Turkey cupcakes for Thanksgiving

Hooray for Thanksgiving! I love the holiday: great food, getting together with family, watching (and betting on) football, and the spirit of being thankful. I also love that Thanksgiving doesn't have the pitfalls of Christmas: the stress of getting everything done, the massive expense, and friendly greetings being scrutinized and politicized.

My kids don't share my enthusiasm for Thanksgiving. What's a holiday without presents? The food, not their favorite -- especially the desserts. They're not big fans of pies.

As a result, I usually bring a dessert for the kids to our Thanksgiving meal (and often catch the adults grabbing them, too). Last year I made these cute turkey cupcakes. I saw them at a local bakery, and a quick Internet search turned up these directions on the Family Fun Web site. As directed, the head and wings were from 100-calorie packs of Keeblers Sandies shortbreads. Our changes to the recipe were using blue jimmies for eyes and cutting the wattles from a piece of Twizzlers candy. The only problem was that I made them a couple of days ahead, and the cookies got soft, almost soggy, from the moisture in the frosting. If you do these, maybe you could have your kids decorate them Thanksgiving morning.

The cupcakes themselves were from the book I Like You: Hospitality under the Influence by Amy Sedaris. The only way I can describe the book is that it's a kooky mix of humor and cooking. The recipes are written a little strangely, as you'll see below. But the cupcakes were good -- not cloyingly sweet like boxed cake mixes, but not "OMG, these are the best cupcakes ever" either. Still, I'd make them again.

Tattletail's Vanilla Cupcakes
Adapted from "I Like You" by Amy Sedaris

Turn on oven to 375 degrees F.

You will need: unsalted butter, sugar, eggs, vanilla extract, baking powder, salt, flour, milk, and cupcake liners.

Put 1 1/2 sticks of butter in mixer and beat at medium speed until smooth. Pour in 1 1/2 cups of sugar and beat well. Add 2 eggs. (Amy cracks eggs on the side of the bowl while it is moving, and admits to having thrown away batter from losing eggshells in the mix. That is sheer folly! I crack eggs into a bowl or a measuring cup already dirty from measuring something else. Check for shells before adding to batter.) Mix well. Add: 2 teaspoons of pure vanilla (I used artificial), 2 1/2 teaspoons of baking powder, 1/3 teaspoon of salt, 2 1/2 cups of flour, and 1 1/4 cups of milk. Beat until smooth. Use a spring-loaded ice cream scoop to drop batter into individual baking cups, until they are 2/3 full. Bake for 20 minutes or until golden brown. Makes 18-24 cupcakes.

Butternut Brioche, the "good enough" way

People who bake bread can have widely different approaches.

Take my friend, Bubba. Bubba is one of my online friends I've never actually met. I have a fair amount of those, which my husband thinks is hilarious. And kinda scary. Anyhoo, Bubba's recipe goes like this:

Ingredients: Flour, water, yeast, salt.
Directions: Mix, Rise, Knead, Form, Rise, Bake.
If it turns out badly, adds lots of butter and no one will notice.

At the other end of the spectrum is Susan, from one of my favorite food blogs, Wild Yeast. She is a scientist when it comes to baking bread. Her recipes are written in precise grams. She uses ingredients like vital wheat gluten (whatever that is). And she actually knows what Alton Brown means when he uses the term "baker's windowpane."

I fall somewhere between Bubba and Susan. I tried one of Susan's recipes, meaning to be as precise as she is, but quickly descended into half assedness. But even with my imperfect, imprecise ways, Susan's Butternut Brioche turned out pretty good! A little lopsided, but good enough that most people I know would say, "you actually made these?" And good enough, I think, to send to Susan's blog event, Yeastspotting.

I loved their pretty yellow color and the indentations made by my mini tart pans (a garage sale find that I finally got to use). The only downside was that I had hoped the squash flavor would be subtle, but they actually taste pretty squashy. So if you like the flavor of butternut squash, these would make a great addition to your fall or Thanksgiving table.

Her recipe -- and what I actually did -- is below. I converted it to cups for fellow Americans who, like me, are more comfortable with cups than grams (even though grams are the most precise way to go).

Butternut Brioche
A somewhat bastardized version of Susan's recipe on Wild Yeast

Yield: two 9-inch round loaves, or two 8-inch round loaves plus 10 rolls, or any combination

Desired Dough Temperature: 78 degrees F (I didn't notice this until after I had made the dough and it was rising. As a result, I didn't pay much attention to the temperature of the ingredients. Oopsies. Do as I say, not as I do. Read the explanation on her blog.)

Dough Ingredients:
840 g flour (roughly 5 1/2 cups unsifted all-purpose flour)
60 grams egg yolks (yolks of 3 large eggs)
100 g whole eggs (2 large eggs)
34 g milk (about 2 Tablespoons)
480 g baked butternut squash puree (I halved it, took out the seeds, and baked it until soft. I pureed in the food processor and refrigerated. Nuked about 1 minute when I took out of the fridge so it wasn't cold. And I forgot to convert it to cups.)
1.5 g (generous 1/2 teaspoon) cinnamon
0.8 g (1/4 teaspoon) nutmeg
0.8 g (scant 1/2 teaspoon) ginger
10 g (3 1/4 teaspoon) instant yeast (Here's where I'm like Susan -- I love instant yeast. If you live in Rochester, get it at Niblack Foods in the regional market in Henrietta.)
14 g (2-1/3 t.) salt
water as needed (I didn’t use any)
126 g brown sugar (a heaping 1/3 cup, packed)
226 g butter (2 sticks), cut into half-inch cubes, softened (mine were still pretty cold)

Topping Ingredients:
one egg
finely chopped pecans (optional - I did not use)

Place flour, eggs and egg yolks, milk, squash puree, spices, yeast, and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook. Mix at low speed for about 4 minutes. It is normal for the dough to be quite stiff at this point, but if the dough is too dry to come together, add just enough water to allow it to do so.

