Sunday, July 29, 2012

Boston Vacation...and a Mac n' Cheese Project

So I had the pleasure of going to a city where I have always, always, ALWAYS wanted to go this past weekend. Boston!! This city is amazing, there is so much history and culture in this city it's is impossible to see everything in just a few short days. Trust me, I tried and I saw so much, yet I know I could have easily spent another 4 days there and then would....possibly be sort of close to seeing everything. I went with my dad and step-mom and my step-brother. I haven't walked that much in so long. My legs right now hurt, and even after my 3 hour nap when I got home today, I'm still exhausted. Work will be fun tomorrow.

I was so excited when my dad said we would be going to Boston for a few days, and even more excited once I got there and saw the city, saw all the possibilities of all the historical sites to see and things to do. Ahh I was in heaven! Loved that the hotel we stayed at was right across the street from the Boston Public Library, I love books. I just wanted to share some of the pictures from Boston...before I get down to business on a task I've set for myself.

This is the Charles River and a glance at Cambridge

Boston Public Library in the rain, from the front of my hotel

The Charles River and some sail boats

Probably my favorite bridge, it's the Longfellow Bridge, but it's called the Salt and Pepper Bridge

This is the Fairmont Hotel at Copley Plaza, oldest hotel in Boston and where I stayed

Red Sox were on an away game streak but we watched a soccer game here. The  park is amazing

I'm a huge hockey fan, it's where the Bruins play. I wished it was hockey season the entire time I was there. 

Not big on churches, but Trinity Church is beautiful.

 So what does this have to do with cooking? Well, absolutely nothing but I wanted to share a few pictures. This is the part that has to do with cooking though. While out to lunch with my step-brother, he ordered this amazing looking Mac n' Cheese. It was super cheesy, and had bacon bits and diced tomatoes in it, all baked together with a crunchy topping crust in a little cast iron skillet. While he was eating it he mentioned that I should figure out how to make something like this...or exactly this. So I thought to myself, "challenge accepted!"

So here I go, I'm going to be working on figuring out this Mac n' Cheese creation...from only tasting it once and not having access to it. Impossible right? Well maybe not, I don't need to make an EXACT replica, but I think I got the basic of what's in it. And of course, I'm going to put my own spin on it and hopefully it will turn out well. I need to brainstorm so I know where to start. So here I get a glance into my thought process.

I'm going to start with the basics. The pasta, it was a simple elbow macaroni. OK easy I can cook some elbow macaroni pasta. Seems simple enough right?

OK so that was the easy part. Now I need to figure out what kinds of cheeses were used...or more what kind of cheeses my step-brother wants used in this replication. I'm going to use multiple cheeses, obviously. So I think I'll start with...

Cheddar--can't go wrong. It's delicious and will help with the coloring
Parmesan---definitely going to put some freshly grated parm on the top it should brown nicely and help get that crunch that was on top of the mac n cheese.

...going to be honest I'm drawing a blank. My mind is jet-lagged and now I just want to go make normal mac n cheese. This is going to take some work, I know there were at least 4 or 5 cheeses in there because that's what was in the description. I'm going to consider it a work in progress.

I know I'm going to need milk or cream, something to keep it nice moist and creamy...and delicious above all.

Spices are going to be tricky too, well maybe not. I'm going to use garlic powder and some onion powder for sure, and then I'll go with my gut, see what tastes good. I do know there was from fresh parsley throughout it, because I saw it clearly in the dish. I also know it was topped with bread crumbs, what kind? I have no idea...maybe I'll try to make my own, add some flavor to plain bread crumbs or something.

Ok well it looks like I got my work cut out for me. I can't wait to get back in the kitchen! I'll probably be in the kitchen tomorrow or some other time this week which means I'll have a new post up later this week! Woohoo!!

I'll leave you with a few more views of Boston. Love the buildings and the old architecture.

It's just so pretty there. I want to go back.

Fenway Park from 50 stories up at the Skywalk Observatory

'Til Next Time!!

Monday, July 16, 2012

Raspberry Truffle Brownies

Raspberry Truffle Brownies

I had been staring at these brownies in one of my cookbooks for a solid two weeks before I decided to attempt to make them. I say attempt because really whenever I try a recipe for the first time, that's what it is. I don't know exactly what I'm doing and I'm trying to feel out the recipe to see if I like the way it is or if I want to make adjustments. And also, by staring I mean drooling. But not literally, I swear.

