(Not So) Fakes: Magic Shell

Ask my family one thing I say all the time and chances are good they'll answer 'There is nothing out there that I can't make better myself'. Most of the time, it's true. One notable exception is last week's croissant 'fail', but we won't go into that right now.

Last month I posted about homemade chocolate syrup, this month it's chocolate again: homemade 'Magic Shell'. I promise, it won't always be about chocolate - nor sweets. But a request for ice cream topping that formed a crunchy shell was made and I obliged.

This is probably one of the easiest things to duplicate at home. In fact, in my years of cooking with coconut oil, I've accidentally 'magic shelled' a number things when I've added melted coconut oil to cold ingredients. I just played around with the ratios til I was happy with the result. What I settled on was

75 grams coconut oil
100 grams good quality dark chocolate

I melt them together in a bowl over simmering water. That's it. Use it immediately or bottle it and store at room temperature to keep it liquid. If it solidifies - which it will if your house is as cold as mine in the winter - set the jar in hot water for a few minutes.

"Christmas 'Kraut"

Other than the the colors and the timing, there's really nothing Christmas-y about the sauerkraut I make this time every year. The colors merge and it's ready more like Thanksgiving time - but "Thanksgiving 'Kraut" just doesn't have the same ring.

I've been making this version for a few years now. I'm not sure if that qualifies it as a 'tradition' even in my own house, but it's a nice, seasonal twist. An added bonus is that it looks pretty and smells like apples, so it's an easier sell to little ones and others who aren't used to cultured foods.

There is no real 'recipe', and it changes from year to year. The basic directions are from Sandor Katz' book 'Wild Fermentation'. These are the approximate ingredients I used this year:

two small cabbages - one red, one green, shredded
one apple, diced
cranberries, coarsely chopped
sea salt

I combined the cabbage, apple and cranberries in a large bowl, sprinkled about a tablespoon of salt per pound, and mixed it thoroughly.

I used a big wooden spoon to pound it to about two thirds it's original volume to release some of the juice. I let it sit a few hours, then packed it into a large jar a little at a time, packing it down more with each addition. There wasn't quite enough liquid to cover the cabbage, so I added a bit more salted water. (about one tablespoon per cup of filtered water, according to Katz) I covered it and set it aside, checking it every day or so to see how it was coming along, or if it needed more water.

It takes quite a bit longer to ferment this time of year, since the house is cold, but after a week, It looked like this:

We tried some Thanksgiving. I got around to making it a bit later than usual, so the flavors haven't had much time to blend, but it will improve over time. Just in time for Christmas.

Honey Caramel Dip

Just the other day I was thinking it would be nice to have a good alternative to macadamia nut butter for dipping apples in - something more along the lines of caramel....and today I find this: http://bit.ly/cHEbEX

If I wasn't low on honey right now, I'd try it today.

Terra Incognita II: How to roast a pumpkin

One of the best things about fall, as far as I'm concerned, is cooking with pumpkin. In the past I've always just used canned pumpkin, but today I decided to try roasting one. I searched around on the internet to help me decide on the best way to do it. After reading several comments about the results being 'watery' I decided to go with dry roasting.

The pumpkin I used was an organic, pie pumpkin from the grocery store. I don't know what difference it makes to use a pie pumpkin rather than an ordinary pumpkin, but I decided this was not the time to try it out.

I washed it, cut it in half and scooped out the seeds.

I put the halves, cut side down on a rimmed baking sheet. I read that pumpkins release a lot of water while they are cooking, and I didn't want to take a chance on juices dripping into the oven.

I baked the pumpkin at 350 degrees for about an hour and a half - until the skin was a dark orange color and it pierced easily with a fork.

After it cooled, I scooped the interior into a bowl and pureed it with a hand blender. After what I'd read, I expected it to be watery and in need of straining, but that wasn't the case.  I ended up with 3 1/2 cups puree which I packed into freezer safe jars for storage in the freezer.

I'm looking forward to trying it out in our Thanksgiving pie.

Laptop Lunchbox

Laptop lunchboxes are another thing that falls into the category of 'things I've heard about for years, but finally took up'. I don't know why, I just wasn't all that interested. Maybe it's because they are plastic and I'm not all that crazy about plastic. Maybe I was just taken in by all the cute lunch boxes out there for kids.

Whatever it was, apparently I'm over it now. Not only did I buy the lunchbox complete with insulated case and water bottle, I ended up ordering an additional set of containers, egg molds, vegetable cutters and bought some silicon cupcake cups and little picks to use instead of forks. I also found flexible, flat blue ice that fits perfectly into the insulated top.

The lunchboxes come with a booklet with lunch ideas. I was a bit disappointed since the authors are under the impression that low calorie, low fat food is healthy for children, but there are a few useful ideas.