With the mixer in medium speed, add the brown sugar very slowly, in 5 or 6 increments. Mix for about two minutes following each addition. (If you add the sugar too quickly, mixing will take longer.)

I didn't notice the next step so I didn't do it. If I did notice it, I probably wouldn't know how to do it anyway. So do it if you understand it.: Continue to mix in medium speed until the gluten reaches full development, i.e., you can stretch a paper thin, translucent “windowpane” from the dough.

Turn the mixer back to low speed and add the butter all at once. Mix for a minute in low speed, then turn the mixer to medium speed and mix until the butter is completely incorporated. You should have a dough that is soft and satiny, stretchy but elastic. (Mine was also pretty sticky.)

Transfer the dough to a buttered, covered container. Ferment at warm room temperature (about 76F) for one hour, then refrigerate overnight (8 – 12 hours).

Divide the dough into 36 pieces of approximately 50 grams each. (I actually found it handy to be able to weigh the dough balls.) Squeeze each piece to get out any air bubbles. Form each into a tight ball by placing it on the counter with your cupped hand loosely around it, and moving your hand in a tight circle several times. Put in oiled brioche or tart tins. (You can also do a large round loaf -- if you'd like to, check out Susan's recipe.)

Brush the dough lightly with egg wash made from one beaten egg. Cover and proof for about an hour and 45 minutes at warm room temperature.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 380F.

Before baking, brush the dough again with egg wash. Sprinkle with chopped pecans if you like (I did some with and some without).

Bake at 380F for 15-20 minutes, until the brioche has reached an internal temperature (this is a great way to know if they're done. Use an instant-read thermometer) of at least 190F. The tops are meant to become a deep, dark chestnut brown, but if they become too dark you can lay a piece of parchment paper loosely over the top of the loaf after 25 minutes or so. (I didn't need the parchment. Mine looked like this.)

Cool loaves in their pans for 5 minutes, then remove to a wire rack to cool completely.

Cleveland Restaurants: House of Blues and Lola

As our family headed into downtown Cleveland for a weekend vacation, I sighed to myself. Here I was, going to the city where Michael Symon (probably best known for being an Iron Chef on the Food Network) has two restaurants, and I wouldn't get to dine at either one of them. The impetus for our trip was for one son to see his beloved Minnesota Twins play the Indians at Progressive Field, and for the other son to go to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. I reminded myself that our time with our sons was flying by, and trips were for having fun as a family. I'll be able to experience fine dining, I thought, once they were out of the house ... and through college, so that we could afford it ... and that was about 10 years from now. Sigh.

On Friday night, we checked into our hotel (the Holiday Inn Express on Euclid) and headed out on foot to find a place to eat. After a block or so, we spotted a bustling street strewn with twinkle lights, with lots of restaurants. We decided to check it out. The weather was perfect, in the 70s without much of a breeze, so we agreed that we wanted to eat outside in a restaurant that was fairly teen-friendly. We picked the House of Blues, which was one of the few outdoor areas where there wouldn't be a wait. (Word to the wise: you're not going to get the best meal by picking the least busy restaurant. We knew that, but we didn't want to deal with a long wait and frankly the ambiance of the street would make up for shortcomings with the food).

Right after we ordered our beverages, a photographer came by to take our picture. I knew we'd be hit up for buying an expensive package of photos. Our fault for picking a tourist spot, I thought.

One son ordered a turkey club, the other a burger, and my husband and I split a rack of ribs. (My husband and I don't usually share meals, but in this case the ribs only came in a full rack, and the waiter told us that people often split them). I also ordered what was billed as "Our Famous Rosemary Skillet Cornbread."

While we were waiting for our food, we unsurprisingly got the sales pitch for our pictures and spent about 12 bucks on a couple of prints.

We did some people watching and every so often spied the Goodyear blimp that was flying overhead (it was at the Indians game).

As I looked at the signs down the street, my gaze settled on the sign that said "Lola." (Way at the bottom of this picture, in an oval.) Lola, Lola, Lola ... I was trying to think of why that name sounded so familiar to me.

Then it hit me: that was Michael Symon's restaurant! And I was walking distance from it!

My 14-year-old son and I decided to take a quick stroll down there. It looked slick and sophisticated. We were both wearing tie-die t-shirts, but we summoned the courage to go inside and ask to see a menu.

When I saw the menu, I thought our family could go for lunch because there were many items that were approachable -- club sandwich, pulled pork, a burger, and fried bologna (a favorite of my husband's). But the friendly hostess told me that they didn't serve lunch on weekends, so that was out. She did say she had a table for two available at 6 p.m. the next day. I told her I'd think about it, and as we walked back to our table at the House of Blues, my son and I agreed we'd love to get a chance to eat there. I told my husband about the 6 p.m. opening, but said I didn't want it to disrupt our weekend plans.

Our dinner at the House of Blues arrived, and the food was unremarkable, neither great nor terrible -- except for the skillet cornbread. It is shown to the right, with my son's club sandwich in the background. The photo doesn't do it justice (it was dark, I used a flash, and I was just about to grab a slice out of the cornbread). It was thick, moist, sweet, and deliciously flavored with fresh rosemary. It came with some sweet butter -- I don't remember if it was sweetened with honey or maple. I'd be happy to go back there and make a dinner of that cornbread and an appetizer or side salad. (I found the recipe online, and realize that it would hardly be a light meal. It has lots of eggs and heavy cream. Yowza, no wonder it tasted so good.)

After dinner, our waiter offered to show us the room where bands played (they curiously don't have entertainment on Friday nights). It was a cool space with lots of folk art on the walls, and the stage had an interesting patchwork curtain. My son remarked that he'd love for 441 (his band) to be able to play a gig there someday.

