Halloween Party Eats

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This weekend Mr. Foodie and I hosted a small Halloween-themed game night! We are lucky to have friends who like to play games on the regular. At first, though, we weren’t planning to make it a “Halloween” game night, but we had been batting around Halloween cupcake ideas for a few days – unsure of what to make or when to make it or who to share it with. Then we spotted these purple candy shavings in the baking aisle alongside the candy eyeballs and, voila, flying purple people eater cupcakes were born! As we conceptualized the cupcakes, we remembered the song said “one eyed, one-horned, flying, purple people-eaters” so we went with the handiest horn-shaped candy: candy corn. I found no easy way to incorporate the “flying” part of the creature, but my thought was to cut small bat wings from paper, glue them to toothpicks and stick them in the sides – cute, but more effort than I was willing to commit at the time. We used a chocolate cake box mix because I’m a fan of simplifying when the decorating will consume most of the production. Don’t let perfection be the enemy of good! They turned out pretty cute, right?

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Since we were “going for it” with the Halloween theme, I decided at the last minute to make my Monster Eye Deviled Eggs. I absolutely love this dish for Halloween parties. Deviled eggs are inexpensive, easy, and everyone loves them. I’ve written before about my recipe and general adoration for all things deviled egg. This time I squeezed a few drops of green food coloring into the egg filling to create the monster pupil. Usually I have red food coloring on hand to draw red “veins” on the egg white, but I had to settle for yellow this time. The sliced olive gives definition to the pupil. To make it even more monstery, add a tiny piece of roasted red pepper to the middle of the olive to echo the red veins. To cut down on food coloring, you could always mix avocado into the egg mixture (in place or in addition to the mayonnaise/mustard), but I like the basic flavor of my deviled eggs.

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To round out our party, we made Shrunken Head Rum Cider with apples, apple cider, and spiced rum. Weeks ago Mr. Foodie had the idea of making shrunken heads with some of our apples. These were very fun to make. I peeled the apples first, cut them in half, cored them, and then Mr. Foodie cut the faces into the round side of each apple half. Soak them in a lemon juice/salt mixture and then bake at 250 for 90 minutes. To amp up the creepy nature of the heads, and lend flavor, push whole cloves into the eyes and/or mouths of the heads. (Inspired by Heather’s recipe for the same).

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For parties, I like having one “signature cocktail” in addition to the usual beer, wine, etc. This way you have a pre-mixed drink, ready to serve the minute people walk in the door. Punches make me happy. I like the history of punch, the wide variety of punches, and the ease of making punches. The “hardest” part of a good punch is remembering to freeze a sizable ice cube to put in the punch. Find a container (plastic is best) that is at least a few inches wide, tall, and deep. The bigger the cube, the slower it will melt in the punch and the longer you punch will remain cold. If possible, freeze one of the ingredients of the punch itself to avoid diluting your punch with just water. I froze a cube of apple cider because my punch was just that – apple cider and spiced rum. Variations of this punch call for you to heat the cider with whole spices, which sounds delicious, but I was going for ease so I just poured 2 to 1 chilled apple cider and spiced rum (we used Cracken). It was a hit! Beware, it is deceptively cider-flavored and the rum will sneak up on you.

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Is there anything more fun than Halloween party food? I will admit to trolling pinterest throughout the whole year looking at Halloween food pins just for fun. When it comes to highly stylized foods for a theme party, try not to overwhelm yourself. Mr. Foodie and I were tempted to pile on, but we simplified where possible (hello, cake mix) and stuck with our original, easy, stir-fry for the main course, so we could enjoy prepping and decorating these three dishes.

Game night was so much fun! We played only the most inappropriate games including the relatively new Joking Hazard which was a blast because of the story-telling aspect of it. Mr. Foodie and I have more Halloween shenanigans planned, so stay tuned or check us out on instagram @flkeysfoodie 

What is your favorite Halloween treat?

 

Ginger Molasses Cookies

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These cookies have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. My grandmother gave my mom this recipe and my mom taught me how to make them. While my hard-working mother’s version of homemade cookies usually meant slice and bake Pillsbury from the grocery store, she would often make these. And I can see why. These are delicious and so very easy. While many baking recipes require you to soften butter ahead of time or require brown sugar (which even if you do have on hand is probably a solid lump), this recipe can be whipped up in five minutes flat and baked in another series of 8-9 minute batches. And it only requires ONE egg. Simple prep and few fresh ingredients? I’m in.

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The only labor-intensive part is to roll the dough into little balls and coat in sugar – but you can do this while one batch bakes. That part is also tons of fun for kids to do. I make my balls quite small so they are bite-sized and easy to distribute into favor bags. This also reduces the baking time, so if you make larger ones, you may need to compensate.

