Two "sweet " new bar recipes

I'm always looking for new recipes to use up overripe bananas. I got this recipe for Banana Magic Cookie Bars from Anna's blog. The original recipe had a graham cracker crust, but Anna gave it a chocolate shortbread crust. I liked that the crust cut the sweetness of the bars, but it was a bit crumbly the first day I tried them. By the second day in the fridge, though, the texture was perfect and I had a hard time keeping away from them.

Banana Magic Cookie Bars

1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
Pinch salt (optional)
1 cup unsalted butter, salted
3/4 cup confectioners sugar
1 can (14 oz) sweetened condensed milk
2 bananas, mashed
2 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips
2/3 cup shredded, sweetened coconut
1 cup walnuts or pecans (I like pecans, but used walnuts this time)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line a 13×9 inch pan with no-stick foil or parchment.

Sift together flour and cocoa powder. Add salt (if using) and set aside. In a large bowl, beat butter and confectioners sugar until creamy. By hand, stir in flour mixture until well incorporated and moist. Press mixture into bottom of pan. Bake for 15 minutes.

Mix together condensed milk and mashed banana. Pour over baked crust. Mix together chocolate chips, coconut and nuts. Sprinkle over top. Bake for 25- 30 minutes.
Let cool completely and then chill before serving.

The next recipe could have used Anna's deft hand at cutting the sweetness. The combination of the cinnamon chips and the frosting made it cloyingly sweet, and the oatmeal gave it kind of an odd texture. If I made it again I'd substitute nuts for half of the cinnamon chips, but I'm not sure I'd bother making it again. Here's the recipe in case you like things really sweet.

Frosted Apple Cinnamon Bars

1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 cups uncooked old-fashioned oats
3/4 cup butter, softened
3/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1/2 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 package cinnamon-flavored baking chips(10-ounce)
1 medium apple (1 cup) chopped
Frosting Ingredients:
3 cups powdered sugar
1/4 cup butter, softened
1 package cream cheese (3-ounce), softened
1 teaspoon vanilla
Ground cinnamon, if desired

Heat oven to 350°F. Combine flour, salt and baking soda in medium bowl; stir in oats.

Combine butter, brown sugar and sugar in large bowl. Beat at medium speed, scraping bowl often, until creamy. Add eggs and vanilla; beat until well mixed. Reduce speed to low; add flour mixture. Beat until well mixed. Stir in cinnamon chips and apple by hand.

Spread batter into greased 13x9-inch baking pan. Bake for 33 to 38 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool completely.

Combine all frosting ingredients in small bowl. Beat at low speed, scraping bowl often, until creamy. Spread over cooled bars. Sprinkle with cinnamon, if desired.

Thanksgiving Recap Part 3: Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade!

Ever since I watched it on TV as a kid, I have wanted to see the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in person. Since I have two stepsisters who now live in the greater NYC area, this year was the year to do it. So we did.

I can report that going to the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade is a lot like going to see a major golf tournament in person. You see a heck of a lot more on TV, but it's still fun and exciting to be there.

The weather for this year's parade was glorious -- sunny and unseasonably warm. As a result, I think everyone in the New York City area went to the parade. The people I chatted with (don't believe the myth about New Yorkers being unfriendly) said that it was the biggest crowd they had ever seen for the parade.

This photo gives you an idea of the crowds ... so we didn't see all that much. We saw the tops of the floats that went by -- and without Matt Lauer telling us what we were seeing, there was lots of speculation about who was on those floats. Someone near us thought they spotted the Jonas Brothers (the latest teen boy band) on one float. D., who is a big Jonas Brothers fan, said with absolute confidence that it wasn't. We heard kids cheer for "Aunt Dolly" on one float -- what a surprise that the cheers were for Dolly Parton! Apparently she appears on Hannah Montana as Aunt Dolly. We heard the bands marching by -- they sounded great but we didn't see much more than glimpses of the tassles on their hats.

And we did see the big balloons. They were cool, but it would have been cooler and easier to see if they were a bit higher up in the air. Darn safety regulations. We didn't see two we were expecting -- Big Bird and Spiderman. One of my parade route buddies told me they were the biggest ones. I wonder if it was too breezy for them.

