Gooey Cinnamon Rolls

MEMORY MONDAYS

It was a sunny summer Arizona day. I was a bored 13-year-old who had a serious hankering for something sweet. I had all day with nothing to do, most of my family were off doing whatever fun activities they had set up for themselves. I decided to attempt to make cinnamon rolls. My mom made them occasionally, so I dug out her recipe and was off on my very first yeast baking experience!

As I measured out the flour and kneaded the dough, I thought, “This is easy! I could make these everyday!” I left the dough to rise. The recipe said “double”. Forget the fact that I am horrible at visual estimation, I figured 20 minutes or so would be a good amount of time, so I could get them finished before my sisters got home. After about 25 minutes, it looked like it had risen a lot…maybe it was about double.

I rolled them out (Hmmm…how thick? How thin?). I spread the melted butter and did what the recipe said to do: sprinkled sugar and cinnamon. I rolled them up and cut them and put them all side by side in one 9×13 pan. Wait, I have to let the rise AGAIN? Sheesh…   *Sigh* By this time I am dying to eat these things, and it has already taken FOREVER to make them up to this point (remember, I’m 13…an age not known for it’s patience).

I let them sit for about 10 minutes and am delighted that they look all puffy and risen. I preheat the oven and pop them in. I’m so excited to pull them out of the oven, and top them with a basic buttercream frosting (yeah, I think my sisters and I all learned to make a chocolate buttercream frosting before we could talk) and EAT THEM! Mmmmm, these are amaz…amazi…amazingly hard. Like hockey pucks. And flavorless.

It would be many, many, many, many years before I would attempt to bake with yeast again.

Through my cooking and baking adventures, I commonly hear from people “I can’t make anything with yeast”. I completely understand. I had more failures than just that teenaged cinnamon roll disaster, and I finally just decided, “I’m not a yeast baker”. Somehow the yeast baking gene skipped over me.

In college, one day, I wanted homemade cinnamon rolls. I said to myself, “People make homemade cinnamon rolls all.of.the.time. Why in the heck can’t I?” I set out to follow a recipe to-the-tee and see if I could pull it off. I did. They were fabulous. They weren’t perfect, but finding a recipe with precise directions that I followed exactly helped me get a feel for yeast baking. Over the years, as I overcame my fear of yeast failure, I’ve become pretty darn good at it.

The key to yeast baking is experience. That means lots and lots of failure. Lots of hockey pucks and doorstops and fallen breads. The more you experience the dough, the yeast, and how they react in your environment and your oven, the better you’ll get at it.

This is turning out to be a super long post, so thanks for sticking with me. CINNAMON ROLLS (that was for those who skipped all the above part and wanted to get to the pertinent info). Here’s the thing with cinnamon rolls: patience. Make them on a day you have a lot of time, you’re not in a hurry. You need to make sure they are rising as much as needed. Second: roll them thin. You know those cinnamon rolls you get in the mall? They have a ton of layers, and they are nice and soft and gooey. That’s from rolling it super thin so that you get lots of thin layers. Third: do not over stuff the pan. You’ll notice in my pictures that I only put eight rolls in a 9×13 pan. Yeast rolls actually get three times to rise. First, when you double the dough. Second, after shaping, you let them double in the pan. Third, when they cook, they expand again. If you have extra space around them, it gives them lots of room to expand, which results in a softer end product. You also want to frost them hot, straight out of the oven. The frosting will keep the rolls soft as it seeps into the hot roll. Make sure every exposed surface is covered.

GOOEY CINNAMON ROLLS

1 cup warm milk (110 degrees F/45 degrees C)
2 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast
1/2 cup white sugar
1/3 cup butter, melted
2 eggs, room temperature
3 1/2-4 cups bread flour
1 teaspoon salt

1 cup brown sugar, packed
2 1/2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
1/3 cup butter, softened

4 ounces cream cheese, softened
1/4 cup salted butter, softened
1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla

If you haven’t yet, take your eggs out of the fridge so they can warm up to room temperature. In a bowl, or your stand mixer, combine the milk, yeast and sugar. Let sit for 5 minutes, until it is frothy. Meanwhile, melt your butter and let it cool a bit. Stir the butter into the yeast mixture, then add in the eggs and stir to combine. Stir in 3 cups of the bread flour and the salt. Add the remaining flour 1/2 cup at a time until  the dough just comes together. Do not add too much flour, or your rolls will be tough. Knead for 5 minutes with your dough hook, or for several minutes by hand, until the dough is soft, elastic and bounces back when you touch it. If you are using a stand mixer, the dough should stay on the hook and not stick to the sides of your mixing bowl. You may need to sprinkle extra flour in every so often to keep it from sticking. Place a towel over the bowl and let sit and rise until double, about an hour.

