Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Tap, tap, tap...testing?

Hi blogfriends!
At this point, I'd be surprised if there are any of you out there since my posting schedule has been so erratic (read: nonexistent) lately. I promise that this won't become the new normal, but I hope you'll bear with me for the time being. There are lots of reasons for my delinquency - none of which are really good enough, but one of which looks a little like this:

That's right, you're looking at Chicago pizza...because by the time most of you read this, I'll be on my way out of town. I'll be spending a few days visiting family - and hopefully eating lots of tasty things that I'll eventually get to blog about.

My other excuses are less delicious, and a lot less cheesy. I'm not sure if I've mentioned this before, but Matt is gearing up for another all-expenses-paid trip to Afghanistan, courtesy of the U.S. Army. This will be his third deployment, and while we still have a few months before he leaves, his pre-deployment activities have been in full swing since February.

Practically speaking, this means lots of nights out in the field (for him), a second helping of the single girl life (for me), and lots of stumbling over a growing pile camouflaged-colored stuff (for both of us). It also means a lot less cooking and baking - especially since Matt will be gone for all of the next four weeks. I've been trying to keep things exciting in the kitchen, but it's all too easy to get into a rut - especially when it now takes me 3-4 tries to finish each meal!

Our final excuse is a bit more celebratory - Matt and I are moving into a bigger place! We've been waiting for this for almost a year, so while I don't relish the idea of packing up all our things right before a deployment, I'm excited about the prospect of settling in a bigger - and brighter - space. I can't tell you how excited I'll be to have more natural light  - no more struggling to get photos in front of our single accessible window!

So you see, there's something good in this for you guys, after all...you know, just in case these gratuitously cheese-covered photos aren't enough...

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Saturday, April 14, 2012

Butterscotch Bagel Bread Pudding

That's a lot of B's, right? But what a great title for a simply delicious dessert. I mean, when a confection combines butterscotch, bagels, bread, and pudding, what's not to love?

In fact, there are few desserts so wonderfully satisfying as a thick, rich, and solidly sweet bread pudding. Supermodel of the dessert world it isn't, but its indulgently creamy texture and syrupy sweetness belie its rugged and wholesome appearance.  Paired with a drizzle of cream or a few warm spoonfuls of sunny yellow Bird's Custard, this family favorite is as comforting as a warm embrace.

Bread pudding may be the food equivalent of fuzzy slippers (right up there with cookie dough and macaroni and cheese), but it's also a blank canvas. Switch out bread for bagels and raisins for butterscotch chips and you've got a whole new dessert - one that mixes salty and sweet, crisp and custardy.

You may be thinking that bread pudding is traditionally a winter recipe - and you'd be mostly right - but it's also an Eastertime favorite of mine and, given the chilly turn of the weather over the past few days, a welcome addition to my dinner (or breakfast - don't judge!) table. I love traditional versions that slip in generous handfuls of raisins alongside a liberal dusting of cinnamon and nutmeg, but this particular recipe is a new twist on those old favorites.

Bagel pieces replace most of the bread, which gives the pudding a nice crisp top, while cooked butterscotch custard stands in for the more seasonally spiced version, lending this dessert a more intense milky sweetness. It's a great combination to be sure, but the best part of this recipe is the smell during baking. I couldn't believe how rich and warm it was, each breath brimming with the scent of cream, sugar, and vanilla - it rivals Cinnabon in crave-inducing power (and anyone who's ever walked a mall or airport knows that siren song!).

I dare you to make this recipe and not be tempted to devour it all at the first scent of doneness. If by some feat of superhuman strength you manage to resist, the final product is heavenly when eaten warm from the oven, and equally lovely eaten in thick, cold slices. It might be even better eaten straight from the pan...with a spoon...for breakfast. Don't worry, I promise I won't tell.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Varsity (The World's Largest Drive-In), Atlanta, GA

I'm sorry I've been a bit MIA lately, but I promise I have a good excuse. You see, while everyone else was unpacking their Easter baskets, Matt and I were making our way to Atlanta, to the world's largest drive-in fast food restaurant, The Varsity.

While others were gorging themselves on chocolate bunnies and sharing marshmallow Peeps with family, Matt and I were noshing on juicy burgers, crispy onion rings, and The Varsity's signature chili dogs. Okay, so our real business in Georgia involved visiting family, too, but our trip to The Varsity was a nice perk!

