Sunday, October 31, 2010

Halloween Cupcakes

I love Halloween! I used to love it a lot more when the kids were little. It was so much fun to decorate the front porch, and I had a large wooden spider that I had purchased at Rainforest Cafe in the Mall of America that I would strategically place in different spots on my scrub top and wear to work. There was always someone who would see the spider and think it was real. I loved that thing. Then there were the spider earrings. I hate spiders, but on Halloween I loved them. I would hang little ghosts from the low tree branches in the front yard, drape the front porch in fake spider web and stick lots of little spiders in it. One year I even wrapped a rubber rat in it.. the more gross things I could find the better! My son Matt had learned in one of his theater classes how to make fake blood out of corn syrup, peanut butter and red food coloring. It looked amazingly real. Then there were the jack-o-lanterns... I would buy about 4 or 5 pumpkins and carve them all with one of those carving sets with the cool patterns. On Halloween night it was so much fun taking the kids out trick-or-treating, and at home it was fun seeing all the cute little kids in their costumes. Now it's not so much fun because we're getting older. Our sneaky stealth cat always seems to come out of nowhere and manages to bolt out the door at every opportunity, the dogs don't like it, and it's not so easy to be up and down off the couch every few minutes when a new group of little goblins knocks on the door. Still, I do love Halloween. If I have the night off I will still walk out to the end of the sidewalk, look up and down the street at all the kids out and porch lights on, and it always makes me smile.

My lovely daughter in law Marnie loves Halloween as much as I did when I was her age. The scarier the better! She recently graduated with her Masters degree and decided to throw a Halloween themed party a few weeks ago to celebrate. My contribution to the event was to make cupcakes in some kind of Halloween theme, and this is what I came up with:

Mummy Cupcakes

This idea came from the fall/winter issue of magazine. It's a Better Homes and Gardens Special Interest publication. If you can still find this in the store, look on page 39 for a cool picture of their finished cupcakes. Pictured above are the ones I made.

Here's what you'll need:

1 package cake mix, any flavor. I had thought of using Devil's Food, but when I saw the Red Velvet cake mix I chose that because of the deep red color. Part of the cake will peek through, so I thought the red would be appropriate. It was, it looked great. The red cake batter looked like a big bowl full of blood. It was awesome. Be careful if you use Red Velvet cake mix though, because it stains. Even my fingers were stained red from wiping the drips off my cupcake pan.

2-16 ounce cans white frosting. If you have a good recipe you can make your own, but for this I was all about making the process as easy as possible.

1 tube each of the pre-made Red and Black decorator icing. This can be found in the cake decorating aisle.

Disposable pastry bags Also found in the cake decorating aisle.

Couplers and decorating tips - you will need a Basketweave tip for the tape and a small, Plain Round tip for the eyes. Couplers are what holds the tip in place on the pastry bag.

Bake your cupcakes according to package directions, and of course, use whatever cute Halloween cupcakes liners you like. Let them cool completely.

Take a pastry bag and cut off a tiny portion of the tip. Place the coupler over the tip of the bag and attach the basketweave tip, then screw the ring part of the coupler over the decorator tip. Fill the bag with white frosting, then pipe the frosting over the top of the cupcakes in a random pattern. Make sure some of the cake shows through. Then do the eyes using the plain round tip and use a new bag for each color, and wash out the round tip in between colors. This is actually really easy and fun, even the kids can help!

Monster Cupcakes

I used purple and orange paste food coloring to dye some more white frosting for the rest of the cupcakes. The "monster fur" effect was a lot of fun to pipe on using a multi-hole tip. When I made these I took the pictures to post on Facebook, but I didn't take a close-up. You can get a better view of how cute this looks in the Mixing Bowl magazine on page 36. The eyes on these were Gummy Eyeballs that I found at Target. When I ran out of eyeballs I just used some Halloween sprinkles.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Cinnamon Rolls

Cinnamon rolls and chili. They just go together for some reason.. maybe it's because we grew up having them together for lunch in the school cafeteria when we were kids. Whoever happened to not like their cinnamon roll would suddenly become the most popular kid in the cafeteria, with the other kids hoping to be the lucky recipient of that extra unwanted treat.

