Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Hearty Homemade Chicken Noodle Soup

We've been craving healthy, nourishing soup lately as it's been cold and dreary in South Dakota, so our modus operandi has been to whip up a big batch of soup on Sundays and nosh on it all week long. When I saw that Smitten Kitchen had added a new ultimate chicken noodle soup recipe, I knew we had to try it.

To no one's surprise, the soup was fabulous. This was my first time making my own broth, and I've been kicking myself ever since- why have I not been doing this all along? It's so incredibly easy and good for you! We used rotisserie chicken, and it was a snap to pull the meat from the bones and dump the bones along with some roughly chopped vegetables into a pot of water and let it simmer all afternoon. And the flavor- guys, it is hard to compare real homemade broth with store-bought. It was so rich and flavorful and good. We ate this whole big pot of soup in three days!

We modified it just slightly for our own tastes- bumping up the garlic, adding a squeeze of lemon juice and throwing in a tablespoon of Better than Bouillon for additional flavor- but otherwise kept it mostly the same. It's a fabulous starter recipe that I hope you all enjoy. Stay warm!

Homemade Chicken Broth

2 medium-large yellow onions, unpeeled, halved or 1 large onion plus 1 large leek, cleaned and cut lengthwise
4 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed a little
1 large carrot
1 large parsnip (optional)
1 celery rib
4 qt. water
2 lb. chicken bones (from about 2 carcasses leftover from a roast or rotisserie)
1 Tbsp. kosher salt
½ tsp. dried thyme or 2 tsp. chopped fresh
1/8 tsp. red pepper flakes
1 Tbsp. tomato paste
1 bay leaf

Combine all ingredients in a large (6-8 qt.) stock pot over high heat and bring to a boil. Once boiling, reduce to a gentle simmer, skim the scum and cover. Simmer for 2-8 hours. Using a fine mesh colander, drain broth into a large bowl (NOT in the sink!) and then return broth to pot.

Chicken Noodle Soup

Broth from above recipe
Better than Bouillon (optional)
Meat pulled from one rotisserie chicken (or 3 bone-in, skin-on chicken breast halves, cooked)
2 large carrots, peeled and diced or 1 large carrot and 1 large parsnip, diced
1 large leek, trimmed and sliced into ½-inch segments
2 celery ribs, chopped or diced
6-9 oz. thin egg noodles or soup noodles of your choice
½ lemon
2 Tbsp. finely-chopped flat-leaf parsley

Sauté diced vegetables in olive oil until slightly softened. Add warm broth and a spoonful of Better than Bouillon to pot and simmer for about 5 minutes, until firm-tender. Add soup noodles and cook to package instructions (usually 6-10 minutes). After noodles are cooked, return to soup and simmer for 2 minutes, until heated through. Squeeze in fresh lemon juice and stir. Sprinkle with chopped parsley.

Source: Modified slightly from http://smittenkitchen.com/blog/2015/01/my-ultimate-chicken-noodle-soup/

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Snickers Cheesecake with Oreo Crust

Recently, I donated a year of cheesecakes to Heartland Humane Society's Wine and Whiskers silent auction -- which was great, except I realized I needed more amazing cheesecake recipes to fill the year! Since then, I've made it my quest to try as many cheesecake recipes as I can this year. This Snickers Cheesecake with Oreo Crust recipe from Brown-Eyed Baker is a start. Utterly luscious (I mean, it has 20 fun-sized Snickers in the batter alone! How could it not be?!) and beautiful to look at, this is definitely one I'm keeping in my recipe arsenal. Next time I may cook it a tad longer than the recipe calls for -- it was set, but barely -- but otherwise I wouldn't change a thing.

The whipped cream recipe came from Crazy for Crust and she has five great variations on the recipe below. I made it over my lunch hour and piped it once I got home, and it stayed perfectly all night. Can't wait to try her peanut butter whipped cream!

What are your favorite cheesecake recipes? Post a link in the comments below!

Snickers Cheesecake with Oreo Crust

2 c. Oreo cookies with cream center removed, finely ground (2 sleeves)
1/4 c. butter, melted
2 Tbsp. sugar

32 oz. cream cheese, at room temperature
1 1/4 c. granulated sugar
4 eggs, at room temperature
3/4 c. heavy cream
1 Tbsp. vanilla extract
20 fun-size Snickers bars, coarsely chopped

Whipped cream
Chopped Snickers bars
Hot fudge sauce
Caramel sauce

Position oven rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees F. Boil water for water bath.