As we left, my husband encouraged me to take the 6 p.m. opening at Lola with my older son. He and my younger son would go to a cool-looking place on the corner that was a combination restaurant, martini bar and bowling alley. It didn't take much arm twisting. I went to Lola made the reservation, almost skipping like a six-year-old as I left. More about Cleveland in my next post...

GREAT recipe contest - deadline soon!

The folks at Mezzetta are holding a GREAT recipe contest, called "The Mezzetta Make That Sandwich Recipe Contest" and the deadline is soon. September 7, to be precise. I've been around the block when it comes to contests, and have a list of criteria for what makes a great recipe contest. This contest meets them all:
1. It has a great prize. In this case, it's $25K and a trip to the Napa Valley. It doesn't get much better than that.
2. There's more than one winner. In this case, two other finalists win $1,000. Also not small change.
3. There's NO ONLINE VOTING. Enough said.
4. They have good taste. Last year's winner, by my good friend Edwina, was a Spanish-Style Grilled Cheese sandwich. It sounds divine but doesn't have too many ingredients or complicated steps. In fact, I've been meaning to try the recipe.

The folks from Mezzetta sent me a couple of their products to try -- olives stuffed with jalapenos and sliced peperoncini. Thanks, Mezzetta people! I'm thrilled with them both, because one son loves olives and the other loves peperoncini. I had planned to use them to work on recipes for the contest or the blog, but but the boys keep eating them right out of the jar. The olives in particular are disappearing quickly. My son says he loves the way they "start off tasting like an olive, and end up hot."

Off to snag what's left in those jars and start experimenting for the contest. If you'd like to enter, here's a link.

Whatcha Got Cookin in Fairport

I'm pretty sure this restaurant is out of business ... but if you want to hear about it anyway...

My husband and I were taking a walk along the canal in Fairport and caught a glimpse of a restaurant across the way.

Whatcha Got Cooking, Fairport NY

I peered across the water and saw that it was called Whatcha Got Cooking. I remembered that it had been located in a gray building on the other side of the street, also on the canal. I remarked that the quaint new location seemed to be a better fit with its folksy name. A few days later, I went to dinner there with a friend of mine.

Whatcha Got Cooking, Fairport NY
The old building had been decorated with an Americana flair. We snagged the last open picnic table on the front lawn. We went on a nice evening (which were unfortunately rare this summer), and a lot of people must have had the same idea. The servers seemed to be overwhelmed, and it was 40 minutes from the time we sat down until we got our food. We didn't mind, though, because it was a pleasant evening and location. My friend spotted a family she knew and invited them to join us at our table. We enjoyed chatting with them.

Whatcha Got Cooking, Fairport NY
The food was worth the wait. I had macaroni and cheese, which was served in a crock. Its creamy, cheesy sauce was studded with bits of bacon, and the whole dish was topped with whole cheese crackers and melted cheese. The combination of flavors and textures was decadent and delicious, but I forced myself not to devour the whole thing so that I could take some home for my son to try. (That turned out to be a bad idea. He liked it so much that he now adds bacon and a cheese cracker topping whenever he makes mac and cheese.)

Whatcha Got Cooking, Fairport NY
My friend ordered a Philly Steak sandwich with a side order of sweet potato fries. I doubt Philly natives would call the sandwich authentic, but my friend enjoyed it. I snatched a few fries because I've become a sweet potato fry aficionado. They were well cooked, but the sweet-on-sweet addition of cinnamon and sugar wasn't to my taste. (I seem to be in the minority, though, because I've seen that topping on several menus.)

Nice setting ... good food ... reasonable prices. I'll be back.

WhatchaGotCookin? on Urbanspoon

A wonderful Pom cooler (Surprise! It's nonalcoholic.)

I consider beer to be the nectar of the gods, and no one likes fun alcoholic drinks more than I do. But for various health reasons, I rarely drink alcohol. In the greater scheme of things, this is not a big deal, because I certainly can have a good time without booze. But my non-alcoholic beverage choices are usually limited to soft drinks, which I'm tired of and usually have a lot of sugar or caffeine, both of which I try to avoid. And there's nothing like sipping a glass of ice water while the people around me are enjoying beers and colorful tropical drinks to make me feel like I'm not a part of the party.

When the folks at Pom Wonderful offered to send me some samples, I happily accepted, with the goal of coming up with a summery nonalcoholic drink that wouldn't have me staring wistfully at other peoples' strawberry margaritas. What I came up with is very simple and probably unoriginal. I just mix the pomegranate juice with diet lemon-lime soda, add a lime wedge, and it's done. The tart taste of the pomegranate juice makes the beverage refreshing and not too sweet. The juice even has health benefits. I've served it when people come over for dinner, and my kids always want one when I make them.

Now I have a nonalcoholic beverage that makes me feel like a part of the party. (Thanks, Pom Wonderful.)

Wonderful Pom Cooler
Makes 2

1 small bottle pomegranate juice
1 can diet lemon - lime soda
2 lime wedges

Divide the juice and soda between two glasses. Add ice and garnish each glass with a wedge of lime.

Grandma's Cucumbers in Sour Cream

Several circumstances aligned to cause me to post today:
1. It's my Mom's 70th birthday today! Happy birthday, Mom!
2. My Grandma's Memorial Service is a week from tomorrow. I was searching through my recipe box for a recipe of hers that I could make for the gathering afterward, and came across her hand-written recipe for Cucumbers in Sour Cream.
3. Some of my friends have reported having a bumper crop of cucumbers this year.
4. My blogging buddy, Shelby, is hosting a blogging event I like called Family Recipes: Memories of Family, Food and Fun.

