Sunday, December 1, 2013

This is Fall!

Fall may be winding down, but with tonight's dinner, I feel like I'm still right smack in the middle of the season.  A few weeks ago my Mom sent me an email with a link to a recipe titled Pumpkin Stuffed with Everything Good.  Reading the list of ingredients I started drooling, but I didn't make it right away.  I had a small pumpkin from when I visited the pumpkin patch in October, but I hadn't decided what to do with it since I didn't carve it into a jack-o-lantern at Halloween.

So tonight, I pulled out that pumpkin and grabbed all of the ingredients and put it all together in a pretty short amount of time.  The thing that took the longest was scraping the innards out of the pumpkin.  After about an hour in the oven, the fantastic scent of garlic, cheese, pumpkin, and herbs was wafting out, scenting the air with its deliciousness.  It smelled incredible.  I removed the top of the pumpkin and let the filling brown on top for about 15 minutes.

I took a bunch of pictures but had some trouble since everything came out kind of yellow.  It looks so much better in person, and the taste is out of this world.

I'm not sure what kind of pumpkin this is, but since the recipe doesn't specify a variety, I think you could use any kind of pumpkin.  The flesh is very yellow and the textured kind of like spaghetti squash but more starchy.  It balances the richness of the filling well.  This was a very easy recipe but looks so cool when you cut into the pumpkin and that delicious filling spills out.

I hope I don't wait another 5 months before posting again.  It's that time of year again where lots of baking and cooking are a bit part of my days.  I love it!  Thanks for reading.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Chicken, Corn, and Green Chili Casserole

Today's dinner recipe comes from One Pot of the Day: 365 Recipes for Every Day of the Year (Kate McMillan/Williams Sonoma, 2012).  I bought this last year and have only made a couple of the recipes.  I pulled it off the bookshelf last weekend and flipped through it, looking at all of the pages I bookmarked trying to remember which recipe on those pages was the one I wanted to make.  Most of the time it was obvious, but a few times I thought, "What was I thinking? I don't want to make any of these recipes."

The cookbook is organized chronologically.  There is one recipe for each day of the year.  June 16th is Chicken, Corn, and Green Chile Casserole.  The casserole is similar to a chicken pot pie but with corn and green chiles instead of mixed veggies and a cornbread-like topping instead of pie crust or a biscuit topping.  The sauce holding everything together is basically milk thickened with a little flour and seasoned with cumin, salt and pepper, onion, and garlic.

The completed dish turned out pretty well.  The filling was delicious.  Just a bit creamy with lots of chicken and corn.  The green chiles added some spice without being too hot, and combined well with the cumin.  The topping was just okay  It came out a little doughy even though I left the casserole in the oven for 30 minutes instead of 20.   The topping was just flour, cornmeal, baking powder, milk, and green onions.  I added 1/2 tsp of salt to the batter even though it didn't call for it because I thought it might end up being too bland.  I'm glad I did.  I think the topping would have been quite dull without it.  Adding just a bit of salt helped bring out the flavors.

I would definitely make this recipe again, but I think next time I'll change up the topping a bit.  I think using equal parts flour and cornmeal (the original recipe calls for 1 cup and 1/2 cup respectively) and maybe adding an egg will make the topping come out hardier and with more of a cornbread flavor.

I'm not thrilled with the photo, but the sun had gone down by the time the casserole was finished, and I had to rely on kitchen lighting and camera flash.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Baked Eggs & Peach Muffins

     Friday breakfast (though it should probably be called lunch since I ate closer to noon than breakfast time) was Baked Eggs with Spinach and Bacon.  The recipe is from a blog called Oven Love via my Pinterest Cooking Board.  The recipe called for crisp-cooked bacon, spinach, cheese, eggs, and a little cream.  What's not to love?

Photo of baked eggs
     The eggs tasted good, but there are a couple of changes I'd make next time.  The cream was unnecessary, I think.  It slowed down the cooking of the egg whites.  In order to get the whites fully cooked, I had to pop the dish back in the oven and leave it in for much longer than the recipe estimated.  I ended up with hard cooked yolks instead of soft, slightly runny yolks, which would have been much better.  The other change I'd make would be to reserve the bacon and add it to the top of the egg dish instead of putting it in the bottom of the dish with the spinach.  The bacon got rubbery under the eggs.  Crispy bacon crumbled on top of the eggs would have tasted much better.