Mix together the cookie crumbs, melted butter and 2 Tablespoons sugar and press into 9" springform pan. Set crust aside.

Beat together the cream cheese and sugar on medium speed until smooth and creamy, scraping the sides of the bowl as needed, about three minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well until fully incorporated and scraping down the sides of the bowl after each addition. Add the heavy cream and vanilla and beat until well combined, about 1 minute. Using a rubber spatula, fold in the chopped Snickers bars. Pour the batter on top of the crust and bake using the water bath technique for 55-65 minutes, or until the edges are set, but the middle still jiggles a little.

Remove cheesecake from oven and place the pan on a wire rack to cool completely. Once completely cool, refrigerate for at least six hours (preferably overnight).

Garnish the cheesecake with fresh whipped cream, more chopped Snickers bars and drizzles of hot fudge and caramel. Leftover cheesecake can be stored, covered, in the refrigerator for up to four days.

Source: Adapted slightly from http://www.browneyedbaker.com/snickers-cheesecake-recipe

Whipped Cream
1 c. heavy whipping cream, cold
1 tsp. vanilla bean paste or 2 tsp. vanilla extract
2 Tbsp. powdered sugar

It is important to start with cold bowls and whisks. This recipe can be made with a stand mixer using the whisk attachment or a hand mixer using regular beaters. Place your bowl and whisk/beaters in the refrigerator or freeze for at least 10 minutes before making whipped cream.

Place cold whipping cream in the cold bowl. Attach whisk attachment (or beaters) and beat on high speed (6 or 8 with a stand mixer) until mixture thickens. Slowly add the powdered sugar and vanilla. Continue mixing on high until stiff peaks form. You may want to stop part way through and wipe down the sides of the bowl with a spatula. If you're using a stand mixer it will take just a few minutes to get stiff peaks. The whipped cream should be able to stay in its position when you turn the whisk attachment upside down.

Store in a sealed container for up to one day. This is best used the same day it's made.

Yield: 2 cups
Source: http://www.crazyforcrust.com/2014/07/perfect-whipped-cream/

Monday, November 10, 2014

Strawberry Cheesecake with Oreo Crust

If there’s one thing I’ve learned as a new farm wife, it’s this: People will help you with a whole lot of hard work if you’re willing to provide tasty food at the end of it.

This weekend we brought our cow/calf pairs home from the pasture, where they have been grazing since June. Our pasture is three miles straight north of the farm, so we always try to have plenty of help on hand to make sure the cattle don’t try to get into any unfenced fields and stay on the road as we walk them home. When things go smoothly, it can be a fun and rewarding experience, but if you have to spend the afternoon chasing rogue cows in, it can prove extremely frustrating and time-consuming. 

This year, we had 15 family members and friends commit to helping us take the cows home, so I knew we’d have some hungry farmhands to feed. I went straight to my mother-in-law for her famous roast beef sandwich recipe, and with a handful of good ol’ fashioned Midwestern side dishes (think cheesy hash brown potatoes, caramel rolls and Snicker salad), I knew our helpers would be fed well. But something was missing from my menu: A super-decadent dessert that can only be justified after you’ve spent all morning burning calories chasing cattle.

Enter this glorious strawberry glazed cheesecake with an Oreo crust.

This cheesecake would be delicious on its own, sans strawberries and glaze. It’s rich, velvety and utterly luscious. But adding the whole strawberries with the strawberry glaze makes it extra special, both in taste and appearance. This cheesecake earned me distinct praise by my sister, who told me she thought it was the best baked item I’ve ever made (and I’ve made quite a few!), and by one of our best friends, who thought I bought it at the store.

Making a fabulous cheesecake isn’t hard, but here are a few secrets to avoid any mishaps along the way. First and foremost, make sure your cream cheese is at room temperature. Food safety experts recommend leaving cream cheese out no longer than 2 hours at room temperature to soften, but many bakers I follow recommend leaving cream cheese out much longer than that to properly soften. Whatever you do, just make sure the cream cheese is soft enough that a butter knife can cut through it with little resistance. To bring eggs to room temperature, cover them with warm water and allow them to soak for a few minutes until they are no longer cool to the touch. Bringing these two ingredients to room temperature will make the cheesecake batter creamy and help you avoid over-mixing, which can cause cracks on the top of the cheesecake.

