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.

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

“Chocolate Covered Cherry” Sorbet

DISCLAIMER: The following blog entry involves discussion of non-REAL food. 😉

When I was a little girl, growing up in Iowa, I would sometimes be lucky enough to spend a few days at a friend’s house who lived “in the country”. We’d stay up late playing barbies in her basement, and the next day, grab some bikes and ride down to the DQ for drippy ice cream cones that melted faster than we could lick in the hot, humid, midwestern air.

Every once in a while, on family night, my family would drive down to the local DQ and get “belly-buttons” as a treat. Dilly bars no longer have the curlicue in the middle that made them look like an “outie” belly-button. Now they’re just a circle on a stick. Sad, really.

Now, I live in a semi-rural suburb, where one of the only “fast-food” places nearby is a DQ. Many traditions now revolve around the DQ: first day of school, last day of school, birthdays, etc. typically involve a trip to the DQ for drippy ice cream cones that melt faster than we can lick in the hot, dry, southwestern air. I still love a “crunch” covered cone, and occasionally a butterscotch dipped. But, when it comes to blizzards, my favorite is the “chocolate covered cherry” blizzard. Vanilla soft-serve mixed with cherries and chocolate coating. It’s just darn tasty!

A week ago, we had an exciting delivery: AN ICE CREAM MAKER. We actually have one already, it’s one of those huge old fashioned types that require ice and rock salt. I have to admit, the old clunkers do a much better job making tasty rich ice cream. But, I wanted one of the new-fangled speedy ones that make a batch in 20 minutes (of course, that’s not accounting for the time to freeze the bowl, make the mix and chill the mix…it’s still a half-day affair, but still beats having to watch and add rock salt every little while).

This recipe I devised after seeing fresh cherries on sale and reminiscing about DQ. It’s a sorbet made from fresh cherries, with chocolate flakes throughout. It’s very tasty and a perfect summer treat.

CHOCOLATE COVERED CHERRY SORBET

2 pounds fresh cherries
2/3 cups sugar (you may want less if your cherries are really sweet)
1 cup water
1 tsp fresh lemon juice
1/8 tsp real almond extract
1/2 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
2 TBS coconut oil (you can use butter if you don’t have coconut oil)

Rinse and remove stems and pits from cherries. Place in a pot with the sugar, water and lemon juice. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Lower heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Place in a blender or food processor and puree. Pour mixture through a fine-mesh strainer into a large bowl, use a rubber scraper to push as much juice out as possible. At this point, you can add some of the pulp back in, depending if you want a smooth sorbet, or small bits of cherry pulp in it. I scooped two spoonfuls of pulp back into the juice and discarded the rest. You can skip the straining altogether (just watch out for hiding pits), or just use the juice for your sorbet. Add the almond extract to the juice. Cover and refrigerate at least 2 hours before putting into your ice cream maker.

When the mixture is chilled, turn on your ice cream maker and pour in the cherry mixture. Make according to the directions for your ice cream maker. I have found that sorbet takes a little longer than ice cream. While the ice cream is churning, melt the chocolate chips and coconut oil in a small bowl in the microwave for 30 seconds. Remove and stir until smooth. When the sorbet is nice and thick and about done, use a spoon and drizzle the chocolate into the churning ice cream. Every once in a while, it may build up, and you may have to use the rubber scraper to stir it in. It just depends on the design of your ice cream maker. The idea is to pour in a thin stream, which will harden and break into flakes in your sorbet. You can accomplish this however it works best with your ice cream maker. You may or may not use all of the chocolate. Add as much as you would like. When finished, remove into a freezer-safe bowl, cover it and freeze until hard. Overnight is best, if you want it really hard. My kids didn’t mind the soft texture of ours one bit. 😉 (Ours chilled about 4 hours).

REAL food alert: check for artificial flavors in your chocolate chips.
ALLERGY alert: the only thing with dairy here is the chocolate. You can just make the cherry sorbet without the chocolate flakes, or use dairy-free chocolate.
VEGGIE alert: to make this vegan: see above.