I was so happy to find the recipe written in her own handwriting. What a treasure it is. I almost never write recipes on recipe cards any more.

The recipe calls for salting cucumbers and draining them, which makes them denser and more crunchy. The creamy dressing gets its tang from sour cream and vinegar, sweetness from a little sugar, and is accented with some dill. It's old-fashioned but I love it.

Although the recipe is a treasure to me, her "chicken scratch," as she called it, would be illegible to anyone outside the family. She wrote recipes in kind of a shorthand and didn't use a lot of measurements. Here's my translated recipe.

Betty Host's Cucumbers in Sour Cream

4 medium cucumbers, sliced thin (Grandma peeled them but it's up to you)
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
Vinegar (Grandma used white)
1 Tablespoon sugar (or a little more -- I like a little more)
1 cup sour cream
1/2 teaspoon dried dill weed (Grandma used McCormick's "It's a Dilly," which is discontinued. You could also use fresh dill - about 1 1/2 teaspoons)
Dash of pepper
Sliced red onion, optional

Put sliced cucumbers in a bowl. Sprinkle with salt and sugar and toss. Add vinegar to cover. Let stand 30 minutes -- no longer. Drain well.
Mix the sour cream and seasonings.
Toss the cucumbers and onions, if using, with the sour cream mixture. Chill well.

Rochester Native to be on Top Chef

Regular readers of Rah Cha Chow know that I'm a huge fan of Bravo TV's show Top Chef. During a bout of insomnia I surfed the Web and read up on the chefs competing in the upcoming season (it starts on August 26, not that anyone has it marked on her calendar). What do you know, one of the contestants is a native of Rahchacha! Wahoo!

Her name is Laurine Wickett and as far as I can tell, she graduated from Wayne Central High School in 1989. Her culinary education is from A.O.S Culinary Arts and the C.I.A. She currently lives in San Francisco and is chef/owner of Left Coast Catering. Laurine's Top Chef bio can be found here.

I'm a little concerned about her background, because catering chefs don't seem to fare as well in the competition as restaurant chefs. On the other hand, she's got a bit of a badass sneer on her face -- she reminds me a little of Sandra Bernhard -- so maybe she'll do OK. Either way, I'll be cheering for our native gal.

My insomniac Web browsing turned up a bit of bad news as well: Toby Young, the inane British judge who replaced Gail Simmons during her wedding, is back for another season. He was widely panned last season so I can't imagine why the powers that be at Bravo made that decision.

The show will take place in Las Vegas -- not a city that excites me at all. The memory of walking in a wind that felt like an enormous blow dryer shooting sand in my face isn't a pleasant one. But every time I've been to Las Vegas, it's been a business trip for a ginormous trade show, so maybe I haven't given the city a fare shake.

Anyhoo, I'm looking forward to another season of Top Chef. In the meantime, I thank the folks at Bravo for giving us Top Chef Masters to tide us over between seasons. I won't waste precious summertime writing recaps of that show, but for what it's worth, my money is on Rick Bayless.

Rosie's Layered Lemon Dessert

This is my favorite dessert that Rosie, my mother-in-law, makes. It has a buttery shortbread crust, a light cheesecake-y middle, and a lemony topping. It's so pretty and delicious, you wouldn't know that it's easy to make and uses whipped topping and packaged pudding mix.

My attempts at making this dessert have never tasted as good as hers, and I couldn't figure out why. Last time I made it, Rosie figured it out. She uses a cooked pudding mix -- usually Royal brand -- and the only packaged lemon pudding mix that they carry at my Wegmans is Jello Instant Pudding. Once I tasted it by itself, we realized it wasn't very lemony at all. I looked at the nearest Tops Market, and they have several brands of cooked lemon pudding, so I'll head there the next time I make this dessert. I wonder if mixing in a jar of lemon curd may have been another option. In any case, here's an easy dessert for this time of year!

This recipe is going to Shelby and Laura for their family recipes blog event. I think family recipes are the best, and this one is no exeption!

Rosie's Layered Lemon Dessert

2 cups flour
1/2 pound unsalted butter (2 sticks), softened
2 teaspoons sugar (if you like a sweeter crust, you can use as much as 1/4 cup)

1 8-ounce package cream cheese
1 cup powdered sugar
1 8-ounce container whipped topping
1 teaspoon vanilla

1 package lemon pie filling, prepared as directed (NOT Jello instant lemon pudding)

Combine flour, butter and sugar. Pat into a 13 by 9-inch pan. Bake 18 minutes at 350. Let cool completely.

Mix together cream cheese and powdered sugar until smooth. Stir in whipped topping and vanilla. Spread on top of cooled crust.

Prepare the lemon pie filling as directed. Spread on top of the cream cheese mixture. Chill before serving.

Easy sugar cookies and Beagle sitting!

What a busy household I have this week! My two boys are home from school on spring break (they had a winter break in February and a spring break this week -- cuckoo, if you ask me). One of our friends went to New York City for the break, so we are taking care of their Beagle, Brady. Charlie just loves having a friend here! I love everything about having the two dogs, except for the barking. They both can get each other going over any neighbor coming or going, a dog being walked in front of our house, and any activity in the woods across the street. Between the two dogs and the two boys, it can be pretty loud around here!

My 11-year old loves to bake, so he has used some of his free time to whip up a couple of batches of his current favorite cookie recipe -- easy sugar cookies. These cookies are not only easy, they are delicious -- very chewy and buttery. The dogs were outside while he was baking, and they must have gotten a whiff of the cookies. Boy, did those dogs want a taste.

First, they tried staring and looking cute.

Danny cookies charlie barking
Next, Charlie tried barking. No luck!

Danny cookies Brady barking
Then Brady tried barking. No luck either -- we wanted the cookies all for ourselves!

