Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Brownie Experiment

One of my husband's favorite treats is homemade brownies, and he's rather particular in how he likes to have them made. He doesn't want "extra stuff" in his brownies, like caramel, chips, or cream cheese. He prefers them plain, except for the addition of chopped walnuts. He prefers them fudge-y, not cake-like, and he'd prefer that I not "ruin them" with frosting. Instead, I just dust powdered sugar on the top after they've cooled a bit.

Anyway, I am doing a little experimentation with my husband's favorite brownies today. Hopefully, they'll turn out just as good as his usual recipe. Normally, he would say, "don't mess with success," but this time the change was actually his suggestion.

I make brownies on such a regular basis that I don't even consult the recipe anymore, though I know where to find it if I ever needed it again. And for that reason, we go through quite a bit of Bakers Semi-Sweet Chocolate. I ran out of it again last weekend, and for some strange reason our local grocery store hasn't had Bakers Semi-Sweet on its shelves for a while--at least it wasn't when we checked three times last week. In any case, that started my husband thinking about substitutions for this ingredient, so I looked online to see if I could substitute semi-sweet chocolate chips for the Bakers Semi-Sweet Chocolate.

I found a great online chocolate reference page on this website. And my husband picked up a huge economy-sized bag of semi-sweet chips at our local Costco store (a 72-oz. "Chocolate Lover's Size"). So this afternoon I'm using 1/3 cup chocolate chips in place of two 1-oz. squares of bakers chocolate. The brownies are in the oven as I write this post, so I'll let you know if they turn out as well as the original recipe.

Before I type out the recipe, though, I want to emphasize that my sweet husband, though particular at times in his tastes, is actually a very gracious and gentle man. Often, when we bow our heads to thank the Lord before a meal, he thanks God for the food that his "dear wife has prepared," and after a meal he often gives me a kiss and thanks me for cooking for him...When you have a dear man like this in your life, you really do want to make an effort to please him. I am very blessed to be married to him, and I always want him to feel blessed by our marriage, too.

Anyway, here's the recipe as I am making it. The original recipe appeared in my tried-and-true edition of the Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook.

1/3 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
2 large eggs
1 tsp. vanilla
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup walnuts, finely chopped
Powdered sugar (to dust on top of the brownies)

In a medium-sized heavy saucepan, melt chocolate and butter, stirring them together. After they are melted, turn off the heat and cool the mixture just a bit before adding the eggs--if you add the eggs when the mixture is too hot, you'll actually cook the eggs before you bake the brownies. Stir the mixture again, adding the vanilla. Then add the flour and walnuts, stirring to make sure that all ingredients are well-incorporated.

Prepare an 8x8 baking pan by greasing it with butter and then a dusting of flour to keep your brownies from sticking when you remove them from the pan. Pour in your brownie mixture and bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for 25 minutes. A toothpick inserted in the center of the pan of baked brownies should come out "clean"...meaning that you might have a few small crumbs on it, but no unbaked brownie batter.

Let the brownies cool in their pan a bit and then dust with powdered sugar. I make sure that the brownies are completely cooled before cutting them and placing them into a large flat cookie tin with a well-fitting lid so that they stay moist until my husband finishes enjoying them. (They'll be gone in a week if I don't have too many other treats around for him to enjoy.)

Postscript: I ended up posting this before we actually tried the brownies, but I wanted to be sure to let everyone know that the brownies worked out just fine with the chocolate chips. In fact, we had a few brownies left from my last batch made with semi-sweet Bakers chocolate, and aside from the fact that the new brownies were a little more moist, we couldn't tell the difference at all in flavor. We'll definitely be using semi-sweet chips from now on, because the cost savings is significant.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

My Husband's Favorite Rhubarb Muffins

This is a recipe I found recently online at, the online database of recipes that have been published by the many magazines of Reiman Publications. I'm a regular subscriber to Light and Tasty Magazine, often finding wonderful recipes with fewer calories, fat, and sugar. This particular recipe, however, was actually published by a sister publication, Country Woman.

I didn't change anything about the recipe (only its name), which I found confusing. It was called Rhubarb Sticky Buns, but I think that makes it sound more like a sweet roll than a muffin. So I'm just calling these "My Husband's Favorite Rhubarb Muffins," since he's not a huge fan of rhubarb, but he actually requested more of these muffins after I made them the first time.

