Monthly Archives: February 2014

Quick and Easy Dessert-Candy Bar Brownies

So I have to admit, I don’t usually make box desserts.  If I’m going to make a cake or Ingredientsbrownies, I’d rather make them from scratch.  I know, I know, there are probably many of you out there that just gasped, knowing that those box mixes have gotten you through many a birthday or last-minute dessert.  And that’s absolutely fine, I don’t judge…or at least I’m not judging now. 🙂  It’s just my preference.  However, there is one instance where I think boxed mixes are perfect.  With just a little effort, you can turn a box mix into an impressive dessert that people will LOVE…candy bar brownies (and in this case, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup brownies)!!!!

Batter ReadyThe beauty of these brownies is that you’re basically just taking the box mix, mixing it up with the required ingredients, layering it in the pan with some chopped up candy, and baking it a little longer.  They end up being rich, chewy, and just plain delicious!

For these, I used 2 boxes of Duncan Hines Chewy Fudge Brownies.  Because I doubled it, I needed 4 eggs, 1/2 cup water, and 1 1/2 cups vegetable oil for the chewy version.  And please, please, make the chewy version.  ALWAYS make the chewy version.  No Ready for the Ovenone prefers cake-like brownies.  Really, there are no cake-like brownies…it’s called chocolate cake!

Anyway, back to the recipe, stir that all together, and set aside.  Now, for the magical part.  For this recipe, I used a 10.5 oz package of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, opened them all up, and coarsely chopped them.  Pour half of the batter into a 15″x10″ baking dish (and don’t worry, if you don’t have that big of a dish, you can always use the more common 13″x9″…they will be thicker Peanut Butter Cup Browniesand take a little longer to cook though).  Then sprinkle the chopped peanut butter cups, and top with the rest of the batter.  Try to cover the candy as you pour the batter, but don’t worry if some candy shows.  Then bake them at 350 degrees for 35-40 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean 1 inch from the edge (yup, those are the instructions from the back of the box).  Let them cool before you cut them, since they are loaded with that extra candy and could fall apart.

Take it from me, these brownies are awesome.  They really do kick up the boxed mix, and you don’t need to use peanut butter cups.  You can use any candy you want.  They are great with York Peppermint Patties, or Snickers, or, whatever you like for that matter.  They are just plain great.  Give them a try, you won’t regret it!

A Rainy (or Snowy) Day Activity-Painting Paneling

The weather finally seems to be getting warmer, even though it’s a rainy day in my area.  But, sometimes, a rainy day is perfect.  It’s a great day to actually tackle some of those indoor activities you keep putting off.  For me, a recent rainy day was a great day to finally paint the wood paneling in my kitchen.

PicturesA few years ago, I was given prints of a fork, spoon, and knife that I wanted to hang in my kitchen.  My kitchen is pretty dated.  Even though I know at some time in the future I’ll redo it, for now, it will have to do.  The one thing that drives me nuts about it though is an area of paneling in the kitchen.  Years ago, the house originally had a side door, but that was covered up, and paneling was used to hide the space.  And, if there’s one thing I hate, it’s paneling.  While I would have loved to pull it down, that was a little beyond my rainy day project.  So instead, I painted the paneling to better match the rest of the kitchen and the great prints I had.

TapingThe biggest part of any paint job is the prep.  If you prep the area and make sure you’re ready, the painting will be simple, and clean up will be as well.  The first step was taping all of the edges with painters tape.  Then, I had to start sanding.  Because I was painting paneling, and the paneling had a smooth finish, sanding was important.  You want to be sure there is a rough surface for the paint to adhere.  I simply took a sanding square and went over the whole surface to Sandingrough it up.  This also helped even out any imperfections in the wood.  Once the wall was rough, I was ready to paint.

Because it was the kitchen, and it will probably need a lot of wiping over the years, I used a Behr eggshell finish.  And because it was a small area I was painting, and with the grooves in the paneling, I decided to use a hand-held brush.  I could have used a roller for most of the wall, but, since I still would have had to use the brush to get into the grooves, I just used the brush for the whole project.  I painted the wall with smooth, long strokes, going down the grooves first, then Paintingcovering the main surface.  I worked in about a 1 foot square area, then went to the next, always brushing up and down, with the grain.  It didn’t take long to cover the whole surface.  I ended up putting a second coat on just to be sure the paneling didn’t shine through.

One thing to note, I’ve struggled with the painters tape in the past.  If you let the paint dry completely, and then you pull off the tape, if there are any sections that had the paint pretty thick, the tape just pulls the paint right off the wall.  The way I avoid this is I take the Finished Producttape off as soon as I’m finished painting.  This way, the paint isn’t completely dry, and so I just pull off the tape, not some of my hard work!

