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Recipe Megapost: Joe’s Birthday Party

19 Mar

Yesterday was a perfectly beautiful spring day, the first we’ve had here in DC thus far. How appropriate that the warm weather decided to show up on Joe’s birthday! We had some friends over for a celebration and spent the evening enjoying wonderful company and (if I don’t say so myself) some pretty tasty food.

Since this bash fell on a Friday, I did a lot of prep in advance so that I wouldn’t have much to do when I got home from work (and so I could enjoy the party). On to the deliciousness…

Amuse-bouche: Caramelized Pearl Onions with Queso Blanco

  • 32 pearl onions, blanched and peeled
  • 1 dried cayenne pepper
  • ½ cup dry sherry
  • 2 tbsp. sugar
  • A few spoonfuls of liquid from canned beets
  • Sprig of fresh thyme

*Okay, here’s the thing. The recipes I referenced for this all called for red pearl onions. I can’t find them anywhere. I don’t know why. So, I cheated and dyed them red with some of the liquid from my home-canned beets. It added bonus flavor and made them an awesome color.

Put all of the ingredients into a pot and add water just to cover the onions. Bring the mixture to a boil and then reduce to a simmer, swirling the pan every so often to keep the onions from scorching.

Reduce until there is about ¼ cup of syrupy liquid left in the pan. Remove the onions with a slotted spoon and reserve syrup.

Queso Blanco

  • 1 gallon whole milk
  • ¼ cup white vinegar

Heat the milk, stirring frequently to keep from scorching. When it reaches 185 degrees, add the vinegar in 3 separate additions, stirring between each one. Remove the pot from the heat and let it sit for five minutes, then stir for another five or until the curds have firmed up a little bit. Strain into a colander lined with cheesecloth and then hang the curds to drain for an hour.

You can salt to taste and use this as is, but I really wanted it to be firm so that I could cut it into cubes. So, if you have a cheese press, line a mold with cheesecloth and press the curds at 10 lbs. for 10 minutes, redress the cheese and then press at 25 lbs. for 3 hours.

Put it all together: Thread one onion and one cube of queso blanco onto a skewer and drizzle with the reserved syrup.

Appetizer: Crostini Duo

  • 2 baguettes, bias sliced and toasted

For Spinach, Artichoke and Caramelized Onion Crostini

  • 1/3 cup low-fat plain yogurt or Greek yogurt
  • 1/3 cup low-fat sour cream
  • 3 oz. Neufchatel cheese or cream cheese
  • 1 can of artichoke hearts, drained
  • 10 oz. fresh spinach
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 tsp. dried thyme
  • 1 tbsp. Dijon mustard
  • ½ tsp. dried cayenne pepper
  • Salt and pepper to taste

In a wide pan, sweat the diced onions in olive oil until soft, translucent and sweet. Add the garlic and cook for another minute. Add the spinach and cook just until it has wilted. Set the pan aside.

In the bowl of a food processor, combine the yogurt, cheese, sour cream, artichoke hearts, thyme, mustard, pepper, and a few pinches of salt. Pulse to combine. Add the spinach, onion and garlic to the food processor and pulse until it has a spreadable consistency.

Top each toasted baguette slice with the spread and serve at room temperature.

For Fromage Blanc, Basil and Roasted Red Pepper Crostini:

  • Roasted red peppers
  • Fromage blanc
  • Basil, chiffonade cut

To make the fromage blanc, heat 1 gallon of milk to 85 degrees and add a packet of fromage blanc starter. Stir vigorously for a minute or two and then cover the pot and allow the milk to ripen at room temperature for 12 hours. Scoop the curds into a colander lined with cheesecloth, and then hang them to drain for 6 hours. It should have the consistency of cream cheese. Salt to taste.

Top each toasted baguette slice with a layer of fromage blanc, diced roasted red peppers, and chiffonade basil.

Appetizer: Mushroom Strudel (adapted from Smitten Kitchen)

I am sorry that I didn’t get more pictures of this process, but my hands were covered with butter most of the time and photography got the shaft. These are so good and you can make them in advance, freeze, and then bake as needed. Handy.

