Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Homemade Vanilla Extract

Fall officially starts in a few days and I am excited for it because I love fall baking! Last year, at the beginning of fall, I decided to start making my own vanilla extract in order to save money. I do a LOT of baking in the fall and through the winter as well, so I go through a lot of vanilla. Making homemade vanilla extract is simple and really does save you money. It also makes a great holiday gift for all of your baking friends!

To make vanilla extract, you need 2 simple ingredients: vanilla beans and vodka.
I like to purchase Madagascar vanilla beans in bulk online, usually from Amazon. I usually buy a 1/4 pound at a time (which equals about 27 vanilla beans) and it costs under $15.00! In the grocery store, you can buy 3 vanilla beans for around $ buying in bulk is much cheaper!
Another way to save money, is to buy cheap vodka. You don't need top-shelf vodka in order to make great vanilla extract. Just make sure you buy regular vodka, not the flavored stuff!

To make the vanilla, you will need 3 vanilla beans for every 8 ounces of vodka. Pour the vodka in a glass jar or bottle that has an air-tight cap. Spilt the vanilla beans and add them to the vodka in the bottle. Put on the cap, store it in a cool, dark place for about two months, shake the bottle every now and again, and then you will have perfect homemade vanilla extract. It's that easy! Enjoy!

This is what the vanilla extract looks like after 2 days. It will be a dark amber color at 2 months.


Monday, September 10, 2012

Pesto Pasta Salad

I love pesto. Seriously love it. My kids like it too, but my husband, the stinker that he is, when it comes to anything yummy, hates it. So, I rarely get to make anything with pesto at home.
I've made this pesto pasta salad only a handful times, but it is SO, SO good. The only times I ever get to make it is for pot-lucks at our church or for our school PTO events. I always get big compliments on the salad and many ask for the recipe. This salad is fairly simple, but as with so much in life, simple is always better!

Pesto Pasta Salad
(recipe adapted from
10 servings (I usually make 1 1/2 of this recipe to serve a larger amount of people as a side dish)

1 lb rotini pasta (I use multi-grain 14 oz package)
1- 14 oz can artichoke hearts, drained, chopped coarsely
1- 10 oz container of cherry tomatoes (I like to use a mix of gold and cherry tomatoes), halved
1- 6 oz can of medium-sized black olives, drained and halved
1 large green bell pepper, chopped
12 oz fresh mozzarella cheese, cubed
8 to 11 oz of fresh or prepared basil pesto (to taste)
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tsp minced fresh garlic
1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese (in a can)
1/2 tsp kosher salt, or to taste
1/8 tsp fresh cracked black pepper, or to taste

Cook rotini pasta according to package directions, just to al-dente. Drain and rinse with cold water; set aside.

In a very large bowl (like a punch bowl), gently mix together the chopped artichoke hearts, halved cherry tomatoes, halved black olives, chopped green pepper and cubed mozzarella cheese. Mix the pesto with the olive oil and add to the bowl, along with the parmesan cheese and minced garlic. Combine with the other ingredients.

Gently fold in the pasta and add the salt and pepper to taste. Mix and check seasoning again. Add more salt, pepper and parmesan cheese to your liking.

Serve immediately or refrigerate until ready to use. This salad can be made one day ahead of serving. When ready to serve, remove from the refrigerator about a half hour or so before, stir and add a little more olive oil, if needed, to "refresh" the salad. Enjoy!

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Berry Muffins and Chocolate Chip Muffins (Egg-Free)

A lot of people have go-to recipes for everything. I am one of those people. You name it, I'm sure I will have a tried and true recipe to give you, or a recipe from someone that I know, that will be without a doubt, a success.

I have three go-to muffin recipes that I alternate and make on a weekly basis, and they all happen to be egg-free. I often make banana chocolate chip muffins because I seem to always have left-over bananas and they are my kids' favorite, but I also make these berry muffins and regular chocolate chip muffins a lot. These recipes always turn out great and are so quick and easy to make.

Berry Muffins (Egg-Free)
(recipe adapted from The Food Allergy Mama's Baking Book)
Makes 12 muffins

2 cups all-purpose flour (can use 1 1/4 cups all-purpose and 3/4 cup white whole wheat flour)
2/3 cup granulated sugar
2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
2/3 cup milk (can use rice or soy milk)
1/4 cup melted margarine or vegetable oil
1/2 tsp grated lemon zest
1 T fresh lemon juice
1 T water (slightly more if using white whole wheat flour)
1/2 tsp vanilla
1 cup fresh or frozen berries (blueberries or raspberries are great)
Sparkling sugar or granulated sugar, for sprinkling

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Spray a 12-cup muffin pan with baking spray.

In a medium sized bowl, combine the flour(s), sugar, baking powder, and salt with a whisk.

In a separate medium sized bowl, mix together the milk, melted margarine (or oil), lemon zest, lemon juice, water, and vanilla.

Add the flour mixture to the milk mixture and stir with a spatula until just combined.

Gently fold in the berries using the spatula. Divide the batter evenly among the prepared muffin cups.
Sprinkle the tops with the sparkling sugar (or granulated sugar).

Bake for about 20 minutes (checking at 15 minutes), or until a tooth pick or cake tester inserted in the middle comes out clean.
Let muffins cool in pan for a couple of minutes, then remove to a wire rack to finish cooling. Enjoy slightly warm or at room temperature!

Chocolate Chip Muffins (Egg-Free)
(recipe adapted from Food Allergy Mama)
Makes 12 muffins

2 cups all-purpose flour (I use 1 cup all-purpose and 1 cup white whole wheat)
3/4 cup granulated sugar
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup margarine, melted
2/3 cup buttermilk (if you don't have buttermilk, mix milk with 1/2 T vinegar and let sit 5 minutes)
2 T water
1 1/2 T vanilla
1 cup mini chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 12 cup muffin pan with baking spray.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour(s), sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt.

In a separate medium sized bowl, mix together the melted margarine, buttermilk, water, and vanilla.

