Best of .... Smashed Muffin 2011

Today, I had some unexpected time to myself and for once had the time and space to think and recollect about the happenings of 2011. So, I decided to come up with a list of random things, thoughts, happenings and ideas of Smashed Muffin related things (aside from the obvious) that are the "bomb dot com" in my book. (A friend of mine started saying that, or maybe she's been saying it for a while, but regardless, I love it and I'm totally stealing it.)

1) New Cookbooks and Foodie Reading Material
Flour by Joanne Chang

A friend at work tipped me off on this one as she had worked at Flour and let me borrow her personal copy of the book. However, shortly after it became quite clear that I would need my own copy. And let me tell you, discovering the cookbook has brought a lot of joy to this household. I've only made a handful of recipes so far, but all of them have been winners. Still need to try the sticky buns, but they will be a must make in 2012!
A Homemade Life by Molly Wizenberg
When I worked at the Sun-Times, we had quarterly book sales of material that had been sent for our review. Books, CD's, DVD's. I acquired quite a collection over the years and picked a lot of books and such at random intending to get to them later, A Homemade Life being one of those such books. A friend was visiting from out of town and noticed the book on my bookshelf in my kitchen and told me I had to read it. I finally got around to reading it and I was not disappointed. Now, I'm obsessed. So obsessed, that I'm hoping to plan a trip to Delancey (the restaurant the author opened with her husband in Seattle) sometime in 2012.

Lucky Peach Magazine
While doing my Holiday Shopping this year, I came across the magazine Lucky Peach. I missed the first issue, but the second issue was kind of perfect for me because it was surrounded by the theme "the sweet spot." Not only am I obsessed with it because it's published by McSweeney's, but this issue also had an article about someone else I'm currently inspired by, Christina Tosi of Momofuku Milk Bar. I can't wait to try making the grilled ham and cheese sandwich (with smart balance "ham" of course), which is wrapped between two corn cake cookies. As one of the editors writes in the introduction of the issue, the sweet spot in your life can be anywhere, event that moment "when you've eaten too many cookies and decide to try making a ham sandwich with cookies as bread." What's not to love? The mag even came with a page full of stickers for you to decorate your fruit with. Cuz, let's be real. Even if you're not a kid anymore, it's still hard to eat your fruit and veggies sometimes. But making it fun, makes it go down easier at the moments when you need an extra nudge.

2) Good Eats
The Pickled Carrots at Birchwood Kitchen
Obviously, I couldn't recollect without mentioning the pickled carrots at Birchwood Kitchen. Not only was it the inspiration for this blog's beginnings, but those carrots were also one of my favorite go-to holiday gifts this year. With a feature on Tasting Table, I certainly hope others were as psyched as I was to bring a piece of the BK home with them.

Jeni's Spledid Ice Creams
This August, I was fortunate enough to visit Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams in Nashville, TN. They have other locations in Ohio, however, I really wish they would expand to Chicago. There are a handful of retailers throughout our local area that sell their pints of premium ice cream, however, it's not quite the same. Although, after discovering the new Jeni's sublime holiday video (I'm also obsessed with all their George Lange/Lange Studio videos by the way), I'm convinced that this should be the only way I chose to celebrate my new years, or any holiday for that matter.

4) All things Craft-tastic
Pinterest is my new favorite hobby. When I'm not writing, or at work, or crafting, or baking, I'm probably pinterest-ing. Ok, that's not a word, but you get what I mean. It's got it all, fashion, food, crafts and a whole lot of randomness that will make you smile. Check it out. You might find yourself perusing for hours. Or longer. It's kinda dangerous like that, but still pretty great.

5) Movie Moments
Stranger Than Fiction
Ok, so maybe this movie isn't from this year, but I did watch it recently. And while doing so, was reminded how perfectly cheesetastic (yet oh-so-loveable) the scene is where Harold Crick brings Ana Pascal "flours" in an attempt to win her over. I mean, seriously. Who needs "flowers" that are going to wilt and die, when you have "flours" that you can bake with and enjoy the benefits of for weeks or months (thank you freezer)?!  And I also second Ana Pacal's wish to make the world a better place with cookies. Bite by bite, it'll happen. Watch out world. Nothing makes the end of a long, terrible day seem to wash away than a delicious, gooey, out of this word cookie or dessert.

6) More videos to love
DOSE Market
This year, my new favorite thing to do when I'm not feeling Green City Market, was to splurge a little and visit Dose Market. The video sums it up pretty well, but if you're not convinced.... well I'm really not sure why you wouldn't be convinced, to be honest. 

I think I've already professed my love of Tattly, however this video just solidified my love that.much.more. It's very cute. And as they say on the blog, you won't be able to watch it without smiling, even just a little. Go ahead and try not to. I dare you.

Tattly from Made by Hand on Vimeo.

Butcher & Larder video by Big View Makes
I know it seems weird coming from a vegetarian, but I completely stand behind the message in this video. Bring the neighborhood butcher back! And heck, the owner used to be a vegetarian too, so you really can't fight me on this one. We're all on the same side, regardless of what you choose to and choose not to consume.

P&S Ep. 1 | Butcher & Larder from Sergio Salgado on Vimeo.

So, dear readers... What are/were your favorite moments of inspiration that you stumbled upon this year? What are you looking forward to the most in the coming year?


