Saturday, October 31, 2009

A Special Birthday Tribute

October 24 is my best friend Rachel's birthday. She used to have this really strict daily diet that she adhered to like nothing I've ever seen. It basically consisted of eating only super healthy food every day of the year except her birthday. I'm talking serious, no exceptions or cheating. This girl was good. When her birthday rolled around every year, it meant a day of serious eating and since it was such a celebration I would generally take part too :) It was pretty hard to keep up (since I did eat junk food other days of the year) and I usually wimped out by lunch, but we would make quite a dent in a well-stocked supply of specially purchased birthday junk food eating everything from pretzels to candy corn to pasta. We did things other than eat on Rachel's birthday (like watch wonderful movies) and the day was so fun that I began to look forward to it more than my own!

Another awesome thing about my friend Rachel was her dog, Snicker Doodle (two words, very important!) who was "the best dog in the whole world." Snicker Doodle was an amazing dog and so loved by Rachel that these Snicker Doodle cookies always remind me of her (and Snicker Doodle, of course). If you've never had a Snicker Doodle cookie then you must make them immediately! Some people swear that Snicker Doodles are just sugar cookies rolled in cinnamon and sugar, but I beg to differ. They have a distinct flavor of their own and the coating of cinnamon and sugar makes them utterly delightful. I prefer to make them into pretty large cookies so that the center remains soft while the edges get nice and golden, providing a variety of textures in one cookie.

For the highest level of enjoyment, these cookies should be devoured in the company of a best friend, possibly while watching (and singing along badly with) The Sound of Music.

Snicker Doodle Cookies
recipe from

2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 t. cream of tartar
1 t. baking soda
1/4 t. salt
16 T.  unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 3/4 cups sugar, plus more if needed
2 T ground cinnamon, plus more if needed
2 large eggs

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and line a baking sheet with a silicone mat or parchment paper.
Whisk together flour, cream of tartar, baking soda, and salt in a small bowl. In a large bowl, combine butter and 1 1/2 cups sugar. Beat on medium speed until light and fluffy.  Add eggs, and beat to combine. Add the dry ingredients, and beat to combine. Smitten Kitchen recommends chilling the dough at the point (which I did because I had something else in the oven), but I did not find it necessary in order to handle the dough.
In a small bowl, combine remaining 1/4 cup sugar and the ground cinnamon. Form small balls of dough (about 1 1/2 inches) and roll in the cinnamon/sugar mixture. Place about two inches apart on the prepared baking sheets. Bake until the cookies are set in center and begin to crack, but are still soft in the center, about 10 minutes, rotating the baking sheets after five minutes. Transfer the sheets to a wire rack to cool about five minutes before transferring the cookies to the rack.

Also, I wanted to mention a contest going on at Love and Olive Oil (a blog that I cook from a lot). Its a contest for some local chocolate and its super easy to enter, so anyone who reads this blog (the few of you) should definitely enter! If you read my recent post on chocolate cookies, I'm sure this local chocolate would be perfect!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Lentil Soup

With the cooler weather that's recently hit the area, we've begun to accept the fact that fall is here to stay and winter is not too far off. I recently broke out a couple of scarves and last weekend even wore my gloves! Its also fun to watch all of the undergrads break out their brand new fall wardrobes that you can tell they've been just itching to wear. Last week when it was a "chilly" sixty degrees I witnessed a girl all dolled up with a wool jacket, fedora (tilted just so on her head) and red leather gloves that went halfway up her forearms--she looked as if she had stepped out of a magazine, except she also seemed to be overheating in her getup.

This change in weather and wardrobe also means a change in food--we want warm and comforting food that also really easy to prepare, and most importantly quick. Soup is the natural thing to turn to, but canned soup always leaves something to be desired. Homemade soup is really easy to make and it can be frozen for later.

We've begun bookmarking soup recipes right and left to make and freeze and we tried a delicious new, super-easy lentil soup this week. It took almost no time and consisted of easy ingredients that we almost always have on-hand. The really great thing is that its very filling and full of flavor despite the small ingredient list so it can easily be a full meal.

Red Lentil Soup
from 101 Cookbooks

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, chopped
3 shallots, chopped
1/2 teaspoon red-pepper flakes
6 cups good-tasting vegetable stock (or water), preferably low sodium
1 1/3 cup red lentils,  rinsed (and checked for stones)
1/2 cup brown rice,  rinsed
salt to taste (preferably sea salt)

In a large pot, combine the olive oil, onion, shallots and red pepper flakes. Stir occasionally over medium head until brown and slightly caramelized. 
Stir in the broth, bring to a boil, then stir in the lentils and rice. Simmer for about 30 minutes or until the rice is very tender.  At this point the lentils should be thick. You may need to add more water/broth, but do so in small increments (splashes) until the soup thins out.
As long as you used a low sodium broth, you should salt to taste with sea salt or kosher salt.
 Serve each bowl topped with feta and a drizzle of olive oil.