I have never made cinnamon rolls completely from scratch before yesterday. My previous attempts consisted of either buying a tube of rolls that came in the same packaging as what are sometimes affectionately known as "whomp biscuits". You "whomp" them on the counter to open them. I always hated how they always seemed to pop open as soon as I peeled back the paper. The rolls weren't bad, and they came with their own little container of icing - which in my opinion wasn't nearly enough. I have also resorted to buying a bag of frozen, pre-made rolls and then doctoring them up with extra butter and cinnamon. They were decent enough, especially after drowning them with homemade cream cheese icing.

Since I was making chili for my husband to take to work for lunch today, it only made sense that there should also be cinnamon rolls. Normally, I would do the frozen ones, but a few weeks ago I was browsing through the Pioneer Woman's website and came across her recipe for cinnamon rolls. Have you ever heard of Pioneer Woman? I have been a fan for awhile now. I love how she includes photos of every step of the recipe, and her food is darned good. Her cinnamon rolls looked so good, and the recipe seemed easy enough, so I decided to try it. I was really sticking my neck out here, because I usually don't try something for the first time when it is intended to be served to anyone outside my home, especially when it involved yeast and rising dough. I was pleasantly surprised though, and I think you will be too.

Instead of posting the recipe, I will just give you the link so you can enjoy her site if you haven't already discovered it. Browse around, because she uses this same basic dough to make several different kinds of sweet rolls. Chocolate chip, orange marmalade... Mmm Mmm Mmm.

Well alright then... for some reason the links will not post, so just do this:

Copy and paste:

in your browser window. Then type "cinnamon rolls" in the browser window on her home page. You will find a list different entries, you want "Cinnamon Rolls 101". Also check out "Notes on Cinnamon Rolls". I found this very helpful.

I made up the dough yesterday and let it sit in a bowl in the fridge overnight. I did have to go in and punch the dough down several times like she said, because it kept rising even though it was in a cold refrigerator.

Here is a picture of what my dough looked like after it had risen for an hour, and right before I added the last cup of flour, baking powder, soda and salt:

Ready for the oven:

Warm rolls topped with Pioneer Woman's yummy Maple Coffee Icing. The recipe for this is right there with her cinnamon roll recipe. It really is the perfect compliment to the rolls. Pour it on while they're still warm, it will ooze down in between the rolls and help make them super moist.

I think you can see in this picture how perfectly these turned out. The darker area on the bottom half of the roll is butter. The melted butter that goes in the bottom of the pan soaked into the roll, adding just the right amount of ooey-gooey goodness along with the butter-cinnamon-sugar filling and the icing.

I really liked that I could make the dough ahead - and it will keep for several days in the fridge if you can't get to it right away. These rolls also freeze well. You can freeze them both unbaked or baked. That's a good thing too, because this recipe filled four of those 8" round pans (8 or 9 rolls per pan) and I still have some left all ready to slice and bake. I made this recipe exactly as written. It was super easy and the rolls are absolutely divine. I don't think I will ever resort to frozen dough again, unless I pull a batch of these out of my own freezer!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Brrr... It's Chili!

It's just after 4 pm and the outside temperature is only 44 degrees, we have dropped 8 degrees in the last 3 hours. The blustery wind gusts sound like a train is heading straight for my house, and my sweet-but-neurotic Golden Retriever is hiding under my computer desk because she thinks the noise outside is something evil inside the house. In other words, it's CHILI WEATHER! Days like this make me want to crank up the stove and baby a big simmering pot of heaven, and of course have a few candles burning. Chili is one of my favorite cold weather foods because it's easy, it's inexpensive, and it's really, really good. It's good the next day, and it freezes well. Good thing too, because I've never learned to make a small pot of chili, even though my youngest son is almost 25 years old and I haven't had to cook for a whole family in years.

Everyone makes it a little bit different. Some like it spicy, and some like it without beans, but there's no right or wrong way to make it. I like to make it on the thicker side. Not so thick that you can stand your spoon up in it, but not soupy either, and not too spicy. I remember when I was a kid our church would have an annual soup supper. Each one of the "church ladies" would bring a quart of homemade chili, and then they would dump it all into one big pot. That was some tasty chili!

"Church Ladies" reminds me of one of my favorite cookbooks; "Lutheran Church Basement Women; Lutefisk, Lefse, Lunch and Jell-O", by Janet L. Martin. The book was sort of a parody of those church ladies that I remember from back when I was growing up in our little Missouri Synod Lutheran Church. I found it especially humorous that the chapter on funeral luncheons was titled "Dead Spreads". Yes, I do have a rather sick sense of humor at times. The book came with a flour sack type dish towel with a recipe for Red Jello stamped on it:

One box red Jello
2 cups water
Sliced banana for company

I also found it rather eerie that the lady pictured on the dishtowel looks way too much like my Missouri Synod Lutheran Church Basement Grandmother... from Missouri.