Add the milk mixture to the flour mixture, and stir with a spatula until just combined. Fold in the chocolate chips.

Divide the batter evenly among the prepared muffin cups. Bake for 18-20 minutes (checking at 15 minutes), or until a tooth pick or cake tester inserted in the middle comes out clean.

Let cool for a couple of minutes in the pan and then remove muffins to finish cooling on a wire rack. Enjoy!


Monday, August 27, 2012

No-Bake Biscoff Chocolate Chunk Cookies

Traditional no-bake cookies are one of my husband's favorites (recipe here), but I have been on the search for a great peanut-free version of these cookies that would be school friendly, and I finally found one! Using Biscoff spread instead of peanut butter is a great alternative. The cookies have a great flavor and I happen to like these better because they are not quite as sweet (but trust me, they are still plenty sweet!). You must try these if you like no-bake cookies!

No-Bake Biscoff Chocolate Chunk Cookies
(recipe adapted from Picky Palate)
Makes about 40 cookies

8 T unsalted butter
2 cups granulated sugar
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup Biscoff (can use peanut butter)
3 cups quick oats
1/2 cup marshmallow bits (I used mini marshmallows that I chopped)
1 3/4 cups semi-sweet or milk chocolate chunks
In a large saucepan over medium heat, combine the butter, sugar and heavy cream. Heat, stirring frequently, and bring to a boil. Let boil for 2 minutes while stirring constantly. Remove from heat.
Stir in the biscoff until melted and smooth. Add the oats and marshmallows, stir well.
Add the chocolate chunks and only stir a few times so all of the chocolate doesn't melt (or you can keep stirring, if you like the chocolate to be completely melted).
Use a cookie scoop to scoop cookies onto wax or parchment paper. Let set for at least 30 minutes. Enjoy!

Monday, August 20, 2012

Honey-Balsamic Glazed Pork Chops

If you are looking for a seriously good and easy grilled pork chop recipe, look no further. The slightly-sweet and tangy-sour glaze is so delicious on the pork. My husband LOVES this recipe and requests it often. You must try it!

Honey-Balsamic Glazed Pork Chops
(recipe adapted from
Serves 6

6 bone-in or boneless pork chops
5 T extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt
Fresh cracked black pepper
2/3 cup balsamic vinegar
4  T honey
6 T unsalted butter
2 tsp dried rosemary or 3 tsp fresh

Put pork chops on a plate, drizzle with oil and season generously with kosher salt and pepper, on both sides. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Heat grill to medium-high heat.
Combine vinegar and honey in a 1-qt. saucepan and cook over medium heat until reduced to 1/2 cup (about 5 minutes or so). Stir in butter and rosemary and set aside.

Put pork chops on grill and cook, occasionally turning and basting generously with balsamic mixture, until browned and cooked through, 12–14 minutes. Transfer to a platter and let sit for 5 minutes before serving. Enjoy!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Tortellini Spinach Bake in Creamy Lemon Sauce

This is a wonderful dish. It's one of my husband's favorites (there's bacon involved) and my kids gobble it right up. Tortellini is always a big hit in our house so I'm always looking for new ways to serve it. The lemon flavor in this dish is perfect and I love how you can control how much lemon you like. My husband likes lots of lemon, my kids prefer less so I usually prepare this recipe as it's written and it's perfect every time. It's creamy, refreshing, comfort food that you are sure to love!

Tortellini Spinach Bake in Creamy Lemon Sauce
(recipe adapted from Our Best Bites)
Serves 6-8

2- 9 oz packages of frozen or fresh cheese (or cheese/spinach) tortellini
6-8 strips thick sliced bacon, chopped
4-5 cloves garlic, finely minced
4 T flour
4 cups milk
1 tsp kosher salt (or to taste)
1/4 tsp black pepper
3 tsp dried basil
1/4 tsp red pepper flakes (1/2 tsp or more if you like spicy, which we do)
1 medium lemon
3-4 cups loosely packed baby spinach
1 1/2 cups grated mozzarella cheese, divided
1 1/2 cups grated Parmesan cheese, divided

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Fill a large stock pot with water bring and to a boil. Add tortellini and cook according to package instructions, adding salt to the water, if desired. Drain and set aside.

Meanwhile, place bacon in a medium sized skillet on the stove-top at medium-high heat. Cook until crisp. Remove bacon from pan with slotted spoon and set on paper towels to drain. Reserve about 3 tablespoons bacon drippings in pan and discard the rest.
Add garlic to skillet and cook until fragrant and tender, about 1 minute. Add flour to pan and stir with a whisk constantly for about 1 minute.
Slowly add milk and continue to stir with whisk until smooth. Add salt, pepper, basil, and red pepper flakes and bring sauce to a simmer.

While sauce is heating, use a microplane grater or a fine-holed cheese grater to zest lemon. Then cut lemon in half and remove juice.
Add 2 teaspoons zest and 2 tablespoons lemon juice to sauce (start with these amounts and then adjust to taste). Continue to stir until thickened, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat.

Place tortellini back in stock pot. Reserve 1 tablespoon of the cooked bacon and add the rest to the pasta mixture. Add spinach, 1 cup mozzarella cheese and 1 cup Parmesan cheese. Add sauce and gently stir to combine.

Place pasta mixture in an 9×9 baking dish and top with remaining 1/2 cup mozzarella and 1/2 cup Parmesan and also crumbled bacon.

Cover pan with foil and bake for 20 minutes. Remove foil and bake for an additional 5-10 minutes, until cheese on top is melted and pasta is bubbly throughout. Remove from oven and cool for a minutes before serving. Enjoy!

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Chocolate Cupcakes

I shared with you my favorite vanilla cupcake recipe, now I would like to share my most favorite homemade chocolate cupcake. This recipe is just fabulous. The chocolate cake is flavored perfectly and the texture is amazing. This is my go-to chocolate cupcake recipe. It will not let you down! I paired these cupcakes recently with a whipped vanilla buttercream frosting that is soo good and is definitely a new favorite in our house! The frosting recipe is included below!

