entire sheet of the bars from the pan, cutting into squares, and serving.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

ShopRite Blogger Get-Together

This is a long overdue post.  I spent November and December working nearly every day and now I'm enjoying a week-long staycation full of friends, family, coffee, and trashy daytime television.  Life is good.  I'm taking this opportunity to sort through my photos and share some fun food stories.

Back in mid-November I enjoyed a fun lunch with two of my fellow ShopRite bloggersEmily and Jessica.  I met these talented ladies who love to cook as much as I do at the NYC Food and Wine Festival back in October.  Since we all live in the Philadelphia area we decided to meet for a potluck lunch at Jessica's home in South Jersey.  We each made a Tyler Florence-inspired dish.  Emily made a bacon and apple panini, Jessica made an asparagus risotto (from Tyler's latest book, Family Table), and I made Tyler's Hunter's Minestrone

Emily hooking up some excellent sandwiches.

Jessica's Asparagus Risotto

Hunter's Minestrone and a panini.
Jessica's adorable daughter, Kiley

We had so much fun that I forgot to take a group photo, but cruise on over to Jessica's Blog and Emily's Blog to see what they're up to.  I'm loving the idea of blogger get-togethers and I hope to participate in more in the future!

I set up a Formspring account for questions from readers.  Want to know more about  me?  Have a cooking or baking question?  Click here to ask me anything!  

Sunday, December 26, 2010


This is my mom's Christmas tree.  We spent Christmas Eve at her home.
Friends, I just want to share that I had a wonderful Christmas!  E and I didn't get caught up in the frenzy of buying too many gifts or baking too many cookies and we just enjoyed a relaxing day with family.  We're fortunate to have the entire week off work, so we'll be visiting family and friends during our days off. 

We kept decorations (and stress) minimal this year, but I've been cooking and I have plenty of recipes to share this week.  At the moment we're in the middle of a snowstorm (I love snow, especially when we have nowhere to go) and I've been having a great cooking day.  For now, please enjoy these highlights from Christmas Day.  I hope you had a wonderful holiday!

My mom, brother, and mom's dog came over for Christmas brunch.

I bought E a new coat.  Doesn't he look handsome?

We took a quick trip to NJ to spend the afternoon with our extended family.
We ended the day sweatin' it out playing the MJ Experience.  We love this game!
Stay tuned for new recipes and other goodies this week!  For now, I'm enjoying this snowstorm.  There's nothing like a bad weather forecast and a week off work.  Perfect sleeping weather!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Ask me anything!

I set up a Formspring account to allow readers to ask me questions.  I'm new to this, so I hope I'm doing it right.  My only exposure to Formspring is hearing school counselors talk about how 7th grade girls use it to bully eachother.  I know, I'm old.

Feel free to drop me a quick question about cooking, baking, shopping, or anything about me that you'd like to know.  I try to keep this blog on the topic of cooking, but I'll be happy to answer questions about other stuff.  Here's the link, ask away!

Sauteed Brussels Sprouts with Bacon

I didn't grow up eating Brussels sprouts.  I have no idea why.  I spent most of my childhood in a rural community surrounded by farmland and fresh produce.  Somehow we escaped Brussels sprouts and all I knew is that kids on television always complained about having to eat them.  I assumed they were slimy and bland. 

At some point in my early adulthood I finally tasted a Brussels sprout.  To my surprise it tasted crunchy and fresh and not at all overcooked.  It reminded me of a baby cabbage.  Now I love Brussels sprouts and while I will eat frozen ones (most of the Brussels sprouts sold in the US are frozen), I really love them fresh.  They are a cool weather crop, so I had my fill of them this fall.  Although it's the first full day of winter and I'm a bit late posting about fall produce, I wanted to share the joys of this underrated vegetable.

E works in Lancaster County, PA so he drives all through God's country on his daily commute.  He passes tons of roadside farm stands and Amish buggies every day.  He can get a bag full of vegetables for like $2, so when he saw this for $1, he had to stop and bring it home:

Brussels sprouts grow on stalks.  When you buy them fresh in the grocery store you don't normally get the stalk (and if you do, it will cost you about $7 in these parts).  We got this entire stalk (about 1/2 pound of sprouts) for $1!  It's one of those little things that makes me so happy.

I took a few minutes to pluck each individual sprout off the stalk and then I rinsed them.  I decided to saute them and serve them with bacon.  It was pretty delicious, simple, and pretty good for you (minus the pork fat).  This recipe will only work with fresh Brussels sprouts.  Frozen sprouts are too wet and they won't saute.  Depending on where you live you should be able to get Brussels sprouts in your grocery store or farmers market right now.  Give them a try, you'll be pleasantly surprised!

