Sunday, August 29, 2010

What is my obsession with books?

It's no secret that I love books.  They were my babysitter when I was young, in addition to The Goonies and Kids Incorporated, and just love everything about them.   Come on, you know you remember the theme song:

When you read a book, you can escape to a different world or live someone else's life, if only for a few minutes or pages at a time.  I wasn't a popular kid (has that changed?), so on the weekends when I wasn't at Girl Scouts or soccer or ballet, instead of birthday parties I was probably in my room or in the backyard sitting under or up in the huge tree reading a book.

We have a storage ottoman in the study with all of our favorite childhood books, along with some fairy tale collections, comic books, and the Daring book for Girls, an awesome collection of things all girls should know.  Not text speak, Hannah Montana's alter ego, or all the words to Justin Beiber's new album - real things that most girls would think are 'boy things,' like how to play baseball, make a volcano science project, and the most effective way to climb a tree.  Leah will appreciate it.  If not her, then the other yet-to-be-named girl definitely will - she'll be our tomboy. 

Also in the storage ottoman used to be 50 Babysitter's club books, 7 Super Specials, and the official BSC babysitter's notebook. Unfortunately, the childhood book box was getting too big for its britches, and it ended up overflowing so that the top no longer laid flat on top.

I'm 75% sure I bought all the Babysitter's club books on ebay some years ago, and that they're not my actual copies of the books, so I felt pretty good about purging them when we were cleaning out the room for the new look.  They were promptly posted on Craigslist and snatched up in a few hours.

With those gone along with a few others we didn't need to keep, the ottoman could now be neatly organized...and the top fit!  Score!  It's the little things in life that make me happy :)

Carrot cake whoopie pies!

Yesterday at Sur La Table I picked up a whoopie pie recipe book, Whoopie Pies by Sarah Billingsley, Amy Treadwell, and Antonis Archilleos.  I really like the layout of it because the first 40 pages or so are full of facts and history of whoopie pies, along with illustrations about how to store, package, and assemble the pies.  

Also, the recipes are separated - cake recipes first, and then filling, so you can mix and match them as you wish.  I realize I could do this even if they weren't separated, but the layout promotes, or pretty much forces you to be creative and play around with the different flavors to find your favorite combination.  There's even a pistachio-cardamom whoopie recipe - definitely trying that one!  

This morning I was going through the book to find a recipe that I could make today with ingredients we have on hand.  We went the grocery store yesterday but I was just thinking about the basics for the week, and not any baking projects, so I didn't pick up anything special that some of these recipes needed.  That meant all of the chocolate-based ones were out since we don't have powdered cocoa, and most of the others needed buttermilk, which we never have.  Then I turned to the carrot cake one - and I know it sounds weird (if you know us) that we actually had some carrots in the fridge, so this recipe was the one for today!

Unfortunately the carrots in the fridge were baby carrots for dipping, so I it took a good while to grate enough to fill 2 cups...I might have grated my middle finger at one point, just a graze. 
I mixed up the carrot cake mixture and chilled it for an hour.  Then I used a 2 tbsp. scooper to drop dough on a parchment-lined cookie sheet.  I baked them for 20 minutes and let them cool for a few minutes before transferring them to a cooling rack.  Then I baked the second set of pies - the recipe said to bake 1 cookie sheet at a time. 

Once they were all cooked and cooled, I matched up 2 pieces of cake so both cake pieces of each whoopie pie would be the same size.  Then I got started on the frosting.

I decided to go traditional and use the classic cream cheese frosting.  I'm not quite ready for chocolate or peanut butter frosting with carrot cake, although I'm sure all those flavors would do well together.  Once the frosting was mixed, I used the same method for frosting cupcakes for piping the filling onto the bottom piece of the whoopie.  

Then I put the top on, and voila, you have a whoopie pie!

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Date day, plus groceries

Dave and I decided to visit a local Richmond favorite today for lunch.  Last weekend, Crystal was telling us about an adventure she took with her sister recently to a lovely ice cream stand in Richmond along with its neighbor, Kitchen 64.  Neither of us had ever been there, and I have to admit that until this semester started and I drove past it to get to the Ginter Park campus, I didn't know where it was.  I nearly wrecked my car staring at it as I drove past Thursday night from, and as soon as I got home that night, I asked Dave if we could make a date of it.