1/4 cup cold butter
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1 cup chopped fresh or frozen rhubarb, thawed
1/3 cup butter, softened
1/3 cup sugar
1 egg
1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 cup milk

In a small bowl, cut butter into brown sugar until crumbly. Stir in rhubarb. Spoon evenly
into 12 well-greased muffin cups; set aside. In a large mixing bowl, cream butter and
sugar. Beat in egg. Combine the flour, baking powder, salt and nutmeg; add to creamed
mixture alternately with milk. Spoon over rhubarb mixture. Bake at 350° for 20 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. Cool for 5 minutes before inverting onto a serving plate.

Aeblekage (Danish Apple Bars)

What a blessing to work at an organization where everyone shares from the bounty they receive! One of my coworkers has regularly been sharing apples, plums, and a variety of types of tomatoes with our office over the last month or so. And yesterday, there were so many apples that I was able to bring a nice-sized bag home with plans to make my mother's favorite Danish apple bar (aeblekage) recipe.

I remember my mother making aeblekage for church events and for company. Like Mom, I have a church event in mind, so I'm going to be making this recipe this coming Wednesday nigh after work. It's a wonderfully light, flaky, apple bar sweetened with cinnamon and sugar. The last time I made it for a church potluck dinner, it disappeared quickly, though I think I had one piece left on the pan at the end of the dinner when everyone was starting to pack up. And actually, I was really pleased to have one piece left to bring home. Since I don't make this more than once every year or so, I was glad to have a piece to enjoy the next day.

2-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. salt
1 cup shortening
1 egg, divided (reserving both yolk and white, and beating the white until foamy)
Milk (slightly less than 2/3 cup)
1 cup crushed corn flakes
5 large apples (or 10-12 small ones), peeled, cored, and sliced
1 cup sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon

Sift flour and salt into a large mixing bowl. Cut shortening into flour mixture until crumbly. In a one-cup measuring cup, beat the egg yolk and then mix in enough milk to make 2/3 cup of liquid; whisk or beat with a fork until blended. Add milk and egg yolk mixture gradually to the flour and shortening mixture, stirring just enough to blend (do not over mix, as you are making a crust and want the end result to be light and flaky).

Divide the dough in half and roll half out on a floured surface until it will fill the bottom and sides of a 10x15 jellyroll baking pan. Carefully transfer the bottom crust that you have just made to the pan. Add the crushed cornflakes evenly over the top of this crust, followed with slices of apple arranged evenly. Mix cinnamon and sugar and sprinkle over the apples.

Roll remaining dough to fit over the apples. Moisten the edges of your two-layers of crust and crimp them together to seal. Lightly brush the top crust with beaten egg whites. With a knife, cut a few small vents in the top to let the steam escape. Bake for 1 hour in a preheated 375-degree oven until golden brown.

This might be how you want to serve your apple bars, and this is generally where I stop, but one of the two cookbooks I consulted as I was looking for the recipe my mother always used, added a glaze to the top of the bars while they were cooling. If you'd like to do that, you could make a glaze with 1 cup confectioner's sugar, 1 Tbsp. water, and 1 tsp. vanilla.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

U.S. Senate Bean Soup

I used to live in the hometown of a U.S. Senator who loved this recipe. Knute Nelson wasn't alive anymore when I lived there, but the local historical society had his family home turned into a museum, and every year at Christmas time they hold an open house. Along with traditional Scandinavian foods, which they make because this Senator was Norwegian by family background, they make this recipe because legend has it he was the one who made it a law that the U.S. Senate cafeteria serve this soup every day. He, obviously, could not make this a law all on his own, but legend says that he proposed the law and rallied the support among among his fellow congressman.

In any case, he loved this soup, and I have grown to love it, too. And yesterday, because it's starting to feel chilly around this part of the Midwest these days, I made a big batch of this soup to serve with homemade whole wheat rolls and big slices of the last of this season's tomatoes. My husband, who had been working in a cold garage all day, had two big bowls and proclaimed it to be the best ham and bean soup he had ever tasted. I had made a similar recipe before, but had never tried the "official" version...I wonder if the federal law mandates a particular recipe? If so, I have to admit that I added more meat, because my husband doesn't feel like it's a real meal unless the soup has plenty of meat in the bowl.

