Quick & Easy: Carnation's Famous Chocolate Fudge

Today, I find myself in need of a last minute dessert idea for a New Year's Eve celebration, and it eases my mind to think that I am not the only one who has procrastinated on this front. So, if you're in a bind and you need a down-and-dirty, knock-it-out-in-less-than-an-afternoon, sure-to-please-a-crowd treat, I suggest you try these little chocolate fudge squares. They're simple, rich so you can slice them into teensy little squares and people will still be happy (or, you know, just eat twice as many squares, but either way they're happy). And to let you in on a little secret, it's just the Carnation (evaporated milk) recipe.

I wouldn't call this Floptimism's Officially Endorsed Chocolate Fudge Recipe - although it just about floored L's family on Christmas, I found them to be...nice. Don't get me wrong, I could sit there and eat the whole container, the ensuing belly ache pretty worth it in the end. They're decadent and very chocolatey, but in the end, I think nearly all of the flavor is attributable to the chocolate chips. And I don't want to add 4 ingredients to chocolate chips and then only taste the chocolate chips. If I wanted that, I could just melt some chocolate chips and lick the bowl, for a bunch less calories. So, although these are certainly delicious, a sure-fire crowd pleaser, and an excellent way to use up leftover evaporated milk or pull together a last minute dessert, I have not ended my Perfect Fudge Hunt.

Carnation's Famous Fudge, courtesy of Very best Baking
Yield: About 3 dozen squares

The Ingredients
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
2/3 cup evaporated milk
2 tablespoons butter
1/4 teaspoon salt (omitted)
2 cups mini marshmallows*
1 1/2 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips
1/2 cup chopped nuts, optional (omitted - but very interested in how it would turn out with them in)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

The Method
Line an 8 inch square pan with aluminum foil and set aside. Add the sugar, milk, butter, and salt in a medium saucepan over medium heat, stirring frequently. Allow the mixture to come to a full, rolling boil, and continue stirring constantly for another 4-5 minutes.

Remove the pan from the heat and pour in the marshmallows, chocolate chips, nuts (if using), and extract. Stir vigorously for an additional one minute or so, or until the marshmallows have fully melted.

Pour the mixture into the baking pan and allow it to chill for around 2 hours or until set and firm. I would recommend going beyond this 2 hours if possible, as it's a naturally soft fudge that can be slightly challenging (though nowhere near impossible) to slice.

Lift from the pan and carefully remove the foil, using a knife if necessary to pull out any stubborn aluminum foil that has torn away from the main piece and clung to the fudge. Slice into at least 36 pieces; the recipe I linked you to claims it will make 48, but I just got slightly over 3 dozen, which is what other Carnation Fudge sources say (same recipe otherwise, though).
At this point I pressed some red and green sprinkles onto the tops, but you could do this before chilling the fudge for a less tedious process (or omit it altogether). If making ahead, store in an airtight container in a cool place; refrigeration is ideal, but not necessary.

*Note: I didn't have mini-marshmallows, so I attempted to cut up normal sized ones. This is beyond a pain, so I would highly encourage you to go for the minis unless, like me, this truly is crunch-time and regular is all you have. If that's the case, I found it easiest to start with them cold (we keep ours in the freezer), and take some kitchen shears and just slice them up into smaller pieces so they would melt at about the same rate as the minis. I also approximated the amount (roughly 1/2 of a 10-oz. bag), since once they're cut and sticky, they condense more than whole mini marshmallows do.

The website also includes some suggestions for mixing up the flavor, which would definitely be appealing, but I don't know that you really need additional recipes for that. Change up the extracts, add in some candy, make a flavored swirl - I encourage you to use your imagination. Or you could just stick to the classic chocolate - you can never go wrong with that.

I'm sure I'll be back with another post tomorrow - maybe even the brownie recipe that left me with extra evaporated milk (the entire reason for choosing this fudge recipe in the first place). But if not, I hope everyone has a Happy and a Healthy New Year!

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Oatmeal is breakfast's soup for the soul

There isn't much in this world, I've found, that can beat a day spent inside while snowflakes slowly but persistently work their magic outside. That being said, the day afterward has a little special something about it, too. You get up and are faced with a white blanket across everything: your porch, your steps, your cars, your street. It's daunting and grumble-worthy, but you get out there with everyone else on your street and you just dig in. Two hours later, everything's clear, and you can come back inside to the warmth, leave your snowy layers on the blanket or towel by the front door, and enjoy the rest of the day just as you did the day before. It's on days like these that I want those warm, comforting foods. We tested out a new waffle mix this morning (I'm still unconvinced that a box mix - even this all-natural one - is capable of holding a candle to the recipes I'm searching for, the ones that will produce the big, fluffy waffles and pancakes), but in considering what I wanted to post about this afternoon, I could only think of one thing: oatmeal. I know a lot of people who don't like it, or who only really like the instant kind. I've recently started experimenting with the Real Stuff, the oats from the big container, and they've almost all turned out incredibly well.

Over the course of the semester, I made a lot of different kinds, though all similar in their autumn essence. So, today I have not just one recipe, but three - or really, one back-of-the-container recipe, three different, very delicious ways: Ban-umpkin, Cinnamon Apple, and Banana Cider. I'm sure as pumpkin and apple fall out of season and new fruits make their seasonal debut, I'll have another batch post. But for now, I would highly recommend a batch of one of these recipes, enjoyed curled up at your kitchen table, perhaps even watching the snow outside from the same storm that just hit my home town.

Three-Way Oatmeal: The Base Recipe
Yield: 1 serving
The Ingredients
1 cup milk (any fat content; I use 1%)
3/4C oats, not the instant kind

The Method
Bring the milk gently to a boil, whisking every so often and keeping an eye on it to prevent scorching. Once the milk is boiling, add in the oats and stir, allowing to cook for another 5 minutes or so - just until the oats have cooked up and absorbed a fair amount of the liquid. This can be flavored or sweetened to your liking - anything from sugar (brown or regular), syrup, cinnamon, extracts, etc. I would keep each individual sweetener at around 1-2 teaspoons, and cinnamon and extracts no more than 1/2 teaspoon each - though this can, of course, vary according to preference.

Ban-umpkin Oatmeal
Yield: 1 serving
The Ingredients
3/4 cup oats
3/4 - 1 cup milk
1/4 cup apple cider
1 small banana, mashed
1/4 cup pumpkin yogurt + 2-3 teaspoons pumpkin puree
cinnamon for sprinkling

The Method
Prepare oatmeal as you would for the base recipe, adding the cider to the pan at the same time as the milk. Meanwhile, mash the banana and add it to the pumpkin yogurt, then set aside. When the oats are ready, remove from heat and stir in the banana-pumpkin mixture. Sprinkle with cinnamon, and serve.

Apple Cinnamon Oatmeal
Yield: 1 serving
The Ingredients
1 cup milk
3/4 cup oats
1 apple, diced (skin on is fine)
1 teaspoon brown sugar, divided
scant 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, divided
scant 1 tablespoon walnuts, chopped
2-3 tablespoons apple sauce (unsweetened or homemade preferable)

The Method
Prepare as you would plain oatmeal, adding the diced apple and half of the brown sugar and cinnamon along with the oats. When the oatmeal is done cooking, stir in the apple sauce and top with the remaining brown sugar, cinnamon, and walnuts.

Banana Cider Oatmeal
Yield: 1 serving
The Ingredients
3/4 cup milk
1/4 - 1/3 cup apple cider
3/4 cup oats
1/4 cup unsweetened apple sauce
1 small banana, sliced
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
3/4 - 1 teaspoon maple syrup
dash nutmeg

The Method
Prepare as you would plain oatmeal, adding in the cinnamon and nutmeg along with the oats. Once the oats are ready, turn down the heat to low and stir in the apple sauce, the banana slices (optional: leave some out for a garnish), and the maple syrup. Garnish with extra apple slices and a light sprinkling of cinnamon.

