Thursday, December 29, 2011

Gone, but not forgotten

This post is just to say that though I may be gone, you, Dear Readers, are not forgotten!

The seasonal apology seems to be a common theme on blogs these past few days, but I'm afraid I'm going to have to extend mine a little longer. You see, after spending "real Christmas" with Matt's parents in South Carolina, we drove 13 hours to spend "second Christmas" with my side of the family, all congregated in Chicago - including my brother, who'd flown in from Japan.

It will be a few more days before we're back home in Tennessee, and I hope you'll bear with me until then. I promise to bring all kinds of new reviews, recipes and travel tips in the new year!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

12 Weeks of Christmas Cookies Round-Up

Christmas is just days away, and for those of you who've been following along with the 12 Weeks of Christmas Cookies Party, your cookie jars, dessert trays, and even your freezer are probably filled to the brim with tasty treats. Of course, if you're like me, you *might* have tasted a few too many (quality control is important) and now it's time to replenish your supply. The party ended last week, but for those of you who need a refresher - myself included - I'm gathering all my contributions here in one place.

To be honest, I prefer to do my holiday baking just a few days before the Big Day, not just because it keeps me from eating all my treats, but also because baking is one sure-fire way for me to get into the Christmas spirit. I love filling the house with warm vanilla smells and the tang of wintry spices like clove, cinnamon, and nutmeg.

For the past several years, I've spent Christmas at my mum's old farmhouse in western New York. The house is over 100 years old so, needless to say, it's pretty drafty and the heat from a working kitchen is a welcome addition. This year, we're celebrating the holiday in South Carolina with Matt's family, but even in these slightly-warmer climes, I stand by my tradition of last-minute holiday baking!

Whatever your reasons, if you still have some holiday baking to do, here are a few of my favorite recipes to get you started. Check out the individual posts for recipes and links to all the other delicious desserts that were shared that week!

Week 1: Browned Butter Oatmeal Cranberry Bars
Possibly the healthiest of my 12 Weeks offerings, these delicious bars are based on a Cooking Light recipe. Consisting of a creamy yogurt layer, studded with dried cranberries and sandwiched between two crunchy oatmeal layers, these bars get a richness upgrade with the addition of nutty browned butter. Best of all they're quick and easy to make.

Week 2: Copycat Levain Bakery Chocolate Chip Cookies (i.e. one mega-good cookie)
What can I say, these are just the Best. Chocolate, Chip. Cookies. Ever. After a pilgrimage to the famous Levain Bakery in NYC, I just knew I had to try my hand at recreating those one-of-a-kind cookies. This recipe isn't exact, but it's pretty close and, really, just as good. Plus, you can make them in your own home - and no need to fork over the price of a place ticket to New York!

Week 3: Easy Caramel Turtle Bites
If it's Christmas Eve and you still don't have treats for your cookie tray, look no further than these ooey, gooey turtle bars. This recipe has a few shortcut options that make it perfect for last-minute baking (of course, you can take the from-scratch options for a more homespun flavor). From start to finish, they'll take you minutes to prepare - but they taste like a long afternoon spent in the kitchen.

Week 4: Colonial Williamsburg Gingerbread Cookies
If I could choose just one cookie to make for Christmas, these simple spiced goodies would be it. They've been a tradition in my family for almost 20 years - but their true history is much, much richer. The recipe comes from Colonial Williamsburg and makes the most tender cookies, deliciously spiced with cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg, and rich with molasses. Shape the cookies into traditional rounds, or cut them into festive shapes for a touch of contemporary holiday flair.

Week 5: Midnight Chocolate Cake with Magic Ovaltine Icing
This simple, from-scratch chocolate cake is tall, dark, and oh-so-delicious, but the real star of this cake is the icing, which I stumbled upon on a whim. Rich Chocolate Ovaltine is the key ingredient, but the finished product tastes like Cadbury Mini Eggs, my favorite chocolate treat in all the world. Of course, the cake is pretty special, too (it contains coffee, Greek yogurt and buttermilk, for goodness sake!), but even if you don't make the cake, you must, must make this icing!

