Friday, January 29, 2010

Happy Birthday, Nelly and Ellie!

Yesterday was my beloved four-legged friend's birthday.  My little 70 lb Weimaraner puppy, Nelly, turned one!  And of no less importance, my best friend Ellie, turned 25 the day before.  Happy Birthday to both of them :)

I decided to celebrate Nelly's special day by baking her cake, getting her a few presents, and making what I would assume she would want has her birthday meal, were she really a human.  I'm pretty convinced she considers herself a person and therefore demands the rights of one.  For instance, sitting on the couch. If I sit down, she automatically assumes she should be up on the couch with me. Not just laying down on the couch, she'll sit up there, too, and look like she's watching tv.  Same goes with the bed.  While I don't mind snuggling with her some of the time, she takes up a good portion all of the bed when she spreads her long legs out, and lest you forget, she is 70 lbs. of dead weight.  It took me buying her a very expensive orthopedic dog bed (that she has yet to shred, *fingers crossed*), to finally reduce the amount of time she spends on mine.

Nelly was a present to me last May from my boyfriend, Ryan (he's getting big points for good gifts!).  And since then, she has been attached to me at the hip.  She's an amazing running companion (despite the fact that she can pull your arm off if she sees a squirrel) and always entertaining.  If she feels like you've left her alone for too long, haven't fed her soon enough after she wakes up in the morning, thinks you've snapped at her for some unfair reason (chewing up the coffee table??), she will squat back into her hind legs with her front ones completely straightened (kind of looking like she's about to lunge) and semi-bark/growl/howl at you.  I really should get it on tape, because it cracks me up everytime. Really. Everytime.

Alright, now that I'm done with my little "ode to Nelly," I can talk about about what type of cake I made for her.  Most people asked me if I was going to make her a cake made out of dog food. Gross. Refer back to the part where I said "I'm pretty convinced she considers herself a person."  The cake is technically in "honor" of her birthday, I didn't actually give any much to her.  Since I love pink, I assume she likes pink, as well. So I made her a strawberry cake with whipped cream cream cheese icing. Delicious.  I thought ahead for once this week and made a grocery list of everything I would need and checked and double checked it twice.  No more multiple trips to the store.

I found this recipe on Monica's blog from Lick the Bowl Good for an easy strawberry cake and found a recipe for the frosting from here.  The cake was amazingly simple-box white cake mix, frozen strawberries, strawberry jello mix, oil, and eggs.  I was a little worried when it was baking that the allotted time for cooking wouldn't be enough, but I did the "stick a toothpick in the center" trick and it came out clean!  Getting the cakes out of the pan was a different story. I realized I was out of PAM when it came time to get the cake pans ready for the batter. Drats. Didn't even think to check for something as silly as PAM when making my list.  So, I improvised and just used a stick of butter to coat the pan.  I don't think it worked quite as well as PAM does, because the bottom slightly stuck, but it worked well enough and I didn't end up with pieces of cake that I had to glue back together.

The icing was equally as easy.  Make fresh whipped cream (with handy-dandy pink kitchenmaid mixer) then fold in (using setting number one and the paddle attachment) a mixture of cream cheese, regular granulated sugar, and vanilla.  I was a little skeptical of how the granulated sugar would be, whether or not the icing would be grainy, but it wasn't at all.  I read reviews on the icing and some people had said that they substituted powdered sugar, but I just went with the tried and true.

I don't have an icing decorating kit or else I would have tried to do some cute decorations.  This was my attempt at using a ziploc bag with the tip cut off, but didn't work as well as I wanted.  It's okay, Nelly didn't mind.

On another note, this is the meal I made for her birthday. Grilled steak, twice baked potatoes and broccoli. Yum yum. I gave her some scraps of the steak. It was her birthday, after-all.

Besides, I gave her an enormous raw-hide and stuffed pink monkey to chew up and enjoy.  I also tried putting a birthday hat on her, but she wasn't too keen on that idea.

 I'm pretty sure it was her best birthday ever.

