Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Last Lasagna You'll Ever Eat

OK, folks. It's time. Time for me to give you the only lasagna recipe that you'll ever need. It's the only lasagna I eat. When Mom makes it, there's nothing better. I don't know where she found the recipe, but I'm so happy that she did.

I hardly ever cook with meat, but I have a deep love for anything wrapped in butcher paper. I just love it! It's so personal. You ask for a specific item from the person behind the counter. They weigh it exactly to your request and wrap it up nicely in crisp, fresh butcher paper. Human interaction at it's best!

Lasagna is quite a beautiful food with it's variety of colors and layers.

Cottage cheese is a great alternative for those who don't like the traditional ricotta cheese in their lasagna. In this house, we prefer the cottage.

This is my mom's favorite part, sprinkling the mozzarella. I let her do this step because it's the most fun. ;)

I deal with the piping hot lasagna noodles. It's hard to find a happy medium with these noodles. They are the most cooperative when they are just out of the boiling water, but they are hotter than blazes. If you let them cool down, then they stick together and tear. What are you gonna do?

I should have gotten a bigger slice!

Mom's Lasagna
  • 1 lb. mild Italian sausage
  • 1 lb. ground beef
  • 1 clove of garlic, minced
  • 1 Tbsp. fresh basil or 1 1/2 tsp. dried basil
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1-16 oz. can of diced tomatoes
  • 1-12 oz. can of tomato paste
  • 1/2 cup dry red wine (Mom uses Ernest & Julio's Hearty Burgundy.)
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 3 cups cottage cheese
  • 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
  • 1 Tbsp. dried parsley
  • 1/4 tsp. pepper
  • 1 lb. mozzarella cheese, shredded
  • 8 oz. lasagna noodles, cooked and drained
Brown sausage and beef together in a large skillet. Half way through browning, add garlic. Once fully browned, add tomatoes, tomato paste, wine, salt, and basil; simmer for 20 minutes uncovered. Mix eggs, cottage cheese, Parmesan cheese, parsley, and pepper together in a separate bowl and set aside. In a 9x13 inch casserole dish, spread a thin layer of meat sauce in the bottom to prevent noodles from sticking to the dish. Next add a layer of lasagna noodles, then cottage cheese mixture, then mozzarella cheese, then meat, then lasagna...and repeat until the last layer of noodles has been added. Top off with a layer of mozzarella and a sprinkle of Parmesan. Bake @ 350 degrees F for 40-50 minutes. Let cool at least 15 minutes before serving.
Makes 6-8 servings.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Breakfast Soup and Dirt Bread

I can eat some weird stuff for breakfast, but can I eat a doughnut, a strudel, or a danish pastry? Not a chance. Bad things happen to me when those items are ingested first thing in the morning. I don't like to have leftovers hanging around in my refrigerator, so this morning my breakfast consisted of mashed sweet potatoes - made with my new handy-dandy potato ricer!

Look at it! Look at it!

To go with my mashed sweet potatoes, I had Italian Wedding Miso Soup. Let me explain. Leftover Italian wedding soup: not really soup anymore, but tiny pasta pearls + dry miso soup mix + boiling water = Italian Wedding Miso Soup. It was as bazaar as it sounds.

On the topic of food failures, let me show you my latest yeast disaster. I call it Dirt Bread! This recipe turned out so badly, I'm not even going to post it. I wanted to make some hearty, whole wheat bread because it looks like this outside:*Cue the blood curdling scream*
This recipe came from Germany, or it at least tried to. My very good friend, Katharina, sent me a recipe for her mom's delicious rye bread. Katharina is very kind, so she converted some of the measurements for me. A wonderful thought, but I think something went wrong during the converting. Also, the recipe called for "half a piece of yeast". I didn't know what the hell that meant, so I just put in 1 Tablespoon full of dry active yeast. The liquid to flour ratio looked reeeeeally off, so I was just winging it for the most part. As you can see from the above photo, it's a very grainy dough. I liked that. I wanted this to be the first time my whole wheat dough didn't taste like dirt, but I didn't get my way. *Sigh*

Lookin' good here. I was getting good vibes from the bread at this point.

Still feeling good just before the second rise.

And then I hit the wall. Whole wheat yeast bread, why do you look like crap? Did I let you proof for too long or do you normally look like that?

I pressed on, even taking the care to brush my little uglies with egg white before baking. They look nice and shiny, but don't let their exterior fool you.

Too flat. Too much dirt flavor. Seriously folks, I put a bite of this beast in my mouth, and it was like gnawing on wheat straight from the field. Do you have any suggestions on how/why this bread tastes like it's just been unearthed? I look forward to your hypothesis.

After sleeping off some steam, I gave the ol' dirt bread another chance. I popped one of the slices into my toaster and lathered the warm, crispy slice with butter. And you know, it really was not that bad! I believe that the toasting brought out a nutty flavor from the whole grains, and, of course, butter makes everything better. Well, dirt bread, maybe you're not so terrible after all.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Super Easy Soft Pretzels! Even I can do it!