Holiday Gift Guide 2011

It's just about that time of year. I've felt a little stumped on the gift ideas lately as I have yet to cross off anything on my own "gift-giving list", nor have the lists been properly made and organized (yes, I'm a little OCD). But, then I got those wheels turning a bit and I thought, to myself, "Dab Nabbit! Hows about a Smashed Muffin Gift Guide?!" So here you have it folks, my top suggestions for gifts to give to you and yours this year. Want to get your hands on my "highly inappropriate" but oh so delicious holiday rum ball recipe for the perfect DIY gift? Send an email to smashedmuffingoods@gmail.com and tell me what you're getting the lovelies on your list...!

1. A couple years back, I went to a book signing event at my favorite book shop in the city, The Book Cellar. Not only is it a great place to get gift ideas, but it also introduced me to the editors and concept behind The Smith Magazine Six Word Memoir project. Specifically, the Six Word Memoirs on Love and Heartbreak by writers famous and obscure. The idea seemed rather genius to me at the time. Now I've come to learn that there's a game, yes, cheesetastic, I know. But what can I say, I'm a sucker for a game that relates to writing. SOLD.
2. I've seen my fair share of tattoos, but I have yet to sport one myself. Getting a tattoo in my book has always meant applying with soap and water. For your fellow non-committal inkettes, Tattly has just the thing. Sign up for their subscription box and get 8 temporary tattoos a month, for 6 months, for $60. JUST ADD WATER!

3. Speaking of Tattly, they also recently came out with a custom Field Notes edition. I happen to be a fan of Field Notes to begin with. I mean, who can't relate to their slogan - "I'm not writing it down to remember it later. I'm writing it down to remember it now." Not only am I all about the writing, but who can't find a pocket notebook handy from time to time to jot down those shreds of ideas we come across during a day that we grasp to remember? And, it's made in the USA to boot. ADD IT TO THE LIST!

4. While we're on the topic of writing and books, I'm going to share with you one of my favorite coffee table books. It may seem silly to some, but when I'm having a bad day, nothing brings me more comfort than flipping through the pages of this book and not being able to help myself from cracking a hopeful smile. Not to mention that Everything is Going to be OK is published by my favorite publisher, Chronicle Books. With the stresses of the day, sometimes we all need a friendly, inventive reminder to put things in perspective. What are you waiting for? You might even want to buy one for yourself, it's that good. Don't worry, I won't tell anyone. GO BUY IT ALREADY!


5. Wait, wait... Don't Tell Me! I know this one! The uber dork in me would love nothing more than to spend all my Saturday nights drinking chai in my living room and listening to the Wait, Wait... Don't Tell Me show (and thusly trying not to snort said chai out of my nose during the intense fits of laughter). You can do my nerdalicious fantasy one better and go to a live taping of the show at the Chase Auditorium Theatre. And if you have a foodie lover on your hands, I've always thought it would be the best treat ever to recreate Wait, Wait's Sandwich Monday for someone - the absurd, disgusting, delicious and everything in between. Mix well and it sounds like fun for all to me! Some available at local haunts in the city, some you can fabricate live in your very own kitchen. Just sayin.....

6. Growing up, I was always intrigued by nesting dolls. When I came across these nesting doll (ok technically they're called "matryoshka dolls") measuring cups at a recent trip to Paper-Source (or I've also seen them at Sur La Table), it was love at first sight. Not only are they adorable, but they're also quite functional. They're great if you're short on cabinet space - and you get double the measuring capabilities with tops and bottoms. Who can't use an extra measuring cup or two? Especially when they're so stylish and cute! ....WIN WIN! 


7. When I first moved to the big city (from the nearby western suburbs, but still), I quickly discovered the thriving crafting scene in Chicago. And thus, quickly fell in love with Renegade Holiday Craft Fair. I instantly gravitated to my favorite vendor for the perfect gift for all my Chicagoan friends, Circa Ceramics. (I find their magnets to be great gifts, for your Chicago and non-Chicago friends alike.) Handmade in Chicago, they have a line of bowls, cups, vases, plates, you name it, in the blue stripe/red stars design of the Chicago flag. WHAT'S NOT TO LOVE?!

8. While we're on the topic of making your kitchen fully stocked with functional and cute kitchenware supplies, I couldn't help but include this camera cookie cutter set from DIY Photography. I discovered these while browsing Feature Shoot's gift giving for photographers list. These truly will be the "best cameras you've ever tasted." SWEET!

9. Now that you're friends will be fully stocked with functional and fun kitchen ware, they'll need fresh and local ingredients to cook with. I can't think of anything better than a produce box from Green Grocer Chicago. GET COOKIN'!

10. My last gift suggestion kind of comes full circle. This blog's very first posting was about attempting to recreate, at home, the pickled carrots from Birchwood Kitchen. Then I got the newsletter from Tasting Table in my inbox last week, and it provided a friendly reminder of this blog's beginnings. If you don't have time to make them on your own, now you can take those pickled carrots (and more) home with you. At $7.50 per 12 ounce mason jar, you'll be stocking up on more than just the carrots (jars are also available in green and white wax beans, beets, cauliflower, and even brussel sprouts). WHAT'RE YOU WAITING FOR?!