Once the wall dried, I was able to hang my new prints.  I have to say, I’m very happy with the way the wall turned out.  I love the light mocha color, it makes a huge difference for the kitchen, and the prints really add something to the wall.

So, what do you like to do on a rainy, or snowy day?

A Winter Salad with Figs and a Port Wine Reduction

Figs are one of my favorite fruits.  They are so juicy and delicate, with a firm skin and soft, sweet interior.  If you haven’t had a fresh fig, when they are available in your grocery store, definitely give it a try.  They are more than just the filling of the Fig Newtons…trust me.  I absolutely love them, but here in the northeast, their season is short.  Whenever possible, I love to incorporate dried figs into recipes.  They certainly aren’t quite the same as a juicy, fresh fig, but they are a close second.  And here is one of the ways I like to cook them, reconstituting them in a port wine reduction which becomes a sweet, tangy salad dressing.

Cut FigsFor this recipe, you want to make the dressing early, so it has time to cool off.  Take 7 oz of dried mission figs and quarter them.  You may also need to cut off a small, hard stem that is often times attached.  If you feel a hard piece at the small end of the figs, just cut that off before quartering.  Add the quartered figs to a small saucepan with 2/3 cup of port wine, 2 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar, 1 tablespoon of honey, and 1/3 cup of olive oil.  Mix everything together, and cook over a high heat until it comes to a simmer.  Simmer for about 10 minutes until the figs become plump and the sauce begins to thicken.  Remove from heat, and, when cooled a bit, stir in 1 tablespoon of Dijon mustard.

The DressingThat’s really it for the dressing…and the salad for that matter.  I like to toast half a cup of walnuts or pecans and toss it all with arugula.  The peppery arugula works well with the sweet dressing.  And if you like your dressing more tangy, add a bit more balsamic.  Just adjust to make it your own.  You could also add some cheese to this salad, maybe a salty ricotta salata or some crumbled Gorgonzola.  You could even add some roasted chicken and make a meal out of it.  Great, now I’m making myself hungry!

Now if only we could fast forward to the spring or summer and get fresh arugula from the garden, that would make the salad even better!  But with a foot of snow on the ground, that seems pretty far off!

Amaryllis, the Perfect Flower for…Valentines Day???

I will admit, I love amaryllises (and yes, I got the plural right…but I’ll admit, I had to look it up).  Those giant bulbs, the perfect green spears, and finally, that amazing, huge, showstopping bloom!  It’s the perfect flower, and, like many others, I love to use them at Christmastime.  But, I’m sure you’re wondering, why am I talking about it today, Valentine’s Day?  Well, sadly, I didn’t have much luck this year…my amaryllises are just blooming now!

Kitchen WindowIn my kitchen, I have a perfect spot for flowers.  The sink is angled and in the corner, and above the sink are two huge windows.  There is a perfect triangular spot for flowers, and I love to swap those out during the year for the seasons.  A few years ago, I had the brilliant idea of planting amaryllis bulbs and paper whites.  I ran to my local Home Depot, color coordinated the blooms, planted, and waited for them to come.  Sure enough, they were perfect!  I had some buds showing by Thanksgiving, and by Christmas, they were in full bloom. Needless to say, I was proud!

Buds StartingSo, being the optimist that I am, I thought, I need to save these bulbs, because I can do it again next year!  And I did just that.  I cut the leaves and stems off, shook off the dirt, and put them in my shed.  And then, come October, I potted them up (as I had read, about 8-10 weeks before you want them to bloom).  They started to sprout right away, and I was thrilled.  Those leaves shot up, and more leaves, and more leaves, and, well, that was it, just leaves.  No buds ever came.  Realizing I had either underestimated the re-blooming process or overestimated my gardening skills, I did some research.  What I found out was you have to keep them growing and feed them into late winter, spring, and summer.  So last year, after the holidays and my sad leaf display, I re-potted the bulbs (after all, I had to rotate in some spring flowers for my kitchen display), kept them watered and fed, and eventually, when it was warm enough, I moved them to the porch.

Making ProgressI can proudly tell you, after following these guidelines, I was the only house on the block that was sporting huge amaryllis blooms in June!  That’s right, after I re-potted them and once they started growing, several sent up blooms.  I’m sure it was because I didn’t give them the nutrients they needed to develop the buds, but once I kept them going, they finally had blooms.  So, keeping with my research, I read that you should keep them going all summer, then, in mid-August, stop watering and move them to a dark, cool location.