If your springform pan is not leak-proof, be sure to wrap heavy-duty foil tightly around the outside of the pan to prevent a watery mess. Water baths are often used to help bake cheesecakes at an even temperature and prevent cracks. If using a water bath, make sure to tightly wrap your pan, place in a large roasting pan with 2-inch sides, and then add the water halfway up the pan.

While you don’t want to open your oven door while baking the cheesecake, you do want to check it at the minimum recommended baking time – in this recipe, that would be 70 minutes. The cheesecake will be ready to be removed from the oven when the center looks almost set, but wobbles slightly in the middle when shaken. Resist the temptation to use a knife to check for doneness to avoid cracks.

I’d also advise using regular cream cheese and sour cream instead of reduced-fat or fat-free products, as this recipe was developed using full-fat ingredients. If you need to find some farm work to burn off calories before making this cheesecake, I know of a farmer who would accept free labor.
To serve, slice the cold cheesecake with a warm, clean, dry knife. Use a squeeze bottle to drizzle any leftover glaze onto a dessert plate in whatever design you desire. Serve and enjoy!

Strawberry Cheesecake with Oreo Crust

2 c. Oreo cookies with cream center removed, finely ground (2 sleeves)
¼ c. butter, melted
2 Tbsp. sugar

4 8-oz. packages cream cheese, room temperature
1-2/3 c. sugar
3 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
¼ tsp. salt
4 large eggs, room temperature
2 egg yolks, room temperature
1-½ tsp. pure vanilla extract
¼ c. sour cream

Strawberry Glaze/Topping
1 c. frozen strawberries, thawed
1 pint fresh small strawberries, washed and hulled
3 Tbsp. water
2 Tbsp. sugar
1 tsp. cornstarch
Red food coloring

Position oven rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 325 degrees F. Boil water for water bath.
Mix together the cookie crumbs, melted butter and 2 Tablespoons sugar and press into a greased 9” springform pan. Set crust aside.

In a large bowl, beat together cream cheese, sugar, flour and salt until smooth. If using a stand mixer, mix on low speed. Add the whole eggs and the egg yolks, one at a time, beating well (but still at low speed) after each addition. Mix in the vanilla and sour cream until completely smooth.

Place the springform pan in a larger roasting pan. If cheesecake pan is not leakproof, cover bottom securely with foil before adding water. Fill the roasting pan with boiling water until it reaches halfway up the sides of the cake pan.

Bake until the cheesecake is firm and slightly golden on top, 70 to 80 minutes.

Remove the cheesecake from the water bath and cool on a cooling rack to room temperature. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until very cold, at least 3 hours or overnight.

Strawberry Glaze: Puree frozen strawberries in a small food processor or with an immersion blender. Press blended strawberries through a fine mesh strainer in to a small saucepan. Add water.
In a small bowl, mix together sugar and cornstarch. Stir into the puree in saucepan. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Continue cooking and stirring until thickened and clear. Add food coloring. Cool to room temperature.

Arrange strawberries in a single layer around the cooled cheesecake. Drizzle cooled glazed evenly over strawberries on cheesecake. Store, covered, in refrigerator.

Source: Adapted slightly from http://www.barbarabakes.com/2013/04/strawberry-cheesecake-with-an-oreo-cookie-crust/

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Sparkling Champagne Cupcakes

Many people credit their love of baking to their 4-H experiences growing up. While I learned many valuable life lessons and skills during my 10 years as a member, baking, sadly, was not one of them.

In fact, I’ll never forget my very first demonstration, making “Michelle’s Mixin’ Muffins” in front of a room full of strangers. Despite the catchy name, there was little “mixin’” involved, as I had accidentally left out a rather important ingredient and created a chunky mess. I do recall gamely pressing on, and informing the judges, “It’s not supposed to look like this!” as my mom frantically waved her arms in the back of the room, mouthing “You forgot the butter!”

Needless to say, my first foray into baking was a little traumatizing.

Still, over the years, I’ve slowly learned to appreciate the art of baking. It’s a tough skill for someone like me to develop – I’m the impatient sort who starts a recipe without reading it and finds out halfway through that it requires a 12-hour rest period – but when I put my mind to it, I find it rewarding and yes, even relaxing.