The Varsity looms large in Atlanta lore, and also in the fast food world (it even has its own extensive Wikipedia article - which is naturally the pinnacle of culinary achievement), but I have to admit that Matt and I approached the place with a somewhat critical eye. When it comes to fatty, greasy, fast food goodness, Matt's allegiance belongs securely to The Beacon Drive-In, in Spartanburg, South Carolina. So as the dutiful wife, I promised to be scrupulous and stringent in my evaluation of The Varsity - which makes it even more impressive that the place gets my thumbs-up seal of approval.

Like The Beacon, The Varsity has a storied past. Although it has moved and expanded several times since - there are now several satellite locations in the Atlanta area - the original Varsity was established back in 1928. At that time, it was called 'The Yellow Jacket,' but booming business and expanding clientele earned the place its current location and its current, more inclusive name (for more info, you can check out the snazzy interactive timeline on their website).


The Varsity is famous for its chili dogs and Frosted Orange drinks, but like The Beacon, it also has its own deeply-ingrained and much-loved culture. While signs at The Beacon urge you to' 'Call it,' The Varsity's ordering catchphrase is 'What'll ya have?" There's also an unofficial menu - in which a 'Walk a Dog' is a hot dog to-go, a 'Bag of Rags' gets you potato chips, and a 'Squirt One' is the famous Varsity Orange soft drink.


The Varsity boasts a lot of fast food choices - mostly variations of burgers and dogs - but Matt and I kept it classic, with a pair of chili dogs and a cheeseburger, respectively. Of course, we just couldn't resist adding an order of onion rings on the side (that's 'sideways' in Varsity lingo).

We'd arrived some time after lunchtime, but the place was still packed - hardly surprising for a Friday afternoon on a holiday weekend. Nevertheless, the service was swift and before we knew it, we had our food in hand. Matt found us a table in the elevated dining room overlooking the drive-in and the parking deck, or 'Lunching Pad' (an amusing nod to John Glenn's space flight). This proved to be the perfect spot, giving us an entertaining view of all the non-stop hustle and bustle below.

Of course, we weren't really there for the view or to be entertained - we'd come for the food, and we weren't disappointed. The onion rings were pretty amazing: thick with juicy strips of onion, and breading that was suitably greasy but not too overpowering (I like my fast food to feel indulgent, not endangering!). With a bit of ketchup, they were pretty close to fried perfection. Matt seemed more than pleased with his chili dogs and my burger really hit the spot. It wasn't huge or fancy, just a good, solid burger - and that's not something I get to say very often.

So how does The Varsity stack up against Matt's cherished Beacon? Well, for being so outwardly similar, they're actually quite different. Where The Beacon serves up heaping plates of fresh-from-the-fryer fare, The Varsity's offerings are a bit simpler - dressed down burgers and dogs with simple sides. The food is a little less greasy (which is usually good) but also a lot less filling (which is usually bad). If Matt and I weren't headed for dinner at his sister's we'd have had to order seconds. Thankfully, their menu is pretty inexpensive so if you're really hungry, a second burger won't break the bank.

With dinner in mind, Matt and I decided to forgo dessert, but The Varsity also caters to the sweet tooth, offering their famous 'fried pies,' brownies and ice cream, as well as frosted beverages. Their Frosted Orange looked especially thirst-quenchingly delicious - I guess we'll just have to order one next time!

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Liebster Blog Love!

Well folks, I can't believe Easter is almost here. I had so many Easter-themed post ideas to share and somehow I've completely run out of time! I probably won't be blogging between now and Easter (Matt and I have family to see, including our brand new niece, Adair - so excited!) but before we disappear, I have some very important, very exciting blog business to take care of.

Yep, that's right, this blog has once again been nominated for the Liebster Blog Award (the last time was only a week or so ago!). This time, the award comes from the lovely Diane of Simple Living with Diane Balch and I'm so very grateful! I haven't got my list of 5 more blogs yet (I just did this last week, after all - and you can check out my awesome nominees here!) but I wanted to be sure to thank Diane properly. It's always great to know there are people out there reading my posts and enjoying my recipes. Thanks so much, Diane!

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Easter Lamb Cake Pan (or How to Season Cast Iron)

A couple of days ago, I mentioned one of my favorite Easter traditions - the Easter Lamb Cake. This festive confection usually consists of some sort of pound cake, baked in a lamb-shaped pan, frosted with buttercream, and covered in coconut 'fleece.'

Photo of a photo - sorry for the poor resolution!