All of these offer warm, hearty, and wholesome breakfasts. They're filling and full of fiber without being too heavy. All three versions are mildly or moderately sweet, but not overly so. You can also keep things new and different by using different spices, different liquids as the base (though I would stick with water or milk as the primary ingredient), and various fruits. Even dried fruit would work nicely.

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Une Pièce Montée, aka Croquembouche, aka Espresso Cream Puffs, aka I did a Daring Bakers' Challenge! Kind of.

Of course, I completed this challenge about 5 months later than everyone else, but still! The Daring Bakers' Challenge is something that I eye with intrigue all the time, but for right now, it's not all that realistic for me to get involved in. I don't have the spare time, really, to be dedicated, and I have enough trouble with baked goods going to waste even when there's an actual occasion for them. One day, though, I hope to become a part of the fun and creativity. Until then, I'm content to snag some of their awe-inspiring recipes at my own pace, and daringly test them out that way.

I was so proud of myself, waking up at 7am on the morning of Christmas Eve to make these before heading to L's dad's house for some festivities. Step number one, the pastry cream, went swimmingly and I popped that into the fridge to chill without issue. The pate a choux itself was nerve-wracking in that they seemed très flat for an unsettling period of the baking process, but puffed up beautifully in the end. Some of them stuck to the baking sheet so upside-down they resembled popovers more than what I would imagine should be a fillable pastry, but I worked with it and it's really not a big deal. Then, I took a break to let them cool. With just a half hour or so remaining, I assembled them and turned to step three: the salted caramel glaze. These were measured in grams and milliliters, so I did a little conversion and then went on my merry way. Melt the sugar and butter you say? No problem. Whisk, whisk, whisk, you say? Easy as pie. Whisk, whisk, whisk until the mixture is thick as honey? Um...how does "thick like marshmallow fluff" sound to you? The same? Yes? No? So I whisked away, and finally gave up and poured it into a bowl, as the instructions stated. And while I nursed my poor arm after all of that whisking, I looked over at the bowl to find....clumpy, lumpy, very-un-glaze-like crumbles of milk, sugar, and butter. Not usable at. all.

So, maybe I'm not quite a Daring Baker yet. I didn't have time to try again, so I just melted sugar in a saucepan to make a very simple caramel, and drizzled it over the top of the pastries. Maybe it was lacking a certain depth of flavor, but if so, this "weak" attempt at a croquembouche is mighty tasty. I'm so happy with the results that I don't find myself mourning the loss of the salted aspect of the caramel glaze at all. It was elegant, appropriately portioned, different from all of the pies and cookies you typically find at a Christmas gathering, and very, very doable. I post this now because, although the holidays have just passed, I think it would make a fantastic dessert for any New Year's celebrations you have in mind. It's also infinitely adaptable, from the type of cream you use to the flavors in the glaze - even the design you use to assemble the finished product can be as traditional or as wacky as you like. It went over so well with everyone who tried it, and I will definitely be making it again. And again. And again....

Pièce Montée/Croquembouche, with a Caffeinated Twist, courtesy of The Daring Bakers and, more specifically, Juls' Kitchen
Yield: 28 pastries (I halved it and got around 15)

The Ingredients - The Pastry Cream
1 cup (225 milliliters) whole milk
2 tablesoons corn starch
6 tablespoons (100 grams) sugar
1 large egg
2 large egg yolks
2 tablespoons (30 grams) unsalted butter
(I used salted and it was fine)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 teaspoons instant espresso powder
(I used 1.5x the amount of instant coffee powder)

The Method
Dissolve the cornstarch into 1/4 of the milk. Beat the whole egg, followed by the egg yolks, into this mixture, and set aside. Dissolve the espresso powder into 1 1/2 teaspoons of boiling water, and set aside as well. Meanwhile, combine the rest of the milk with the sugar in a small-medium saucepan. Bring the sugar mixture to a boil, and then remove from the heat.

Pour approximately 1/3 of the boiling milk into the egg mixture, whisking non-stop to prevent the eggs from cooking. Return the remaining milk in the saucepan and bring to a boil once more in order to add in the egg mixture in a steady stream, whisking all the while. Continue whisking, without stopping, until the mixture thickens and comes to a boil. At this point, remove it from the heat. Whisk the espresso mixture, vanilla, and butter into the cream until it has become fully incorporated.

Immediately pour the cream into a stainless steel or ceramic bowl, cover tightly with plastic wrap, and chill until ready to assemble the pastries.

The Ingredients - Pate a Choux
3/4 cup (175 milliliters) water
6 tablespoons (85 grams) unsalted butter
1/4 teaspoon salt
(omitted, as I used salted butter)
1 tablespoon sugar
1 cup (125 grams) all-purpose flour
4 large eggs

The Method
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit (220 Celsius) and line two baking sheets with parchment paper (aha! that would be the step I missed - seriously do this in the hopes of preventing the bottomless pastries I by-and-large had).

Add the water, butter, salt, and sugar in a medium saucepan placed over medium heat. Bright the mixture to a boil, stirring every so often. Once it reaches a boil, remove it from the heat and sift in the flour; I found it easiest to have the flour pre-measured and the sifter handy. Stir to incorporate the flour, and then return to the heat while stirring constantly. The batter will begin to dry out and pull away from the sides of the pan. When this happens, transfer to a bowl and stir with a wooden spoon for about a minute, allowing it to cool slightly.

Add one egg and begin to stir. At first, the batter will look loose and shiny, but as you stir the egg in to become more and more incorporated, the batter will take on a drier appearance that resembles butttered mashed potatoes. Only at this point, add the second egg, and repeat until all of the eggs are incorporated in this fashion.

Transfer the batter to a pastry bag fitted either with a large open tip or without a tip at all (I used a plastic bag - really need a set of pastry bags). Pipe the batter into 1" wide by 1" heigh discs, spread about 1" apart from each other. Dip your finger in hot water and gently press down on any tips or lumps that you see, creating as smooth pastries as possible. Brush the tops with an egg wash of 1 egg lightly beaten with a pinch of salt - I also forget about this, and think it came out fine, but maybe it'll knock your socks off if you include it. I'll definitely be trying it next time.

Bake the choux until they puff up and begin to turn a golden color, around 10 minutes. At this point, lower the temperature to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (180 degrees Celsius) and continue to cook until dry and "well-colored," which I took to mean a deeper gold bordering on nicely browned. For me, this happened after about 8-10 minutes, but the recipe approximates it to take about 20. So keep an eye on it. Remove them to a rack and cool; I transferred them from the baking sheet here. These can be stored in an airtight container overnight.

When you're ready to finish up the recipe and assemble your pièce montée, first make a few trial designs to know exactly how each piece stacks. The recipe suggests going more in-depth with this process, tracing out a circle to use as a guide and really keeping track of it. I didn't have the time for this, so I just found out which ones worked the best on each layer. Once this is done, get ready to fill the pastries.

I left my icing gun in my apartment, so I had absolutely no tools to fill the pastries the way the recipe instructs. So, I slit the top of the pate a choux and used a plastic bag to pipe the cream into it. However, if you have the necessary tools (a bag or gun with a plain pastry tip), I'd follow the recipe: pierce the bottom of each choux with the tip to make a hole; fill the pastry with the cream; and place on a paper-lined sheet. Either set aside or refrigerate briefly while you proceed to step 3: the dreaded caramel glaze (dun dun dun...)

The Ingredients - The Salted Caramel Glaze*
100 grams caster sugar (yes, I used regular; no, I did not even food process it because, frankly, I meant to do it ahead of time and then didn't, and did not have the time once I remembered)
50 grams salted butter, diced
50 milliliters whipping cream

*Note: because my glaze turned out as such an epic failure, I will not tell you the ratios I used, as they would be no help to you at all. Perhaps my error was in the caster sugar substitute, or the conversion into tablespoons and cups. I don't know, but I have a feeling it was my ratios.

The Method
Combine the caster sugar in a small saucepan along with two tablespoons of water, allowing it to melt without stirring. Remove this from the heat and stir in the butter. Pay attention here! The mixture should start to bubble at this point, and it will get firmer. Warning sign number one for me was when this did not happen.