Lately, I’ve been on a bit of a cupcake kick, and fell in love with these sparkling champagne cupcakes. Though a bit time consuming, they are wickedly decadent with a champagne crème filling and champagne frosting and worth the extra steps if you’ve got the time to spare. If you’re pressed for time or desire a lighter cupcake, a classic buttercream frosting is delicious as well.

For those like me who are prone to not following directions, here are a few tips and tricks that might make the baking process a bit more enjoyable.

First, pay attention when it says to soften the butter or cream cheese. Yes, in a pinch, microwaving the butter in short spurts at a low temperature can do the trick, or you can speed up the process by grating the butter, beating it with a mixer or cutting it into smaller chunks. But ideally, letting the butter sit out for at least one hour (and up to several) at room temperature is the best way to get it properly softened and pliable. This is important for both creaming the butter for the batter and creating a smooth buttercream or cream cheese frosting. In baking, patience and planning is key.

I have also found that spring-action stainless steel scoops are ideal for getting a uniform amount of batter into the cupcake liners. I’ve also used cupcake pens, ice cream scoops, measuring cups and regular old spoons, and in my opinion the spring-action scoops are by far the easiest to use. Fill each liner with a level ¼ cup of batter.

To achieve that fresh-from-the-bakery appearance, I suggest using extra-large decorating tips (my favorites are round, open star and closed star tips). If your frosting hasn’t quite achieved that stiff consistency necessary for piping, add more powdered sugar or try placing the frosting in the fridge for 15 minutes until it reaches the correct consistency. If the frosting is too thick, add in additional milk one teaspoon at a time.

For these sparkling champagne cupcakes, it’s recommended to use a sweeter champagne or sparkling wine – and by all means, break out the cheap stuff. If a basic buttercream frosting is desired, try making my standby recipe. Simply beat 6 ounces salted butter until softened, then sift in 12 ounces powdered sugar and add 2 tablespoons milk, 1 tablespoon vanilla and food paste gel for coloring. Mix for five minutes or until light and fluffy.

Happy baking!

Sparkling Champagne Cupcakes

½ c. butter, softened
1 c. granulated sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp. vanilla
1 ¾ c. flour
½ tsp. baking soda
¼ tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. salt
½ c. sour cream
½ c. champagne, Prosecco or your choice of sparkling wine, room temperature

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Using a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add vanilla and mix. Whisk together dry ingredients (flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt); set aside. In a separate bowl, whisk together ½ c. room temperature champagne and ½ c. sour cream. Add flour and champagne mixtures alternately, beginning and ending with flour. Batter will be thick.

Fill cupcake liners with ¼ c. level measures of batter. Bake for 16-22 minutes. Set aside.
Yield: 17 cupcakes

Champagne Pastry Crème Filling

½ c. heavy cream, divided
½ c. champagne or Prosecco
2 Tbsp. cornstarch
5 Tbsp. granulated sugar
1 whole egg
2 egg yolks
2 Tbsp. unsalted butter
1 tsp. vanilla

In a medium bowl, whisk cornstarch in ¼ c. of heavy cream. Combine the remaining heavy cream, sugar and ½ c. champagne in a saucepan; bring to a boil, then remove from heat.
Beat the whole egg and two egg yolks into the cornstarch/heavy cream mixture. Pour 1/3 of boiling champagne mixture into the egg mixture, whisking quickly and constantly so the eggs do not cook. Bring the remaining champagne/heavy cream mixture to a boil. Pour in the hot egg mixture in a stream, whisking constantly until thickened. Remove from heat and beat in butter and vanilla.

Cut a divot in the top of each cupcake and fill with pastry cream using a spoon. Trim the cut-out cake pieces flat to make a “lid” and place on top of the filled divot.

Champagne Frosting

1 c. plus 1 Tbsp. champagne or sparkling wine
2 sticks of butter, softened
2 ½ c. confectioners’ sugar
Gel food coloring of your choice, if desired

Place 1 cup of champagne in a small saucepan. Simmer over medium-high heat until reduced to 2 Tbsp. Transfer to a small bowl or condiment cup and cool.

Using a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, cream softened butter and powdered sugar together. Once the frosting is thick and fluffy, pour in the reduced 2 Tbsp. champagne plus 1 Tbsp. champagne from the bottle and mix well. Add food coloring drops or gel until desired coloring reached. Frost the cream-filled cupcakes using your favorite piping tip.