I almost forgot! Review of the cake.  It really was quite delicious.  The actual texture of the cake was a little more dense than most, but was perfect with the light and fluffy, not too sweet, whipped cream frosting.  It was nice to have actual pieces of strawberry in the cake and not some dehydrated business.
It does make enough cake to feed an army, however. Will be enjoying this for many days to come.
Happy Birthday, Nelly!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Rather Interesting

Today is an absolutely beautiful day in Austin.  The sun is out, there's a little chill in the air, but supposed to be mid-70's by the afternoon. After an unseasonably cold couple of weeks here in Texas (meaning the weatherman was saying "We're having record lows this week, coldest it has been since 1919..."), the days are finally warming up. I have mixed emotions about weather.  I've always thought of myself as a "cold-weather loving" person, because December is my favorite month of the year and I love all of my scarfs, tights, jackets, and Ugg boots.  However, when it comes down to it, I don't like being uncomfortably cold.  Who does, really?  Although, from a runner's perspective, I run my best in freezing temperatures.  Many of my best and fastest runs have been when it is below 30, at least below 40.  Am I running faster because I'm unbelievably cold and I'm not supposed to wear huge jackets and too many layers, so harder and faster running=warm up? Of course. But running also feels easier when you're not so hot and it's not incredibly humid.  Therefore, I would like the colder weather to come back, please. At least until after I run my marathon on February 14. 

I'm throwing this picture in here, because Sunday was a lot like today and my boyfriend and I went hiking and I just like this picture. :)

I chose a cookbook off my shelf this week and decided that without a doubt, I would make a recipe from it and not the food network.  The book is called "The Pastry Queen" by Rebecca Rather.  Rebecca owns a bakery in Fredericksburg, TX called "Rather Sweet."  I visited one time when I was driving through.  Unfortunately, it was a pit stop while driving back from Newport Beach, CA and I had the flu, so I wasn't hungry and ordered a muffin that I didn't even eat.  Had I gone there on a normal-Tara day, I probably would have ordered a few of her "big as a plate" cookies, mini lemon meringue pie with crazy spikes of meringue, and a slice of cake.  Just a variety to get a feel for the bakery.  My best friend's mom, knowing how much I love to bake, gave me Rebecca's cookbook one year and so far, I have yet to make anything out of it despite all of the pictures in the book that are oh-so enticing.  

So, here goes.  Since I made something sweet and sugary last time, I decided to go the savory route this week.  I chose Rebecca's "Apple-Smoked Bacon and Cheddar Scones" which she claims to be her "best-selling scone ever." Ingredients consisting of bacon, cheddar, green onions, and buttermilk...kind of sounds like a baked potato. I really like scones, but I can't say that I've ever had a savory scone.  I've had cranberry-orange walnut, currant, and chocolate chip scones, but never a bacon-cheddar scone.  Intriguing. 

What cooking episode of mine would occur without a trip to the grocery store?  None. Therefore, I went to the grocery store this morning for the recipe essentials.  Proudly, I had most of the base ingredients (flour, baking powder, salt, pepper, eggs, butter, cheese)-yay me, but I needed to pick up "apple-wood smoked" bacon, buttermilk, and green onion.  I've never made a scone before but you can guess how excited I was when the recipe said to use "CHILLED" butter.  No way. This is definitely my kind of recipe. I prepped all of my ingredients---grated cheese, chopped the onion, and fried the bacon (ugh, I don't make bacon that often, if at all, and seriously contemplated investing in one of those "splatter screens" that keep the bacon grease from popping on you and everything around it, until I thought about my previous statement of "I don't make bacon that often").

The recipe was easy to follow and came together quite nicely.  Rolled the dough out without any trouble, cut the scones into triangles and proceeded to "brush" an egg wash over the top.  Speed bump. I don't have a basting brush or any sort of cooking tool to brush egg wash on.  Using my critical thinking skills (ha), I just dipped a spatula in the wash and semi-brushed/patted the egg wash on and popped the scones in the oven. 