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

Two Tasty Tomato Dishes

My mom is an incredible gardener. My dad was, too. I am not sure yet if I’ve inherited this ability. My pinterest board is filled with great gardening tips and ideas. I have aspirations to have a gorgeous garden from which I can pick and make fabulous fresh dishes. Unfortunately, I’m a little lazy and very forgetful. Our first garden attempt was dry and dead with in two weeks (I live in the desert, so gardening here takes a little more effort, care and *ahem* regular watering). I really want a garden, but I know two things must be in place before I can be successful: 1. I must be done with school. 2. It must be on an automatic watering system. When I can get these two things done, I look forward to a wonderful harvest and learning many new things!

If you already have a garden and are wondering what to do with your huge crop of tomatoes, here are two super tasty recipes for you! The sauce freezes well, and the soup is perfect with crusty grilled cheese. To be honest, tomato soup for me has always been an excuse to eat gooey grilled cheese sandwiches. When I made this soup, I ate one half of a sandwich. The soup was so good it didn’t need anything, so I left the sandwiches to the kids and had seconds of soup. The sauce goes well with some mild italian sausage, if you’re a carnivore, and piled onto a tender whole wheat pasta. It’s perfect summer comfort food with some grilled asparagus.

EASY CREAM OF TOMATO SOUP

serves 4 (main dish) or 6-8 (side dish)

2 TBS olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
4 cups fresh tomatoes, chopped
2 cups chicken stock
1 TBS fresh basil, chopped
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp salt
1/2 cup heavy cream

In a large pot, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add onion and cook while stirring until they start to brown. Add garlic and cook and additional minute, or until garlic barely starts to brown. Add tomatoes and chicken stock. Bring to a boil. Lower heat to low and simmer for 15 minutes. Add basil and cook an additional 5 minutes. Add salt and sugar and remove from heat. Pour into a blender or food processor, or use an immersion blender to puree. Puree well, until smooth. Return the soup to the pot and stir in the cream. Heat on low until warm again. Serve. Garnish with fresh basil or croutons, if desired.

REAL food alert: check chicken stock for msg and additives
VEGGIE alert: to make vegetarian, sub veggie broth for the chicken stock.
ALLERGY alert: for dairy allergies, sub a non-dairy milk, like coconut or almond milk, for the heavy cream.
HEALTH alert: this recipe is only about 150 calories per serving. If you want to health it up even more, you can reduce the cream to 1/4 cup, and sub honey for the sugar, or eliminate the sugar.

printable version

ROASTED TOMATO SAUCE

3 pounds fresh tomatoes (about 6-10), cored and quartered
1 head of garlic
1 TBS fresh thyme, chopped
1 TBS fresh rosemary, chopped
salt
sugar
3/4 pound mild italian sausage (optional)

Preheat your oven to 450 degrees. Place the tomatoes on one or two foil covered baking sheets, along with the head of garlic (do not separate the cloves, just remove any loose paper from the outside). Sprinkle the thyme and rosemary over the tomatoes. Bake for 35-40 minutes, until tomatoes are slightly charred. Rotate pans halfway through cooking, if they don’t both fit on the same rack in your oven. Remove from oven when done roasting. Pour the tomatoes and any juices into a blender or food processor, or pour into a bowl if you use an immersion blender. Using a serrated knife, carefully cut the root end of the garlic head. Pull the garlic head apart into three or four chunks. Squeeze the soft roasted garlic pulp into the tomato mixture and discard the tough exterior. Blend the tomatoes, garlic and herb mixture until desired consistency (we like minimal chunks, but you may like chunks in your sauce). Add salt and sugar to taste (if you have nice ripe tomatoes, you won’t need sugar, if you have grocery store tomatoes, you may need a pinch or two). The sauce is ready to serve with pasta. If you like meat in your sauce, brown sausage in a large pan over medium heat. Add sauce and cook for 10 minutes.

printable version

Real-Food Remake: Celebration Potatoes (Funeral Potatoes)

There’s a recipe that has been used for generations in my family and the families of many that I know. They are called “Funeral Potatoes”. What a morose name.