     I want muffins! That's what I said to myself Saturday night around 10pm.  Since it was 10 o'clock at night and I wasn't even hungry, I did not make muffins, but I did look at some muffin recipes so I could make some for Sunday breakfast.  I chose the Perfect Blueberry Muffin recipe from Smitten Kitchen as my base and then mixed it up a bit.  I made these back in March when I was out in Bodega Bay for my aunt's birthday weekend.  They turned out really well.  I think everyone enjoyed them as there was only 1 left after brunch that day.  I, however, don't care much for blueberries.  I don't actively dislike them, but I'd rather have any number of other flavors than blueberry.  The base muffin recipe was great though, a little sweet but not too sweet and with a soft and slightly spongy texture so they don't fall apart easily.  I thought I'd try making them again but with some other fruit than blueberries.

     This worked out well since I don't have any blueberries on hand, so I couldn't have made blueberry muffins even if I wanted to.  In fact, I didn't have any fruit except some frozen peaches.  Hmmm, I thought. Peach muffins sound promising.  I followed the recipe closely with the exception of substituting chopped frozen peaches for the blueberries and 1/2 cup whole wheat flour for 1/2 cup of the all-purpose flour.

Photo of peach muffins
     The muffins came out tasty, but a little light flavor-wise.  I think the peaches didn't have as strong a flavor as blueberries do.  The other flavoring in these muffins is lemon zest, which I included, but I think this batch of muffins would have been even better with the substitution of vanilla or almond extract for the lemon zest.  I think almond would be really good with peaches.  I would also chop the peaches finely.  I cut them into about a 1/2 inch dice.  Chopping them into smaller pieces would have dispersed the peach flavor better throughout the muffins.  The peach chunks weren't in every bite, so the flavor was uneven.  I also didn't like the texture of the large chunks of peach.  Every other bite I got this cold, slick piece of fruit amid the light and fluffy muffin.  The muffin texture was just as good as the first time I made this recipe, even with the addition of some whole wheat flour.

     Still, even though these aren't the best muffins, they satisfied my muffin craving.  They will probably be even better tomorrow morning split open, toasted, and topped with a little butter.  This recipe is a good muffin base recipe and would be good with many combinations of fruits and flavorings.  I'm thinking maybe vanilla with raspberries, cranberry-orange, or almond with apricot jam swirled into the batter.  Anyone have a favorite muffin recipe they'd like to share?

Monday, June 17, 2013

Pizza, Popsicles, & Peaceful Mornings

I like Friday mornings in the summer.  The library is only open Monday through Thursday, so we work four 10-hour days and have every Friday off.  I've been waking up somewhat early (for me, for a day off anyway) on Fridays and enjoying the peace of a quiet morning before it gets too hot.  Lately it's been pretty hot by 9, though this weekend was a bit overcast and a little cooler than it was during the week when we had some 100 + days.

     Iced coffee on a hot day is a pleasure.  I brew up a bunch of coffee over the weekend and keep it in an iced tea bottle in the fridge; it usually lasts most of the week.  Anyway, Friday morning I was pouring my glass of coffee and remembered this very cool picture my sister posted on facebook of her coffee with the cream just added.  It was black with these swirls of white and very cool looking.  I was inspired to try getting a similar shot.  Let me tell you, it isn't easy to photograph cream diffusing through coffee. You really only get a few shots before it's too late.  That's my cool Eeyore glass mug my Big Sis brought me from Disneyland.  It's even got my name engraved on it.  I love it.

     After the photos were taken, I sat down and enjoyed my coffee and read a few chapters of my book.  I'm reading The Sherlockian by Graham Moore.  It's a mystery involving the death of a member of The Baker Street Irregulars during the society's annual festivities in New York, a missing diary of Arthur Conan-Doyle, and the killing off of Sherlock Holmes and his subsequent return.  It's good so far, but I was jarred at one point by the use of the word "fractal" in a description of 1900 London from the p.o.v. of Conan-Doyle.  The term was coined around 1975.  I suppressed my irritation and continued reading because the book is interesting and the writing good otherwise.