After 20 minutes of baking, here is how the scones turned out.  The scones have a great texture and wonderful flavor, but my taste buds are conflicted because I have a preconceived thought about how scones should taste and I want them to be sweet, so this savory business has thrown them out of whack.  Maybe I'll try putting some sweet jelly on them to even things out.  Of course that would mean I need to go BACK to the store for jelly. Scratch that.  I wasn't sure if I was allowed to type out the recipe from the book (Copyright, etc), but I found the exact recipe online that I can link here. Try them out and let me know what you think! 

On a side note, since the sun is finally out and the natural light is pouring through my windows, I took most of my pictures over by the windows to try out the no flash type pictures.  I think they turned out much better!

Friday, January 15, 2010

Citrus Winter

A few days ago I was watching the Food Network (I have a feeling you'll see me write that line alot) and good ol' Paula Deen said "Today y'all, I'll be making orange brownies!" Orange brownies, I thought? Maybe regular brownies with orange zest? Interesting. So, of course, I decided to keep watching. As she started gathering her ingredients, I realized there was absolutely no chocolate in these brownies at all. ***As I start to blog more, I'm sure you'll come to realize I don't make a lot of ALL chocolate things---just not that big of a fan of all things chocolate. Love chocolate chip cookies, but would like them just as well without the chocolate chips in them. Love chocolate cake, but only if it's heated, or I just eat the icing off the top. Don't particularly like candy bars. I'm more of a fruit flavored, cinnamon loving, other types of sweets than chocolate person. Blasphemy, I know.*** I digress. These orange brownies she was making had flour, butter, sugar, eggs, orange zest AND orange extract in them. YUM. I could smell them already. But to top it all off, she was going to put orange cream cheese icing on top of them! Delicious. So while I still have a million other recipes to try and dozens of cookbooks on my shelf waiting to be opened, I put these at the top of the list and made them.

Once again, another trip to the store. Who actually has orange extract on hand? Probably most people, other than me. Picked up cream cheese, butter, and orange extract. Now I was ready to make my orange brownies. Wrong. Forgot I needed more eggs. Blast! Back to the store again, but went in a different entrance this time because I felt silly since I had been there just 20 minutes before. NOW I was ready to make my orange brownies.

The recipe actually says to mix all of the ingredients together using a "hand- mixer." I was so surprised that it actually specified using a "hand-mixer." I have a hand-mixer, but why on earth would I want to use it now that I have my pink Kitchenaid. Ergo, I deleted that part of the recipe and used my pink Kitchenaid. Easiest recipe ever and the batter was AMAZING. I love orange flavored things and these not only smelled spectacular but tasted wonderful. And as The Neelys say...if it tastes good before you cook it, it will taste even better when it's done. I actually think they were referring to making homemade BBQ sauce when they said that, but we'll apply it to baking as well. :)

After 30 minutes, my apartment was engulfed in orange smelling goodness. While they were cooling, I made the orange icing. Super simple-powdered sugar, cream cheese, butter, orange zest, and orange juice. These were definitely going to be very orangey brownies.

I cut the brownies and individually iced a few, rather than put icing on the entire pan. Now to taste. Buttery (what else would you expect when it's a recipe from Paula Deen), orangey (two forms of orange flavoring in both brownie and icing), sweet, and really good. The texture isn't really like a fudge brownie, nor is it the same texture as a cake. They are dense, but spongy, and have a slightly crispy bottom crust and edge. To be honest, after eating bites of batter and icing, I couldn't even eat a whole brownie, but give me a few hours and I'm sure I could make a dent in this pan. If you'd like the recipe, you can find it here.

In the picture on the site, it even shows cute little slices of orange on top of each one. I grated all of the zest off of my one orange and I sure wasn't going back to the store. So decorate how you please, mine will be just iced. Enjoy!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Hodge Podge of Things

Two weeks into the new year and I am already behind on my blogging. I'm really hoping to post an entry at least once a week and with as much as I've been cooking and baking, I should be able to do it more often. The new year has been a little hectic lately-my running program has upped the mileage in preparation for the marathon----02-14-10---- so I feel like all of my time is being consumed with working, sleeping, running, cooking, eating, working, sleeping, running, cooking....continued cycle. But now that I have the time, I can post a little bit about what I've been cooking up.

