Friday, March 29, 2013

Winding Down the Homeschool Years

Selling curriculum. So. Many. Books. This is what happens when you put off selling your used homeschool curriculum. For years.

Alas, my youngest child is nearing the end of her homeschool years. Next year she'll be pretty much at the community college full time to finish up her senior year. Can't believe I'm nearing the end of this journey. It is the hardest, scariest, most frustrating and rewarding thing I've ever done. At times I thought I was nuts for taking it on. But at the end of the day I am glad I committed these years to my kids. I am glad that my husband and I got to help them work through the struggles and celebrate the victories.

I think I'll start planing my retirement party. So what if it's over a year away? ;o)

Monday, March 25, 2013

Tiramisu, Take Two!

Back in December, I posted about my first attempt at a Tiramisu Inspired Dessert.  It was a hit with my husband and the rest of our friends and family, but I knew even then that I would make some changes when I made it again.

This version uses different ingredient options, and was a bit more expensive to make, but I think it was worth it. I also overcame my Baptist Girl Problems. ;o) I don't think anyone is getting drunk on two tablespoons of rum in a 17x10 pan of tiramisu.

I wouldn't say this version is better or worse, just different. Still have changes I'd make for next time. Dipping the lady fingers is too much moisture, even for how fast I dip them. I'm thinking maybe brush the coffee mixture on, or spritz it on with a spray bottle. I don't know, that's an experiment for another time.

The pan got gobbled, and my hubby was pleased. That was kind of the point, so we call it a success. There's some cooking involved with this version, but don't let that scare you off.

Leni's Notes:
~I like to make this as a two-step process. Getting the individual ingredients ready and then cooled, then come back and assemble later.
~If you don't want to use the rum, try adding some extract. Rum, vanilla, maybe hazelnut?
~I think this would freeze really well for a later date. Nice for a dinner party or holiday.

2-4 Tablespoons of rum
2 Tablespoons of raw sugar
4 servings of Decaf Espresso or strongly brewed coffee, cooled (you'll have a bunch left over)
6 egg yolks
3/4 C raw sugar
2/3 C milk
2 (8oz) packages marscapone cheese, room temperature
2 Cups Heavy Whipping Cream
1/4 Cup powdered sugar
2 tsp vanilla extract
3 packages of Lady Fingers. (you may have up to half a package of leftovers)
Cocoa Powder

~Place rum and 2 Tablespoons of raw sugar in the bottom of the coffee pot.
~Brew coffee into the pot as you normally would.
~Pour coffee into a shallow dish (for dipping later) and let it sit out, uncovered to cool.
~Place egg yolks and 3/4 C raw sugar in a pot, whisk until completely blended.
~Whisk in milk, bring mixture to a boil over medium high heat, stirring so that it doesn't scorch.
~When mixture boils, turn down to medium-low, and boil for one minute.
~Remove from heat, place plastic wrap directly on surface of custard and let cool.
~Set marscapone out to warm up.
~Place whipping cream, powdered sugar and vanilla into a bowl.
~Beat with electric mixer until stiff peaks form. (Do not overbeat or you will have sweet butter! )

Take a break and go do something else for a while. Like take your daughter to college and run a couple of errands.

~Use the electric mixer to beat together the custard and the marscapone cheese.

~Quickly dip each lady finger in the coffee mixture and lay in pan until the bottom is covered in a single layer of fingers. Dip these VERY quickly, as they saturate instantly. If you're not fast, not only will your product be soggy, but they'll fall apart before you get them to the pan.
~Layer half of the custard mixture over the lady fingers.
~Layer half of the whipped cream over the custard.
~Repeat layers of fingers, custard and cream.
~Dust the top with cocoa powder by placing some in a mesh strainer and tapping the side with a spoon.
~Cover with saran wrap, and refrigerate for at least two hours to let the flavors blend and the tiramisu set up.
~This will cut into squares beautifully.
~Serve with coffee.

Blessings from my experimental kitchen to yours,

Monday, March 18, 2013

Herbed Dipping Oil

A couple of years ago, we had our first trip to Carrabba's for dinner, and my husband was hooked on the dipping oil and herbs. If that was all that was served, he'd probably be a happy man. So we immediately started looking for a knock-off recipe. We even got the exact recipe (or so they said) from the waiter and the restaurant. None of them were exactly right, so we tweaked it to our tastes. 

If you're looking for a way to stretch a meal, or keep the masses at bay while dinner finishes, or just have something that encourages everyone to sit around the table and talk, I recommend a loaf of fresh bread and and nice bowl of dipping oil. Give everyone a plate or bowl and enjoy.