What do you feed drunk and hungry boys dizzy from playing video games for 4 hours (and counting)? Why, soft pretzels of course! I found a lovely blog entry that inspired me to try my hand at homemade soft pretzels. I LOVE soft pretzels. I only wish I had some warm cheese for dipping.
This dough is RIDICULOUSLY easy to make. It's almost fool proof. Just look at that happy dough. It's ready for a rest in a warm oven. (I like to turn the oven on for a few seconds to lock in a bit of heat. Just don't forget to turn it off!)

The dough rose very well. It might be the first dough to rise at it's supposed time - 45-55 minutes. I'm in love with it. It's so cooperative!

Divide the cooperative dough into eight equal pieces. Now you have 8 little happy dough balls. I should name them. They're so sweet.

Roll the balls into long logs - about two feet long. Twist them around and hide them under some plastic wrap to keep them moist.

This step was totally new for me. Drop the pretzels into a boiling bath of water and baking soda. Yes, baking soda! 10 cups of water and 2/3 cup baking soda. I don't know, man. It's science.

After a 30 second bath, lather them up with a wash of egg yolk and water. Sprinkle them with coarse salt.

Look at them! I'm so proud! Not a bad first attempt if I do say so myself.

The boys devoured them. How could they not? They are soft, warm, fluffy, buttery, salty, fantastic!

If you are a very visual person like me, then you will appreciate these videos. Alton Brown, the coolest food guy on TV, did an episode all about the soft pretzel. You can see it in parts here and here.
Get his recipe here. I HIGHLY suggest you whip these up immediately. They are soooo easy and fairly quick for a yeasty food. (It took me about two hours.) So, eat em' while they're hot, and don't forget the cheese and mustard!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Popcorn 101

I can now say I'm able to teach Popcorn 101 because I've just passed Popcorn 101. I came across a fantastic, step-by-step, FAIL PROOF recipe for popping up some homemade popcorn. I started making my own after I heard that microwaved popcorn is bad for you. Sigh, another food to add to the "Don't eat this unless you want to damage yourself" list. Why? Because "Microwaving can cause the chemicals in the lining of the bag, including perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), to vaporize and leach into your popcorn." To read more about it check out this article.
Just give me some popcorn. Leave the PFOA crap out, thanks.

I picked up some yellow and white popping corn from Good Earth. I'm in love with their bulk section. I can get as few or as many corn kernels as I want. For a single serving, I've found that 2 tablespoons is perfect. Popcorn 101 is how to pop popcorn without burning and popping as many kernels as possible. I only had one unpopped kernel in this batch. Yippie! I'm working on Popcorn 102 - getting the flavorings to stick to the popcorn without drowning them in butter. I'll let you know how that turns out.

Perfect Popcorn Recipe

3 Tbsp canola, peanut or grapeseed oil (high smoke point oil)
1/3 cup of high quality popcorn kernels
1 3-quart covered saucepan
2 Tbsp or more (to taste) of butter
Salt to taste

1. Heat the oil in a 3-quart saucepan on medium high heat.
2. Put 3 or 4 popcorn kernels into the oil and cover the pan.
3. When the kernels pop, add the rest of the 1/3 cup of popcorn kernels in an even layer. Cover, remove from heat and count 30 seconds. This method first heats the oil to the right temperature, then waiting 30 seconds brings all of the other kernels to a near-popping temperature so that when they are put back on the heat, they all pop at about the same time.
4. Return the pan to the heat. The popcorn should begin popping soon, and all at once. Once the popping starts in earnest, gently shake the pan by moving it back and forth over the burner. Try to keep the lid slightly ajar to let the steam from the popcorn release (the popcorn will be drier and crisper). Once the popping slows to several seconds between pops, remove the pan from the heat, remove the lid, and dump the popcorn immediately into a wide bowl.
With this technique, nearly all of the kernels pop and nothing burns.
5. If you are adding butter, you can easily melt it by placing the butter in the now empty, but hot pan.
6. Salt to taste.
Makes 2 quarts, a nice amount for two people, or for one hungry one.
Additional tips:
- If you add salt to the oil in the pan before popping, when the popcorn pops, the salt will be well distributed throughout the popcorn.
- Fun toppings for the popcorn - Spanish smoked paprika, nutritional yeast, cayenne powder, chili pepper, curry powder, cumin, grated Parmesan cheese.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Mistakes O' Plenty - More Yeast Disasters

My mom was reminiscing about a delicious bread my aunt used to make - Cardamom Bread. She spoke of a sweet, soft white bread with hints of cardamom. I had to have some. Mom found her recipe and made a copy of it for me. The recipe card was dated 11/29/80. I love it when people date their recipes. I love sweet bread. I love trying new recipes. I love to battle with yeast in an attempt to win. I would love to win.

Of course, I started off on the wrong foot whilst assembling the dough. The recipe made a whopping 4 loaves. I don't have that many bread pans. As you can see, I'm pulling together all that I've got. I would HIGHLY suggest that you bakers at home use baking pans that are all the same. What a convenience! All of the bread done at the same time with little guessing! Genius! Anyways, I halved all of the ingredients except for the amount of warm water used to dissolve the yeast. So that required me to throw in more flour. Blah! Despite that little mishap, the dough - FOR THE FIRST TIME IN MY HISTORY OF BREAD MAKING - was the perfect constancy. I had an Aha! moment with a side of hope.

