Monday, December 15, 2014

Fudgey Brownies in a Jar

I begin this post with a disclaimer: I’m not a craft person, which I’m sure is evident by this photo. Cooking I can do. Dressing up gifts? Not so much.

Trust me, anyone who receives this gift of Fudgey Brownies in a Jar won’t care how the packaging looks once they taste the results. These brownies are wonderfully chewy and chocolaty—just what brownies are meant to be!

When assembling the jar, I put the chips and walnuts in an attached bag since they are added after the batter is mixed. If you’re not sure the gift recipient is a fan of nuts in brownies, just omit the walnuts and add more chocolate chips. You can also give a mixture of dark and white chocolate chip with the jar. Be sure to include the baking instructions, either on the gift tag or an attached recipe card.

Whether you give the jar as a gift or keep it in your pantry, this brownie mix is great to have around whenever the chocolate craving strikes.  

Fudgey Brownies in a Jar
Makes 24 brownies

For the jar:
1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup packed brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon instant espresso powder 

For attached bag:
1 cup chocolate chips
1 cup chopped walnuts

Additional ingredients:
10 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1/2 cup water
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
To make the jar: Into a 1 quart jar, place the flour, baking soda and salt. Whisk together to combine. Add the brown sugar, granulated sugar, and cocoa powder. Place the lid on top. In a plastic bag to go with the jar, place the chocolate chips and walnuts.
To make the brownies: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Spray a 13 x 9-inch baking pan with non-stick cooking spray. Set aside.
Pour the ingredients from the jar into a large mixing bowl. Whisk together to combine. Add the additional ingredients and stir until just combined. Fold in the chocolate chips and walnuts.
Pour the batter into the prepared baking pan. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes or until the brownies start to pull away from the side of the pan. Cool in the pan on a wire rack. Cut into 24 squares before serving. 

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Spiced Tea Mix from the Family Recipe Box

Recently, I was looking in my Mamaw’s recipe box for a favorite Christmas recipe when I came across this one for her Spiced Tea Mix. I thought, “What a great, old-fashioned Christmas gift alternative to hot chocolate mix.”

According to the note Mamaw made on the card, she got this recipe from a friend in 1969.  The mixture is reminiscent of a time when instant tea and Tang orange drink were in style. I remember enjoying warm cups of this fragrant drink at Christmas time, though she may have had it on hand all year round.

I love giving gifts that also have comforting memories to share.

Spiced Tea Mix
Makes enough to fill 1 pint-sided jar or 2 8-ounce jelly jars

1/4 cup instant tea
1 cup Tang powdered orange beverage
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

To make the jar: In a bowl, whisk together all of the ingredients until well combined. Pour into jar and cover with lid.

To make the tea: Poor 1 cup boiling water into a mug. Add 2 heaping teaspoons of the tea mix and stir to combine. 

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Our Christmas Tree

I was in a quandary about how to decorate for Christmas this year. Specifically, what to do about the tree. I wanted to decorate for the holiday, but I just couldn't put up the Christmas tree.

There’s a story behind the tree. It is an artificial one The Picky Eater had when we met. He said he bought it in 1979 from a Topeka store that is no longer around. It is the type where you match the color-coded branches to the pegs in the center pole. He adored that tree.

I hate that tree! It is a pain to put up, looks straggly no matter how much adjusting I do, and it is covered in dust from decades of Christmases past. The base is cracked. One Christmas the tree kept falling over (once on top of my nephew!), so I had to tie the base together with kitchen twine to keep the tree upright.

I tried to convince The Picky Eater of the benefits offered by a modern, pre-lit tree, but he wouldn't hear of it. So each year, we put it up.

As my first Christmas without The Picky Eater approached, I knew I didn't want to put up that old, dusty tree. However, I couldn't bring myself to get rid of it either.

So, I compromised. I took the top section of the tree, which is all in one piece, and after some juggling and innovative adjustments, set it into the twine-supported base. Then I decorated it with our special ornaments.

In the early days of our relationship, The Picky Eater and I were shopping at Crown Center in Kansas City with his sister and family. There was a store full of Christmas decorations, and he said, “Let’s go in and pick out a special ornament just for us.”