Stir in the cream and return it to the heat, allowing it to come to a boil again. Boil for 2 minutes, stirring constantly until it gets thick and sticky like honey. Again, this never happened for me, even after 5 minutes post-boil of constant stirring. However, when you presumably complete this step more successfully than I did, remove the pan from the heat and allow to cool completely.**

Now you're ready to assemble your pièce montée. Dip the top of each choux in your caramel, being careful as it may not be completely cool yet (even though the last step does tell you to cool completely - I guess it takes into account that many of us, ahem, are not quite that patient), and slowly begin to build your mountain of delicious pastries. The glaze will harden and act as a binder to hold the design together. Rather than dipping the pastries, I merely assembled one layer, drizzled the glaze over it, and then assembled the next one and repeated. My glaze solidified rapidly since I used straight sugar, so I needed to work quickly and employed the help of Mama Floptimism, gratefully.

Once finished, it should be kept cool because of the cream, although the recipe doesn't specify how to store the finished product. I would guess this means that it should be served shortly upon completion; mine stayed at room temperature until I got ready to go and then drove to Papa L's house, then it went into the garage until dessert. It was perfectly fine this way, and I have a few leftovers that I put in the fridge and they seem to be holding up alright, too. Just don't keep them too long - any cream-based dessert has a relatively short life span.

**Note: If your caramel glaze fails as irreparably as mine did, simply place a decent amount of sugar (maybe 1/4 cup) in a clean saucepan and melt it over medium-low heat, tipping the pan to move it around occasionally. Again, this solidifies quickly so be ready to move straight into assembly mode, but it works beautifully and adds a very nice crunch to an otherwise soft and creamy dish. Maybe no salt, but if you're missing that, a little sprinkling of sea salt could be a very nice touch.

And now, there's a near blizzard outside, which means it's a very nice day for hot chocolate, left over treats from the weekend's festivities, and some good, sappy movies. Shouldn't things like bills and rent checks just disappear on days like this? I think so. I hope that everyone caught in this mess is safe and sound, and that everyone who celebrated had a wonderful Christmas. Happy, Merry!

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Special Delivery Cake

Two days ago was C's birthday - you know, C, L's brother - the one who brought infamy to an otherwise innocuous (if not deliciously addicting) cranberry upside down cake. We aren't quite into the gift-giving realm of not-quite-inlaw-hood, so I usually just bake him something. Last year, for instance, was a batch of cupcakes designed to look like sushi. Kind of. This year, I baked him an upside down UPS box - so that he could have his very own, genuine upside-down cake.

Even if you have no desire to replicate the design I made, you should try both the cake and the icing, because they're fabulous. The cake is a yellow cake, very reminiscent of the flavors we've all come to love in that hate-to-love-it box mix. It stays moist and tasty, even after being kept in a trunk in just above freezing temperatures (though I would've preferred it, to be perfectly honest, had we had time to warm it to room temperature). The only "complaint" I really have is that it seems to be a little bit heavy on the sugar. The recipe says to line the bottom of the pan with parchment paper, and the top of that cake when I tried to peel off the parchment was downright gooey. There was a puddle of liquid under my cooling rack by the time the cake was ready to be constructed and frosted. I don't know that this is a bad thing - it's certainly not the worst title a cake has ever beared (born? bore? huh.) - but it is something to consider.

As for the frosting, I needed something more tan than chocolate brown if I wanted it to really look like a cardboard box. Plus, if I used a traditional chocolate frosting, then I would have had a much more difficult time finding something to use as a writing medium. So, with this brown sugar frosting, which I think is much more aptly named a chocolate whipped cream frosting, I was able to better approximate the color of cardboard as well as use a simple melted chocolate for the writing. The actual frosting was night - very light, not too decadent or rich or overpowering. I'm not a fan of the gobs of confectioner's sugar + shortening that bakeries tend to use, and I could also do without the really rich buttercreams more often than not. I like the cake to dominate, and the frosting to accent. This definitely does this. There's just this little bitsy after taste that I noticed and wasn't thrilled with. Right now I'm chalking it up to being a little heavy on the cocoa, so you might want to decrease that. No one else commented on it (negatively, that is - there were plenty of compliments), though, so again, this might just be my weird palate trying to sabotage an otherwise enjoyable cake for me.

As you can see, I forgot to take a picture of it until I was staring down at it, half eaten already. So, you won't see a full shot of it, but I did manage to get a few out of the cake the next morning. This way you can also see the inside, which might give you a better idea of how it was constructed (that word you are searching for would be sloppily, I believe). The dimensions weren't as amenable to cutting as I had anticipated, but in the end I don't think that matters so much as long as you can cover it up. And cover it up, I did. By the way, that part of the cake that looks like a chocolate cake layer is not at all a chocolate cake layer. It is a strip of solid chocolate. More on that later.

I would consider using the yellow cake as my go-to birthday cake (although I have too many variations to quite my search just yet), and I'll definitely keep the frosting in my back pocket. Because I didn't alter the recipes at all except to halve the cake, you can follow the links below. The rest of this post will cover how to make the UPS cake specifically, for all of those times that you find yourself in need of one. You're welcome.

Special Delivery Cake
Yield: 6-8 servings

The "Ingredients"
1/2 batch of a cake of your choosing, baked in a 9x9" square pan instead of a 9" round cake pan; I used one from Annie's Eats
2C (approximately) chocolate whipped cream frosting
1/2C (give or take) semi-sweet chocolate chips

The Method
While the cake is cooling, prepare the frosting. It won't look like much, but I managed to eek just enough out of it to cover the full cake.

Take the cooled cake and place it on a working surface. If the cake does turn out to be 9x9, cut the cake into a smaller 6x6 square*. This should leave you with 2 extra strips of cake approximately 3" wide each.

Place the strips top down and frost on all sides (except the side faced down on the work surface) before sliding them together, to form another (pseudo) 6x6" square. Take the original, whole 6x6" square and place it, face down, on top of the 2 3" strips that you just frosted. Now, frost the 6x6" square, leaving the top side either unfrosted or just barely so. Be sure to smooth out all sides so that it now looks like one, tall cake.

Melt the chocolate on half power in your microwave in roughly 30 second intervals. When melted, transfer to a ziplock bag or pastry bag. If using a ziplock, push the chocolate to one bottom corner, close the zip, and snip a very small hole in the full corner. Decorate as you wish - I wrote "This side up" on one side, his name and zip code on another (the full address turned out to be far too ambitious for such a small cake and rudimentary tools in the hands of a pretty inexperienced cake decorator), and my attempt at the recycle symbol on a third side. Remember, right now the cake is "upside down" from how it will be presented, so you can write normally.

Once all of the lettering and decorating is finished, place the serving platter on top of the cake and carefully flip over. Frost the remaining side, keeping the two halves on top distinct to resemble the flaps of the bottom of a cardboard box. My box had a very large gap between the two, so I squirted the remaining melted chocolate inside of it to fill it up, and then smoothed over the surface carefully with a knife so that it looked like a seam.

*Note: My cake did not turn out to be 9x9. It was about 8x8" so my construction job was a little sloppier. You still want to split the cake into 2/3 and 1/3, if that makes sense. For an 8x8 cake, this would mean making a 5 1/3x5 1/3" square with 2-2 2/3" strips.

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Savory Eggplant Croquettes

This week kicks my seasonal baking plans into high gear. Between now and Saturday, I have 2 birthdays, Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day, not to mention the baked goods I'll be preparing for actual gifts. I just went to the store and stocked up on a dozen eggs, heavy cream, whole milk - my fridge is brimming with the promise of dessert, and I'm ready to go. However, it's around this time of year that I also start gravitating toward healthier main dishes. I figured I might not be the only one, so here's a little vegetarian meal that I found on Closet Cooking and had to try: eggplant croquettes. I made some mistakes with it, but am overall pleased enough with the result to give them another shot. That is, when I get around to repeating the recipe...

