Friday, June 28, 2013

Sunday Best

It's no secret that brunch is one of my favorite weekend activities. A lazy morning, lots of food, good coffee...what's not to love?

A friend and I were talking recently and the topic of French toast came up. French toast? Ohhh, French toast...that long forgotten breakfast food that I feel I haven't made in years. And that's when I knew exactly what would be on my table come Sunday morning.

Here's a funny story about French toast: when I was growing up, it always kind of grossed me out. Soggy, eggy bread? Gross. Then my mom started making baked French toast, and let me tell you, that stuff will rock your world. Same prep is involved, just a different cooking method. There's also some flexibility with ingredients, allowing for a tiny bit healthier recipe (such as eggs vs. egg whites or milk vs. half and half/cream). As with many of my recipes, measurements here are eyeballed. Determine the amount of bread you're using first, then measure out the eggs and milk to give yourself enough liquid to dip each side of all the bread slices.

What you need:

Bread of choice (I used fresh Ciabatta from my Saturday Trader Joe's trip)
Eggs (or egg whites)
Milk, half and half or cream
Melted butter (optional - about 1 or 2 tbs)
Spices (I like cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger)

What you do:
-Slice your bread into about 1" thick pieces (I used 5 slices)
-Crack your eggs (or pour eggs whites from a carton) into a dish large enough to dip your bread slices
-Pour in your milk, half and half or cream (this should be maybe 1/3 the amount of egg/egg whites)
-Pour in your melted butter (if using - let cool so it doesn't harden when you pour it into the cold egg/milk mixture)
-Add your spices, then whisk all of the ingredients together
-Prepare a baking dish by greasing it with butter or cooking spray
-Dip each side of each piece of bread into the mixture so that it is saturated, then place it in the baking dish
-Bake uncovered at 350º for about 30 minutes (longer if you want your French toast crispier and less soggy), turning the pieces of bread over once during baking.

Top off your warm, baked French toast with fresh berries, banana slices, syrup, butter, or a dusting a powdered sugar. Or even more fun, if having brunch with family or friends, make a French toast bar laying out all the possible toppings and let your guests create their own perfect French toast. Enjoy!

Saturday, June 22, 2013

delicious desserts: busy day chocolate cake with strawberries and cream

I have to admit something. This is the first time ever that I've made a busy day chocolate cake. In fact, it wasn't until I began Pinteresting (it's a verb now...just go with it) my little heart out that I first even heard of busy day chocolate cake when I stumbled upon this adaptation of the Martha Stewart recipe. Let me take a moment here to go off on a little tangent. I love Pinterest. I love the inspirational spark of motivation Pinterest can light. But man, all I ever want to do is bake deliciously terrible-for-your-jeans desserts. Sigh. But anyway, I had a good reason this time, because it was Ashley's birthday!

To make this cake into a real birthday treat, I decided to double the fun and make a two layer cake. I'm usually pretty terrible at two layer cakes. Why? Because I'm too impatient. Sigh again. No matter how long I wait to add frosting and stack the top layer of cake upon the bottom, it never seems like it was enough time. The frosting gets soft from the heat of the cakes and just melts away. It's really quite a tragedy. So this time I smartened up and made this a two-day process. Night 1: bake the cakes. They can cool overnight and into the next day. Night 2: zip home from work, whip up the frosting, slice up the strawberries and assemble the layers. The finished masterpiece: a two layer chocolate cake with cream cheese/Cool Whip frosting and fresh strawberries.

This cake is super simple to make, so here's how you do it:

what you need (makes 1 cake):

1-1/2 cups flour
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp coarse salt
6 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tbsp distilled white vinegar
1 cup cold water

what you do:
1. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda and coarse salt.
2. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredient mixture. Add the vegetable oil, vanilla, vinegar and water.
3. Stir together until all ingredients are well mixed and there are not any lumps in the batter (the consistency is much like brownie mix).
4. Pour into a round cake pan (mine is non-stick so I did not grease it) and bake at 350 for 35-40 minutes. Poke the center of the cake with a toothpick to be sure it's baked all the way through.
5. Remove cake from the oven and cool it in the pan on a wire rack. Once cooled, tip the pan upside down on a serving dish to gently remove the cake. Frost when completely cooled.