     Friday evening I tried a new pizza dough recipe, and I think it's probably the best pizza dough I've ever made.  I used the recipe from King Arthur Flour.  The recipe calls for 7/8 to 1 1/8 cup water.  I used 1 cup, but the dough was really sticky.  Next time I'll probably use 7/8 of a cup instead.  I turned out fine though.  I just kneaded in a little more flour once I removed the dough from the bread machine before dividing the dough and then letting it rest before making the pizza. The dough was the perfect combination of chewy and crispy.

      I had some leftover pesto sauce, so I used that instead of a standard red sauce.  For toppings I used chopped leftover chicken breast and zucchini along with mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses.  The pizza turned out very yummy.  The pesto was very tasty and went well with the other toppings.  This picture is from Saturday lunch.  The leftover pizza was still very good the next day.

     Aren't popsicles so refreshing on a hot day?  Sunday, I made orange and raspberry cream-sicles based on a recipe I found on Pinterest.  I didn't have orange extract, so I left that out, and I used simple syrup in place of the honey as my honey is completely crystallized and was never going to blend into the other ingredients.  The flavor was good but too subtle.  I think using orange juice concentrate instead of orange juice would have produced a more "orangy" flavor. However, the reason I decided to try this recipe was because I had some fresh squeezed orange juice in the freezer.  It came from the last bag of Willcox oranges I bought before the season ended.  They were the best oranges, sweet and full of flavor, but they were starting to mold, so I cut off the moldy bits and juiced the rest of the oranges so they wouldn't go to waste.

     The recipe is supposed to make 6-8 popsicles, but my popsicle molds must be larger than the ones used by the person who created the recipe because I ran out after filling only 4 of my molds.  I had some very ripe raspberries, so I took some of those, added some simple syrup, mashed them up, and then mixed in a little half & half and filled the last 2 popsicles molds.  The raspberry ones weren't quite sweet enough, and they were very seedy.  I think it might be better to put some or all of the mashed raspberries through a strainer to remove some of the seeds.  The other aspect that wasn't ideal was the texture.  It was pretty icy instead of creamy.  I really should have expected that, since the mixture was simply frozen instead of processed in an ice cream machine first then poured into the molds.  Freezing the mixture in an ice cream machine, even partially, would reduce the iciness in the final product.  I'll have to try that next time and let you know how they turn out.  Darn, now I'll have to buy an ice cream maker.  The things I do for this blog.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Sunday Baking

It's nearly Summer, and the heat here is on the rise. It's been in the mid to upper 90s this week, and I suddenly got an urge to bake. Such is the perverse nature of my whims at times. My timing could use some work. Luckily, I can make bread in the bread machine, which doesn't heat up the house much. However, I also want to make some flatbread, something similar to naan or soft pita, which makes it necessary to use the oven. Here's my plan for meals this week:

  • Baked chicken chimichangas
  • Curry made from repurposed gyros meat with vegetables on the above mentioned flatbread with a tsatsiki/raita hybrid to top it (The gyros were a fail I won't get into).
  • Tuna salad on home-made bread
  • Baked chicken legs of some kind & roasted brocolli with grated Manchego cheese

     The bread came out well. I liked the last loaf I made better, but this is a close second. It's made with part bread flour and part whole wheat for a little extra fiber. I had some with my lunch of leftover chicken. Bread & jam for Alex

It came out really light and fluffy, almost too fluffy.  I was worried it would tear while I was cutting it. I want to do some experimenting with the amount of yeast I'm using in breads because I might be using too much.

     I've been doing some reading about high-altitude bread making.  I'm at about 5,000 feet, but it doesn't feel much different here than other places at lower altitudes that I've lived. However, I think that while the altitude hasn't affected my other baking and cooking, it may be negatively affecting my bread.  And though the bread is pretty good, I think it could be better.

     The baked chicken chimichangas were easy to make.  I got the recipe here.  Sorry there's no picture, but they weren't much to look at. They just looked like crispy burritos. The filling is a combination of shredded leftover cooked chicken, salsa, cheese, and chopped green onion mixed with some spices, which you wrap up burrito-style in tortillas. The chimichangas are then placed on a baking sheet (I used parchment paper to minimize the mess.) and brushed with melted butter. I was too lazy to melt the butter, so I just spread a thin layer of softened butter on with a knife. It was a very thin layer, almost too thin to actually see on the tortilla. Then they were baked in a 400 degree oven for about 25 minutes until the tortillas are crispy and the filling is hot.