Week 6: Pumpkin Crunch Cake
Let me tell you, this unassuming little pumpkin cake has been the runaway favorite this holiday season. I've made it 4 or 5 times since posting the recipe, and I've been asked for the recipe every time. My mother-in-law brought it to a gathering, and she got asked for the recipe. I even passed out the recipe at Thanksgiving. All this is to say that this one is a real crowd pleaser, and a perfect choice for any holiday gathering - just be sure to bring along a few (dozen) copies of the recipe!

Week 7: All Butter Snickerdoodles
These Snickerdoodles are another holiday staple, and a true family favorite - they were included at the request of my 93-year-old grandmother! Most recipes call for a mixture of shortening and butter, but these are all-butter - which, I kid myself, makes them a little healthier. Add some colored sprinkles for an extra festive touch, or just eat them plain, in all their cinnamon-speckled glory.

Week 8: Chocolate and Peppermint Spritz Sandwich Cookies
Another Grandma-approved holiday treat, this recipe is a new twist on a old-fashioned favorite. Everyone loves spritz cookies, but I decided to do something a little different this year, and patterned them after Matt's favorite Cool Mint Oreos. The filling is pretty close to the real thing and the cookie are nice and chocolatey, even if all you do is sprinkle them with a bit of sugar.

Week 9: Czech Sugar Cookies
In all my years of cookie baking, I've never come across another recipe quite like this one. It's another heirloom recipe, with a nod to my family's Eastern European heritage. Of course, you don't have to be from the Czech Republic to find these cookies utterly irresistible. Full of vanilla flavor, and coated in a thin covering of powdered sugar 'icing' (the icing is formed while the cookies bake!), these are a great treat for cookie lovers of every kind.

Week 10: Seven Layer Magic Bars
I'm made these at Matt's request, but they're a universal favorite. Also know as 'Magic Bars' or Hello Dolly Bars,' these easy treats have all kinds of chocolatey, coconutty, ooey-gooey-caramel appeal. These were a hit at Thanksgiving with my sister's British in-laws, who aren't used to everything-but-the-kitchen-sink type treats, but be warned, they're incredibly rich so you'll want to slice them small (and make them often!!!).

Week 11: Saltine Cracker Toffee ('Crack')
This strange-sounding treat will appeal to lovers of the sweet-and-salty combo. It combines the buttery richness of English toffee with the smooth silkiness of molten chocolate, and the salty crunch of Saltine crackers. The use of Saltines gives it a 1950s-novelty-ingredient appeal, but the resulting candy tastes, and even looks, deceptively high-end and high effort! A box of this candy would make a great last-minute gift, and no one need know how little time you had to spend in the kitchen. We topped ours with coconut (our favorite), coarse salt, and chopped pecans, but the possibilities are nearly endless. Watch out, it's addictive!

Week 12: Best Sugar Cookies (and Icing)
This recipe comes from my little sister and it is my go-to sugar cookie recipe. It's consistent and delicious, and though the rolling, cutting and decorating is time-consuming, it delivers everything you could want from a sugar cookie. The icing is also pretty great - not cloyingly sweet in the way that powdered sugar icing can be, and the corn syrup gives is a great texture for decorating. It may not set hard like Royal Icing, but it tastes 50 times better! If you have time for only one festive cookie this holiday season, this recipe will give you the most Christmassy bang for your buck!

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is my 12 Weeks of Christmas Cookies 2011 line-up. You can browse the recipes, drool over the photos, and share your favorites in the comments!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Trader Joe's: Eggnog Emporium

You may have noticed a surge of eggnog-related posts on this blog recently. That's because I love it, and although I'm aware that not everyone shares my enthusiasm for all things eggnog, I'm also aware that in a couple of weeks, the cheery little cartons will disappear from the shelves and I won't be able to get it in the stores until next Christmas. So, until that time, you'll have to bear with me and my shameless eggnog-chugging ways.

Trader Joe's Eggnog Almonds and Cookies!

Since we're away from home for the holidays, I haven't been spending very much time in the kitchen; I did, however, spend some time at Trader Joe's yesterday, where I found not one, but two eggnoggy treats (in addition to their Premium Eggnog)!  With no recipes to share at the moment, I thought I'd review these festive finds.