Apparently the idea of the "busy day cake" is that you can mix all of the ingredients right in the cake pan. I tried it, and then I poured the dry ingredient mixture into a large mixing bowl which I used to continue adding and mixing the ingredients. There was no was I was going to mix all of the ingredients in my cake pan without half of the batter ending up on the counter. On the plus side: since this recipe doesn't include eggs, if you use a mixing bowl, you get to lick it clean. Kidding, kidding (yeah...not kidding at all).

This frosting is also a quick and delicious option:

what you need:
8 oz package of cream cheese, softened
16 oz container of Cool Whip (let thaw slightly)
1/2 cup (or less) powdered sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

what you do:
1. Combine all 4 ingredients and whip together with an electric mixer until you have a fluffy frosting.
2. Apply to cooled cake or cupcakes (you can use this frosting in a pastry bag or frost your baked treats with a knife).

To make the completed double-decker cake, I made two separate recipes of the cake batter instead of doubling the recipe. Made one, poured it in the cake pan, then made the second and poured it in another cake pan (and then "cleaned" the bowl). The day after baking the cakes, I turned one cake upside down onto a serving dish. I applied a layer of room temperature frosting (easier to work with), spread it over the cake with the back of a large spoon, and on top of it, a layer of strawberry slices. Next I added the second cake, upside down, on top of the strawberries (enough frosting squeezes through between the strawberry slices to keep the cakes together), another layer of frosting, and a final layer of strawberry slices. I decided a little design of the "edge" pieces of strawberries was prettier than completely covering the top of the cake with slices. The sides of the cake are not frosted, but you could frost them if you choose.

The cake was so good - the cream cheese, the chocolate, the strawberries - perhaps one of the best birthday cakes yet!

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

life lesson: budget it!

Back at the beginning of the year, I set a goal for myself and how much money I wanted to save by the end of the year. Not so much a New Year's Resolution, as I've always made an effort to save money, but more a hard and fast goal that I'd work my hardest to achieve.

I'm sure in one way or another, we've all felt the squeeze of our changing economy, whether it's seeing an increase in prices at the grocery store, higher prices at the gas pump, or simply a decrease in extra spending money. I've tried budgeting in the past, but it wasn't something I was ever able to keep up with. I tried apps I downloaded for my iPhone, followed tips I found online, and even made charts on my computer. But the best way I've found to keep track of my spending and see my progress toward my goal? Good old fashioned paper and pencil.

Before sitting down to plan your budget, there are two categories of spending you should consider: static expenses and variable expenses. Your static expenses are those that are same, whether month to month, or year to year. You may have static expenses such as rent or a mortgage, insurance (auto, home or health), a gym membership, your annual car registration or AAA membership, etc. that are the exact same amount every time they're due. Variable expenses are those that will change maybe daily, weekly or monthly. Utilities are often a variable expense, since the amount of the bill depends on your usage, but groceries and spending money are also variable expenses because you likely won't be spending the exact same amount every month.

Since static and variable expenses are incurred differently, I tend to track them in different ways, too. I've made a budget worksheet with sections for my once a year expenses, once a month expenses, and those expenses that I may even incur daily. After my once a year expenses have been paid, I simply record the month paid on successive monthly budget worksheets. For static monthly expenses (rent, Netflix, my gym membership, etc.), I record the date the payment was made. For all other expenses, I record both the date and the amount paid. For categories like spending money or groceries, this is really helpful since I may spend money from this category every few days.

Finally, at the bottom of my budget worksheet is a section to track my monthly income.