     The chimichangas were good, but not amazing. The filling was tasty but a little liquidy and made the bottom of the tortilla soggy. The idea of baking the chimichangas is a good one, but I'd probably make up my own filling. You could probably do this with chili colorado or chili verde or whatever your favorite chimichanga or burrito filling is.

Enjoy the week, and check back for another post in a few days.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Farmers' Market and Fancy Butter

Happy June, everyone!  Today I took a drive over to Bisbee to check out their Farmers' Market.  I've only been to the one here in S.V.  It's on Thursdays, which makes it sometimes hard to get to when I'm busy at work.  The Bisbee market is pretty nice.  I got a good haul today.  I picked up some meat from Sky Island/47 Brand and San Ysidro Farms--the people are great!  They raise animals humanely and healthfully.  Happy cows (and pigs and lambs) make for healthier meat, in my opinion.

     From the Elfrida Community Garden stand, I got a variety of radishes and a giant rainbow beet.  I also picked up some French shallots and purple garlic.  I'll have to think of something yummy to make with these.

     When I got home, I was pretty hungry, so I made myself some lunch.  I had a lovely grass-fed beef steak that I thawed a couple of days ago and some fresh green beans I bought last weekend, both of which needed to be eaten.  I boiled the green beans until they were just cooked then drained them and sauteed them in a pan with a little garlic olive oil.  I put them in the oven to keep warm while I made the steak.  Just salt & pepper and a little garlic.  When the steak was medium-well, I put it on the plate with the green beans and topped it with a little gremolata butter.  I only managed to eat about half of it before I was full.

     What is gremolata butter, you ask?  Well, it's a compound butter made with  a mixture of minced garlic, chopped flat-leaf parsley, and lemon zest.  It is delicious sprinkled on meat, especially lamb.  I first heard of a gremolata when I made an amazing recipe for red-wine braised lamb shanks I found on Epicurious.

     This gremolata butter recipe came from Rachel Ray via my Pinterest Cooking board. I've pinned over 100 things to my cooking board and have made fewer than 5 of the recipes, so I'm trying to remedy that.  Tomorrow or perhaps later in the week I will be making a recipe for pesto chicken I pinned about a month ago.  The recipe calls for lemon juice in addition to the zest.  I was doubtful for 2 reasons: 1) mixing liquid into butter can be difficult and 2) I thought the juice would make the butter too tart.  Alas, I was right to be concerned.  This wasn't a total fail, but it wasn't a success either.  I didn't find it too hard to get the juice mixed in, but it did overwhelm the other flavors and make the butter too lemony.  I may try softening the butter again and adding more butter, garlic, and parsley to see if it tastes better.

I hope everyone is having a wonderful weekend.  More dinner reports later this week.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Cauliflower Alfredo with Chicken and Leeks

Alfredo sauce, cauliflower, leeks, garlic, chicken, butter, olive oil, cheese, salt, and pepper.  That's what went into my dinner tonight.  I've had this head of cauliflower in my fridge for several weeks, and it was starting to look a little peaky.  I knew I'd need to cook it soon or risk losing it. Cauliflower is delicious and versatile.  It would be too sad to be forced to toss such a lovely vegetable.  I started thinking about cauliflower in cheese sauce, which is delicious, but I didn't feel like making a full-on cheese sauce. I'm not sure exactly how I decided, but I was looking up recipes and came across one for Alfredo sauce.  I've never made Alfredo sauce, and it looked surprisingly easy.  I guess I always thought Alfredo was something tricky or difficult, ironically because it seemed so elegantly simple.

     Well, it is simple.  Do a Google search, and you'll see thousands of recipes.  I looked at about a dozen and chose what seemed to be the classic version and made mine based on that.  Basically, you melt some butter in a saucepan, add about a cup of cream, and let simmer for 5 minutes.  It will reduce a bit.  Then stir in 1 to 3 cloves of minced garlic and 1 1/2 to 2 cups finely shredded Parmesan cheese (about 2 ounces using a micro-plane grater). I used 3 cloves of garlic and 2 cups of mixed Parmesan and Romano cheese and added a dash or two of pepper.  This sauce is so delicious, wonderfully creamy without being thick or heavy.  It's just a luscious, light, and creamy sauce.