AlmostBeing the rule follower that I am, I did just that.  I moved them to a cool, dark part of the basement and stopped watering them.  It lasted for 8 weeks.  After that time, in October, I re-potted them and began to water.  Sure enough, there was growth, and I was thrilled.  But the problem was, my timing was still off.  While I had growth, and eventually buds, I was a few months off.

I’ve watered these buds, and talked to them, coaxing out a bloom, but I wasn’t rewarded until now, about 2 months after I wanted the show.  But, I have to say, I’m still relieved that they bloomed this year, and not in the summer.  Maybe this year I’ll move my timing up a bit, but hopefully the bulbs are now getting back into the routine after I messed with them for a while year.  We’ll see!  Hopefully you have more luck.  I’d love to hear how you’ve succeeded (if you have).

So, for Valentine’s Day this year, we have beautiful amaryllises.  Hopefully you have some lovely flowers today also.  Happy Valentine’s Day!Blooms

My Favorite Comfort Food…Spaghetti Carbonara

When I was in grade school, I can remember going to dinner at my uncle’s rectory (he is a catholic priest) for Mother’s Day.  The cook at the rectory made this delicious dinner, and one of the things she made was spaghetti carbonara.  It was an amazing, creamy, cheesy sauce with bits of salty meat, and, after the first bite, I was hooked.  At that moment, I fell in love.  Ever since then, it has been one of my favorite foods, and it is the perfect comfort food for a cold, winter night.

IngredientsSpaghetti carbonara has to be one of the easiest pasta dishes there is.  By the time the pasta has boiled, your dinner is ready.  The first thing you need to do is cook 1 lb of pasta according to the package directions.  Traditionally, spaghetti is used, but I only had fettuccine, and was too lazy to go to the store, so that’s what I used.  As the water is coming to a boil, cook 4 oz of diced pancetta in a saute pan large enough to hold the pasta over a medium heat.  I get the pancetta at Wegman’s, and they have a pre-cut package that is perfect.  If you can’t find pancetta, you can always use bacon.  You want to saute it until it is crisp, but be careful you don’t burn it.  If it’s cooked, and the pasta isn’t done yet, just take it off the heat as you wait for the pasta.  As it’s cooking, in a bowl, whisk together 4 eggs and 1 cup of Pecorino Romano cheese.  If you don’t have it, you can always substitute Parmigiano.  Once it’s whisked together well, set that aside.

PancettaOnce the pasta is cooked, drain it, but reserve 1/4 cup of the cooking water.  After draining, pour the pasta into the saute pan with the pancetta, and, if you had removed it from the heat, put it on a medium heat.  Stir for a minute or so until combined and most of the water has evaporated from the pasta, then remove from the heat and pour in the egg and cheese mixture.  Stir to combine and continue stirring as the heat from the pan and the pasta cooks the egg mixture and it becomes a thick sauce.  If it becomes too thick, you can always add some of the reserved cooking water.

MixingWhen it’s thick and rich, you can add some black pepper, and you’re ready to serve.  Because of the salt in the pancetta, you shouldn’t need to add any extra.  And if you’re worried about the eggs, you can always turn the heat back on as you stir the pasta and egg/cheese mixture.  Just be careful to keep stirring so you don’t end up with scrambled eggs.

It’s definitely a rich dish, but it’s so delicious.  Give it a try and let me know how you like it!

Saving the Garden from the Snow…and Ice!

It’s been a rough week in the Philadelphia area.  We started with I think 8 or so inches of snow on Monday, then we got serious ice on Wednesday.  There have been tons of people with fallen trees, downed power lines, and no electricity.  Luckily, I’ve had power, and haven’t had to go anywhere!  But, one of the things I did need to do was brave the snow and ice to save some of my trees.

Snow Crushing TreeWhen the snow comes down like it did on Monday, wet and packable, it can be absolutely beautiful.  It sticks to the trees and makes everything look magical.  But that heavy snow can do serious damage to your trees and plants.  The weight of the snow crushes the branches, breaking, or sometimes permanently damaging, the plant.  Thankfully, you can take some steps to deal with the snow, and that’s just what I did this week, before the ice came.