I think chili is on my list of comfort foods. Maybe because it's so nice and warm on a cold day. Anyway, here is my chili:



2 pounds ground beef, I usually use 85% lean because you want a little fat, but this is not too much. (Sometimes I use ground turkey, or a combination of turkey, beef and ground pork. Let yourself go!)

1 28 oz can Diced Tomatoes (I like the petite dice, or if you are a home canner, use 1 quart of your own tomatoes. Just squish them up into smaller pieces before you dump them in. Do it with your hands, because it's fun.)

1 28 oz can Crushed Tomatoes with Puree (I like the Good Value brand at WalMart because these big cans only cost $1.)

3 cans beans (any combination of chili beans, dark red kidney beans, black beans, pinto beans.. whatever blows your skirt up.)

I used dark red kidney beans, black beans and pinto beans in this batch. Aren't they pretty?

1 medium onion, diced

3 Tbsp Penzey's Regular Chili Powder (Penzey's has 3 different kinds, this is the mild one.)

1-2 Tbsp Penzey's Chili Con Carne (This adds more great chili flavor but no heat.)

1 Tbsp Penzey's Ground Ancho Chili Pepper (Again, great smoky-sweet flavor but very little heat. This is on my list of Penzey's spices that I won't do without.)

Those spice amounts are just guidelines. The packages have a suggested amount per pound, but you can go lighter or go wild. I'm pretty much a "dump cook" and I don't usually even bother to measure, I just dump some in and stir it up.

Salt - just throw a little on your ground meat while it's browning.

Brown the meat really well, it tastes better when it's good and brown. Add the diced onions and cook along with the meat. Next stir in the beans. Turn the cans upside down and shake a little to get that good stuff off the bottom. You can always make this without beans if you like. Next dump in the tomatoes, and then the spices. Let it simmer on low for awhile. Leave the lid off, and stir it occasionally. Wait at least a half hour after adding your chili powder before tasting it, that gives the flavors time to blend and you will get a better idea of whether or not you need to add more. If you think you added too much, just dump in an extra can of beans or add a cup or two of water and let it cook down. It's impossible to screw this up!

Finished product:

My husband likes "oyster" crackers on his along with some shredded cheddar or colby-jack cheese. Here's a quick and easy recipe for some tasty Ranch snack crackers that are great on chili. I got this recipe in 1993 from my dear friend and former next-door neighbor Sandra.


2 pkg Premium Soup & Oyster crackers
1 cup oil
1 pkg dry Ranch dressing mix
1 tsp garlic salt (I use 1 1/2 because we like garlic.)
2 tsp lemon pepper
2 tsp dill weed (I thought this made it too "dilly" so I only use 1 tsp.)

Spread crackers on cookie sheet. Whisk remaining ingredients together and pour over crackers. Toss to coat. This would probably work better if you tossed it all together in a bowl, so I am going to try that next time. Place in 225 degree oven for about 20 minutes. Store in airtight container when cool, if there are any left.


Tuesday, October 26, 2010

In Search of the Perfect Baked Potato

I adore baked potatoes, and not just because they offer yet another excuse to eat butter and sour cream. The best baked potatoes in my opinion are the ones you get in good restaurants. For the longest time I have been trying to figure out why that is, and how I can duplicate that yummy, creamy texture at home. I was so excited when I got my first microwave that had a "baked potato" setting, but unfortunately the finished product just didn't really blow my skirt up. Recently I saw for sale at a craft boutique a pile of something called a "baked potato pocket" or something like that. They were made out of brightly colored fabric and were supposed to produce the perfect baked potato in the microwave. I don't know, I've heard that people who use them swear by them, but I was skeptical given the past results I had gotten from the microwave, so I'm not inclined to try one. I was tempted though, but only because I am a huge sucker for anything with pretty colors.