  • 1 package phyllo dough (40 sheets)
  • 1/2 cup butter, melted
  • 1 pound cremini mushrooms
  • 1 medium onion, minced
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • Freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1 tablespoon dry sherry
  • 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
  • 1 sprig thyme
  • 4 to 6 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 400°F and line baking sheet with parchment paper.

Cook the onion in the butter until translucent and then add the mushrooms and nutmeg. Saute for 5 to 7 minutes, until liquid has been released and has partially evaporated. Add the sherry and evaporate the alcohol by cooking over low heat for 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in the flour, herbs, and some salt and pepper, and let cool. The mixture will be moist.

Take one sheet of phyllo at a time from their package; cover the remaining sheets with plastic and then a damp towel to keep them from drying out. Brush one half of the sheet lengthwise with butter. Fold the unbuttered side over the buttered side, carefully, smoothing out as best you can. Again, brush one half of this lengthwise with butter, and fold the unbuttered side over it again. You’ll end up with one long column.

Place spoonful of the mushroom filling near the end and sprinkle a teaspoon of parmesan over it. Begin folding one bottom corner of the phyllo strip over the filling until it meets the opposite edge, forming a triangle, as if you were folding a flag. Place the triangle seam side down on the baking sheet, brush lightly with egg wash and sprinkle with parmesan.

Bake for 15 minutes and serve warm or at room temperature.

Main Course: Porchetta

Normally, this is seared and roasted, but oven-space was at a premium and so I went the crock pot route.

  • 2 tbsp. canola oil
  • 4 lb pork loin roast
  • 1/2 cup chicken broth

Herb rub:

  • 5 cloves garlic
  • 2 tbsp. fresh rosemary
  • 1/2 cup fresh parsley
  • 1 tbsp. kosher salt
  • 1/2 tbsp. lemon pepper
  • 1 tbsp. dried oregano
  • 1 tbsp. dried fennel seed
  • 1/2 tbsp. onion powder
  • 1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
  • 2 tbsp. olive oil

Combine all of the ingredients for the rub in a food processor and pulse until they form a paste.

Cut several inch-deep slits in the roast and stuff some of the rub inside of them. Slather the roast with the remaining rub.

At this point, I vacuum sealed mine to let it marinate for a few days.

In a large pan, sear the roast on all sides and then move it to the crock pot. Dioji was hypnotized by the smell of meaty goodness:

Add the broth to the pan to deglaze (scrape the bottom to get all of the bits of herby piggy goodness) and bring the mixture to a boil. Simmer for 5 minutes and then pour the liquid onto the roast in the crock pot.

Cook on high for 5-6 hours or on low for 7-8 hours. The roast ended up so tender that I shredded it and served it with the reduced cooking liquid.

Main Course: Cheese Manicotti with Zucchini Cayenne Marinara Sauce

I made the ricotta and mozzarella for these and you can find photo tutorials for them here.


  • 3 eggs
  • 3 cups flour
  • 6 tbsp. olive oil
  • 5 tbsp. water


  • 1 lb. ricotta cheese
  • ½ lb. mozzarella cheese, grated
  • A handful of grated parmesan
  • 1 egg
  • Fresh thyme and parsley to taste
  • Salt and pepper to taste


  • 2 zucchini, ¼ in. dice
  • 4 cans crushed tomatoes
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 1 onion, minced
  • 4 dried cayenne peppers, diced
  • Dried thyme
  • Fresh parsley

To make the pasta dough, beat together the eggs, oil and water and then stir them into the flour. Get your hand in the bowl and begin to knead the dough together.Knead until it is smooth and then flatten into a disc, wrap in plastic wrap and rest at room temperature for 30 min.

Roll the pasta into sheets, and then cut into 5 in. squares.

Boil the squares in salted water for 1-2 minutes. Drain and leave these to rest on damp towels.

Combine all of the ingredients for the filling and taste for seasoning.

Spoon a row of filling along one end of a pasta square and then carefully roll up into a tube shape. Place this, seam side down on a baking sheet while you prepare the others. If you are freezing them as I did, freeze them individually on a baking sheet before moving to a bag.