Sauteed Brussels Sprouts with Bacon
a Keeley original
serves 4

1/2-3/4 pound fresh Brussels sprouts, cleaned and trimmed
5 slices of bacon
salt and pepper, to taste

In a wide saute pan (at least 10 inches wide, preferably not nonstick), cook bacon over medium high heat.  Remove bacon from pan and place on paper towels to cool.  Leave bacon fat in the pan.

Add dry Brussels sprouts to bacon drippings.  Saute over medium high heat for 3-5 minutes, stirring occasionally.  The sprouts will turn golden brown in some spots.  Add salt and pepper to taste.  (Go easy on the salt, this dish will be topped with bacon in a few minutes.) 

Add 1/2 cup of water to the pan and cover.  Steam for 2-3 minutes.  Remove sprouts from pan with slotted spoon.  Place sprouts in serving bowl and topped with crumbled bacon.  Serve immediately.

Monday, December 20, 2010


Buttermilk Pancakes, recipe here
One of the best parts of having a day off work is enjoying a leisurely brunch with the family.  Sometimes it's just E and me, but often my mom and brother swing by for a late morning meal.  Breakfast is generally quicker and less expensive to prepare than other meals and it's a crowd-pleaser.  I used to love going out to diners and restaurants for breakfast, but it's just as easy to roll out of bed and enjoy a great meal in your own kitchen.  Plus it's cheaper.  Just get someone else to do the dishes.

To save calories I eat a light breakfast of coffee and Greek yogurt (with an occasional cheat) Monday-Friday.  Come Saturday and Sunday I'm ready for some bacon or sausage, pancakes or french toast, or some sweet breakfast breads. 

I've figured out a few ways to make breakfast easy for everyone:

1.  Choose your menu wisely.  If you're expecting more than a few guests and you expect them to arrive at different times, be prepared to mingle.  Don't choose to prepare omelets or other items that require you to stand over the stove.  Instead, try a breakfast quiche or another item that can be prepared in advance but still has traditional breakfast flavors.

2.  Prepare your breakfast meat first.  Sausage and bacon reheat well, so cook them before you move on to dishes that require more of your attention, like eggs, french toast, or waffles.  I prefer to cook my bacon on a baking sheet in the oven at 450 degrees for 10-12 minutes, or until golden brown.  If you use this method your kitchen stays grease-free.  Just reheat your breakfast meat in the microwave right before serving.

3.  Don't be a short order cook.  Spend your time with your family, not standing over the stove.  When I'm making French toast, pancakes, or waffles, I preheat the oven to 200 degrees, put a large platter in the oven to get warm, and then put batches of these items on the plate as they come off the griddle.  I keep the warm platter in the oven covered with foil so everyone can eat hot food at the same time. 

4.  Have someone else do the dishes.  Our rule is that whoever cooks doesn't have to clean.  If you have a buddy clean while you cook you can have the breakfast dishes cleared within 10 minutes of the end of the meal and get back to relaxing with your family and friends.

5.  Save the leftovers.  I've heard that pancakes and waffles freeze well.  I wouldn't know because we eat them all!  I do make extra bacon because it can be used over a few days for other meals (grilled cheese, salads, pizzas, quick weekday breakfast sandwiches). 

Plan your menu, brew a nice pot of coffee (or hot water for tea), and surprise someone you love with a nice, well-planned breakfast.  Don't forget to make the table pretty so it feels special.  I'm partial to white dishes.  Happy brunching!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Christmas Photo Shoot

I'm enjoying reading all the blogs with holiday features this week.  So many people are sharing decadent recipes, sparkly decorations, and cute stories of family traditions.  Meanwhile, at my house, we've decided to work all the way until Christmas Eve, minimize decorations since we're not hosting company, and rely too much on pizza and meals at my mom's house.  As much as I love to cook, I'm averaging one to two meals per week.  We're that busy.

We did accomplish one Christmas goal this year:  we made Christmas cards.  We love getting cards from friends and family, but I'm embarrassed to admit that 2010 is the first year we've actually sent cards.  I know, I know, I know.  Hopefully all the cards will reach their destination before Christmas!

I was very excited to use my new camera, so E helped me hook it up to his old tripod and we rearranged our living room for the photo shoot.  It would have been nice to take the photo with a Christmas-y background, but our tree is in our basement and the lighting isn't ideal in that part of the house.  So the living room ended up being the site for a photo shoot full of laughter, dog hair, and a 45 shots of bloopers.

I knew getting photos with dogs would be difficult, but I didn't expect this...