A Slice of Royal Pie and Then Some

As of late, you might have noticed, my blogging has suffered. If it makes you feel any better, my food writing has suffered too. While I struggle to achieve balance in an ever demanding life, I am attempting to change that and fight my work life from taking over. In doing so, I've been scouring the world wide web for new sources of inspiration. I didn't have to look far.

Have you ever heard of Pleasant House? I read about PH in a feature in Chicago Mag, and then noticed them pop up at a recent trip to Dose Market. And then I stumbled across this video on Gapers Block while attempting to catch up on happenings at the Chicago Food Film Fest, and let me tell you. As if I wasn't dying to go before, now I really really want to take a trip to Bridgeport. Seriously. All I want for Christmas is for someone to take me to Pleasant House so I can eat one of their kale & mushroom royal pies. Go ahead. Take a look. And tell me you don't want to hop on your bike and go right now.
(***If the video doesn't load below, click on the link for "Farm to Barstool" and it should load in another window.)

Farm To Barstool from Michael Gebert on Vimeo.

So since I watched one, I decided I might as well watch them all...
Next up was a very charming video for The Doughnut Vault. Now I see donuts being made at work every day. And sure, they look quite tempting and the process is pretty amazing. But this just took it to a whole new level. Who cares about taste. They make it look like magic. Magic I tell you. Don't you want to camp out overnight with me just to be first in line? Please? And when we get there, maybe they'll even let us use the stamp ourselves to put the logo on the bag. Cuz that would just make my day. PS - Would it be weird to ask for a sheeter for my birthday? Ok, it would. But here's to dreaming...

The Doughnut Vault from Mode Project on Vimeo.

Lastly, I leave you with an inspirational caffeine jolt. Now, mind you, I'm not the world's biggest fan of Intelligenstia. I like the idea and their coffee is pretty gosh darn good, however, sometimes they take it to such a level that it becomes inaccessible for me. I love that their baristas are coffee nerds turned mad scientists, but sometimes it seems just a bit too much. Maybe I just don't know enough about coffee. Regardless, I still thoroughly enjoyed the artistry of this video. And plus, what goes better with a doughnut than a cup 'o joe. (Ok, first off it's espresso, not coffee. And second off, they'd NEVER call it that, but come on. Have a sense of humor already.)

Espresso, Intelligentsia from The D4D on Vimeo.

Now I ask you, dear reader. What were you inspired by today?


Out with the Old, In with the New... A Few Months Early

This week marked the one year anniversary of my official exit from the newspaper industry and my entry into the food/service industry. Boy, has a lot happened in that year. Sometimes, it's hard to believe what transpired this year happened at all. From making popcorn and slinging sandwiches, to selling baked goods, to working in the freezer of that infamous grocery store with those little shopping carts, it feels like more than just a year has gone by. The past few months especially have been an exciting whirlwind with the demands of my newest gig, and my entry into the online community as a bonafide food blogger. I've realized some important things about myself in the past year, that the written word never left my bloodstream, and nor has my desire to continue to be inspired and craft at every opportunity. While my list of hopeful future accomplishments continues to grow, I'm still pretty proud of all that's unfolded in a year. It may not seem like a lot on paper, but when you consider that a year ago I was basically entering my working life with a clean slate, I feel like I've made some pretty good strides in the right direction.

On that note, I'm leaving you with (what I found to be) an entertaining video entitled "WORK." Sometimes we get so bogged down in work, we lose sight of what we're working for. It could be so you can afford nice things and provide for your family, it could be to achieve your dream job, or heck, it could be for moon shoes. Either way, I don't know about you, but I'm definitely "ready to start the work!" as the prospect of a new calendar year approaches.


Sunday Brunchday

There's nothing I love more than Sunday brunches spent relaxing at home. With few exceptions. Not so long ago, I finished reading Molly Wizenberg's A Homemade Life. Not only is it an enchanting read, especially for all you foodies, but it also doubles as a great recipe book. This past Sunday, I found myself with a day off from work and a hankering for a delicious, filling, but somewhat quick and easy brunch to make. So I turned to Wizenberg's recipe pages, naturally. I remember reading her chapter on her dad (Berg's) French toast. Something about that chapter stuck. Maybe it was the description of her intoxication with his breakfast specialty, or maybe it was because I knew there was a loaf of my favorite white bakery bread sitting on the counter, but I knew I had to give this recipe a try.

It definitely did not disappoint. It may not be something you categorize under "healthy" breakfasts, however, it will most likely hit the spot if you're hankering for a special Sunday treat. I had mine with fresh fruit and some soy whip cream on top. Heavenly. And the perfect meal to round out the end of the weekend. I definitely recommend giving it a try. And if you do, be sure to let me know what you think!

You can find the recipe from Wizenberg's book here. Enjoy!


Seemingly Pedestrian

Why hello there dear readers. It has been quite a long while since my last post and I apologize. Life has gotten in the way a bit too often lately. But that's a good thing. While work and life have been a bit overwhelming these days, I must say, a lot of good has come out of my zombie state of over-worked exhaustion these days. Whether gathering around a table with new friends (ok, I'll admit it, sometimes we skip the table for some bar stools), adventuring on culinary feasts in China Town, or just finding humor in the little things, life has been good, albeit bursting at the seams.