This being a food blog, I feel like I have to comment on something food related. Well, we got up very early to catch the train from Connecticut, and decided to have breakfast when we got to Manhattan. In hindsight, we should have grabbed something when we switched from the train to the subway in Grand Central Station, but the lines seemed long and we wanted to get to a spot for parade watching. When we got off the train at 70th and Central Park West, our only culinary alternative was a vendor selling hot dogs and hot pretzels. We opted for the pretzels, which we had with bottled water. I didn't even have my morning coffee! I don't want to make a habit of having hot pretzels for breakfast, but they actually were pretty yummy.

After that, we visited beautiful Central Park and checked out Strawberry Fields (for B., a Beatles fan) and the statue of Balto (for D., an Iditarod nut). Then it was back to Connecticut for Thanksgiving dinner.

Thanksgiving Recap Part 2 - Curried Party Mix

I make lots of party mixes during the holidays, but I prefer to make them a bit more interesting than the back-of-the-box Chex mix. This is a variation of an oldie but goodie from Gourmet magazine. The original recipe called for cayenne pepper, but some people said it was too spicy. Now I just use several drops of Tabasco sauce, which gives it flavor without too much heat. We ate a big batch over Thanksgiving weekend.

Curried Party Mix

Adapted from Gourmet, December 1994

Makes about 12 cups.

6 cups mixed cereals (I used rice Chex, bite-size shredded wheat, and Cheerios)
1 1/2 cups sesame sticks
1 1/2 cups small thin pretzels
1 cup almonds
1 cup roasted peanuts --honey roasted also work well
1/2 stick (1/4 cup) unsalted butter
1 tablespoon soy sauce
6 drops (or to taste) Tabasco sauce

2 teaspoons curry powder
2 teaspoons sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 250°F.

In a large bowl toss together cereals, sesame sticks, pretzels, and nuts. In a small saucepan melt butter with soy sauce over moderately low heat and whisk in curry powder, sugar, cayenne, and salt. Drizzle butter mixture over cereal, tossing well, and spread in a shallow roasting pan. Bake mixture 1 hour and transfer to a bowl to cool completely. Party mix keeps in an airtight container 1 month.

Thanksgiving Recap Part 1 - Spiced Pumpkin Bread

My family and I had a fun Thanksgiving. We traveled to Ridgefield, Connecticut, where we converged on the home of my stepsister, Lisa, her husband, and her two very cute kids. We had a wonderful time! Lisa (that's her checking on the turkey) and her sister, Karyn, did most of the Thanksgiving cooking, but I brought along a few goodies. I'll tell you about my contributions over a few posts.

I liked the recipe for Spiced Pumpkin Bread because it made two loaves. I took one to Lisa's house and another to the couple who took care of Charlie while we were gone. When I mixed up the batter, I couldn't figure out what I had done wrong, because it seemed very thick. Then it dawned on me that I had forgotten one key ingredient -- the pumpkin! D'oh.... Luckily, I caught the mistake before I put the batter in the pans, and stirred in the pumpkin at the end. I was worried that putting the pumpkin in at the wrong time would be a problem, but it ended up being one of the best quick breads I've made. We devoured most of the bread in one morning, and my neighbor begged me for the recipe. I'll definitely be making this again!

Spiced Pumpkin Bread

From Bon App├ętit, November 1995

Serve one of these loaves the day you make them. Wrap the other in foil and freeze up to one month so that you'll have it on hand for unexpected company.

Makes 2 loaves.
3 cups sugar
1 cup vegetable oil
3 large eggs
1 16-ounce can solid pack pumpkin (I had a large can of pumpkin, and measured out 16 ounces. Smaller cans are 14.5 oz.)
3 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts (optional - I used)

Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter and flour two 9x5x3-inch loaf pans. Beat sugar and oil in large bowl to blend. Mix in eggs and pumpkin. Sift flour, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, baking soda, salt and baking powder into another large bowl. Stir into pumpkin mixture in 2 additions. Mix in walnuts, if desired.