It's difficult to get dogs to focus on the camera instead of each other.
Sometimes it's difficult to get humans to focus on the camera.
Sometimes the camera scares your dog, the dog has an accident on your lap, and chaos ensues.
Sometimes you've almost got a perfect photo, but a distraction pops up.                  
Our Christmas Card

After nearly 50 takes, we finally got it right.  In spite of the fact that we were tired (it was almost 9:00 on a weeknight), I love the final photo and I hope we make this a tradition.  I can't believe we waited all these years to make custom Christmas cards!

Do you get make photo cards or do you purchase regular greeting cards?  Do you even send holiday cards?  Is anyone else having a hard time believing that Christmas is less than a week away?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Warehouse Sale!

I woke up at 6:00 a.m. on Saturday, bundled up in my Cuddl Duds, fleece, down coat, and gloves and walked outside the brave the 20 degree (something like 12 degrees with the wind chill) weather...

Yes, it's that cold.  And dark.

Saturday was like my own personal Black Friday.  I don't get involved with the stampedes at Wal-Mart or Target on the day after Thanksgiving.  Last year I discovered that the only distributor in the United States that imports exclusive brands of European cook's tools and cookware has it's warehouse in New Castle, Delaware.  I just happen to live close enough to take advantage of this sale that draws people from several states.  One weekend a year they open their warehouse to the public and normal people like me are able to purchase quality imported cookware for up to 80% off.  Call me a nerd, but I had to get up for that.

This warehouse imports and distributes products by Emile Henry, Mauviel, Browne, Cuisipro, and Rosle.  You can find many of these items in high-end kitchen stores like Williams-Sonoma. The doors opened at 8:00 a.m. on Saturday for the weekend sale.  I knew the crowds would be huge and the temperatures would be low, so my mom and I arrived at 7:00 a.m. to take our place in line.  We were in the first group admitted (they let customers enter in waves).

Oh, the cold!
Since this was only our second year at the sale, we didn't know what to expect, but as expected there was a huge assortment of cook's tools (cherry pitters, food mills, bar tools, cooling racks, anything you can imagine), cookware (stainless steel and copper), and tons of beautiful, colorful bakeware.  Mom and I spent about two hours combing through all of the offerings and we each left with some nice items to supplement the items we already own.  Some of the items were seconds (slightly imperfect), others were first quality.  I examined each item carefully before committing because all sales are final. 

Wanna see what I chose?

Emile Henry bakeware
I purchased several pieces of Emile Henry bakeware and serveware.  Not one of the pieces cost me more than $19.99.  You can find these same items in high-end stores for as high as $78 each.  They are scratch-resistant, shock-resistant (less likely to chip), and safe in extreme temperatures (can go directly from freezer to oven).  I purchased a few pieces last year and I enjoyed them so much that I went back to add to my collection in 2010. 

Shiny, new stainless steel tools

I also purchased an assortment of Cuisipro stainless steel tools.  Many of the kitchen tools I use are made of plastic or wood and have melted handles because they are so well-loved.  We've carried them from two apartments to this home and I figured it was time to upgrade to something that would last a long time.  I've already used half of these tools this weekend.

Now, I had to have somewhere to store these shiny new tools...

Browne stainless canisters
I picked up these two stainless canisters by Browne for the fantastic price of $3 and $1.  I plan to use the big one for my shiny new kitchen tools and the small one for pens and pencils that I always misplace in the junk drawer in the kitchen.  I love how they match the appliances!

All organized and ready to go!

I also picked up a few specialty devices to put into my kitchen rotation.  These weren't must-haves, but since I've gathered all my kitchen essentials over the past decade I figured it was time to branch out into the realm of specialty items.  Plus, these are quality pieces purchased at a deep discount.

3-in-1 Funnel, Kitchen Scale, Batter Dispenser, and Food Mill
I grabbed the Cuisipro 3-in-1 Funnel to help with refilling narrow bottles of olive oil or pouring homemade hot chocolate into a thermal carafe (did both of those things this weekend).  I've been resisting the urge to buy a digital kitchen scale, but since so many baking recipes now list ingredients in weight instead of cups I figured I'd break down and buy one ($23).  Plus, I'll now be able to write more accurate recipes for this blog.  I had to have the batter dispenser because I am in the habit of making homemade pancakes every weekend.  I bought the food mill because Ina Garten considers it essential to a well-equipped kitchen.  You know I love Ina, so if Ina uses it, I'll try it.  I can't wait to use the food mill to process fluffy mashed potatoes or to seed whole tomatoes for marinara sauce.  Oh, the possibilities!