Next, Charlie took a nap while Brady kept watch out the window.

Finally they both went to sleep. Aren't they cute? Still thinking cookies? Here's the recipe.

Easy Sugar Cookies
Adapted from a recipe on Allrecipes.com

2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup butter, softened (he prefers using salted butter for this recipe)
1 1/2 cups white sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C). In a small bowl, stir together flour, baking soda, and baking powder. Set aside.

In a large bowl, cream together the butter and sugar until smooth. Beat in egg and vanilla. In two batches, blend in the dry ingredients. Use a medium size Pampered Chef scoop to drop mounds of dough onto ungreased cookie sheets.

Bake 11-13 minutes in the preheated oven. My son prefers that they be set but not turning color at all -- I like them when they are a little golden around the edges. Let stand on cookie sheet two minutes before removing to cool on wire racks.

Happy Earth Day (and a freebie)!

These are the new reusable bags from Wegmans. Aren't they cute? I have some of their original reusable bags, which are plain black with the Wegmans logo. I've been eying buying some of the the new cute ones (just 99 cents each), but truth be told, I am not in a good habit of using them. Either they are in the car and I forget to bring them in the store, or I use them, bring in the groceries, and the bags remain somewhere in the house (which is the case right now).

Well, you can get one of these cute bags -- FREE! On Saturday, April 25, from 11 AM - 3 PM, Wegmans will be showing off their products and programs that promote sustainability through reduce, reuse, and recycle efforts. If you bring a tightly filled bag of plastic bags to recycle, they'll give you a reusable bag free! (Limit one per household.)

I've got my bag of plastic bags ready to go! Maybe having a cuter reusable bag will make me remember to use them more often.

Easter dinner recipes

As I mentioned in my earlier post about Easter, I misplaced most of my usual Easter recipes so I tried a bunch of new recipes this year. Most were tasty -- good enough to share -- but none of them made me call off my search for my favorites. I served Baked Ham with Bourbon Glaze, which I liked but my husband didn't, because he doesn't like sweet sauces or glazes with meat. Grandma's Cheesy Potatoes are ubiquitous, I think, because Wegmans often seems to run out of the frozen hash brown potatoes. The Green Beans with Caramelized Onions was the best recipe of the bunch, but frankly I think caramelized onions are something you can put on just about anything and it will taste better. Oh, and I made a truly awful mustard sauce that looked and tasted something like paper mache paste. I didn't even put it on the table. Here are the recipes.

Baked Ham with Bourbon Glaze
Adapted slightly from The All-New Ultimate Southern Living Cookbook

1 cup honey
1/2 cup molasses
1/2 cup bourbon
1/4 cup orange juice
2 Tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 (6- to 8-pound) ham half

Microwave honey and molasses in a 1-quart glass dish at HIGH 1 minute. Whisk to bend. Whisk in bourbon, orange juice and mustard.

Remove skin and fat from ham; place ham in a lightly greased 13- by 9-inch pan. Make 1/4-inch-deep cuts in ham in a diamond pattern. Pour glaze over ham.

Bake on lower oven rack at 250 for 2 to 2 1/2 hours or until a meat thermometer inserted into the thickest portion registers 140, basting every 15 minutes with glaze.

Remove from pan, reserving drippings. Defat the drippings and serve with the ham. Yield: 12 servings

Grandma's Cheesy Potatoes
This was a recipe Grandma used to make, but I've seen lots of variations of this recipe. I've lightened these a bit from her original recipe ... also replaced chopped onion with dried onion flakes. They need to be cooked for about 90 minutes to get the potatoes soft, which is longer than the original directions.

2 Tablespoons butter, melted
1 Tablespoon dried onion flakes
1 can cream of chicken soup (I use the reduced fat kind)
1 pint sour cream (I use light)
Salt and pepper, to taste (about 1 teaspoon of each)
2 cups shredded cheddar cheese, divided
1 2-pound bag hash brown potatoes, thawed

Combine first six ingredients, reserving 1/2 cup cheese for the top. Mix in the hash browns.

Put in greased 9" by 13" Pyrex pan. Sprinkle top with reserved cheese.

Bake at 350 degrees for about 90 minutes.

Green Beans with Caramelized Onions
Adapted slightly from The All-New Ultimate Southern Living Cookbook
2 pounds fresh green beans
2 large sweet onions (such as Texas Sweet, Vidalia or Walla Walla)
3 Tablespoons butter or margarine, divided
3 Tablespoons light brown sugar
1 1/2 Tablespoons balsamic vinegar

Trim benas. Cook beans in boiling water to cover 5-12 minutes or until desired tenderness (remember they will cook a little longer with the onions). Drain and set aside, or cover and chill overnight, if desired.

Meanwhile cut onions in half, then cut into thin sliced.

Melt 1 Tablespoon butter in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat, and add onions. Cook 8-10 minutes (stir only if onions are really scorching).

Continue cooking onions, stirring often, 15 to 20 minutes or until golden (reduce heat if they are burning). Reduce heat to medium; stir in remaining 2 Tablespoons butter and brown sugar.

Add green beans and cook 5 minutes or until thoroughly heated. Add vinegar; toss to coat. Yield: 8 servings

Chocolate Covered Peanut Butter Eggs

I host Easter every year, and every year there seems to be some kind of a disaster. This year I faced a double whammy. First, I had a bad stomach bug early in the week, which shaved a couple of days off my preparation time. Second, and even worse, I couldn't find the recipes that have become my personal Easter favorites. I'm kicking myself for never posting my Easter recipes on this blog. I'm convinced the stack of recipe cards is stashed in a cookbook somewhere. Those two mini-disasters meant that this year's Easter dinner just wasn't up to par. I'll eventually post the recipes I made, but they just weren't my favorite.