Chocolate Cupcakes
(recipe from annie's eats)
Makes 24 cupcakes

1/2 cup plus 1 T Dutch-process cocoa powder
1/2 cup plus 1 T hot water
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 tsp baking soda
3/4 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
2 sticks plus 1 T unsalted butter, room temperature
1 2/3 cups sugar
3 large eggs, room temperature
1 T vanilla extract
3/4 cup sour cream (full fat)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line cupcake pans with paper liners.

In a small bowl, combine the cocoa powder and hot water, and whisk until smooth. In a separate small bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt; set aside.

In a medium sized saucepan over medium heat, combine the butter and sugar. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is smooth and the butter is completely melted. Transfer the mixture to the bowl of an electric mixer and beat on medium-low speed until the mixture is cool, about 5 minutes or so.
Add the eggs one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Add the vanilla and then the cocoa mixture and mix until smooth.
With the mixer on low speed, add the flour mixture, alternating with the sour cream, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients. Mix each addition just until incorporated.

Divide the batter evenly between the prepared liners. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 15-20 minutes. Let cool in the pan about 5-10 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely. Frost with favorite frosting! Enjoy!

Whipped Vanilla Buttercream Frosting
(recipe from annie's eats)
Frosts 24 cupcakes

1 1/2 cups plus 2 T (3 sticks plus 2 T) unsalted butter, room temperature
3 cups confectioners’ sugar
Pinch of salt
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise (optional)
2 T heavy cream
1 T vanilla extract

Using an electric mixer, whip the butter on medium speed until smooth, about 1 minute. Add the confectioners’ sugar to the bowl and mix on medium-low speed just until incorporated. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean pod (if using) into the bowl and add in the salt.
Beat on medium-high speed until smooth, about 1-2 minutes. Add the heavy cream and vanilla while on low speed, just until incorporated. Then whip on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, scraping down the bowl as needed, about 4-5 minutes. Enjoy!

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Ultimate Vanilla Cupcake

I've eaten a lot of different homemade vanilla cupcakes in my life, so I've tasted a fair share of good, bad, and great varieties. This vanilla cupcake recipe belongs in the BEST category. The cake is sweet, moist, has a wonderful vanilla flavor, and beautiful flecks of vanilla bean throughout. I loved these cupcakes even without frosting. This recipe will now be my go-to vanilla cupcake recipe, especially for parties or events. They are well worth the expense to make them, trust me!

The Ultimate Vanilla Cupcake
(recipe slightly adapted from cupcakeproject)
Makes 16-18 cupcakes

1 cup granulated sugar
1 vanilla bean
1 3/4 cups cake flour, not self-rising (I used Queen Guinevere from KAF)
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
2 large eggs, room temperature
1/3 cup full-fat sour cream
1/4 cup canola oil or vegetable oil
1 T pure vanilla extract
2/3 cup whole milk (for best flavor do not use reduced fat milk)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line 16-18 muffin tin cups with paper liners.

Split the vanilla bean lengthwise and scrape out all of the black seeds. In a small bowl, combine the granulated sugar with the vanilla bean seeds, using the back of a spoon to break up the clumps.

In a bowl of an electric mixer, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Add the sugar/vanilla bean mixture to the flour and mix well.

Add the softened butter to the flour mixture and mix on low speed. Because there is very little butter, the mixture will resemble fine crumbs when mixed.

In a small bowl, whisk together the eggs, sour cream, oil and vanilla. Add the egg mixture to the flour mixture and beat until combined.

Slowly add the milk to the batter while mixing on low speed. Continue until just combined. The batter will be quite thin and that is OK.

Fill the cupcake liners 1/2 full with batter.

Bake for 14 minutes or until a toothpick or cake tester comes out clean when inserted in the middle of each cupcake (I baked mine for about 17 minutes, but the baking time will depend on your oven). The cupcakes will be very light in color on top.

Remove the cupcakes immediately from the pan (still in the paper liners) and allow to cool completely before frosting.

To finish the cupcakes, frost with your favorite frosting. I chose to thinly frost my cupcakes with my favorite chocolate frosting found here. Enjoy!

Little flecks of vanilla bean throughout.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Coconut Cake

My husband requested that I make him a coconut cake this year for his birthday. He and I both love all things coconut, but I was a bit surprised by his slightly strange/random cake choice. He usually requests my chocolate chip pound cake, but this year he decided he needed a cake that was close to his heart. His mother used to make him a coconut cake every year for his birthday when he was growing up. After just spending a lot of time with his mother a couple of months ago, I'm not surprised my husband was feeling a little nostalgic. I would be worried if he wasn't. So, I found this AWESOME recipe from King Arthur Flour and it was SO good. The cake is so coconut-y, sweet, soft, moist, and delicious. My husband loved it and declared that this cake was exactly what he was wishing for.

Coconut Cake
(recipe adapted from King Arthur Flour)

For the cake:
3 cups cake flour (I used Queen Quinevere cake flour from KAF)
2/3 cup coconut milk powder (found at KAF or fine whole food stores)
1/2 tsp salt
4 tsp baking powder
1/2 cup plus 2 T unsalted butter
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
6 large egg whites (the equivalent in packaged egg whites is ok)
1 1/2 cups whole milk, at room temperature
1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
4 drops or 1/4-1/2 tsp coconut flavoring

For the frosting*:
1- 14 oz can unsweetened coconut milk
1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
5 1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar, divided
1/2 tsp salt
3 to 4 drops or 1/2 tsp coconut flavoring (or can use 1 tsp vanilla if you don't want the coconut flavor too strong)

For garnish:
1 1/2 cups sweetened shredded coconut

*I recommend starting the frosting before you make the cake.

To make the cake:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray two 8 or 9 inch round or square baking pans with nonstick baking spray; set aside. If using cake strips, soak them.