After running some errands this morning, including picking up this awesome spice jar from Sur La Table, we headed over to Kitchen 64 for lunch.  We knew we were in for a treat when we saw that the parking lot was not only full, but overflowing into loading zones and in-front-of-the-dumpster spaces, and were surprised that we got a table within 5 minutes or so!

Some of the dishes are named after local intersections, parks, roads near the restaurant - I got the Bryan Park cold plate, which included chicken salad, fresh fruit, pasta salad and cole slaw, all surrounding a spoonful of greek yogurt and honey.  Doesn't sound like me, right?  I knew that our next stop would be ice cream so I went for a light lunch.  More on that later, but the cold plate was so good!  Dave got a toasted turkey sandwich with cranberry spread and sprouts, with sweet potato fries!  The fries were awesome - you don't see sweet potato fries at restaurants often, so if/when you do, you better get them!

I was the dork taking pictures from the table.

I didn't think anyone noticed, but the ladies next to us offered to take our picture as they were leaving, so I guess I must not have been as secretive as I thought I was. :)  Dave did his typical "OH, THAT'S A TERRIBLE PICTURE!" after she took it, and she snapped back (with a smile, of course) "I can't do anything about the subject."  HA!  One day someone's gonna punch him in the face for that joke.

Here's what I saved my appetite for - next door to Kitchen 64 is a new sister place called Sweet 95, since these 2 sit at the bottom of the 64/95 split.  It also has aptly named dishes like 'I can't drive 95,' 'Nuttzy' (The Squirrels' mascot), and then there are some traffic-related titles since this is notoriously the worst traffic spot in town.  64 vs. 95. vs. Laburnum vs. 195 vs. Staples Mill.  It's a clusterf***.  Every day.

I got the PB&J Traffic Jam.  It's halfway between a milkshake and a DQ blizzard and better than both.  So good!
 sorry you can only see half my head

We finished out the day at Costco and the grocery store, stocking up the for next couple weeks, and now we're lounging around...I'm doing some file organizing later.  FUN!

Stuffed pepper experiment

My mom used to make stuffed peppers and they are really tasty, so I'm trying my hand at them today.  I figured it was the same ingredients she uses for her meatloaf, but stuffed into a pepper.  Is it more complicated than that?  We'll see once we get to taste them!

I used orange peppers because they're sweeter than green, have more flavor (in my opinion)...and they were on sale.  That last part never hurts.  I only got 4, and once I had mixed all my meatloaf ingredients I realized I'd need more, so instead of keeping them whole with just the top cut off, I split them and laid each half on its side ready to be stuffed.

Here's what I use to make meatloaf, and now stuffed peppers:
  • 1 l.b ground beef or turkey
  • 1 can of whole kernel corn, or 2 cobs worth of corn
  • 1 can of peas
  • 1 can of petite diced tomatoes, or 2 small diced tomatoes
  • italian spice blend (oregano, parsley, basil) - I just eyeball it, but it's probably about a tbsp.
  • S&P
  • 1 egg - works as glue
  • 1 small Vidalia onion
  • W sauce - a few trips around the bowl is the only way I can describe how much I put in
  • 2 cups of wild rice (I don't usually add this, but we picked up a package of Uncle Ben's to use as a side dish, and I just decided to throw it into the mixture, uncooked)
Looks gross, eh?

Ready to bake for an hour!

When there were 10 minutes left on the timer, I sprinkled some cheese on top, along with some pepper.  Here's the finished product with some cheesy broccoli - can't wait to dig in!

Friday, August 27, 2010

Small project, big meaning

When we finished the update in the front room from sunflower paradise to sophisticated study, I wanted to bring in some personal touches.  We bought this A letter stand for a wall shelf, and will be purchasing these K and D aluminum letters at Tweed when I can catch them in stock to be used as book-ends.  I also wanted to tie in our wedding date in the room somehow.