Ever since, we bought an ornament every year just for us.

This is that first one from Christmas, 2010:

This second one was bought a couple of weeks before our wedding on Christmas Eve, 2011:

Then we bought this one on our honeymoon at Silver Dollar City in Branson, Missouri:

The red heart was added in 2012. We picked it because we liked to watch reruns of the television series Hart to Hart, and The Picky Eater liked to think of us as business tycoon Jonathan and freelance writer Jennifer Hart, without the knack for finding dead bodies!

This was the one for 2013. The Picky Eater was a courier and was gone on his route from 6 p.m. to about 3 or 4 a.m. It was a comfort when he returned home each morning.

For this year, I bought this dove from Prairie Glass Studios in downtown Topeka as my way to honor and remember the love of my life:

Next year I may have a big, new, pre-lit tree for Christmas. Who knows?  For now, I get a lot of joy from looking at “our” Christmas tree.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Twice-Baked Sweet Potatoes

Have you bought sweet potatoes yet for your traditional casserole? Here’s an updated twist on a side dish tradition.

This Twice-Baked Sweet Potatoes recipe is based on a casserole I've made every holiday for years. I saw a magazine article about making twice-baked sweet potatoes and thought, “Why can’t I do that with my recipe?” So, I did! However, if you prefer the casserole form, then by all means, go for it. This recipe works either way. Also, if feeding a large group, just double the recipe.

Twice-Baked Sweet Potatoes

Serves 6
4 small sweet potatoes
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons milk
1/4 cup light brown sugar
1 egg, beaten
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
Pinch of salt
For topping:
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1/3 cup flour
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 to 1/2 cup chopped pecans, to taste

Prick each sweet potato 3 times with a fork and place on a microwave-safe dish. Microwave on high for 9 to 12 minutes, turning the potatoes over every 3 minutes, until a wooden skewer pokes easily into the potato. (Some of the potatoes may bake faster than the others. Just removed the ones that are done and keep going with the rest, checking every 3 minutes.) Let the cooked potatoes sit for 10 minutes to cool slightly.

To make the topping: Place all of the topping ingredients, except the pecans, into a small bowl. Using your fingers, squish the ingredients together until crumbly. Add the pecans and mix to combine. Set aside.

To prepare the potatoes: Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Cut each potato in half lengthwise and, using a spoon, scoop out the flesh from the center into a large bowl, making sure to leave about 1/4-inch of the flesh inside of the potato skin. Place each potato skin shell onto a baking sheet that was sprayed with non-stick cooking spray. Bake the shells for 10 minutes, or until they are slightly dried and firm.

While the shells bake, add butter to the bowl of sweet potato flesh and mash with a potato masher. Add the rest of the ingredients and stir until combined and fluffy.

Remove the shells from the oven and reduce the temperature to 375 degrees F. Discard 2 of the shells since you will not have enough filling for all of them. Spoon the filling into the remaining shells and cover with the toping mixture. Return the baking sheet to the oven and bake until the topping is golden brown, about 20 to 25 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow the potatoes to rest for at least 5 minutes before serving.

To make a casserole: Scoop all of the flesh out of the potatoes into the bowl. Mix in the rest of the ingredients as described above, and then spread into a baking dish. Sprinkle the topping over the casserole and bake until golden brown.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Sweet and Spicy Cranberry Sauce

Step away from the can!

Isn't it time to make your own cranberry sauce? If you haven’t tried yet, hopefully this recipe will serve as inspiration. It’s so easy!

This sweet and spicy version tastes great not only with the Thanksgiving turkey, but also with ham, pork and chicken. Just adjust the amount of red pepper flakes to fit your family’s spice tolerance. Best of all, the sauce can be made up to three days in advance and kept in the refrigerator. 

Now, if you’re cranberry sauce must be shaped like a can, I’m sorry. 
I can’t help you.

Perhaps cranberry sauce therapy?