So was all this stuff worth standing outside in below freezing temperatures for over an hour at sunrise?  Does anyone else out there pick up items for themselves during this Christmas shopping season?  Are there any deals out there that you'd like to share?  You know I love a hook-up!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Oatmeal Pancakes with Bananas Foster Topping

I was cleaning out my car the other week and I found the September issue of Cooking Light.  This dog-eared issue sat in the passenger door compartment of my car for two months before I realized that I needed to archive these recipes.  I flipped through it and saw Oatmeal Pancakes.  I love oatmeal and I rely on old-fashioned oatmeal for a filling and healthy cold-weather breakfast this time of the year.  I skimmed the ingredients and it didn't look too harmful (it's Cooking Light, after all), so I decided to make these pancakes.  Of course I had to improve them.  Ever since I discovered this recipe for buttermilk pancakes I've abandoned all pancake mixes and found the extra ten minutes to make mine from scratch.

It was the Sunday after Thanksgiving and I had tons of ripe bananas because my husband made banana pudding for dessert at our family Thanksgiving.  The bananas were getting quite fragrant, so I decided to make a topping for these oatmeal pancakes.  Hold the butter and syrup, this topping sends these pancakes over the top.  Despite being loaded with oatmeal, these pancakes are soft, light, moist, and fluffy.  Plus, I promise that it's easy enough to make that you'll have breakfast on the table within about 35 minutes.  Everyone will be happy.  My family was so happy, in fact, that I repeated these pancakes this past Sunday when my mom and brother joined us for breakfast.

Breakfast (or brunch) on a Sunday morning is one of my favorite rituals.  No long lines, no waits, no splitting the tab.  It's just us and the good food.  Add these pancakes to your breakfast ritual this winter.  You'll love 'em. 

Oatmeal Pancakes
from Cooking Light, September 2010
serves 4

1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2 cups quick-cooking (not instant) oats - I ran my old fashioned oats through the food processor
2 Tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups nonfat buttermilk
4 tablespoons butter, melted
2 large eggs
cooking spray

Whisk together the flour, oats, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon in a medium bowl. 

In a large bowl, whisk together buttermilk, melted butter, and eggs. 

Gently fold the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients. 

Preheat oven to 200 degrees.  Heat a nonstick griddle over medium heat.  Coat with nonstick spray.  Spoon about 1/2 cup batter per pancake onto the griddle.  Flip pancakes when the tops are covered with bubbles and cook the other side until lightly browned.  Place cooked pancakes on an oven-safe plate, topped with foil until all pancakes are cooked and ready to serve.  Top pancakes with bananas foster topping (recipe below).

Bananas Foster Topping
a Keeley original
serves 4

4 bananas, sliced into 1/4" rounds
2 Tablespoons butter
1/3 cup packed brown sugar
1 tablespoon rum (or other dark liquor, or omit... it's the weekend, use what you've got)
1/2 cup milk

Put butter, brown sugar, and rum in a frying pan.  Heat over medium heat, whisking occasionally, until butter and sugar are melted.  Add milk and heat to a gentle simmer.

Reduce heat to low and add bananas.  Cook for three minutes or until bananas are soft and coated and sauce thickens.  Remove from heat.  Serve immediately.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Spiced Applesauce Cake w/Cream Cheese Frosting

Moist, apple cake topped with lightly spiced buttery, creamy cream cheese frosting.  What's not to love?  I can't decide whether to eat this cake with a cup of coffee at breakfast or after a hearty cold weather dinner.  Then again, why not make this as an after dinner dessert and then revisit it the next morning for breakfast?

This is the second apple cake I've baked this season and although the Applesauce Cake I made back in September was good, I liked this one even more.  This recipe was covered back in October on Smitten Kitchen and I'm so happy that a coworker introduced me to this blog.  The photography and the recipes are great... go check it out!

Check out this cake, too.  It's easy to make and I promise it will put a smile on your face.

Spiced Applesauce Cake with Cinnamon Cream Cheese Frosting
Adapted by Smitten Kitchen, from and improved by me

For cake
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon  baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon  cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 stick (1/2 cup) butter, softened
1 cup (7 3/4 ounces or 218 grams) packed dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon  pure vanilla extract
2 large eggs
1 1/2 cups unsweetened applesauce

For frosting
5 ounces Neufchatel cheese (reduced fat cream cheese), softened
3 tablespoons  butter, softened
1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup confectioners sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350°F with rack in middle. Spray an 8 or 9 inch square pan with cooking spray and line with parchment paper.

Make cake: Whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and spices. Beat butter, brown sugar, and vanilla with an electric mixer at high speed until pale and fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition, then beat in applesauce. At low speed, mix in flour mixture until just combined. The batter will be very thick.