My biggest mistake was that I made fairly enormous patties out of the eggplant mixture, meaning the outside started to burn before the inside transformed from mush to delicious croquette texture (not that I have any idea what that is supposed to be, other than not what mine turned out to be). If you make a greater quantity of thinner patties, I think you'll have a much more appealing end product. As they were, thick and not fully cooked (which, by the way, is not unsafe in terms of this recipe), I still enjoyed them. I served them over a bed of spinach, drizzled with some honey mustard marinade I had made for another recipe that week. The original recipe calls for a red pepper and tomato topping, which I can imagine would taste delicious (think eggplant parm, but better), and I'll definitely be trying that out the next time around. The only other comment I have is that I thought, even for a sauteed croquette, these called for a high amount of oil. I decreased it a little and found it to be too much, but perhaps that has to do with the fact that I had a lesser quantity of thicker patties, and if I had had twice the amount of patties taking up space in the pan, I would need the extra oil. Just something to keep in mind.

Disregarding the unfortunate texture mine had in the center (which my taste buds easily forgave), these croquettes are savory and bursting with flavors, underscored by a mild saltiness from the cheese (and if you add more salt). The honey mustard drizzling that I added created a sweet contrast, and I would imagine that a red pepper or marinara could do the same, or add a little element of heat, which would be equally nice. Despite being pan fried, these don't feel heavy (particularly if you don't make monstrous patties as I did, or so I would imagine), but serving them with something simple like a salad is an appropriate balance nonetheless. I will definitely be making these again, and encourage you to try them out as well.

Eggplant Croquettes, courtesy of Closet Cooking
Yield: 2-3 servings (about 6 normal-sized croquettes)

The Ingredients
1 medium eggplant, cut into 1/4" slices
1/4C + 1C bread crumbs
2 cloves garlic (I used about 2tsp. minced)
1/4C parmigiano reggiano (yes, I use the cheap stuff in a can, though likely not for much longer)
1 Tbsp. parsley, chopped (1/2 Tbsp. dried oregano)
salt and pepper, to taste
1 egg, lightly beaten
3 Tbsp. oil

The Method
Broil the eggplant, 7 minutes per side, until slightly golden-brown in color. Allow the slices to cool before removing the skin (although they more or less peeled right off, I found it easier to cut around some of them to do this).

Place the eggplant, 1/4C breadcrumbs, garlic, parmesan, parsley, salt, and pepper into a food processor, mixing until chopped and combined. Grab a handful and form it into a patty, taking it and dipping it first into the egg mixture and then into the remaining 1C of breadcrumbs.

Heat the oil in a medium pan and sautee the patties, roughly 1-3 minutes per side, until golden brown all over. Repeat as necessary to use up the mixture, then serve topped with a red pepper or marinara sauce, the recipes of which can be found on the original post; since I didn't use them, I'll just direct you to the above link. Alternatively, you could use a honey mustard topping as I did, which I very much enjoyed, despite its non-traditional elements - this was just a ratio of 2:1 of coarse-ground mustard and honey, whisked together.

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The jury's out on these Gingerbread Cookies

Gingerbread conjures up such wonderful things: autumnal spices - cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg - warm, homemade treats, the holidays. I close my eyes and picture these things in the form of little brown cookies, and I have to smile. The smell that fills the house when they're baking, the soft and chewy texture of them when they're done just right, even those stale and barely edible gingerbread house decorating kits make me smile, because even if they're not the best version of the gingerbread family, they're still festive and fun. L loves gingerbread. They're such a winter classic. So, of course I made a batch for an on-campus cookie exchange.

The first line of my notes about these cookies reads: "Ugh! What a pain!"

Seriously. It's as though I never learn. I hate gingerbread. The dough is the bane of my holiday existence, with its thickness that threatens to break my dough hook and its stickiness that goes everywhere but where I want it to. And the decorations are beyond tedious when you don't turn them into a friend- or family-wide gathering. Bah humbug, indeed. When it comes to gingerbread dough, I am an incurable Scrooge.

And yet, I insist on making them again and again. I'm a more experienced baker, I say to myself; or, I just won't use the same recipe; or even, you know what? I don't care if they're difficult to make! People love them, so I need to stop being such a baby. Well, if swearing off a treacherous cookie recipe makes me a baby, then name-call away.

I'm especially bitter this year because I chose a recipe flop. So, although last year I had similarly difficult experiences in making them, the actual cookies came out pretty well so I could at least be proud of my product. I actually threw the last bunch of these away recently because even I, Queen of all things frugal, could not force myself to eat them up. To waste they went, and the bottom of the trash can is where they will stay.

You must be wondering at this point why I'm even bothering writing about them, if I felt so strongly against their existence. Well, L loved them. Genuinely, really. So, maybe they're not all that bad. But I will present them to you with several warnings:

1. They spread like the devil. The recipe did not mention a greased or ungreased cookie sheet, so I did grease them. This undoubtedly did not help. Do not grease yours - there is a near ton of butter in them, and therefore do not need the help of more butter on the sheet.
2. Along the same lines as #1, don't expect these to be gingerbread men, as I mistakenly did. You see, the recipe tells you that you can cut them into whatever shapes you like, but this is - as far as I can tell - a bold faced lie. Just do circles, and make it a lot easier on yourself. Because even without the butter on the baking sheet, I cannot imagine these holding their shape very well.
3. These are flat, flat, flat. They puff up like monsters in the oven and then totally fall. Maybe this is not supposed to happen, but it happened to me. So, I want to warn you.
4. These are very soft, chewy cookies, not your typical gingerbread recipe. I thought I would like this, but with them being as flat as they were, it didn't appeal to me as much.

Again, I know people who tried these and loved them. Personally, I mostly tasted the butter, and not in a nice, light kind of way. Maybe I'm a little butter sensitive these days. Regardless, if you do venture into the realm of this recipe, I would love to hear your results. I'm always disheartened by a failed recipe and tend to think that I could improve upon them - but being as how I have so many other gingerbread recipes, and how I'm never keen to make them for the heck of it, I'm probably going to cross this one off my list and move on. Also, if you have more general gingerbread-making tips, I would be even more interested in hearing from you. Because these are, without a doubt, the cookie that I hate to love, and love to hate. I would really like to, one day, love to love them.

Gingerbread Cookies, courtesy of Pastry Methods & Techniques
Yield: about 4 dozen pretty big cookies, I'd say

The Ingredients
32oz. all purpose flour
2 Tbsp. cocoa powder
2 Tbsp. + 2 tsp. ground ginger
2 tsp. allspice
4 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. baking soda
2 tsp. salt
2.5 tsp. fresh ground black pepper
4 sticks (1lb.) butter
12oz. sugar
2 eggs
1C molasses
1/4C corn syrup

The Method
Whisk all of the dry ingredients together and set aside. Meanwhile, cream the butter and the sugar until light. Add the molasses and corn syrup to the butter mixture. Finally, mix in the dry ingredients.

Chill the dough - you want to take this step seriously. The colder the dough is, the easier it will be to roll out and work with. I even took a hunk out to work with and left the rest in the fridge to try to keep it cold throughout the rolling and cutting process.

Preheat the oven to 325F. When ready, roll the dough out preeetttyyyy thin for a crispy cookie, or a little bit less thin for a chewier, thicker cookie. I probably did mine to a little under 1/4", but I'm terrible with measurement guesstimates and did not use a ruler.

Place cookies on an ungreased cookie sheet and bake for 7-10 minutes. For crispier cookies, you're going for the upper end of this range; for chewier ones, you want to shy more towards 7 minutes and look for a cookie that is set but not yet browned (I found this a little difficult to discern, considering gingerbread is, well, brown). When done, leave them on the cookie sheet for about 5 minutes. This will do 2 things: it will allow the cookies to set a little more, making it easier to transfer them without them breaking to pieces; it will also give the sheet time to cool down a bit, since you'll presumably be baking in batches and it's never good to start with a hot sheet (uneven baking and whatnot).