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The result is slightly spicy (from the ginger and cinnamon) and sweet (from the sugar) with the characteristic flavor of the molasses. They are soft and pillowy, but also firm at the edges. The inclusion of shortening makes them more cake-like, but they aren’t dense. Believe me, if you like cookies that aren’t overly sweet, these are the ones for you. They make excellent favors, hostess gifts, birthday treats, or in-a-pinch treats. I just LOVE hearing how much people enjoy these cookies!

Grandma’s Ginger Molasses Cookies

1 egg

1 Cup White Sugar

3/4 Cup Shortening

2 Tbsp Molasses

1 tsp Ground Cinnamon

1 tsp Ground Ginger

1/2 tsp Ground Cloves

1/2 tsp Salt

1/2 tsp Baking Soda

2 Cups Flour

More white sugar for coating

Preheat oven to 350. Cream together the first four ingredients until combined in a stand mixer (or by hand – these really are easy cookies to do with minimal equipment, time, and ingredients). Measure out the spices (including salt and soda) and mix into the batter to distribute evenly. Add the flour one cup at a time and mix until it comes together to form a fairly doughy consistency. Roll into 1 inch balls (changing the size of the balls will affect cooking time, but you can do it if you want bigger cookies). Coat each ball lightly in sugar and place on parchment-lined baking sheet (or the silicone mats work as well). Bake at 350 for 8-9 minutes (until you see slight browning on the edge of the cookie. Let rest for a minute or two and transfer to a cooling rack. Once cool, store in an airtight container for best results.

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Food Tour of Key West

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This Florida Keys Foodie had the BEST time these past few days. Thanks to the planning of two great friends, we made it to the keys for a long October weekend. Even though I’ve lived in the Keys twice and been to visit countless times, I’ve only ever been there once between the months of September and March. I couldn’t get over how cool it was the whole time we were there. Instead of the wet heat that clings to your skin and the overly bright long light that spills into every corner, it was breezy, comfortable, and the light spread more delicately across the water, making it look darker than its usual aquamarine green. The upside is that it was WAY more pleasant to walk through the crowded streets of Key West with the cooler temperatures and breezes. The downside is the water was chilly, so instead of languorous afternoons floating in the pool and watching boats go by, we walked more and swam less than we normally would. Luckily my friends were game for a food tour of sorts as I marched them around to all my favorite foodie haunts. Well, almost all – we didn’t make it back to Garbo’s Grill or the Amigos Tortilla Bar, but we had to leave something to come back to 😉

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Our first stop was to Kermit’s Key Lime Pie Shop in one of my favorite parts of Key West – right next to the water and Jimmy Buffet’s recording studio. If you ever visit the keys, you can’t swing a five-toed cat without hitting a key lime pie and there are many pie shops, but Kermit’s is my favorite for one main reason: chocolate covered pie on a stick. This might sound weird to some, but it is freaking delicious. The bitterness of the dark chocolate tempers the tartness of the key lime custard and plays so well with the buttery graham cracker crust. The whole experience is tantalizing and indulgent. If pie isn’t your thing, Kermit’s also has key lime pie flavored crackers, cookies, peanuts, you name it. And they let you sample them throughout the store – #getinmybelly.

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Our second stop was at The Conch Shack on Duval St. – the main drag on Key West and an experience all its own. Our first night we just walked the street gawking at the bars and costumed people (it was the start of Fantasy Fest when we arrived, so there was a more than usual amount of crazy going on). By day, the street looked vastly different and was filled mostly with tourist families window-shopping. The Conch Shack is an unassuming open-air stand which only accepts cash. They have a short counter at the window and a little side alley where you can perch while you smell the enticing scent of fried dough. Conch is the iconic creature and food of the Keys, but was sadly over-fished in the past. Now the conch you eat there is imported. Still tasty though, and these fritters are the best of their kind. The batter is spicy and bready; the conch pieces are perfectly sized and moist. What takes these fritters over the top is the sauce. It is mayonnaise-based and works perfectly with the hot, fresh fritters.

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Our final stop on that day was to DJ’s Clam Shack where the ladies ordered fried clams and I enjoyed a bowl of their delicious middle neck clams. They absolutely held up. The spicy, garlicky broth was just as good as I remembered it. Since we arrived mid-afternoon, it was relatively empty, but we carried on a fun conversation with the staff there. Don’t let the tiny store-front fool you, they have a large, shaded, and comfy patio at the back. If you aren’t stopping by DJ’s, you are missing out!