Mistake #2. This is what happens when you forget that you have dough proofing in the oven with no window.

Solution: punch down again, form into loaves again, wait for it to double in volume again. Blah! again. I went ahead and brushed the egg white and sprinkled on the sugar before they proofed. I was afraid that I would brush them too hard and they'd shrink. No thank you.

Aha! Another glimmer of hope! Now at this point, I had a plan. "Sarah, you have a bad habit of burning your bread," I sez to myself, "Why don't you cover them with foil during mid bake?" "Brilliant, self!" Hugs and high-fives all myself.

"WHYYYYYYYYYYYYYY!!!!!" was the noise I made as I pulled this abomination from the oven MID bake, mind you, MID BAKE!

To make matters worse, when I had to reform the over risen loaves, I neglected to re-grease the bread pans. So instead of sliding out with cooperation, I pried and pulled and persuaded. Ugly on the top. Ugly on the bottom. Sigh.

After I invited Edward Scissorhands over for a little help, the bread began to resemble bread again. There's a lesson in all of this: read instructions thoroughly; if halving a recipe, cut ALL of the ingredients in half; have an oven with a light and a window; lower the racks in the oven or protect the precious loaves with foil; even though an exterior can be tough and ugly, the interior can be soft and warm.
I delivered my mangled bread to many folks in my family. Everyone welcomed the chewy, sweet deliciousness. They're enjoying there's toasted and smeared with butter.
(Adapted from) Aunt Jean’s Cardamom Bread

In a sauce pan, combine 2 cups of milk, 8 Tbsp. (a stick) of butter, 1 tsp. salt, and 1 1/3 cups of sugar. Place on low heat until butter is melted and sugar is dissolved. Take off of heat and let cool to room temp.
While milk is cooling, dissolve 2 ¼ tsp. of active dry yeast (one single packet or even a yeast cake will do) in ½ cup of warm water.
Combine slightly warm milk and yeast-y water in a large mixing bowl. Add one egg yolk (egg white reserved) - slightly beaten, 1 tsp. ground cardamom OR 3 tsp. of crushed cardamom seeds, and 1 tsp. salt. Mix until combined.
Add 2 cups of flour to batter and mix until just combined. Add 1 cup of raisins, mix until incorporated. Now, time to estimate! Add enough flour so that a workable dough is formed. Dough should be stiff and slightly sticky. If you are using a stand mixer, knead with a dough hook for 3 minutes on med-high speed. If you are working by hand, knead the dough for about 10 minutes on a lightly floured surface.
Place dough in a well greased bowl – covered with plastic wrap or a warm, damp tea towel. Let rise until doubled in volume. Keep in a warm place.
After dough has risen, punch down, cut in half, and form into two loaves. Place in well greased bread pans, cover, and let rise until double in volume again.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Gently brush tops of loaves with reserved egg white and sprinkle with a light layer of sugar.
Bake for 35-50 minutes or until loaves are brown on top and pulling away from their pans.
Turn out onto cooling racks and let cool completely before slicing.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Nuts or No Nuts - the Ultimate Question

For our March Flavor-of-the-Month Cookie, I've been experimenting with cardamom. I concocted a rich, buttery cookie with hints of warm cardamom and honey. The only problem is we don't know if we should leave the dough as is - for the purists, or add a crunchy element like nuts. We chose hazelnuts because they are a hearty nut that is crisp when roasted. Decisions, decisions!

What do you think? A little smattering of coarse sugar on top?

Or chopped, roasted hazelnuts on the bottom?

Yes, no?

No, yes?

We really value your opinion. Please tell us which cookie you would prefer? Come forth nut-lovers and purists! Let the debate begin!

Thursday, February 4, 2010


One day recently, I went to visit George and Virgie, one set of my beloved grandparents. Just before I said goodbye and scooted out the door, Grandpa George (He prefers to be called Eddie, but he's been George to me for quite some time - since I could speak.) pulled me aside and handed me this little gem.

To the Average Joe, this is a completely useless notebook entirely filled with graphite covered pages. Not one page is untouched by pencil. It wouldn't be any good for menial note taking. There's no room for any more notes.

What this humble notebook has is years of collected word-of-mouth recipes. Recipes that were shared after pot-lucks, dinner parties, and friendly get-togethers. A priceless collection for any foodie.

Things I love most about this notebook:
1. Each recipe has been gathered and hand-written by my grandma.
2. It's a perfect example of Midwest, mid-century family cuisine.
3. Some of the recipes are incredibly retro like "Lemon Lush," "Cherry Delight," and "Salmon Loaf".
4. Grandpa gave it to ME.
5. Each page is filled with a recipe except for one....
On that mostly blank page is a very neatly printed name. My name. Written, I believe, by my dad. He must have been teaching me how to spell/write my full name when I was little. I must have claimed this notebook way back then.
I hope you are lucky enough to score some fantastic family recipes. For me, it's like being an art collector. Finds like these are down right priceless. Happy collecting!