Monday, December 19, 2011

(Eggnog) Waffle Bread Pudding

Remember the Eggnog Waffle French Toast I shared last week? Well, it has quickly jumped to the #1 most-viewed spot on this blog! I knew that I had something special the moment I tasted those french-toasted eggnog-drenched waffles, but I could never have guessed that a meal made out of breakfast leftovers would garner so much attention.

In my opinion a splash of eggnog makes anything delicious, but I'm aware that not everyone agrees. So, for those of you who are a little less than enthusiastic about downing a glass of heavy-cream-and-barely-cooked-egg, here's another waffle transformation. This time, my favorite breakfast treat is getting the bread pudding treatment - and if you thought the French Toast waffles were good, you have to try these!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Hearty and Healthy Cabbage and Barley Soup

So this was the recipe I'd intended to share on Wednesday, until Blogger ate my post - recipe, photos and all. Perhaps you should take that as a sign of how delicious it is? But seriously, things worked out for the best because Wednesday ended up being unseasonably warm and sunny (it reached 70°F - in December!) and today is, once again, cold and wintry and pouring down rain. In short, it's the perfect day for a mug of this winter warming soup.

Packed with nutrient-rich cabbage and antioxidant-laden stewed tomatoes, this soup is a deliciously powerful tool against the cold and flu season. It's also full of carrots, onions, and garlic, all floating in a rich vegetable broth. Cabbage soup may have gotten bad rap ever since the introduction of the crazy Cabbage Soup Diet, but this is no tummy-rumbling, starvation-rations, diet soup. The addition of pearled barley makes it hearty and filling, without compromising any of the health benefits.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Festive Sugar Cookies (12 Weeks of Christmas Cookies - Week 12)

Here it is, the very last week of the 12 Weeks of Christmas Cookies party, so it's only appropriate that I've saved the most festive of all cookie recipes for our last link-up. They're soft and tender, with a buttery vanilla crumb, and they make your kitchen smell heavenly for hours! A bit of rolling, a bit of cutting, and a slick of icing and you can transform them into any seasonal shape - they're sugar cookies, of course!

Every family has a go-to recipe for sugar cookies, and ours comes from my littlest sister (who, at 20, really isn't that 'little' anymore). Her recipe turns out thick, tender cookies that take shape very well and can by cooked as soft or crispy as you like. Of course, because I have a powerful sweet tooth and a love of vanilla, I add a bit extra of each to my sister's recipe. Go big or go home, right? But for those of you who aren't quite as sweet-addicted, I've marked my changes on the recipe below. Make these your go-to sugar cookie recipe this Christmas - you won't regret it!

The Best Sugar Cookies, Ever

1 1/2 cups butter, softened
3 cups granulated sugar (the original recipe calls for 2 cups)
4 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract (1 tsp in the original)
5 cups all purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
lemon zest (optional, my addition)

Preheat the oven to 400°F. In a large mixing bowl, cream together butter and sugar until smooth and fluffy. Beat in eggs and add vanilla. stir until well blended. Gradually add in the flour, baking powder and salt. Stir until incorporated. Cover dough and chill for at least one hour (or overnight). Roll out to 1/4 - 1/2-inch thickness, on a well-floured surface. Cut into shapes and place, 1 inch apart, on an ungreased baking sheet. Bake 6-8 minutes until edges just begin to turn golden (watch them closely because the edges burn easily, especially when rolled thin). Cool completely before icing.

The Best Sugar Cookie Icing (aka Better Than Royal Icing)
This is my little sister's icing recipe - with absolutely no changes. It's delicious, takes color well and is easy to decorate with. I sometimes add a bit of almond extract for a slightly different flavor.

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter
3 Tablespoons light corn syrup
1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
2 teaspoons milk (can be adjusted to provide the desired consistency)
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 - 1/2 teaspoon almond extract (optional)

Cream butter, corn syrup, and powdered sugar together in a small bowl until smooth. Stir in milk, vanilla and confectioners sugar. Add almond extract, if desired, and additional milk, as needed, to achieve the desired consistency.

We make camels to remember our deployed friends at Christmas - plus, they're really cute!

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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

All I Want for Christmas...