Leni's Notes:
~Spring for good olive oil, and get the extra virgin. Anything that's heavier will allow the oil to over-power the herbs.
~Be creative with the bread. Make your own or go to the local market and grab a variety of breads to try.
~Adjust the spices to your family's taste. If there's something you particularly love or hate, adjust accordingly.
~I find kids love this too, so don't think you're saving it all for the adults! Caution kids not to scoop up the herbs on their bread. They'll be in for a nasty surprise, and possibly and upset stomach later.
~If we are a small gathering, we leave a bowl in the middle of the table, as pictured. For a larger group, you can ladle onto individual plates, or leave the herbs and oil unmixed and put a scattering of herbs on a plate and drizzle with oil. Keep the oil on the table, you'll run out and the herbs go a long way.

1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon dried rosemary
1 teaspoon dried basil
1 teaspoon dried parsley
1 teaspoon powdered garlic
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon Cayenne powder
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon minced garlic
3/4 - 1 cup extra virgin olive oil (add more as needed)
1-2 loaves of fresh bread

~Crush all dry ingredients with a mortar and pestle. (Rub herbs between your hands if you don't have a mortar and pestle.)
~Place into a bowl, and add minced garlic and olive oil.
~While dipping or serving, make sure that you continue to stir up the herbs.
~When oil runs low, add more and stir.

Blessings from my happy to kitchen to yours,

Monday, March 11, 2013

Freezer Cooking - Lasagna

My youngest daughter is on Spring Break, so I don't have to drive her to the college this week! I decided to take this opportunity to restock my freezer meals as we are completely out.

There is just nothing like being able to pull a healthy, home-cooked meal from your freezer, pop it in the oven and walk away. I'd like to think this would let me relax for a couple of minutes, but really, it frees me up to go work on something else. I'll take what I can get, though. My schedule is maxed out right now, so any break I can get is worth it.

In case I haven't mentioned it before, I have become a huge fan of disposable steamer trays. These half trays are just the right size for when the whole family is visiting, or when it's our smaller group (with a couple of lunch servings left over.) The foil lids let them stack beautifully in the freezer. When dinner's over, throw them out. ;o) I get mine in bulk at Sam's Club.

Leni's Notes:
~Adjust the recipe to include your family's favorite ingredients.
~Cooking has to be flexible with this one, as there are a lot of determining factors. Was it completely thawed before baking? Partially frozen? Did you have other things in the oven? When did you uncover it? Always check with a thermometer or by poking a metal butter knife in the middle and feeling the temp on the end of the knife. (Very scientific, don't you know!)
~Always put a cookie sheet under these pans. Not only will this save your oven should there be any boil-over, but these pans can be very flexible, and you do not want hot cheese and sauce spilling down your legs. Safety first!
~I know you can buy no-boil lasagna noodles. I personally don't like the result. It leaves all that starch in the finished product and everything tastes gummy. Not a fan.
~When I cook the lasagna noodles, I only partially cook them. (about 3/4 of the amount of time instructed.) When they come out of the water, I rinse them and then layer them between sheets of aluminum foil until I'm ready to use them. This works really well!
~I'm using some convenience items here, but I have found that if you do small things like buy block cheese and shred it yourself, you can make lasagna pretty economically. Everything costs time or money, so it depends on what you have available to spend!
~I am not a fan of chunks in my sauce, so I tend to buy smooth marinara. Feel free to buy your favorite sauce, or to throw in some crushed tomatoes with your marinara.

2 packages whole wheat lasagna noodles, cooked, layered on foil
3 lbs browned ground beef (give or take) cooked with onions, salt and pepper
6 Italian sausages, cooked, cooled and chopped (optional)
1 (3 lb) container ricotta cheese
3 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
3 eggs
1 cup parmesan cheese
1 Tablespoon each: oregano, basil, parsley
2 ( 24 oz) jars of your favorite marinara
1 (24 oz) jar of water
1 (20 oz) can of tomato puree
2 cloves of garlic
Extra mozzarella for topping

~Combine beef and sausage in one bowl.
~Combine ricotta, mozzarella, eggs, parmesan, oregano, basil and parsley in another bowl.
~Combine marinara, water, tomato puree and garlic in a third bowl.
~Prepare three 13x9 pans with cooking spray or a little olive oil and a pastry brush.
~Start with a thin layer of sauce.
~Follow with layers of: noodles (3 will fit perfectly,) cheese, sauce, noodles, meat, sauce.
~Repeat until all ingredients have been used up.
~Top with extra mozzarella.
~Top each pan with it's lid, seal tightly.
~Label with item name and cooking instructions (including thawing times.)
~Stack neatly in the freezer. (Don't let them tip at all until they are solid frozen or you will have a MESS!)