I also just realized that I didn't even take pictures of these! How lame of me - Food Blogs is going to kick me out one of these days, with all of this recent photographic laziness I've been exhibiting. I apologize. The original poster didn't provide pictures, either. They didn't look very pretty, anyway - really spread out, flat brown cookies. Makes you want to run to the kitchen right now and whip up a batch, right? I'll be baking a lot this week - I'm sure I'll have some more promising recipes to share in the near future.

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Simply Put, Quinoa & Black Beans

I've been craving me some vegetarian dishes recently. I tend to eat one meatless meal per day, and if not, something lighter and not quite so meaty, like eggs. Leading up to the end of the semester, though, I started to clean out the fridge and freezer of all things that would go bad if left alone for a month, and frozen meat is much more of a threat than canned beans. So, a little veggie entree is much welcomed in my mind right now. I made this recipe for quinoa and black beans a long time ago, but I like to try to match up my food thoughts and feelings with the recipe I share with you, even if it's not a recipe I just got back from preparing.

This recipe for quinoa and black beans is the quintessence of simplicity. In fact, had I not made certain changes, I fear it might even be (dare I say it?) - bland. Fear not, though! I did interfere with Eating Well's suggestions, and tampered away to result in a very clean-tasting, refreshingly uncomplicated dish that I am very happy with. You taste every ingredient, and the sour cream does a nice job of binding it all together. I almost don't want to call this a recipe, because it could be so easily adapted to whatever is in your fridge at the moment. I've even made other, somewhat similar quinoa-and-black-bean combos (one such recipe I've even posted here already). Maybe that's why it's called "quinoa and black beans:" anything more concrete than that like "stir fry" or "pilaf" would tie it down too much. However, if you follow the ingredients list that I used, I don't think that you'll be disappointed. This can even be made in one pot if you cook the quinoa first and then add in everything else, and who doesn't love small messes in the kitchen?

Simply Satisfying Quinoa & Black Beans, adapted from Eating Well
Yield: 2 servings

The Ingredients
1 tsp. olive oil
1/2 bell pepper, chopped
1 plum tomato, chopped
1 - 1.5C spinach (2 good handfuls)
2 Tbsp. chopped red onion
1/2C canned black beans, rinsed
2 Tbsp. broth or water (definitely go for the broth)
4 tsp. sour cream (non-fat is fine)
curry powder, to taste
black pepper, to taste
1/2C hot, cooked quinoa

The Method
In a sauce pan (the same one you used for the quinoa, unless you're making that simultaneously instead of beforehand), add the oil, pepper, onion, curry powder, and black pepper. If you want your spinach to be fully wilted, you might want to add it in here, too. I let mine do a semi-wilt by adding it in later. Cook over medium heat until just tender.

Add in the rest of the ingredients - except the quinoa and sour cream - and cook until heated through. Finally, add in the quinoa and stir together before enjoying with 2tsp. sour cream dolloped on top of each serving.

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Warm Chocolate-Rum Pudding

I used to hate chocolate. I mean, sure, I loved my candy bars and can't remember ever turning down a brownie as a kid, but I was a vanilla ice cream, vanilla cake, white chocolate kind of girl. I even preferred these off-brand, potentially expensive (since we only got them once in a blue moon) white chocolate peanut butter cups over the Real Deal - you see, I was always a strange one when it came to food, I guess. Then, something happened. I can't remember exactly what it was, but I'm almost positive it started with the first bite of The Most Amazing Chocolate Cake in the Universe. It was sold by a local deli-type restaurant, and oh. my. god. Seven layers of dense, fudgy, rich chocolate topped and stacked with chocolate frosting with, of course, chocolate chips pressed into the sides. It was heaven on earth. I think it converted me to chocolate because now, chocolate is my achilles heel. That cake opened up the pandora's box of my taste buds, and there's no going back.

Unfortunately, with the whole no-trans-fat thing I've got going on, I have since banned that cake from my life (and basically anything else from a bakery), and need to find my chocolate fix in other ways. Although I will eventually need to try my hand at a comparable chocolate cake, I haven't yet, and settle instead with smaller ventures. This chocolate-rum pudding is one of those, and it really happened by chance. You see, I had made a batch of vanilla ice cream (which I will post about, but it's, well, winter time, and my apartment is freezing, and laboriously describing ice cream does not sound very enjoyable or productive at zee moment), and this ice cream left me with extra heavy cream and half and half. I don't drink coffee, so I figured I'd turn it into a dessert somehow. Pudding seemed like the perfect option.

The actual recipe calls for milk and I'm sure that you can use low fat - trust me, I will be trying this recipe out with healthier ingredients someday - but it certainly didn't taste bad with the extra fat in it, let me tell you! It's also just a recipe for chocolate pudding, but I had a little rum extract lying around so I just decided to add it in. Either this addition gave the pudding a nice, nutty flavor, or my taste buds lack adequate flavor discrimination and I've been fooled. Regardless, it tasted tres delicieux. Eat it warm and it's like you're eating brownie batter - and without the eggs, so you don't hear your mother's voice yelling, "don't eat that, you'll get sick!" Eating it cool like a normal pudding is also sufficient, but if I were you, I wouldn't waste my time with such novice approaches. I also added some frozen fruit to it - bananas, strawberries, pineapple - anything that's good covered in chocolate would be good in this dessert. I'd imagine you could also use legit rum instead of the extract, but I don't presume to know the proper ratio, nor do I keep hard liqueur handy, so I just stuck with my cooking products.

Chocolate-Rum Pudding, adapted from The Canadian Baker
Yield: 4 servings

The Ingredients
1/2C sugar (I'd say you could go less for a more bitter product)
1/4C unsweetened cocoa powder
3Tbsp. flour (I used whole wheat)
2C hot milk product (I used a combo of half-n-half and heavy cream)
1 tsp vanilla
1 tsp. rum extract

The Method
Combine the sugar, cocoa, and flour in a saucepan over medium heat. Slowly whisk in the milk, looking for a smooth consistency. Increase the temperature to medium-high and cook, still whisking constantly, until the pudding has thickened and begun to boil, about 5 minutes.

Remove from the heat and whisk in the extracts. Take a spoon, and dig in! Either divide amongst individual dessert dishes or transfer to one central serving dish, and - I say - serve immediately, though the recipe does say to let it cool first.

I can picture this being my go-to pudding recipe, depending on how my alternative ingredient experiments go, just because it's so easy and so good. But of course, I'm sure all of the other 5,000 chocolate pudding recipes I have bookmarked are, too...

This is why I can never make the same thing twice. Maybe by the time I'm 40 I'll have a collection of recipes I'm satisfied enough with to be loyal to. Maybe.

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Cannelini-Mushroom Spaghetti

I'm a woman of my word: I told you I wouldn't leave you hanging in unbearable suspense after yesterday's post. You see, the cannelini-mushroom crostini was good. Very good. But I took the leftovers and, being that I can't leave things well alone, added more to it. I tend to do this a lot with leftovers, which helps me cook in batches and have quick meals without feeling as though I'm eating the same thing day in and day out. It makes sense that a lot of my second go-arounds are enormously successful (a mon avis - in my opinion, that is), because the recipes I post here are almost exclusively first attempts on my part. So, the leftovers give me the opportunity to tweak - and let me tell you, I am so glad that I did!

I added some different Fall veggies and some condiments, and mixed it into a pasta to make this hearty fall pasta dish that you must try. I don't even think I'm going to make the dip without incorporating some of these changes. It really took the dish to a new level in every way: a better variety of textures, a gorgeous burnt-orange color, and so much flavor! This was a smash hit, if you ask me - making this a unanimously approved meal.

What I wound up with was a heartier sauce reminiscent of a more traditional marinara, but so much more special. You get a complete protein without any meat, tons of in-season veggies (though frozen would work just fine here), and what I think is a pretty snazzy name. Cannelini-Mushroom - it just kind of rolls of your tongue, right? Yeah? Well, I think it does, anyway.