This is NOT the post I'd planned to share with you today, but since Blogger just ate the one I've just spent two hours writing, my cabbage soup will have to wait. So, while I re-create an entire recipe from memory, you can have fun shopping!

Well folks, it's that time of year again. The time of year when Christmas shopping ceases to be proactive and becomes almost last-minute. This year, I've managed to get most of my list covered, but I'm no stranger to the last-minute dash. In fact, I'm sure we've all been there at some point, so if you're still searching for the perfect present for a foodie friend, here are some hot kitchen ideas:

Cooking Classes - Whether it's sharpening your knife skills or picking up some new baking tips, there's a cooking class for everyone. Check out your local community college (even better if there's a culinary school nearby!) or community events center. In some areas, you need look no further than your local Whole Foods or Williams-Sonoma.

Photo from

Le Creuset Cookware - Speaking of Williams-Sonoma, this high-end store is one of my favorite places to browse. Notice I said browse, because unfortunately, their beautiful high-end items also have high-end prices - which is why it's doubly awesome that they're in the middle of a 25%-off cookware sale! I've been in love with the silky enamel finish of their Le Creuset cookware (which comes in all those gorgeous colors) for years, and I guarantee you there isn't a wannabe chef on your list who wouldn't be thrilled by finding one of those under the tree!

Pocket pie maker (photo from

Pocket Pie Mold - This is another Williams-Sonoma favorite (I promise I don't get sponsorship), although I'm sure you'd be able to find similar products elsewhere. The good news is that it's a lot more budget-friendly, and still makes a great food-centric gift. For those who follow the culinary zeitgeist (where all things molecular are becoming all things miniature, and cupcakes are supposedly making way for pocket pies) this gift is right on trend. Look for other shapes which could be used with savory pies, or gift a whole set for the true pastry lover in your life.

The Flavor Bible - I've reviewed this book before, but I can't say enough good things about it. Innovative and encyclopedic, this volume really changes the way you think about food and will free you up in the kitchen like you never imagined. If that's not a good enough sell, read the review!

Measuring spoons by Fred (photo from

Basic Utensils - After working my way through several vegetable peelers and surviving numerous unpleasant wooden spoon incidents (I'm convinced wooden spoons leave the nastiest splinters), I can't overemphasize the importance of having a really good set of basic tools. Peelers, can-openers, kitchen timers, graters, wooden spoons, measuring spoons, and measuring cups are the workhorses of the kitchen, so you may as well invest in good ones. And you don't have to sacrifice form for function anymore; companies like Fred offer whimsical kitchen gadgets (like the Russian Nesting Doll measuring spoons above), while others like Blomus offer sleek, stainless steel style. That being said, my drawers and cupboards are full of cheap-and-cheerful items that I'll use to death - but I'm sure I'll pay the price for my penny-pinching stubbornness in hands full of splinters.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Eggnog Waffle French Toast

With a title like that, I'll bet many of you are scratching your heads. Is it a waffle? Is it French Toast? Is it a deliciously creamy holiday beverage?

Well, let me tell you, it's a little bit of all of those things, but what it really is is 100% deliciousness! And the best part? Eggnog Waffle French Toast lets you have all the holiday yumminess of eggnog for breakfast - with a fraction of the guilt!

A few weekends ago, Matt made a jumbo batch of waffles. This was an act of love since a) he doesn't really like waffles and b) he made a lot of them. So many, in fact, that we ended up with a freezer full. I kept forgetting about them until they literally jumped out at me the other day. I took that as a sign (a sign that we need to empty our freezer!) and began to rack my brain for other ways to serve them - and just like that, the idea for Waffle French Toast was born.

Matt is a pancake guy, but I've always preferred waffles because their unique shape gives them optimum syrup-to-surface ratio. Unfortunately, they can sometimes be a little bland. Add in the flavor of french toast, though, and you've got the perfect breakfast: lots of syrup, lots of flavor, and even a bit of protein (from the egg) thrown in.

They're also a great blank canvas - which is where the eggnog comes in. I had originally planned to make them with milk, but since Matt came home with a surprise carton of eggnog this week, I just couldn't resist. I amped up the festive flavor with an extra pinch of nutmeg and enjoyed an awesome seasonal breakfast treat. Served with a dusting of powdered sugar and a drizzle of eggnog on top, they became an indulgence. Of course, you can swap the eggnog for milk and add any seasonings or flavors you like - the world is your waffle-shaped, french toast-flavored oyster!