Divide batter equally between prepared pans. Bake until tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 1 hour 10 minutes. Transfer to racks and cool 10 minutes. Using sharp knife, cut around edge of loaves. Turn loaves out onto racks and cool completely.

Exciting new gig for a contest buddy!

When I started enter cooking contests, I had one goal -- to win some cash.

Now that I've been doing this kooky hobby for a few years, I can honestly say that participating in contests has garnered me something even more valuable -- friends from all over the country. One of those is Erin, who I met at the 2004 Pillsbury Bake-off. I also hung out with her at last year's Cooking Light contest -- that's where I took this photo of her.

Erin's winnings have eclipsed mine. In addition to winning her category at the Cooking Light contest, she also won Rachael Ray's burger contest last year. She has also finished in the money in the National Chicken Cookoff and National Beef Cookoff. And on and on.

A few weeks ago, I got a phone call from Erin. She was in town visiting her in-laws, and she was at Wickham Farms, so I popped over to say "hi." It was fun to see her and her adorable kids.

Erin's not one to brag, so that may be why she didn't tell me about her exciting new gig. She has a blog on Rachael Ray Magazine's Web site! I couldn't be more envious, but her success is well deserved and she's doing a great job on her blog. (Hey, if I was being paid to write this thing, I might do it on a more regular basis!)

Congrats Erin!

The $50,000 Beef Recipe

I wanted to make the recipe that won the National Beef Cook-off for dinner for several reasons. First, I was curious to try the recipe that snagged the $50 grand -- and also because I got to know the recipe's creator at the contest, and thought she was a great gal. I needed to use up some squash left over from Wickham Farms. And perhaps most importantly, I was hoping for a recipe to make me more enthusiastic about winter squash (I've never been a big fan of the stuff).

Well, this has to be one of the worst food photos I've ever taken. It really doesn't do the recipe justice. I was in a rush to get dinner on the table, so I didn't spend a lot of time on it. Those weird looking white cubes are actually cubes of avocado. The flash must have washed out the color of the avocado. If you want to see a better photo, go to the National Beef Cook-off web site.

Anyway, I expected the recipe to be fussy, but it really wasn't. In fact, I'd say it requires less hands-on time than our meatball sub recipe. You toss cubes of stew meat with a spicy tomato-based sauce and pop it in the oven. A half hour later you add a quartered butternut squash to the oven. A little over an hour later, dinner is done. You serve the beef over the butternut squash, and garnish with tomato, avocado, and cilantro.

I can see why the dish was a winner. The sweet butternut squash was a nice compliment to the spicy beef (although the beef was a bit too spicy for my husband's liking). The tomato and avocado added color and freshness to the dish (I left out the cilantro). Here's the recipe:

Christine Riccitelli's Nuevo Chipotle Beef in Butternut Squash Boats
Winner of the 2007 National Beef Cook-off (with a few minor changes from me)
Total preparation and cooking time: 2 to 2 3/4 hours

1 1/2 pounds lean beef for stew
1/3 cup water
1/4 cup tomato paste
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 teaspoons ground chipotle chile pepper (if you don't like spicy foods, you may want to cut down to 1 teaspoon)
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 medium butternut squash (about 3 pounds)
1 1/2 cups water
1 medium tomato, chopped
1 small ripe avocado, cut into cubes (optional -- I liked it with this, though)
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro (I didn't use because I hate the stuff)

1. Preheat oven to 325 F. Place beef, 1/3 cup water, tomato paste, sugar, vinegar, chipotle pepper, cumin, salt and black pepper in stock pot (I used a covered casserole dish). Cover and bake in 325 F oven 1 3/4 to 2 1/4 hours or until beef is fork-tender.
2. Meanwhile, cut squash lengthwise into quarters; remove seeds. Place squash cut-side down in 13 by 9-inch glass baking dish, overlapping if necessary. Add 1 1/2 cups water. Bake in 325 F oven 1 to 1 1/3 hours or until fork-tender (I found it took longer than this. I would put in the oven as soon as you are done quartering and getting the seeds out).
3. Place each baked squash quarter onto serving plate. Fill with equal amounds of beef mixture. Top with garnishes -- tomato, avocado, and cilantro -- as desired.
Makes 4 servings

Fall Salads

Last Christmas, my husband gave me gift certificate to the New York Wine and Culinary Center in Canandaigua. It took me awhile to redeem it, mostly because the cooking classes there fill up very quickly. Finally, my friend, Jackie, and I settled on taking a class called fall salads. The class caught my eye because the recipes included ingredients I didn't have much experience with, like lamb, duck, and fresh figs. I also thought it would give me new ideas for the bounty of fall veggies I receive in my weekly Porter Farms CSA bag (a reasonable expectation, I thought, in that the NYWCC aims to educate about New York State food).

