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Yeah, We Got It! Hot Chocolate!

5 Oct

When the Southern California sky looks like this…

I start thinking of warm and cozy things, like a big cup of decadent hot chocolate.

But I’m not talking about some powder that you mix with water. If that satisfies your taste buds, by all means, rip that packet open. But once you try this hot chocolate from scratch, you won’t be able to drink the other stuff without cringing.

Let’s start with the ingredients:
Hot chocolate homemade
1/2 cup sugar
Pinch salt
Dash of cinnamon (optional)
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa
1/3 cup boiling water
3 1/2 cups milk
3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
Half & half (optional)

(Just out of curiosity, let’s look at the ingredients of a popular hot cocoa mix: sugar, corn syrup, modified whey, cocoa (processed with alkali), hydrogenated coconut oil, nonfat milk, calcium carbonate, less than 2% of: salt, dipotassium phosphate, mono- and diglycerides, artificial flavor, carrageenan. Mmmm, tasty.)

Boil the water. In a separate pan, combine the sugar, salt, a dash of cinnamon and cocoa; add boiling water and stir. Bring to a gentle boil and simmer for about two minutes, stirring constantly. Add milk and continue to stir until hot (do not bring to a boil). Remove from heat and add vanilla. Divide into cups and add half & half (as desired) to bring to a drinking temperature. (I added the half & half to my daughter’s but not mine.) This makes about four servings.

I don’t think she liked it.
Homemade hot chocolate from scratch

Neither did I. I just drank three cups’ worth and ruined my appetite for dinner. And am counting the minutes until I can make more.

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Pumpkin Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting

3 Oct

Pumpkin cake with cream cheese frosting
We may be in the middle of a hot, humid stretch of weather in Southern California, but in my mind it’s fall and there’s a chill in the air.

And what better way to celebrate fall (and my dear, sweet husband’s birthday) than with pumpkin cake slathered with thick, luscious cream cheese frosting?

Excuse me while I wipe the drool from my keyboard.

Technically this recipe is called Pumpkin Cake Bars with Cream Cheese Frosting, but I didn’t find anything remotely bar-like in the finished product. Instead of a 9 x 13 baking dish, I used two square baking pans and had plenty of frosting (OMG – the frosting) to use in between the layers. There is nothing dry about this cake, folks. As other reviewers noted, I had to bake it for about 10 minutes longer than the recommended time and it was still so moist and perfect. (And for those of you who really know me, you know I hate the word moist. And I just used it twice. So it MUST be true.)

Bake this cake. You will love it. Your family and friends will devour it and sing your praises. And your kitchen will smell like cinnamon and pumpkin and all the spicy goodness of fall.

Build a Stash of Freezer Meals (Easily)

24 Sep

Lately, with this pregnancy and our busier lives in general, I’ve noticed that we are having more and more of those 6 p.m. panics where my husband walks in the door and I have no idea what we’re going to eat. All the ingredients in your cupboards won’t do you any good if you don’t have a plan for them.

I’ve been reminiscing about my self-titled “Freezer Meals Era” – a time when we cut our dining-out expenses in half and in general, ate much more satisfying (and stress-free) dinners. If we got home too late from running errands or playing at the park, there was always something in the freezer that could be heated in time for dinner – and it didn’t come from an overpriced cardboard box.

Benefits of Freezer Meals
Building a stash of ready-to-reheat freezer meals can:
Reduce your “dining out” spending.
Reduce your grocery budget, because you are buying more items in bulk and buying less convenience foods.
Reduce the amount of time you spend in the kitchen, both cooking and cleaning up, which gives you more time with your family.
Reduce the amount of preservatives and unhealthy ingredients your family eats, because you are making things from scratch.
Reduce the amount of packaging and waste that goes into the landfill, again because you are buying less convenience foods and buying in bulk.

How I Freeze
You may have heard about once-a-month cooking, where you prepare, cook and freeze enough meals for an entire month in one day (or weekend). I was never ambitious enough to try this, and I imagine the burnout rate could get pretty high. Instead, I found it easiest to choose one or two recipes from my weekly menu plan and just double or triple the recipe that night, freezing the leftovers. (This also helps with portion control, so my family of three doesn’t polish off a giant pan of lasagna meant for a party of eight.) Within a couple of weeks I had a nice selection of frozen meals to choose from.

What Should You Freeze?
Some of my favorite meals to double (or triple) and freeze include:
Lasagna (or Lasagna Roll-ups)
Cottage Cheese Chicken Enchiladas
Sour Cream Chicken Enchiladas
Macaroni and Cheese
Whole Wheat Pancakes
Whole Wheat Breakfast Muffins
Cornbread
Spaghetti Sauce
Chicken Pot Pie
Chili
Burritos
Meatballs – cooked or uncooked
Cookies freeze well, too!

How to Store Your Freezer Meals
I generally store things like sauces, soups, chili and breads (like pancakes, muffins or cornbread) in gallon-sized Ziploc freezer bags. Be sure to label the bag with the contents, date and reheating instructions, if any, and make sure the food has cooled off before you put it in the bag. For casseroles, enchiladas, lasagna, etc. any freezer- and oven-safe baking dish will do. If it doesn’t have a lid, use a two-step method of cling wrap plus a layer of tin foil to prevent freezer burn. My personal favorite for freezing is Pyrex, and it’s easy to stack (and see inside).
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How to Thaw
It’s helpful to pull out your frozen meal the night before and thaw it in the refrigerator, but most meals can also be cooked from frozen. I’ve been known to “force thaw” a bagged meal like chili or soup in a bowl of cold water in the sink, much like you would with frozen meat.