Some other things I am quite excited about of late aside from recent company and altering work settings, are some new books I have recently learned about. First up, is Chicken and Egg: A Memoir of Suburban Homesteading. Now most of you probably know, that I don't eat chicken. However, this book is about so much more than just the meat a chicken can provide. It's really more about the eggs and appreciating where they come from.

The author, Janice Cole, documents her journey after deciding to purchase three tiny chicks to provide her with and endless supply of fresh and free eggs. Of course the story of raising a home chicken coop provided to be a lot more than Cole was ever expecting, but what a pay off. Now I've only leafed through the recipes and skimmed some of her stories, but so far, I can tell Cole's story is one worth reading. I always have an extra appreciation for recipe books that separate their concoctions by seasonality. Not only is Chicken and Egg separated like so, but Cole also specifies the time of season when these recipes work best (i.e. late winter, autumn harvest, etc).

The next book is Flour: Spectacular Recipes from Boston's Flour Bakery & Cafe, on loan from a coworker who used to work at Flour. The introductory paragraph says it all for me. 

Flour. On its own, it's an ordinary ingredient. Likewise, there's nothing special about a cup of sugar, a few eggs, or a stick of butter. But together, these seemingly pedestrian ingredients form the foundation of the magical world of baking.

Again, I haven't quite gotten the chance to get my hands dirty with this one just yet, but I cannot wait. Just flipping through has me wanting to spend every day trying everything out. Plus, it was published by my favorite, Chronicle Books. What's not to like about that? I also can't wait to attempt their ever famous stick buns that nudged out contender Bobby Flay on an episode of Throwdown.

I leave you with this video as a nugget of inspiration about the theory and composition behind creating the Flour cookbook, which, I have a feeling is going to become one of my newest personal baking bible. Enjoy!


Coffee Talk

Let's talk coffee folks. Chicago is not only one of the most caffeinated cities in the country, but it is also home to some amazing local brewers. A father and son team at Metropolis, coffee for those who enjoy their coffee mad scientist lab style at Intelligentsia. But last week, I was introduced to my new favorite brew house that also calls the CHI it's home, Star Lounge Coffee Bar, also known as the retail venue downstairs from Dark Matter Brewing.

Now, I like coffee, but I try not to drink it every day, for a few reasons, but namely because I like it so much, and I want it to stay a special "treat" per say for my palette. If I drank it everyday, I always fear it would become, well, too normal; too routine. Coffee is routine for many folks. Wake up, turn on the coffee, and not considered functional until at least 2 cups have been imbibed. For me, if I don't make coffee my routine, it's even more of a refreshing surprise every time I can enjoy it.

Anyways, Star Lounge was the perfect place to throw my coffee taste buds a little party. (Namely my indulgence in their peaberry roast - a peaberry essentially being a coffee bean, or fruit rather, that has developed two bean halves that share the same coffee cherry. Due to the physical differences from a flat, single bean, roasting these delicacies creates a highly reputed and uniquely bodied brew that I will definitely be back for.) Focusing on small batch roasts and sourcing only from local community businesses and farmers, Dark Matter is on to something if you ask me. The movement for local, sustainable businesses has been steadily growing in this city, which makes me very proud to be a Chicagoan. We can always do more, but it's learning about and experiencing places like this, that give me the hope that we're headed in the right direction.

While this post isn't much on content (I know I've been slacking these days dear reader, forgive me), it makes up for it in the quality. Trust me, this is a movement and a place you need to know about, and (hopefully) will be on board with as well. Hopping on the local bandwagon will help us ensure a better world for the future. For our children's children. And all that mushy gushy stuff. But seriously, want to make a difference? Start small. Start local.

What are some of your favorite local businesses in your neck of the woods that you think need to be known...?! Leave some in the comments!

Stay sweet my friends.


Bread Salad

I know what you're thinking. "Oh my gosh, you can do that?!" Yes. I'm telling you, you can. It's perfectly acceptable to have a salad made of bread for dinner. Especially if you're carb-ing up for the upcoming Chicago Marathon. Not participating? Well, then, carb up in support of those who will. Or, maybe you're experiencing the train of thought of "Wait, you too?!" Yes indeedy. I loves me some bread salad. Just like you!

Bread salad is super easy to make and the perfect way to get in a "would you like some some carbs with that?" to make the veggies go down easier. Plus, most of the ingredients you'll likely already have handy. And you know how handy ingredients make me happy. Like bread for example. I'm not going to lie to you. Bread is a staple in this carbaholic's home. I honestly don't know what I'd do if I ever have to go without gluten. Probably attempt (in an epic fail mind you) to make my own gluten free bread. But that just sounds... next to impossible, doesn't it? I mean, what is good bread if not gluten-y? And for the record, no, gluten-free does not make something free. (No joke, a customer asked me this about one of our gluten-free products the other day.) Anyways, enough on that tangent and on to more bread! With a side of salad too, I guess. If you don't have lettuce around, fresh spinach, cabbage, or any kind of veggie slaw (TJ's broccoli slaw is a favorite in my household) make good substitutes. Or heck, even kale makes a good alternative. Remember that stuff?! 

Alright, no more stalling. Below you'll find my go-to standard for the basics of a good bread salad. Not in the mood for olives? Don't like onions? You know what I'm going to say... get crafty in the kitchen people, and make it your own. Try bread + salad greens + brie cheese, walnuts and sliced pears instead. Or bread + salad greens + goat cheese, beets, and sunflower seeds. What about bread + salad + Or try your own combo. But, seriously, just try it already!