A few months ago, Kara told me about a new shop, Posh, that has fabulous home accessories, jewelry, a baby section, and great odds and ends that would make great gifts for just about anyone.  I spotted these awesome balls that looked like vintage Bingo balls that would spin around in a cage - they had letters and numbers, so I picked up 2 1's and a 5 for our wedding date, along with a K and a D.

I thought they'd fit in a champagne glass we had leftover that couldn't fit in the stemware holders in the new wine cabinet, but when I got home, I realized they wouldn't all fit.  But we also had an empty Mason jar hanging around waiting to be used for a project, so I used it to hold my balls.  :)

Here it is in its new home, right next to some yummy Montepulciano wine.

Also at Posh, I picked up this awesome map paperweight.  I'm going for an old world feeling in the room, and even though the US is the new world and totally contradicts what I thought I wanted, I needed it.

It sits on the side table with the awesome tripod lamp.

I'm still working on some other ways to personalize the room, like a couple pictures of us, but I don't want to go overboard and clutter up the room.  We'll see what I come up with.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Canning, Preserving and Freezing

Monday night I took a class at University of Richmond's Center for Culinary Arts.  Classes are offered through their School of Continuing Studies, where I'll be enrolling next fall to complete my Bachelor's degree...12 years later.  FINALLY.

I'm really interested in the Culinary Arts certificate, which can be earned by taking 9 classes and completing a final showcase to display the skills you've learned through the program, but I wanted to take a class to feel out the program before I make anything official.  Canning, Preserving, and Freezing seemed like a wonderful place to start since I've always wanted to learn how to do it and regret not learning how every year when I buy way too many apples at Graves Mountain.  I'll make a pie, a crisp, a cobbler, and then I'm appled out, but I'll still have 10 apples in the fridge.  Happens every time.  You'd think I'd wise up and stop buying so many apples, but that would be logical and would mean I couldn't tell the cashier "I'll take a 1/2 bushel."  "I'll take these 6" doesn't quite sound as cool, right?

Anyways, we used 5 recipes during the class, but in teams.  I picked the recipe that didn't require me working with someone, because I was feeling especially anti-social that night (I warmed up a little after 30 minutes or so).  Unfortunately, the recipe I chose was the ONLY one that was not actually canned - frozen strawberry preserves. 

You think I'm going to say that because of that, I didn't really learn how to can, eh?  Wrong.  My strawberry preserves were also the quickest recipe, so I finished first and got to observe all the other groups and the instructor.  I think I got the best of both worlds.

I started by hulling 12 cups of strawberries (1 1/2 huge strawberry containers from the grocery store).  Once they were fresh and clean, I mashed them a bit, blended them until they were a little chunky but a lot runny, and mixed them with 12 cups of sugar.

Then I mixed 3 boxes of powdered fruit pectin with 2 1/2 cups of water and brought it to a boil - let boil for 1 minute and immediately pour it into the strawberry-sugar mixture.

It's that easy!  The instructor said you can jar this recipe, but since we were making so many other recipes, she wanted this one to be freezer-ready, which means no jars allowed.  So once my preserves were ready, I put it in 12 individual freezer containers - 1 for each student in the class and a few leftovers. 

For the other 4 recipes, we used 2 different methods.  First, we have the paraffin method, which should only be used for jams, jellies, and butters.  In class we used this method for blackberry jam and peach butter, which she said could be made with the same amount of apples to create apple butter.  I have the recipes but I missed the part where the teams were mixing up the ingredients.  Once the blackberry jam was ready to be jarred and the paraffin wax was melted, the instructor showed us all what to do next.  She whipped out this handy dandy preserving tool kit that includes a funnel, spork/knife for evening out the contents of the jar, a magnet for lifting hot lids onto the jars, and a jar lifter.  She used the funnel and a large ladel to get the blackberry jam from the hot saucepan into each jar.

Once all the jars were full she poured the melted paraffin on top to seal in the fruit.  She poured it until it was just about even with the top of the jar - as the paraffin started drying it was easier to see any flaws or potential air pockets, so she added a little more to each as necessary.

She told us to leave the lids off the jars for 24 hours to allow the paraffin to completely dry.

