Recipes so good it oughta' be a sin!

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Cheesy Potatoes Gratin

Not the best picture, but the dish was a hit!
Sometimes you have to get a little creative. I wanted to use up some potatoes we had in the kitchen but didn't want to roast, fry or saute them. I thought Gratin would be a nice change of pace but I really don't have a good gratin dish for small portions.

I was going to do breaded and baked chicken too, so decided to "engineer" a solution to my dilemma. What I ended up doing was taking my Pyrex baking dish and lining it with foil. I then created two sections using heavy foil. On one side I would create my gratin and on the other I would bake the chicken.

Amazingly, it worked out perfectly. I came out with a very interesting and flavorful gratin featuring mozzarella and sauteed onion with a bit of garlic and my chicken baked beautifully. I couldn't have been more pleased. I only wish I'd managed to get a better photo of the dish before Michael dug into it.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Chai Spice Sugar Cookies

These are not your Grandma's Sugar Cookies! This sugar cookie makeover features some interesting additions. First of all, who would think of putting cream cheese in sugar cookies? Well, the folks at Cook's Illustrated seemed to think it was a good idea.

Honestly, I had my doubts. After all, I've been using an 18th Century sugar cookie recipe for years and was perfectly happy with it. It wasn't overly sweet and the addition of some extra spices really gave it some interesting flavor notes. Still, the cream cheese thing intrigued me so I decided to give it a go.

I used their Chai Spice version that features warming spices like ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, and a little pepper. The result was fantastic. I really love this cookie because it delivers something a little extra.

The cookie itself is nicely cracked with a lovely sugar coating but the spices really add the oomph! They're not overwhelming but just enough to make your taste-buds perk up and go "what is that flavor?" The cream cheese also adds an interesting depth of flavor but not something you can actually pin down and say "Oh, there's cream cheese in this."

The spices linger ever so nicely on the tongue and really fool you. Biting into this cookie you get a nice crunch followed by a middle that is slightly soft and chewy. Initially, it seems a common sugar cookie although with wonderful texture. However, as you chew you discover this lovely blend of slightly warm spices. It's like getting an extra treat and I love sweets that surprise with a pleasant but unexpected flavor.

You really will have to try these. While I still love my Shrewsbury Cakes and think they are fabulous for most any occasion, I have to give props to the folks at Cook's Illustrated for this makeover of the humble sugar cookie.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Rosemary Focaccia Bread

Focaccia - it seems to be all the rage among "Artisinal" breads at the supermarket lately. You can find loaves in nearly every supermarket bakery. But what is it?

Simply put, Focaccia is an Italian country style bread. Originally, it was any bread that was used to test the temperature of a brick oven (the name comes from the Italian for "fireplace"). Today it's a particular type of bread that comes from Genoa and features a dimpled surface, olive oil and herbs. It's a great bread to use for bruschetta or simply to warm and dip in a good olive oil with a meal.

This version was presented in Cook's Illustrated and features a "no-knead" approach to the bread. I decided to give it a try and was pleasantly surprised at the result because at a few points in the process my confidence lagged that this would actually produce an edible loaf. Lo and behold, it did!

The key with this is not to be intimidated by the rather watery dough. I'm still a chicken when it comes to really messy bread dough - although I'm getting better. This dough is not the easiest to handle but with a little bit of patience and courage you can turn out a nice loaf of Focaccia!

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Candy Corn Cookies

Candy Corn - what would Halloween and Autumn be without this overly sweet little concoction of sugar? When I was a kid I loved this stuff. I couldn't wait for Halloween to get a bag of Candy Corn and dive in. Now, I find it a bit too sweet for my middle aged palate.

But, have no fear; there are alternatives. I recently ran across a spate of recipes for Candy Corn Cookies. The idea is fairly simple - you take a sugar cookie or sable dough and divide it into three parts, color it, put it back together in layers, slice it, bake and voila! Candy Corn Cookies.

I decided to give it a try recently and found it a snap to do. You can also turn out huge quantities of these bite-sized cookies that make a great display in a bowl.

Chocolate Cupcakes

Moist chocolate cupcakes that lurk somewhere between cake and brownie seem to be perfect for Halloween. Topped with an orange cream cheese frosting and nestled in retro Halloween design cupcake papers, they seem to scream Halloween.

These great chocolate cupcakes feature sour cream to give them a moist interior and a touch of tang. Using high quality cocoa takes these from ordinary to extraordinary. Topping them with a cream cheese frosting gives them yet another flavor boost.