Dump the dough onto a lightly floured surface. Roll dough into a 16×21 inch rectangle. This is easier said than done, it takes some practice, but don’t worry too much if it has uneven edges. The key here is not the measurement given above, but that it is rolled thin. It can be bigger that 16×21. In a small bowl, mix together the cinnamon and brown sugar. Use a rubber scraper to spread the soft butter across the surface of the dough. Leave a 1/2 inch border just on the side farthest from you, where you will seal the roll of dough, free from butter. Evenly spread the cinnamon mixture on top of the butter. Starting at the long edge, start to roll the dough. You want it fairly tightly rolled. I tend to stretch it a bit as I go, pulling the roll towards me as I go. It’s normal to have to do one side, then the other. This is a nice, soft dough and will take some finessing to get it to roll evenly. Don’t worry if it’s lopsided. When you get to the end, pinch the edge shut as well as you can. Place the seam side down. Cut the jagged edge piece off each side. Don’t throw them away, those are rolls, too! Now, cut your nice, neat roll into 12 equal portions. I usually cut the log down the middle, then in quarters, then cut each quarter into thirds. You will see all sorts of tips on cutting cinnamon rolls. The only trick you really need is to use a serrated knife (the kind with a jagged edge), and “saw” the rolls, do NOT press down with the knife, or you will mash them. If you lightly saw them with a nice, sharp, serrated knife, you won’t have any problems.

Spray your pans with cooking spray, or lightly grease with some oil. I typically use one 9×13 pan and one slightly smaller oblong pan that fits six rolls (remember, you have the two edge ‘reject’ rolls). You can use a 9×9 pan and ditch the reject rolls if you want, or depending on their size, combine then into one roll and place it in the middle of the 9×9 pan. You want to only put 8 rolls in the 9×13 pan, and the remaining 4-6 rolls in whatever other pan you choose. Cover each pan with a towel and let rise again, about 30 minutes.

Preheat your over to 375 degrees. Bake the rolls for 15-18 minutes, until light brown and moist, but not doughy on the inside (just use your psychic abilities, or use a fork to kind of pull the middle of one roll to one side to see the texture of it).

While the rolls are baking, or while they are rising, or whenever (you could pre-make this frosting and freeze it, if you want), whip together the cream cheese and butter until smooth. Add the powdered sugar and vanilla and beat until light and fluffy.

Immediately frost after removing them from the oven and let cool 5-10 minutes, so you don’t scorch the inside of your mouth (this is the hardest part of the recipe).

If you want fresh baked rolls for breakfast (we have them every Christmas morning), you can make these and freeze them after shaping (just get the disposable foil pans and put 6 in each pan). Pull them out of the freezer the night before and let them defrost and slowly rise in the fridge all night. Pull them out of the fridge when you wake up, preheat the oven and bake. for best results, bring to room temp before baking, but even if you don’t do that, they’ll still be amazing.

See? Not perfect! Still amazingly yummy!

Lots of space for these guys to rise.

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Prepping for School

Did you miss me? This is the last week of summer for three of my four kids, and the first week my teacher husband was back to work. We spent all last week shoving every activity we planned to do this summer into a week-long family activity fest. I have several recipes coming down the pike that I made this summer, but I thought I’d change things up and use this post to tell you how I’m prepping for school to start.

The last two years, my kids have eaten hot lunches at school. It made me cringe every time they would come home and tell me what they had for lunch. Last year they even ate breakfast at school. First, let me say that our school serves above-average tasting food. They also allow for unlimited salad and fresh fruit, which is great. Our district also follows our state health policy for lunches. You know, so many servings of vegetables, “low” sugar content, a certain fiber content, etc. I acknowledge that it’s a valiant effort, and it’s definitely better than nothing. But, there are a few problems with it, in my opinion. First, the almighty Dairy Council (cue either angelic singing or a morose funeral durge, depending on your opinion) has lobbied and succeeded to make flavored milk exempt from the sugar content rule. Did you know that flavored milk has at least as much sugar as soda? Your child’s chocolate or strawberry milk has 27-31 grams of sugar per serving. Second, I believe strongly in training a palate. It’s one reason that dieting using processed foods (like, low-fat instead of full-fat pizza) will never succeed in the long run. In my family, I cook home-made, from-scratch, nutritious, flavor-packed meals. I tend to make ethnic foods from all walks of life and expect my children to experiment with taste and enjoy trying new things. My third son’s favorite meal when he was 2? Baked salmon and asparagus. The problem I have found is that within a month of eating school “healthy” food, they lose their adventurous palates and start refusing to eat my dinners. Can you blame them? They are eating processed chicken nuggets and pizza and french toast sticks for breakfast and lunch. Yeah, the pizza has a whole wheat crust and low-fat cheese, and the nuggets are baked and not fried…but it still trains their palate to want to eat that type of food.