Spread batter evenly in pan and bake until golden-brown and a wooden pick inserted into center comes out clean, about 35 to 40 minutes. Cool in pan 15 minutes. Run a knife around edge of cake to loosen, then invert onto a plate. Reinvert cake onto a rack to cool completely.

Make frosting: Beat cream cheese, butter, and vanilla with an electric mixer at high speed until fluffy. Sift confectioners sugar and cinnamon over cream cheese mixture, then beat at medium speed until incorporated. Spread frosting over top of cooled cake.

Friday, December 3, 2010

NYC Food & Wine Festival Video

I'm on a roll this week!  Here's another video from the NYC Food and Wine Festival back in October.  This is my favorite because it really captures the essence of the event - good food, good drink, and good people.  Enjoy!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Tyler Florence Book Signing

This video post is long overdue!  Almost two months ago I had a fantastic weekend of food and fun at the New York City Food and Wine Festival, sponsored by ShopRite.  It was so exciting that it actually overshadowed our October trip to Walt Disney World (we returned from Florida one day before heading up to NYC for the festival). 

One of the many highlights of my weekend in New York was meeting Tyler Florence at a ShopRite-sponsored book signing.  After spending an stimulating afternoon at the Food and Wine Festival our entire blogger panel and our guests headed over to Abe and Arthur's for a Tyler Florence Book signing, cocktail hour, and group dinner.  I'm so grateful to ShopRite for providing this opportunity and I'm so happy that my husband was able to share this special weekend with me.

I promised video of the Food and Wine Festival, and rest assured I have a lot more to share.  For now, please enjoy this short clip of our adventures with Tyler Florence, co-starring my new friend and fellow ShopRite blogger, Emily from Cleanliness is Next To Godliness.  We really bonded on this unseasonably warm Friday afternoon in New York.

Back story:  Our schedule for the day included an afternoon at the festival followed by a book signing and dinner at Abe and Arthur's.  Emily and I just couldn't pull ourselves away from the festival, so we waited until the last minute to head to the book signing.  We decided to spin by the hotel to pick up our husbands, but realized that it was too far to walk, so we tried to get a cab.  It was rush hour and we learned quickly that a cab ride was impossible.  We forgot about the existence of the subway (what can I say, I'm a suburbanite) and we spent an hour walking back to our hotel to pick up our better halves.  You can imagine how sweaty, frustrated and late we were, hence my windblown look...

Monday, November 29, 2010

Turkey Sausage Lasagna

I hope everyone had a nice Thanksgiving holiday.  Today I have a recipe that uses turkey, but don't worry, it's definitely not the Thanksgiving variety!

Are you planning a small dinner party during this holiday season?  If so, I highly recommend serving Turkey Sausage Lasagna.  It tastes great, the leftovers are delightful, and it can be assembled in advance so you have more time to mingle with your guests.  It's a win/win for everyone.  Bonus:  most people like lasagna.

This lasagna serves at least 6 adults.  I will not prepare this meal unless I have at least 4 people coming for dinner because E and I just don't need this much food.  I'm sure we could freeze it, but I don't think the fresh cheeses would retain their flavor and consistency after a trip to the deep freeze, so I recommend eating this dish fresh.

The superstars in this recipe are lean Italian turkey sausage, which provides all the flavor of Italian sausage with less grease, fresh basil, and fresh mozzarella.  Fresh basil and mozzarella aren't cheap, especially in November, but they are worth it because they make this dish.  The mozzarella melts to a perfectly goey consistency and the basil adds a note of freshness that can't be replicated with dried herbs.  Trust me.

I've had many types of lasagna, but I find that the best ones have the right ratio of sauce to noodles and are moist in the center and crunchy around the edges.  I use no-boil lasagna (from Barilla) because it's so much easier than boiling noodles), I also have a strict system for layering that provides the best consistency, easiest removal from the pan, and ideal taste.  I start with a thin layer of meat sauce...

Top it with noodles...

Top the noodles with sliced fresh mozzarella...

Top the mozzarella with ricotta...

Top the ricotta with more meat sauce, then repeat until you reach the top of your pan.  I only end up with two layers.  The real secret?  The top layer needs to be meat sauce, not cheese or noodles.  It keeps everything moist.  You can sprinkle a little fresh parmesan on top of the last layer of meat sauce, but not too much... nobody likes burnt cheese. (Well, some people do, but it's not ideal.)

Lasagna can be time-consuming, but I've simplified this recipe to the point that I can get it in the oven within 35 minutes of starting the process.  If you're really ambitious you can mix the meat sauce the day before and just assemble everything cold before you bake it.  If you're really, really motivated you can assemble the entire lasagna up to 24 hours in advance and slide it into the oven one hour before company arrives.