They are called that presumably because they are a tradition dish made for luncheons served to the family at funerals. They are the ultimate comfort side dish, easy to make in bulk, filling and satisfying. Every family you know who makes this dish has their own twist. Some people add green onions, some people like bread crumbs or corn flakes on top. In our family, we not huge fans of green onions, and we like a simple cheese topping. The dish itself is basically grated potatoes and onions in a scalloped-potato style cream sauce and baked. Traditionally, the recipe calls for cream of chicken soup and sour cream. Simple.

However, some of us can’t (or won’t) have cream soups, which are absolutely horrible for you. When planning my Easter dinner, I really wanted funeral potatoes, which we typically only eat at my in-laws house, and decided I’d do a Real-Food Remake.

The first step in the tradition recipe is to use frozen hash browns. Frozen hash browns don’t turn color, thanks to an additive called disodium dihydorgen pyrophosphate. It is a chemical additive. Because we avoid chemicals, and because potatoes are dirt cheap (a little pun for your Monday Morning), I make hash browns from scratch. The trick to keeping them from turning colors is getting the excess starch off. After shredding them, put them in a colander and rinse with cold water until the water runs clear. If you are grating them by hand, grate them straight into a colander under running cold water. You’ll see in the pictures that my hash browns are white as white can be, no brown or gray to be seen!

To replace the cream of chicken soup, I made my basic cream of chicken substitute sauce. You can use this sauce in absolutely any recipe that calls for a cream soup. I opted for sweet onion instead of the green, ’cause that’s how we roll. Then, I topped it off with cheese. You can use bread crumbs and dot it with butter if you’d like. This recipe is still full of dairy and definitely high on the fat content, but it’s still a step up from a chemical-filled traditional funeral potato recipe. Because of that, I changed the name to “Celebration Potatoes”. It kinda has a nice ring to it.  Forgive the non-professional looking pictures. My family was VERY patient to sit while I took quick pics of our Easter feast, and I left them in a tad too long, your cheese doesn’t have to be this brown. 🙂

CELEBRATION POTATOES

1 1/2 cup chicken stock
1 1/2 cup milk
1/2 tsp onion powder
1/2 tsp seasoned salt (like season-all…a salt-free, msg free seasoning)
1/2 tsp sea salt
1/4 tsp garlic powder
1/8 tsp pepper
4 TBS butter
6 TBS flour
2/3 cup sour cream
5-7 potatoes
1/2 sweet onion
1 cup cheddar or colby-jack cheese, grated

Mix the chicken stock, milk and seasonings in a bowl. In a sauce pan, over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the flour and whisk quickly. It will be very thick. Cook the flour for one minute. Slowly add in the chicken stock mixture 1/2 cup at a time, whisking well after each addition. Make sure you whisk out the lumps. Cook, stirring frequently, until thick, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat, add in the sour cream.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. To prepare your potatoes, rinse, peel and grate them. Rinse them under cold water until the water runs clear. Lay them in a 9×13 pan. Grate the 1/2 sweet onion and mix together with the potatoes. Pour the sauce over and mix into the potato mixture. Top with a layer of cheese. Cover with tin foil. Bake at 350 degrees for 50-55 minutes, removing the foil during the last 10 minutes of baking.

REAL FOOD ALERT: Check your grated cheese for additives, it’s better to grate your own. Check your sour cream. Always use a “natural” sour cream. Next time you’re at the store, compare the ingredients of the store brand sour cream and Daisy brand, or another natural version. The ingredients should be “Cream” and that’s all. Hash browns: frozen hash browns have chemical additives.

ALLERGY ALERT: to make gluten-free, eliminate the butter/flour step. Instead, put the broth mixture into the saucepan, bring to a boil. Mix 2 TBS cornstarch with 2 TBS cold water and add to boiling liquid. Stir until thick.

 

Whole Wheat Breakfast Pockets

Breakfast.

It’s the bain of my existence.

Or it’s a stable beginning to a day of healthy eating.

Or it’s an indulgent part of a fabulous day the ends in me with chocolate stains on my shirt.

It fluctuates between those three.

I have to have protein with my breakfast, and so do my kids. If we have an easy cereal morning, within a few hours everyone is grumpy and hungry. The problem is, I’m not always in the mood to make eggs and my kids aren’t always in the mood for whole grain oatmeal. I need an easy pre-prepared breakfast option for crazy days and lazy days.