I used some sugar crystal sprinkles on these but the various Halloween sprinkles available in most supermarkets would be great as well.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Coconut Toffee Bars

These delights are a breeze to make! Just mix up the ingredients put it in the ever handy 9x13 pan, bake, drop on some chocolate chips and sprinkle with toasted coconut. Nothing could be simpler and the result is a fantastic sweet treat with a classic toffee flavor.

I decided to make these this morning since I had a sweet craving. For the past couple days I've been finishing off my Yeast Corn Muffins since I'm the only person in the house who likes corn muffins. Obviously, I was getting a little tired of them and wanted something sweeter.

The original version of this recipe calls for chopped and toasted nuts sprinkled over the chocolate like traditional English Toffee candy. However, I decided to use toasted coconut for a different flavor and color combination. Either works fine.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Corn Muffins Revisited

It seems sometimes that different events come together all at once. I've been having something of a craving for cornbread lately - no doubt more of my Autumn wishful thinking. So, as I was browsing through the cookbook from Mary Mac's Tea Room, the recipe for cornbread caught my eye. Of course, it's a bit "Yankeefied" for my taste (meaning it has sugar and is sweet) but I filed it away as a possible trial for the future. Then I got a call from Karin at "Feeding the Homeless" asking if I could make some cornbread to go with her meal this week. So, I pulled out the recipe from Mary Mac's and gave it a try.

Then my issue of Cook's Country came with a recipe for cornbread muffins made with yeast. That looked pretty interesting although it also struck me as Yankeefied (they're from Massachusetts) with its copious amount of brown sugar. Still, the texture was intriguing. It was described as something like an English muffin on the inside.

Now, I'm assuming the folks up at Cook's Country are unaware of real Southern Cornbread made without sugar and also without a "cakey" texture that seems to be their main complaint with corn muffins. (See my original recipe here.) Maybe they've only had cornbread at those chain restaurants that claim "home cooking" - I can't say. But real Southern Cornbread is not sweet and neither is it cakey.

Anyway, I decided to try the recipe to see what it produced. It is a great recipe. The cornbread is nicely textured with just a little sweetness that will keep the Yankees in the crowd happy. Honestly, though, you can get similar result by using Mary Mac's "Yankeefied" recipe or dropping a couple tablespoons of sugar into a classic Southern Cornbread recipe. Plus you don't have to wait on the bread to rise. So, while it's a great recipe, as Mama would say "Six of one, half a dozen of the other." Meaning of course, that there is no real discernible advantage of using the yeast when stacked up against the real deal from the South.

Try them both and be the judge!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Creamy Macaroni Salad

Cool and creamy, this Macaroni Salad lends itself to holiday
cooking and experimentation!
Although Summer is done, the holidays are just around the corner and with them various family dinners and potluck suppers. A great standby for such events is Macaroni Salad. It works well with nearly any entree (especially holiday favorites like poultry and ham) and is easy to make and carry.

I adapted a Macaroni Salad recipe from Cook's Country recently using what I had available in the kitchen. Michael was bringing home fried chicken for supper and I needed something as a side. I had most of the ingredients called for in the original recipe but found I'd need to substitute a few things to put my own "spin" on this one. The results were very good. Michael really enjoyed this dish. It has a great creamy texture as a base for whatever other add-ins you want to try. So, get creative! Pick flavors you and your family enjoy and experiment.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Pumpkin Free in 2010

Let's face it... the pumpkin thing every year gets a little old. Pumpkin pie gets done to death and when people run out of the old standbys they start making stuff that just shouldn't exist... pumpkin ice-cream, pumpkin candy, chocolate pumpkin cupcakes... well, you name it and someone out there is putting pumpkin in it from September to November.

Personally, I'm not a big fan of pumpkin except as a Jack O'Lantern. My Autumn favorites tend to be crisp mountain apples and their progeny such as apple cider. In fact, when I was a kid we'd drive up into the Blue Ridge Mountains to see the leaves changing colors. While up there we'd always stop at a roadside stand where mountain folks were selling their home pressed cider. They'd keep it cold by floating the jugs in a mountain stream. It was the best stuff imaginable and I'd love to have some fresh cider to incorporate in my recipes this year. As it is, I have to use store bought out here in the desert.