Friday, December 9, 2011

A House Divided

So, I don't have a recipe for you today. I don't even have a travel post or restaurant review - but what I do have is a funny story about two goofy jackets, a legendary college rivalry, and football.

This weekend is the Army-Navy Game. It may not be the season's biggest ticket, but it's really the only weekend out of the year that Matthew and I become football fans (not counting the Super Bowl, of course, when everyone suddenly loves football). Of course, our enthusiasm for this historic match-up is not without a little bit of tension; you see, Matthew is a West Point grad and I'm a graduate of the Naval Academy.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Ridiculously Good Cracker Toffee (12 Weeks of Christmas Cookies - Week 11)

The richness of buttery English toffee, the smooth silkiness of melted chocolate...the crunchiness of Saltines? This is one ridiculously good treat that has to be tasted to be believed! 

Can you believe there are only one week left of the 12 Weeks of Christmas Cookies link party? When we started, back in October, Christmas seemed so far away - and now I'm rushing to buy presents, planning for parties, and making last-minute holiday plans. Things always get so busy this time of year, so I like to have a few quick, simple recipes on hand to fill up my Christmas cookie tray, make a great-tasting gift, or even just satisfy a sudden sweet craving. This recipe is a perfect choice for all of those needs!

Although I've seen this treat before, it was Jenna, of Blessed Roots, who finally convinced me to try it - her pictures looked so appetizing and her step-by-step photos made it look so easy. I made a half batch, since there are only two of us in this house (and that's a lot of butter for two people!) but my husband and I both regretted that decision after the first taste. I can tell this will be one of my go-to recipes for the holiday season; I'm already planning on bringing some to a potluck next week!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Nick's Pizza & Pub, Crystal Lake, IL

The Nick's Special
This is a bit of a long post, but stick with it! It's definitely a feel-good story (and who doesn't like those this time of year?), with a couple of fun videos...and it features pizza - what more could you want?

It's a little after 2pm on a Saturday and we've just caught the tail-end of the lunch crowd at Nick's Pizza & Pub in Crystal Lake, IL.  Though it's still pretty busy inside - the day's nonstop drizzle is doing little to keep loyal patrons away - the late-afternoon lull is good news for me, because it means a chance to tour the kitchen of this unique local eatery. We're here to celebrate my cousin Ethan's birthday, but the visit also gives me a chance to check out a restaurant that has won a place in local - and national - lore.

On a local scale, Nick's is famous for the crispy, thin crust pizzas it's been serving since 1995, and for juicy Italian Beef cooked on site, from scratch, and according to a 35-plus year-old recipe that the owner, Nick Sarillo, inherited from his father's Chicago beef stand. Nationally, Sarillo's two-of-a-kind restaurant (there's a sister location in nearby Elgin, IL) has garnered positive press for his uniquely successful business model.

In an industry plagued by up to 200 percent annual employee turnover, Nick's has a retention rate of 80 percent. Each location is operated by around 100 employees. For those not impressed by numbers, that's a whole lot of happy workers - one of whom is my cousin, Ethan. I don't know too many other employees who'd be excited to take their family to their workplace on their day off - especially when that day is their birthday -  but that, it seems, is part of what makes Nick's so special.

According to Inc. com, the popularity and success of Nick's is largely due to Sarillo's 'strikingly effective' management strategy, which encourages employees to take an active and personal interest in the well-being of the company. But it's not just the employees who are invested in the future of Nick's; after years of supporting the community with fundraisers and charitable donations (their menu puts actual dollar amount at over $72,000 last year alone), this year Nick's turned to the community for a little support of its own.

Plagued by financial woes as a result of overbuilding, the state of economy, and nearby road construction, Sarillo made a risky move in September, sending an e-mail to all 1,600 members of his Frequent Guest Program.  He used the message to highlight the shaky financial situation of the company and to ask, not for handouts, but for increased business. What could have been the nail in the coffin for a less community-minded organization turned out to be Nick's saving grace; the customers turned up in droves, doubling the expected revenue in the first week.