Recipe modified slightly from www.sprinklebakes.com

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Steak Fajitas

It’s that season again, where gorgeous, homegrown bell peppers are popping up in farmers markets and gardens around the country and home cooks everywhere are looking for ways to use them.
The answer? Fajitas. More specifically, steak fajitas, as there’s nothing better than hot, sizzling beef served with all the fixings (and as cattle ranchers, we’re clearly not biased).

I must be honest, however, and admit upfront that I had little to do with these steak fajitas besides eating them, licking my fingers and begging for more. Farmer Dan (as my nephews so sweetly call him) took a break from haying this month to whip up a flavorful marinade one morning, and later grilled the steaks to medium-rare perfection. So naturally, I made him spill all of his secrets so I could share them all with you.

We’ve eaten these steak fajitas using both sirloin and flank steak, but traditionally, fajitas are made using skirt steak. Skirt steak is an inexpensive, flat cut of beef that is taken from the diaphragm muscle and is flavorful but can be tough if cooked improperly. Flank steak is similar to skirt steak, but sirloin offers big flavor and is more forgiving on the grill, which is why we often use it.

Whichever cut you choose, it’s important to remember to marinate the meat for at least four hours, and then grill at a high temperature (over 500 degrees Fahrenheit) just until medium rare. To achieve those beautiful crosshatch grill marks, cook for approximately one minute then rotate the steak 90 degrees. Let it cook for another 90 seconds (depending on the thickness of the steak), then flip and repeat. The steak is medium rare when it has moderate give when pushing on it, or when it is between 120-145 degrees before resting (the USDA recommends 145 degrees). Once off the grill, let the meat rest for ten minutes and then slice it against the grain to avoid a chewy steak.

And if you’re anything like me, letting the meat rest is the hardest part after it comes off a sizzling hot grill.
“But isn’t now the time to dive in? Won’t the meat get cold just sitting here? Don’t I need to pick it and devour it now with my bare hands?”

Let it rest, my friends. Dive into that steak too soon and all of those delicious juices will be swimming all over your cutting board and will not be evenly distributed throughout the meat. The steak won’t get cold- trust me. Sit on your hands if you need to, but don’t cut into that piece of meat too early.

Going back to the vegetables – the second most important part of the meal – it’s important to choose bell peppers that are smooth, firm, unblemished, and bright and evenly colored. If picking from the garden or purchasing at a farmer’s market, store them unwashed and whole in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for up to a week.

The steak and vegetables offer huge flavor with this marinade, but don’t forget to include all of the sides and fixings – sour cream, guacamole, pico de gallo, lettuce, refried beans, Spanish rice and freshly-grated cheese (don’t even bother with the packaged stuff- grating your own cheese is so easy and worth it!) To make a quick pico de gallo, just combine four chopped Roma tomatoes, a diced red onion, a big handful of chopped cilantro, a finely-diced jalapeno and juice from half a lime and salt to taste.  Adjust as needed. For my favorite homemade guacamole, mash together four diced Haas avocados, 1 seeded and diced Roma tomato, ½ of one large diced red onion, five minced garlic cloves, juice from 1 ½ limes and generous sprinkle of sea salt, to taste.

Devour and repeat, again and again.

Steak Fajitas
2 steaks (sirloin, flank or skirt)
½ c. olive oil
5 Tbsp. Worcestershire
1/3c. lime juice, freshly squeezed
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 Tbsp. cumin
2 Tbsp. chili powder
½ tsp. red pepper flakes
¼ c. soy sauce
1 tsp. salt
½ tsp. black pepper
1 Tbsp. sugar
2 medium onions, halved and sliced
1 red bell pepper, sliced
1 green bell pepper, sliced
1 yellow bell pepper, sliced
Oil, for frying
Flour tortillas, warmed
Freshly-grated cheese
Pico de gallo
Sour cream

In a bowl, combine olive oil, Worcestershire, lime juice, garlic, cumin, chili powder, red pepper flakes, salt, pepper, soy sauce and sugar until combined. Pour half of marinade into a separate container. In one dish, place steak, turning to coat. In the second dish, add vegetables, turning to coat. Cover both dishes and refrigerate for at least four hours or overnight.

Prepare fixings. To warm tortillas, wrap a stack of five or fewer in aluminum foil and warm at 350 degrees for 15-20 minutes, or until heated through. Multiple stacks can be warmed at once.