Sweet and Spicy Cranberry Sauce
Serves 6

1 package fresh cranberries
Juice and zest from 1/2 large orange
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
1 teaspoon dried ginger
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes, to taste
Pinch of salt

In a saucepan over low heat, combine all of the ingredients and stir occasionally until sugar is melted. Then increase the heat and let the mixture simmer gently until it thickens slightly and most of the cranberries have popped, about 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and allow the mixture to cool. Refrigerate covered until needed.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Chicken Pad Thai with Spaghetti Squash

Recently I confessed my lack of enthusiasm for winter squashes. However, I am intrigued by spaghetti squash. I love how the solid flesh turns into strings after cooking. Kids think it’s magic!

Spaghetti squash is a tasty substitute for pasta or noodles. In the past, I've served it with homemade marinara sauce over the top. This time, I wanted to try something with an Asian flair.

The resulting Pad Thai recipe was delectable. The flavors were a perfect balance of savory and slightly sweet, and blended well with the spaghetti squash. I made the dish for dinner one night and enjoyed the leftovers for lunch the next day.

One note: The recipe calls for bean sprouts, which I love in Pad Thai recipes. However, on the day I wanted to make this dish I couldn't find any in the grocery store. So I made it without the sprouts, and it was still terrific. So put them in or leave them out. It’s up to you.

Chicken Pad Thai with Spaghetti Squash
Adapted from The Complete Cooking for Two Cookbook by the Editors at America’s Test Kitchens
Serves 4
1 large spaghetti squash
8 to 9 tablespoons oil, divided
Juice of 4 limes
6 tablespoons water
5 tablespoons packed dark brown sugar
4 tablespoons of oyster sauce
4 teaspoons rice vinegar
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts cut into strips
2 small shallots, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
Salt, to taste
2 large eggs, beaten
2 cups bean sprouts (optional)
4 tablespoons chopped unsalted dry-roasted peanuts
4 scallions, green part only, thinly sliced
4 tablespoons fresh cilantro leaves

To prepare the squash, preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Cut the squash lengthwise into two halves. (Be careful, since the skin is tough.) Scrape out the seeds (I do this with an ice cream scoop) and place the squash halves cut side up onto a baking sheet. Brush each halve with 1 to 2 tablespoons of oil. Bake for 50 to 60 minutes, or until a fork easily goes into the flesh. Remove from the oven and allow the squash to cool until it can be handled. Using a fork, scrape the squash flesh into strands and place in a bowl. Set aside.

To make the sauce, whisk together in a small bowl the lime juice, water, brown sugar, oyster sauce, 3 tablespoons oil, rice vinegar, and cayenne pepper. Set aside.
Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Saute the chicken until browned. Remove from the skillet onto a plate and set aside.
Reduce the heat to medium, and add 2 more tablespoons of oil to the skillet. Add the shallots, garlic, and a pinch of salt, and saute until the shallots are a light golden brown. (This happens quickly.) Pour in the beaten eggs and scramble until just done (this also happens quickly.) Add the chicken back to the skillet, along with any juices that accumulated on the plate. Stir in the sauce, bean sprouts, and half the scallions and peanuts. Allow the mixture to simmer for 2 to 4 minutes so the sauce can thicken a bit.
To serve, divide the spaghetti squash between four plates. Spoon the chicken mixture on top of the squash. Sprinkle the remaining peanuts, scallions, and the cilantro leaves over the top.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

A Cup of Tea and a Romantic Tale

In the past, I've written many times about how The Picky Eater and I connected on and met for our first date in a grocery store parking lot. But I've never told you about the other man that was a part of that first evening. So, sit back with a cup of your favorite tea, coffee, or hot chocolate and let me tell you about our dinner with the other man…and how magic movie moments can happen in real life.

By the way, I’ll give you tips on making the perfect pot of tea at the end of this post.

It was Thursday, November 11, 2010—Veterans Day. After spending the day at the Montessori preschool where I taught…and spending a few moments after work in the teacher’s bathroom fixing my hair, touching up my make-up, and changing clothes…I headed to the Dillons Supermarket in North Topeka to meet Michael. We had talked on the phone for hours the previous three nights, but now it was time to meet face to face. Needless to say, I was nervous.