So far I haven't been all that creative, but I'm working on it. Creative or not, a lot less lunch come home at the end of the day than before. And after all, the healthiest meal in the world isn't much use if it doesn't get eaten.

Baked Oatmeal

For years I saw on blogs and boards references to 'Baked Oatmeal' for breakfast. Although everyone who mentioned it gushed about how great it was, it didn't sound like anything I wanted to try. I'm not sure what finally convinced me to try it, but eventually I did and I'll bet you already know what I'm going to say next. Yep, everyone loved it. Even the ones who don't like oatmeal.

It's been a long time since I last made it. It didn't really appeal to me that much during the summer, but that may just be me. Now that the mornings are getting rather - ahem-  'crisp', it once again sounds like a great way to start the day.

It's tough to come up with an actual recipe, since I tend to throw in what I have around the kitchen and what sounds good at the time. Today's version went something like this:

Last night I mixed and set out overnight:
 1 1/2 cup steel cut oats
Tablespoon yogurt
warm water

I like the texture and chewiness of steel cut oats. I don't know if it works as well with rolled oats since I've never tried it. If someone has maybe they could comment on it. Either way, oats are more nutritious when soaked overnight.

This morning I drained the oats and added:
dash salt
1 egg
1/3 cup whole milk
1/4 cup real maple syrup (you could use honey)
chopped apple, walnuts, cinnamon, fresh grated nutmeg and a chunk of grass-fed butter.

I baked it at 350 degrees for about 45 minutes and served with more butter and fresh cream.

Next time, instead of apple and walnut, I'm thinking dried cranberries and macadamia nuts. On the other hand, I did just buy a bunch of persimmons...

Let me know what flavor combinations you come up with.

Meal planning

It's the beginning of another month, and time for me to plan and shop for the whole month. Yes, I meant to do it over the weekend, but it just didn't happen, so I'm doing it today. But I said a month ago I'd share my 'system' and I'm just now getting around to it, so no surprise that I'm behind on anything else.

I started planning by the month about a year ago. My first few attempts took hours as I deleted and rearranged meals to get the variety I was looking for. About six months ago I tried a new strategy that allows the variety I want and takes just a few minutes a month.

My menu starts with a template of seven columns with four rows per column. I designate each day as a certain 'category'. These can be changed to suit anyone's preferences or schedule.
Monday in our house is 'Meaty Monday'  - especially if it's something that would have leftovers to use during the week or in lunches.
Tuesday is 'Family Favorites' night.
Wednesday is 'Whatever Wednesday' (in other words, leftovers),
Thursday is Soup/Salad/Pasta
Friday we eat out
Saturday and Sunday have been for grilling - but I may change that as the weather changes, although we grill regardless of the season.

Next, I made a master list of all the meals we may want to cook.  I divide all the options into the same categories so all I have to do is choose four (or five, depending on how many weeks are in that month) items from each category and plug them in to the appropriate day of the week. I've already plugged in breakfast and lunch choices for each day that go well with the dinner category and fit our schedule, and those choices don't change month to month.

The fourth row is for after-school snack ideas - like fruit and cheese, homemade yogurt and granola or deviled eggs.

I usually plan one dessert for Wednesday (an added treat for leftover night), and one on the weekend. The weekday one is usually something simple - fruit and cream, homemade ice cream, chocolate mousse (yes, it's simple the way I make it), etc, while the weekend one is sometimes, but not always, more extravagant.

To shop for the month, I buy all the non-perishables, meat and anything that can go in the freezer for the whole month as well as vegetables, eggs, milk, cream, etc for the meals I've chosen for the first week of the month. At the end of the first week, I'll choose what I want to cook for the next week, and buy vegetables, milk, etc for that week, and if I've planned well, not much else.

I hope that makes sense. I'll try to post a sample. I've shared it with a couple of friends and they tell me it's working well for them. If you try it, let me know how it works for you.

Terra Incognita

I tried a 'new to me' recipe tonight that I found  a few weeks ago while trolling through blogs at random. The recipe was 'Polish Stew' on the now apparently abandoned 'Emily's Experiments'

I made it pretty much as written and served it with fresh-out-of-the-oven bread. It was quick, easy, warming on a chilly day, and everyone ate it quite happily. I believe I'll be making it again. In case she takes down her blog, here's the recipe:

Polish Stew

Small head of cabbage, cut into thick shreds
kielbasa sausage, sliced
1 c corn
2-3 potatoes
1 small onion, diced
4-5 cups chicken broth
Spicy brown mustard

In a large pot, saute in the sausage until starting to brown. Add the potatoes and onion and cook, stiring, until the onions soften and the potatoes begin to brown.
Add the shredded cabbage, corn and a couple of tablespoons mustard. Cover with chicken broth.
Simmer until the cabbage and potatoes are tender, stirring occasionally.  Serve with more mustard. 