NOTE: We topped our soup with feta and olive oil, but on 101cookbooks she suggests almonds and olives as well. Feel free to try other combinations! This soup freezes wonderfully.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Food as Comfort

Whenever something bad happens people bring food. On Wednesday my friend Victoria's cat died and she was very upset so, I did what people do and brought food. I know that food doesn't actually make you feel better when you're upset, but at least if you feel bad your stomach can be full of something delicious.

I hadn't planned on baking that night so I was a little bit low on ingredients and limited in my choice of recipes. Luckily, I always have a jar full of chocolate chips on hand and I recently bought a couple of bags of Ghirardelli bittersweet chocolate chips too (you can never have enough chocolate chips). Since I was basically rolling in chocolate, I decided a super chocolately recipe was key, plus who doesn't like chocolate?

This recipe for double chocolate cookies comes from Ghirardelli and is almost entirely chocolate! Its almost a flourless cookie with a melted chocolate base and added chocolate chips making it ultra gooey and especially perfect while warm (and preferably with milk). I liked these cookies better than other double chocolate cookies because it didn't use cocoa powder, which in my experience has made more cakey and drier cookies.

Ultimate Double Chocolate Chip Cookies
recipe adapted from Bake or Break

11.5 ounces bittersweet chocolate chips
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into tablespoon slices
3 large eggs
1 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/2 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 cup chopped pecans or hazelnuts (my addition: toasted)

Melt bittersweet chocolate chips and butter in a double boiler or microwave, stirring until smooth.
In a large bowl, beat eggs and sugar until thick on medium speed. Stir in the melted chocolate mixture with a rubber spatula.
In a separate bowl, sift together flour and baking powder and stir into chocolate mixture. Stir in semi-sweet chocolate chips and pecans.
Refrigerate dough until slightly firm, about 40 minutes-one hour.
Preheat oven to 375°. Grease or line baking sheets and set aside.
Roll into 1-1/2 sized balls and place on baking sheet. Bake 12-14 minutes or until shiny crust forms on top but interior is still soft. Cool on baking sheets.

NOTE: I ended up having about a cup of toasted pecans on hand that I had toasted for another recipe a couple of days ago so I threw those in and it worked out great even though the original recipe does not call for the nuts to be toasted. Also, while I used Ghirardelli chocolate for the base (ie: the 11.5 oz. of bittersweet) I used other, cheaper, store-brand chocolate for the added chips because, let's face it, I'm a graduate student and as much as I would love to use Scharffen Berger, Green and Blacks, or even Ghirardelli every time I bake, its just not budget-conscious for my lifestyle (considering the amount I bake). So, I felt like this combination worked out well and didn't sacrifice taste!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Pumpkin, Round One

My mom's favorite season is fall and she has this somewhat strange obsession with driving around to look at leaves. We're really different so I don't really understand what she sees in it, but she enjoys it and often takes long drives on Sunday afternoons during the fall. Whenever my mom talks about getting old she makes my brother and me swear that we will come visit her in the nursing home and take her for drives to look at leaves, to which we respond "you won't be able to see the leaves you'll be so old" (jokingly, of course) or we say that we'll put a cardboard cutout of a fall scene in her window so that she'll think its fall all year round! Of course, this is all in gest--I'm sure we'll take her for at least one or two drives in her old age....

Because my mom loves fall we did lots of fall activities growing up like going to the pumpkin patch, picking gourds, decorating our house and baking cookies (not to mention all of the Halloween activities, but those are a whole different story). It is a bit difficult to accomplish all of those things now with my grad student schedule, but I figured I could make at least one appropriately pumpkin-based food.

I have made this pumpkin bread before, many times, and its a great recipe. It is originally from Cooking Light so its slightly more healthy than other quick breads, which is not saying much. The original recipe makes two loaves, but I wanted to take it to one of my graduate classes for a mid-morning snack so I made one of the loaves into muffins and topped with pecans, which worked perfectly.