It's a tradition from Eastern Europe and Germany that's been in our family for generations (and one that's especially common in the ethnic bakeries of Chicago, where my Mum's side of the family lives). Sadly, I don't have a lamb cake to share with you today - instead, this post is all about my cast iron lamb cake pan, which I rescued from rusty ignominy.

Pre-treatment: sad and rusty

My mum has one of the old-fashioned cast-aluminum pans (the top photo shows a cake baked in her pan, years ago!), but these days, most lamb cakes are baked in modern, lightweight pans. I've come across dozens of these, but never purchased one - always holding out for the 'real' thing...so you can imagine how thrilled I was to discover this rusty little beauty languishing in our local thrift store.

Even in its rusted, dirt-encrusted state, I just couldn't pass it up (could you say 'no' to that cute little face?) - especially since I know these pans garner lots of attention on eBay and this one was only about $12! It may surprise you to learn that I've never owned any cast iron (I really want some, though), so I was unsure about whether this pan could be salvaged. After a few hours of internet research, I decided it was worth a try and got to scrubbing.

Most sites suggested that 10-15 minutes of scrubbing should so the trick, but I soon learned that you don't have to worry about scrubbing behind the ears with a cast iron skillet; this task ended up taking me the better part of an afternoon. Once the rust was gone, I dried the pan in a 250°F oven for an hour or two and then cooled it on a wire rack.


At this point, I brushed the cooled pan with vegetable oil, taking care to grease every nook and cranny, and wiping out the excess with a paper towel. The pan went back into the oven ( 250°F to 300°F) for another couple of hours. I should note, here, that bacon fat or lard is actually recommended for seasoning, since vegetable oil may leave a slightly sticky finish. Unfortunately, I didn't have either of these to hand so I'll just have to keep my pans covered to prevent them accumulating dust or dirt.

I repeated the seasoning process again and plan to do it once more before I use the pan for baking (especially if I can get my hands on some lard). After that, it's just hot water and a soft rag for this pan to preserve the seasoning. I'm hoping that's the end of the rust, but it if comes back, I'll have to repeat the whole scrubbing-seasoning process again!  This slightly-gray pan should turn a classic cast-iron black with increased usage - guess I'd better get started on my Easter baking!

Edit: Apparently lamb cakes are more widely popular than I'd first thought - here's an Italian version, complete with recipe!

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Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Easter Brunch: Breakfast Sausage Casserole

When it comes to brunch, this recipe is it for me. I've come across dozens of breakfast casseroles, but none that make me as bright and sunshiny as this one. Our version has been in the family for as long as I can remember - longer, even - and it's marked almost every important family occasion.

Breakfast sausage casserole was the popular choice for childhood breakfasts-in-bed, and it still turns up every Christmas morning. I've carried it to countless potlucks and even ate a small piece on the morning of my wedding! It's also a feature of Easter brunch, not least because it can be prepared and refrigerated ahead of time (this actually improves the flavor) and then just popped straight into the oven for a no-fuss family breakfast.

A wonderful marriage of bread, egg, sausage and cheese, this is real stick to your ribs food. As with most family recipes, I tend to just throw this meal together with little regard for measurements. I also tend to make it a little differently each time - which is why you'll see ranges of some of the ingredients below. In each case, I recommend that you cater to your own tastes - you can adjust the amounts sausage, worcestershire sauce and cheese without materially changing the recipe. In fact, I've shared a more authentic, 'family' version of our recipe, but I typically use a bit less cheese and sausage when making it for just Matt and me. Regardless of whether you're feeding two or two dozen this Easter, this endlessly adaptable casserole is sure to please.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Hot Cross Buns (the real English way!)

There are some things that are just quintessentially Easter. Of course, you've got your chocolate bunnies and a plethora of egg-shaped treats, but for me the holiday isn't complete without an Easter Lamb Cake (a German/Eastern European tradition) or a batch of hot cross buns.

I suppose that's because these treats emphasize the Christian aspect of the holiday (although it's been hotly debated that they have their pagan roots, too) while still allowing me to get my hands dirty in the kitchen and fill my belly with delicious foods.

Hot cross buns hold another special place in my heart - right up there with bangers-and-mash, Cadbury's chocolate, and golden syrup-rich flapjacks - in my treasured food memories of childhood in England. Each spring, I'd look forward to the appearance of the soft, spiced, currant-studded buns, and spend the few weeks of their short season trying to enjoy as many of them as possible.

