Slow Cooker Baked Beans

I’ve tried a few different recipes for baked beans in the past. They were all disappointing – mainly, they had no flavor. Another gripe that I had – so many traditional recipes for baked beans go in the oven. Sure, they are baked beans, and that’s fine and all, but baked beans are almost always made in the summer, the absolute last time when you want to run the oven for several hours.

Two years ago I looked for a recipe that went in a slow cooker instead of the oven, to make it friendlier for summer cooking. Since it went into a slow cooker, it didn’t make sense to start with precooked cans of beans (another thing that irked me – why cook something precooked for 2-3 hours?!), so I tried to find one that took dried.

Dear reader, I finally found a good recipe. It used dried beans, in a slow cooker. Still, I am a lazy cook most days these days, so I’ve simplified it. The original recipe has you soak the beans overnight before cooking them; I don’t, in favor of cooking the beans a little longer. (My slow cooker cooks beans well even without soaking, so soak yours in advance if you’re concerned that yours won’t.) The recipe takes bacon, which if I use, I make a point to cook some for breakfast a few days in advance and make extra. Original preparation has you cook onion and celery in the bacon grease before making the beans; this is definitely tasty, but I now eschew this extra preparation in favor of tossing all the ingredients into the slow cooker and letting it cook without any extra intervention. I’ve also cut the recipe in half, which still yields 10 servings.

These beans taste mostly of… baked beans, a nicely classic flavor. Too often previous recipes have promised flavors that they don’t provide or that are too subtle. These baked beans are pretty balanced but tend toward sweet, so I may cut back on the brown sugar when I make it next. I can’t promise I won’t tinker with it, but I am pretty satisfied with it and have made it several times as it is.

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Salmon with Baked Couscous

I didn’t grow up eating much fish, so this recipe for salmon with couscous was the only fish recipe I made for several years. It was salmon, baked under a layer of couscous flavored with olive oil, lemon juice, olives, capers, and raisins.

I came across this recipe in graduate school, back in the days where I (and many others) still printed out recipes to try. One of my primary sources back then, and source for this recipe, was Food Network, although I didn’t watch the show this recipe aired on. Salmon with a Couscous Crust purportedly served two, but easily served three or four. It was easy to make as written, and delicious. I loved, and still love, how quickly it comes together. Simply mix together couscous with seasonings, pour on top of salmon, and bake.

Salmon with Baked Couscous and Sauteed Zucchini

Of course, I made changes. The recipe took more olive oil than needed in a weeknight dinner, so I cut it back. I omit raisins since I don’t care for them. I inexplicably like capers but not olives, so I use extra capers as a substitute. I’ve substituted almonds for pine nuts, and forgotten them altogether before; both ways are fine. The recipe is delicious even when I forget parsley. No matter the variation, though, the salmon is moist since it’s poached in the water, and the couscous is flavorful.

This recipe doesn’t take long to put together, and is pretty hands-off. The quantity of couscous easily feeds three or four once you serve it alongside a vegetable, so I usually use extra salmon and plan on leftovers for lunch or dinner for the next day.

Salmon with Baked Couscous

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Chocolate Peanut Butter Bites

Some people adore the combination of chocolate and peanut butter, all the time. I’m not one of them. I only like it sometimes, when I’m in the right mood for it. But once I’m in the mood for chocolate peanut butter, I devour it!

When Amelia was a baby, I came across this recipe for chocolate peanut butter bites in a breastfeeding group; it should theoretically increase your breastmilk supply. Now, I can’t say whether or not it works for that, but it is about the healthiest chocolate peanut butter cookie/dessert/snack recipe you can find. It’s a simple combination of peanut butter, honey, chocolate chips, oatmeal, and flaxseed meal. I love that it’s no-bake and can be made using only the microwave, perfect for making during the hottest part of summer.