     For the whole dish, here's what I did.  I cleaned and cut the head of cauliflower into largish, bite-sized pieces.  I cleaned the leeks--they were a bit gritty--then halved then length-wise and sliced them.  I melted a little butter along with a little olive oil in a large skillet.  I sauteed the leeks until they were soft then tossed in a couple of cloves of roughly chopped garlic and sauteed for another minute or two.  I then added the cauliflower and stirred to coat it with the leek/garlic/butter mixture.  Once the cauliflower was coated, I poured it in a baking dish and finished cooking the cauliflower by roasting it in a 400 degree oven.  I think it took about 30 minutes in the oven to get the cauliflower to the tender but not mushy point--your mileage may vary.

     While the cauliflower was roasting, I sauteed some more chopped garlic in the same skillet for a few minutes then added some cut up chicken breast.  I decided I needed some protein.  You could make it without chicken easily, and it would be just as delicious.  Once the chicken was almost completely cooked, I pulled the cauliflower out of the oven and added the chicken to the baking pan.  I popped it back in the oven to finish cooking while I made the sauce.  I turned the oven off at this point.  There was enough heat left to finish cooking the chicken and vegetables.

     Once the sauce was ready, I took the cauliflower dish out of the oven and poured the contents into the sauce.  I used a large spoon to gently fold the chicken and vegetables into the sauce.  I then stirred in a little chopped parsley.
Oh yum!  The leeks had caramelized and added savory oniony, caramel goodness to the sauce.  The roasted cauliflower isn't watery the way cauliflower can get when you boil or steam it.  The garlic, cheese, cream mixture brought everything together, and the fresh parsley added a fresh, sharp note to the richness of the dish.  My whole house smells fantastic.

     I ate about a cup of the mixture for dinner, and it was plenty.  I'm guessing, but I think this made about 6 servings.  If you made it without the chicken, you could serve it as a side and it would stretch to even more servings.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Ah, Love, Thy Name is Bread Machine.

I got a bread machine for my birthday (Thanks, Mom!).
This is the one I got. Photo from
 I've been wanting to make my own bread.  Like most processed or prepared foods, the ingredients on loaves of bread in the store contain a LOT of ingredients.  I've been thinking a lot about the ingredients in prepared or processed foods. When I read the back of a package, I wonder why there are so many ingredients listed when the recipe for making the same thing contains half (or fewer than) that number.

     Example, Wonder Bread (which despite being made by the defunct Hostess Foods is not gone forever as it has been sold to another company) has 29 ingredients listed on its package--29!  Now, not all store-bought breads contain this many ingredients, but even Milton's 100% Whole Wheat Bread, arguably a much healthier choice than Wonder, contains 14 ingredients. Also, all store-bought breads seem to contain soy in one form or another.  Now, I'm not anti-soy.  I like soy sauce and the occasional bean curd stir fry. I do have a problem with the fact that so much of soy is GMO. Also, it's the general problem I have with all these added ingredients in food.

     How many ingredients are there in a homemade loaf of bread?  I'm glad you asked.  It depends on the recipe you are making, but for a basic white loaf, the bread cookbook I have calls for 9.  Some of the bread recipes call for fewer, but 6 - 10 ingredients is usual among the recipes.  Also, all of these ingredients are recognizable.  Water, honey and/or sugar, butter or oil, flour, yeast, and salt are the basics. Some recipes call for dry milk powder for added protein and wheat gluten for protein and to make the bread softer. However, no artificial ingredients or colors are called for and no weird fillers either.

     I've made bread before, but it never turned out all that well.  It was edible, but not super tasty.  I never seem to be able to knead the dough properly.  The bread machine solves that.  The first thing I made with my bread machine was a loaf of the above mentioned white bread.  I ran the whole bread machine cycle from mixing to baking.  It turned out well. My problem was that I had no bread knife.  That didn't deter me for long, I just hacked off pieces and ate them.  I ended up freezing half the loaf until I got a chance to find a good bread knife.

     The next thing I made was pizza dough. This time I just ran the dough cycle on the bread machine, which mixes, kneads, and rises the dough, but doesn't bake it.  I made one batch with all white flour and one batch with half white and half whole wheat flour.  They both turned out great.  Perfectly chewy, crusty pizza dough.  I had a couple of friends over, and we made individual pizzas with lots of yummy toppings including pepperoni, sausage, zucchini, onions, and lots of cheese.  Makes me hungry just thinking of them.