The day did have one HUGE hit: homemade chocolate peanut butter eggs, a recipe from a cooking contest friend, Beth Royals. Beth and I were both in the Pillsbury Bake-off contest in 2004, but I really got to know her when she and I, as well as our sons, were in the AirBake Ultra Extreme Cookie Challenge together two years later. Her contest record eclipses mine, and since she gave the egg recipe rave reviews, I was confident it would be a hit.

The peanut butter filling came together quickly, and it was easy to handle as my son and I shaped it into three- to four-inch eggs (which are huge as candy eggs go). I refrigerated them overnight to set.

The dipping did not go as smoothly. I failed to notice that Beth had given specific instructions for dipping the eggs, and I just plunked them into the bowl of melted chocolate. Getting them into the chocolate was easy -- getting them out was another story. I used my usual candy dipping implement, a dinner fork, but the fork didn't support enough of the egg and the sides of the eggs chipped off into the melted chocolate. At this point a smart person may have checked the recipe to see if Beth had made any notes about dipping technique, but nooo, I have to figure these things out for myself. Next, I turned to a slotted spatula (of the pancake turner type). It worked better for getting the eggs out of the chocolate, and the chocolate dripped off nicely from between the slots, but then it was hard to get the eggs off the pancake turner! As you can see by the drips on the wax paper, it was a messy process.

The next step was decorating the eggs. Beth puts names on hers and decorates them with flowers. That had been my original intention, as you can see by the name on the egg in the bottom corner, but I didn't like the way it looked. Instead, I drizzled them with various colors of melting wafers, interspersed with chocolate. I probably went overboard with the drizzling.

I wrapped two plates for neighbors, and had planned to put one at each place on the table. At the last minute, though, I put them on a platter. When I served them, my sons and nephew just about pounced on them and grabbed one each. My sons managed to eat half of theirs, and wrapped up the rest to eat later. My nephew, however, downed just about the whole thing (his father took a few bites).

"You could put Reese's out of business with those things," my brother-in-law said. I can't believe my nephew didn't have a bad stomach ache from eating that!

My husband, mother-in-law and I divided one among us, because they slice neatly. The leftovers were sent home with my guests, and I kept a few. Even though my kids have plenty of Easter candy left in their baskets, they keep asking if they can have one of the peanut butter eggs. That's how good they are. We'll share the last one today.

When I was struggling through dipping the eggs, I didn't expect I'd want to make these again, but they just may become an Easter tradition. Next time, though, I'd probably make them a bit smaller, to make them easier to dip and less gluttonous to eat.

(These are on Tastespotting -- a wonderful place to look for recipes!)

Chocolate Covered Peanut Butter Eggs
Courtesy of Beth Royals (my notes in parentheses & italics)

1 1/2 pounds powdered sugar, divided
3 sticks (salted) butter, room temperature
1 16-ounce jar peanut butter (plus 1/4 cup) (I used an 18-ounce jar)
1 7-ounce jar marshmallow cream
2 pounds *dark chocolate disks (I used milk chocolate and would do it again)

Combine about a third of the powdered sugar and butter in large bowl of electric mixer. Mix until well combined. Add peanut butter and marshmallow cream then gradually add remaining powdered sugar. Shape into eggs about 3-4 inches long trying to keep the bottom side flat. Refrigerate on waxed paper-lined cookie sheet to set (about 8 hours).

Beth's dipping directions, and you would be smart to follow them: Melt chocolate then coat eggs. I dip the bottoms first, only about 1/4-inch deep then chill to firm. Then I set them on a wire rack over waxed paper and pour just enough chocolate over them to coat, spreading to cover with a small metal spatula. Once dry I decorate with pastel colored royal icing, piping names of children, teachers, whoever you are giving them to. Next, I surround the names with flowers. (I just drizzled various colors of candy melts and chocolate.)

Servings: Varies depending on size you make the eggs. (Mine made about a dozen.)

Overnight Cinnamon Rolls with Cream Cheese Glaze

I like serving nice breakfasts on holidays and special occasions (like this coming Easter Sunday), but to tell you the truth, I am not a high-energy person in the morning. I prefer easing into the day with a cup of black coffee (or two or three) and reading the paper before I do anything productive.

I love breakfast recipes in which the work is done the day before, so I can just pop it in the oven in the morning. When my son asked for cinnamon rolls for his birthday breakfast in January (yes, I'm that behind in posting), I looked for recipes for cinnamon rolls that could be done that way. I ended up combining recipes from two trusted sources -- Molly Wizenberg (of Orangette fame) and Alton Brown (of Food Network fame). Both recipes had elements I didn't like. Molly's called for kneading by hand -- I got a KitchenAid stand mixer to avoid doing that -- and it seemed skimpy on the glaze. Alton's had buttermilk, which I didn't have in the fridge, and called for four egg yolks, and I hate discarding four whites if I don't have to. (Yes, I know I could use the whites for various things but they always wind up in the trash.) So I combined what I liked about two recipes.

The rolls weren't hard to make -- just remember that the dough needs a couple of hours to rise, so don't get started at midnight (something I tend to do). And I loved that they were coming out of the oven a little over an hour after I woke up.

When the rolls came out of the oven, they were divine -- soft and tender and loaded with cinnamon flavor. They were perfection -- for about the first two hours. Then they started to dry out. By the next morning, they were pretty close to stale (although they were ok reheated in the microwave, as long as you ate them right out of the microwave).

I'm way behind on my Easter preparations, but if I decide to make these for Easter morning, I'll probably either freeze one of the pans of the baked rolls, unfrosted, or freeze the dough of one of the pans before baking. I'll let you know how that works out.

In the meantime, I'm sending this to Yeastspotting, a great blog event devoted to yeast breads or recipes made with bread. It was started at Wild Yeast, a fantastic blog devoted primarily to baking bread, and is hosted this week by Zorra's blog -- head over there to check out other great bread recipes!