So, we decided, NO MORE! We are a processed-food-free family, I have to admit that the decision was difficult. We qualify for free meals at the school, so this is an expense we would not normally have, but we believe it is worth it. Both for the health of our kiddos, and for the peace of mealtime, the extra effort is worth it.

This post is how I am planning to do breakfast and lunches for my kids, to give them choices and give me less of a headache.

First: breakfast. I would love to say that I plan to get up and make my kids breakfast every morning. But, I’m a realist. Maybe some days I will, but in general, I just know it won’t happen. We stopped eating cereal when we stopped getting raw milk. Cereal is one of the worst breakfasts you can have. Milk has a naturally high sugar content, and cereal is mostly empty carbs (yes, there are whole grain cereals that are better). I find when we eat cereal that our blood sugar is raised, it gives us great energy, then we crash mid morning. Days that I have cereal for breakfast, it sets me into a mood swing cycle that is hard to recover from. Protein is key for us for breakfast. I have one child who won’t eat protein for breakfast, my goal for him is to lower his sugar intake for breakfast. Even though milk has protein, he responds better to oatmeal for breakfast than cereal, for some reason. We’re not fans of processed milk here, anyway, since two of our littles have dairy allergies (only to processed milk, raw milk they have no issues with. That is a post for another day…)

Three options for breakfast on days I don’t make something fresh:

#1: Whole Wheat Breakfast Pockets

#2: Breakfast Burritos: Scrambled eggs and natural sausage (no msg or perservatives: Jimmy Dean just came out with natural sausage that is super good!) wrapped in a tortilla and frozen. Microwave for 40 seconds to heat

# 3: Oatmeal packets: My oatmeal kid’s favorite type is apple cinnamon. I pre-make oatmeal packets using snack-sized ziploc bags. In each I put 2/3 cup whole oats, 1 TBS sucanat, 1 tsp ground cinnamon, about 1 TBS dried apple, cut into small pieces with kitchen shears. Use these just like regular oatmeal packets: add water and microwave for 1-2 minutes. I’ve also made strawberry ones, using dried strawberries. You can make whatever kind your kids like, and control the sugar amount and type yourself.

Lunch. The trick to lunch is going to be keeping them from getting bored. The plan is each lunch will have a main dish, a piece of fresh produce, a savory snack, and a sweet snack.

The sweet snack is a family favorite. The recipe is flexible and for a sweet snack, healthy in the way that it has no processed sugars, it’s low in sugar, and it’s chock full of healthy fats for energy and brain function. They are called energy bites, and the recipe is below. I make 3-4 batches and freeze them. For school, I placed 3 in each snack bag and froze the bags. Yes, it’s a lot of plastic bag waste, but I’m going for convenience here. Maybe someday I’ll be superwoman and do it all. for now, I’m satisfied feeding my kids healthy, unprocessed foods. Oh, and the reason I put them in individual bags is because it stops my kids (or me) from taking 20 every day, which they would do. They are that good.

The produce will be anything they choose from the array we have at all times, typically apples, mini carrots, tomatoes, bell peppers, and whatever in-season snack fruit is on sale (right now, peaches and berries).

The savory snack is typically cheese sticks or bags of pretzels. Sometimes, I may make Soft Pretzels, but I typically reserve those for an after-school snack.

The main dish, for right now, will be a choice of dinner leftovers, bean burritos (my homemade beans, cheese and salsa in a tortillas and frozen) or “Hot Pockets”, which is my Breakfast Pockets recipe, but each one is a slice of cheese and 1 slice of natural lunch meat (we like Boars’ Head Ovengold turkey breast, and Hormel’s naturals, which has an uncured ham and I just discovered an uncured salami, which has made my 11-yr old’s year).

I calculated costs and figured that it’s costing us about $2 per lunch per kid. Not too shabby.

So, whether your kiddos are back to school this week, next month or in September, you can start prepping those healthy lunches and snacks now!

ENERGY BITES

makes 35-40 bites, depending on size

1 cup natural peanut butter (check the label, the ingredients should only be peanuts and salt, or just peanuts.)
1/2 cup raw honey, or agave syrup if you prefer
2 cups whole oats
1 cup shredded or flaked unsweetened coconut
1/2 cup ground flaxseed
1 cup mini chocolate chips

Mix the peanut butter and honey well. Add dry ingredients and mix until well incorporated. Roll into balls, or use a small cookie scoop (I found this to be easiest). You can refrigerate these and use within a week (Ha! They won’t last more than 2 days), or freeze.