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Our Key West trip was by no means the only delicious eats we enjoyed on the trip. We had dinner at The Square Grouper – always good value. And we munched on Dion’s Fried Chicken while sunning ourselves at Bahia Honda. The surprise of the trip was visiting what used to be called The Wharf Bar and Grill.  Five years ago I remembered them fondly for their fish fry baskets and blood orange margaritas. More recently they changed owners, added the Tiki bar, and the drinks were not as good. Now it is known as Billy’s Stone Crab which is apparently a chain specializing in the fishing for and serving of stone crab. I was looking forward to trying some stone crab since it is in season now, but I was surprised by the new menu and the rocking picnic tables. A manager came by and brought a presentation tray with different sized crab claws and cuts of steak. It was a far cry from the casual, locals-only vibe of the Wharf. The crab claws we ordered were tasty. They have a fishery right down the road, so it was fresh. If you’ve never had the claws, be prepared for a slightly sweet, chilled, and sometimes mealy flavor/texture – best with a cream sauce of some kind. We also each ordered a potato dish because they had a whole menu section devoted to that humble veggie. We weren’t prepared for the fact that each of the dishes were so large. My Lyonnaise potatoes were delicious, but massive. If you visit Billy’s on your way down to Key West, know that you can share a lot of their dishes which are all fairly pricey, but large.

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Although I loved this keys tour de cuisine, my favorite moments from the weekend were the mornings. My friends and I would take coffee to the screened-in porch and watch the water in the canal, talk, share stories. I loved the light, the breeze, and the laughter. It was so relaxing and yet so stimulating. Is there anything better than a vacation with good friends?

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Apple Cinnamon Crostata

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Following on the success of my apple pie, I decided to use this week’s apple bounty (thanks future parents-in-law!) to make an apple crostata. A crostata is just a rustic Italian pie – the beauty of which is you can use any fruity thing you have on hand to make it – even jam! That’s right – just roll out a pie crust and spread on the jam or your fav fruit mixture and bake on high heat for 20-25 minutes. If you want it to be prettier, swipe a little egg wash on the edges and sprinkle with some sugar. The only thing you have to realize is that like any pie without a top crust, there will be a lack of moisture which you should try to compensate for by adding a liquid to your fruit (like orange juice) or dotting the top with butter. Some fruit fillings, though, are more moist than others, so let your conscience be your guide there. And of course there are many tried and true recipes you can follow (like this one from my main lady-chef Ina Garten).

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There is almost nothing different about this crostata compared to my apple pie. Except I did forget the egg wash and I could have added more moisture on top for a juicier filling. Even so, the apple filling is sweet, tart, and warm from the cinnamon – good both room temperature and steamy from the microwave. What I really love about a crostata is how unfussy it is. It’s rustic, so the edges are folded over the filling. It’s pretty without being perfect. I also love that I can make the recipe for two crusts, use one now and freeze one for later.

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Mr. Foodie and I used one of our gift cards from the wedding shower (thanks wonderful friends and family!) to buy our first coffee machine. Sitting here having a slice of crostata with a cup of coffee and my main man – is there anything better than this?

What’s your favorite pie filling?

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Ditch the Rice, Make Risotto

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Photo Credit: Food Highs

I’ve written before about how Mr. Foodie does not care for rice or pasta as much as some people do (me!), but what I’ve learned is that he is just picky with his rice and pasta. He likes only whole wheat pasta with a great tasting sauce. He likes flavored rice like fried rice or, one of my favorites, risotto. I learned about risotto from watching cooking shows which simultaneously left me feeling anxious about pulling off such a complicated dish and feeling comforted to know that it was, indeed, possible and even easy. I’ve now made it so many times that I don’t have to consult a recipe. It was even one of the dishes I made when Mr. Foodie and I were dating so I could impress him. But perhaps the major objection to risotto is the time and attention it takes to make it. This is a good 30-40 minute dish over which you have to preside the whole time – not everyone’s cup of tea. I personally find it relaxing. I prop up my ipad on the holder to watch a funny show while I sip white wine and ladle chicken stock – this is pretty much my happy place. The real question is: is it worth it? I answer with a resounding Yes!

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Risotto is just slowly cooked rice that is very flavorful because of the various additions. My base recipe has onions, white wine, chicken stock, and parmesan cheese. To this you can add whatever you like or have on hand. Last night, I added a sauteed zucchini, but I’ve also mooned over risotto with cooked mushrooms, steamed asparagus, and oven roasted tomatoes. Risotto, like regular rice or pasta, is a great blank canvas to which you can add some amazing flavor. Of course, it is also delicious by itself as well.