KT's Crafty Bread Salad
No-budge ingredients : Salad greens, bread, olive oil (you can be skimpy), balsamic, a squeeze of lemon juice.
Suggested ingredients : Red onion, black olives, green olives (with pimentos), soft cheese (preferably goat or feta), a handful of your favorite nuts, for crunch (walnuts, pine nuts, and sunflower seeds are my favorites).
*Today, I used a combo of both olives, parmesan, tomatoes and roasted egg plant.
Prepare a bed of salad greens in a large bowl with your chosen combination of toppings, chopped into bite-size pieces. You can pan fry, or pop your bread in the oven to crisp it. Or, if you're having a lazy day, you can always just pop a slice in the toaster (I won't tell anyone, I promise). Cut your bread into bite-size pieces as well. (Feel free to be more generous with the bread chunks than I was in the picture below.) Again, here I like to use my favorite kitchen tool (say it with me now, folks), scissors! Garnish with a drizzle of olive oil and balsamic, salt and pepper to taste, and toss to mix. And there you have it. A most carbo-licious helping of veggies you won't feel terribly guilty about consuming.  


What the Kale?

This past weekend, I was fortunate enough to be a part of the vendor list at DOSE Market Chicago. I was there for work, previewing our soon to launch juice bar. One of the juices we were offering was the "Going Green" (green apples, celery, cucumbers, cilantro and kale), and because of that we had bucket and buckets (see below) of kale on our hands, among other things. I got to talking with my cohorts about other uses for kale and we decided that kale chips are a must when the day comes that we revamp the menu, as a perfect side for sammies and the like.

This gave me a bad case of "kale on the brain". It just so happens, I was grocery shopping the other day and couldn't resist picking up a bunch for myself. It's so frilly and fancy looking, but I've rarely ever had the notion to do anything but look at it, much less attempt to eat it (with few exceptions - ahem, thank you kindly Clean detox for the introduction to this "curly haired" veg). But when I heard how quick & easy it was to make kale chips (basically pop 'em in the oven and sprinkle them with salt), I thought, now there's a solution for my guilt ridden chip cravings. So I tried it out. And I must say, what a great way to get in some extra nutrients. You'll actually want to eat your leafy greens. I had mine as a side to a cucumber and smoked salmon bagel. (Ok, don't get me started - I've also been on a smoked salmon kick lately. And whaddya know, good ol' Trader Joe's had some for a reasonable price, so my craving was successfully nourished. Dose didn't help dampen my craving either. While there, I snagged a bagel topped with Smoked Wild Alaskan Salmon from the adorable and lovely Each Family.)

Eat your heart out, folks! Seriously, please do. Your body will thank you. Trust me.
(Kale is known to be high in beta carotene, vitamin K, vitamin C, as well as calcium. Not to mention indole-3-carbinol, a chemical which boosts DNA repair in cells and has been thought to block the growth of cancer cells. Well shoot. Get snacking!)
Katie's Kale Chips
Kale (one bunch, or roughly 8-10 small-medium stalks)
Olive Oil, extra virgin, to coat (or truffle oil if you want to be all fancy dancy about things)
Fleur de Sel , just a pinch(or regular old table salt works just fine too)
White Peppercorns, ground - a dash (optional - for a little extra punch in the face)
Preheat your oven to 300 degrees. Wash and dry your kale. Using your hands, or my favorite kitchen tool, a pair of scissors, trim the leafy bits away from the stiff center stalk (dispose of stalk). Over a bowl, break kale into desired "chip" size pieces. Toss to coat with olive oil and sprinkle with desired seasonings (salt, pepper, etc). Spread out on a sheet tray (I used parchment) and, if desired, sprinkle with more seasonings, to taste. Bake for roughly 20-25 minutes, until crisp. Voila. The healthiest chip you'll probably ever eat. And you might even like it.

*Note: I split my sheet pan in half and did half a regular recipe of chips (about 4-5 stalks, or leaves; and on the other half, I followed the same recipe but used approximately half the olive oil. This latter half was drier, since less moisture was added with the oil, so I popped them in a baggie and mashed them up with my hands (you could be more sophisticated and use a food processor, etc). This I will be using in the coming week or so as a seasoning, for some added "punch" (likely along with a generous sprinkling of parm) on top of buttered noodles & pastas, mixed into cream cheese for a veggie spread, mixed with some greek yo for a quick veggie dip, or even (as my fav, Smitten Kitchen suggests) on top of popcorn.


Cracker Craze

Today I got a mad craving for some Cool Ranch Doritos. It may have been the discussion around the "coffee carafe" I had with my co-workers this morning about the variety of cheap yet snackalicious chip varieties available at Aldi. (Hey now, don't judge. There's nothing wrong with learning the fine art of grocery shopping on the cheap. And when you're working in the wee hours of the morning, it's conversations like this that keep you entertained, or at least keep you awake.) Or, the craving could be a result of my recent trip this past weekend to The Salt of the Earth eatery in Fennville, MI. "Who knew there'd be a thriving restaurant in Fennville - I think the whole town came here tonight" commented my father after we had been seated. (When we arrived, the number of in-house diners were sparse. In the 5 or so minutes of being seated and waiting for our server to appear, the place had transformed to quite the crowd.) While there, we not only noshed on delicious house-made bread, but we also indulged on their spicy crab dip appetizer, which came with house-made crackers. What does this have to do with Cool Ranch Doritos you say? I have a point, trust me. The crackers at Salt of the Earth were flakey and delicious, and reminded me of eating a super sized "organic" Cheez-it.