A long time ago there was a restaurant where we live that offered a baked potato bar as part of the meal. Had I died and gone to heaven? The potatoes were humongous, roughly the size of a small third grader. They were also delicious. The toppings were huge vats of butter, sour cream, shredded cheese, chopped bacon (real bacon, not the "textured vegetable protein" nasty crunchy burgundy colored nuggets you find at cheap salad bars), and chopped green onions. There might have been more, but they always had me at sour cream, cheese and bacon, so I probably didn't notice if there was anything that was actually healthy on there. What is it they say.. "life is short, eat more bacon"? And sour cream. The butter would go on first, followed by the cheese, so the heat of the potato would turn it into a delectable layer of gooey, melty goodness. Next went the bacon, and then sour cream. The green onions were there just so you could say you were having a green vegetable to cancel out all the other stuff. Besides, they looked pretty, and I like pretty colors.

Anyway, I started thinking about it seriously a few weeks ago and wondered if maybe the traditional "350 degrees for 1 hour" that I was taught in high school Home-Ec class was maybe rushing things a bit. After experimenting with different temperatures, I finally came up with what I thought was pretty darned close to the yummy baked potatoes that I loved when we went out for dinner. Here is what I came up with:


Preheat oven to 300 degrees F. One time I tried 350 for 1/2 hour and then turned the oven down to 275 for 3 hours. Either way seemed to work pretty well.

Wash the baking potatoes. It doesn't really matter if they are dry when you prep them. Often you will find that the baking potatoes are huge, ginormous beasts, so we have decided next time we should share one if I can't find any small ones. I get the big half. Neener neener.

Smear the beasts with olive oil, then poke them all over with a small knife. You can roll them in Kosher salt or coarsely ground sea salt if you like, some restaurants do that.

Wrap them in foil. I like the individual foil sheets because they are easy to work with, and you can get a big box of them at Costo pretty cheap. Wrap each potato, but don't puncture the foil. Let the steam that will seep out through the little poke holes inside the foil stay locked in as it bakes.

Throw them into the 300 degree oven and leave them there for at least 3 hours. I accidentally left mine in for an extra 20 minutes longer the other day and it was still perfect.

If you salt your potatoes, do it first before you start smearing on the butter and whatever else you like to top it with. I prefer salt, butter, and about 10 dollops of Daisy. In all honesty, nothing but a little butter and salt would be just as good. Yum!

Monday, October 25, 2010

"But Mom, We're Hungry!"

I’m not sure if my kids ever really said that to me, but it serves to illustrate what it was like in my house during the fall crafting season. I have been making fabulous candles in my home since somewhere in the beginning of this decade. At first it was just a few melting pots and votive molds, but over the years it has progressed to melting 25 pounds of wax at a time in two turkey roasters. I have cooked turkeys in my adult life, but I have never cooked a turkey in a turkey roaster… and I own two of them. I used to do at least 6 craft boutique shows in the fall with a group of friends. As we all got older, we got tired and the group eventually split up. Craft shows are very hard work, especially with candles because the boxes are heavy. There's the setting up, then standing on your feet for 6-7 hours, and then you pack up and haul everything back home. It can be frustrating because one day you can sell $700 and the next time you might be lucky to break $100. I'm not totally ready to give it up though, now that my knee is fixed I am back to doing 1-2 shows in the fall on my own.

My two sons were in high school when I started making candles, and I remember very clearly one crisp autumn day when I had made my favorite apple crisp recipe. The next day it still sat on the counter untouched, and the response I got when I mentioned that I had made apple crisp was; “Oh, we thought you were making candles.” Occasionally they would come home from school to some delicious aroma coming from the kitchen only to be left disappointed and salivating over several pots of melted wax, so I thought “But Mom, We’re Hungry” would be an appropriate title for this place where I will share my very favorite recipes for actual real food.

Back to the apple crisp… I got this recipe in 1989 from a friend at work named Bill. Bill was a respiratory therapist who also worked as a fire fighter. He brought the cherry version to work one night and I knew the topping would be perfect with apples, it was the best I had ever tasted. It had that perfect combination of brown sugar sweetness with a touch of spice, but not too crunchy. He sometimes made this for dessert at the fire station when it was his turn to help with the cooking. In my opinion the cherry version is a bit too sweet. I would suggest using a sugar-free pie filling if you try it. The apple crisp recipe started quite a stir a few years ago when I posted it on a discussion board where I was once a moderator. One poster complained that it needed something – she suggested adding that caramel stuff you get when you boil down a can of sweetened condensed milk. I replied that I wasn’t looking to induce a diabetic coma anytime soon. Really, don’t mess with this because it’s just that good. I like it with vanilla or cinnamon ice cream, but I am not above eating it for breakfast. Who can argue with fruit and oatmeal?