I thought I’d give some step-by-step instructions for this because I do remember how intimidated I was by it when I first made it, so hopefully this will demystify it for some of you and just be interesting for the rest. I begin with 1 cup of aborio rice (the rice used to make risotto – you will not be able to get the same results with other kinds of rice), 1 diced onion, two tablespoons of olive oil or butter, 1 cup white wine (I use a chardonnay), 1 cup parmesan cheese (or to taste) and about 4 cups chicken stock which has been heated. Saute the onion in the oil until translucent, then add in the rice and stir until the rice is coated in the onions/oil. Cook for a minute on medium-low until rice has absorbed some of the oil. Add the white wine and cook until rice has absorbed most of the liquid.

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From then on you will add chicken stock to the dish one ladle at a time, letting the rice soak up the stock each time before adding more. Stir the rice often to prevent it from burning and sticking to the bottom of the pan. I say “about 4 cups” of chicken stock because sometimes I use it all and sometimes I do not. I can usually tell when the rice has absorbed enough liquid because I’ve made it so many times – the object is to create a rice that is fully cooked, creamy, but not mushy or soupy which can happen if you cook too long or add too much liquid. Know also that you will be adding the cheese in at the end which will thicken the rice even more.

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I cook any veggies that I’m adding separately and add them last. You can also choose to season the dish, and typically I just add pepper since the cheese is salty as is the chicken stock. This is the kind of dish where, if you can afford it, it pays to use the best of each ingredient  – onion, stock, cheese, wine – they all shine in the finished dish. The sharpness of the onion, the richness of the stock, the saltiness of the cheese, and the tang of the wine are all present in this creamy, soul-satisfying treat.

This tastes best if eaten right away, although I’ve had leftovers before and enjoyed them. I had the best photo of the finished dish with steam coming off it and everything, but I accidentally deleted it when I meant to email it off Mr. Foodie’s phone (his phone has the best camera in the house). In any case, the header pic looks very much like my version of risotto with zucchini.  To “lighten” this recipe, you can choose to use veggie stock and omit the cheese, but it will lack some flavor and thickening without the cheese.

Zucchini Risotto (adapted from Ina Garten’s risotto recipe)

Serves 4 as a main

2 Tablespoons Olive Oil (or butter)

1 Diced Onion

1 Cup Aborio Rice

1 Cup White Wine (Chardonnay works well)

4 Cups of Chicken Stock (or Veggie Stock)

1 Cup Parmesan Cheese (or to taste)

Saute the onion in the oil until softened. Add rice and cook for a minute or two over medium-low heat. Add white wine and cook until rice has absorbed liquid. Ladle heated chicken stock in one ladle at a time, waiting for rice to absorb liquid before adding more. Stir rice often to prevent burning and sticking and to ensure even cooking. Add stock until rice is fully cooked, creamy, but not mushy or soupy. Take off the heat and add cheese and top with any cooked veggies. You can also season to taste.

For Zucchini: cut off ends, slice down the middle, then cut into thin half-moons. Add 1 Tablespoon of olive oil to the pan and heat. Throw zucchini into pan with a little salt and pepper, cook undisturbed for a couple minutes, then turn – they should have tiny gold blisters on each side (this is my preference compared to steaming them, but you can do either method).

What is your favorite risotto topper?

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Review: Provence 1970 by Luke Barr

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As a graduate student, I studied the 20th century expat Americans who lived in Europe between and around the two world wars, but it wasn’t until my former roommate and awesome friend Becca gave me the Alice B. Tolkas Cookbook that I realized there was so much incredible food writing from this group and this time period. Since then I’ve read M. F. K. Fisher’s The Art of Eating and a number of books written about/written by Julia Child. These ladies are not all contemporaries, but they are connected to each other through the rather tight network of expat Americans who lived at least periodically in France. These connections are artfully explored by Luke Barr in his non-fiction book Provence 1970 (recommended to me by another great friend Lori Brister who writes about amazing things like cheese and archaeology on the regular).

Barr is the great-nephew of M. F. K. Fisher, one of the most well known food writers of the early – mid 20th century. He discovered a journal she kept while visiting friends in France in the winter of 1970. What emerged was an incredibly interesting dynamic between a core group of American foodies including the Childs, James Beard, and Richard Olney. Barr writes about the accomplishments of these chefs and their connection to one another in a narrative form, quoting occasionally from letters, cookbooks, and of course Fisher’s journal. There were moments while reading that I wondered how much of what Barr was saying was speculation, but his exhaustive list of sources and notes at the back of the book bolsters the authenticity of his account.