REAL food alert: check the chocolate chips for artificial flavors.
HEALTH alert: to keep these healthy, you really need to use unsweetened peanut butter and unsweetened coconut, otherwise, you might as well make cookies.
ALLERGY alert: the peanut butter can be substituted for any nut butter, like almond, or sunbutter (made from sunflower seeds). You can eliminate or swap any of the add-ins (like the coconut, flaxseed and chocolate chips). You can use dried fruit, nuts, chia seeds, or anything else your imagination can come up with (try cocoa!).
VEGGIE alert: These are naturally vegan, depending on the add-ins. Eliminate the chocolate chips and add in dried fruit or vegan carob chips.

Recipe adapted from Smashed Peas and Carrots

Chewy Cinnamon Ginger Cookies

TECHNIQUE TUESDAY

(okay, technically Wednesday…I’m a day behind)

So, I was recently told by a friend that I didn’t have any cookie recipes on my blog. What?!? She’s craaaaazzzzyyyy… when I was a teenager, the one thing I always made while I fantasized about being on my own cooking show was cookies.

Then I checked. Seriously? How has my blog survived for this long without a cookie recipe? Sheesh!

So, here are some IMPORTANT tips about making cookies. Seriously. Learn them. Love them. Live them.

Rule #1: Margarine, or butter spread IS NOT butter. Butter is only the stuff that says “Butter” on the label, and the ingredients are cream and salt. Or just cream, if it’s unsalted butter. Nothing else will work if your recipe calls for butter. And, to be honest, only recipes that call for butter are worth making. Sorry my vegan friends…

Rule #2: In all baking recipes that call for butter, what they mean is UNSALTED butter, unless designated. Personally, I almost always use salted, then cut the salt measurement in half. In my recipes, I tend to note salted butter, because I’m a rebel.

Rule #3: Okay, another one about butter…the butter should be room temp. It should be soft, but not melty. I take my butter out of the fridge about 30 minutes before making cookies. You can take your eggs out at the same time, as I have read countless remarks by professional bakers that eggs should always be room temp (though I have made thousands of cookies with cold eggs in my lifetime that were pretty dang good). You should be able to press into the butter easily, but it should not completely collapse or fall apart when you touch it. If you HAVE TO use the micro, zap it for 6 seconds or so, then whip it with your mixer until it’s smooth and has no lumps before adding your sugar.

Rule #4: MIXING: This is KEY to tender cookies. When mixing in the dry ingredients (quick lesson on cookie making: it will almost always go like this: Beat together sugar and butter, add egg and vanilla, mix in “dry” ingredients, then fold in chunks). DO NOT over mix. (YES, I realize that I MAY be overUSING my caps button…But these things are IMPORTANT! I take cookie baking VERY seriously).

For perfect cookies that aren’t tough, mix dry ingredients just until the flour almost disappears…so you still see some remnants of flour (not big chunks, but sprinkling throughout) in your dough. Stop mixing (especially if you are using a stand or hand mixer). Now is when you add your chunks: fruit, chocolate chips, nuts (heaven forbid…nuts do not belong in cookies, you crazy person). Then  finish the mixing BY HAND. Do not overmix the dough.

Rule #5: Pull the cookies out when the outside is cooked, but the inside is still moist. They will still be cooking when you pull them out of the oven, and will finish cooking as they cool. I posted pictures on this. You should still be able to see a glistening of moisture in the cracks, but the outside is cooked and the edges are firm. If you are a novice to cookie baking, this takes some observation and practice. Pretty soon, you’ll know exactly how they should look when it’s time to take them out.

Rule #6: This is a bonus baking rule that popped into my mind while writing the above rule. The time given in a recipe is an ESTIMATE. Everyone’s oven is different, everyone lives in a different climate (well, except for those who live in the same climate as you, you know what I mean…), the ingredient measurements will vary slightly, different pans cook differently, etc. You should use the time as a guideline, but your nose and your eyes, and sometimes your hands, have the final say on when something is done. I always trust my nose. As soon as I start to smell whatever I’m baking, I go check on it. If you’re making a cake or quick bread, use a knife or wooden skewer or toothpick to see if the inside is done. For cookies, start checking 2 minutes before the designated time. so, for these cookies, start checking at 8 minutes. They could go as long as 12 minutes, depending on your oven, etc.

Speaking of THESE cookies…

These are a crowd pleaser. They are something different when you don’t have chocolate chips and aren’t in the mood for peanut butter cookies or snickerdoodles. They are crisp on the outside and perfectly chewy on the inside and have just the right amount of spice and sweetness. They are perfect with a tall glass of cold milk. (But, who am I kidding, aren’t all cookies)?