In a medium sized bowl, whisk together the cake flour, coconut milk powder, baking powder and salt; set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream together the butter and sugar until the mixture is extremely light and fluff, for two minutes. Then scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl. Beat for at least three minutes more. Add 1/4 of the dry ingredients, mix until combined, and scrape the mixing bowl.

Combine the egg whites, milk, and coconut flavoring in a small bowl. Add 1/3 of the egg mixture to the butter mixture, mix until just combined. Continue adding dry and wet ingredients by turns, until all are incorporated. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl, and mix for one more minute.

Divide the batter between the two pans, and wrap the outsides with the soaked cake strips. If you don’t have cake strips, place the pans in larger pans and fill the water halfway up the sides of the pans. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, until the cake starts to pull away from the sides of the pan, and when a cake tester inserted comes out clean.

Remove the cakes from the oven and place on a wire rack. Remove the cake strips or take the pans out of the water. Let the cakes cool for 20 minutes, then turn out of the pan and return to the wire rack to finish cooling completely before filling and frosting.

To make the frosting:
Set a fine-mesh strainer or colander over a bowl or large measuring cup and line it with a clean linen towel or cheesecloth. Pour the coconut milk into the lined strainer and let the coconut water drain for up to 2 hours (it only took about an hour when I did it). After draining you should have a thick lump of cream left.
Once the coconut milk has drained, cream the butter with 2 cups confectioners’ sugar in a large bowl using an electric or hand mixer. Beat in the salt and coconut flavoring (or vanilla) until the mixture is smooth. Add the coconut cream and mix, scraping the bottom and sides of the bowl. Add the remaining confectioners' sugar and mix until the frosting is smooth and spreadable (if frosting seems to be too thin, add a little more confectioners' sugar until desired consistency is achieved). Cover and hold at room temperature until ready to use (I did place my frosting in the fridge for about 20 minutes because it was very soft).
When the cakes are cool, cut each in half horizontally, creating four layers. Place one layer on serving plate and cover with 1/4 of the frosting. Place another layer on top and cover with 1/4 more of the frosting. Repeat until all the layers are frosted (including the sides).
To garnish cake: sprinkle sweetened coconut flakes all over the top and sides of cake.

I recommend storing the cake in the refrigerator, loosely covered. Take the cake out about 15 minutes before serving. Enjoy!

Friday, April 6, 2012

Spinach and Artichoke Dip Poppers

F-R-I-E-D spinach and artichoke dip. What?!?! Yes, you heard right. This is recipe is really, really good (!!!!). I'll be honest, it's a bit messy to make and a little time consuming (especially if you are making a lot like I did), but seriously worth it. You must make these.

Spinach and Artichoke Dip Poppers
(recipe adapted from Dinner With Julie)

Favorite spinach and artichoke dip recipe (I tried Julie's recipe and it was great!)
Panko bread crumbs (Japanese bread crumbs)
Egg (may need more then one)
Canola oil
Kosher salt

Mix together your favorite spinach and artichoke recipe. Bake it according to the directions and allow it to cool (try not to devour it all, it will be hard to resist....a little scoop for yourself is perfectly fine though :) ).
Cover and refrigerate the dip overnight (or up to a few days), so it's cold and firm.

About a half hour or so before serving (even a few hours before) remove the dip from the fridge and scoop out about a walnut sized amount of dip and form into a ball using your hands. Place the dip ball onto a plate. Continue until all the dip is used. Cover the plate with plastic wrap and place back into the fridge to firm up a little, about 20-30 minutes.

When you are ready to make the poppers, heat about an inch or so of canola oil over medium-high heat, in a heavy skillet or shallow pot (I used one of my cast iron skillets).

In a shallow bowl, add about a cup or so of flour and about a teaspoon of kosher salt; whisk together. In another shallow bowl, beat the egg. In a third shallow bowl, add the panko bread crumbs.

Remove the dip balls from the fridge, roll a few at a time in the flour, then into the egg and finally into the bread crumbs (slightly pressing the crumbs onto the dip to adhere).

Once the oil is hot, but not smoking, gently drop the balls into the oil, a few at a time. Do not crowd the pan. Fry on one side until golden brown, then flip and cook on the other side (it will only take about a minute or less per side). Transfer the hot poppers using tongs or a slotted spoon to paper towel-lined plate to drain. Serve warm. Enjoy!!

Mini Shortbread Fruit Tarts

I am SO behind with blog posts! I can't believe Easter in only a few days away. This recipe will definitely be a cute addition to your Easter meal or for Mother's Day!

My oldest son recently studied Medieval times in his fourth grade class. At the end of this unit the entire fourth grade got together to have a HUGE Medieval feast. It was awesome. Parents were organized to make and bring Medieval style foods for the feast. There was SO much great food, it was awesome. The feast was a huge success and I am giving big props to Mrs. Allen (one of the fourth grade teachers) for organizing rock!
So, one of the courses I made for the feast was chicken wings. I decided to make my friend Andrea's fabulous recipe for maple chicken wings (recipe found here), and they were a big hit!
I also made some wonderful mini shortbread fruit tarts for the dessert course. They were sooooo good! The shortbread shell was buttery and slightly sweet, the lemon no-bake cheesecake style filling was so creamy and perfect, and the fresh fruit on top tied everything together. Major success.
I ended up making a TON of these little tarts because our church's annual Ladies Tea was the following day after the Medieval feast. All the ladies at the tea loved the little tarts and many asked for the recipe. I love it when recipes are a hit!

Mini Shortbread Fruit Tarts
(recipe adapted from, and laurenslatest

For the Shortbread Tarts:

1 cup unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup confectioners' sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3 T cornstarch (or 6 T more all-purpose flour)
1/4 tsp salt

For the cream cheese filling*:

1- 8 oz package full fat cream cheese, softened
1- 14 oz can sweetened condensed milk
Zest of one lemon (about a full teaspoon)
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice (from 2 large or 3 small lemons)
1 tsp vanilla
Fresh raspberries, blueberries, strawberries or other cut up fruit
* For great alternative filling for these tarts, especially for younger kids, combine a package of vanilla instant pudding with 1 1/2 cups of milk, set aside. Whip 1/2 cup of heavy cream with 1/2 tsp vanilla extract in a separate bowl, until stiff peaks form. Gently fold the whipped cream into the thickened pudding. Store in an air tight container in the refrigerator until ready to use--up to a few
days in advance.