The first thing I noticed when we met were Michael’s dancing blue eyes. And he gave great hugs!

I followed him in my car to the Prairie Band Casino and Resort for dinner. That may seem like a strange place to go on a first date, but I was excited. I had heard great things about the food (always a plus with me!) and was looking forward to checking it out. Plus, I didn't mind trying my luck on a slot machine or two.

After we arrived, we headed for the Longhouse Buffet. Since veterans could eat free that day, the line was long. As we neared the front, the man ahead of us turned and said to Michael, “I’m all by myself. Would you two like to share a table with me?”

Now, I’m thinking since this was our first date, Michael would turn him down. So you can imagine my surprise when he said, “Okay!”

The man’s name was Floyd. I don’t remember too much about him. He was a veteran from the Marines and very friendly—and talkative. Most of the dinner was spent listening to him tell about his troubles with his stepson.

We shared a booth—Floyd on one side and Michael and I on the other. At one point, Michael excused himself to go to the bathroom. When he came back and sat down, I put my hand on his arm.

It was magic! Electric! Michael looked into my eyes, and it was one of those moments you see in the movies but think never really happen in real life. He put his hand on mine. My heart was racing and I’m sure my face turned bright red. It was overwhelming.

I moved my hand to my lap and everything returned to normal.

Later that evening, Michael and I were talking in his car. He had his arm around me, my head was on his strong, comfortable shoulder, and a Kenny G Christmas CD was planning in the background. He said, “I could see myself married to someone like you.”

Three days later, on our second date, Michael told me he loved me and, again, he could see being married to me. What did I say? I pointed at him and said, “Don’t you dare propose to me! You hardly know anything about me yet.”

His response was, “I know what I feel.”

I said, “But we need to get to know each other better. Besides, it’s the holiday season when everything is sparkly and romantic. Let’s see how we feel in the middle of January when it’s cold and

Then I added, “I tell you what, if you still feel this way in the middle of January, and I feel the same way, then I’ll marry you on Christmas Eve 2011.”

And that’s just what I did.

One evening, sometime after we were married, I asked Michael if there was a moment when he knew he was in love with me. He answered, “When you put your hand on my arm at that first dinner with Floyd.”

I guess he felt the magic, too.

Remembering our dinner with Floyd always brought a smile and a laugh to us both. My sister-in-law thinks Floyd was an angel sent to make sure Michael and I fell in love.

Today, four years later, I’m spending the day with my memories of how The Picky Eater and I joined our lives together. He always made a big celebration of our first-date anniversary, even more so than our wedding anniversary. I kept the e-mails we exchanged in those early days and we would spend time every Veterans Day reading through them and remembering how our love began. After Michael died, I was going through his e-mails and found he had saved the one from that was my response to his interest in me.

That’s the kind of man The Picky Eater was.

I was a lucky girl.

I want to keep Michael’s tradition, even though he’s gone. (Tomorrow it will be five months since he died.) Today I’ll read those e-mails and drive to the casino, with a quick stop at the Dillons parking lot and Kenny G playing on the CD player. I still adore him, and miss him desperately, but I don’t want to be too sad today. So, I’ll think of Floyd, the magic of a touch, and meeting the love of my life. 

Michael could always make me smile.

The Perfect Pot (or Cup) of Tea
I love black teas, particularly sturdy English Breakfast and smoky Lapsang Souchong. The Picky Eater loved Earl Gray. Many evenings, when he wasn't on his courier route, we would share a cup while watching television.
To brew the perfect pot or cup of tea:
  • Bring cold water to a boil. (Cold water has more oxygen and makes a better tasting tea. Also do not let the water boil for too long or it will release the oxygen and the tea will taste flat.)
  • Fill the tea pot or cup with some of the boiling water and let stand for a moment or two to warm.
  • Empty the pot or cup, add the tea leaves or bags and pour the boiling water on top. Allow the tea to steep for three to five minutes or until the tea reaches the desired strength. Note: Steep green tea for only one to three minutes to prevent bitterness.