Once you're tired of traditional Thanksgiving leftovers, give this recipe a try!

Turkey Sausage Lasagna
Inspired by Ina Garten, improved by Keeley

About one pound of Italian turkey sausage (I use Shady Brook Farms, 15 ounce package), removed from casing
About 30 ounces (4 cups) low fat ricotta cheese
8 ounces fresh mozzarella cheese, sliced thin (about 1/4 inch)
1/2 cup fresh shredded parmesan cheese, plus more for topping
1 egg
2 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon garlic powder
2 (24 ounce) cans crushed tomatoes
2 Tablespoons tomato paste
1/2 cup dry red wine (optional)
1 large onion, diced
6 cloves garlic, minced
2 Tablespoons dried oregano
1 Tablespoon dried basil
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 cup freshed basil, chopped

In a wide saute pan, heat oil over medium/low heat and saute onions for 5 minutes, or until translucent.  Crumble the sausage into the pan and increase heat to medium high.  Break up the sausage as it cooks.  Add in garlic and cook for one minute.

Once sausage is cooked, add in crushed tomatoes, fresh garlic, oregano, dried basil, black pepper, wine, and tomato paste.  Stir, bring to a simmer, then reduce heat to low.  Let sauce simmer for at least 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Stir in fresh basil when sauce is done.

While the sauce cooks, mix together the ricotta, garlic powder, parmesan, and egg.  Set aside.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

When sauce is ready, assemble the lasagna.  Use a 9" by 13" pan that is at least 3" deep.  Start with a thin layer of sauce on the bottom (about 25% of the prepared sauce), then add a layer of noodles, a layer of mozzarella, and a layer of the ricotta mixture.  Repeat using a half of the remaining sauce for the next layer.  End with a layer of tomato sauce.  Top with a handful of Parmesan.

Bake lasagna for about one hour, or until top is browning and edges are bubbling.  Let sit for at least 20 minutes before slicing and serving.

You can absolutely assemble the lasagna up to 12 hours before baking, just keep it in the refrigerator.  That's why this is a perfect party dish!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

New Facebook Page

I finally created a Facebook page for My Life On A Plate!  If you use Facebook and you enjoy this blog, please click on the link on the right side of this page to "like" my new page. 

I'm always trying to make this blog better, so if you have any suggestions, please let me know!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

My Favorite Cooking Day of the Year!

Sweet Potato Pie, the most popular recipe on this blog.  Yup, I'll be making some for Thanksgiving, as usual.
Thanksgiving always comes at the end of a very busy time at work for our household.  Both of us have jobs that are hectic during the fall and we welcome the peace and return to sanity in our professional lives between Thanksgiving and Christmas.  We're always really happy and excited to spend a long weekend with friends and family eating all types of food that we only get to enjoy once a year.  When possible, I take off the Wednesday before Thanksgiving so I can have a full day to fill the house with the smells of freshly baked goods.  On Thanksgiving morning we'll be making some dishes that are best served the same day (macaroni and cheese and yeast rolls), loading up the car, and enjoying dinner in Philly with the family.  This year will be the 10th Thanksgiving Day I've spent with my husband's family.  I still can't believe we've been together this long... we go way back!

I'm not in charge of the big meal for Thanksgiving, but if you are in need of some holiday cooking assistance, my favorite grocery store in the world is hosting their third annual Chefs On Call program for Thanksgiving.  You can reach a ShopRite chef at 1-800-SHOPRITE to get assistance with your holiday cooking drama.  Read more about it here.

On to the next major holiday...

Although I said I wasn't going to go "all out" for Christmas, we've already started decorating.  Last year we hosted Christmas at our home and while it was fun I was quite stressed and I wanted to be a bit more low key in 2010.  In spite of my reluctance to let things get "out of hand" (too many gifts, too many parties, etc.) we've decided to go ahead and put the decorations up before Thanksgiving.  We have a small home and the Christmas stuff looks much better decking our halls than it does stacked up in the basement.  Plus, it makes me smile.

The living room bookshelf... I picked up these holiday letter blocks and battery operated candles at Costco last month.

Our circa 1987 artificial Christmas tree.  This thing has traveled with our family from New Jersey to three houses in Delaware... decorations coming soon.
Happy Thanksgiving!  Do you have any special plans for this holiday?  Does anyone else bookmark tons of recipes and dream about menu planning?  How about those Black Friday sales?

I'm off do do my pre-Thanksgiving loop of Costco, Target, and ShopRite.  Yes, I've already hit up those stores at least two times this week, but there's always something last minute... you know how it is!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Stuffed French Toast with Cranberry Cream

It's Thanksgiving week!  I don't love cranberry sauce with my turkey, but I do love cranberries, so here's a way to use up any leftover cranberry sauce after the big holiday.  Or, of course, you can just buy yourself a can of whole berry cranberry sauce and go to town with this one.