**Sidenote: yes, pretty much everything that I cook comes out of a cookbook. I can't concoct these types of things...yet. It's my goal to be able to think of things from scratch, but I need more practice. So until then, recipes and slight..sometimes major...adjustments it is! **

So my dog particularly enjoyed watching me make these. She plopped herself down right at my feet so I could step on her every time I went to move. It's pretty difficult maneuvering yourself around a 44 pound husky who just wants to be involved in everything you do in the kitchen. It's also pretty difficult to make sure no fur gets in the food when she's bouncing around like a jumping bean. Alrighty-roo let's get started!

Here's what you'll need material wise...a small microwavable bowl, a large mixing bowl, a medium mixing bowl, a 9x9 square baking pan, and a hand mixer (I have a 7-speed Cuisinart one that I love, and of course it's green)

And for the ingredients...

6 oz bittersweet or semi-sweet chocolate, chopped
1/2 cup butter, cubed
2 eggs
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup all-purpose flour (I used probably about an extra 1/8 of a cup)
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup fresh raspberries

6 oz bittersweet or semi-sweet chocolate chopped
3/4 cup heavy whipping cream
2 tablespoons seedless raspberry jam (I used about 2-1/2 tablespoons)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Bowl of ice water
Fresh raspberries to garnish

This is my favorite baking chocolate to use. It melts perfectly and the consistency of it is really nice. Makes baking with it so easy. For this recipe I needed to boxes of this stuff, since I needed 12oz and the box comes with eight 1oz squares. Unwrap 6 of the squares and break them apart into the halves, then chop them up some more so they're in smaller pieces and therefore will melt faster.

The pieces don't have to be insanely small, but the more the chocolate is chopped up, the easier it is to melt it. Once the chocolate is chopped up. Cube the butter and throw it in the bowl with the chocolate. Pop it in the microwave for about 2 minutes on 50 or 60% power. I melt the chocolate on medium power because I don't want it to burn. It needs to melt but by doing it at half power it takes a little longer but the chocolate doesn't run the risk of burning. After the initial 2 minutes, stir the chocolate around and put it in for another 2 minutes at the same power level. After that if the chocolate isn't melted keep putting it in for about 30 seconds at a time. Stirring it until the chocolate and butter are mixed together and are smooth.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees now.

Next up grab that hand mixer and a large mixing bowl. Take the 2 eggs, cup of sugar, and vanilla and beat them together. The mixture needs to be smooth, but don't sit there and over beat it. Once that is all set the mixer aside and stir the melted chocolate and butter mixture into the eggs/sugar/vanilla combo. I didn't use my mixer for this part because brownie batter can be a little temperamental so I just used one of my mixing spatula-spoon things.

Stir it together just until it's mixed. Here I have it almost mixed together. I like doing this part by hand, like I said the batter can be pretty sensitive so do not over mix. I repeat do not over mix! Next in a medium mixing bowl combine the flour, baking soda, and salt then gradually stir the flour into the chocolate mixture. Again do it by hand and careful not to over mix it!

Once that's all mixed together, take the cup of fresh raspberries and rinse them off with cold water. Dab them a little bit so they're not sopping wet and gently fold them into the batter. Fold them in, do not stir. Fold the raspberries in by gently scooping the batter from the bottom of the bowl and pouring it over the raspberries until their sufficiently mixed in.

Be gentle with the raspberries, you don't want to squish them!

Spread the brownie batter into a greased 9x9 square pan. I lined mine with foil first, then used a simple Pam baking spray to coat the foil. I lined it with foil so I would be way easier to get the brownies out of the pan once they were done cooking. I always have the problem of getting the first couple brownies or bars out of the pan because let's face it, it's just annoying and then they end up falling apart and it sucks. So pour the batter into the greased, foil lined pan. Spread it so the batter is even, I like to tap the pan on the counter a couple of times to just get out any possible air bubbles and it sort of helps keep it even. And as an added bonus it drives my dog nuts and she starts barking at it. The brownies need to bake in the 350 degrees oven for about 25-30 minutes.

Take this time to clean the beaters on your hand mixer, and maybe the bowls too. You're going to need the mixer for the frosting in a little bit anyways. Check it at about 20 minutes to see how the brownies are baking and I also turned the pan around at that point. Mine took about 26 or 27 minutes, each oven is different though so keep checking during the last 5-10 minutes. You'll know the brownies are done when a toothpick or cake tester comes out clean when inserted near the center of the brownies. I like my brownies pretty moist so I didn't mind if there was still just a little bit of brownie on my cake tester.

This is right when I put the brownies into the oven. Yes, you can begin to drool over them now.