For the cream cheese filling:
In the bowl of an electric mixer (hand mixer is fine), or food processor, beat the cream cheese until creamy and smooth. Add the condensed milk, lemon zest, lemon juice, and vanilla, and mix until smooth. Transfer the filling to an airtight container and refrigerate for at least 4-6 hours so the filling will thicken and not be as runny. This filling can actually be made a few days, or up to a week in advance, as long as it's kept sealed and cold.

For the shortbread tarts:
In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat the butter and confectioners' sugar until smooth, and then add the vanilla, mixing well.
Add the flour, cornstarch (or extra flour) and salt. Mix until the dough is just incorporated and forms a soft dough (don't over mix). Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for about 15 minutes or so, until the dough is firm enough to easily roll into balls.

When the dough is ready, preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
Spray 36 mini muffin tin cups with non-stick baking spray.
Take a scant 1 tablespoon of shortbread dough and roll into a ball (doesn't have to be perfect) and place it in the prepared muffin pan. Gently press the dough with your fingertips onto the bottom and up the sides of the muffin cup. Repeat this for all of the cups (you should get 30-36 shells).
Once all the tarts are made, cover the muffin tins with plastic wrap and place in the freezer for about 10-15 minutes so the shortbread can become firm.

Remove the plastic wrap from the tarts and bake in the preheated oven for 18-20 minutes or until lightly golden brown. About half way through the cooking time, remove the pan(s) from the oven and gently prick each tart with the tines of a fork to help limit the amount the shortbread puffs up.
When the tarts are done, remove from the oven onto a wire rack and allow to cool completely before trying to remove the tarts from the pan.
Once cool, a good trick to getting the tarts out of the pan, is to spin each one to loosen and then gently lift them out. Shortbread is very fragile, so be sure to have a very gentle hand!

When ready to serve (or up to a couple hours in advance prior to serving), pipe or spoon filling into each tart. Then top each tart with fresh berries or other cut up fruit. Store in the refrigerator until ready to serve. Enjoy!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Chocolate-Pecan Chess Pie

We just returned home from a wonderful two week vacation visiting our family and friends in Tennessee. We had so much fun and the weather was perfect! It was hard to come back home to snow and freezing temperatures....we already miss seeing green grass and daffodils!
While in TN, we ate a lot of great southern foods. We are so lucky to have some great cooks in our family. My sister-in-law, Ginny, makes the most delicious BBQ (pulled pork), which she made for us for dinner after church one Sunday. I was happy she shared her recipe with me and I hope to make it soon.
We also visited our Great-Aunt Mary (who is 87 years young!), and she made us her famous chess pie, which I make every year (here's the recipe), but I can never seem to make it taste as good as hers. It must be because I don't have her sweet southern charm. Love you Aunt Mary!

Another thing my family loves to eat when we visit the south are candied pecans. We buy them fresh from vendors. They are warm, sweet, crunchy and oh, so good. A wonderful treat!
When I found this chocolate-pecan chess pie recipe, I just knew it was going to be a winner. I've made chocolate chess pie before (I prefer the classic version though), but this pie has the added candied pecans on top which made it sound so good. The result is SO delicious! This chocolate chess pie is soft, super sweet, and decadent....and the crunchy candied pecans are an amazing addition. My family absolutely loved this pie and I will be making it a lot!

Chocolate-Pecan Chess Pie
(recipe slightly adapted from

For the pie:
1- 9 inch unbaked pie crust, homemade or store bought
1/2 cup unsalted butter
2- 1 oz unsweetened chocolate baking squares* (I used a substitute, see below)
1- 5oz can evaporated milk
2 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
3 T unsweetened cocoa powder
2 T all-purpose flour
1/8 tsp salt

For the pecan topping:
1 1/2 cups pecan halves and pieces (I used halves)
2/3 cup light brown sugar, packed
1 T (generous) light corn syrup
1 tsp vanilla

*If you don't have unsweetened baking chocolate, you can substitute 3 T of unsweetened cocoa powder and 1 T of unsalted butter for every 1 ounce of the unsweetened baking chocolate squares. You would need a total of 6 T of cocoa powder and 2 T of unsalted butter for this recipe (which is in addition to the other butter and cocoa in the recipe).

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Line a 9 inch pie plate with the unbaked pie crust. Crimp or flute the edges.

In a small saucepan over medium heat (or in the microwave), melt the butter and chocolate baking squares, stirring frequently (if using the cocoa powder as a substitute, only melt all of the butter--the cocoa will be mixed with the other dry ingredients).

Pour the butter/chocolate mixture into a large mixing bowl. Whisk in the evaporated milk, eggs and vanilla.

In a small, separate mixing bowl, whisk together the granulated sugar, cocoa powder, flour and salt. Add the sugar mixture to the butter mixture and whisk until smooth. Pour into the prepared unbaked pie crust.

Bake for about 40 minutes. Meanwhile, mix together all of the pecan topping ingredients in a small bowl. Remove the pie from the oven after about 38-40 minutes and sprinkle the pecan topping over the top of the pie. Continue to bake for another 10 minutes, or until the pie is completely set.

Cool on a wire rack for at least an hour before cutting. Serve with sweetened whipped cream and drizzled caramel, if desired! Enjoy!

My husband likes LOTS of caramel :)

Thursday, February 16, 2012

A Special Chocolate Cake

On February 13, 2012, it was the 10th anniversary of my mom's passing. It was a hard day. Harder then any other anniversary so far. It was just so hard to believe that a full decade had passed. Where did the time go? And why does it still feel like it was only yesterday that we lost her?
(For those of you that don't know, my mom was a Type-1 diabetic. She lost her life-long battle with the terrible disease at the young age of 50).