Their enthusiasm bought Nick's some time, but the restaurant isn't entirely free and clear, yet - in fact, they're still 25% short of their end-of-year goal (you can track their progress here, on the official Nick's Pizza & Pub website). Of course, the community is still responding - it's one of the reasons Ethan decided to celebrate his birthday there...which brings me to the real 'heart' of this post: my tour of Nick's at Crystal Lake and, of course, the food. Enough about the business, let's talk pizza!

The Nick's experience starts as soon as you walk through their 9-foot-fall, heavy-as-lead wooden doors. Aside from the electric signs outside, the place looks like it's been here for much longer than 16 years - and that's because parts of it have. The cobblestones outside the building come from the streets of old Chicago, and the massive building itself is made from a reclaimed, Crystal Lake dairy barn. Inside, it has all the rugged charm of a hunting lodge or mountain retreat. Antler chandeliers hang from the exposed beams of a vaulted ceiling and animal busts adorn the walls. A huge stone fireplace provides a focal point in the center of the room and, decked out for Christmas, the place is surprisingly cozy and festive.

Our party is large, so while everyone is getting settled, Ethan arranges for my tour with manager, James Corsiglia. After a brief introduction, James takes me on a quick tour of the restaurant floor before taking me into the kitchen. At Nick's, the kitchen is the 'Heart of the House' - a sentiment to which I can certainly relate, even if my kitchen isn't nearly as clean and efficient.

And efficiency seems to be a watchword at Nick's; pizza makers are trained to top pies with exactly 60 pieces of sausage in under a minute, and the stone shelved ovens cook each pizza to crispy, golden perfection in only 15 minutes. Such speedy baking requires high temperatures (around 550°F) so even on a chilly November day, the kitchen is sweltering. Amazingly, the employees seem more than able to handle the heat - I'm introduced to each one by name, and all of them are smiling!

The kitchen is set up in stages and each employee has a dedicated job to do. Tasks range from working in the salad prep area, or prepping trays of dough, to topping the pizzas, or pulling them out of the huge ovens. Later, Ethan explains that each task requires extensive and specific training, leading to a certification. After an employee passes a certain number of certifications, they trade in their tan hat for a red one (which comes with a pay raise) and, eventually, after every certification is passed, the red one is exchanged for the black hat of a 'Pizza Pro'.

On our tour, James shows me the trays of dough balls, standing ready for the dinner rush. They'll empty 32 trays, of 15 balls each, in a single day. He points out the ingredients, which are ordered frequently, and in small batches to ensure freshness. The sausage used on pizzas like the Nick's Special (a signature pie loaded with cheese, sausage, onion, mushrooms and green peppers) is custom blended for Nick's.

By the time we finish in the kitchen, I've exhausted my supply of questions and worked up quite an appetite, so it's a good thing that Nick's provides plenty of Virginia peanuts for snacking. Back at the table, everyone is cracking the nuts and tossing the shells on the floor - it's all part of the fun at Nick's and adds to the general atmosphere. We order drinks (their pitcher of cherry Pepsi comes with actual maraschino cherries!) and wait for our pizzas.

The Nick's Special

When the pies arrive, piping hot and smelling like heaven, we descend on them almost before I can get any photos! I manage to snatch a few of the Nick's Special, as well as the Double Decker version (two layers of crust and toppings layered over each other) and the Mexican pizza, but the Bacon pizza, a favorite with Ethan and his friends, disappears too rapidly for a Kodak Moment.

The Mexican Pizza

The crust on each pie is thin and crisp, and every pizza is deliciously saucy - a combination that reminds me of pies I've tasted on the streets of Italy. I prefer this kind of pie to deep dish, which is occasionally too dense and sloppy for my liking, and even the Double Decker is crisp and perfectly cooked.

Look at that baaaaaacon - and the beautifully braided crust on the Double Decker

Although I'm not a fan of peppers, I like the way Nick's slices theirs - long and very thin - so that I even end up leaving a few on my piece of Nick's Special, much to Matthew's disappointment. The Mexican is a great change of pace, and it really does taste like tacos on a pizza (which is a surprisingly good thing!), but my favorite is the bacon. It has the perfect ratio of toppings to cheese and, of course, it has bacon - how could anything else compete?