When the brownies are done cool them on a wire rack, obviously you leave them in the pan so just put the pan on the wire rack to cool. Cool them COMPLETELY! I know, it's hard to do. The patience it takes to wait for something to cool completely is...well it's a lot. But it's totally worth it! The time will just go by painfully slow as you wait, and wait, and wait for the damn brownies to cool! You can be like me and pick at them because if you mess up the top of the brownies it won't matter, they're gonna be covered with frosting anyways, right?

Don't fret if the tops of your brownies don't look perfect. It'll be hidden underneath the frosting anyways! :)

For the frosting, take that microwavable bowl and chop up the 6oz of bittersweet or semi-sweet chocolate. Funny thing about bittersweet and semi-sweet chocolate, they're pretty much the same thing so if a recipe calls for one, but you only have the other, use it. You won't notice the difference. Or if you prefer one over the other it doesn't really matter which one you use.

Anywho...take the chopped up chocolate, heavy cream, and raspberry jam and microwave is for about 2-3 minutes again on 50% or 60% power. Stir it after the first round in the microwave and if it's not completely smooth throw it in the microwave for another minute or so. Once the chocolate is melted, stir it until it is smooth. Transfer the melted chocolate to a slightly larger bowl. You'll need the room when you're mixing the frosting. Stir in the vanilla. Next you're going to get that bowl of ice water and place the bowl with the frosting in it. This cools the warm chocolate mixture and will help with the consistency of the frosting.

Start by stirring the frosting with just a spoon for about 3-5 minutes. Then, grab that hand mixer and beat the frosting on a medium speed (I had mine on the 3rd or 4th speed). Beat the frosting until soft peaks form. Soft peaks are when you take the beaters out of the frosting and the tips of the peaks fall over. So it's sort of thick, but not so thick that you can't spread it.

Spread the frosting over the cooled brownies. If you want you can save about 1/2 a cup of the frosting so you can make little flowery toppings on the brownies one they're all cut up. I didn't because...well I was feeling a little lazy by the end of this. Once the frosting is evenly spread over the brownies, cover them and place them in the fridge for about 30 minutes to get the frosting to set.

After that, cut up the brownies, garnish with some more fresh raspberries, serve, and enjoy! Be sure to store these in the refrigerator if they don't disappear all at once. I cut the pieces into about 16 brownies. Now these are ridiculously chocolaty and super rich so some people may find it hard to eat even just one whole brownie. These keep in the fridge for about a week and a half, or well that's how long they lasted around my house.

Hope you enjoy these as much as I did! Definitely will make them again!

'Til next time!!

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Garlic-Dill Chicken Casserole

An Invention of my Own...Garlic-Dill Chicken Casserole

 A couple weeks ago I decided to try something I hadn't before. Just going to the grocery store, buying a bunch of veggies and other ingredients and coming up with a dish. For me it's pretty easy to just follow a recipe and have it turn out pretty damn good, but to just put a bunch of ingredients in a pan and hope for the best? That was something of a challenge for me. The fact that it worked out really boosted my confidence and maybe I'll keep trying to come up with some other dishes that I can claim as my own instead of just altering a recipe. The key to any of this is to know what tastes you like and how to use them. And let's face it, some basic cooking knowledge won't hurt you either.

I decided to try my hand at a type of casserole dish because let's face it, during the work week when I come home from dance after working all day it's easier to throw stuff together in one pan than try to have seven different things going on at once...and it's really easy to take left overs for lunch the next day. I always have left overs because I have yet to really scale down a recipe so that it doesn't make enough for 6 people when I'm cooking only for myself. It works out great when I cook for me and my roommates, but when it's just me not so much. It's a work in progress, until I figure it out I will always have left overs.

Anywho...this dish has quite a few ingredients and a couple different parts to work with. So while it all goes into the same dish there's a couple separate things going on. There's the chicken/veggie combo, the white sauce, and the pasta. So first things first, what you're going to need.

Chicken/Veggie combo:

1/2 a medium white onion, chopped (chop it big, chop it small, chop it however you like)
1 small/mediumish green bell pepper, coarsely chopped
1 small/mediumish red bell pepper, coarsely chopped
2 medium carrots, sliced (I did my pieces about half an inch thick)
1-2 florets of broccoli (feel this one out, some florets are really big so you might only need one, use your best judgement)
~1 lb (maybe more) boneless skinless chicken breast cut into 1 inch pieces
~2 tablespoons olive oil
3-4 garlic cloves, minced
Spices: oregano, rosemary, black pepper, white pepper, dill weed, garlic powder, dry minced onion, season salt, crushed red pepper.
Mozzarella Cheese

Here are the veggies, I do my best to keep the pieces the same size so they can cook evenly. Also, it just makes it look nicer when everything is the same size.