My sister and I decided to get together, along with our families, to have a big dinner to celebrate our mom's life. I made mom's favorite spaghetti with meat sauce, along with salad and garlic bread. Then for dessert I made her a special chocolate cake. How was the cake special you ask? Well, my mom loved to bake. She would make the best treats for us, but could never eat any of them, because of her diabetes. Throughout our childhood, mom would often joke to my sister and I that her one wish in life was be to bake herself the biggest, richest chocolate cake, and then eat the entire thing herself.

So, I decided to finally make her that rich, decedent, over-the-top, chocolate cake she always wanted. I believe this cake would have made her so very happy, even if she could have only had just one bite.  Please enjoy this recipe, in honor of my mom :)

Favorite Fudge Birthday Cake
(recipe adapted from King Arthur Flour)

For the cake:

2 cups granulated sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 T cornstarch (I used more all-purpose flour)
3/4 cup dutch-process cocoa
2 tsp baking powder
2 tsp espresso powder (optional, as a flavor enhancer, but I highly recommend using it)
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
4 large eggs
3/4 cup vegetable oil
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups water

For the filling:

12 ounces semi-sweet chocolate, chopped (about 1 1/2 cups)
6 ounces heavy cream

For the icing:

8 ounces semi-sweet chocolate, chopped (about 1 cup)
4 ounces heavy cream


Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray two 8 X 2 inch round cake pans with non-stick baking spray. If you do not have 8 inch cake pans that have 2 inch high walls, use 9 inch round pans instead.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine the sugar, flour, cornstarch, cocoa, baking powder, espresso powder, baking soda and salt. Mix well.

Add the eggs, oil, vanilla and water. Mix well until smooth.

Pour the batter evenly into each of the prepared pans. Bake the cakes for 35-38 minutes, or until a toothpick or cake tester, inserted in the middle, comes out clean.

Cool the cakes for at least 15 minutes in the pans before removing to wire racks to cool completely.

Once cool, use a long serrated knife to cut both of the cakes in half horizontally, resulting in 4 cake layers.

Next, make the filling. Heat the 6 ounces of heavy cream and 12 ounces of chocolate in a saucepan or in a microwavable dish, until hot and the chocolate is very soft. Stir until the mixture turns into a smooth, thick ganache.

Place one cake layer on a serving plate (if desired, cut strips of parchment paper and place under the edges of the cake to catch any drips).
Spread 1/3 of the ganache filling over the bottom layer of cake, but don't spread it all the way to the edge.
Add the second layer of cake and top with another 1/3 of the filling. Repeat with the third layer of cake and remaining filling.
Top with the remaining cake layer.

Then, make the icing. Heat the 4 ounces of heavy cream and the 8 ounces of chocolate in a small saucepan or in the microwave until hot and the chocolate is very soft. Stir until the mixture turns into a smooth, thick ganache, just like the filling.

Pour and spread the icing over the top of the cake, letting it drip down the sides. Once it's done dripping, smooth the sides with a spatula, if desired. (At this point, I topped my cake with shaved dark chocolate for decoration).

Pull out the parchment strips from under the bottom layer of cake. Allow the cake to rest, covered with a cake cover or large bowl, until the chocolate is set. Overnight is the best, but several hours would be ok.

Cut the cake, serve and enjoy!

Friday, February 10, 2012

Dark Chocolate Hazelnut Truffles

It's almost Valentine's Day! I like to bake my husband special things throughout the year, but for Valentine's Day, I devote all  of my energy to making him something totally chocolate. I can't think of a better way to achieve that then with truffles!
My husband loves Lindt hazelnut truffles so I decided to make him a homemade version of them. I think they came out awesome. The only change I would make next time is to either up the amount of the hazelnut liqueur, or try using a bolder hazelnut flavoring, like this one that I found at KAF. I just think the hazelnut flavor in the filling of these truffles is a little weak, but they are still super yummy! I know my husband is going to love them!

Dark Chocolate Hazelnut Truffles
(recipe adapted from Smitten Kitchen who adapted it from Ina Garten)

1 cup hazelnuts, chopped
3 1/2 ounces good bittersweet chocolate (about 1/2 cup)
3 1/2 ounces good semisweet chocolate (about 1/2 cup)
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 1/2 T hazelnut liqueur (I used Frangelico)
1 T prepared coffee (warm is ok)
1/2 tsp good vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.

Place chopped hazelnuts on a baking sheet (I lined mine with foil). Roast for about 10-15 minutes until fragrant. Set aside to cool.

Coarsely chop the bittersweet and semisweet chocolate and place in a medium sized bowl (try to use a bowl that can either be microwaved or used as a double-boiler).

Heat the cream in a sauce pan or in the microwave until boiling. Immediately pour the hot cream over the chopped chocolate. Using a wire whisk, stir the chocolate and cream until the chocolate is completely melted and smooth (if the chocolate doesn't completely melt, place the bowl over simmering water-like a double-boiler, or microwave at 50% power for 30 second intervals, until it's completely melted).

Whisk in the hazelnut liqueur, coffee and vanilla. Cover the chocolate and refrigerate until firm enough to scoop, about an hour or so.

Scoop out small dollops of chocolate and roll into balls using your hands. Work quickly because the chocolate will melt. Place chocolate balls onto a wax or parchment lined baking sheet. Refrigerate again for 15 minutes or so until the chocolate has firmed up again.

Roll the chocolate balls in the toasted hazelnuts, lightly pressing them into the chocolate so they stick. At this point the truffles are finished and can be stored in the refrigerator, but I decided to dip them in melted chocolate as well. I melted some dark chocolate candy melts, dipped the truffles in it and then sprinkled a few chopped hazelnuts on top. I think they came out very pretty. You could also just drizzle a little melted chocolate over the top as more of a garnish. Whatever way you decide to make them, they are sure to be fabulous!  Enjoy!