I took inspiration from frozen hot pockets, and decided to make some myself, but healthier. The crust is a super soft and flavorful honey whole wheat bread, rolled thin, so there’s no heaviness (I know what you’re thinking when you hear “whole wheat”…banish that thought). The greatest thing is how flexible the filling can be. My kids prefer eggs, sausage and cheese. You can just do eggs and cheese, or get creative with stir-fried veggies, quinoa, curried potatoes. One of our favorites is leftover sausage and gravy with scrambled eggs. The best thing? These can be frozen, then nuked in the microwave for a super simple, quick breakfast on the go, but HEALTHY!!! You’ll win the mom of the year award.

WHOLE WHEAT BREAKFAST POCKETS
makes 18 pockets

1 cup warm water
1/4 cup raw honey
1 1/2 TBS yeast
1/2 cup oil
1 egg, whisked at room temperature
3-4 cups whole wheat flour, divided
4 TBS vital wheat gluten
1/3 cup dry milk
1 tsp salt

Take the egg out of the fridge to bring to room temperature, whisk it in a bowl. In a mixer, with dough hook attached, stir together warm water and honey. Add yeast and let sit for 5 minutes, until frothy.  Add oil, egg, 2 cups of wheat flour, gluten, dry milk and salt. Mix on low until well combined. Add 1 additional cup of flour. With mixer on low, add more flour a little as a time, as needed, until dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl and creates a ball. Your goal here is to add as little flour as possible. Let the mixer knead the dough for 5 minutes. Check on it every once in a while and add small portions of flour as needed if dough  sticks to the sides of the bowl.

When kneading is finished, cover bowl with a towel and place in a warm spot to rise for one hour, or until double in bulk.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Dump dough on a lightly floured surface. Divide into 6 equal pieces. Roll out each piece into a rectangle. Roll it as thin as you can without it ripping. Cut each rectangle into 3 pieces. Place 1/3 cup of whatever filling you are using onto one side. Fold it over and pinch the edge shut (this works best if you bring the bottom up and fold it over the top before pinching. Place them on a parchment-covered baking sheet. Bake for 15 minutes, or until golden brown.

Let cool before placing in freezer zipper bags and freezing. To reheat, take from freezer and microwave for 35 seconds.

FILLING:

Sausage, Egg & Cheese:
1/2 lb breakfast sausage
12 eggs
cheese of choice

Brown sausage in a skillet. Drain well. Scramble eggs and cook in a skillet until cooked through, but not brown. Mix the sausage in with the eggs. Use as a filling, topping with cheese as desired before pinching shut.

REAL food alert: check your sausage for MSG, BHA and BHT. Check your pre-shredded cheese for various additives, including some that contain popular allergens (best bet: buy it and shred it yourself).

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Lasagna Soup

I know that in my Zuppa Toscana Soup post, I said that I don’t go to Italian restaurants. That does not mean I don’t like Italian food. I mean, what’s not to like? A perfectly seasoned sauce over tender meat, topped with ooey gooey cheese?

Lasagna is one of my favorite foods in the world. I happened upon this recipe for Lasagna Soup and was blown away. It’s a tomato broth soup with big pieces of Italian sausage, plenty of onions and spices, some fresh basil to lighten it all up, poured hot over a ball of ricotta, parmesan and mozzarella cheeses. Life Altering. Seriously. I served this with my homemade French Bread, and it was almost an out-of-body experience. I should mention that I don’t consider canned tomatoes “real” food, only because many cans are lined with BPA, which are of special concern for tomatoes, because the acidity in tomatoes makes them leach more BPA into the food. I tried to find an alternative, and didn’t. Using self-canned tomatoes from glass jars, or roasting some tomatoes in the oven (like in my Roasted Red Salsa) would both be acceptable substitutes for the canned tomatoes here.