Thanks, Bill, wherever you are.


(This makes an 8 x 8 square pan. I always double it.)

4 medium sliced tart apples. (I used to use all Jonathans, now I use a mixture. Granny Smiths hold their shape the best, Cortlands and McIntosh turned too mushy)

3/4 cup brown sugar, well packed

1/2 cup flour

1/2 cup oats (either quick or whole oats, it doesn’t matter whatever you have on hand is fine)

3/4 tsp cinnamon (I prefer Penzey’s cinnamon, we’ll talk about Penzey’s Spices later!)

3/4 tsp nutmeg (you can also omit the spices and just use 1 1/2 tsp of Apple Pie Spice)

1/3 cup softened butter (if you double this, 2/3 cup = 1 stick + 3 Tbsp. Don't substitute, it has to be real butter!)

Peel, core and slice apples, place in buttered 8 x 8 square pan. Sometimes when I'm feeling a little bit spicy I will sprinkle some cinnamon over the sliced apples before I add the topping. Mix remaining ingredients (a pastry cutter works well for this) and sprinkle over the fruit.

Bake at 350 for 30 minutes.

For CHERRY CRISP: Use 1 21-oz can cherry pie filling, and only add 2/3 cup brown sugar to the topping.

Deep Thoughts of an Un-Pampered Chef.

I love to cook. I love to make candles. I love to talk about it. This is not my first attempt at blogging, my original blog was about the knee replacement surgery I had last year, . I have 3 followers there, so hopefully I will spark a bit more interest here! At the time I thought talking about my experience would be helpful because there were so many little unpleasant things that were a normal part of the experience that I didn't know about until they happened to me. The more time that went by though, the harder it was to remember a lot of the details, and eventually I stopped wanting to talk about it and it became just a chore that I didn't want to finish. Like cleaning my house. It was time to move on and put it behind me, so that blog will probably either go away or just sit there. This is going to be so much more fun!

I became a real Pampered Chef consultant about 12 or 13 years ago. The idea was that this would take off and become my full time job so I could get out of the hospital shift work. I wanted to do something fun that didn't suck the life out of me. Well, before I even held my first show the person who recruited me quit, leaving me pretty much flailing and clueless trying to do this on my own. It was great fun, I had the opportunity to cook and demonstrate the products in some really fabulous kitchens, and I really loved that. To this day I sometimes find myself demonstrating my knife skills to the cat, who always stares at me as if I just dropped down from the moon. The dogs are just hoping I will launch a piece of carrot across the room in their direction like I did the night I was demonstrating one of the slicing tools at a show. When I announced "...and we have liftoff" I managed to turn an embarrassing moment into a little bit of comic relief. I sold 3 or 4 of those suckers that night! Then there was the night I got halfway to my destination and realized I had forgotten my baking stones... and then after my husband met me halfway with them and I was back on my way, I was delayed by a train that had stopped for 15 minutes on the crossing. Fortunately the guests were all friends and co-workers, and they were happy for the extra time to drink wine and gossip. Anyway, it was fun while it lasted. I soon learned that when they tell you that you can set your own schedule with this business it's not really true. You can control how many shows you do and how busy you are, but you can only do shows when your hostesses are able to host them, which is usually only during evenings and weekends. Trying to juggle that around a full time job was, well, sucking the life out of me, and eventually something had to give. So here I am, still doing the hospital shift work thing, but in a better and much less stressful job, and still cooking up a storm and/or up to my elbows in wax whenever I have the chance.

Did I mention that I love to cook? I am always looking for new recipes, and I can’t resist snapping up all the fall and holiday baking magazines every year. I must have a ton of them! Another favorite is the Cook’s Illustrated magazine. The cover art is suitable for framing, and the recipes are tested over and over until they get it exactly right – and they tell you everything they tried that didn’t work. Plus there is no advertising, so they can test all kinds of products and give their recommendations. Love that! So, this is where I will post my favorite recipes, and I will always tell you where I got them. There are tons of great blogs and cooking sites out there, and I will link to them whenever I share something I got there. Sometimes there will be photos. And cake. I also love to talk about candles, and since I do both tasks in the kitchen, and since most of my candle scents smell like food, I figure the two are somehow related. Right?