Needless to say, all of these variables got me to thinking about salty snacks. While I could have easily gone to the store and wasted my money on my guilty pleasure, I decided to save my wallet from a shallow purchase, at least this time around. So, I thought, let's get to making some homemade ranch powder. Which is really quite genius because then you can use the leftovers for homemade ranch dressing! And who doesn't love ranch dressing. To be quite honest, it's amazing I've survived the past month without a bottle in my fridge. Ranch is practically it's own food group in my house. Anyways, my first approach was to make the ranch powder and sprinkle it over some tortilla chips for a quick craving fix. Then I remembered this recipe from Smitten Kitchen (I've always wanted an excuse to try my hand at homemade crackers), and decided to combine the two ideas.  (I know, I know - I've been on a SK stint lately. But really, can you blame me?) All inspired by my craving and my recent taste of what a "real" cheese-it tastes like...!

So, here you have it folks, one of my very own "KT's Creations" recipes. And, in the usual fashion, I opted for using the ingredients I had handy (I was out of most of the ingredients traditionally used to make ranch powder - note the absence of onion powder - as you'll notice in the "make-shift" recipe that follows), so feel free to make adjustments and give your own spin on it.

"KT's Cool Ranch Crackers"
makes about 2 dozen (1 in) crackers
1-2 tbsp Ranch Powder (recipe below)
3 ounces havarti cheese, coarsely shredded 
2 tbsp butter **don't skimp! This will help bind your "dough" together.
1/4 cup whole wheat flour
1/8 cup AP flour

Preheat your oven to 350(F). Combine all ingredients in a food processor until the dough forms a ball, about 2 minutes. (Or, if your food processor is on the fritz like mine is, you can use a pastry cutter until the butter is incorporated, and mix the dough into a ball with your hands). On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough out to an 1/8 in (or desired) thickness. Cut into shapes and transfer to a parchment-lined cookie sheet, arranging approximately 1/2 in apart. (If desired, garnish with a light sprinkle of salt and/or more ranch powder on top of each cracker before baking). Bake for 12-15 minutes (until edges are slightly browned). Let cool. Enjoy.

Make-Do Ranch Powder
***measurements are estimates - I pretty much just eyeballed it.
1 tbsp egg white powder (milk/buttermilk powder preferred, if handy)
2 tsp dried dill weed

1 tsp salt (or fleur de sel)

1/2 tsp dried basil (in lieu of parsley - you could also use a dash of oregano)
1/4 tsp white pepper
1/8 tsp cumin
1/8 tsp black pepper

Combine all ingredients. If your mixture is clumpy (typically will happen on the more humid days), grind in a food processor until mixture becomes a fine powder.

*Trendy Tip - To use any leftover Ranch Powder as salad dressing, combine one or two TBSP's and mix with one cup of mayo and one cup of milk. You could also use greek yo as a replacement for the mayo if you're watching the fat - it's what I tend to use in place of sour cream these days.


Dulce de Leche, Need I Say More?

I have been dying for an excuse to make anything with dulce de leche. Thank goodness for this recipe from Smitten Kitchen. I also am a fan of anything cheesecake, so this really wasn't a hard sell at all.

I had come across some "past due" molasses ginger cookies at work, and got the notion to use them for a crust for a cheesecake bar. Then a friend at work took it a step further and suggested making ricotta cheesecake bars. And, voila. My "excuse" was born. This recipe isn't for ricotta cheesecake, but I actually substituted the cream cheese in it for ricotta anyways. (I also pretty much never have whole milk in the house, so I used soy instead.) I figured with the sweetness of the dulce de leche, and the creaminess of the ricotta, it would make for a perfectly blended, but not over-the-top sweet, cheesecake bar. The dulce de leche isn't overwhelmingly flavorful here, but there are definite caramel-y undertones. I had to keep myself from indulging on the leftovers at every meal of the day.

Overall, I'd flag this one a "must make". Enjoy!

Dulce de Leche Cheesecake Squares
Adapted from Gourmet, December 2003
Makes 64 (1-inch) cheesecake squares
Note: Cheesecake (without glaze) can be chilled up to 3 days.
Cheesecake Squares
For crust