CHEWY CINNAMON GINGER COOKIES

1 cup salted butter (or you can use unsalted and add 1/4 tsp of salt), room temp
1 1/2 cup white sugar
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla
1 TBS molasses
2 1/2 cups flour
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
1 1/2 TBS cinnamon
1/2 TBS ginger

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a stand mixer, beat your butter and sugar for 3 minutes until it’s fluffy. Add the egg, vanilla and molasses and mix well. Add in your flour, baking soda, cinnamon and ginger. Mix only until the flour is mostly incorporated. Finish the mixing by hand, and stop immediately when the flour disappears. Drop by heaping spoonfuls on a foil- or parchment-covered baking sheet. Bake in preheated oven for 10 minutes. Cool on a cooling rack.

From-scratch EASY Ice Cream Sandwiches

I’m back. Did you miss me? That was an unscheduled absence.

It is officially summer here!! Woo Hoo!! My hubby is a teacher so summers are a big fat deal around here. I love having him home and playing and lazing around all summer. In honor of summer, here is one of my favorite easy treats. The greatest thing about this is that it’s totally flexible. You can create whatever ice cream flavors you want..without an ice cream maker!!! I’ve included some ideas to get you started. You could even let your kids make their own, by mixing in their favorites! I also love that the ingredients are pure and simple: cream, milk, sugar. No additives and artificials you get from conventional ice creams. For those of us in the U.S., the tea biscuits can be found in the specialty or imported food section of your grocery store. I use a combo of plain and chocolate, for variety. Some have additives, others don’t.

ICE CREAM SANDWICHES

Basic Recipe:
1-2 packages rectangular tea biscuits
2 cups heavy cream
2/3 cup sweetened condensed milk

Line a 9×13 pan with plastic wrap. Line up your biscuits to cover the bottom of the pan, top down. Whip together the cream and condensed milk until stiff. (See this post about whipping cream if you need help). Fold in any add-ins (see below). Place biscuits on top to line up with the bottom biscuits. If you are using a typical 9×13 pan, notice that the sides are bigger on top than the bottom. I line up the first row of biscuits, so they are directly above the bottom ones. This means you will have some excess around the sides on the top. Cover the pan with plastic wrap and freeze for at least 8 hours (I typically do it over night). When you remove the pan from the freezer, pull the entire block of sandwiches out of the pan using the plastic wrap. (Yippee! The pan is still clean! Put it back in your cupboard. I love avoiding dirty dishes). Cut the excess from around the top edge. Now you should be able to pick up the block and break apart the sandwiches. Serve on a hot summer day!

Add-ins:

2/3 cups of:

mini chocolate chips (that’s what I typically use)

chopped dried cherries (with or without the chocolate chips)

mini chocolate chips + 1/2 tsp mint extract

broken pretzels

crumbled cookies

crushed strawberries (fresh or frozen)

crushed raspberries + coconut+ white chocolate chips

REAL food alert: check the biscuits for additives, check your chocolate chips for artificial flavoring, check the cream for additives.

printable version

Adapted from To Food With Love

Nanny’s Oatmeal Cake

Cake. It’s used to celebrate, to comfort, as a door stop around Christmastime. I’m not much of a cake fan, and for birthdays at our house, the celebrant gets to choose their favorite dessert in lieu of a cake. Pies are very popular for celebrations around here, as well as brownies and ice cream sundaes. There are a couple of exceptions to my aversion to cake. This recipe is one of them. My mom would make it when I was a little girl, it eventually was replaced by texas sheet cake, which is another of my exceptions. This recipe actually comes from my grandma who we called Nanny. It is simply the best cake I’ve ever had. It’s super moist with a carmelly pecan coconut topping. It melts in your mouth. Combine it with a tall glass of cold milk and you are instantly transported to simpler happy days. Just editing the pictures for this post made me start drooling…I think I may have to make it again tonight.

NANNY’S OATMEAL CAKE

1 1/2 cups water
1 cup old fashioned oats (not quick oats)
1/2 cup butter, softened
1 cup white sugar
1 cup brown sugar
2 eggs
1 1/2 cups flour
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp cinnamon

1/3 cup butter
1 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup heavy cream
1 cup unsweetened shredded coconut
1 cup pecans, chopped

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bring water to a boil in a small pot. Add the oatmeal. Stir it to combine and let sit for 20 minutes. In a mixing bowl, Mix butter, sugars and eggs until fluffy. Add oatmeal mixture and mix well. Add flour, baking soda, salt and cinnamon, and mix on low just until flour is incorporated. Pour into a greased 9×13 pan. Bake for 30 minutes.