Still, apples and spices signal Fall to me much more than pumpkin. So, I have taken a pledge that in 2010 I will not succumb to the Foodie Blogger virus and throw pumpkin into every last dish I make. In fact, I pledge that I will NOT cook any dish this Autumn that contains pumpkin! Instead, I will focus on other, much less appreciated Autumn fare.

So, if you're sick to death of eating pumpkin in everything you put in your mouth, join us here at Sugar Pies for a Pumpkin Free 2010!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Crybaby Cookies

Crybaby Cookies - interesting name for this recipe that seems to originate in Pennsylvania Dutch country. I'd wondered how they got this name and then I ran across a "recipe request" in Cook's Country. The person was looking for a cookie made with molasses and raisins that were called "Crybaby Cookies" because "they're so good if you give them to a crying child they'll stop crying."

Well, they are pretty good. Cold, strong coffee gives these cookies a little something extra. You notice this nice coffee flavor when first biting into the cookie followed by the sweet molasses flavor and finishing with lovely spices where ginger gives a little bit of heat. It's a very complex flavor in a very simple cookie and a perfect morning cookie treat! It's also a great way to use up the leftover coffee in the carafe after breakfast.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Day Trip: Arizona Vineyards

Southern Arizona's Wine Region
Believe it or not, Arizona does have vineyards. About sixty miles southeast of Tucson lies the little town of Elgin, Arizona. This little area is now home to a number of small wineries and produces some startlingly good wines. We'd never ventured down there so decided to spend our Thursday checking out the wineries along with the beautiful scenery and little towns in the area.

Kief-Joshua Vineyards
Our first stop was at Kief-Joshua winery where we enjoyed a number of their wines. Unfortunately, this years crop was severely damaged by one of our monsoon storms that dropped a large amount of hail on the vineyard. However, their previous vintages were on display in the tasting room where we were particularly taken with their Rousanne which was amazingly smooth with citrusy notes including melon. This was by far my favorite of their offerings although Michael preferred the Tempranillo with its earthier tones and combination of berry and anise flavors.

Of course, while there we fell in love with the winery's dogs as well as their sheep out back! Their shop also stocks a number of local treats including dip and soup mixes, pecans soaked in the Rousanne (which I managed to not buy), and various gourmet items.

Our second stop was at Village of Elgin Winery where we were treated to a private tasting of some of their most interesting wines. Their selections were more up my alley with sweeter offerings that were easy on the palate. I particularly enjoyed their white port named "Andrew" which blew me away with its smooth and fruity taste. Despite a rather high alcohol content (around 16%), this wine has none of the "burn" you often get. Smooth and easy - as Jim, our host said, "this will sneak up on you!"

We also tried their Four Monkeys label which is available locally at Total Wine (Oracle and Wetmore in Tucson). We enjoyed the Naughty Monkey which is a Moscato which rested easily on tongue. Both the Andrew and Naughty Monkey made the trip home with us.

In the tasting room at The Village of Elgin Winery
Leaving the wineries behind, we ventured on to Patagonia and took a brief detour to Patagonia Lake, a lovely area with a secluded lake perfect for camping and rowing a boat. We didn't have time for a long stop today, but I'm sure we'll be back down there soon to enjoy this beautiful lake.

We decided to go home via Nogales and finally arrived at I-19 to begin the drive due north to Tucson. We got to enjoy the beautiful and lush Green Valley area as we drove toward home. All in all a wonderful day with some new bottles of wine for the house and some new favorite destinations!
Green Valley Area of Arizona

A Tale of Two Cakes: Apple Cider Spice Cake

My Apple Cider Spice Cake
was moist and flavorful.
I recently subscribed to Cook's Country because I enjoy the recipes from Cook's Illustrated and especially enjoy the more traditional and "down home" offerings through their specialty publication.

In the first issue I received there was a recipe for a Chiffon Cake with a variation for an Apple Cider Spice version. It looked very good and the apple cider and spice seemed perfect for Autumn. On top of that my friend Nora informed me at our dinner last week that I was to make her birthday cake. She wants a "spice cake" but when I tried to pry more specifics from her she told me that all the direction I got was "spice cake" - the rest would be up to me.

Since then I've been mulling ideas - my gingerbread cake which is spicy, a classic spice snack cake, maybe a spiced coffee cake. Needless to say when I saw this variation for a Chiffon Cake I thought I might have struck gold.