Simply Bread

We don't eat a whole lot of bread around here, but when we do, we want it to taste good and be free from unnecessary and unhealthy ingredients. Most commercial breads are nothing I would consider feeding my family. Even though bread requires no more than flour, water, salt and maybe yeast, the list of ingredients on the average bread package is usually long and includes things like trans fats, HFCS and vegetable oils. Artisan breads may be made with better ingredients but can be quite expensive.

The solution, of course is to bake my own. I tried a bread maker for a while, but didn't like the texture. A friend gave me a recipe that made two loaves at a time of excellent bread using the food processor. Even so, I was never able to stick with it long term. I'd make bread regularly for a few weeks, but eventually I was back to buying from the store or a local bakery and spending far too much money.

In the past year, I've  resorted to buying bread only a handful of times. Now we have fresh baked bread any time, any day - for dinner after a long work day, or for breakfast on a busy morning.

I realize I'm blowing my reputation here as being so together and organized - but it's too good not to share. My 'secret' is  Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day. Now I mix up a batch of dough in a few minutes that will supply us with fresh bread for the next two weeks.

I often shape it in the evening and leave it to rise in the refrigerator overnight so we have fresh bread for breakfast. Baking in the early morning was especially helpful in the hot summer months.  Now that it's Fall, though, I'm looking forward to thick slices of fresh bread, dripping with butter alongside a bowl of one of our favorite soups. It's not bad toasted with more of that butter and honey or homemade jam, either.

I did make a few adjustments to the recipe to suit my family and conditions. For now, I'm using the following proportions:

6 1/2 C flour - roughly 2/3 unbleached, unenriched white flour and 1/3 whole wheat (I know, I know, but notice I said 'for now' )
3 C filtered water
1 T yeast
1 T sea salt

I bake it at 450 degrees for 30-35 minutes. Instead of a pan of water in the oven to get a crisp crust, I bake mine in a covered casserole with the lid on for the first half, then remove the lid for the remainder of the time.

Chocolate Syrup

Yes, I confess. I'm one of those adults who never outgrew chocolate milk. I grew up drinking Ovaltine, and as a teenager it was my breakfast of choice. Even after we switched to a healthier diet in our house, I continued to buy it. I figured it couldn't be as bad as the other chocolate drinks since it has all those vitamins in it. I'm sure it is better than some other chocolate drinks, but I'm suspicious about the quality of the vitamins and I'm not thrilled about  the mono and diglycerides, either.

I'm not abandoning chocolate milk entirely, though. I'm just making it myself. It's simple and inexpensive - and best of all, it's a multi-tasker, doing double duty as topping for ice cream and whatever else you think would be even better with a drizzle of chocolate syrup on it.

This recipe makes a slightly thicker sauce that mixes easily, but can be spooned out of the jar.  I prefer a strong chocolate flavor with less sweetness, which is why I used equal parts cocoa and sugar, but you can adjust to taste.

Chocolate Syrup

1 C sugar
1 C good quality cocoa
1 1/2 C water
dash salt
dash vanilla

Stir together to eliminate any lumps. Simmer for 3-5 minutes. Bottle and store in the refrigerator.

I'm not sure yet how long it keeps - but I doubt it will be around that long anyway.

Freezer Food

Last night I didn't feel like cooking dinner. I was well enough to go to work, but that was the extent of my energy for the day. By the time dinnertime rolled around, I was tired and achy and couldn't face the kitchen.

I also couldn't face eating out. Another expensive,  probably unhealthy meal that I don't usually even like, just because I'm not feeling well. The solution, of course, is 'Freezer Food'. Something I've made double (or more) of in the past and squirreled away for just such an occasion. Since Thursday in our house is 'Soup/Salad/Pasta night' (I still haven't done that menu planning post yet), not to mention my husband had just had work done at the dentist,  the obvious choice was pasta.

Some point in the past I made a huge pot of spaghetti sauce - the way my Italian grandmother taught me - and filled a shelf in my freezer with pint sized, freezer safe jars just waiting for an occasion such as this. I prefer jars because they are reusable, easy to clean thoroughly and don't contaminate food with plastic residue. Besides freezer safe jars, I've also got a supply of rectangular glass storage containers just the right size for a single meal for my family. I use those for everything from soups and casseroles, to slices of pie.

Right now my inventory is intentionally a bit low, since I've been waiting for fall to defrost and reorganize. I'm hoping to get to that this weekend so I can start stocking up lots of casseroles and comfort food which will be so welcome on the coming winter nights.