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Spinach, Mushroom and Artichoke Stromboli

Stromboli's are very easy to make, and the flavor possibilities are endless. My family likes traditional pizza flavors in their Stromboli's, but I prefer more grown-up flavors and spice in mine. This particular recipe is one of my favorites, and it's rare that I get to make it because my kids (and husband) are not a huge fan of any of the ingredients. I hope you enjoy it!

Spinach, Mushroom and Artichoke Stromboli
(pizza dough recipe from Annie's Eats. Filling is my creation)

Basic pizza dough (can use store bought pizza dough and skip this step):

2 1/4 tsp instant yeast
1/2 cup warm water
4 cups all-purpose or bread flour
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 1/4 cups water, at room temperature

For the toppings:

2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese (I used reduced fat 2% milk)
About 2 cups coarsely chopped baby spinach (I just rip it)
1 cup sliced mushrooms
1/2 cup canned or jarred artichokes (in water), drained, coarsely chopped
1/4 cup finely diced red onion, optional
1 tsp Pizza Seasoning, optional (I buy it from KAF. It adds a lot of flavor)
Pinch to a 1/4 tsp of red pepper flakes, optional
Kosher salt, to taste (I use about 1/2 tsp or so)
Pizza sauce, for serving
1 egg, for egg wash

To make the pizza dough:

Sprinkle the yeast over the 1/2 cup of warm water using a 2-cup measuring cup.
In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine the flour and salt, mix lightly using the paddle attachment.
Add the room temperature water to the warm water-yeast mixture in the same measuring cup.
With the mixer on low, add the water/yeast to the flour along with the olive oil. Mix until a cohesive dough is formed.
Switch the paddle attachment with the dough hook. Knead the dough on low until it is smooth and elastic.
Transfer the dough to a large lightly oiled bowl, turning once to coat the dough with oil. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise until doubled in size, about 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
When the dough has doubled, punch it down to deflate it, and then transfer to a lightly floured work surface. Divide the dough into 2 equal pieces. Form each piece into smooth round balls. Cover the dough with a clean, damp cloth, and let it relax for 10-20 minutes (not more than 30 minutes).

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

On the same floured surface, roll out each dough ball into a large rectangle, about 10 x 14 inches.
Sprinkle the dough with 1 cup of the cheese, leaving 1/2 inch from the edges. Then sprinkle 1/2 tsp of the pizza seasoning (if using) on top of the cheese. Then layer the spinach on top of the cheese, and sprinkle with the salt, and with the red pepper flakes. Then add the mushrooms, onions (if using) and the artichokes. Sprinkle the remaining cheese evenly over the top, along with the remaining pizza seasoning.

Start rolling the dough, like a jelly roll, starting from the long side farthest away from you, keeping the roll fairly tight. Pinch the ends to seal as you go. I recommend brushing the edge with water to help seal it. (Sorry, I couldn't get a picture for this step--it's hard to roll and take pictures at the same time!)

Place the Stromboli, seam side down, on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or a baking mat. Cut 3-4 small slits along the top. Lightly brush the top with olive oil and then sprinkle with a little more pizza seasoning (optional). Then brush the Stromboli with the egg wash.

Place on the middle rack in the oven and bake for 25-30 minutes, until golden brown. Let sit for about 10 minutes. Using a serrated knife, slice into 2 inch thick pieces. Serve with warm pizza sauce for dipping. Enjoy!

Friday, January 13, 2012

Salted Caramel Cupcakes--Happy Blogiversary To Me!

Wow, today my blog turns one! I can't believe an entire year has passed since I decided to start a blog of my favorite tried and true recipes. Looking back over this past year, I can already see a huge difference in my blogging abilities, and in my cooking as well. Although most of the recipes I posted, I had already been making for a long time, it's still so amazing to see how my cooking skills, and confidence in the kitchen has grown.
Seriously, 10 years ago, I was an amateur in the kitchen. I knew the basics of cooking, but was no where near where I am today. During this past year, with this blog and my readers as my motivation, I have become exactly who I want to be in the kitchen: fearless. I am no longer afraid to try new cooking and baking techniques, and make up (and share) my own recipes. I was always afraid of trying new things and failing miserably. Now, I know that is all a part of learning and mastering the art of cooking. If I fail, I learn from my mistakes, and either try it again, and/or modify the recipe to what I believe will work.
For this coming year of blogging, I hope to continue on my path of learning, and to further explore more difficult cooking/baking techniques that I have always wanted to master.
Thank you so much to all my friends who read my blog and try my recipes! You are a true inspiration to me!

So, for my first blogiversary, I decided to make myself some special salted caramel cupcakes. My absolute favorite flavor. This recipe is SO, SO good. The cake is a light, sweet brown sugar flavor, the caramel filling is to die for, and the salted caramel buttercream just puts it over the top. So unbelievably delicious. I hope you enjoy this recipe!

Salted Caramel Cupcakes
(recipe adapted from 52 Kitchen Adventures)
Makes 12-15 cupcakes

Brown Sugar Cupcakes:

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp sea salt (I used fine)
1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup, plus 2 T light brown sugar, packed
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 cup, plus 2 T buttermilk

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Line 12-15 muffin cups with paper or foil liners.

In a medium sized bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt; set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream together the butter and salt, until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each. Mix in the vanilla.
Add half the flour mixture to the wet ingredients, mix, then add half of the buttermilk, and mix again. Repeat with the remaining flour and buttermilk. Mix until well incorporated.

Divide the batter among the prepared baking cups, filling 3/4 full. If only making 12, there will be left over batter.
Bake for about 22-25 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. Cool completely on wire racks.

Salted Caramel Filling:

1/2 cup granulated sugar
3 T salted butter, cubed
1/4 cup, plus 1 T heavy cream, at room temperature

In a small saucepan over medium heat, cook the sugar until melted, stirring frequently with a whisk, about 5 minutes. When the sugar turns a deep amber color, add the butter and stir until melted. Remove from heat and then slowly add the heavy cream, whisking until smooth. Let cool and thicken, about 20 minutes or so.

