Sesame Noodles

Honestly, I’m in a cooking rut. For every delicious dessert I write about (and I don’t even write about those frequently nowadays), there’s several evenings’ worth of dinner that I’m not interested in cooking. I can’t make a weekly dinner plan to save my life right now. Thank goodness for frozen chicken strips.

Recipes like these Sesame Noodles are a godsend. I love them. You can make them solely with shelf-stable ingredients, so you don’t have to make a grocery run. They come together in 30 minutes (depending on how quickly your stove boils water). I’ve made these several times this summer, mainly on days where it’s 4pm and I haven’t figured out anything else that I want to make for dinner. (Other good easy recipes that I probably should have also made this summer include Chickpeas with Spinach, and One-Pan Farro with Tomatoes. Perhaps later this week.)

This recipe, like so many, comes from Smitten Kitchen. I’ve made other versions of peanut or sesame noodles from other sources, but I apparently haven’t made them often enough or liked them enough to blog about them. I can’t even remember what recipes I would have made. The only other cold noodle recipe I find on my blog is this recipe for Thai-style Rice Noodles, which I recall being good but apparently forgot about making since I haven’t made it again. (Oops.)

Smitten Kitchen’s Takeout-style Sesame Noodles is a great recipe. I really like the sauce. It’s not too heavy or thick or sticky, which means that the noodles are good as leftovers straight from the fridge. It is not too peanuty or sesamey, and has a nice soy flavor. There’s the perfect amount of sauce, too, to coat some matchstick peppers and thinly sliced cucumbers that I toss with it. If I didn’t have fresh vegetables around to use, I’d steam and drain a frozen Asian veggie mix to go alongside this.

I used rice noodles for this, but I preferred the thinner, narrower rice noodles rather than the wide ones. (The ones I liked best were Thai Kitchen brand.) It’s very important with the rice noodles that you keep the water at a boil and stir them often as they cook, or else they will stick together and be stiff and unpleasant to eat in spots. If you don’t want or can’t find rice noodles, you could also use Chinese egg noodles, or even ordinary vermicelli, although I haven’t tried it with them. If you don’t have rice vinegar, you can probably use white wine or distilled vinegar, but I’d cut back on it as those are both more acidic than rice vinegar.

It takes no more than 30-40 minutes to assemble, from when you start boiling the noodles until you get it to the table. I have enough time to assemble the sauce and slice cucumbers while I wait for my water to boil (although my stovetop is notoriously slow to heat). Everything in this recipe, aside from the ginger and vegetables, are pantry staples (for me at least), which means it’s easy to make these noodles whenever you feel like it. (It also means I’ve forgotten the ginger and the peanuts before, but the noodles still turned out great!)  This is a recipe worth having around.

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Multigrain Sandwich Bread

Fall-like weather has made an appearance here in South Jersey. I love fall. Autumn is a great time to do some baking.

In the spring, I finally began to make bread again. I didn’t make bread as often as I’d hoped to do, but I baked more than I have in the past two years since I had Amelia. My goal in part was to work my way through some of the random flours and grains that I have in my pantry. I feel like I haven’t used up many of those ingredients, but my list of ingredients in the pantry has indeed dwindled, and I can see in my pantry without moving things. So that’s a plus.

Yeasted Banana Sandwich Bread is still my go-to bread to make when I don’t feel like trying something new and want to make bread spur-of-the-moment (read: the same afternoon – it’s yeasted bread, after all). But I’ve been making this Multigrain Sandwich Bread recipe a lot. It’s from Peter Reinhart’s Whole Grain Breads book, which I received a few Christmases ago.

It’s tough to cook with a baby or young toddler. But now that Amelia likes helping me cook, I’ve been trying to work through a few of the recipes. Making bread with her is fun, although it challenges my patience. I let her scoop most ingredients, and I have a system to catch most of what she spills. (She scoops into a measuring cup inside a wide bowl – this has saved my sanity.) It takes me about twice as long to make anything, between letting her measure, letting her stir, and cleaning up all the stuff that falls on the counter and the floor. But she’s so excited about helping that I usually cook with her instead of trying to avoid the mess.