In the recipe as I originally found it, you combine the peanut butter and honey, add the remaining ingredients, then roll the sticky snacks in extra oats or slivered almonds or something. That sounded both messy and fussy, neither of which I like. I cut back on the honey to reduce the stickiness (and sweetness). I decided everything would mix together more easily if I heated the peanut butter and honey together first. When I mixed in the remaining ingredients, magic happened. The chocolate chips melted into the peanut butter, turning this into something like a healthier peanut butter cup. This recipe takes no more than 15 minutes to make – maybe a little longer if you don’t have a cookie scoop. The dough can be a little crumbly, but whenever mine is, I use my hands to finish rolling these into balls. I like to use a 1.5-teaspoon cookie scoop for these to make them bite-size.

I’ve been known to eat several of these instead of eating a meal when I’m busy, and I don’t feel guilty thanks to all the oatmeal and flax meal, which provide lots of fiber, and the peanut butter, which provides protein. Sometimes I find that I can taste the flax meal in these. That doesn’t bother me, but if it bothers you, you can use more oatmeal and less flax meal. You can also try adding more honey or chocolate chips.

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Chocolate Stout Cake

Recently, my friend Molly asked me if I had a good chocolate cake recipe, preferably one that could be made in a Bundt pan. Man, did I ever?!

This chocolate stout cake recipe (via Smitten Kitchen, of course) is my favorite chocolate cake recipe ever, although it has been a long time since I made it. It’s rich, chocolatey, and perfectly moist. It doesn’t take long to put together at all. It has extra flavor from the addition of a cup of stout beer to the cake batter, which can be noticeable. The beer makes the cake taste a little malty, for lack of a better word. The chocolate ganache that tops the cake cuts down on this maltiness for the beer-averse. Yogurt (or sour cream) in the batter helps keep the cake extra moist.

I’ve said that this would be the chocolate cake to break your diet for, and I stand by that. It’s a rich, moist, delicious cake. One caveat – contrary to popular opinion, alcohol does not entirely cook out of food (original source is USDA). A tiny bit remains. Although in this cake, since it’s a small amount of beer that goes into the batter, I personally don’t find the amount remaining per piece to be significant.

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Lentil Soup with Lemon

Although I’ve tried a lot of lentil soups, there’s only one that I’m a big fan of. I come back to this recipe time and time again. It’s healthy and delicious, and incredibly simple to make. It also happens to be vegetarian/vegan. It has simple spices (cumin and mustard seeds) and lots and lots of lemon juice. Don’t skimp on it.

I originally got the recipe from 101 Cookbooks years ago. It was tasty, but took a few more steps than I liked. Here’s my simplified version. It’s originally a red lentil soup, but I always use plain brown lentils I find in the grocery store. (That said, the soup in these pictures used red lentils since they were the same price at the store. I also forgot cilantro.) I usually use bottled lemon juice rather than juicing lemons. Often I use frozen spinach (I usually microwave it first) in the soup rather than fresh greens. Since it’s a pureed soup, we always serve it over brown rice. We usually get 4+ generous bowls of soup from this recipe.

To demonstrate how much I like this soup, and how forgiving it is: Once I didn’t have enough lentils, and used chickpeas instead. It reminded me a little of hummus, and it was still tasty. Sometimes I’m out of turmeric, and it turns out okay (although it is better with it). Sometimes I use kale in the soup instead of spinach, and sometimes I forget about leafy greens entirely; the soup still turns out delicious. Sometimes I forget it takes cilantro. Even when I have to make substitutions, I love this soup.

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Chocolate Caramel Cheesecake

We recently celebrated Alex’s birthday. I considered buying him a small cake as we were going out on his actual birthday and weren’t having a party. I nixed that idea when I realized I would be disappointed with myself if I didn’t make him a dessert, particularly since I could make it on a Friday to surprise him with it after work.

I’ve made Alex a variety of cakes and desserts for his birthday in the past (chocolate peanut butter cheesecake, chocolate peanut butter cake, an ice cream cake, a Spiderman cake), and I wanted to be sure not to reprise them. I looked through all the recipes I’ve bookmarked, and decided that while I wanted to bake, I didn’t feel like layering and frosting a cake. A birthday is a great excuse to make cheesecake, so cheesecake it was.

Specifically, this Chocolate Caramel Cheesecake from Smitten Kitchen. I’m not always a big fan of chocolate cheesecake, but this cheesecake was delicious. It was dense and creamy. Some chocolate cheesecakes aren’t very chocolatey, or are too sweet – but not this one. It had a very dark, rich chocolate flavor, with a little something extra from the caramel. The caramel didn’t stand out, per se, but added to the overall richness and flavor. This is not a tooth-achingly sweet caramel cheesecake. To make it a little more obviously caramel, you could serve with a caramel sauce, of course. But we didn’t find it necessary.

The cheesecake was easy enough to make. A food processor makes easy work of grinding chocolate graham crackers or animal crackers (I measured mine by weight) for the crust, and mixes the sugar and butter in evenly as well. If you want the sugar to dissappear into the crust, dissolve it into the melted butter first. Use a light touch in patting the crumbs into the pan. Next you make a caramel that you pour into the cheesecake batter. The caramel was quick to make, but I’ve made caramel a few times and am not afraid of using higher heat at the beginning. When mixing the cheesecake batter, be sure that your cream cheese is completely at room temperature before whipping it, and mix on slow when adding eggs to reduce the amount of air you beat into the cake. This will help you avoid cracks in your cheesecake. My cheesecake only cracked when I took it from the oven. To further try avoid cracks, you can cool the cheesecake in the oven slowly before chilling it; I just needed to get mine cold sooner.

I was really impressed with this cheesecake, and would definitely make it again.

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Cinnamon Gooey Butter Cake

I’ve written about Gooey Butter Cake before. Gooey Butter Cake consists of a layer of sugary, buttery goo on top of a cake base.  It’s a St. Louis specialty, one that I unfortunately haven’t mastered, and honestly didn’t eat much of in St. Louis. My first introduction to it was actually a Paula Deen recipe that, in addition to using a lot of butter, doctored up a cake mix for a base and included a one-pound box of powdered sugar in the topping. A coworker of mine at Illinois would make that recipe (and variations) all the time for potlucks, and I made it several times after she shared the recipe with me. Those bars were delicious and incredibly sweet.

But, that is not this recipe. I don’t like using cake mixes much, so I’ve tried a few other recipes in the past. Both of those take a cake base that uses yeast, so they take a bit of time to make. Not what I usually have time for nowadays. In contrast, this recipe from the Smitten Kitchen Cookbook is an adaptation, where she created a snickerdoodle-like cinnamon-topped version. Although not traditional, it’s much faster to make and keeps well. And is, of course, rich and delicious.

This is Gooey Butter Cake, but the amount of goo that you end up with depends on how long you bake it. I’ve made it three times at this point, and each time it’s ended up a little differently. When I bake it to the full 30 minute mark, there’s little goo. At this point, it ends up like a very soft, sweet coffee cake, incredibly tender from the copious amount of butter in the recipe. In some spots, it’s kind of like the dense goo you get in a slightly under-baked brownie. At the 25 minute mark (or if my fingertips are too wet as I smooth the cookie dough base down), there’s a lot of goo. Make sure the top is jiggly when you pull it out if you want more goo. Somewhere around 27 minutes is probably best for me in my current oven. [It’s cleanest to cut and eat when the goo is minimal. The batch pictured here had minimal goo.]

The cinnamon sugar gives each piece a little crunch. I omitted the cinnamon sugar on one half once, and I didn’t like it so much. I think there simply wasn’t enough contrast between base and topping without it. If you want a not-cinnamon version, it’s best to try a different recipe, probably with a yeasted base. Or seek out the Paula Deen recipe.

When you make this, line your baking pan with parchment paper for easy clean-up as I’ve had trouble with other gooey recipes sticking. Using the parchment paper, I find it hard to spread out the batter for the base with a spatula, so I get my fingertips wet and pat out the dough to the edges of the pan. Just try not to get the layer too wet.

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Chickpeas with Spinach

This recipe, Chickpeas with Spinach, has been one of my favorite quick meals to make recently.

Originally an appetizer, I decided it looked substantial enough for a meal. I felt the same way about the version of it I made several years ago, too. That version had more liquid than this, and took more time to make. Smitten Kitchen’s version as well had a few extra steps that I didn’t feel like doing. So I simplified it so it’s a one-pot dish, that involves no cutting (unless you slice your bread), that takes no more than 20 minutes to make from the time you begin to measure your ingredients to the time you place it on the table. This adaptation of Smitten Kitchen’s version omits the bread that you blend into it, uses tomato paste instead of sauce (which the bread used to soak up), and wilts the spinach in the pot at the end instead of cooking it first. (I tried frozen cooked spinach, but it wasn’t as good.) Oh, and this version uses much less olive oil.

The sauce is balanced with a dash of vinegar (I’ve used balsamic instead of red wine vinegar since that’s what I have), and there’s not so much sauce that it turns your toast to mush, which I can’t stand. It has negligible heat from the dash of red pepper, though you could boost that if you wanted to. You could probably omit the smoked paprika in a pinch, and the dish would come out fine. And you’re eating chickpeas and spinach, on toast – very healthy. This likely isn’t as rich as the tapas-version of Chickpeas with Spinach should be, but it’s very satisfying as a meal.

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Tres Leches Cake

I made Tres Leches Cake several years ago, and liked it more than I expected. When I decided to have a small Cinco de Mayo party this year, I wanted to try the recipe from Smitten Kitchen. (Or maybe I had a Cinco de Mayo party this year because I wanted to try the recipe. Sometimes it’s hard to tell.)

Tres Leches Cake, literally a three milk cake, is a cake soaked in a mixture of three kinds of dairy, generally sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk, and cream. In this recipe, the cake is a (butterless) sponge cake, but simplified so it’s made entirely in a (single) stand mixer bowl. Very lightly sweetened whipped cream takes the place of frosting.

I liked this recipe more than Alton Brown’s recipe, which I made before. This cake was very delicious. It was milky and sweet, without being tooth-achingly sweet since it’s slightly sweetened whipped cream for frosting. The texture of the cake held up even after several days. Since the recipe says to reserve extra milk for serving, very little liquid leaked from the cake when I cut it. I didn’t find the extra milk necessary since the cake stayed very moist.

Technical details: This is usually where I say “the recipe was simple.” And it wasn’t hard – for a sponge cake. Like many people, I find standard sponge cake recipes, where you whip egg whites to soft peaks and stiff peaks, and fold in other ingredients without deflating said perfect egg whites, to be a little tricky and nerve-wracking. This recipe is nice because I could whip the egg whites (consulting the internet for pictures of “soft peaks” and “stiff peaks,” because I still need visual reminders), and use the stand mixer to add all remaining ingredients except flour. Since I could use the stand mixer for everything else, I didn’t worry (much) about deflating the cake when I folded in the dry ingredients. [Admission: I used the stand mixer on low for my first two additions of flour, contrary to the instructions; this didn’t ruin the cake.] With soaking the cake, I only worried that the milk would overflow the pan since my cake rose higher than the edge of the pan on one side thanks to my not-level oven. After I topped the cake with whipped cream (which also rose above the pan), I inverted a second pan over it as a cover.

The only change I might try next time would be to use half-and-half instead of heavy cream in the three-milk mixture – save a handful of calories.  Continue reading Tres Leches Cake

Fake Steak

This is one of my favorite meals from my childhood – Fake Steak. I have no idea where the recipe originated; it was simply in my mom’s recipe box. When I wanted to make it as an adult, the internet didn’t show me the recipe I remembered, and I had to ask Mom to send it to me.

No, it’s not the same as a real steak, but they’re very delicious. They’re patties of hamburger and rice, with onion and Worchestershire sauce mixed in, and wrapped in bacon if I feel like being fancy (which I usually don’t). I cook these on a broiler sheet to let the grease drain beneath, although it’s not strictly necessary if you skip the bacon and use semi-lean hamburger. This recipe should serve 4 people. Alex and I know we should limit ourselves to eating two of these per meal, but we find we want to polish off the entire recipe – not that we do.  We hypothesize that it’s the Worchestershire sauce that makes this taste so much better than we think it should.

People have called these individual meatloafs, which irritates me because I don’t like meatloaf. If I’m being honest, though, I see a vague resemblance. Honestly, I know these aren’t much to look at, but I love this recipe just the same. This is my comfort food; that’s why I was eating these 20 years ago and will still be making this recipe 20 years from now.

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