Yes folks, that's bacon pizza - served on one of Nick's biodegradable plates

We only order pizza on this visit, but I've heard great things about their Italian Beef and I plan to sample it for myself, next time we're in town. Their beer nuggets - fried balls of garlic and parmesan encrusted pizza dough - also garner rave reviews, and for those who like their sweets, there's the Moose Madness shake and even gelato, to further cement any comparisons to an Italian pizzeria.

Printed on the back of each menu is a clearly defined purpose, a summary of the 'Nick's Experience' which is to provide "this community [with] an unforgettable place; to connect with your family and friends, to have fun and to feel at home." Judging by our experience, I'd say they succeed, so if you find yourself in the Crystal Lake or Elgin area, take your family on over to Nick's. Of course, my endorsement isn't entirely altruistic - I want there to be a Nick's to come back to, next time I'm in town!

To learn more about Nick's, check out their website, YouTube channel, or this video feature from Chicago's Best TV! Sarillo's personal business and leadership blog offers some great insights (and more heart-warming stories, like this one) and you can read the detailed profile of the  business here.

Nick's Pizza & Pub on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Sundried Tomato, Mushrooms, and Blue Cheese White Pizza

Today's post is a bit of a teaser. You see, I'm working on a post that I'm pretty excited about, but because I want to be sure to do it justice, it's taking a little longer than I'd intended. I'm having fun doing the research, but I know that in the meantime bellies are getting hungry, mealtimes are approaching, and folks are looking for recipes. So, to tide you over until that post is ready (and as a little foretaste of what is to come), I'm sharing a version of our favorite white pizza.

To be honest, this pizza is worth getting excited about in its own right. Tangy sundried tomatoes pair beautifully with slightly sweet caramelized onions, richly flavored sautéed mushrooms, and crumbles of sharp blue cheese. Matt and I have been making white pizzas for years so we have a few go-to versions, but this incarnation is my personal favorite. Its light and fresh, but still packed with flavor from all those 'gourmet' toppings.

Our white pizza is based on a 'sauce' of olive oil, garlic, and Italian spices (with a splash or two of my precious truffle oil thrown in on occasion). The absence of traditional tomato sauce lets the individual flavors shine through, and the thin crust keeps the pie from being bland and doughy. Although we've made our own dough in the past, I have to confess that we often make this recipe with store-bought dough for a quick, weeknight feast. As with most things, there's nothing better than homemade (so you should make your own dough if you can), but it's the toppings that really make this meal special.

Of course, you shouldn't feel limited to the toppings I've mentioned; sometimes we add spinach, chicken, sausage, or even whole, fat cloves of roasted garlic to our pizza. You can also change up your cheeses, substituting mozzarella, parmesan, or others for the more strongly-flavored blue. I've always thought that pizza is the perfect medium for expression in the kitchen, and I've never met one I didn't like (okay, almost never), so treat this recipe as a guideline and give yourself permission to experiment!

Monday, December 5, 2011

No-Cook Pumpkin Overnight Oatmeal

It may already be December - the month of peppermint, gingerbread, and eggnog - but in our house, it's still pumpkin season. Of course, that's mostly because I finally got around to cooking the bigger of our two pumpkins this past weekend. I know, I know, I'm a little behind the times, but considering the fate of last year's pumpkin (a.k.a The Pumpkin of Shame), I think I'm doing pretty well.

Although I'm not averse to using canned pumpkin, I love to make my own puree and I pick out a couple of pumpkins for that purpose every year. This year, one large pumpkin and one pie pumpkin (the flesh of the smaller, 'pie' or 'sugar' pumpkins is usually sweeter) were chosen to make the transformation from pumpkin to puree.

Unfortunately, the cleaning, cooking, and pureeing process can be laborious and messy (all those stringy insides and slippery seeds - and then you have to wait hours for the rinds to cook in the oven!) so I usually try to have a bit of fun with our pumpkins first. Since traditional carving makes the inner flesh unusable, I usually stick to relief carving - and cut into the pumpkins only a few days before I intend to cook them.