Back to bread – I’ve made a few other things from the book, but this Multigrain Sandwich Bread is the one that I’ve been making over and over to get a feel for how to make whole grain bread. Sandwich bread is what we will eat the most in our house at the moment, because Amelia will often eat toast for lunch, or we can make sandwiches for a picnic lunch when we’re out. Also, I like the texture of multigrain bread over whole wheat bread. I prefer this multigrain sandwich bread over the Multigrain Bread Extraordinare that I made in 2014 for my year of bread baking, because this recipe has a 1:1 ratio of whole grains to bread flour (as opposed to a ratio of about 1:4). This recipe makes a bread that’s wholesome but not heavy, and it doesn’t taste too healthy. It’s soft and not too dense, with chewy bits of whole grain. The bread is not very crumbly when you slice it, and makes for nicely toasted but not crisp toast. It’s perfect for slathering with peanut butter or almond butter, or cookie butter if you prefer.

Making this bread (like most breads from any of Peter Reinhart’s books) takes two days. Day one is usually easy. You mix together two different doughs – a multigrain dough with salt that sits on the counter (salt acts as a preservative), and a regular dough with yeast that ferments in the fridge overnight. These two steps take me no more than 15 minutes, max. The next day is when the bulk of the action and work is. On day two, you combine the two doughs, knead the dough, let it rise, shape it, and bake it.

I weighed all of my dry ingredients (and some wet ones) here, rather than use measuring scoops. Measurements by volume are taken from the book, and if you follow them, your results may vary. You can use any mix of whole grains in this recipe, but if you use harder or larger grains (like brown rice or steel-cut oats), you’ll want to cook them first. If you substitute other grains, be sure to add the same weight of grains, rather than a volumetric measure.

Making bread is work and takes a while, but I love it. But the results are fantastic.

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Confetti Cake

I’ve never been a sprinkles person – at least, not since I was very young. I don’t choose something to eat solely based on decoration or appearance, not since I was 5 or 6 and chose the Pink Bubble Gum ice cream from Baskin Robbins based on its color and the little pink bits strewn throughout it. I didn’t want to eat it all. I think I didn’t care for the little pieces of gum. It was particularly disappointing because we rarely went out for treats, and I chose something I didn’t like. The experience sticks with me 30 years later.

As a result, I generally eschew sprinkles on cupcake and donuts, because they don’t add anything delicious for me. They’re distraction. (The exception was when I made Confetti Cookies earlier this year, because Smitten Kitchen had once again made a recipe that I couldn’t resist trying. Those were definitely worth making.)

Despite my apparent disdain for pretty things, every now and then I’m tempted to buy a funfetti cake mix at the grocery store. It looks so festive, and really, the sprinkles bake into it, so there’s no distracting textures in the cake. But you know I usually don’t buy cake mixes.

So I was particularly excited when I saw Smitten Kitchen’s recent recipe for a Confetti Cake. It just looked so darned festive. I had no reason to make it. I waited a month to find a reason. Then I rationalized that baking is simply what I do. I shouldn’t, and don’t, need a reason for festive food. None of us should.

Besides, Amelia was very excited when I bought sprinkles, and wanted to pull them out of the cabinet to open them. If she’s going to open them for me, I might as well use them.

The cake was an easy (and not very large, thankfully) white cake to assemble. I decided to leave it in the pan for easy storage. The frosting was easy and only took a few minutes to make; it makes a little more than you need, unless you like to have tons of frosting on your cake.

The cake basically tasted like a sweet and vanillay sugar cookie. The cake is dense if you don’t whip the batter long enough, so the second time I made the cake I was sure to whip the butter and sugar for a full 3 minutes, and the egg whites a bit longer as well. I also increased the baking powder (per Deb’s suggestion on her website) to give the cake a bit more height. The second time, it was perfect – moist, soft, and fluffy.

This is a very easy and festive cake to make. Give it a try, and you won’t be disappointed.

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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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