Cannelini-Mushroom Spaghetti
Yield: 1-2 servings

The Ingredients
Cannelini-Mushroom Dip, found here
1 1/2 Tbsp. tomato paste
1/2 Tbsp. sour cream
1/4C kale
scant 1/4C cauliflower
chicken stock, for consistency

spaghetti noodles, for serving

The Method
While you wait for the water for the pasta to reach a boil, prepare the bean dip. Transfer the dip to a skillet and add the remaining ingredients, stirring to incorporate. While the pasta cooks, allow the bean mixture to warm up. Toss with pasta when ready, and serve.

Yes, that's it! I'm not messing around with these quick meals. This semester has kicked my butt something fierce, and as important as good, nutritious meals are to me, I'm not about to slave over dinner (often) after a long day of classes. Some of my days leave me away from my apartment for 9 hours. I know anyone with a full time job understands that feeling of walking through the door at 5:30, absolutely starving, and wanting nothing more than a hot meal. It can be so tempting to call for delivery or pop in a lean cuisine, but options like this spaghetti make those so much less appealing (especially when you're on a college student's budget, too). Quick, delicious, and healthy meals are not budget-breaking or time-wasting - necessarily, anyway.

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Cannelini-Mushroom Crostini

With the holiday season approaching, it's tempting to bury all of you in endless dessert recipes. As soon as Thanksgiving hits, it's cookies, pies, and candies as far as the eye can see in the Blog World, and I'm restraining myself from doing the same. Trust me, I have a bunch of desserts waiting patiently in my "to post about" folder. Because of this, it's easy to forget how many other components there are to a holiday family meal -well, I guess not if you're actually planning one, but I think even then the focus can be a little heavy on the last course. But here's a little recipe that would work well as an appetizer for the holiday season: Cannelini-Mushroom Crostini.

I made it up.

Take that as you will. I promise, though, it's mighty tasty, and a heftier serving of it made a dinner for me one night this semester that I just about got lost in. It's easy to put together, forgiving (I think), not all that expensive, and very, very, very satisfying. To make this cannelini-mushroom-toast concoction more of a main meal as I did, use heftier bread, add some salad greens, and drop more of the dip on top. It's still kind of on the lighter side, I guess, but it filled me up all the same.

Cannelini-Mushroom Crostini
Yield: Maybe 4 main dish servings and a whole bunch of appetizers? I need to get better at writing this information down.
The Ingredients
1 can cannelini beans, drained & rinsed
4oz. baby bella mushrooms
1/4 onion, chopped
2 tsp. olive oil
1 tsp. paprika
1 tsp. minced garlic
1 tsp. coarse ground mustard
chicken broth, for consistency (approx. 1 Tbsp.)
fresh ground black pepper, to taste

For serving:
sliced baguette (for appetizer) or italian loaf (for main dish), toasted
salad greens, optional
parmesan cheese, optional

The Method*
1. Puree everything in a food processor or blender to desired consistency. Mine was on the chunkier side, but almost entirely because my blender is kind of annoying to puree things with.
2. Transfer to a small-medium sauce pan and heat over low heat to warm up.
3. Serve over toast and greens, and top with parmesan cheese.

*Note: I didn't write down the method, so this is how I remember it. The pureeing part may have, in fact, been more nuanced - you know, adding ingredients in a certain order. I may or may not have sauteed the mushrooms and onions a little first. I apologize for this - I'm getting much better at documenting my recipes since there's such a lag time before I get to posting them, but some of my earlier recipes are still missing some vital information.

What this recipe isn't missing, however, is a whole slew of suggestions for switching it up. I think a little more paprika wouldn't hurt, and some gobs of high quality cheese if you're not into the whole nutrition thing for the holidays. When serving it on bigger pieces of bread as a main dish, it didn't have quite the texture contrast I was going for - but as a smaller crostini, this shouldn't be a problem. The flavor as is, is delicate and subtle, but savory nonetheless. Feel free to add some salt to it, as any normal person likely would. Walnuts might also be a good addition, chopped up a little more coarsely and sprinkled throughout, maybe just before serving. As for actually serving, there are so many options! It could be a dip, a topping, a heavier pasta sauce (more on that in the next post - oh, so much more on that...).

I haven't made this a second time yet, but I absolutely love it. What I love even more than this is what I did with the extras - but you'll have to wait for that (a la what I just mentioned above about the pasta sauce). I know I'm leaving you hanging off the edge of your desk chairs, just about cursing me for this cruel trick. I know, I know. But you'll pull through. I took my last final today, so I shouldn't pull one of those disappearing acts.

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Sneaky-Veggie Pasta Sauce (for the kid in all of us)

So, maybe I'm one of the last people you'd expect to dole out tips on (a) hiding vegetables rather than embracing them with all of the love in the world and (b) getting children to eat healthier, since let's face it, I'm just barely out of childhood myself. Ahem. However, one of my nutrition-related passions is pediatric nutrition, and I think that ups my credibility just a little bit (the fact that I study it, not just that I care a lot about it). Regardless of age, there is an overwhelming percentage of the population who just doesn't get enough fruits and vegetables, and you try telling the majority of them to just buckle down and eat some raw carrots. It ain't happenin'. I developed this "recipe" for a class project aimed at helping parents encourage healthy eating amongst their children, but it works for anyone.

I put recipe in quotes because this is really as simple as pureeing some veggies and throwing them into a premade sauce. Yes, you can use a homemade sauce - of course, that's always the ideal. However, there are some pretty solid jarred varieties out there: fairly low in sodium, high in vitamins, and moderate in sugars. So, this can literally take less than the time it takes for pasta to cook to put together, making it a fantastic option for busy people (which is just about everyone, right?).

Sneaky-Veggie Pasta Sauce
Yield: A lot? 1 jar's worth of sauce, about 32oz.
The Ingredients
1 jar (or homemade batch) of marinara/tomato sauce
4oz. mushrooms, sauteed in 1tsp. olive oil
heaping 1/4C coarsely chopped yellow bell pepper
1/4C steamed + coarsely chopped carrot
handful of spinach

The Method
1. Pour the sauce into a sauce pan over low heat to start to warm up.
2. Add all of the veggies to a food processor and blend until it reaches the desired consistency - this can be as chunky or as smooth as you like (or your child demands). The smoother you want it to be, the more necessary it may be to add a little bit of olive oil to help it along.
3. Add the vegetables to the sauce pan, increase the heat to medium, and cook until warmed through.

Do you see what I mean about this not really being an actual recipe? Plus, there are tons of "recipes" like this out on the World Wide Web, so you don't have to use mushrooms, yellow pepper, carrots, and spinach. You could use hot peppers, zucchini, onion, kale, parsnips, avocado - anything. It's quick, easy, and results in the most vibrant tomato sauce you can imagine. There are flecks of color strewn throughout and an incredible flavor. It's such a simple way to spruce up a meal or cover up your veggies, that I plan to do it the next time I make a tomato sauce from scratch. With something this fast, the question isn't "why bother?" It's: "Why not??"

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The Cranberry Upside-Down Cake you won't want to miss

It was a cold Thanksgiving night, and snow was on the ground in an uncharacteristically peaceful turn of meteorological events for the area. There was a family huddled together around a table in a small, cozy, recently renovated home that was once an even smaller school house. Food overflowed from the platters on the countertop-buffet, and conversation filtered out across the basket of rolls and plates strewn with leftover food from people's eyes, which were more ambitious than their stomachs. The fire had died down from the other room but the closeness of the family and acquaintances left little to be desired. Then, the conversation died down, too, slowly, and the host and hostess began preparing the last and final course of the evening: dessert. The sweet potato casseroles, roasted turkey, glazed carrots and sliced ham were replaced by a decadent chocolate cake with homemade chocolate fudge sauce, a pecan cheesecake, the obligatory pumpkin pie. And then I stood up from my place at the table, walked into the kitchen, and brought out my own contribution to the Thanksgiving meal: a modestly tasteful cranberry upside down cake, garnished with clusters of fresh cranberries. A ripple of questions took over the lingering conversations at the table asking what this latest addition to the dessert buffet was. "A cranberry upside-down cake," I said - I'll admit, with a little pride, and began slicing it into small enough portions to allow people to make a sample platter of all of the delicious foods that evening. And that's when it all began.