During the 30-minute drive to the center, Jackie and I chatted about our experience with cooking classes. We've both attended several different cooking classes in the area. It got to the point, though, where we weren't learning much from them, so we hadn't attended many recently. As a result, we were looking forward to attending a chef-taught class that was a step above the classes we've taken.

The building itself lived up to what I had heard about it. It was beautiful. You can see it for yourself here. The hands-on kitchen, where our class was to be held, looked like a cook's dream. Until the door was opened, we walked around and admired the building and some of the art that was hung there.

When the door to the class opened, people moved purposefully toward certain areas in the room. Then I realized that the set-up of the class was that each stove area contained the makings of a certain recipe, and a small group made each recipe. The other areas being occupied, Jackie and I wound up at the area for Southwestern Roasted Pork Salad with Tropical Sweet Corn & Black Bean Salsa (we were later joined by a nice gentleman). I was disappointed that this was our dish, because I have cooked pork tenderloin and made similar salsas lots of times. But I tried to be optimistic. The recipe looked pretty easy, which I hoped would leave us time to wander around and watch the other teams at work.

The class started with the instructor introducing herself and her impressive credentials. Next, she briefly reviewed each recipe and gave tips. She encouraged the groups to be creative, which didn't thrill me -- when I go to a cooking class, I want to know I can replicate the dish at home. For our recipe, she demonstrated how to remove the silver skin from the pork tenderloin (something I could demo myself), and told us that we'd be using frozen corn instead of fresh, so we may want to saute it.

Our little team got along and worked together well. The salsa required lots of chopping. Jackie noticed that her mango wasn't ripe. What little cilantro we were given was brown and wilted. And although we sauteed the frozen corn, its flavor didn't approach the sweetness of fresh corn. After about an hour of chopping, we tasted the salsa. Blah -- not much flavor at all. We added salt and honey and other seasonings, and still it didn't taste like much. One of the chefs wandered by and we asked him for his opinion. He added some cider vinegar, which did perk up the flavor a bit. But it still wasn't great.

Then all the dishes were put on a central island, and each group shared information about their recipe and what they had done differently. When we said something about having a hard time getting much flavor out of the salsa, the instructor chef made a comment about Canandaigua not having the best mangos and papayas at this time of year. I really wanted to make a remark about that being the reason why we were in a FALL SALADS class -- to learn to use fresh seasonal produce from New York -- but I'm not that rude. After that, we all helped ourselves to all of the salads. This is what my plate looked like. Our salad is in the middle -- the slice of pork with the corn salsa underneath.

The salads were generally good, but few were "wow." The recipe that came closest to meeting my expectations was Curried Apple Chicken Salad with Crispy Wontons. It included seasonal ingredients, like shredded red cabbage and a Granny Smith apple. It had nice contrasts of flavors and textures. My only complaint is that it was messy to eat -- as you can see, the ingredients just didn't want to stay on the pumpernickle rounds.

We left with another pair of women who were sharing notes about the class. They, too, were disappointed with the produce they had been given, and didn't understand that there wasn't more of an emphasis on fall regional ingredients.

I don't feel comfortable posting the recipes from the class, because I don't want to undermine the efforts of the New York Wine & Culinary Center. Even though I was disappointed with this one class, Jackie & I agreed that we're not ready to give up on the center, and we'll probably give the classes there another shot. Maybe we'll take a class that's held in their demonstration room instead of the hands-on kitchen.