At the end of every month, I total each section of my budget and compare it to the amount I budgeted. If all goes well and there aren't any surprise expenses, I come in under budget. If I'm over in one category but under in another, it's good to total all real expenses versus all budgeted expenses to find out if, overall, I'm still under budget. Give yourself some flexibility the first month or two of using a new budget in order to figure out just how much is the right amount for you or your household for each budget category. Don't get frustrated if you're not on or under budget after the first month. With a little trial and error and adjusting your budgeted amount for various categories of your budget, you'll get there. But don't take this as an excuse to allow yourself an absurd amount of spending money while trying to get by on as little money as possible in another category.  

The goal at the end of every month is to be able to transfer as much money as possible into savings at the end of every month, or whatever time may be convenient for your budget. I include an un-budgeted category for my savings account on my budget worksheet so that I can keep track of how often and how much money I transfer into savings. Maybe you have a "big ticket" item and you're trying to save enough money to pay for that item in cash rather than credit. Perhaps you're saving for the down payment on a car or house, saving up for a vacation or just trying to reach a goal to begin investing your money. Whatever your end result, budgeting is a sure way to hold yourself responsible and see your progress as you reach your goal.

Don't forget to keep yourself organized and track your expenses every day. I like to keep my budget worksheets in a binder at home. At the end of every day, I go through my receipts, mental notes or notes in my phone, and transfer the day's expenses onto the budget worksheet. The key really is to not let yourself get behind. Spare 5 or 10 minutes at night to update your budget worksheet. One of the benefits of this budget plan is that you don't have to organize multiple envelopes of cash just to keep yourself on track. You can still use a debit card for your spending - just write everything down.

Feel free to take advantage of my sample budget worksheet, found here. Note: This file will open as a Google Document. If you choose, you can download it as a Microsoft Word document so that you are able to change the budget categories and amounts to make them applicable to your or your household's monthly budget.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

super sides: sweet potato chips

Sweet potato fries and chips seem to be a big hit now that various "caveman" diets have become so popular (think Paleo and Whole30). While still craving the favorite side to grass-fed beef or free-range turkey burger, dieters are opting for sweet potato over the traditional white potato for fries and chips.

But why? authors did a little research for a comparison between white and sweet potatoes. While the amount of calories, carbohydrates, fiber, protein and fat were fairly close between the 100 g servings of each potato, the sweet potato was the clear winner when it came to vitamins. The amount of Vitamin C and Vitamin A per serving (compared to a white potato) are a likely reason the sweet potato prevails as the healthier choice. However, the white potato can offer a slightly higher amount of iron and potassium.

Nutritional information aside, the way you prepare your food also has a hand in how healthy it is when you eat it. Common sense tells you that fresh veggies are great, but if you load them up with a fatty dressing or lots of melted butter, you're adding calories and perhaps some ingredients you could better live without.

This week, I planned on a dinner of turkey burgers and sweet potato chips. I read countless recipes online, each with loads of comments from readers and at-home chefs who tried and maybe tweaked the recipes, sharing their results. The bottom line? Everyone had an opinion as to how to make the best and crispiest sweet potato treat.

Make your raw sweet potato slices as thin as possible.
I began by following a set of instructions for baking the sweet potato chips. Why baking? Less oil, less mess and less effort.

what you need:
sweet potatoes
mandolin or a sharp knife and steady hand
olive oil
sea salt or other seasonings of your choice

what you do:
1. Wash your sweet potatoes, peel if desired (I chose not to) and slice as thin as possible.
2. Put the sweet potato slices in a large bowl and drizzle with olive oil, mixing the potato slices with your hands to ensure they all get a light coating of oil.
3. Lay the slices out on a baking sheet (I chose a broiler pan with holes that rests on top of a deeper pan) and sprinkle with sea salt or other seasonings (I used Old Bay).
4. Place the pan on the lower rack of a 400º oven and bake for 20-30 minutes, turning the potato slices over halfway through baking time.

Now, here's where I went wrong. Some recipes and comments suggested turning up the heat partway through the baking process, so I upped the temperature to nearly 450º. After throwing in a load of laundry, I came back to the kitchen to find half of the chips crispy and edible, the rest charred. Perhaps if I baked the sweet potato slices longer and at the lower temperature, they all would have turned out great. The edible ones were pretty fantastic though.