     Then I made sticky buns.  Oh my goodness, these were stunningly delicious.  I found the recipe for Morning Sticky Buns in Beth Hensperger's The Bread Lover's Bread Machine Cookbook (Harvard Common Press, 2000).  The buns came out perfect.  I couldn't believe it.  The best thing about these was that the insides didn't end up too gooey.  The caramel topping was wonderfully gooey, but the bun itself was soft, but fully cooked, not underdone and doughy like they can be.  I highly recommend them for a special treat.

Morning Sticky Buns

Recipe by Beth Hensperger from The Bread Lover's Bread Machine Cookbook


For the dough:
1 1/4 cups fat-free milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces

3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons sugar
1 1/4 teaspoons salt

2 teaspoons SAF yeast or 2 1/2 teaspoons bread machine yeast

For the cinnamon filling:
3/4 cup light or dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

For the caramel:
1/3 cup unsalted butter
1 cup light or dark brown sugar
1/4 cup light corn syrup
1 cup chopped pecans

1. To make the dough, place all the dough ingredients in the pan according to the order in the manufacturer's instructions.  Program for the Dough cycle; press Start.  The dough ball will be soft, yet at the same time smooth and springy.  Combine the sugar and cinnamon for the filling in a small bowl.  Set aside.

2. To make the caramel, 10 minutes before the end of the Dough cycle, grease the sides and bottoms of a 13-by-9 inch glass or metal baking pan. (I prefer to use a metal or disposable aluminum pan if I will be rising the buns overnight in the refrigerator--a glass pan cold from the refrigerator could break when placed in a hot oven.)  Combine the butter, brown sugar, and corn syrup in a small skillet or heavy saucepan over low heat, stirring constantly.  When the butter is melted and the sugar is dissolved, remove from the heat.  Immediately pour into the baking pan.  Spread evenly over the bottom with a rubber spatula.  Sprinkle with the nuts.  Set aside.

3. When the machine beeps at the end of the cycle, press Stop and unplug the machine.  Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface.  Roll it into a 12-by-15 inch rectangle.  Add the filling:  Leaving a 1-inch border around all the edges-spread the surface evenly with the 6 tablespoons soft butter, then sprinkle evenly with the sugar and cinnamon, which will be quite a light filling.  Roll up jelly-roll fashion starting from a long edge, and pinch the seam to seal.  With a serrated knife using a gentle sawing motion, cut the roll into 12 equal portions, each slice about 1 1/2 inches thick.  Place the slices close together on top of the caramel, spiral cut side down.  Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let the rolls rise at room temperature for 45 minutes, or until puffy and even with the rim of the pan.  (The rolls can be refrigerated before this last rise, covered tightly with a double layer of plastic wrap, leaving the rolls to rise to rise slowly and be baked in the morning.  Remove the pan from the refrigerator and let rest for 20 minutes before baking.)

4. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

5. Bake the buns until the tops are brown, 30 to 35 minutes.  Remove from the oven and let stand no more than 5 minutes on a wire rack.  Place the cooling rack on top of the pan and, securely holding the hot pan with oven mitts, invert the pan on top of the rack, taking care not to touch the not caramel.  Let cool for at least 20 minutes, then transfer to a serving plate.  Pull the buns apart and serve warm.

Sorry for the lack of photos.  I never seem to plan ahead these days for taking pictures for the blog.  I'll try to do better in the future.

Some references:
Wonder breads 29 ingredients:
Milton's 14 ingredients:
The Bread Lover's Bread Machine Cookbook on

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Playing Catch Up

Happy New Year! It was a very busy December for me both cooking-wise and work-wise. Work went absolutely mad in December. Between holiday parties (5), a huge job assessment questionnaire to complete, and a last minute website makeover, I was dead tired and mentally exhausted.

I did get to do a bunch of baking and cooking for the above mentioned holiday parties. I made toasted oatmeal cookies and shortbread cookies for our libraries' open houses, stuffed pasta shells (x2) for the end of the semester parties for our student library aides, and Holiday Beans for the staff Christmas party.