I decided to try out the recipe in anticipation of making it next month for Nora. I'm glad I did! It is one of those that looks great in the magazine and the photos, but leaves a good bit to be desired in real life.

The Cook's Country version was too crumbly and
dry for my taste.
Supposedly, it's a cross between an angel food cake and a pound cake. But this particular recipe yielded a cake that had neither of those great cake qualities. I found it to be rather shallow in the taste department and the texture was too fluffy and crumbly. I also didn't care for the glaze called for in the recipe because I found it at first to be a bit thin and when I adjusted the cream cheese a bit it was too thick.

So, after making this cake, I thought "why not adapt my favorite pound cake recipe to this?" So, I sat down with my classic "Gert's Mama's Pound Cake" recipe and went to work tweaking it here and there.

First, I knocked out the sour cream and substituted apple cider. I then dropped the lemon extract and added cinnamon and allspice to the flour mixture. Finally, I used a simple apple cider, powdered sugar and spice glaze. The results were everything I'd hoped for. The cake was luscious and moist without being too heavy. The apples and spices shown through beautifully in the taste profile while the buttery richness of the cake added nice round flavors that are the perfect compliment. Much, much better than the light and insubstantial chiffon cake from Cook's Country (if I do say so myself, sorry Christopher Kimball but catty cuts both ways sometimes).

Give this cake a try. I think you'll enjoy it. Michael, who isn't a cake fan by any stretch, even grabbed a piece this evening when we got home from our vineyard roadtrip (more on that later).

Monday, October 4, 2010

Dixie Creams

Sour cream, vanilla and rum extracts give these cookies a wonderfully unique taste.
I was determined to get ahead of my baking for "Feeding the Homeless" this week since Project Food Blog wrecked my timeline last week. I cast about for a large scale cookie recipe and finally came across something in an heirloom cookbook.

These are really quite easy to do and have a rather unique flavor. The sour cream in the batter gives them a little tang and the relatively large amount of salt (1 teaspoon) for a sweet cookie gives them just a hint of saltiness. I added some rum extract to the mix because I wanted something a little deeper than just vanilla and that really punched up the flavor profile. Topped with cinnamon-sugar, this is a delightful little old-timey cookie. This recipe makes about 6 dozen cookies.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Orange Sour Cream Muffins

What a week this has been. I threw my "Luxury Dinner Party" in anticipation of Round 3 of Project Food Blog only to learn that there would be no Round 3 for the likes of me. While it was lovely to enjoy a meal with our friends Nora and Larry, I could have had them over and prepared something more my "style" for a good deal less money than was spent on this Project Food Blog nonsense. I have to say I am put out a bit with the folks over there because they urged everyone to "get ahead" and "not wait to the last minute" to find out if they'd advanced. I, honestly, think they could have structured their contest a little better so that people had time to find out if they had moved on before having to go out and shop for an upcoming challenge. Then again, maybe I'm the only person who participated who isn't independently wealthy and lives like Martha Stewart or Ina Garten.

Anyway, after working on that meal, I was exhausted on Friday. As one of those lovely results of being so ill a few years ago, I have Osteoporosis. I also am an inch shorter than I used to be because all but 2 of my vertebra have cracks in them. Thus, making a big meal under stress can take a lot out of me. I was in excruciating pain most of the day on Friday when I should have been finishing my baking for "Feeding the Homeless." Needless to say, no baking got done as I rested up and popped Tylenol.

Intending to bake for Karin's project first thing on Saturday turned out to be impossible. I have come to find that the heat in Arizona plays havoc with car batteries. Sure enough, our battery decided to give up the ghost which meant a replacement on Saturday. Thus, I didn't get the baking done nor the few things I'd already prepared earlier in the week to Karin before she left for the parks on Saturday afternoon.

Honestly, that made me feel even worse about taking part in Project Food Blog because Karin called me on Tuesday and asked if I'd like her to drop by to pick up the treats since she was going out for a birthday dinner in our neighborhood (Happy Birthday, dear!). Unfortunately, I was in the midst of the "Luxury Dinner" preparations and only had a few treats done, so I told her not to worry I'd get the rest done after the party and bring them all to her. So, the homeless folks ended up with nothing thanks to PFB. Ugh!

Saturday afternoon, after all had settled down, I'd missed my deadline for Karin, the skies had clouded up and begun to rain, and the wind began to howl so I decided to make some comfort food. I quickly threw together a batch of Orange Sour Cream Muffins to cheer myself and regroup to begin anew next week. These are really good, with a nice orange flavor rounded out by the tang of sour cream and a little hit of rum flavor. Topped with butter and sugar, they're just decadent enough to lift the spirits on a dreary Fall day.