For the topping, combine the butter, sugar and cream in a pot. Bring to a boil and remove from heat. Mix in coconut and pecans. Pour over the hot cake and return to the oven. Broil the cake for 1-3 minutes, until topping starts to slightly bubble. Remove from oven and allow to slightly cool before serving warm. It also tastes great cool, but I can never wait.

printable version

Cheesy Soft Pretzel Bites

My kids’ schools do a fundraiser several times a year that involves Schwan’s foods. They bring home the catalog, and a portion of the sales goes to the school. I’m not a fan of this fundraiser. First, because they make $0 until the total sales have reached a certain amount, and then it’s only 10% up to a fairly high level. I’d rather donate money directly to the school. Second, because half of the stuff in the catalog is processed crud (albeit, tasty processed crud, from what I hear).

Knowing that we wouldn’t be buying anything from the catalog, my middle schooler came home, handed me the catalog and said “Here, mom, I’ve circled everything I want you to make.” I love that kid. He knows me so well. Most of the items were things I already make, like Shepherd’s Pie, Stroganoff and Pizza. But, a couple gave me some good ideas. Last week I was making soft pretzels for my kiddos and their friends during a minecraft marathon, and I remembered two items that they had in the catalog: mozzarella bites and cheese stuffed pretzels. I combined the two and made my traditional soft pretzel dough, wrapping them around pieces of string cheese. They were awesome, and a huge hit with the group of boys hanging around at my house that day.

CHEESY SOFT PRETZEL BITES

4 tsp active dry yeast
1/2 cup sugar
1 1/4 cups warm water (about 110 degrees F or 45 degrees C)
4-5 cups flour
1 1/2 tsp salt
6 sticks of string cheese
1/8 cup baking soda
1 cup hot water
coarse sea salt (optional)
1/4 cup melted salted butter

In a mixing bowl, dissolve yeast and 1 tsp sugar in 1 1/4 cups warm water. Let sit 10 minutes, until frothy. Add remaining sugar, 3 cups of flour and salt. Mix until a dough starts to form. Add additional flour, 1/2 cup at a time, until dough easily forms a ball. (If using your mixer, the dough will come together and not stick to the sides of the bowl, but it may still stick to the bottom, that’s fine). Knead about 7 minutes by hand or 4-5 minutes by mixer, until dough is elastic. Cover bowl and let rise until doubled in size, about 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. When dough has risen, turn it out onto a lightly floured surface. Cut dough into 4 equal pieces. Roll each piece into an 8×8 square and cut each square into 9 parts.  Cut each stick of string cheese into 6 pieces. Place one piece onto each small square. Fold over and press edges to seal. Cover a baking sheet with foil or parchment paper. In a small bowl, dissolve baking soda in 1 cup hot water. Dip each pretzel bite in the baking soda water and place on the baking sheet. Sprinkle with coarse sea salt if desired. Bake for 7-8 minutes, until golden brown. When they come out of the oven, brush the tops with melted butter.

REAL food alert: check the ingredients in the string cheese. Some have additives.

FREEZER alert: you can freeze these. To reheat, place a few on a plate and microwave for 30 seconds.

printable version

Cinco de Mayo Muffins! (Cinnamon Chocolate Chip Muffins with Dulce de Leche Glaze)

I’m kind of a purist. I like my Mexican food authentic and spicy. I like my steak medium rare, and with no additions that will impede the beautiful beefy flavor (sea salt is fine, and occasionally butter…but no onions, mushrooms, bacon, bleu cheese, etc. Do NOT suggest steak sauce, you blasphemer!) I do enjoy a good themed party, but I’ll always lean towards the authentic before the theme. For instance, St. Patty’s day? I’m not going to dye our food green, instead I’ll make something that is actually Irish. However, when I was deciding what treat to make my kiddos for their arrival home from school, and I decided on muffins, I instantly thought. “How can I make muffins that fit with the Cinco de Mayo theme?” Okay, first I thought, “Dang, no blueberries, and I don’t have time to run to the store”. But, after that, I had the Cinco de Mayo thought. The fact that I decided to create something in a theme that is not authentic I blame on screen-free week, and the fact that I had been sans computer for 3 days. It caused me to thrown caution to the wind. I even cleaned some walls this week. Amazing.

So, my first thought was how much I loooooovvvvveeee Mexican chocolate, which has a touch of cinnamon. Dulce de Leche (which is sugar and milk, thickened to a caramel) is one of my other favorite flavors from my neighbors to the South, so I decided to combine them. I created a simple cinnamon chocolate chip muffin, and dipped the tops in an indulgent dulce de leche glaze. The glaze recipe makes plenty, so you can use the extra on ice cream, or on a spoon. Not that I would know anything about that. The trick to making muffins is to NOT over mix the batter. The more you mix it, the denser the muffins with be. I stir muffins by hand, I don’t use my mixer, which tends to over mix.