Pecan Topped Pumpkin Bread
Source: Cooking Light

3 1/3  cups  all-purpose flour (about 15 ounces)
1  tablespoon  baking powder
2  teaspoons  baking soda
1  teaspoon  salt
1  teaspoon  ground cinnamon
1  teaspoon  ground nutmeg
1/2  teaspoon  ground allspice
2  cups  granulated sugar
1/2  cup  egg substitute (my sub: 2 eggs)
1/2  cup  canola oil
1/2  cup  low-fat buttermilk
2  large eggs
2/3  cup  water
1  (15-ounce) can pumpkin
Cooking spray
1/3  cup  chopped pecans

Preheat oven to 350°.
Lightly spoon flour into dry measuring cups; level with a knife. Combine flour and next 6 ingredients (through allspice) in a bowl.
Place sugar, egg substitute, oil, buttermilk, and eggs in a large bowl; beat with a mixer at high speed until well blended. Add 2/3 cup water and pumpkin, beating at low speed until blended. Add flour mixture to pumpkin mixture, beating at low speed just until combined. Spoon batter into 2 (9 x 5-inch) loaf pans coated with cooking spray. Sprinkle pecans evenly over batter. Bake at 350° for 1 hour or until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool 10 minutes in pans on a wire rack; remove from pans. Cool completely on wire rack.

For muffins, follow the same procedure to prepare the batter and just pour in muffins cups and top with chopped pecans. One loaf's worth of batter should make 18 muffins.

NOTE: The original recipe calls for egg substitute, which I do not use so instead I used two eggs (making the total number of eggs 4). I also didn't have any allspice on hand, but the bread turned out fine anyway!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

No more rice!

Winter is practically here, which means many things. Number one: (and by far the worst) cold weather. I HATE cold weather. Once it gets below eighty degrees I can never be warm again and I have this constant chill, especially in my feet and hands so I am preparing myself for five months of cold. Number two: my papers are due soon!!! aaaaaah!!! this means i have to get cracking (and should probably not be writing this right now). Number two leads naturally two Number three: I do not have time to cook anymore. This means my meals generally consist of things like pasta, hummus and carrots, lean cuisine, canned soup, pasta again, salad, you get the picture. One other common dish is rice because I can put it in the rice cooker and with the cool timer it will be done eight hours later and ready for me to eat!

I get a little sick of rice though...It seems like any time I want a side dish, rice is the old standby. I always have some in the cupboard and its so easy to make, but after a while it gets pretty old. Lately I've been eating quinoia and couscous more (which can also be made in the rice maker), but recently I found some Lebanese couscous at the grocery store, which is extra cool because its HUGE!

Its also really easy to make, not quite as easy as rice, but still quick and tasty. I could have made it in the ricemaker, but this recipe adds some extra flavor. Here is the basic rundown:

Lebanese Couscous:

2 chopped shallots
olive oil
1 cup couscous
1 bay leaf
 1 1/4 cup water

Heat 1 Tablespoon of olive oil in a saucepan on medium heat. Cook the shallots until translucent. Add the couscous as well as 1 bay leaf and let it brown slightly, coating in olive oil. Add 1 1/4 cups water, cover and cook for about five minutes. Lower heat to low and simmer for about ten minutes. Add more water if couscous soaks up all water, but is not cooked.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

My Definition of Health Food

This might be a shocker to some of you, but sometimes I eat cookies for breakfast. When I don't have cookies sometimes I'll substitute cake, brownies, a couple of spoonfuls of ice cream or, when I'm really desperate, a handful of chocolate chips--a breakfast of champions you might say. I know what you're thinking--does this girl have any nutrients in her diet? I assure you I do have a balanced diet (see brussels sprouts post), and most days I actually eat real food for breakfast like bran flakes and orange juice and apples, but I don't hesitate to mix things up. I mean, where is written that brownies can ONLY be eaten as an after dinner dessert? With that being said, I decided to make healthy cookies so that at least I can feel a little less guilty about eating a sugary, chocolatey concoction before 8am. "Healthy cookies" is sort of an oxymoron I guess, but let's just say I decided to make them a little healthier....

Mainly, I wanted to use whole wheat flour because I'm always trying to get more whole grains in my diet and this seemed like a pretty easy way. I also wanted to try using the white, whole wheat flour so I thought this could be a good way. This recipe is for whole wheat chocolate chip peanut butter cookies and its really pretty simple.  I think it could probably be altered even more to eliminate half of the butter, but that will have to wait for another try. I prefer to under-cook my cookies just a tad so that they remain gooey and soft with swirls of melted chocolate, perfect for dunking in milk or eating plain (for breakfast or dessert). Rolling these cookies into 2 inch balls allows them to bake into a perfect consistency that's soft and gooey in the center while slightly crispy at the edge. I am not a fan of cake-like cookies myself so these really struck my fancy.