E and I were on our weekly grocery date and we ended up at Costco where they were sampling a pre-made stuffed French toast.  We took one bite, looked at eachother and quickly walked away before we gave in to our weakness and ate all the samples.  I decided to try to make a version at home and I think my version is just as good, or even better than the one we sampled.

I used sourdough bread for my French toast.  You could absolutely use regular white bread or Italian bread, but I love the tang of sourdough.  It kinda matches the tang of cream cheese.  I picked up this loaf (which wasn't on sale, but was worth the full purchase price) of Pepperidge Farm Farmhouse Soft Sourdough Bread at ShopRite. 

I love using sourdough bread for grilled cheese, too, but that's another story.

I made a filling of Neufchatel cheese (a.k.a. reduced fat cream cheese), powdered sugar, cranberry sauce, and orange zest.  I spread the filling onto the bread and made sandwiches...

I dipped each sandwich in an egg batter made with milk and lemon extract.  I didn't use cinnamon because I wanted a clean, fresh, fruity aroma and flavor.  While I grilled the French toast I made a quick compote of cranberry sauce and orange juice.  I simmered the compote and then poured it over the warm French toast.  It was heavenly.  Both sweet and tart at the same time.  Much better choice than maple syrup.

This breakfast was so rich that we each only ate one piece of stuffed French toast (sprinkled with powdered sugar and topped with hot cranberry compote).  So rich, in fact, that we didn't even serve it with bacon.  All we needed was a fresh cup of coffee.  Heavenly.

Stuffed French Toast with Cranberry Cream
a Keeley original
Serves 4

For the French Toast
8 slices of sourdough sandwich bread (soft bread, I use Pepperidge Farm)
4 ounces (1/2 package) of neufchatel cheese, softened (a.k.a. reduced fat cream cheese, or just regular cream cheese)
3 Tablespoons powdered sugar, plus more for topping
2 Tablespoons whole berry cranberry sauce
1 teaspoon orange zest
4 eggs, beaten
3/4 cup milk
1 teaspoon pure lemon extract

For the Cranberry Compote
1 cup whole berry cranberry sauce
3 Tablespoons orange juice

French Toast
In a small/medium bowl, mix together the cream cheese, powdered sugar, and orange zest (a hand mixer works well to get a creamy consistency).

Divide the cream cheese filling evenly among 4 slices of bread.  Spread to cover the bread (leaving about 1/2" border on all sides).  Top each of the 4 slices with a plain slice of bread to make four sandwiches.

In a shallow bowl, whip together the eggs, milk, and lemon extract.  (I use a pie pan.)  Dip each sandwich in the egg mixture.  Make sure to dip both sides and let it sit in the egg for about 15 seconds... any longer and it may get soggy.

Preheat a griddle pan (or nonstick skillet) to medium/high and spray with nonstick spray.  Grill the French toast for about 2 minutes per side, slice each piece on a diagonal and serve immediately with powdered sugar and cranberry compote.

Cranberry Compote
Combine cranberry sauce and orange juice in a small saucepan over medium heat.  Cook for 5 minutes or until simmering, stirring frequently.  Serve hot over French toast (or buttermilk pancakes or waffles..)

Friday, November 19, 2010

Basic Fried Rice

As much as I've been told that brown rice is a better choice for your health, I admit that I really like fried rice with my Chinese (and even Japanese) food.  Granted, during the work week I'll usually go with the healthy choice, but when I'm home on the weekends, all bets are off.  The fried rice just may be the best part of Chinese takeout.

Ever since I've been experimenting with stir fries like Chicken Stir Fry with Green Beans, Thai-Style Fried Rice, and Lighter General Tso's Chicken I've been trying to step my game up on the Asian flavor profile.  Of course, I then realized that while I've been spending time experimenting with all kinds of sauces and condiments that I hadn't tried the most basic, non-authentic take-out food:  fried rice.

As the name states, this rice is really basic.  You could make it a full meal by stirring in some cooked shrimp or some (thawed and  heated) frozen peas and carrots.  This is the way I make the rice when I don't feel like digging in the freezer for anything else.  Typically I've just prepared some stir fry that includes a protein and a vegetable and I feel like using my wok one more time before I throw it in the sink where it will sit until the next morning

I always use my wok (which was less than $20 at Costco), but I suppose you could use any high-sided pan.  Of course, if you're going to get serious about this recipe you'll want to just commit to the wok.  The key to this recipe is constant, high heat and fast cooking.  You need to have everything chopped and ready to go because this is five minutes from start to finish.