Easiest dinner ever

Chicken and whatever vegetables are on hand that will roast nicely. In this case potatoes, butternut squash, parsnips and green beans.

Shop talk

One of the things on our agenda for the weekend is our big, once-a-month grocery shop. Really. We shop once a month and I love it. Or at least as much as I can love grocery shopping.

About a year or so ago, I decided there had to be a better way than having to find time (and energy) every week to go grocery shopping. I also figured that the fewer times I was in the store, the less opportunity there would be to overspend.

I knew many people did once-a-month cooking - so I decided to try once-a-month shopping. I don't mean I never set foot in the store the other 27-30 days, but I only do one big shop with brief trips to pick up things like milk and vegetables. We are able to do much of our mid-month shopping at a small store that only sells food from local producers.

At the end of every month, I decide on the menus for the month ahead. I make a list based on those menus and buy all the items that will keep, plus perishable items for the coming week only. I cook from scratch, so I don't need a lot of storage for cans, packages and boxes. It used to take me ages to make up the menus, but I finally hit on a method that makes it easy, but that's a topic for another day.

It's a method that works out very well in our family. We shop together and make it more enjoyable with a nice lunch before and maybe something special from the store to enjoy after the food is all put away.  What I like best is the knowledge that we don't have to do it again for a whole month.

Ginger Cake

I'm starting to notice a trend here. I seem to be posting almost exclusively about desserts and totally neglect all the other things I toil over in the kitchen. I guess I'll have to change that, but in the meantime, here's the cake I made today. I didn't frost it. I was going to, but it just didn't seem to need it.

After reading the comments, I made a few changes. There were many comments about too much clove, and sinking in the middle. I cut back on the baking soda and it didn't sink. I may go with even less baking soda next time and probably less sugar, too. I also used two smaller pans so I could put one in the freezer.

'Starbucks' Ginger cake

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 cup butter, softened
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1 cup sugar
2 1/4 teaspoons ginger
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup applesauce
1 egg yolk 
8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups confectioners' sugar
1/2 teaspoon orange extract

Preheat oven to 350°F Grease and flour a 9-inch loaf pan, or even a square baking pan.
In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, ginger, cinnamon, cloves and salt; set aside.

In a large bowl, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Dissolve baking soda into applesauce and mix into creamed butter. Add flour mixture. Mix until smooth.

Pour the batter into a loaf pan.
Check after 30 minutes

'Expert' advice

I should just stop watching the morning news. It seems every day there is another 'expert' trying to sell us the latest 'health food' that is actually less healthy than then evil substance it is supposed to replace. I don't understand why they don't look beyond the surface. Why they don't ask questions or dig deeper? How, when so many people are looking to them for answers, do they continue to give information that will not only not help, but actually may cause harm?

Most people are sincerely trying to do the best for themselves and their families. Sometimes it's not easy to sort through the noise to determine what is healthy and what is hype. The stakes are high, though, so we have to look past the sales pitch do our own investigating. Recently I ran across a blog entry that has been helpful for many just starting out:  'Nourished Kitchens'  '10 Tips for Real Food Newbies'   

I need to work on number 8. I'm not very good at number 10, either :)

Cream puffs

It's my Friday today and I felt like going home and baking something with The Kid. For some reason I decided it was a cream puff making day. I didn't exactly have to try very hard to convince him, either.

I don't know why I've never made cream puffs before. They are so easy! I got the recipe from an old Betty Crocker cookbook, but I'm sure there are loads of them out there just a google away.

The first batch just has powdered sugar on them - but I'm thinking chocolate icing would be nice on the next batch....

Zucchini Muffins

This year we experimented by planting a variety of zucchini called 'Eight Ball'. The plant is compact rather than spreading, and the zucchini itself is round. I like the way the plant keeps to its own area and doesn't sprawl all over the garden. However, when one of the zucchini escapes attention and gets a bit overgrown - I'm not sure whether I should cook it....or carve a face into it!

I'll start by making these muffins - a family favorite.

Chocolate Chocolate Chip Zucchini Muffins

2 eggs
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup melted coconut oil
3 tablespoons cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup grated zucchini
1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 C dark chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Lightly grease or line two 12 cup muffin tins with paper liners.
In a large bowl beat the eggs. Beat in the sugar and oil. Add the cocoa, vanilla, zucchini and stir well.
Stir in the flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and chocolate chips. Mix until just moist.
Pour batter into prepared muffin tins filling 2/3 of the way full. Bake at 350 degrees F (175 degrees C) for 20 to 25 minutes. Remove from pan and let cool on a wire rack. Store loosely covered.
"There is nothing more useful than the sun and salt" Latin Proverb