Instead of posting a recipe from the class, I thought I'd post the kind of recipe I'd include if I taught a Fall Salads class. It is easy, tasty, and loaded with fall ingredients. I spotted it on Joe's blog, and it was originally in Cooking Light magazine.

Spinach-Apple Salad with Maple-Bacon Vinaigrette (adapted from Culinary in the Desert blog and Cooking Light)

1 tablespoon pure maple syrup (mine is from New York)
1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
1/4 teaspoon Dijon mustard (I was out of Dijon so I used honey mustard)
1/2 tablespoon extravirgin olive oil
1/2 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives (from my back yard herb garden)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
2 bacon slices, cooked and crumbled
1 large Granny Smith apple, cut into julienne strips (I used a Jonagold, picked at Green Acres in Rochester)
1/4 cup thinly vertically sliced red onion (from a recent Porter Farms CSA bag)
6 ounces baby spinach (from this week's Porter Farms CSA bag)

In a small bowl, whisk together maple syrup, vinegar and mustard. Drizzle in oil, whisking constantly, until completely combined. Whisk in chives, salt, pepper and bacon.

In a large bowl, add apple strips, onion and spinach. Drizzle with vinaigrette and toss well to coat.

Makes about 4 servings.

Snacks for the band

CRB spent Friday night recording our demo in the home studio of our good friend, Jim. Here's Jim's dog, Zoe, listening to a playback. I'm not sure she's happy about that take.

Anyway, my primary role in the band is to sing harmonies, which comes late in the recording process. I knew I wouldn't have much to do on Friday, but I wanted to feel useful, so I figured I'd provide some snacks.

I made two things that were quick to grab and eat, so as not to interrupt the recording process -- caramel brownies and Snack Jack pumpkin seeds.

Caramel Brownies is one of those recipes a lot of people make because the results are much greater than the effort required. It has about six ingredients, and starts with a box of cake mix. This time I added pecans over half of the base before I added the chips and the caramel. I'm never sure whether or not to add nuts to things, because lots of people don't like nuts. Well, the band vastly preferred the version with the nuts.

Snack Jack Pumpkin Seeds, on the other hand, require a bit of effort. Every time I make them I kind of grumble and wonder if it's worth the trouble -- but in the end I think the results are worth it. I don't really follow a recipe but I'll tell you how I did it.

The most important ingredient is seeds from Snack Jack pumpkins. Here's Charlie with four of this variety of pumpkins (hey, I couldn't show a really cute dog on my blog without showing my own). These pumpkins are grown specifically for their hull-less seeds. I got mine at Wickham Farms. I'm not sure where else Snack Jack pumpkins are sold, so if you want to make this recipe, you may have to make a special trip to Wickham Farms next year.

The first step of the process is to cut open the pumpkins and scoop out the seeds. Snack Jack pumpkins don't have tons of seeds -- the four pumpkins shown yielded just over 2 cups of seeds that are darker in color than other pumpkin seeds.

My personal preference is to get rid of all the orange goop, so I spread them out on paper towels, and pick off the orange stuff that clings to the seeds. Then I put the seeds in a colander, rinse them, and spread them out on more paper towels. When I'm done, they look like the photo to the left. This is the most time consuming part of the process. Maybe you don't have to be as fussy as I am about it.

The next step is to dry out the seeds. I put them on a couple of baking sheets that have been sprayed with cooking spray, and I bake them at 200 degrees for about an hour.

Next it's time add some oil and seasonings. This year I used:
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1/2 tablespoon olive oil
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
1/2 teaspoon (approximately) table salt -- taste as you go
1/8 teaspoon garlic salt
1/8 teaspoon garlic powder
a pinch of cayenne pepper

Turn the oven up to 275 and bake them for another hour, stirring every 20 minutes. After 40 minutes have gone by, taste and adjust seasonings. At this point I added some more salt and a sprinkling of Cajun seasoning from the Dinosaur BBQ.

As you can see, they turn out a lot browner than other pumpkin seeds, and much crispier. I like them that way (and I think the band did, too). If you don't, you probably could bake them at a lower temperature or take them out sooner.

As expected, CRB made really good progress on the demo on Friday, but we didn't get to recording most of the harmonies. But the band really enjoyed my snacks!