To make the sauce, sweat the onion in a few tablespoons of olive oil until translucent. Add the zucchini and garlic and sauté until everything is soft and fragrant. Add the tomatoes, peppers and spices and simmer for a few hours or until the consistency is to your liking. Add seasonings as needed.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spoon a thin layer of sauce onto the bottom of a 9×13 in. baking dish. Arrange the manicotti in rows and then top with the remaining sauce (and some extra cheese if you like).

Bake for 40 minutes or until cooked through. Cover with foil and rest for at least 15 minutes before serving.

Bread: No-Knead Bread (from Splendid Table)

I like this because you can make the dough, throw it in a bucket in the fridge and forget about it for several days before baking.

  • 1-1/2 tbsp. granulated yeast
  • 1 tbsp. kosher salt
  • 6-1/2 cups unbleached flour, plus extra for dusting dough
  • Cornmeal

In a large plastic resealable container, mix yeast and salt into 3 cups lukewarm water. Using a large spoon, stir in flour, mixing until mixture is uniformly moist with no dry patches. Do not knead. Dough will be wet and loose enough to conform to shape of plastic container. Cover, but not with an airtight lid.

Let dough rise at room temperature, until dough begins to flatten on top or collapse, at least 2 hours and up to 5 hours. (At this point, dough can be refrigerated up to 2 weeks; refrigerated dough is easier to work with than room-temperature dough, so the authors recommend that first-time bakers refrigerate dough overnight or at least 3 hours.)

Place a broiler pan on bottom rack of oven. Place baking pan on middle rack and preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Sprinkle a little flour on dough and on your hands. Pull dough up and, using a serrated knife, cut off a grapefruit-size piece (about 1 pound). Working for 30 to 60 seconds (and adding flour as needed to prevent dough from sticking to hands; most dusting flour will fall off, it’s not intended to be incorporated into dough), turn dough in hands, gently stretching surface of dough, rotating ball a quarter-turn as you go, creating a rounded top and a bunched bottom.

Place shaped dough on a piece of parchment and let rest, uncovered, for 40 minutes. Dust dough with flour.

Using a serrated knife, slash top of dough in three parallel, 1/4-inch deep cuts. Slide dough onto preheated baking sheet. Pour 1 cup hot tap water into broiler pan and quickly close oven door to trap steam. Bake until crust is well-browned and firm to the touch, about 30 minutes. Remove from oven to a wire rack and cool completely.

Dessert: Cookies and Cream Ice Cream Layer Cake

The guest of honor requested an ice cream cake with vanilla cake layers and Oreo ice cream.

  • Two layers of vanilla cake, cooled completely, wrapped in plastic wrap and frozen. I used this recipe.
  • Two layers of ice cream
  • Whipped cream

To make the ice cream layers, line two 9 in. pans with plastic wrap and scoop softened ice cream into each. Flatten out the ice cream by pressing another pan on top of it. Cover with plastic wrap and place in the freezer to harden.

Stack the layers as such (from bottom to top): Cake, ice cream, cake, ice cream. Again, cover this in plastic wrap tightly and freeze. Before icing your cake, trim the sides as needed to make them even and neat. Frost the cake with whipped cream and return to the freezer. I decorated this one by piping tempered chocolate designs onto wax paper, letting them cool, and then applying them to the cake.

Dessert: Strawberry Jam Tart

  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup dry cornmeal / polenta
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 9 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temp.
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 large egg, separated
  • ½ tsp. vanilla bean paste
  • 1 1/3 cup jam (I used strawberry, but anything will do)
  • 2 tbsp. coarse sugar

Whisk together the flour, cornmeal, baking powder and salt.

In a stand mixer, mix the butter and 1/2 cup sugar together until smooth. Add the egg, egg yolk, and vanilla bean paste and beat until combined. Gradually add the flour mixture and mix until the dough just comes together.

Transfer about one-third of the dough to a lightly floured counter and shape it into a log about 2 in. diameter. Wrap it in plastic wrap freeze for an hour.

Transfer the remaining dough to a buttered 9-inch spring form pan. Press the dough evenly into the bottom, going about 3/4-inch (2-cm) up the sides of the pan. Freeze the dough-lined pan until firm, about 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 375°F. Spread the jam or marmalade evenly over the dough in the pan. Cut the chilled dough log into very thin discs with a sharp paring knife. Arrange them in overlapping concentric circles over the jam to form a top crust.

