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.