Please use real butter for this recipe.  It really makes a difference in the flavor.  I use reduced sodium soy sauce and you should adjust the soy sauce to suit your taste. 

Basic Fried Rice
a Keeley original
serves 4 as a side dish or 2 as an entree (add some vegetables and protein to make it a real meal)

4 cups cooked rice, cooled
2 Tablespoons butter
1 medium onion, diced
1 egg
1/4 cup soy sauce
salt and pepper, to taste

Preheat a wok to medium/high and turn on the vent over your stove.  Add the butter to the hot wok and let it sizzle for 30 seconds, or until melted. 

Add the onions and stir fry until onions are lightly browned, about one minute.  Crack the egg into the skillet and scramble it for 30 seconds (until soft-cooked) with the onion. 

Increase heat to high and add rice.  Stir rice with onions in egg.  Pour in soy sauce and add salt and pepper to taste.  Once all ingredients are well mixed (rice will be light brown), let rice sit over high heat without stirring for one minute.  Reduce heat and stir rice.  Some of the rice will be browned.  Check for salt (add more soy sauce, if desired) and serve immediately.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Sticky Buns, Barefoot Contessa Style

I love Ina Garten.  When I get a chance to sit down and watch The Barefoot Contessa (preferably in high definition) on The Food Network I drool and watch in awe as she makes preparing the most beautiful food look so easy.  She just makes me want to have a party.

I also love breakfast breads, especially sticky buns, so I knew I had to try her recipe.  This recipe is from her Back to Basics book (which isn't her latest) and I found that it has similar flavors to my Easy Sticky Buns recipe.  Very, very similar, but the Ina's cute presentation of perfect little cinnamon rolls (formed in a muffin tin) may be a bit more impressive than my ring of pull apart sweet bread.  Also, this version is considerably sweeter. So sweet that it forms a crispy, candy-like coating on some areas.  The topping reminds me of toffee.  Very good, very sweet.  I definitely had to limit myself to two.

This was my first time working with frozen puff pastry.  My mother (who often shares meals with us) doesn't like puff pastry and I could care less about it, so I hadn't ventured into the world of flaky crusts.  The puff pastry was really easy to use and this sticky bun is great if you like a light, flaky pastry.  I found this delicious, but I thought it would be even better with a traditional, soft bread dough.  Just sayin'.

If you're a sticky bun connoisseur, give both my recipe and Ina's a try.  Feel free to leave out the raisins or the nuts.  I've done it with and without both.  I'm wondering which you'll find easier.  Mine requires planning and preparation the night before, but less labor in assembly.  Ina's comes together all at once, but doesn't have the soft, traditional bread dough I enjoy in a sticky bun.  Then again, can you really go wrong with a sticky bun?

Sticky Buns, Barefoot Contessa Style
slightly modified from Easy Sticky Buns
yield 12 sticky buns

2 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/3 cup light brown sugar, lightly packed
1/2 cup pecans or walnuts, chopped in very large pieces
1 package (17.3-ounces/ 2-sheets) frozen puff pastry, defrosted

For the filling:
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
2/3 cup light brown sugar, lightly packed
3 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 cup raisins

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Place a 12-cup standard muffin tin on a sheet pan lined with parchment paper.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the 12 tablespoons butter and 1/3 cup brown sugar. Place 1 rounded tablespoon of the mixture in each of the 12 muffin cups. Distribute the nuts evenly among the 12 muffin cups on top of the butter and sugar mixture.

Lightly flour a wooden board or stone surface. Unfold 1 sheet of puff pastry with the folds going left to right. Brush the whole sheet with the melted butter. Leaving a 1-inch border on the puff pastry, sprinkle each sheet with 1/3 cup of the brown sugar, 1 1/2 teaspoons of the cinnamon, and 1/2 cup of the raisins. Starting with the end nearest you, roll the pastry up snugly like a jelly roll around the filling, finishing the roll with the seam side down. Trim the ends of the roll about 1/2-inch and discard. Slice the roll in 6 equal pieces, each about 1 1/2 inches wide. Place each piece, spiral side up, in 6 of the muffin cups. Repeat with the second sheet of puff pastry to make 12 sticky buns.

Bake for 30 minutes, until the sticky buns are golden to dark brown on top and firm to the touch. Be careful - the hot buns are like molten lava! Allow to cool for 5 minutes only, invert the buns onto the parchment paper (ease the filling and pecans out onto the buns with a spoon) and cool completely.  Some of the filling will stick to the muffin tins.  Just scoop it out carefully and put it back on top of the buns.  Serve warm.
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