** Important note about the spices!!**
-Do everything to taste! Start of with about 1-2 teaspoons of the oregano, rosemary, black and white peppers.
-I absolutely love Dill Weed so I probably started off with about 1 tablespoon of that. I just love the flavor of it. I probably had close to 1-1/2 or 2 tablespoons in this dish total.
-Since the fresh garlic is in there start with adding maybe a 1/2-1 teaspoon of the garlic powder. Same with the dry minced onion.
-The season salt and crushed red pepper, just sprinkle that on to taste.
-Always, always, always start off with small amounts of the spices and add more until the flavors are the way you want, you can always add more spice, but you can't take it away...or you could but that's difficult.

As you can see, my spices are all different brands. I've come to realize, whether it's a name brand or store brand, there's really no difference with the taste. Granted if I have the money I'll usually buy Spice Island spices, I don't know why. I just do.

White Sauce:

2-1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2-1/2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup milk (can be 1% or 2% doesn't make a huge difference)
dash of salt (a dash is about 1/8 of a teaspoon)
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
~1 teaspoon black pepper
~1 teaspoon Paprika

**again with the spices do them to taste, you want the white sauce to have flavor but you don't want it to over power the garlic/dill taste of the chicken/veggie combo.

Use about 1/3 of a package of bow-tie pasta noodles. Probably about 6oz if you're really particular about measuring. I wanted enough pasta to give some different texture to the casserole without it turning into a pasta dish with some chicken and veggies.

Now that all the ingredients are ready, time to start cooking. Start with the Chicken/Veggie combo. I would recommend using at least a 12 inch skillet for this. I used my brand new Tri-Ply Stainless steel skillet (amazing I love it).

Sauté  the garlic and chicken in the olive oil on a medium heat. When you do this it would be a smart idea to begin boiling the water for the pasta.

Once the chicken is almost done, meaning that there is very little pink left in the pieces, add the carrots into the mixture. This is also when I began to play around with the spices. So go ahead and when the carrots are in there add the first 1/2-1 teaspoon of the spices. Maybe add 2 teaspoons of dill weed. Make sure to move the chicken, onion, carrots around while doing this to not only help them cook but to spread the spices evenly.

After a couple of minutes, I like to give the carrots a few minutes head start to cook because they're crunchy and I wanted to texture of the carrots to mesh well with the rest of the veggies. Sort of how I did it in my Curry Chicken from my post a couple weeks ago. Add in the rest of the vegetables and another round of spices. Remember to taste, taste, taste!!

For a couple of minutes mix the chicken and veggies together, adding more spices as you feel necessary. Once you have the taste you like, whether it be slightly more spicy, garlic, or dill flavored you can reduce the heat from medium to a low (my stove has settings 1-9 so I started at about a 5/6 and when I went to simmer the mixture put it down to about a 1).

OK now it's time to start on the white sauce, which will act as the base for the casserole. Grab a small sauce pan (I used my 1 quart non-stick Cuisinart one) and on a medium heat melt the butter. Once the butter is melted add the flour and whisk it together until it's smooth. This forms the roux, which is an even mixture of butter and flour. The amount of butter/flour determines the thickness of the sauce. Add in the salt, peppers, and paprika. Just a little at first!! Gradually add in the milk and whisk it all together. Bring it to a boil and stir it for about 2 minutes until the sauce has thickened up. Feel free to add more pepper and paprika to the sauce until the taste is there. It should be a subtle taste, nothing too overpowering.

Add the white sauce to the chicken and veggie combo. Mix it all together to coat the veggies and chicken nicely. Again, taste it season it more then bring the temperature up from the low (1 in my case) setting to just a little bit higher (a 2/3 on my stove) and let the sauce/chicken veggies simmer for about 15 minutes. Stir the mixture up occasionally and keep tasting the chicken and different veggies.

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees now.

Your water for the pasta should be boiling by now so make sure to keep an eye on that and throw the pasta in once it's boiling. Cook according to the directions on the box/bag until the pasta is "al dente" or firm to bite. Once the pasta is ready (should be right around the 15 minute mark if the timing is right), drain it and add it into the chicken/veggie combo.

Again stir the mixture to coat everything evenly. Taste, season, love it. Let the flavors soak in for a couple more minutes.

Once everything tastes wonderful and delicious go ahead and place all the mixture into an un-greased 13 x 9 pan. Make sure it's evenly spread not really thick on one side and barely any of the mixture on the other. Top it with some Mozzarella cheese.