One of my favorite things to make for holiday parties is my mom's recipe for artichoke dip. Pretty much the simplest recipe ever and is absolutely amazing...canned artichokes, reduced fat mayo, parmesan cheese, and sprinkle cayenne pepper on top then bake. Comes out bubbly, cheesy, delicious, and without fail, is always a crowd pleaser. The other day (and by the other day, I mean New Years Eve), I was watching 30 Minute Meals with Rachael Ray and she was making all sorts of fun appetizers for a New Years Eve party. One of her appetizers was a spinach-artichoke dip with gorgonzola. It looked amazing and since I was going to a New Years Eve party that night, I decided that's what I would make to take. Braving the busy grocery stores, I plunged out into the cold to HEB and picked up the ingredients I would need---frozen spinach, canned artichokes (her recipe uses frozen but I bought cans), gorgonzola cheese, parmesan cheese, and chicken stock. I doubled the amount of spinach and artichokes in the recipe that way it would counteract all the cheese it called for---cancels eachother out, right? The dip was super easy to make and was delicious. Only problem was this didn't make it to the party. After I made it, I was too eager to try it (and I had a fresh baguette that smelled so good and was tempting me) so I dove in. I really liked the amount of veggies that was in it and the gorgonzola added a nice tang to the dish. This recipe made a big dish of the dip that fed me for multiple meals for a week after that...I ended up just taking champagne to the party...can't go wrong with that. The recipe can be found on the Food Network website.

(I ate it with fresh baguette, crackers, carrots, celery...)
Moving on to the next recipe. One of my absolute favorite things is cinnamon, love the smell, love the flavor, love all things cinnamon, and probably my favorite cookie is a Snickerdoodle. Continuing with favorites, one of my favorite blogs to read is Monica from Lick the Bowl Good. Months ago she posted a recipe for "Snickerdoodle Blondies" and since I read about them in her blog probably 2 months ago, I think I've made them about 15 times. Really. 15. Each time has been somewhat of an experiment. I'm not very patient when I bake. When I think of something I want to make, I want to make it right then, get it into the oven, and eat it as soon as possible. So whenever a recipe says it calls for "room temperature butter" and "room temperature eggs," I say "Ugh." So the first time I made the blondies (and this was before my fabulous new mixer), I decided to skip the "let sit at room temperature" and just popped the butter in the microwave on defrost for a little while until it softened. Not melted. Softened. I remembered a trick I read somewhere, off some blog I'm sure, about putting eggs in tap water to help get to room temperature more quickly, so I did that.

I used the recipe for Snickerdoodle Blondies found here and followed exactly (Other than the room temperature butter part). I love cinnamon chips so I added them which is optional. 30 minutes later I pulled them out of the oven and they looked fabulous. Let them cool, cut into them, and they were still kind of chewy...chewy like they weren't quite cooked enough. Now I love batter and cookie dough and that sort so I didn't mind the "undoneness" at all, but for transferring and sharing, it wasn't so easy. So the next time I cooked them longer and got them too done. This sort of thing went on for probably around 6-7 attempts, then I mastered it and they were great. But since I received my Kitchenaid, I decided to follow the recipe down to the T. I let my butter sit out at room temperature and the eggs, followed the recipe precisely, cooked them the exact time I found worked the best (29 minutes), let them cool, cut them and ate them and was amazed. 10 times better than the other 14 batches. Now was this due to the stellar mixing job of my pink Kitchenaid or was it more likely to be the fact that I actually followed the recipe correctly and let the butter get to room temp? I say pink Kitchenaid---but that's just me :) I really recommend this recipe and I end up adding half a bag of cinnamon chips because I like them that much. As I've said and be amazed.

(Disclaimer: this is a picture of a batch that I cooked too long, but I didn't get a chance to take a picture of the batch that turned out perfectly. Either way, they still taste great!)