Barr uncovers an interesting tension between these characters and the old world / new world of cooking that was taking place in 1970. While I found the cattiness of Olney, for example, to be off-putting, Barr does his best to illuminate the issues at the heart of that tension. In Barr’s estimation, Olney redeems himself later on in the book when he realizes what an impact Julia Child had on an entire nation. While I was no stranger to the old world/new world dichotomy on many things (tradition, culture, wine), I was surprised to see how adamantly Beck and Olney were opposed to Child, Beard, and Fisher when it came to cooking by rule vs cooking by feel. As someone who does both, I can appreciate wanting to impart the spirit of cooking as much as the specific instructions that will produce consistently good dishes. I’ve said it many times: cooking and baking are roughly equal parts rules and feelings. I’ve seen my mother, for example, follow a recipe exactly, but be disappointed with the final product. Similarly, I’ve winged it a bit too much and ruined more dishes than I care to admit. Success in baking, which arguably requires the most precision and detail, still depends on your ability to instinctively know when it is baked to perfection (baking times and temps help, but ovens vary so wildly that you really need to keep a careful eye on it -never take the recipe as the end all here).

The other issue I found interesting and relevant even today was the gendered divisions underlying the tension that Barr describes. Julia was committed to making transparent the complicated cooking of traditional French cuisine to American housewives who don’t have three straight days to make one dish no matter how succulent and pure. Barr underscores Olney as an “artist” who wouldn’t bat an eye at a recipe that takes days to come together. Even though he says Beck is similar to Olney in this regard, it reminded me of a division I still see in cooking today – the chef vs. the homemaker. Less than 20% of chefs and head chefs are women even today, but the lifestyle market that has emerged for “homemakers” (a big part of which is food-based) is worth billions of dollars and is dominated mainly by women.

Barr’s book made me want to read and cook from Julia’s post-fame cookbook From Julia’s Kitchen, so that is now on my list. I’d also be interested to read from Beard and Olney, so hopefully I can find their work at the library. Do you have a favorite recipe from these chefs? Somewhere I should start? Let me know!

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Oktoberfest Party!

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So even though I’ve written extensively about our soft pretzel experiments, I dropped off blogging this past week because I was up to my elbows prepping for our Oktoberfest party (and, you know, doing *real* work too :P). In my excitement for the party, I also did not take as many pictures of the food as I thought I would. It was definitely a party-food adventure! I also marveled a bit about how different this party was than the last one I hosted with my roomie years ago (let’s just say there was more kegs and fewer babies lol), but we had nothing but fun the whole night. Even Onyx (our kitty) enjoyed herself.

Mr. Foodie and I were only too happy to show off our winning pretzel recipe which still doesn’t resemble ball-park pretzels, but tastes delicious. We made bacon-wrapped potatoes which are the easiest thing in the world – just cut up a pack of bacon and wrap each small potato, securing the bacon with a toothpick. Bake at 400 degrees for 40-50 minutes. They are great warm, but also at room-temperature which is always preferable for party food. I also chopped up some bratwurst and bought some new mustards for variety.

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For appetizers and finger foods, I went with one oldie, but goodie–deviled eggs–and two new (to me) dishes: kale chips and roasted chickpeas. Is there any party food better than deviled eggs? I don’t think so. They are always the first to go no matter what else I’m serving. My deviled egg recipe is unfussy, but so tasty. I put eggs in room temp water to cover, bring to a boil, boil for 8-9 minutes, drain and fill with cold water, add ice, and let cool. This method makes fairly consistent, perfect boiled eggs (and if you do see the little green ring around the yoke, who cares? It still tastes great). I mash the yokes with a fork, add a few spoonfuls of mayonnaise and tablespoons of spicy brown mustard, mix together and scoop or pipe the filling into the egg whites. Then I top with a dash of cayenne pepper–not paprika, although that is good as well. I LOVE the slow heat of cayenne with the creamy-tangy egg mixture. It’s everything you love about deviled eggs without tasting overly salty, creamy, or sharp.

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If you haven’t noticed yet, I love Kale. I am definitely on that bandwagon. I use it in smoothies, in soup, I even put it in our omelettes this morning. I like it because of its bitterness which pairs well with a lot of dishes. And of course it has great nutritional value. But I had yet to make the crisp Kale chips I enjoyed at a friend’s party many years ago. And they are SO easy. Basically pull the leaves off the stems and cut into bite sizes, spread on a baking sheet and either drizzle with olive oil or spray with olive oil cooking spray (the easiest), massage into leaves and sprinkle sea salt and garlic powder over all. Bake at 300 for 15-20 minutes (there is major disagreement about oven temp and cooking time for kale chips throughout the interwebs – I recommend trying different temps and cooking times to achieve the crispiness you want).