On the grill: Using a cast iron skillet, add vegetables and cook over medium-high heat for several minutes until al dente. Remove to a plate and keep warm. On the grill, add steak and cook over high for 2 minutes per side until medium rare. Remove and allow to rest on a cutting board for five minutes.

On the stove:  Heat a heavy skillet over medium-high heat and drizzle in oil. Add vegetables and cook for a few minutes, until al dente. Remove to a plate and keep warm. Heat the same skillet or a grill pan over high heat and add oil. Cook the meat for two minutes per side until medium rare. Remove and allow to rest on a cutting board for five minutes.

Slice the meat right before serving and serve with fresh pico de gallo, sour cream, cilantro and guacamole. Enjoy!

Friday, July 25, 2014

Grilled Peaches with Salted Caramel Sauce

There's nothing better than fruit, unless it's grilled fruit. And there's nothing better than grilled fruit, unless it's grilled fruit with ice cream on top.

Grilled fruit with ice cream on top drizzled in salted caramel and homemade cookie crumbs? You've. Got. To. Be. Kidding. Me.

We ordered 25 pounds of Georgia peaches from the local fruit club, so I've been enjoying the bounty of super juicy peaches for the last week or so. One night, I had Dan plop a few on the grill and we made these wonderful grilled peach splits from Smitten Kitchen's site (if you haven't seen it and don't have her cookbook, you are missing out!)

I didn't make the whipped cream (mainly, because I forgot) but that might have been too decadent, even for me. These are rich enough with the cookie crumbs and ice cream and salted caramel. I used honey instead of maple syrup on the peaches, and used that delicious (but insanely expensive) Madagascar bourbon vanilla for the salted caramel, and it was absolutely sinful.

The caramel comes together beautifully for a silky-smooth salted caramel, but while you're making it, be prepared to think it's going to fail. It gets chunky before it becomes smooth, and the entire time you will be thinking it is one of those Pinterest fails. Be calm and carry on. It turns out beautifully. Trust.

I was too busy digging in to these fabulous peach splits to whip out my actual camera, so an iPhone photo for now must suffice. Enjoy!

Grilled Peach Splits
1/2 c. raw pecans
1 1/4 c. all-purpose flour
1/3 c. powdered sugar
2 Tbsp. coarse sugar, like turbinado or Sugar in the Raw (granulated if you have neither)
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. baking powder
6 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
3/4 tsp. vanilla extract or bourbon

2/3 c. granulated sugar
2/3 c. heavy or whipping cream
1 Tbsp. bourbon or whiskey or 1 tsp. vanilla extract
Heaped 1/4 tsp. flaky salt or level 1/4 tsp. fine sea salt

Whipped cream
1/2 c. heavy or whipping cream
1 Tbsp. powdered sugar
2 Tbsp. crème fraîche or sour cream
1/4 tsp. vanilla extract

Butter, for grill
4 large firm-ripe peaches, halved and pitted
2-3 Tbsp. maple syrup or honey
1 tsp. cinnamon sugar

To serve
1 pint vanilla ice cream

Make crumbs: Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or nonstick baking mat. Spread nuts out in one layer and bake, stirring occasionally, until well-browned (10-13 minutes), tossing once or twice. Cool the nuts. Leave oven on and tray lined with parchment.

Place cooled pecans, flour, sugars, salt and baking powder in a food processor and blend until the nuts are as powdery as possible without turning to paste. Add melted butter and vanilla and pulse machine until large and small crumbs form. Spread out on baking sheet. Bake for 8 minutes, then move crumbs around for even browning, and bake for another 4-5 minutes until golden brown. Let cool completely on rack, then transfer to a jar. Store at room temperature in an airtight container for up to a week.

Make caramel: Place sugar in the bottom of a medium-sized heavy saucepan. Set over medium heat. In a few minutes, the sugar will begin to melt. Use a spoon or spatula to stir it as it melts, breaking up any chunks as needed. Stir continuously until the melted sugar takes on an amber color, which usually happens at about the same time the last sugar chunk melts. Remove from heat and carefully stir in cream, just a little drizzle at first (it will hiss and splatter) and then the rest. If it re-solidifies, return saucepan to stove over medium-low and stir until sugar melts again. Let caramel sauce cool slightly before adding bourbon or vanilla and salt. Store caramel sauce in a glass container for up to 1 week in the fridge. Rewarm to loosen the caramel into a sauce consistency, as needed. If using within a couple of hours, it can be left out.