1 lb. dry great northern beans
1 meaty ham bone (plus chopped ham, as needed to make it hearty)
3 medium onions, chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
4 celery stalks, chopped
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
1 cup mashed potatoes
salt and pepper to taste (I used garlic salt)
fresh parsley or chives for garnish

Rinse and sort beans, and then place them in a large heavy soup kettle with enough water to cover them by 2 inches. Boil for 2 minutes, and then remove from heat and allow them to stand for 1-4 hours until the beans are softened. (I let them stand for a couple of hours, and then boiled them again for a few minutes to speed the softening process.)

Drain and rinse the beans, discarding the liquid. Add them back to the pot with the ham bone and three quarts of water. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat, cover and simmer for 2 hours.

Skim fat if necessary. Add the remaining ingredients and simmer for another hour. Then remove the ham bone and, when it's cool enough to handle, remove the meat from the bone, cut it into bite-sized pieces, and add it back to the soup pot. Discard the bone. Heat the soup through, and then serve in bowls, sprinkling pieces of chives or parsley for garnish.

This recipe makes 2-1/2 quarts of soup, enough for 8-10 servings.

Spicy Garlic Refrigerator Pickles

This recipe has more to do with my husband's family background than my own. His paternal grandmother was a South Dakota farm wife who was apparently very much into pickling. She pickled watermelon rinds, eggs, cucumbers, beets, and possibly even pigs feet...I'm not positive about the pigs feet, but my husband has told me that his father used to love to eat pickled pigs feet. So I'm guessing that this was because his father's mother raised him to love that, too.

Anyway, this is not a family recipe from his side of the family. Rather, it's an attempt to recreate something he remembers having when he was growing up.

Apparently, there was also a commercially made product like this produced by company years ago called Max's Pickles. When his family didn't have pickles made by his paternal grandmother, my husband remembers his mother buying Max's Pickles at the store. I did little research this year to find out if Max's Pickles still existed in any form, and I found that the Gedney company bought Max's recipes when Max's went out of business years ago. So then we tried the Gedney Zingers products and found that though they were good, they didn't have the garlicky part of this recipe that my husband remembers and loves. He wanted a crisp pickle that was both garlicky and spicy with whole cloves of garlic and whole chili peppers in each jar.

So then I looked online for recipes and tried a couple this year. The one that I liked the best was from this website address, but I adjusted it a bit. The person who posted the original recipe didn't use as much garlic or as many chili peppers as I used, and I think I would definitely do this recipe with my adjustments again. We really liked the hot, spicy, garlicky kick that these have, and they really are nice and crisp, too.

2-1/2 cups white vinegar
3-1/2 cups water
1/6- to 1/8-cup kosher salt
1T dill seeds
1T allspice
1T black peppercorns
3T yellow mustard seeds
9 dried chilies
9 garlic cloves
fresh dill
6 fat cucumbers (4 to 6 inches long, and they should be firm and green)

Place your whole, uncut cucumbers in a pan with ice water and chill them in the refrigerator for a few hours or even a day ahead of the time when you plan to make your pickles. This will make them even more crisp.

On the day you plan to do the pickling, combine the vinegar, water, and salt in a saucepan. Then add the spices and boil the mixture for three minutes. Remove from heat and let cool.

Take your cucumbers out of the refrigerator. Cut off their ends and quarter them lengthwise. Put them into prepared jars (prepare them by boiling the jars and lids to sterilize them). Add peeled and crushed garlic cloves to each jar, dividing them evenly. Similarly, add the chili peppers from your pickling liquid. Also, add the fresh dill. Then evenly divide the pickling liquid and remaining spices between each of your jars. (I used three large jars that used to contain commercially made dill pickles.)

Leave about a half inch of head space at the top of each jar. Put the lids on the jars and refrigerate. Your pickles should be ready to eat in about a week and will last for at least three months.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Refrigerator Beet Pickles

I know that for those of us here in the Midwest, our major time for canning and preserving garden produce is quickly passing (we had our first killing frost in parts of Minnesota last night), but before the season completely ends I wanted to post a couple of good recipes for pickling that I enjoyed using this year.

First, here is my beet pickle recipe, which is actually a combination of the recipe that my mother used for years and the recipe that one of my dear friends shared from her family's recipe collection. I merged the two recipes because both were specific in some areas and vague in others. And then I decided not to can them, but to make them as refrigerator beet pickles, because I knew that we would use them quickly at our house.

Finally, I just wanted to add how much we love beet pickles. For my husband, I think they remind him of his paternal grandmother, who was a traditional South Dakota farm wife and would sometimes send packages of pickled foods as a gift to her children and their families. For me, I remember my mother's beet pickles. She would make enormous containers of them and store them in the refrigerator. When she died, my very thoughtful sister remembered how much I loved Mom's beet pickles so she made a batch using Mom's recipe for my birthday that year.