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The Roasted Chickpeas were a hit! I used canned chickpeas, drained, rinsed, and dried on paper towels. Then you spread them out on a baking sheet to roast (I recommend putting something under them for easier cleanup). Roast at 400 degrees for 35-40 minutes or until they are roasted through. They should be crunchy, but not burnt. While they’re cooking, mix together olive oil, sea salt, garlic powder, and lemon zest. As soon as the chickpeas are done, drop them in the oil mixture and toss to coat. Spread them out again to let the seasoning stick to them. After they cool, you can eat them with your hands. This crunchy, salty treat is elevated by the lemon flavor!

Normally, I do not recommend trying to make a new recipe for party because chances are, you are not paying as careful attention to the dish as you normally would and sometimes it takes two (or three or four) tries to get it right. Welp, I ignored myself and tried to make two versions of beer cheese soup for this party – one stovetop and one slow cooker). Both were spectacular fails. Why did I suppose beer cheese soup would be easy? I mean, I make soup all the time, but apparently including cheese causes massive issues. And because I’ve never successfully made it, I still do not know exactly what went wrong both times. Maybe it was the cheese I was using, or the heat level, or the liquid to solid ratio. It is a mystery. I will say that the slow cooker version smelled and tasted better, but it still wasn’t the thick, cheesey soup that it should be. Oh well, #soupgoals.

Everyone went home with a sweet treat – our gingerbread cookies with royal frosting! Mr. Foodie and I had a blast. With the wedding coming up it means a lot to us to take some time out and reconnect with friends!

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Review: The Working Class Foodies Cookbook

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Recently, Mr. Foodie and I stopped by our local library to browse their food writing section. I was in heaven seeing the many stacks filled with food writing after our experience with only three shelves in the Keys library. While I, like many of you I suppose, get most of my recipe ideas from online sources (hello Pinterest!), I still love the experience of reading cookbooks and, of course, food memoirs. I like studying how cookbook authors make decisions about what recipes to include, what stories to tell, and how they give instructions (some of which leave much to be desired). This week I picked my way through The Working Class Foodies Cookbook (WCFC). It caught my eye because Mr. Foodie and I are definitely on a tight budget, and yet we love to eat, cook, and bake on the regular. On the one hand, cooking all our own meals saves us money, but on the other, we can get carried away sometimes with primo ingredients (or I should say Mr. Foodie gets carried away; I tend to be more cautious). In any case, funding our recipe-making is always an ever-present factor in our cooking and baking lifestyle.

WCFC is written by Rebecca Lando who describes her conversion to eating only foods sourced locally, from small, organic farms as the basis for developing this cookbook. While her recipes are tasty and generally well-written, the most interesting part of her book is her chapters on how to adopt this lifestyle on the cheap and how to stock your pantry effectively. Her advice on getting to know the farmers at the market and/or getting a deal for the bruised, ripe fruit is something I can get behind, and, in fact, something my family does fairly regularly. And I would highly recommend her “Cooking from the Pantry” chapter to anyone interested in cooking more homemade meals. First, I like it because unlike some pie-in-the-sky “stock your pantry” chapters I’ve read (Is truffle oil, really a “staple”? C’mon), hers aligns fairly closely with my own which is based most definitely on following a fairly strict food budget. I also like how she notes “Not every item listed here is necessary” – and to build your pantry around the things you will actually cook. She gives some examples of how a well-stocked pantry can stretch your groceries further than you think, but I feel like she could have had a whole chapter on that – most people would *love* to know more about how oats and flour can transform your overripe apples into the most amazing dessert or breakfast, or how a little cauliflower and butter can morph into one of the tastiest pasta sauces you’ve ever had. Finally, I loved her advice about multi-tasking and using everything. Something many chefs and instructors neglect to address is the costs of time, energy, and ingredients when it comes to budget-friendly meals. Rebecca addresses this at some length, returning to it throughout the book: boiling potatoes? Save the water for making a stock. Chopping veggies for grilling? Save the end bits for said stock. Preheating the oven for a casserole? Toast up some Kale chips while you’re at it. And like many home chefs suggest, she is a proponent of setting aside one half of a day each week to do food prep (the cost of time!) to make everything easier, healthier, and less expensive throughout the week.