Once the snow stopped, and I saw how badly the trees were crushed, I went outside with my trusty broom and tried to get as much snow off as possible.  It’s really a pretty easy job…usually.  You just start by brushing off as much as you can from the tree.  Sometimes, that’s enough for the branches to bounce back into shape.  But, with the snow we had, I had to take it a step further.  I had to shake some of the branches, pushing theClearedm around to try and get the snow to fall.  Unfortunately, the best leverage is usually under the tree, where you get rained on, or snowed on in this case, coming out soaking wet. And trust me, you won’t need to go to the gym afterwards, it’s great cardio! 🙂

Getting that snow off as quickly as possible can save the trees and plants.  The extra weight very easily breaks tender branches.  And, even if the branches aren’t broken, they can be damaged, sometimes even permanently bent one way or another.  The faster you can get the weight off so they can return to normal, the more likely you can save the shape, and also the more likely the branches won’t break.  The branches may need to be cut eventually if they are stuck a certain way, and the tree may also need a severe prune, or worse.  But save that for later, after the tree has had a chance to try and bounce back.  Then you can assess the damages.

ClearedSo the next time you get a snow storm, unfortunately you may need to venture out for a little while.  But, in the spring, when the garden looks great and you’ve forgotten about the snow, it will be all worth it.

If you experienced storms in your area, I hope you were safe this week, and this winter for that matter!  It’s been a cold and snowy one!  I love the snow, but….when is it spring?!?!?!

Tastykakes and Toffee…Dessert Recipes from the Super Bowl

Saltine ToffeeI will be the first to admit it, I’m not a football fan.  Don’t like watching it, don’t really like playing it, and definitely don’t like talking about it.  So when the big games comes around every year, I’m not looking forward to it.  Sure, there are some great commercials during the Super Bowl (Full House reunited, 80s stars for Radio Shack, and all of those cars commercials, crazy), and there is usually a party with great food, but the Super Bowl itself, I could do without.  However, this year, I was at a party with great friends, and got to show off two of my favorite recipes, to rave reviews mind you!

I was in charge of desserts, and I wanted to be sure I brought something that was finger food-ish, like most of the food would be.  People would be eating wings and chips and pizza, so the desserts had to fit in.  And the two I made definitely did!

Butter and SugarThe first dessert I made was a saltine toffee. You may have had this already, or made it, but it’s always so good.  And it goes by so many names, one friend even calls it crack.  I do agree, it’s addicting.  Luckily, it’s pretty easy…here goes:

Put one stick of butter (1/2 cup) in a saucepan and melt over medium head.  Once it’s melted, dump in 1 cup of sugar.  Stir to mix and melt together over medium heat (and use a bigger pan than I did…I was trying to be quick).  You want it to be combined and the sugar to start to melt…it only takes a few minutes.

Ready for the OvenWhile the butter and sugar are brewing, cover a cookie sheet with foil and cover with non-stick spray.  Then lay out saltine crackers in an even layer.  You want them to touch but not overlap, and cover the whole thing.  Pretty easy to do, and I used almost 2 sleeves.  Once that’s done, and the sugar mixture is ready, just pour it all over.  Make sure you hit the edges and sides so they have some of the sweet coating too.  Then just put it in a 350 degree oven for 10-12 minutes.  You want it to be bubbling and evenly coated.

Melted ChipsWhen you take the pan out of the oven, immediately cover with a 12 oz bag of chocolate chips (I used semi-sweet).  Let them sit for a few minutes, and you’ll see the chips turn glossy as they melt.  Once melted, spread the chocolate evenly, and patiently wait until it’s cooled off. Then break into pieces and enjoy!  And you’ve been warned, they are addicting!

BatterThe next recipe I made was Tandy Cakes.  If you’ve ever had the Tastykake variety and like those, you’ll love these.  And they’re another pretty simple recipe.  Beat together 4 large eggs with 2 cups of sugar until fluffy and pale yellow.   Add in 2 cups of flour, 1 cup of milk, 1 teaspoon of vanilla, 2 teaspoons of baking powder, and 2 tablespoons of oil.  Mix until combined and you have a smooth batter.  Pour into a greased cookie sheet and bake at 350 degrees for 20-30 minutes, until cooked through and a nice golden color.

Ready to SpreadOnce it comes out of the oven, spread with a 12 oz container of creamy peanut butter.  The heat from the cake will melt the peanut butter, making it very easy to spread.  Then cool in the refrigerator for about 30 minutes or until the peanut butter has firmed up.  Then, melt a 12 oz bag of chocolate chips in the microwave (30 second intervals, stir, and keep going till smooth).  Pour and spread the chocolate over the cooled peanut butter and let cool.  Cut and enjoy.  These are so delicious, and I can’t tell you how many compliments I got yesterday!

Eat UpSo there you have it!  Those were my Super Bowl desserts.  What did you make?  What are some of your favorite desserts?