Whisk the remaining egg white with a teaspoon of water until frothy; brush evenly over the tart lid and then sprinkle with the coarse sugar. Bake until the top crust is golden brown, about 25 minutes. Let cool completely before unmolding.

This holds up well and can be made up to 3 days in advance. Keep wrapped in plastic at room temperature.

The Final Treat: Pecan-Walnut Caramels

  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 cup light corn syrup
  • 12 tbsp. butter
  • 1 can sweetened condensed milk
  • ½ cup water
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. vanilla bean paste, vanilla extract, or one vanilla bean, split and scraped
  • 12 oz. nuts (I used half pecans and half walnuts), toasted and chopped

Generously butter a 9×13 in. pan.

In a large saucepan over medium heat, combine the sugar, corn syrup, butter, sweetened condensed milk, water, and vanilla bean paste. Stirring often, cook this mixture until it reaches 245 degrees F.

Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the salt and chopped nuts. Pour the caramel into the buttered pan and cool completely (about 2 hours).

Turn the slab of caramel out onto a cutting board and use a pizza wheel to cut into squares. I usually get 128 pieces of candy from this recipe. Wrap the candies in pieces of wax paper and store in a cool, dark place.

Hope you enjoyed checking out the menu. Thank you to everyone who joined us and made the party so much fun.

Ciao for now,


Ms. MLIS and the 114 Dozen Treats

6 Jan

Happy New Year from Neen’s Notes!

I took a hiatus from blogging in December for a multitude of reasons. The first was to focus on completing my final projects for graduate school. You may recall such posts where I defeated the Great Perl Dragon and other beasts along the way, but this was (to put it in super-nerd terms) the true Boss Battle. And yes, I won the game of graduate school. I’m now a bonafide library and information scientist.

And then came the baking and candy making. Once the final papers were off to my instructors, I suddenly had…time. It’s not as though I never had free time while I was in school, but I always had a lingering, “I really should be working on (blank)” feeling whenever I tried to take some down time. Last December, when I was only a little more than half-way through school I made 65 dozen cookies for friends and family. I did not anticipate ever coming close to breaking that record. After all, I only have two cookie sheets and two 9×13 in. pans.

Armed with my favorite recipes from last year and a brand new confectionery book, I warned my family not to bake and that I’d bring more than enough home for Christmas. I’m not sure they anticipated quite how excited I was to be back in the kitchen.

Here’s the final tally:

7 dozen peanut butter cups
3 dozen Nutella cups
6 dozen orange chocolate truffles
6 dozen gingersnaps
4 dozen thumbprints
6 dozen peanut butter blossoms
3 dozen chocolate almond coconut biscotti
4 dozen chocolate cherry walnut biscotti
4 dozen cranberry orange pecan biscotti
8 dozen Russian tea cakes
10 dozen coconut joys
17 dozen walnut caramels
7 dozen torrone
10 dozen chocolate marshmallows (for Folger party)
12 dozen vanilla-almond spritz cookies
3 dozen walnut-coconut patties
4 cups sweet and spicy pecans
4 cups sweet and spicy peanuts

Total? Not counting the candied nuts, 114 dozen. I should go into business! If you have a request for any of the recipes above, let me know. There may be photo-tutorials for some of them in the coming weeks. Candy is so temperamental that it can be hard to get pictures of the process, but I’m getting better at setting the timer/one-handed photography.

My final reason for a blogging hiatus? Pittsburgh, of course! I can’t believe that I somehow didn’t write about the fact that (back in October) Joe got us tickets to the Steelers’ last home game of the season as an anniversary gift. The game was 2 days before Christmas and so we decided to spend the first week of our holiday up in PA.

Joe has taken me to a few Steelers games when they’ve played down here at Fedex Field, but I had never been to a home game at Heinz Field. In fact, the only home game I had ever gone to was a game at Three Rivers Stadium when I was…12ish? Needless to say, my anticipation was building for a very long time.