LASAGNA SOUP

8 oz fusilli pasta, or lasagna noodles broken into bite sized pieces.
2 tsp olive oil
1 pound mild Italian sausage (or hot, if you like some kick)
3 cups chopped onions
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 tsp Italian seasoning
2 TBS tomato paste
1 28 oz can fire roasted diced tomatoes
6 cups chicken stock
1/2 cup fresh basil leaves, cut into strips.
8 oz. ricotta
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
more shredded mozzarella cheese for the top

In a large pot, boil your noodles to “al dente” (not super floppy) according to package directions. Drain and set aside. In your soup pot, drizzle the olive oil and heat over medium heat. Add the sausage and cook until pieces are starting to brown. Add the onions and contnue to cook, stirring frequently, until the sausage is fully cooked and the onions are translucent. Add the garlic, Italian seasoning and tomato paste. Cook for a minute or two, until the tomato paste darkens. Add in the tomatoes with their juice and the chicken stock. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, mix the ricotta, parmesan and mozzarella cheeses. When the soup is done simmering, add the noodles and basil into the soup. To serve, place a dollop of cheese mixture into each bowl and pour the soup over it. You can sprinkle more mozzarella on top, if you desire.

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Adapted from: A Farm Girls Dabbles

REAL food alert: Read above about canned tomatoes. Check your Chicken stock for MSG. Check your sausage for MSG and Preservatives .
ALLERGY alert: to make dairy-free, eliminate the cheese. For gluten-free, use rice pasta.
VEGGIE alert:  to make vegetarian, eliminate the sausage, use veggie broth and add zucchini, summer squash or eggplant. Also eliminate the cheese to make it vegan.
HEALTH alert: to make it healthier, use turkey sausage and wheat pasta.
For a freezer meal, or to make ahead, add everything except the cheese mixture and noodles. Freeze in gallon-sized freezer bags. To serve, defrost, add in cooked noodles and make the cheese mixture.
To convert this to a slow cooker meal, cook sausage and onions, place them in the slow cooker. Add the remaining soup ingredients (minus the cheese). Increase the chicken stock to 8 cups. Add in uncooked noodles. Cook on low 4 hours.

Asian Orange Chicken

I’m not much of a fast-food type gal. But, every once in a while I’ll strategically plan my errands around lunchtime in the area of a local Panda Express. I justify that it’s healthier than a hamburger, but it’s probably not. At least I’m getting veggies, right?

I have one son who is allergic to soy, so I don’t make chinese-style food all that often at home, but the rest of us love it, especially this recipe I happened upon thanks to allrecipes. It is one of our favorites. I pull some of the chicken aside before toss it in the sauce for my non-soy kiddo. Another great thing about this recipe is that you can make the sauce ahead of time and freeze it. This tastes the best with fresh squeezed juice from real oranges and lemons (one orange and 2-3 lemons).

ASIAN ORANGE CHICKEN 

Sauce:
1 1/2 cups water
2 TBS fresh orange juice
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1/3 cup rice vinegar or apple cider vinegar
2 TBS soy sauce
1 TBS grated orange zest
1 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 tsp fresh ginger root, minced
1/2 tsp minced garlic
2 TBS green onion, snipped
1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
4 TBS cornstarch
2 TBS cold water

Chicken:
3-4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 TBS seasoned salt
2 eggs
oil for frying

Make sauce by combining everything except the cornstarch and 2 TBS water in a saucepan. Combine well and bring to a boil over medium heat. In a small bowl, combine the cornstarch and 2 TBS cold water well. Pour the cornstarch/water mixture into the saucepan. Stir until the sauce thickens. Remove from heat.

Prepare the chicken by placing two bowls side by side. Crack the eggs into one bowl and whisk well. In the second bowl, combine flour and seasoned salt. Heat oil over medium-high heat in a large pot to 350-375 degrees. I usually throw a little piece of chicken in to see if it immediately starts bubbling around the food, that’s how you know it’s ready. Oil at a correct temp leaves less oil on the food, so it’s fried, but not greasy. If you put your food in too early, it will soak up oil before getting fried, leading to greasy food and higher calories. When your oil is ready, dip chicken in the eggs, then coat in flour and place in the oil. Do not over crowd the pan. At this point, I typically turn my heat down to medium. Your heat will changed based on how much you put in the oil and your stove. Watch how quickly they are browning and change your heat level as needed. Brown on each side. Check the first couple you pull out to make sure they are cooked through. Remove them to paper towels until all the chicken is finished browning. Toss in the sauce and serve with rice.