"What makes it an upside down cake?" I heard L's brother ask from the table. That was it. That was the opening sequence to the most amicable civil war in the history of mankind: an innocently yet stubbornly heated banter that lasted for, without exaggeration, the entire night. According to L's brother (C), a cake can only be upside-down if it has a right-side-up counterpart, and as there are no cranberry cakes with the cranberries hidden on the bottom, this was, in fact, false advertising. My wonderful cake spurred a discussion to end all holiday familial debates, and I joked that my controversial cake would be enough to get me banned from all future L-family gatherings.

Luckily for the longevity of our relationship, I am invited back next year. Unfortunately for my cranberry upside down cake, it is not. And so this cake comes with a warning - no matter how endearing it is, sitting in its one-layer glory with little red gems studding the surface, and no matter how addicting it is in the way the sour cranberries cut into the sweetness of brown sugar and molasses - it is powerful enough to create a (friendly) schism in even the most amiable of families. Do not judge this little book by its cover. But at the same time, do not let this recipe pass you by without trying it. It may not be allowed back into the old school house, but I will gladly usher it into other unsuspecting people's homes, because it's just worth it. And I don't expect many people to question its authenticity.

This recipe came from the unfailing Smitten Kitchen, who I turn to time and again for reliably delicious yet simple recipes. The cake, which Deb called non-traditional in the world of upside-down cakes, is sturdy but so soft and smooth. Forget the cranberries for just a second (just a second, I promise!) and just think about this cake. Mix it into ice cream, spread some fruit butters over it, layer it with whipped cream - but whatever you do, try it, because it's just about perfect. In this recipe, it's a sponge waiting to sop up the sugary glaze from the topping, whose decadence works wonderfully with the simplicity of the cake beneath it. Think sweet, but not overpowering; studded with the feisty bite of cranberries, wilted by the heat to make them blend even more into the cake and caramelized topping around it. I'm not connoisseur of upside-down cakes; to my knowledge, this may have been the first one I've ever tasted. For all I know, I have just described a very standard upside-down cake, and I'm the only one still impressed. But I have a feeling that this is not the case. I have the sneaking suspicion that although other upside down cakes are good, and although this is not radically different from the definition of an upside-down cake, this is just one step above. Once again, the Smitten Kitchen does not disappoint.

Cranberry Upside-Down Cake, courtesy of Smitten Kitchen
Yield: 1 cake*
The Ingredients
Butter or cooking spray, for the baking pan
2/3C (5 ounces or 142 grams) packed, light brown sugar
12 Tbsp. (1 1/2 sticks, 6 ounces or 171 grams) unsalted butter, melted (I used salted)
1 Tbsp. unsulphured molasses (I used 1/2 Tbsp + 1/2 Tbsp. honey, as the recipe mentioned that the molasses taste does come through, and I was nervous about this)
2C (8 1/2 ounces or 242 grams) all-purpose flour
1C (7 ounces or 198 grams) sugar
2 tsp. (9 grams) baking powder
1 tsp. salt (omitted)
3 large eggs, room temperature (totally forgot to leave them out, as usual)
1C (8 1/2 ounces or 242 grams) sour cream
2C (8 ounces or 230 grams) fresh or frozen cranberries
Optional flavorings: 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract, 1/4 tsp. almond extract, 1 Tbsp. orange or lemon juice or 1/4 tsp. zest, 1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon, few gratings of fresh nutmeg or a combination thereof (I wish I could remember if I did this, but the addition of orange sounds genius)
Whipped cream, optional

The Method
1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees and grease a 9in. round cake pan, then cover the bottom of the cake pan with parchment (or, in my case) wax paper. This is potentially unnecessary, but I'm not one take chances when my reputation as being able to make beautifully presentable baked goods is on the line. Also, I used a shallower pan than Deb did (according to her pictures), so definitely go with a deeper one if you have it. More on that later.
2. Combine the brown sugar, 1/4C butter (melted), molasses (/honey), and water in a medium sauce pot over medium heat. Bring to a boil, stir well, and pour into the cake pan.
3. Meanwhile, sift the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt, and set aside.
4. Using an electric mixer and a whisk attachment, beat the eggs and sour cream (at medium speed) until combined. If you're using any optional flavorings, add these here. Add the rest of the butter and beat until incorporated, making sure to keep the sides of the bowl scraped down. Add in the flour mixture, mixing until smooth. I did this in batches just to prevent an explosion of flour in my face, but this wasn't specified in the original recipe. Perhaps it's just assumed as common sense.
5. Delicately press the cranberries into the molasses and brown sugar mixture in the cake pan. I crammed as many in as I could in one layer, and am very happy with the amount in the end product. Spoon the batter over it, being careful not to disturb the fruit.
6. Bake in the oven on a center rack with a baking sheet beneath it to catch any overflow, for about 30-35 minutes. The recipe calls for about 45 minutes, but neither Deb's nor mine took this long. I should have written down the exact time but, alas, I am not that thoughtful when running around in baking-mode. The cake should be a golden color and the age-old toothpick test is important (make sure it comes out clean).
7. When done, remove from the oven and let cool for 15 minutes before running a knife around the edge and flipping onto a cooling rack (if not serving immediately) or a large serving platter, to serve immediately and warm. If you're going for the former, as I did, you definitely want a piece of wax paper underneath the rack, because dripping will happen, even if you were lucky and avoided the oven overflow. Also, keep in an airtight container until serving (once cool.)

*Note: Probably because of my shallow(er) pan, I couldn't get all of my batter into one pan. I came incredibly close, but even where I stopped pouring I still watched the oven while it baked, fixated on the ever-rising cake and seemingly ever-shrinking pan. I took the extras and spooned them into another round cake pan and baked it for maybe 15-20 minutes; it was very small and flat, but I'm so happy I did this. It was perfect as a small little treat, or with a dollop of a pumpkin cream cheese dip I had also made that week. So if you wind up in this boat, don't fret - it's just an added pancake-like cake. Like a bonus feature!

All controversy aside, this really is an excellent cake, and perfect for the up and coming holiday season. It did not leave my kitchen (re: my mom's kitchen) a disaster zone, didn't take very long, and holds up pretty well over time (though eating it fresh and warm is, clearly, ideal).

I have so many recipes that I want to share with you, and with winter break coming up, you can count on seeing more of me around here. I hope that everyone is holding up well, and if life as is chaotic for you as it has been for me, well...bake one of these cakes, sit down with a nice holiday special, and just take a break from it all. Everyone needs one of those days.

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Assorted Candy Bark (including Mint-Chocolate and Caramel-Butterscotch)

Tonight, I actually finished my to-do list before midnight, and so I'm finally back to talk to you about some of the cool things I've been cooking up lately. With all of the holiday parties coming up, I figured it would be a good time to share with you a "recipe" for candy bark - which is really just code for assorted candies pressed into freshly melted chocolate and allowed to reharden. I brought it to an induction ceremony this past week, and it got rave reviews. Unfortunately, I can't actually eat the bark (though I did try it) because of the lovely hydrogenated oils in some of the ingredients (more on that in a bit). The beauty of this is that it's kind of the edible trash can of the recipe world - any desserty/snacky ingredient you have on hand works. Pretzels? M&Ms? Candy Canes? Anything! So this really isn't so much a recipe as it is a suggestion for letting your creative juices flow. The original poster used Christmas candy corn and things like that to make a fully Christmas themed bark, while I made 2 batches - 1 with mints pressed in for a mint-chocolate variety, and 1 with butterscotch chips and caramel-filled hershey kisses - so it can be as plain or themed/festive as you want.