3 1/2 oz graham crackers, crumbled (1cup)
2 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
For filling
1 teaspoon unflavored gelatin (from a 1/4-oz envelope, will be just about half an envelope)
1/4 cup whole milk
8 oz cream cheese, softened
2 large eggs
3/8 teaspoon salt
1 cup dulce de leche (12 1/2 oz) (recipe follows)
For glaze
3 oz fine-quality bittersweet chocolate (not unsweetened), coarsely chopped
1/2 stick (1/4 cup) unsalted butter, cut into pieces
2 teaspoons light corn syrup
Make crust: Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 325°F. Line bottom and sides of an 8-inch square baking pan with 2 sheets of foil (crisscrossed), leaving a 2-inch overhang on all sides. Finely grind crackers with sugar and a pinch of salt in a food processor. With motor running, add butter, blending until combined. Press mixture evenly onto bottom of baking pan. Bake 10 minutes, then cool in pan on a rack 5 minutes.
Make filling: Sprinkle gelatin over milk in a small bowl and let stand 2 minutes to soften. Beat together cream cheese, eggs, salt, and gelatin mixture in a bowl with an electric mixer at medium speed until well combined, about 2 minutes, then stir in dulce de leche gently but thoroughly. Pour filling over crust, smoothing top, then bake in a hot water bath (I was able to fit mine in a 9×13-inch baking pan) in oven until center is just set, about 45 minutes. Cool cheesecake completely in pan on rack, about 2 hours. Chill, covered, at least 6 hours.
Glaze cake within 2 hours of serving: Heat all glaze ingredients in a double boiler or a small metal bowl set over a saucepan of barely simmering water, stirring until smooth, then pour over cheesecake, tilting baking pan to coat top evenly. Chill, uncovered, 30 minutes. Lift cheesecake from pan using foil overhang and cut into 1-inch squares with a thin knife, wiping off knife after each cut. (Don’t skip this step! A clean knife is essential for uber-neat squares.)
Dulce De Leche (Milk Caramel):
Pour one can (14 ounce) sweetened condensed milk into top of double-boiler pan; cover. Place over boiling water. Cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, for 40 to 50 minutes, or until thick and light caramel-colored.
Remove from heat. Whisk until smooth.


Fruit Parade, I Mean Puree

The surprisingly warm weather this weekend had me thinking of making a fruit puree to commemorate the final days of summer. Not to mention, I had a container of raspberries from Stanley's taking up space in my fridge. If you've ever purchased the amazingly cheap produce at Stanley's before, you know that time is of the essence. It may be cheap, but you sure as heck better use it fast too, or you'll be throwing it away stat. I'm making a raspberry flavored ganache next weekend for a macaron order, which calls for some raspberry puree, so I figured I'd give it a trial run and then reap the benefits of my labors throughout the week. 

Puree's are insanely easy to make and the options are quite endless as to what you can do with them. And they're certainly not limited to just raspberries (or berries in general). There are plenty of savory purees to sink your teeth into as well. And purees are often the bases for the start of more complex dishes and (mostly) desserts (i.e. ice creams, sorbets, smoothies, preserves, etc), as is the case with the ganache I'm making later on.

As far as purees go, some of my favorite uses include drizzling it on top of : ice cream, quick breads (especially pound cake/angel food cake/banana bread), greek yogurt and granola, or even in place of syrup on top of pancakes. (And you all know by now how crazy I am about all things pancakes). After I made this batch, I had some on top of a fresh slice of bread I got from the bakery I work at (with a little butter, don't forget), for a quick and delicious Sunday nosh.

(S)Wheat & Sour Bread with butter and a fresh raspberry puree.

Here's the general "recipe" for a puree (below). (You can leave it unsweetened or you can sweeten it with a little sucrose, or granulated sugar to taste.) Oh, and here's my all time favorite definition of a puree, as told in Veganomicon (one of my all time favorite cookbooks):
Blending the heck out of something in a food processor or blender.
Short, sweet, and to the point!

Now, for the recipe:

12 ounces (approximately 1 1/2 cups) fresh or frozen berries, (defrosted if frozen)
1/4 cup granulated sugar, or more to taste (optional - add only if sweetening, omit if making your puree unsweetened)
2 tablespoons freshly-squeezed lemon juice (acts as a preservative, optional)

Sort and wash your berries. Drain, cap, and stem (or thaw if frozen) unsweetened berries. In a saucepan, bring berries (with enough water to cover the bottom of the pan so the fruit doesn't stick) to a simmer. Turn the heat to low and cover, cooking approximately 20 minutes, or until fruit is soft and tender. Add your sugar (if sweetening) and cook until dissolved. In a food processor, combine berry mixture (add lemon juice at this point, if using) and process to a smooth puree, about 30 seconds. To eliminate pesky seeds and the like, pour your puree through a fine sieve, using a rubber spatula to stir and press the puree through; discard solids. Refrigerate for up to 3 days or freeze for up to 2 months. Yields approximately 1 cup of finished puree.


A Very "Farm Chicks" Labor Day

This Labor Day, I found myself planning a fun lunch. (Yes, like Market Day, but better, and not a frozen meal in a cardboard box). After struggling a few days prior to come up with a solid "menu", my cookbook collection served as "clutch" inspiration as I began prepping the day before. I love my cookbook collection. Ok, let's be real, I love books of any kind. But cookbooks are especially near and dear because they provide you with the outline to share your love for life (and of course, food) with others. However, sadly enough, all too often I find my cookbooks sitting on my kitchen bookshelf collecting dust. Partially because I don't always cook by a recipe and partially because cold cereal, peanut butter 'n jelly sammies, and cheese & crackers remain staples in my "I still order off the kid's menu" diet. And while some cookbooks certainly stay in a heavier rotation than the others, I don't use any of them nearly enough. So, for the holiday weekend, I found myself remaining as biased as ever, and gravitated to an old favorite, naturally.