This was also a dry-run for next week when I am going to make cookies for one of my classes. Today my professor mentioned how she used to have a tea and cookies breaks when she was in graduate school and suggested that we consider reviving this tradition. I immediately started thinking of recipes that would be perfect for a mid-morning class, perhaps something not too sweet and a little more wholesome, more like a granola bar? Stay tuned for that.

Whole Wheat Chocolate Chip Peanut Butter Cookies

1 cup butter
1 cup sugar
1 cup brown sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/4 c. peanut butter
2 1/2 c. white, whole wheat flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking soda
12 oz. chocolate chips

Cream butter, white and brown sugar in a bowl until combined. Add eggs, one at a time, blend until light and fluffy. Add vanilla and peanut butter, mix to combine. In a separate bowl, sift flour, salt and baking soda. Mix the dry ingredients into the peanut butter mixture. Fold in the chocolate chips. Cool dough in refrigerator until firm. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Roll dough into 1 1/2 inch balls and place on cookie sheet two inches apart. Bake 8-10 minutes.

I used commercial peanut butter, but substituting natural peanut butter and adding toasted peanuts would definitely add more peanut-ey flavor. Additionally, sprinkling some salt on top before baking would really bring out the flavor.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Brussels Sprouts?!

Now that it is officially the second half of the semester (or at least that's what the calendar is telling me, I keep denying it, but I think its true) I have to buckle down and really get this mountain of work done. In order to do that, I have to really stop cooking and baking so much, but its hard because there are always recipes that I want to try and occasions that deserve delicious food. Last week, I made some mini-chai cupcakes to take to school since everyone has been sort of dragging lately and snacks are always a good pick-me-up.

This weekend I was pretty busy working on my research so instead of doing a lot of baking we did some cooking on Sunday night. When I was at the store last week my impulse buy was brussels sprouts (exciting, right?). I've never been much for brussels sprouts, probably because my mom never really made them when I was younger. She made lots of other green vegetables, but perhaps since my brother was such a picky eater brussels sprouts never really made the cut. Plus, brussels sprouts kind of get a bad rap and aren't that popular on restaurant menus. When I saw them at the store, they looked really nice and green so I decided to give them a try.

To cook them, we basically just sauteed them in a pan. The "recipe" (if you can call it a recipe) is below, but its pretty standard. They turned out really well, but after trying a few I decided that: I do not like brussels sprouts. Unfortunately for me, Aaron "really likes" brussels sprouts, which means one of us is going to be unhappy in the future....

Sauteed Brussels Sprouts

12-24 brussels sprouts
olive oil
grated parmesan cheese

Trim off outer leaves of brussels sprouts and cut each in half
Heat 1 Tablespoon of olive oil in a large pan over medium heat
Toss the brussels sprouts in a bowl with about 1 Tablespoon of olive oil and some salt
Put the brussels sprouts in the heated pan, flat sides down and allow them to brown, about five minutes. Cover if needed.
Once they are tender, move around with a spatula so that the round sides are able to brown slightly.
Serve immediately, with freshly grated parmesan on top.

Aside from the cooking going on around here, I have been busy with work. On Thursday and Friday we got to dog-sit for one of my friend's dog-a tiny little dachshund named Gertrude! She is very cute and well-behaved and it was fun playing with her for a day or so. Aaron particularly enjoyed Gertrude and since she left on Friday (two days ago) he has continually mourned her departure.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Whirlwind weekend, and no baking!

This weekend was officially "reading days" at UVA, which is a more academic way of saying Fall Break. Its basically the time around midterms for undergrads meaning that most of them take a break and have fun, but our professors tell us  (in a kind way) that it means we should consider the extra days as concentrated work time. To be honest, its actually really nice because normally its hard to get my own work done in between class and teaching and grading and the normal little things that come up so these sorts of reading days really are times when I typically just work entirely on my own research. Last Thursday, I also turned in a draft on the first chapter of my thesis, so I was pretty excited and decided to take a little break from working on that.

Plus, Aaron and I had a wedding reception to attend in Pennsylvania on Sunday so we drove up to NJ and stayed there for two days because it was nearby. The wedding was nice and they had some delicious desserts, but with all the driving I did not have a chance to bake anything myself! oh well, its probably for the better after all of the eating we've been doing lately. This is a picture of us at the wedding.

And here is a photo of the bride and groom at their table, below. The groom is in Aaron's program and his family is Indian so they wore traditional Indian attire, it was really pretty.

After the excitement of this weekend, I have to get back into my normal regime of studying, studying, studying! I managed to grade all of the midterm exams for the class I TA, which means next week I get to hand them back.