Here's the pre-paraffin peach butter:

The third preserving method is the hardest most time-consuming.  Once the food has boiled and simmered, you ladel it into the jars the same way as the jam or jelly, but then put the lids on loosely and put the jars on the rack.  Add the rack back to water, making sure the water is at least an inch above the tops of the jars, and bring to a boil again for several minutes, varying based on the recipe. 

We made country corn relish and spicy apple chutney using this method.  Once the jars have sealed themselves (after 24 hours and there is a divot in the top of the jar), you can tighten the lid all the way.

I had a great time and learned a lot.  Of course I wanted to go to Walmart on the way home and pick up a bunch of canning supplies and start making jelly, but I decided to wait a week for all the knowledge to set in, and then I can make a decision on whether or not I should make the investment.  Preserves can be made with just buying the fruit, pectin, sugar, and some GladWare, but the others need more tools, like jars, racks, etc., and that can get expensive.  We'll see :) 

Lee Brice.

He's hot. 

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Tres Leches Cupcakes

At the end of last year, my team and I had lunch at Mama Cucina and all we talked about while we were waiting for our food to be brought to the table was FOOD!  I was telling them that I wanted to branch out and experience food from different cultures because Dave and I tend to eat at the same places over and over, and mostly at chains.  I know that's bad...

Richmond is full of fantastic locally-owned restaurants and we (my team and I) thought it would be a good idea to do a monthly lunch called 'Cuisines of the World' and visit local ethnic restaurants to experience different flavors.  We started the world tour in January, and have been to places like House of Vietnam, Kanpai (chain?), Emilio's, and both Lebanese and Greek Food Festivals.

That's a heavy concentration in Asia and Europe, so we decided our next stop should be somewhere in Africa or South America.  I hear there's an awesome Ethiopian restaurant downtown, Nile, but it's too far... everyone has heard good things about Ipanema Grill but they're only open for dinner, and Texas de Brazil didn't get good feedback from the team because it's a chain.

So we decided we'd have a South American-themed potluck.  We're in the middle of a big project, so it will keep us in the building rather than going out for 2 hours for lunch, but we'll get to experience the flavors of South America all the same! :)  There has been much debate about what counts as a "South American" recipe.  Yes, Lima is the capital of Peru, but that doesn't mean lima bean salad counts!  And yes, there are a lot of South American rice dishes, but using rice in an Indian recipe doesn't count!  Cheaters!  But we let them slide :)

The potluck was today and I think we had a good turnout.  Not one piece of meat in the whole bunch, but all the side dishes together were filling enough without the meat.  Some of the dishes were vegetable pilaf, Argentinean potato salad, Chilean sweet potato (ok, that one's a stretch), quinoa and beans topped with sour cream...good stuff!   And for dessert, we could choose from flan, rice pudding, and my tres leches cupcakes.

I have to admit I've never tried tres leches cake before.  For some reason I thought it sounded weird or something and have steered clear of it.  But once I found the recipe while searching for something to bring to the potluck, I realized it's just vanilla cake drowned in 3 milks and topped with whipped cream.  Um, yum?  Why have I been afraid to try you all these years?  Not sure. 

Of course I decided to make cupcakes instead of cake, so I used my basic vanilla recipe to whip them up.  That recipe's coming in handy a lot lately - it's a good base for a ton of options.  Once the cupcakes were cooled, I used a wooden BBQ skewer to poke 5 or 6 holes in each one, poking all the way to the bottom. 

I measured my 3 milks (hence tres leches) - whipping cream, evaporated milk, and sweetened condensed milk, and whisked them together, adding some caramel for good measure.  Why not, right?  I used a shot glass to pour the mixture over each cupcake.  The recipe said to drown them until they look like they can handle no more, and that's exactly what I did...

...except I think I went overboard, and the milk mixture overflowed!  All over the counter, down the front of the dishwasher, and onto the floor - what a mess! 

I put the milk-drowned cupcakes in the fridge for the night and cleaned up the milk all over the place.

I didn't put any frosting on them right away, because I chose to go the easier route and use fat free Redd-wip as the topping, instead of using more whipping cream...trying to save at least a couple calories.  So I brought that with me to work along with the cupcakes and some cinnamon, and let people create their own topping.  Reddi-wip is pissy and doesn't hold its shape very well if you use it too early.

Here's the finished product about to go in my belly: