Perfect Blueberry Muffins

The last time I made my usual blueberry muffin recipe, I wasn’t as happy with it as I remembered. Those muffins overflowed and flattened out, more of a mushroom shape than a nice, mountainous muffin shape. It was about then that Alton Brown published an updated version, which I tried – and wasn’t thrilled with because they were way too big, among other reasons. (His assertion that everyone loves a muffin top is inaccurate.) So I was pretty excited when Smitten Kitchen updated her blueberry muffin recipe. It made fewer muffins (9, a good number for a family of 2 1/2 people), looked easy to make, and took ingredients I had as long as I still had blueberries on hand.

I was impressed when I tried the recipe. The muffins assembled easily and quickly, and they turned out perfectly, as promised. They were fluffy and moist, even after a couple of days, and had lots of blueberries strewn throughout them. (Alex actually would like a little more muffin, and a little less blueberry.) I liked the hint of lemon in the muffin. The muffins rose and domed nicely – no batter overflowing onto the muffin pan and flattening out. I think this has become my new go-to muffin recipe.

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Confetti Cookies

Now that my last few posts have been about real food, I’m back to talking about what I really love – cookies. When Deb at Smitten Kitchen posted a few months about Confetti Cookies, I wanted to try them – and then became busy and promptly forgot about the recipe, until I rediscovered it during on a weekend when I went on a spree of browsing dessert recipes while waiting for Alex to bring home donuts for breakfast.

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I couldn’t make the cookies immediately, unfortunately, because I didn’t have cream cheese, which the recipe called for. Luckily I remembered to pick it up during my weekly shopping trip. From there, it was a very simple process of stationing my toddler on the kitchen counter, where she could play with Keurig cups while I assembled cookie dough and steal sprinkles that fell off of cookies that I put on baking sheets. (She was very good, and only smooshed one cookie with a container after I flattened it with a glass. But who can blame her for trying to help with the cookies!)

The recipe was pretty easy to make. It’s a standard sugar cookie recipe enhanced by cream cheese. I remember seeing this original recipe in King Arthur Flour, but I had to pass it by since I don’t keep cream cheese in the house. The cream cheese is supposed to up the complexity in the cookie, keeping them from being merely sweet; I also think it helps keep them fresh. Deb made these cookies in the food processor. I tried this for a different Smitten Kitchen recipe I tried once, and it worked splendidly! So I used a food processor instead of my stand mixer. This worked well as I didn’t have to bring my butter or cream cheese to room temperature, and the process was also a few minutes faster.

I cut back on the sugar by accident, but Alex and I agreed that we didn’t miss it; the sprinkles are plenty sweet. This recipe should yield 48 cookies, but I only got 33. They baked perfectly, though. The cookies were wonderfully soft and tender, and were still fresh after being stored in an air-tight container for a few days. I think this will be my go-to sugar cookie recipe.

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Whole Wheat Molasses Bread

My toddler has been eating almond butter on toast for 2-3 meals a day for the last week, so when my dog pulled the last few pieces of bread from the counter and ate them while we were out, I took this opportunity to get back into bread-baking, gently.

Gently, I say, because I opted for super-easy. I didn’t particularly feel like baking bread. I wanted (and we needed) bread for toast, but making yeast bread, even a simple recipe, didn’t fit into our schedule. Since I planned to feed this to Amelia (and myself) multiple times a day, the bread needed to be healthy (whole wheat).

This whole wheat molasses bread (adapted from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything) was exactly what I wanted. It’s a soda bread with a little extra. You simply mix a handful of ingredients, plop the batter into a loaf pan, and bake it. No kneading, no waiting for dough to rise.  The bread has a dense crumb, more like a banana bread than a traditional loaf of sandwich bread. I could easily cut it thinly with a bread knife, and the slices were perfect for toast with peanut butter or almond butter. This bread is sweet from the molasses, but the molasses flavor wasn’t overwhelming. This was a great, faster alternative to making sandwich bread, but it has more moisture than sandwich bread, so eat it within a few days of baking.

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Eggplant and Barley Salad

Summer has been very hot in New Jersey this year. I don’t think it’s usually quite this hot, although I don’t know for certain as it’s only our second summer here. When the heat rivals summer in the Midwest, meals for us usually consist of whatever Alex has grilled that day, leftovers from when Alex grilled, pancakes (because I use an electric griddle), or BLTs, which are really cooling if you (perhaps heretically) microwave your bacon and don’t heat up your oven or a frying pan.

This Eggplant and Barley Salad from Smitten Kitchen is really very nice in the summer, once you get past the steps of roasting vegetables. I first made this salad a few years ago, and I really liked it. Alex doesn’t like eggplant, but he enjoys this salad. Roasting the eggplant makes it a little less eggplanty and more delicious. The barley is tender yet chewy, flavored with cumin and coriander. The grain is surprisingly good cold. I usually don’t like salads because dressing is too vinegary or assertive, but this salad is dressed with olive oil, lemon juice, and garlic, all of which I like. Tomatoes and roasted zucchini (and olives, if those are your thing) give the dish extra flavor. I love the balanced flavors in this dish.

This is a delicious, flavorful summer salad. It works great as a make-ahead vegetarian/vegan meal and is perfect as leftovers on a lot summer day. We had 4 dinner-sized servings plus some for a toddler, but it would yield more as a side dish.

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One-Pan Farro with Tomatoes

One-Pan Farro with Tomatoes is one of my favorite new dishes. I’ve made it several times already since I first tried it. It involves minimal prep – maybe about 10 minutes while you cut everything up and heat the pot. It’s easy enough to do with a toddler playing at your feet, or sitting on the counter watching you. It’s ready after 30 minutes of hands-off cooking. It smells amazing by the time it’s done, more amazing than you think anything with this few ingredients can be.

This will serve two and a toddler as a vegetarian meal, or more as a side dish.

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Chocolate Peanut Butter Cheesecake

When I found the recipe for Chocolate Peanut Butter Cheesecake on the Smitten Kitchen website, I knew that it would be what I made Alex for his birthday. And I did, a little late, in 2014. It turned out beautifully, perfectly, but I never got around to blogging about it. So this year again, I baked for his birthday.

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This is a fantastic cheesecake. The chocolate cookie crust was delicious, as was the peanut butter cheesecake, as was the chocolate fudge layer hidden beneath the cheesecake layer. Chocolate ganache covers the entire thing (and hides any cracks or flaws you might have, though mine surprisingly didn’t crack).  The peanut butter cheesecake was smooth and creamy; it paired perfectly with all the chocolate. Overall this was a dense and rich cheesecake. I needed to cut slices very thin – about as thin as I could with a cheesecake – in order to be able to finish a slice. The only downside was that the crust was a little dense and hard in the corners where the sides met the bottom; that was the case two years ago as well, and I wish I knew how to fix that.

Given the separate layers, I find this an impressive dessert to make. No layer was particularly difficult to make. It took a little time and planning, but I didn’t have trouble making it with my toddler watching me (though it helped that she snacked on chocolate animal crackers in the meantime). I had it done in a morning, aside from the ganache on top.

If you love the combination of chocolate and peanut butter, this is definitely a dessert for you.

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Chocolate Sheet Cake

My mom has had a recipe in her recipe box for a chocolate sheet cake for as long as I can remember. She kindly texted me a copy of it a few weeks ago when I really, really wanted to make a sheet cake. I thought it was a Texas sheet cake. It’s not, although it’s similar. Although I thought I wanted to make a Texas sheet cake, I trusted that I’d had and enjoyed this cake before, so I went ahead with it.

It’s been a while since I’ve tried a recipe that wasn’t published online or in a cookbook, so I was a little nervous. However, the cake was delicious. It’s basically a frosted brownie. I inadvertently halved the oil in the cake, but it still came out very moist and stayed moist for a week.  The cake itself was tender and chocolatey; it’s a definite keeper.  Our least favorite part was the icing, which came out sugary – crystalline and fragile. The cake definitely needs a light icing, and although this one provided just the right amount of coverage and kept the cake from drying out, I’ll try a ganache next time for a better texture.

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Date Shake

Recently Smitten Kitchen wrote about the Palm Springs Date Shake. I’d never heard of a date shake before, but I have a bag of dates in my pantry that I never use, and I (suppose I’ll admit that I) always have two or three kinds of ice cream in the freezer. There was no good reason for me not to try a date shake, and the recipe required minimal effort, which is how much I want to exert on my cooking nowadays.

I don’t usually make milkshakes. They require an obscene amount of ice cream in them, and it’s easier to just eat the ice cream. However, this milkshake was surprisingly good. I always forget how delicious dates are; when I eat them, I wonder why I don’t eat them more often. The dates made the milkshake taste honeyed to me, even though there’s no honey included. The nutmeg was subtle but delicious.

The recipe is incredibly simple. Only thing to remember is to chop and soak the dates in boiling water for at least 15 minutes, and that can be done well in advance (which is best, in my opinion, so you can chill them and have the coldest milkshake possible).

I don’t know if this is healthier than normal milkshakes, but I’m going to pretend that it is since it contains fruit. It’s definitely worth making more than once.

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Fajitas

I finally have a favorite recipe for fajitas. It’s delicious, fast, and incredibly easy to make. Previously, I made fajitas before using a recipe from a cookbook I’d had for years; they were always tasty, but I recall the recipe being a little involved, though I can’t remember how. But leave it to Smitten Kitchen to again give a delicious, streamlined recipe that I can count on.

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What do I love about this recipe? Little things. You cook the vegetables before the meat, then add it back – I can’t recall ever seeing that in a recipe like this (which is essentially a stir-fry). The marinade for the meat has little liquid, so you don’t have to drain it. You just dump the meat into the skillet, and there’s no mess and no waste! I’ve made this with beef and with chicken, and they were equally delicious, but I favor using beef mainly because I can buy precut stir-fry beef.

The marinade was flavorful but not spicy. The meat and vegetables cooked perfectly in my cast iron skillet. It was quick for me to combine the spices and lime juice (I use bottled) to marinate the meat and to cut the vegetables (while Amelia had her afternoon snack), and that could easily be done the night before. The fajitas took very little time to cook, and were great as leftovers too.

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Carrot Soup with Sesame and Chickpeas

One of the soups that I’ve made a few times recently(ish) is the Carrot Soup with Tahini and Chickpeas from Smitten Kitchen. It’s a healthy and delicious soup, and is pretty quick and easy to make.

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The soup itself is lightly spiced. Do not skip the sesame-lemon drizzle! It provides a definite punch of flavor, making the soup anything but boring.  The addition of chickpeas also makes this more interesting than your usual blended veggie soup. In some ways, it’s like eating a soup version of hummus. As a meal, this soup is light but filling. It’s also vegetarian and vegan!

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