Where it falls apart for me is her contention that she can, using only fresh, organic, locally-sourced ingredients from CSAs and farmer’s markets, make each meal for $8 or less. The other day Mr. Foodie and I went to our local farmer’s market and spent $8 on four pears alone. Given that this book was published in 2013 (and therefore written possibly earlier), I will allow for some inflation differences and the impact of the “Great Recession.” Even so, it seems like a slightly outlandish declaration for someone living in my area in 2016. I have not, however, implemented this lifestyle fully or tested some of her money-saving advice (such as shopping around in a farmer’s market or joining a CSA), so I cannot say with authority that her claim is incorrect. The few experiences I’ve had with farmer’s markets, however, lead me to believe that buying all my groceries here would definitely double my grocery bill each week. I know the health trade-offs might be worth it, but our budget is what it is at the moment. Perhaps I’ll give it a partial go and return with an update later this year.

Do you follow Rebecca’s advice on the regular? Does her estimations hold up? I’d love to hear about it!

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Gingerbread Cookies w/ Royal Frosting

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Mr. Foodie and I are hosting an Oktoberfest party soon, and we’re gearing up by testing out recipes like our soft pretzels. In years past I’ve wanted to try a gingerbread recipe, but always felt intimidated by it (compared to my ginger molasses cookies or the American Gingerbread, it is time consuming). But this year I found a relatively easy recipe for gingerbread cookies and the royal frosting that one uses to decorate them. I found Gingerbread very interesting as I was rolling it out – not quite cookie, not quite bread in terms of consistency. I could see clearly how easy it would be to over work the dough and end up with those cardboard-like gingerbread cookies we know so well.

To my delight, they turned out well. Holding their shape on the outside, soft in the center, with a rather mild ginger spice flavor. I might amp that up a bit in the next batch to counter balance the rather sweet frosting. By themselves they are ugly looking, but tasty -reminiscent of fresh shortbread with a tingle of ginger and molasses.

Preparing the dough is similar to making a cake: cream sugar and butter together, alternate dry and wet ingredients, mix until it comes together. Then it becomes more bread-like: rest the dough in plastic wrap, roll it out on a floured board, cut the shapes and bake (thankfully, it is a short baking time of 8-10 minutes unlike a bread dough). Rolling it out was the hardest part. It cracked at the edges and it was difficult to reroll the scraps if you wanted to squeeze out a few more cookies. Even so, the cookies baked without spreading, keeping their shape while staying soft inside.

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The frosting was a dream to prepare – three egg whites and vanilla extract whipped to a froth, add four cups of powdered sugar slowly until combined, whip fast until glossy, stiff peaks form. I did some cookies with the unwhipped, more liquid version of the frosting (the kind we let children decorate holiday cookies with) and I piped the whipped version. I probably could have whipped it a bit longer to be thicker for piping, but it did okay holding the shapes I piped. This frosting will harden on the cookie over time, making it easier to stack them or put them in containers. For the next batch, I will probably flavor the frosting with a little citrus extract (maybe orange to go well with the ginger/cinnamon) and dye some of the frosting for a little Oktoberfest drama!

As the original recipe suggests, I think this would make a fine dough for gingerbread house parts as well because of the stiffness of the exterior and how it bakes into shape. Or an alternative to sugar cookies for decorating!

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Disneyland’s Gingerbread Recipe by Jessica McConnel

  • 1/4 cup unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup dark molasses
  • 3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp. ground cloves
  • 1 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 3 tsp. ground ginger
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/4 tsp. ground cardamom
  • 1/2 cup water

 

Cream together brown sugar and softened butter until blended. Add molasses and blend until combined. Add the dry ingredients 1/3 at a time alternating with the 1/2 cup of water. Blend until dough forms. Turn out and press into a disc, then cover with plastic and let rest in the fridge for an hour. Roll out the dough on a lightly floured board to 1/4 inch thickness. Cut out the cookies and put them on lined baking sheet, bake at 350 for 8-10 minutes. Cool on a rack completely before frosting.

Alton Brown’s Royal Frosting 

Whip three egg whites together with 1 teaspoon vanilla extract until frothy. Slowly add sugar while whipping slowly until combined. Increase speed of whipping until glossy stiff peaks form. Put into a piping bag and pipe onto cooled cookies.

 

Do you have a favorite gingerbread recipe? Or perhaps some suggestions for gingerbread frosting? Feel free to share with us.

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Apple Pie w/ Homemade Crust

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This past weekend Mr. Foodie and I met up with his family at our local Farmer’s Market. It was a wet, drizzly morning, so it was fairly empty when we got there. My future in-laws take opportunities like this to buy fruit (and sometimes veggies) in bulk, making a deal with the vendors to take the bruised items in exchange for a price reduction. Then they do all kinds of things with the bulk items – pickle the turnips, slice up apples for snaking and baked goods, etc. When we visited them on Sunday, one of my brothers-in-law had already made an apple muffin using a carrot cake recipe. It was delicious. Mr. Foodie could not stop eating them. And as is often the case because my in-laws are super generous, we were showered with our own bounty to take home – this time a full freezer bag of sliced, peeled apples from the market. We have been stealing pieces all week, but there was still so much left over! So I decided to make a pie, of course.