REAL food alert: Check the ingredients of your seasoned salt for MSG. Look for soy sauce that lists “soybeans”, not “hydrolyzed soy protein“.
ALLERGEN alert: make this gluten-free by using gluten-free flour and gluten-free soy sauce.
HEALTH alert: make this healthier by oven cooking your chicken.

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Roasted Red Salsa

I hate tomatoes.

I’m fine with cooked tomato products, like marinara or ketchup. But, raw tomatoes are disgusting. It’s one of the only foods that I just can not stand. That makes my relationship with salsa an interesting one. Obviously, I’m not a pico de gallo type gal. I prefer pureed salsas with no chunks, and I have always just dipped the chip and gotten the juice and flavor on my chip without actually scooping any salsa on there. Weird. I know.

But then, I went to a Mexican food place called “Burger House”, believe it or not. I was skeptical about the quality of Mexican food there. It’s in a small town where my husband lived in his younger years. Everyone in his family swore by the food there (a Mexican place called “Burger House”? Really?)…and they were right! I craved it for weeks after we arrived back home. For the first time, ever, I poured the little cups of salsa over my burro before taking each bite. It was addictive. I analyzed the salsa as much as possible. Obviously it had tomatoes and cilantro, and chilis that gave it a nice kick, but I also noticed tiny pieces of char that made me believe that something on there was roasted. I was on a quest. I have tried various types of salsa, tons of recipes, and came up with a mediocre one that involved canned fire roasted tomatoes.

Then, I happened upon a post  on one particular kitchen one day:  . I made it and almost came undone. It was amazing. It’s pretty darn close to the Burger House salsa, but so fresh tasting, with a good bite. I made a few simple changes to personalize it. When it comes to spice, homemade salsa is always unpredictable. Chilis vary in spiciness from chili to chili, so it’s always chancy. If you’re concerned about heat, start with two peppers. You can also use jalapenos, which are milder, but I prefer the flavor of serranos.

This recipe makes a lot of salsa and is amazing with home grown tomatoes. It also freezes perfectly. I typically make a huge batch, then freeze them in sandwich bags for future consumption. Make some this summer!!

ROASTED RED SALSA

15-25 fresh tomatoes (about 15 large ones, up to 25 romas)
2 yellow onions
8-10 cloves of garlic
3-6 serrano peppers
1-2 limes
1-2 TBS salt
1-2 bunches of cilantro

Start by preheating the oven to 375 degrees. Halve your tomatoes and onions. Leave the papery husk on the garlic cloves, but separate them into individual cloves. If you want more heat, you will leave the seeds and membranes in the chilis, so remove the caps from the chilis now. If you want less heat, you will remove the seeds later, so keep the caps on. Lay the tomatoes, onions, garlic and peppers on baking sheets. It’s a good idea to have the tomatoes on a baking sheets that has sides, as they will produce a lot of juice. Roast until the onions are translucent and the tomatoes and peppers are starting to char, about 45 minutes to an hour. You may have to remove the garlic and peppers before the tomatoes and onions. You may also have to rotate pans while cooking to allow each pan access to the heat source. Just check on them every so often until they are all soft and there’s some charring going on. Pull the pans out of the oven. Let it cool for 5 minutes. If you want to remove the seeds from the chilis, put on plastic gloves (trust me…I did this once without them and seriously regretted it). slice open the side of each chili. Use the cap to pull out the middle membrane with all of the seeds attached, and discard. You may also need to use your finger and wipe any residual seeds from the chili. Place the chilis in a food processor. For the garlic, you should be able to squeeze them, allowing the soft cooked middle to go into your food processor. Whatever method, you want to remove any charred husk and any outside layer that is to tough to puree. Place the tomatoes and onions (you’ll probably have to do two batches) in the food processor with the garlic and chilis. Add the juice from one lime, 1TBS salt, and the cilantro, and puree it all. After your two batches are done, combine it in a large bowl and taste it. Add more lime juice or salt according to your tastes. The flavors will intensify in the fridge. I find that this is the best after about a day in the fridge (and it gets spicier, keep that in mind).

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