Toss it in the oven for about 10 minutes, until the cheese is melted, and to ensure the casserole is heated throughout. Take it out, uncover it, and stare at it in awe of the deliciousness you are about to consume.

And there you go! Scoop out however much you want, I like to top my bowl/plate of this with just a little bit of crushed red pepper. Refrigerate the left overs once it's cooled down.

'Til next time!!

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Loaded Baked Potato Skins

Loaded Baked Potato Skins

Potato skins are a favorite of mine. What's not to love about them? It's like a baked potato that you can eat with you hands. I guess you could eat a baked potato with your hands, but might be a little difficult and messy too. A great thing about potato skins is also that they're super easy to make; and they're a crowd pleaser, perfect appetizer for when people come over! So what do you need for these simple, delicious, creations?

Russet Potatoes (the amount you need really depends on how many skins you want to make. I cut them up into quarters so I got 4 pieces per potato)
Green Onion
About 2 tablespoons canola oil
1/2 teaspoon hot sauce
Chili Powder
Garlic Powder
Chopped Tomato (optional)

Alrighty, this is just what I put on my potato skins, really you can put what ever you want on them. Make pizza potato skins, put chicken on them, steak whatever you like! This is what I did though, see options are so much fun!

There are two ways to prep these potatoes. The fast way is to bake them in the microwave--this is the way I did them this time because I didn't have the time to bake them in the oven. Just poke some holes in them and pop them in the microwave; don't want exploding potatoes no matter how fun it sounds. Most microwaves even have the convenient "baked potato" button so all you have to to is press it and press the number of potatoes or the approximate weight. I turned them over and around a couple of times while they were cooking. Takes about 10-14 minutes depending on the size of the potatoes and the microwave power. 
The other way you can bake the potatoes is to bake them in the oven, it just takes them a lot longer. Preheat the oven to 350 or 375 and again poke some holes in the potatoes to release the heat. This method takes about an hour or so for them to bake. Good thing is, if the center of the potatoes aren't fully cooked it's not a huge deal because the insides get scooped out anyways. I would prefer this method because I feel like the potatoes are a little crisper and easier to handle when shelling out the insides.

Once the potatoes are done, let them sit for about 10 minutes or so. I didn't want to burn my fingers, and still ended up doing so because I'm impatient with the whole waiting thing...which was discussed in my Boston Cream Cupcakes entry.

OK so because I baked my potatoes in the microwave I'm inclined to believe that is why a couple of these potato skins appear to be...falling apart. See? Not everything turns out perfectly first time around. So here I have the potato skins cut up in to quarters and they're shelled out.Make sure to leave enough of the insides of the potato so they're sturdy once the toppings are on. They should have about 1/4 of an inch of potato pulp in them. Place the potato skins on a baking sheet. Take the canola oil and hot sauce and mix them together. Once that's all mixed together brush the oil/hot sauce mix over the skin shells. Now I love hot and spicy foods so I added a little more hot sauce to the oil so it would be just a little spicier. Okie so what's next?

Mmmmm bacon bits and green onion. I loaded these babies up with so much bacon. Why? Because bacon is fricken fantastic and if you don't like're wrong. Just don't start to think about the little piggy it came from. Don't do it!! Just think "mmmmm delicious bacon". I also love, love, love green onions. So I loaded the potato skins up with those to. So this is the point where you can add anything you want to these. Add tomatoes, mushrooms, different spices, anything you want! Here is where I added some chili powder and a touch of garlic powder. Not too much to over power the natural flavors of the bacon and green onion and delicious potato, but enough to add that little zip. And next up on these iiiiiiisssssss....

CHEESE!!!!! Oh you can never have too much cheese. Delicious is my word of the day and clearly this is totally valid. Come on, look at those, yummy right? Load these up with as much cheese as desired. And pop them in the oven at 375 for about 10-12 minutes. Enough to get the cheese nice and melted and crisp up the potato skins juuuuuuuuust enough so they won't fold and flop around when you pick them up to devour them. Although if they're loaded up as much as mine where they might fold under the weight of all the toppings anyways. But hey, it's all good!

So while you're standing in front of the oven drooling over the delicious looking potato skins as the cheese is melting and heating everything up wonderfully, just try to contain yourself. Once they're ready they're ready to be shared...or eaten all by yourself. Hey sharing is overrated sometimes.

There you have it. I eat mine with some sour cream on the side to dip. Just ups the delicious factor. So simple and easy to make and sooooo tasty.

Enjoy! Til next time!!