CINNAMON CHOCOLATE CHIP MUFFINS with DULCE DE LECHE GLAZE

2 cups flour
2/3 cup sugar
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp cinnamon
1 cup mini chocolate chips
2 eggs
2/3 cup milk
1/2 cup butter, melted
1 tsp vanilla

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Spray muffin pan with cooking spray, or lightly grease with oil. In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, cinnamon and chocolate chips. In a separate bowl, whisk eggs until fluffy. Add milk, melted butter and vanilla. Whisk together until well mixed. Add to the dry ingredients, and mix only until combined. Fill each muffin cup mostly full. Bake for 15-20 minutes. Let cool.

DULCE DE LECHE GLAZE

1/2 cup butter
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup sweetened condensed milk

In a heavy-bottomed sauce pan, combine the butter and sugar. Over medium heat, stir until butter is melted. Add condensed milk. Stir well. Continue stirring until mixture comes to a boil. remove from heat and continue stirring until the mixture stops bubbling. Dip the tops of the muffin in the glaze. Dip them all before the glaze cools. Don’t worry, it takes a little while to cool, you have enough time. You can make the glaze ahead, but you won’t get the smooth shiny glazed look if you let it cool and spread it on later.

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Sour Cream Blueberry Zucchini Bread

My daughter is a food hummer. Do you have one of those? My niece was one when she was little, too. These joyous kids enjoy their food so much they hum while eating. My curly-topped blondie can’t hold in her joy when eating yummy food. Yesterday I made this bread. I tried to convince her to eat a slice. She was hesitant, she’s weird about certain colors in her food, she wasn’t sure about the big blue blotches. After a while, she decided to give it a go. A few minutes latter I starting hearing a little hum. A cute little tune coming from the dining room. A few minutes later, she toddled over to me to express “Mommy! Yummmmmmm!”. Yep, she’s her mother’s daughter. She loves to express her joy over tasty food.

This tasty, moist bread is a great way to use your bumper crop of zucchini, it makes great gifts (teachers need some love!!) and freezes well.

SOUR CREAM BLUEBERRY ZUCCHINI BREAD

2 eggs
2/3 cup oil
2 cups sugar
2 tsp vanilla
3/4 cup sour cream
3 cups flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
2 cups zucchini, shredded
1 pint fresh blueberries, washed

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Grease two 8×4 loaf pans. In a mixing bowl, beat eggs, oil, vanilla and sugar until light and fluffy. Add sour cream. Mix well. Add flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Mix until almost flour is almost incorporated. It will be thick. Add zucchini and blueberries. Stir by hand just until mixed. Split the batter between the two loaf pans. Bake for 55-60 minutes, or until a knife entered near the center comes out clean. Cool in the loaf pans on a baking rack before removing from pans.

REAL food alert: Check your sour cream for additives. The ingredients should just be cream, or cream, milk and enzymes.

HEALTH alert: Make this healthier by subbing 2 cups of the flour for whole wheat. You can also choose a healthier sugar, like raw honey or agave, or a less-processed sugar, like succanat. Keep at least one cup of sugar a “dry” sugar, so sub up to one cup for honey or agave. Subbing the sugar or flour will result in a denser, heavier bread. You can substitute fat free sour cream, but notice the increase in additives.

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Technique Tuesday: Cutting a Mango

We love mangos. They can be a pain in the tush to eat, though. You can peel them and gnaw the flesh off the seed while juice drips down your chin and fibers get stuck in your teeth. You can peel them and then attempt to slice the flesh off while it slips out of your hands over and over again and soon your counter top is awash is sticky orange goodness. How in the world do you eat these things?

First, info on mangoes: with all produce, you know if it’s good by smelling it. That’s what you hear all of the time. The problem is, in our crazy society, they refrigerate produce in order to extend its life and ship it to places it doesn’t grow. When I go to my grocery store to buy mangoes, they almost always are fairly cold and you can’t smell any scent coming off of them. That makes it difficult to find which ones are ripe and which ones are just bruised. First: color is not always an indicator of ripeness. It can be mostly green on the outside and still ripe. There are also different varieties that are different colors, from green and red, to orange and yellow. You want to avoid mangoes with blemishes or dark spots. Gently press and feel if it’s soft, but not mushy. That indicates a ripe mango. Mango season is summer, so try to make your mango dishes then, when the mangoes are the freshest.