4 cups 4% acidity white vinegar (or 3 cups 5% acidity white vinegar plus 1 cup water)
4 cups sugar
1 Tbsp. cinnamon
1/2 Tbsp. allspice
6 whole cloves
6 lbs. beets (preferably small, whole beets)

Combine vinegar and sugar in a medium-sized saucepan. Combine the cinnamon, allspice, and cloves in a small cloth bag (e.g., cheesecloth or muslin). Add the bag of spices to the vinegar mixture and simmer for 15 minutes. Then cool slightly while you're cooking your beets.

In the meantime, wash your beets but don't take off the skins or cut off the roots or tops yet. Instead, boil the whole beets in a large pot of water for 25 minutes or until the beets are tender to your taste. (Since you won't be heat processing them for canning, I found that they needed more than 25 minutes to get them to the right amount of tenderness.)

When your beets are ready, drain them and cool them enough to touch; then trim off their ends and slip off their skins. If they aren't small enough to use whole, cut them into nice-sized chunks. Place the beets into prepared glass jars with lids. (To prepare the jars and lids, boil them first for sterility.) Add enough liquid over the beets to cover them with 1/2-inch left at the top of the jars. Cover the jars lightly, putting them in the refrigerator when they're cool enough. Tighten the seals when they're cool and let the beets marinate for a couple of weeks. After that, they're ready to eat.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Thank you to Dr. Julie-Ann McFann

I just wanted to quickly post a thank you to Dr. Julie-Ann McFann for mentioning my blog on the September 2nd episode of her fashion sewing podcast, called Grandma's Sewing Cabinet. If you enjoy sewing (or want to be inspired to learn to sew), I would highly recommend listening to her program online or through itunes. In describing herself, she explains that she is a not a professional seamstress, but I have so been so impressed by the sewing that she does in her spare time. And I've really enjoyed hearing her talk about her memories of her grandmother, whose sewing cabinet she inherited.

I should probably note that I contacted her first, or she might not have ever found my little blog in cyberspace. She had asked for zucchini recipes, and I sent her a link to my blog. She was exceedingly kind to not only visit but also mention me...I am continually amazed at the kindness of other women who write blogs and record podcasts Julie also has a fun blog of her own, which she often uses to post photos of her sewing projects. Julie has inspired me to get back into fashion sewing again, after years of focusing on quilting and craft-type sewing instead.

So again, thank you, Dr. Julie-Ann McFann, for your kindness and for sharing your creativity and enthusiasm for fashion sewing! :-)

Creating with Fabric and Yarn

In addition to the cooking that I did at Dad's house last week, I had a lot of fun with my sewing machine and my crochet hooks.

First, I cut out and sewed two new blouses, and I cut out pieces to sew a six-gored skirt and a princess-line dress. I would have loved to have finished the skirt and dress, too, but I also wanted to take time to just visit with my Dad, who has been a widower since 2003 when my mother died.

I used my mother's sewing machine for the blouses, and I was so pleased that it still works so well. She let me use her machine when she was first teaching me to sew. I think she would have been really pleased to know that it was still being used. I set up the machine on the back porch of Dad's house so that I could keep my husband company while he was painting the deck. Even just the sound of that machine brought back memories.

The blouses I made were from McCall's pattern #5050. I don't have a digital camera yet, so I can't show a photo of my actual blouse here, but I've copied the image from the pattern company's website for you to see.

I did make some adjustments to the pattern, inspired by Tracy. I lengthened the sleeves of the short-sleeved version of the blouse so that they would come down to my elbows with the elastic casing. And I moved the casing that is currently just under the bust line down to my waist, because it looked more flattering there on me. In fact, I'm wearing it at work today over a pair of slim-fitting jeans. Again, I wish that I could post a photo of the actual blouse. Hopefully, when I finish the skirt and dress, I'll have my film developed so that I can scan a printed picture to post.

I also finished the pumpkin-colored poncho that I'm planning to give to my sister for Christmas this year. And I started a new crochet project for myself using a pattern in a book that I found in the library.