~When ready to cook, my suggestion is to thaw completely first, then bake at 375 for 1 to 1 1/2 hours.
~I usually bake for one hour with the lid on, then take it off, check for doneness and decide if it needs more actual cooking time, or just a little time to brown the top a smidge.
~Remove from oven when done, and let it cool for 15-20 min. This gives the fluids time to settle a bit before serving.

Blessings from my busy kitchen to yours,

Friday, March 08, 2013

Implementing the Kitchen Plan

Since last Fall, I have been working on a plan to overhaul my kitchen, with as little money as possible. This involved a lot of labor-intensive steps. Marrying off my daughter, hauling out her room, moving all of hubby's stuff into his new music room, selling the treadmill, the list goes on and on. My end game is to have a dishwasher in place before my kids all move out. I've got at least a year or so to work on that.

The first step was to turn my buffet (which had been in the kitchen) into an entertainment center. I wanted the living room to have a more polished, put together look. 

Buffet in it's new home.  

The drawers neatly house all of the DVDs, and our oldest dog thinks we put it there just so that he could sleep underneath it. Our front door is just to the right of the buffet, and this opened up the walk way nicely.

My new shelving, where the buffet used to be. Used the money from selling the treadmill to buy the shelves.

I am also putting in new food rotation shelves for my canned goods. If you are looking for a great product for that, contact Janelle Bird at Shelf Reliance. She is a personal friend and was very helpful when I was trying to figure out exactly what I needed. Will be posting pictures of that set up in the future.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Crock Pot Best Beef Stew

Be honest. Nothing beats a good beef stew. Especially when it's cooking all day while you're at work, and you come home to that wonderful aroma. It just speaks comfort. Add in some fresh-baked rolls or dumplings and you've got a combo that can't be beat.

The first time I made the stew for a crowd, it was for a VBS closing dinner. Everyone thought I was nuts, making hot beef stew for 150 people in the heat of August. But when you're doing a old-style cowboy themed program, how can you not serve up chuck wagon stew? There were skeptics who said kids wouldn't eat something so grown up. I'm here to tell you, those who came late for dinner were left out, because adults and kids alike chowed down that stew like they hadn't eaten in a week. You just can't beat good home cooking!

Here's the great thing about stew. You make it early, and then you leave it alone. You have to let it cook long and low to get the meat tender and the flavors blended. So when you have a big group to feed, or you just don't want to be fussing in the kitchen while you have company, this is a terrific choice. Start it in the morning and leave it alone until you're ready to serve.

This stew has morphed over the years as I've changed my methods trying to find the easiest way to get the best taste. I *think* have found my final version. Gone are the days of browning the meat and deglazing the pan, which defeated the purpose of the crock pot, which was to make everything easy! Also, no taking time to thicken the gravy at the end, everything is done up front.

Leni's Notes
~This recipe translates well when multiplied for a large roaster pan. However, potatoes do not freeze well, so only make enough to eat up in a couple of days.
~This recipe can be adjusted for budget. If you have less money to work with, cut way back on the meat and load it up with more veggies. Just be careful with carrots (too many makes it sweet) and celery (too many, and all you'll taste is celery.)
~Feel free to buy a roast and cut it up, or even to use browned ground beef if that's what you've got. Because of my work schedule, I don't have time to mess with cutting up meat, so I spring for well-trimmed stew beef.
~A loaf of Italian bread or fresh rolls is a terrific accompaniment for this. Dumplings are even better, but not for a crowd. Save those for the intimate family dinners.
~If you're really in a hurry, and don't have time to make a roux in the morning, just put the ingredients in with the broth, and make the roux later. I like to do it ahead of time, because when I get home, I'm too tired to care. ;o)
~This recipe fits well in an 8 quart crock pot, with enough room to not boil over. Beef stew is the only thing I make that consistently boils over! What a mess. Leave an inch of space in the top of the crock to avoid this.

1 1/2 sticks of salted butter
1 1/2 cups white flour
2 quarts beef broth (Pacific Organic)
1/4 cup dry chopped onions
1 T dry basil
1 T dry oregano
2 tsp garlic powder
2-4 tsp sea salt, according to preference
1 1/2 tsp black pepper
1-2 lbs well trimmed stew beef
4-6 white potatoes, cleaned and cubed
4 carrots, chopped
2 celery stalks, chopped

~In dutch oven, melt butter, then whisk in flour, allowing it to cook a little as you mix.
~Slowly add in broth, whisking until all is smooth. (Immersion blender is great for this step.)
~Allow to cook and thicken a bit, stirring to keep from scorching.
~When roux has reached desired thickness, pour into the crock pot.
~Place all remaining ingredients in crock pot and stir.
~Cook on low for 5-6 hours.
~Stir well before serving.
~Enjoy with fresh bread and butter.

Blessings from my cozy home to yours,