Make whipped cream: Using a clean bowl and whisk (electric or a regular large one), whip cream and sugar, if using, until it holds soft peaks. Whisk in crème fraîche or sour cream, and vanilla. Keep chilled until needed.

Grill peaches: Heat your grill to medium/medium-low and butter it generously. Brush peach halves with maple syrup and sprinkle with cinnamon sugar or just cinnamon. Place cut side down on grill and grill gently and slowly, between 10-20 minutes, until they take on nice grill marks and are mostly tender to the touch. Brush a little extra maple syrup on top when done, if desired. If you'd like to grill these in advance, they can be warmed before serving in a low-temperature oven.

Assemble splits: Place a peach half, face up, in a shallow bowl. Top with ice cream, caramel, whipped cream and a handful of cookie crumbs.

Source: Modified slightly from http://smittenkitchen.com/blog/2014/07/grilled-peach-splits-news/

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Cast-Iron Skillet S'mores

Lately, I’ve been engrossed in Mildred Kalish’s memoir, “Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm during the GreatDepression.”

It’s a fascinating book that details a pioneering way of life that is long gone for most of us. The recounted pleasure of “running barefoot through the fields, as free and wild as they dared” sounds a bit magical and rather enticing to a town kid-turned-farmwife.

But when I stop and think about it, running barefoot through the fields sounds downright painful and not at all enjoyable, darn it all!

I’d love to imagine myself as a tough pioneer woman, cast iron skillet in hand, cooking over the fire, living the rustic, unrefined life. But let’s be honest: In the last two years, the closest I’ve gotten to the wilderness are the times I encountered a mountain lion and a rabid skunk on our farm, and that was purely accidental.

(They are good stories, however. The former, I was helping my husband fence when a mountain lion was scared out of an abandoned building nearby. My town kid response was to run in circles – literally –, sprint toward the trees, then finally redirect myself to safety in the tractor. I’ve since been informed that this is not the proper response. The latter, I was chased by a rabid skunk and fell headfirst in the snow as I tried to escape. I cannot make these things up.)

So, in the spirit of pioneering but considering the reality of my upbringing, I have learned to content myself with cooking great food in my cast iron skillet, but staying in the comfort (and safety) of my own home.

Now, cast iron skillets are wonderful tools, whether you are made for the great outdoors or not. They are inexpensive, heavy-duty and get better over time as they become seasoned (seasoning refers to the oil baked on that creates the easy release of food, not the spices you use). You can use cast iron skillets on induction, ceramic, electric and gas cooktops, in the oven, on the grill, and over the campfire, making them super versatile.

Caring for a cast iron skillet seems to be a common question among new owners. To clean, simply wash with hot water, dry immediately and rub with a light coat of cooking oil to restore the sheen, protect it from moisture and keep it seasoned. While not using soap can be concerning to some, the instructions by Lodge – a well-known cast iron manufacturer – note that its cookware hits 400 degrees in four minutes on medium heat, and becomes sterile at 212 degrees, making soap unnecessary. If it is still a concern, the company recommends washing with mild soapy water and drying and oiling immediately.

While I really don’t foresee myself cooking over a campfire in the wilderness any time soon, I do relish the idea of making homemade s’mores, so when a favorite former teacher of mine shared this recipe for s’mores dip on Facebook, I had to try it out. It takes only a few minutes, yet looks impressive. I used a mix of leftover dark and milk chocolate chips for the base, and cut up jumbo marshmallows for the top. Stick it in the oven for a few minutes at 400 degrees to get the chocolate melting, then broil the top to get that beautiful roasted golden brown look (careful, you don’t want it to burn). Serve with graham crackers, and if you’re like me, pretend you’re in the wilderness. I like to think of it as a taste of frontier living from the comfort of your porch. Enjoy!

Cast Iron Skillet S’mores
Chocolate chips (enough to cover the bottom of the skillet)
Jumbo marshmallows, cut in half
Graham crackers

Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees. Cover bottom of skillet with chocolate chips. Using kitchen scissors, cut each marshmallow in half lengthwise, then place on top of chocolate chips smooth side up. Place entire skillet in oven for three minutes, then broil for a minute or two until tops of marshmallows are golden brown. Remove and serve immediately with graham crackers. 

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