Luckily I had three sweet potatoes, so I tried another method - a combination of oil frying and baking.

what you need:
sweet potatoes
mandolin or a sharp knife and a steady hand
cooking oil
sea salt or other seasonings of your choice

what you do:
1. What your sweet potatoes, peel if desired (again, I did not) and slice as thin as possible.
2. Cover the bottom of a large frying pan with cooking oil (1/4-1/2 inch) and turn the burner on medium heat to begin warming the oil.
3. Using a spatula or large spoon, carefully place sweet potato slices in the frying pan. After a couple of minutes, flip the slices over. Continue frying in the oil until you see the slices shrivel and begin resembling a potato chip.
4. Before the chips get too brown, use the spatula to remove them from the oil, allowing excess oil to drain back into the frying pan. Spread the chips out on a baking sheet and sprinkle with sea salt or other seasonings.
5. Once all sweet potato slices have been fried and are on the baking sheet, place the sheet in the oven at 400º. After about 3-5 minutes, check and flip the chips on the cookie sheet. Salt or season the flipped side of the chips and bake for another 3-5 minutes.
6. When you remove the chips from the oven, place them on a paper towel to absorb excess oil before serving.

Although more labor intensive, the second method produced much better chips. They were crispy (except the ones I got a little impatient with while frying), crunchy and a perfect side to homemade turkey burgers. These were definitely worth the effort to make again.

Friday, June 14, 2013

a sign of the season

It's true, summer hasn't official begun, but it's been a beautiful pre-summer season so far here in the southeastern Pennsylvania. With only about a week of somewhat unpleasant temperatures and more rain than the ground can drink, the backyard garden has been happy, happy, happy.

Peppers growing from seed.
We started our seeds indoors sometime around late March/early April. These included peppers, tomatoes, herbs, broccoli, corn and a few flowers. While the spring weather was still a bit crisp, we planted our pea, bean, lettuce, cabbage, carrot and swiss chard seeds directly into our freshly tilled and compost-rich garden soil. We also planted potatoes and onions, and the garlic from last year was still growing strong. Once the ground was free from the risk of frost, we planted squash, cucumber, sunflower, marigold and other assorted flower seeds, and transplanted a few strawberry plants. The variety of plants growing in the garden this year is unbelievable. I'm certain it's the best year yet. 

We spent a considerable amount of time constructing a taller, sturdier, and dare I say, more visually appealing garden fence this year. So far it's proven a trusty barrier to most of the critters who venture through the backyard. There's an occasional turf war with one very fat groundhog, but overall we seem to be prevailing.  

Our garden, late spring 2013.
I really can't wait until we start collecting the fruits and veggies the garden will be producing this year. And we have big plans for it all, too. There's always an overabundance of produce to share, and while we look forward to continuing to share the products of a season's work with our friends and neighbors, we also are hopefully to save quite a bit. We've never done any preserving or canning, although we have dried some hot peppers and saved them with a vacuum sealer. This year, Ashley is looking forward to making his own tomato sauce. With all of the basil, oregano, garlic, onions and tomatoes sure to come up, that should be a successful project, even if it's done in small batches. I've found a pretty good resource for preserving garlic and I'm excited to try it. And I also want to make my own mozzarella so I can enjoy 100% homegrown and homemade caprese salad - what a perfect summer treat.

Sunday morning reading.
Recently, I've been really interested in brushing up on my homesteading skills. It's my dream to one day have my own small farm - the ideas are varied and who knows, maybe someday a combination of them will become a reality. I have a number of books I flip through from time-to-time to get some tips, and a whole slew more on my Amazon wishlist. If I can manage to read through even half of them, I think I'll have more knowledge and background information than I'll know what to do with.

And as I've found out over the years, and I'm sure many of you have as well, having big ideas is the easy part. Getting excited about them is pretty effortless, too. It's all the hard work and motivation that goes into making them a reality that's sometimes tough. A little self discipline and diligence will hopefully go a long way, and by the end of the season I hope there are plenty of recipes and tips to share!