I really like the Toasted Oatmeal Cookies. I found the recipe at the Betty Crocker website.  The first time I made this recipe, I adapted it a bit to use what I had on hand.  I had used my oats to make granola, and I realized that the granola was very similar to what goes into the cookies: oats and nuts, toasted in the oven before being incorporated into the dough.  Instead of the 2 1/2 cups of oats and the 1 cup of nuts, I used 3 1/2 cups of granola. The recipe only calls for brown sugar, but I've found that this can make the cookies come out too thin and a little too sweet.  It works better if you don't pack the brown sugar, and I think I might try it with 1 cup brown and 1/2 cup white next time.

I've mentioned the shortbread cookies in a prior post.  The recipe I use comes from Brown Bag Designs Shortbread pans.  I've used their Classic Shortbread recipe for years, and it never fails.

Now for the stuffed pasta shells...I realize that I haven't blogged about these before, and I must amend that oversight right now.  These are always a huge hit, and I've made them for potlucks at work (current and past jobs) and for family dinners and special occasions.  I got the idea from a pasta cookbook I have.  I changed the recipe, of course.  I just can't seem to help myself.  They're not difficult, but there are several steps and the prep takes a while.  The filling has cream cheese, cheddar cheese, mozzarella  milk, eggs, and a little basil.  I use my regular spaghetti sauce I make (usually without meat though) for covering the shells before baking.  The shells are vegetarian as long as you don't use any meat or broth in your sauce.

Stuffed Pasta Shells

For the filling:
1 eight (8) ounce package cream cheese, softened
3 - 4 large eggs, room temperature
1/2 cup milk
3 - 3 1/2 cups shredded cheese (I use a mix of cheddar and mozzarella.)
1 1/2 tsp. dried basil (optional--sometimes I forget to put it in and the shells are still yummy.)
a couple of dashes of black pepper

1 box jumbo pasta shells (I like Barilla, but I've had good results with other brands as well.)
3 cups spaghetti sauce (approximately--should be enough to fill in all of the spaces around the shells once they are in the pan with some sauce left to go over the top of them.  The sauce doesn't need to cover them completely, but there should be plenty)

Make the Filling:
Place the cream cheese in a large mixing bowl.  Beat it on low speed with a hand mixer until the cream cheese is smooth.  Add the eggs and continue beating until well incorporated.  There may still be small chunks of cream cheese, but that's okay as long as it's mostly blended well with the eggs. Stir in the milk, and then fold in cheese.  The filling can be mixed and chilled an hour or two head of time.  Chilling the filling helps thicken it and makes it easier to fill the shells.

Pre-cook the Pasta:
Cook the pasta shells according to the package directions, but for a minute less than al dente.  For example, if the pasta box says that the shells will cook to al dente in 10 minutes, I cook them for 9 minutes.  Drain and rinse the shells in cold water until they are cool enough to handle.

Assemble the Shells:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Rub a little olive oil over the bottom and sides of a 13 x 9 inch baking pan.  Spread about 3/4 cup of sauce in the bottom of the pan.

Using a teaspoon (not the measure, but the place-setting spoon), spoon filling into shells.  Fill each shell with a heaping scoop.  The shells should be filled but not overstuffed.  The edges of the shells should still be able to touch.  Place each shell in the pan as you fill it.  You should be able to fit all of the shells into the pan.

Pour the remaining sauce over the shells then gently shake the pan to get the sauce into all of the spaces between the shells.  Loosely cover with a piece of foil and bake in the oven for 45 minutes.  Remove the pan from the oven, take off the foil, and sprinkle the top of the shells with some freshly-grated Parmesan cheese. Put the pan back in the oven for 15 minutes, until the Parmesan is melted and the sauce is bubbling.

Remove from the oven and let sit for 20 minutes before serving.

After all the craziness of the last two weeks of work, I flew back to California to spend Christmas with family.  I got a chance to relax over the holidays, and I had a great time visiting my wonderful family: mom, sister, brother-in-law' and nephew, and some of my dearest friends.  I didn't get to see my brother and sister-in-law, but we did have a nice talk on Christmas.  However, I got to visit them back in September, which was great.  I was so happy to see them.  They moved away when I moved here to Arizona, and I hadn't seen them since I moved.  Hopefully we can all be together next year around Christmas.

I hope you all had a very Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah, and wish you a very Happy New Year.