To make the crust or buy it? It is the eternal question. Of course buying store-bought crust is easier, cleaner, and still tastes great depending on what you do with it, but I’ve finally arrived at the point in my baking life where I can easily turn out a consistently tasty pie crust from scratch. It does taste better if done right (so buttery, flakey, and light!), and I can make and refrigerate or freeze the pie dough ahead of time. With apple pie, you can peel and cut up your apples while the dough has rests in the fridge so no time is wasted. I can also customize the dough if I’m feeling frisky – like I did for my peach pie last summer when I added gruyere cheese to the crust. Cheese and pie are natural friends. When making pie crust from scratch, I cannot emphasize enough how awesome having a food processor is. No cutting in the butter with pastry knife. You still need to keep your fats chilled and use a bit of ice water, but the process is so much easier with the mixer.

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Apple pie aficionados have many different filling recipes – but almost all of them call for a bit of flour, a good amount of sugar, cinnamon, and salt. I’ve seen recipes which include orange juice, nutmeg, allspice, and lemon zest – these were all quite good as well. But in a pinch, just go for the holy four, mix together, and coat your apple slices well. This time I ended up having a bit too many apples after I coated them, so I set some aside and cooked them with a little butter low and slow on the stove for 15 minutes or so (you can go longer if you have the time) to cook off the flour taste and turn them into warm, goey, but still al dente pieces of apple – great by themselves or spoon them over ice cream for a heavenly dessert. The sauce is delightful.

Even if you use store-bought dough, I still recommend rolling it out on a floured board, to loosen it and smooth over that crink that develops on one edge due to being rolled into the package. To transfer the crust, roll it up on your pin and then unroll it over the pie plate. Don’t freak out if your crust doesn’t quite fill the pie plate the way it should – if you have one side that is lower than the tin and one which drapes, just cut off the excess pie dough and squish it onto the side that needs it. Perhaps professionals would frown at this, but it is better than trying to move the crust once it is in there – that will only result in more rips that will drive you crazy. Besides, when it bakes and you slice into it, you won’t even notice the patchwork.

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I have dreams of making beautiful top crust designs – latticework and braids, but truthfully I almost never have the time or patience to fiddle with it. The most creative I get is to cut out shapes and lay them on top like I did today with the heart (I could use some leaf cutters for Fall, don’t you think?). Some day I would like to at least make a braid to put around the pie and cover up my (usually) messy edges. Don’t forget to cut slits in the top to let steam escape! Finally, I bathe the top crust and edges with an egg wash (one egg, some water, mixed) and a sprinkle or two of sugar so the crust gets nice and brown and shiny.

Is there ANYTHING that smells better than pie baking? I think not. Another time I’d like to be a bit more adventurous and try a new recipe involving tons of apples -maybe apple butter? What would you do with a bushel of apples?

Apple Pie Recipe

Ina Garten’s Apple Pie Crust

Simple Apple Pie Filling:

1/2 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup sugar

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 Cup flour

8-10 peeled, cored, cut apple pieces (cut to about 1/2-1 inch thick; use lemon juice to keep pieces from browning too much and for flavor)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Make Ina’s crust and put it in ziplock or plastic wrap in the fridge for at least 30 minutes (or buy 2-crust pack). Combine filling ingredients and coat apple pieces. After pie dough rests, pull it out and divide it in two. Roll out the first part on a floured board, trying to maintain a circular shape by moving the dough out from the center with your pin. Flip once or twice to keep the dough from sticking to the board. Once it is big enough, roll the dough onto the pin to transfer it to the pie plate. See my note above if it doesn’t quite fit the pan. Put filling into bottom pie crust. Roll out the second pie crust and cover the pie with it. Pinch the two crusts together however you like. Add a braid or cookie cutter shape to the crust if you want, using egg wash to make it stick to the crust. Cut vents in the top of the pie. Bathe with egg wash and sprinkle with sugar. Bake for 1-1 and 1/4 hours or until crust is brown and filling is bubbling.

Let it rest a bit on a cooling rack even if you plan to serve warm – hot apple will burn your tongue severely. Also amazing one day or several days later – cold or warm. Serve with wedge of cheese (my preference) or with ice cream (also nice).

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