Overnight Cinnamon Rolls with Cream Cheese Glaze

Rah Cha Chow Recipe (A combination of Molly Wizenberg's recipe on Epicurious and Alton Brown's recipe on Food Network)

1 cup whole milk
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 1/2 cups (or more) unbleached all purpose flour, divided
1/2 cup sugar
1 large egg
2 1/4 teaspoons rapid-rise yeast (from 2 envelopes yeast) -- I used SAF instant yeast
1 teaspoon salt
Nonstick vegetable oil spray

1 cup (packed) light brown sugar
2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted

2 1/2 ounces cream cheese, softened
3 tablespoons milk
6 1/2 ounces powdered sugar, approximately 1 3/4 cups


Combine milk and butter in microwave-safe cup or bowl. Microwave on high until butter melts and mixture is just warmed to 120°F to 130°F -- it will feel like the temperature of a nice warm bath or shower -- mine took 1 1/2 minutes using cold milk and butter. Pour into bowl of stand mixer fitted with paddle attachment. Add 1 1/2 cups flour, sugar, egg, yeast, and salt. Beat on low speed 3 minutes, stopping occasionally to scrape down sides of bowl. Switch to dough hook. Add 2 cups flour. Beat on low for about 10 minutes until flour is absorbed and dough is moist and just barely sticky, scraping down sides of bowl. If dough is very sticky, add more flour by tablespoonfuls -- but you are better off having the dough a little too sticky than adding too much flour. It will become less sticky after it rises. Form dough into ball.

Lightly oil large bowl with nonstick spray. Transfer dough to bowl, turning to coat. Cover bowl with plastic wrap, then kitchen towel. Let dough rise in warm draft-free area until doubled in volume, about 2 hours.

For filling:

Mix brown sugar and cinnamon in medium bowl.

Punch down dough. Transfer to floured work surface. Roll out to 15x11-inch rectangle. Brush much of the melted butter over dough, leaving 1/2-inch border. Sprinkle cinnamon sugar evenly over butter. Gently press the filling into the dough. Drizzle with the remaining butter. Beginning with the long edge nearest you, roll the dough into a tight cylinder. Firmly pinch the seam to seal and roll the cylinder seam side down. Very gently squeeze the cylinder to create even thickness. With seam side down, cut dough crosswise with thin sharp knife into 18 equal slices (each about 3/4 inch wide).

Spray two 9-inch square glass baking dishes with nonstick spray. Divide rolls between baking dishes, arranging cut side up (there will be little space between rolls). Arrange rolls cut side down in the baking dish; cover tightly with plastic wrap and store in the refrigerator overnight or up to 16 hours.

Remove the rolls from the refrigerator and place in an oven that is turned off. Fill a shallow pan 2/3-full of boiling water and set on the rack below the rolls. Close the oven door and let the rolls rise until they look slightly puffy; approximately 30 minutes. Remove the rolls and the shallow pan of water from the oven.

Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 350 degrees F.

When the oven is ready, place the rolls on the middle rack and bake until golden brown, or until the internal temperature reaches 190 degrees F on an instant-read thermometer, approximately 30 minutes. (Molly said to remove from oven and invert immediately onto rack, then cool 10 minutes. Turn rolls right side up. I didn't do this but might do it next time.)

For glaze:

While the rolls are cooling slightly, make the icing by whisking the cream cheese in the bowl of a stand mixer until creamy. Add the milk and whisk until combined. Sift in the powdered sugar, and whisk until smooth. Spread over the rolls and serve immediately.

Remembering Grandma with her pizza burgers

My beloved Grandma died last Sunday. She was 94, almost blind, almost deaf, and bent over from osteoporosis, but she hadn't lost her keen mind, her personality, or her quick wit.

She had told me she was "ready to go" -- several times -- so I thought I would be OK when she passed away. When I got the call, though, the feeling of grief and loss was overwhelming. To know I wouldn't hear her voice or her laughter again ... everyone who has lost a loved one knows the feelings, and yet, that doesn't make them any easier. Some people remind me that she is in a better place, but selfishly, that doesn't make me miss her any less.

Our family is scattered across the country, and one of her last wishes was for us to all get together and have a big party in the summer. She'd be there "one way or another," she said. As a result, a celebration of her life is planned for August, and I'm looking forward to it. But since I live far away from the rest of my family, last week had me feeling adrift and alone when it came to dealing with my sadness and my memories.

I played a game of Yahtzee with my younger son -- a game I remembered playing for hours at her dining room table in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin (shown here, with three of her 15 great grandkids).

"If Nana is watching us play this game, she sure isn't giving us very good rolls," I remarked, and then my son rolled a Yahtzee. I swear I could feel her thumbing her nose at me.

I went and saw the flowers at the Lamberton Conservatory in Highland Park, because she loved plants and flowers, both inside and outside. I remember going to Highland Park with her when she visited, and she had a keen interest in everything that grew there.

I decided to make a recipe that my cousins and I remember her making for us many times. It's pizza burgers, made with a combination of ground beef and hot dogs, a combination straight out of the 1960s. It's a retro recipe, and far from being health food, but it comes together very quickly and feeds a lot of people -- something important when you have 20 grandchildren that come to visit! In keeping with the retro dish, I served them with tater tots, which was a big treat for my guys -- I never buy tater tots.

I took one bite of the burger, was transported back to that Lake Geneva table, and the lump in my throat got so big that I didn't think I could swallow. Bad idea. Although my husband and one son enjoyed them, I've decided I'm going to keep this recipe on the back burner for now. Maybe someday I'll make it for my grandkids, and tell them about how my wonderful grandma used to make it for me when I was little.