These days, the buns are sold practically year round, but they weren't always so ubiquitous. In fact, these doughy delights were actually banned by Oliver Cromwell during the Protectorate, when their religious/Catholic associations were considered a threat. I guess that brings a whole new meaning to the phrase 'dangerously good' (and I'll bet you didn't know you'd get a history lesson today)!

In all seriousness, though, the hot cross bun does have a fascinating history (you can read about it in greater detail here), and is surrounded by a whole host of interesting legends (you can read about them in greater detail here). Traditionally, the buns are prepared and eaten on Good Friday, as a celebration of the end of the Lenten season (i.e. "yay we can eat butter and sugar again - lets have some sticky-sweet buns to celebrate") and in preparation for the celebration of Easter (hence the cross). It's said that buns prepared and eaten on Good Friday will never mold, and that such buns, if kept, have all sorts of powers in the home. I'm not sure I'm willing to put these tales to the test, but I am willing to go out on a limb and say that you absolutely must make these buns this Easter.

I haven't been this pleased with a recipe in quite a while - to the extent that I didn't make even a single alteration. Of course, that's also because I spent hours (and I mean hours) searching for the perfect recipe beforehand. There seems to have been a surge in popularity of these treats Stateside in recent years, and while I'm sure that's a good thing, I wanted a version that would replicate, as exactly as possible, the hot cross buns of my British youth.

I pored over dozens of recipes before rejecting them on some grounds or other. Some had no currants, some had no sugar (everyone knows that hot cross buns are sweet, Nigella), and some were just tarted up cinnamon rolls (I'm looking at you, Pioneer Woman).

Let me just clear this up before we proceed: real hot cross buns don't have icing crosses. Ever. I'm not usually one to object to icing, but somehow it seems to go against the wholesome, traditional, and somewhat ascetic nature of these 'treats'. The real method is to use a paste of flour and water, with maybe a bit of sugar added in. That's all. Got it? (Sorry to be so dogmatic, but you don't mess with my hot cross buns - you just don't!).

Proper flour crosses before being baked into goldeny goodness

As you can see, I have high standards when it comes to hot cross buns. The more recipes I perused, the more I despaired of ever finding The One (apparently, I'm not the only one who's had this dilemma) - and then, suddenly, there it was. The perfect recipe for hot cross buns comes courtesy of a Sydney-based food blog called Citrus and Candy. The recipe is given in metric/by weight measurements, which is good news for authenticity and deliciousness, but bad news for the average American cook. I certainly hope you can find a scale and follow along - otherwise, here's a decent-looking recipe in imperial measurements (but be warned: I can't vouch for it's authenticity or deliciousness!).

If you're still reading, I'll assume you've decided to try the metric recipe. Congratulations, your world-of-hot-cross-buns is about to be rocked! This recipe turns out a dozen of the most perfectly spiced, perfectly moist buns, each of them generously studded with soft raisins and topped with a thin, perfectly shaped flour cross.

For those of you inexperienced in baking bread at home, this recipe also serves as a great initiation. There were several points at which I thought things might go wrong (my dough was very moist at first, my cross paste was a little thin, and I had to substitute strawberry-rhubarb jam for the more traditional apricot glaze), but yet the buns turned out absolutely perfect. Perhaps the rumors of divine protection are true, or perhaps it's just a really good recipe. Either way, I hope I've convinced you that you absolutely must make them: these buns really are dangerously good!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Ultimate Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies (with Coconut Oil)

I first shared these cookies last year, after my introduction to coconut oil, but they're such a festive favorite that I thought I'd share them again! Coconut oil is a healthier substitute for shortening and butter, so you can bake these for your Easter baskets without any guilt!

I know I've shared a few different Chocolate Chip Cookies on the blog (dark ones, light ones, fat ones, skinny ones - even famous ones) but I really can't rave about this recipe enough. If you love chewy cookies, you really can't do better than these - and the coconut oil will make your kitchen smell divine during baking (who needs a trip to Hawaii, right about now?).

While you can taste a hint of coconut in the dough, the flavor practically disappears as the baked cookies cool, which means the greatest difference is in the texture. I have yet to find a recipe that turns out such consistently soft cookies, even if you over bake them slightly as I did - in my opinion, that's high praise.

You can use ordinary chocolate chips for these cookies (I also think a White Chocolate-Macadamia Nut version would be out of this world!), but it's worth springing for the Easter M&Ms if you can get them - they're so pretty! Also, I'm fairly sure that pastel-colored calories don't count...but don't quote me on that, okay?