I found out about the Farm Chicks when I first started becoming really passionate about food and baking a few years back, reading every blog and newspaper article I could get my eyes on. Then, over the holidays of 2009, I received their cookbook, Farm Chicks in the Kitchen, as a gift. I have yet to cover everything, but the recipes I have made from it have become staples (when I'm not eating like a child). Their cinnamon rolls seem like a marathon to make, but they are to-die-for. I make their Olivada Crostini on an almost weekly basis. And their butterscotch pie... well, need I really say more than that?

So (with the exception of the appetizer), I recreated some new Farm Chicks favorites, with my own twist for a "Labor Day Luncheon". For the appetizer (compliments of The Pioneer Woman, Ree Drummond), I made a small batch of BBQ Jalapeno Poppers. I would've taken a picture, but they didn't last long enough. Ree's recipe calls for wrapping the poppers in bacon, but since I tend to steer clear of eating things that have eyes, I opted for some Morning Star veggie bacon strips instead, slathered in some homemade barbeque sauce. For the main course, I made the Farm Chick's Roasted Chicken & Pesto Hoagies. With some Ciabatinni buns and ready made pesto from Trader Joe's, these sammies were a cinch.  (Yes, I used fake chicken too - Quorn chik'n cutlets are my personal preference.) For a side, I again took the Farm Chicks suggestion and spiced up some plain ol' store bought potato chips by adding some dill. Then, for the grand finale, I made one of the Farm Chick's many no-fail dessert options, a Blueberry Crisp (ok, they use fresh picked blackberries, but I improvised). Again, I would've taken a picture, but it disappeared a little too fast.

 Dill Chips and Chik'n Pesto Hoagies

All in all, whether you try one or all of these recipes, with your own twist of course, I guarantee you that they'll be crowd pleasers. Without a doubt. So give 'em a try... and let me know what you think!

BBQ Jalapeno Poppers
adapted from The Pioneer Woman Cooks by Ree Drummond
(makes 36 poppers)
18 fresh jalapenos
One 8-ounce package cream cheese
1/2 cup grated cheddar cheese
1 green onion, sliced
18 slices thin bacon, cut into halves
Bottled barbecue sauce
Preheat the oven to 275ºF. Begin by cutting jalapeños in half lengthwise (see warning in headnote). Try to keep the stems intact. They look prettier that way.With a spoon, scrape out the seeds and light-colored membranes. Remember: The heat comes from the seeds and membranes, so if you can handle the sizzle, leave some of them intact.Now, in a bowl, combine the cream cheese, cheddar cheese, and chopped green onion. Mix the ingredients together gently. And don't feel you have to use an electric mixer. I do because I'm lazy and don't like to exert myself. Ever. (Too much scrubbing clothes on the washboard, I suppose.)Next, stuff each hollowed jalapeño half with the cheese mixture.rap bacon slices around each half, covering as much of the surface as you can. Be careful not to stretch the bacon too tightly around the jalapeño, as the bacon will contract as it cooks. Brush the surface of the bacon with your favorite barbecue sauce. Chutney or apricot jelly works well, too! Secure the jalapeños with toothpicks and pop them in the oven for 1 hour, or until the bacon is sizzling. Serve hot or at room temperature, and watch them disappear within seconds. 
Roasted Chicken & Pesto Hoagies
adapted from The Farm Chicks in the Kitchen
4 hoagie rolls (hero rolls)                                                                                                                             
1/2 cup basil pesto                                                                                                                                        
2 cups shredded rotisserie chicken breast meat                                                                                              
8 thin slices provolone cheese  
Heat the broiler. Separate the rolls and arrange the halves on a baking sheet. Spread pesto on each half, dividing equally. Divide the chicken among 4 of the halves; top with 2 slices of the cheese. Place under the broiler, 4 to 6 inches from the heat source, until the cheese is melted- 1 to 2 minutes. Put the 2 halves of each sandwich together and serve warm.
Tasty Dill Chips
adapted from The Farm Chicks in the Kitchen 
Here's a quick, easy way to give plain potato chips a bit of an upscale taste: spread the chips on a baking sheet and evenly sprinkle with dried dill weed. Bake for 5 minutes in a heated 350 degree oven. We use a ratio of 1 teaspoon dried dill to a 4-ounce bag of kettle-style chips; you could use a different favorite herb, for instance rosemary, if you wish.
Blackberry Crisp
adapted from The Farm Chicks in the Kitchen
2 cups fresh blackberries or 1 16-ounce bag frozen blackberries                                                                    
3/4 cup all-purpose flour                                                                                                                               
3/4 cup packed brown sugar                                                                                                                         
3/4 cup old-fashioned rolled oats                                                                                                                  
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon                                                                                                                     
1/2 cup cold unsalted butter (1 stick), cut into small pieces                                                                               
1/2 cup chopped walnuts (2 ounces)                                                                                                               
Vanilla ice cream, for serving (optional)
Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Place the blackberries in the bottom of an 8-inch square baking dish. Combine the flour, brown sugar, oats, and cinnamon in a medium-size mixing bowl. Cut the butter into the flour mixture with a pastry cutter or two knives until the mixture forms large crumbs. Stir in the walnuts. Sprinkle the mixture over the berries in the baking dish. Bake until the topping is browned and berries are bubbly - 35 to 40 minutes. Serve warm with vanilla ice cream.