Once caramel is cooled, use a paring knife or large pastry tip to cut out a small round piece out of the top of each cupcake. Pour about 1-2 tsp of filling into each cupcake, and then replace the cake round on top of the caramel.

Salted Caramel Buttercream Frosting

1/4 cup granulated sugar
2 T water
1/4 cup heavy cream, at room temperature
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 cup salted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 tsp sea salt (start with 1/2 tsp and then add more to your desired taste--I found 3/4 tsp to be the best raitio of sweet and salty for me)
1 3/4 cup confectioners' sugar

In a small saucepan over medium-high heat, bring the sugar and water to a boil. Boil WITHOUT stirring, until it turns amber in color, about 5 minutes (be careful, it will change color quickly).
Remove from the heat and slowly add the heavy cream and vanilla, whisking well, until smooth.
Let cool until barely warm, but still pourable, about 20 minutes or so.

Meanwhile, in the bowl of an electric mixer, beat the butter and salt until light and fluffy. Add the powdered sugar and mix until thoroughly combined and smooth. Pour in the cooled caramel and mix until light and airy (if the frosting seems runny, then the caramel was too warm when it was added--refrigerate for 15-20 minutes until frosting is stiffer).

Spread or pipe frosting onto the filled cupcakes. Enjoy!!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Tomato, Sausage and Spinach Risotto

I found this recipe recently and couldn't wait to make it. I love risotto and so does my family. Although I wouldn't consider this to be a "quick-fix" meal, it can definitely be made within an hour, so this is still a good weeknight meal.
The flavor of this dish is just amazing. You will not be disappointed, but don't just take my word for husband said "You can make this meal every day and twice on Sunday's if you want...."
Yup, I think this recipe is a keeper! :)

Tomato, Sausage and Spinach Risotto
(recipe adapted from Bev Cooks)
Serves 8 (can be halved to serve 4)

2 T extra virgin olive oil
1 medium sized sweet onion, diced
6 Italian sausage links, casings removed (I used Italian chicken sausage)
1 cup dry white wine
2 cups Arborio rice
1- 28 oz can of petite diced tomatoes, do not drain
4-5 cups chicken broth (I used low-sodium)
10 oz baby spinach
2 T butter
1 cup freshly shredded parmesan cheese (I cheated and used store-bought shredded parmesan)
Kosher salt
Fresh cracked black pepper

In a saucepan, bring the chicken broth and tomatoes (with their juices) to a light simmer.

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the sausage, cook and crumble for about 3 minutes. Add the onion and continue to cook until sausage is cooked through and onion is tender, about 3 more minutes or so.

Add the rice and toss to coat. Cook and stir for one minute.

Add the wine, stir, and let simmer until most of it is absorbed, about one minute.

Reduce the heat to medium-low. Ladle about one cup of broth (and tomatoes) into the rice mixture and stir. Continue to cook and stir slowly until most of the liquid is absorbed. Then add another ladle of broth and repeat. Continue until most of the broth is used and the rice is tender and creamy, about 30 minutes.

Remove from the heat and then add the butter and parmesan cheese. Stir until both are melted. Then add the spinach and stir until it's wilted. Season as desired with salt and pepper.
Garnish with more parmesan on top of each serving. Enjoy!

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Garlic Mac 'n Cheese with Smoked Chicken Sausage

Happy New Year! I've been on the hunt lately for new, scrumptious, family-friendly meals, that can be made ahead of time, or in less then 30 minutes. I've recently started working (after 9 years of being a stay-at-home mom!), so my time in the kitchen has been dramatically reduced. 

There are so many different flavors of 'fully cooked' or smoked chicken sausage available now in grocery stores, and using this type of sausage can be a huge time-saver. I happen to like certain brands more then others, and only buy sausage that is 100% natural and doesn't contain msg.

This "glorified" mac 'n cheese recipe is super yummy, can be made ahead (cover and refrigerate overnight before baking), and is very easy to throw together. My family and I loved this and I will be making it again and again. Even the leftovers were awesome. You have to try this!

Garlic Mac 'n Cheese with Smoked Chicken Sausage
(recipe generously adapted from Amanda's Cookin')
Serves 8 (recipe can easily be halved for smaller families)

1 box whole wheat rotini pasta
18 oz fresh or frozen small sugar snap peas (about 2 1/2 cups), cooked
6 T unsalted butter
1 small onion, finely diced
6 T all-purpose flour
2-3 fresh garlic cloves, finely minced
3 cups low fat milk (I use 1%)
1/4 tsp garlic powder
1/4 tsp dried Italian seasoning
1 tsp kosher salt (or to taste)
1/4 tsp black pepper
1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese (I use reduced fat 2%)
1 3/4 cups shredded Italian cheese blend, divided (I use reduced fat 2%)
2 - 9 oz packages of fully cooked smoked Italian chicken sausage, sliced into moons

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Lightly spray a baking dish with nonstick spray.

Cook pasta according to package directions for 'al-dente'; drain.

In a large saucepan over medium-high heat, melt the butter. Add the onion, stir and cook until tender, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for an additional minute.
Whisk in the flour and cook for about 1-2 minutes. Slowly whisk in the milk. Add the salt, pepper, Italian seasoning and garlic powder, and bring to a boil. Simmer uncovered over medium heat for about 1 minute, stirring frequently, or until mixture is slightly thickened. Stir in the cheddar cheese and 1 cup of the Italian cheese blend, until smooth.

Add the pasta back to the pot used to cook it in. Then add the cooked sugar snap peas and the sliced chicken sausage. Add the cheese sauce and mix well. Pour into the prepared baking dish. Sprinkle remaining Italian cheese blend over the top of the pasta.

Bake, uncovered, for about 20 minutes, or until hot, bubbling and cheese is golden brown on top. Enjoy!