Helpful Resources
It’s always helpful to look at once-a-month cooking websites or books to get some fresh ideas. But most of our favorite freezer recipes are things we were already eating, that just happen to freeze well. So don’t pressure yourself to prepare a ton of meals in one day just because a book recommends it!
Once a Month Cooking
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Favorite Recipes

1 Sep

Looking for inspiration for this week’s meal plan?

There are some recipes you just keep going back to, time and time again. I file these under “Tried and True” in my bookmarks. I hope you enjoy them as much as we do!

Breakfast
Spinach Smoothies (aka Monster Juice)
Whole Wheat Breakfast Muffins

Appetizers
Tomato, Red Onion, and Basil Bruschetta

Dinner
Cottage Cheese Chicken Enchiladas
Goat Cheese Arugula Pizza
Tasty Lentil Tacos
Panera Broccoli Cheese Soup
Roasted Corn Chowder with Chicken & Cilantro (Gluten and dairy-free!)
Creamy Cajun Chicken Pasta
Honey Baked Chicken

Vegetables and Sides
Baked Zucchini
Sweet Cornbread

Dessert
Strawberry Buttercream Frosting
No Bake Cookies
Oatmeal Chip Cookies

File Under “Yes, Please”: Honey Baked Chicken

29 Aug

Hoo boy. This recipe has a few things going for it:

  • Only six ingredients, including seasonings
  • It calls for an entire stick of butter
  • It has an amazing sweet and curried flavor
  • More than 1,000 people on AllRecipes.com have given it an average rating of 4.5 stars
  • I used organic boneless chicken thighs instead of a whole chicken, because that’s what we had in the fridge. (Side note: Boneless chicken thighs cost $2 less per pound than boneless chicken breasts at Costco.) I served the chicken over last night’s leftover quinoa (cooked with chicken broth instead of water) and a pile of steamed brussel sprouts, then drizzled (all right, fine – doused) it all with the pan sauce.

    The toddler said, “Mmmm, dinner is so yummy Mommy.” Husband said, “Oh, wow.”

    I agreed.

    Honey Baked Chicken II

    Fresh Peach Cobbler

    18 Aug

    peach tree
    My in-laws are drowning in peaches from the tree in their back yard. Clusters of peaches hang heavily from the branches; piles of peaches litter the ground below. In just a matter of days we have picked hundreds of the sweet fruits, shuttling bags off to neighbors, eating them morning, noon and night, freezing huge batches… and barely a dent has been made.

    I couldn’t resist the opportunity to try my hand at peach cobbler. Generally I overlook fruity desserts in favor of chocolate, but I needed to do my part to eat our way out of the mountain sitting on the counter. What a sacrifice.

    I wanted a simple recipe with ingredients we had on-hand, and one without any egg (my daughter is allergic). I found this recipe for peach cobbler by Paula Deen on FoodNetwork.com and decided to give it a try, with a couple of minor variations.

    We didn’t have self-rising flour, so I made my own with:
    1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
    2 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
    3/4 teaspoon salt

    self-rising flour
    Mix and set aside. (Skip this step if using self-rising flour.)

    Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

    Peel and slice 4 cups of fresh peaches. (Next time I would probably add another cup or two for extra peachiness.)

    peach cobbler
    Combine peaches, 1 cup sugar and 1/2 cup water in a saucepan. I also added 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract. Mix well; bring to a boil and simmer for 10 minutes. Remove from heat.

    Meanwhile, melt 8 tablespoons (one stick) of butter in a 3-quart baking dish in the oven.

    Mix 1 cup sugar, 1 1/2 cups self-rising flour and 1 1/2 cups milk slowly, and pour over the melted butter. I know it’s tempting but don’t stir!

    peach cobbler
    Spoon the peaches on top, then gently pour in the syrup. I sprinkled the top with a bit of brown sugar and some cinnamon.

    The recipe suggests baking for 30 to 45 minutes; I found it took closer to 50 minutes to brown a bit on top and get a nice little crust around the edges.

    peach cobbler

    peach cobbler
    Serve with ice cream or fresh whipping cream. Take another look at the peach tree and wonder how many more cobblers you can bake before the season ends.

    Gourmet Chocolate (with a Conscience)

    16 Aug

    Although I have a sweet tooth – a mouth full of them, because I would hate to limit myself – I have yet to venture into the world of candy making.

    So when I went to visit my in-laws’ home in San Luis Obispo, I set out to find a unique, local chocolate shop – something I wouldn’t be able to find in my hometown, also known as Land of the National Chains. And I came across Sweet Earth Chocolates, which sells exclusively 100% organic and certified fair trade chocolate.

    Lucky, lucky me.

    I wanted to be sure to give you all a virtual taste of the selection at Sweet Earth, so I asked the salesperson for some assistance in choosing flavors. With options like Cardamom Ginger or Coconut Curry Truffle and Green Tea or Cherry Chipotle Creme, there was no way I could walk out of there with a run-of-the-mill milk chocolate or caramel. We settled on three truffles – Lavender, Aztec and Framboise.

    Lucky, lucky me.

    lavender truffle
    Lavender – dark chocolate and lavender inside, white chocolate coating. Smooth, delicious, and the lavender wasn’t overpowering like I was worried it would be. Yum. My mother-in-law liked this one the best. (What – you didn’t think I would share?)

    Aztec truffle
    Aztec – cinnamon, dark chocolate and ancho pepper. Yowza. This one had kick!

    Framboise truffle
    Framboise – I was so excited to get these home at this point I forgot to ask what was in it. But I believe it has something to do with raspberries, creaminess and wonderfulness. This was my favorite.

    I’m adding Sweet Earth Chocolates to my list of favorite places to visit when I’m in San Luis Obispo. If you aren’t able to make it to the storefront, you can also order online (and in bulk!).

    Lucky, lucky you.

    Note: I paid for my chocolates and received no compensation from Sweet Earth for this review.