 I settled in with a glass of cold chocolate milk, my Orange Sour Cream Muffin, a football game on the TV and a new pledge in my heart.  No more contests for they only interfere with what is really important: doing what you love, helping others, and enjoying friends and family.

Friday, October 1, 2010

"Luxury" Dinner Party

I decided not to wait until Friday to find out if I had been advanced to the next round before beginning the next challenge at Project Food Blog. Because of Michael's work and teaching schedule, Thursday is really the only day available to have friends over. Of course, Mama would remind me that counting those chickens before they hatch is a sure way to jinx yourself. As it turns out she's right. I am mercifully relieved now from worrying more with Project Food Blog as I got the following in my email today:
Thanks for participating in Project Food Blog 2010! We regret to announce that your entry did not advance to the next round. We appreciate the tremendous amount of effort and creativity you put into your post.
I can honestly say it is a relief. I did not expect to advance past the first round and really considered deleting the emails begging people to join before it began.  I figured everyday cooks would be wasting their time against people whose sole purpose in life is to be the next "celebrity chef." Alton Brown recently commented that there are more people interested in being famous than in cooking good food out there - AKA "the Celebrity Chef Phenomenon". I think Project Food Blog is an unfortunate symptom of that phenomenon.

As the voting opened in the last round I found the behavior of some people participating in the event to be rude and boorish. There was comment spamming by participants who otherwise would never have deigned to visit a blog much less leave a comment. There were people telling others they'd voted for them when they hadn't in an attempt to win the "Reader's Choice" by getting votes. There were catty comments via Twitter by "groupies" of the pack leaders among those on the cusp of fame. In short, it was a little ugly for several days when this thing really got underway.

So, I had decided yesterday after slaving over this meal, spending money I really didn't have for this endeavor to impress strangers I don't know and couldn't care less about, and knowing that I would have to rush and struggle to complete the treats for the "Feeding the Homeless Project" by Saturday afternoon - that whether I advanced to Round 3 or past Round 3, that this would be my last entry in Project Food Blog.

Thanks to all of you who visit here often for good food, a good story, and dishes you can actually make at home who took the time to vote for Sugar Pies. I appreciate your support but the best votes I get are the number of hits I see in the server logs for the print versions of the recipes! That's how I know I'm doing something right! In fact, the nicest compliment I got - far above anything coming from the people at Project Food Blog - was one my nephew's girlfriend gave me. She was printing off recipes one after another for the blog and when I made a joke about it she said that Sugar Pies had inspired her to learn to cook and she was having such a good time because the recipes were easy to follow and worked!

In anticipation of possibly advancing to Round 3, I decided to throw a small dinner party on Thursday evening with our friends Nora and Larry. The challenge was to create a "Luxury Dinner Party." Honestly, that left me a little nonplussed. Something about that just smelled of pretension and snobbery. I'm too much like my Mama for that. I like to enjoy my company and I like my company to enjoy my food. I don't want to jump on board whatever the latest food trend is and serve up some monstrosity like anchovy infused kernel corn in an apple cider reduction (I made that up... but you watch... someone will try it!) I don't want to throw things at people that they're going to try only politely rather than tucking into the meal with joy. Food can be elegant but it can also be simple and straightforward.

Our home is rather small. We live in a small condo complex on the Northwest side of Tucson. So, we don't have a huge dining room and our patio is still far too hot to eat on at this time of year (it topped out at over 100°). So, that means eating in my combination kitchen/dining area. It's cozy enough and small enough I don't have to get up to serve from the counter. (Seriously, I can turn around in my chair and grab things off my counter!) If you also don't mind sharing your dining room with hubby's inversion table it's not bad.

Empty plates are the only votes that count in the end!
So, to me, luxury is in what you make of it. In this case it was a special cut of steak served with an herb butter that was a hit (and surprised Nora with its ingredients), a pan of roasted Autumn veggies to ring in my favorite season, and Summer's last gasp with roasted tomatoes and a wonderful Lemon Meringue Tart (one of my favorite desserts of all time). All this was accompanied by good wine, good friends and good music and at the end of the evening everyone went home full, happy, and joyful to be alive. To me, that's luxury and that's all that counts - not the folks at PFB!

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