I can't endorse the book, unfortunately, because the author, though extremely gifted and creative, chose to use a lot of coarseness in the way that she presented her material. Unfortunately, like a lot of the world these days, she must have thought that she needed to be crass to make crochet seem more trendy and hip...I don't think that would have been necessary. Her designs really stand on their own. And though I'll never make some of them because they don't appeal to me, I love her pattern for the Sweet Pea Shawl, also shown above. The author's name is Debbie Stoller, if you're interested in giving it a try sometime. Her instructions are very clear and easy to understand.

Back from Vacation

If you haven't ever taken a whole week of your vacation time off from work at once, you really don't know what you're missing...For the past eight or so years, I've taken off a day here or a couple of days there, often combining them with a weekend to increase the impact of the time off. But this year, I really needed a longer break.

I love my work, but I was getting tired, especially after having used nearly all of the vacation time I took earlier this year to catch up on work around the home. But last week, my husband and I took five days off from work (including the Labor Day holiday), and we actually managed to be away from our home for nearly nine consecutive days. It was so refreshing!

First, we went up north to visit my father and to do some projects at his house. My husband painted the back deck, and I went to work in the kitchen. I did several make-ahead-and-freeze meals using two wonderful cookbooks I ordered earlier this year from Amazon--Don't Panic Dinner's in the Freezer, and Once-A-Month Cooking. I'll try to post some of the recipes that worked out the best in the coming week or so. In the meantime, I'll just take a minute to give a small testimony about the difference this type of cooking method is making in my life.

As I've mentioned before, I work full time outside of the home and I have a long commute to and from work most days of the week. (I'm blessed to have an employer who allows me to work from home a day or two most weeks.) So I don't have a lot of time during your average weekday to do very much cooking or housework. I try to fit in a few tasks very early in the morning before I leave for work at 7 a.m. Later, after the drive home in the evening and some time spent either swimming or walking for exercise, it's often 8 or 8:30 p.m. when we're sitting down to dinner. Then, because the alarm goes off at 5:30 each weekday, I need to be slowing down so that I can get enough sleep for the next day.

All that to say, I make the most of my weekends for housework and cooking, and I try really hard to do things in an efficient way...As an aside, I'm always looking for good ideas for streamlining housework. My husband is a great help in this area, but I think we can all learn from each other's experiences. If I find a great tip, I'll add it to this blog. But if you have one to share, please let me know.

Anyway, in terms of cooking, I've grown accustomed to spending a good portion of my afternoon on either Saturday or Sunday (usually Sunday) in the kitchen preparing meals for the week ahead. Before I found these cookbooks, though, my efforts were generally focused on just that week ahead. Now, I'm doing things a little better. I'm also thinking in terms of making food that can easily be frozen for future use, and these two cookbooks I've found have helped me a great deal.

Now, when I make a shepherd's pie, for example, I make two shepherd's pies and add one to my freezer. I've always done that with meatloaf, and I have a great barbecued beef recipe that I used as well, but with these cookbooks (and their wonderful authors who have put so much time into testing every recipe), I've been able to expand my frozen meal repertoire. Up at Dad's house now, for example, I have waiting in his freezer not only a shepherd's pie and a meatloaf, but also honey baked pork chops, a hash brown casserole, and a basic meatball recipe. The next time we visit, I'll thaw one or two of these frozen entrees for us to use, thereby saving me time.

And when we came home on Sunday night from our nine days away, I pulled out basil stuffed chicken breasts to thaw in the refrigerator for dinner after work on Monday, plus a container of beef stew that we'll have for dinner tonight. Then I'll plan this weekend to make a couple more entrees to freeze for future use.

If you haven't tried this method of pre-cooking and freezing, I'd highly recommend it. And I think that this would also work well for single people who want to maximize their kitchen time. I could envision breaking down a single recipe into individual portions to freeze and later thaw for use. And I've also found that it enabled me to share a meal with a friend recovering from major surgery.

Normally, after a long trip, we'd be eating soup and sandwiches this week, plus maybe scrambled eggs and whatever else I could throw together without a trip to the grocery store...Oh, and that's another thing about my schedule. I really don't have time to shop during the week. So if we can live on what we have in the freezer and pantry until this coming Saturday, that's another benefit to make-ahead meals.

Before I forget to mention it, we went up to the North Shore area of Minnesota for the latter half of our vacation last week. Though the fall colors weren't at their peak this early, it was still beautiful, and we enjoyed hiking the state parks, seeing waterfalls and enjoying the harbor in Duluth. We are so blessed here in Minnesota to have a major inland shore area so close. It's almost like seeing the ocean when you can look across Lake Superior and see nothing but water for a few hundred miles.