For more recipes from special Grandmas, check out the Grandma's recipe event at The Spiced Life!

Betty's Pizza Burgers

1 pound lean ground beef
1/2 pound ground bologna or hot dogs (Turkey hot dogs work fine. Just put them in the food processor and whir until the texture resembles ground beef)

Grandma's seasonings: 1 Tablespoon dried sage and 1 Tablespoon dried oregano OR
My seasonings: 1 1/2 teaspoons dried sage, 1 1/2 teaspoons Penzey's pizza seasoning, and 1 Tablespoon dried oregano

1 1/2 cups (or a 14-oz jar) pizza sauce
1 1/2 cups cheddar cheese (You can use mozzarella if you're out of cheddar, but cheddar tastes better.)

Brown ground beef and drain any fat. Add ground hot dogs, seasonings, and pizza sauce. Simmer for a few minutes. Remove from heat and add grated cheese. (You can do this ahead.)

Spread on halves of hamburger buns. Top with a little extra cheese, if desired. Bake at 400 degrees for 15 minutes or so, until hot and cheese is melted. Makes a dozen or so.

Top Chef Season 5 Wrap Up: Reunion, Chat with Stephanie Izard, and Quaker Oats Challenge

I'm way behind on posting, so let's wrap up Top Chef Season 5, shall we?

The Reunion Show

Just a few reactions to the reunion show:
- This year's T-shirts were boring. I "heart" Fabio? I love Fabio, but are you kidding me? No monkey ass, no creative monkeys, no "Hootie Hoo?"
- Speaking of Hootie Hoo, do you think Carla is ready to be over that? I would not be feeling the love if people went around yelling "Hootie" at me all the time.
- I still don't like Toby but he did two things on the reunion that endeared me to him. He asked about the camera work for the Hosea/Leah couch episode. As I suspected, the camera man was very sneaky -- he filmed a reflection on the window. Toby also asked Hosea about his sick dad, and it was too bad to hear he's not doing well.
- Hooray and congrats to Fabio for winning fan favorite! I'm not alone in thinking it would have been him or Carla. I hope we see more from both of them. I know we will from Fabio -- from this BravoTV blog post, it sounds like he has a lot in the works.

If you want to know what Hosea's life will be like next, let me move on to my ...

Chat with Stephanie Izard

A few weeks ago, the good people from Quaker Oats contacted me and offered me an interview with Stephanie Izard, last year's winner of Top Chef. I had a nice chat with her on the phone last week, a few days before the Season 5 finale had aired. She is as personable as she appeared in last year's season. Between my rusty interviewing/note-taking skills and a bad cell phone connection, I don't want to misquote her, so I'll just share these tidbits:

- Her new restaurant: She plans to open a restaurant, called The Drunken Goat, in Chicago this fall. She chose "goat" because "Izard" is French for a type of goat. I don't think I got a good explanation for "drunken" -- see, it's those rusty interview skills. To think I have a degree in journalism...

- Spending the $100K: Since she is working with investors for the new restaurant, she is spending her winnings on exploring new media opportunities. She is doing a podcast called "The Tasty Life" on her Web site. She is also working on a cookbook.

- Riding the wave: I asked whether the attention for winning Top Chef had died down since almost a year had past. She remarked that Jeff had asked her the same question (she met Jeff at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival in February). Her answer to both of us: no, it hasn't died down -- and she intends to make the most from the opportunities that arise from it.

- The finale: With this year's finale on the horizon, I asked if she had practiced for her finale. She said she didn't practice at all, but before she went to Puerto Rico she bought a cookbook on that cuisine and read up on it. (So Ariane wasn't so off base on her cookbook comment earlier this season?) She mentioned that there had been about six months from the time she made the finale to actually going to Puerto Rico, so they had a chance to see most of the season before they went to the finale. That gap also made it a challenge for them to jump back into competition mode. This year's cheftestants didn't have as long of a gap, but they were able to watch a good part of the season before the finale.

- Top Chef recipes: I told her that I had made her banana bread that received accolades last season, and found it to be salty. I also mentioned that the original post of the recipe was full of mistakes. She explained that the cheftestants jot down the recipes while they are at the house, after the challenges are over. Someone from Bravo types them up and uploads them to the Web site. The recipes are not tested by the cheftestants. So if you decide to make a recipe from the Bravo Web site, proceed with caution.

- Visiting Rochester: This being a Rochester blog, I had to ask if she had been to Rochester. She said she grew up on the East Coast and had been to the area for some swim meets. Because it was so long ago, I didn't ask her what she recalled of the area or the food scene here ... this part of the interview was a little awkward so never mind ... moving on ...

- The Quaker Oats Viewer Quickfire Challenge: I asked if she had any tips for me if I wanted to enter the contest. "Have fun with it," she said, pointing out that oatmeal could be used for a lot more than a bowl of oatmeal. "Go for it." All of this was no help whatsoever, but I had to ask. Which leads me to...

The Quaker Oats Viewer QuickFire Challenge

So I entered this contest and I am not a semifinalist. And you know, I'm happy about not being a semifinalist, maybe in the same way Stefan is happy to not have won Top Chef. I don't have to go around begging for votes (a practice I hate), and I would be seriously stressed out about being one of the top three vote-getters who will go and compete in a QuickFire challenge.

I'm a little surprised at the semi-finalist recipes, because I would have expected Quaker Oats to stick to healthy fare and several finalist recipes are pretty decadent. In any case, many of the recipes look delicious and worth voting for. One is banana donuts, by Emily from Sugar Plum. Two others are the creations of contesting "pals I have yet to meet:"
- Denise, with Seacoast Scallop Cobbler, and
- Deborah, with Icy Oat Mochaccino

I think I'll divide my votes among the three of them. (You can vote daily.) Off to vote...