On to the cutting! The mango is oblong. A long skinny seed runs most of the length of the mango, and it’s about 1/3- 1/4 of the width. Start by setting your mango on end on a cutting board. Cut through the skin and as close to the seed as you can (without nicking the seed), slicing off one side.

I tend to cut concave, not straight, to get as much of the flesh as possible. Next, do the same for the other side.

Now, take each half-moon side and score the flesh to the desired size. I like big chunks, but you can cut small dice size if you need to.

From here, I push the skin up (see pic) then use my fingers (but you can use a spoon, if you’re so inclined. I’m lazy and don’t like washing extra dishes) to dislodge the pieces from the skin. The last step is optional, and depends on your mango. Sometimes it’s not worth the effort, but there is still flesh attached to the seed, mostly along the sides where there is still skin attached.

To get that yummy goodness, first, cut through the last piece of skin and peel it off (like above). Then, slice off any remaining flesh from the seed. I tend to do this at an angle, so you’re not cutting chunks of seed off.

Repeat until you’ve cut off all of the flesh you can. The closer to the seed, the more fibrous the flesh is, so you can totally skip this step if you want. I don’t like to get too close to the seed, personally. I’ve also had mangoes that don’t have much left over. This one was very ripe and had plenty.

I would say that you’re done, but then I’d skip my husband’s favorite part of cutting mangoes: gnawing what’s left off the seed. We never throw the seed away until hubby or a kiddo gets their paws on it and chews every last fibrous piece off the pit. (I spared you that picture). Did I mention we love mangoes in our house?

World Wednesday: Irish Soda Farls

World Wednesday

Have ever done genealogy? That’s where you track down your ancestors. A few years ago, I felt like giving a go and it consumed me. It’s like the most addictive puzzle ever created. My mom, who was working on her ancestors, gave me a line to work on. The Robinsons. My maternal grandmother’s grandparents. I traced it back to Charles and Catherine Robinson, my 5th great grandparents who came over around the year 1773 from Ireland. It sounds easy summed up like that, but in reality, it was hours of obsessive searching. I’d send the kids off to school, turn on a movie for the littles and the next thing I know, I’m being roused from my puzzle-solving by a dirty diaper, a demand for lunch, eventually my husband is there (Where’d he come from? Why isn’t he at work? It’s the middle of the….oh..it’s 6 p.m.) asking if we’re having PB and J for dinner again. Yeah. I stopped doing genealogy for a while. I figure, in a few years I’ll be missing my kids all day and needing a distraction, and I can pick up the addiction again. BUT, the point here is what I FOUND. At least a part of me is Irish. I was ecstatic. I have always loved all things Irish, the music, the food, the sexy accent. My husband’s main line is Irish as well, and I have a goal to some day trace both of our lineage back to Ireland and take a nice long trip there when our kids are grown and gone.

A few years back, inspired by good friends who have special family traditions marking their ethnic heritages, I decided that we needed a St. Patrick’s Day tradition. I’m not a huge fan of corned beef and cabbage, so I decided to make Irish Soda Farls and Lemon Curd every year. Disclaimer: Lemon Curd is not specifically Irish. I believe it’s more of a British tradition (can my international readers shed some light?), but my kids love it and it’s tasty.

Soda Farls are like a pan-cooked quick biscuit. The dough is very soft and the result is a very soft, tender bread. Traditionally, the dough is rolled out, cut into fourths and the browned in a skillet. I cut mine into eighths, because it’s easier to work with and the kids feel like they get more when they can have seconds or thirds. (Yeah, you moms know what I’m talking about, parental trickery rocks). This works great in an iron skillet. Unfortunately, mine was accidentally soaked and has some rust we need to scour off, so it wasn’t available for my farl-cooking this year.

IRISH SODA FARLS 

4 cups flour (I used half whole wheat)
1 tsp salt
2 tsp baking soda
2 cups buttermilk*

In a large bowl, combine flour, salt and soda. Slowly mix in buttermilk until dough starts to form. Dump onto a lightly floured surface and knead a little until dough is fully combined and smooth. Dough will be very soft and a little sticky. Reflour your surface, and divide the dough into two halves. Roll each half into a circle about 1/2 inch thick. Cut into fourths or eighths. Heat a thick-bottomed skillet over medium-high heat. Place your dough in the skillet and cook on each side until brown and the middle is cooked. Turn down your heat to medium after the first batch to avoid the pan over heating. If you find that they are sticking, reflour the dough before putting it in the pan. Serve hot with butter and jam or lemon curd.

*If you don’t have buttermilk, Measure 2 cups of milk into a bowl and add 2 TBS lemon juice or white vinegar. Let it sit 15 minutes before using.

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