Candy Bark, courtesy of Gingerbread Bagels
Yield: Maybe 15-20 pieces? I doubled it to do the 2 different versions, and I had a whole lot.
The Ingredients
8-12 ounces semi sweet chocolate chips
4-8 ounces milk chocolate, butterscotch, or peanut butter chips (this + the semi sweet should equal 16oz.)
10oz. of candy melts (both Gingerbread Bagels and I used green and red for Christmas)

The following are just suggestions - feel free to add in whatever you have handy/want:
1/2C oreos (optional - Christmas oreos, but I used plain), quartered
1/4C m&ms (any version you want)
1/4C candy corn or those cadbury Christmas chocolate balls
1/4C hershey kisses (candy cane, caramel filled, whatever!) or crushed mints

The Method
1. Melt the chocolate chips in the microwave, being careful not to burn them. You could also do this in a double-boiler.
2. Spread the chocolate onto a piece of wax or parchment paper in the rough shape of a rectangle. It should be maybe 1/4" thick, but I really just went with whatever looked right.
3. Melt the candy melts (in separate bowls for each color) and drop spoonfuls sporadically on top of the chocolate rectangle.
4. Use a knife to swirl the candy melts into the chocolate.
5. Press the candy into the chocolate (really do this well - I just kind pressed it a little and a lot of the candy fell off when I broke the bark into pieces) and set aside for at least 3 hours to harden.
6. Break up the bark and enjoy!

I'd say something about how good this is, but first of all - how can it not be good? It's your choice of candy pressed into your choice of chocolate/misc. baking chips. Second of all, though, I didn't really eat much of it, especially once I found out the ingredients of some of my choices. I should have known better - of course candy melts and butterscotch chips have hydrogenated oils in them. How else would manufacturers get them to take that shape? I should have known, but for some reason I didn't think to read the ingredient lists until I stuck the butterscotch chips into the microwave along with the chocolate and, lo and behold, they didn't melt. I found that odd, and then I thought about it, and had an aha! moment. Yes, one of the first ingredients is "partially hydrogenated oil."

For those of you who don't know my bizarre eating quirks, I avoid any trans fats that I can - shortening, hydrogenated oils, etc. It isn't just because of the implications they have on heart health, though that is a huge deciding factor. It's also this very fact that the butterscotch chips don't melt (okay, as an example). There's just something so unnatural about items with hydrogenated oils and shortening. I mean, take crisco itself - that stuff can sit at room temperature for a century and not go bad. McDonald's has been known to sit at room temperature for a year and not grow mold. Things like this just aren't natural, and yet we consume these chemicals and additives all the time. I'm not trying to convert anyone, honestly. It's just something that I feel very passionately about. I eat a lot of butter and I eat a lot of dessert - I'm no junk food phobe. But I care a lot about the ingredients that go into those desserts and foods, because I firmly believe that we need to be eating food and not edible non-food items (or so Michael Pollan says in his book that I just started reading - how convenient - In Defense of Food). Eating healthily is about limiting fat and refined sugars and eating a plethora of fruits, veggies, whole grains, lean proteins, you've heard that spiel. Yes. I'm not railing against my own future profession. But it's also about knowing your food - where it comes from, how it's made...heck, how to pronounce all of the ingredients. You can make great strides in maintaining a healthy diet if you just rule out the foods with stuff in it you can't pronounce. But that's just my opinion.

That's it, that's my soapbox for the day. Again, if you go and make this candy bark and share it with people and you enjoy it immensely - even if you make it and eat the whole batch by yourself - I won't think you're a sinner or you don't know how to eat well. My idiosyncratic eating habits are just that - little quirks that I've picked up. We all have them. But this right here, it's just a little food for thought. I will definitely make this bark again, but likely without the candy melts (maybe some dyed white chocolate instead?) and butterscotch chips. When you get right down to it, this recipe is a crowd pleaser - trans fats or not - and it's one of the easiest and most versatile desserts out there. And isn't that what really counts?

P.S. I apologize for not having a picture - I forgot to take one and am a little too comfy in my chair (it's been a long week) to get up and take one. I'll try to remember to take one tomorrow to post on here. But for now, you can head on over to Gingerbread Bagels to see the absolutely magnificent pictures she took. If those don't make you run into your kitchen and whip up a batch right this second...but I digress.

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In the Spirit of Hannukkah, I bring you: Cauliflower Latkes

Okay, okay, these are not actually called cauliflower latkes. They are actually called Cauliflower Fritters, but tonight is the first night of Hannukkah, and I am determined to share with you a festive recipe. It just so happens that I made these a couple of weeks ago, and they fit the bill perfectly! For those of you unfamiliar with the mysteries of Jewish holidays, the food around Hannukkah time is heavy on the oil, because of the whole made-up story about the oil lasting for 8 days when there was only enough to burn for 1 day (in terms of light, not as a delicious cooking ingredient). This story, as I mentioned, did not actually happen, but that's a whole other topic of discussion. The point is, because of this story, it's become a traditional to gorge on all things fried for 8 days: latkes, jelly doughnuts...and then gelt, which is not fried, but still delicious.

Back to these fritters. This recipe was the bane of my existence at the time that I was cooking it, which perhaps contributed to my underwhelmed reaction to the fritters when I tasted them. You see, I didn't know how to use my new steamer, so I steamed the cauliflower all wrong and it just took forever. And I was starving. I mean really, I was steaming the heck out of these cauliflower florets for like, 40 minutes. I showered while waiting for them to soften. So, needless to say, by the time these fritters had finished I had already heated up a Healthy Choice pasta dish for myself. You know it's bad when I break out the microwavable dinners.

I added paprika to the recipe and next time will add even more; I cut back on the oil and next time will cut back even more (just don't tell Hannukkah Harry). Also, when I ate these for real (reheated, a week or so after my bitterness toward them had subsided), I made them as a main dish served over a bed of greens and some lemon juice. Although this is quite tasty, I was merely satiated, and even after throwing 2 chicken fingers on top (homemade, mind you - more on that in a different post), I had my eye on dessert pretty quickly. L would tell you here that I likely have two stomachs, like a cow, which allows me to go for dessert as soon as I take my last bite of dinner, but don't listen to him. Normally I make myself wait until TV/movie time at night for the good stuff. That night, however, I was all about the idea of more food. All of this is to say, you might want to make some chicken with this, and more than 2 measly tenders breaded and baked. It's a calorie-packed side dish, but definitely not filling enough for a full on main course, usually.

Cauliflower Latkes (or, during the other 51 weeks of the year, Cauliflower Fritters), courtesy - yet again - of Everyday with Rachael Ray
Yield: 12-14, but halved I got about 8
The Ingredients
1 large head of cauliflower, about 2 1/4lb, trimmed and chopped
1/2C flour
1 large egg, beaten
10oz salad greens
2 Tbsp. (fresh) lemon juice
2 Tbsp. olive oil (I'd say 1 Tbsp. would be good to start out with, add a little more between batches if you think you need to. These are supposed to be liberally sauteed, but they were just downright greasy when I made them.)
salt and pepper, to taste
*paprika, to taste - I didn't write down my measurements for this but I'd say 2 tsp. would probably be appropriate, maybe 1Tbsp.

The Method
1. Steam the cauliflower until tender, 10-15 minutes (or, you know, 40...). Transfer to a bowl and mash, then allow to cool for another 10 minutes or so.
2. Stir in the flour and egg, season with salt and pepper (and paprika, if using), and refrigerate for 15 minutes.
3. Taking 1/4 cupfuls at a time, roll the mixture into balls and flatten into patties.
4. Heat the oil in a skillet over medium-high height, and work in batches to fry the patties until golden-brown, 4 minutes per side.
5. If you find them to be on the greasier side, blot them on a paper towel-lined plate before serving, like you would with bacon (or not, I won't judge). Serve with salad greens tossed in the lemon juice. The recipe says olive oil and lemon juice, but I thought it was perfect with just the sprinkling of the lemon.

This is a very refreshing recipe, and because it has such a tame flavor, it would pair well with a lot. I enjoyed it as a main dish flavor-wise (but again, a little more spice next time to up the flavor even more), but if you're really hungry you might want to add a little somethin' somethin'. These are much lighter, I think, than regular potato latkes, and definitely a change of pace. So, if you celebrate Hannukkah, maybe try these out at the family gathering!

PS if you were wondering, I have since learned how to use a vegetable steamer properly.

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