Thursday, December 23, 2010 I watched the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Carolina Panthers 27-3 from Section 223, Row K, and it was incredible. My favorite part of the stadium was the Great Hall, where memorabilia (including all of the Lombardi trophies!) from Steelers and Pitt Panther stand-outs are on display for all fans to see. A live band, members dressed in black and gold and donning Polamalu wigs, blasted rock music to get the crowd milling around excited and ready to go. Fans wore jerseys from every era emblazoned with names like Lambert, Greene, Harris, Bettis, Stallworth, Bleier, and Swann. Of course, current players were heavily represented as well, and even some…interesting throwbacks like Kordell Stewart. I did not, however, witness any Neil O’Donnell jerseys and do not believe I ever will. 

And everyone, I mean everyone carried a Terrible Towel. Even before the announcer could start naming the players who ran onto the field, the crowd looked like a sea of Vegas-gold waves. The experience of being in a place where 60,000 people are excited and proud of the same thing was unbelievable. The players on the sidelines too, waved their Terrible Towels to liven up the crowd during crucial moments. (The glorious noise forced 2 Carolina time outs and contributed to 3 false starts. Hope we helped, boys!)

I don’t think I stopped smiling the entire evening. Thank you again, Joe, for making yet another one of my dreams come true!

Yet, that was only the very beginning of our vacation. You’d think it couldn’t get any better but it did. We spent the next 4 days celebrating with family we don’t see nearly enough. There are few things that make me happier than just having time to spend with my parents, brother and sister-in-law, and Joe. We had some wonderful meals together, wandered the Strip District, and just caught up on life over wine and board games. Cigars, too. Oh, and cookies…days and days of cookies. I feel like we should install a fire-extinguisher type case in each family member’s house that contains a tray of cookies: “Break glass in case of celebration.”

I hope your holiday held wonderful memories as well. My hope for this year is that I may continue learning how to have more compassion for both others and myself, to remove the ego and respect what my body and mind can do on each day that I am alive, and to live with a sense of respect for all that this amazing planet provides each day.

Happy 2011—Ciao for now!


Flourless Chocolate Cake with Italian Meringue

15 Nov

Another birthday weekend! We celebrated Lynn’s (Joe’s mom) birthday this weekend with dinner on Friday night and brunch on Sunday. Who doesn’t love an multi-day birthday celebration?

Of course this meant more cake baking (Yay!). But this time, I had to take into consideration that Lynn is avoiding eating a lot of excess sugar these days. She was certainly not adverse to a little something extra-special and loves chocolate, so I thought that the occasion called for something dark, rich and only slightly sinful: The Flourless Chocolate Cake.

It has its sweetness, but the chocolate is the star. I played around with a few recipes, not wanting to tromp all over the chocolate flavor with a lot of butter and eggs. This version came out fudgy, dark, and rich. For the icing, I chose a light and fluffy Italian meringue. You don’t need very much (I used a little more than half of the recipe) for a one layer cake.

Flourless Chocolate Cake with Italian Meringue and Strawberries

Cake ingredients
-4 oz. dark chocolate
-1/2 cup butter
-3/4 cup sugar or sucanat (I used half and half—the latter has a lower glycemic impact)
-1/2 cup cocoa powder
-3 eggs, separated
-1 tsp. vanilla extract
-Pinch of salt

-Grease and dust an 8 in. spring form pan with cocoa.
-Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
-In a saucepan over low heat, melt together the butter and chocolate and whisk until smooth.
-Remove the chocolate/butter mixture from the heat and whisk in the sugar, vanilla, salt and then the egg yolks (one at a time) until smooth.
-Sift the cocoa powder on top of the mixture and mix just until combined.
-Beat the egg whites to stiff peaks and then gently fold into the cake batter.
-Pour the batter into the spring form pan and bake for 25-30 minutes or until just set. Cool completely on a wire rack.

Italian meringue ingredients
-2/3 cup and 2 tbsp. sugar, divided.
-¼ cup water
-Pinch of salt
-3 egg whites
-1/4 tsp. cream of tartar

-Combine the 2/3 cup of sugar, water, and pinch of salt in a saucepan over medium heat. Swirl the pan gently until the sugar dissolves and then cook without stirring until the mixture reaches 230 degrees F.
-While the sugar syrup is heating up, beat the egg whites and cream of tartar until foamy and then slowly add the 2 tbsp. sugar. Beat until medium peaks form.
-Once the sugar syrup has reached 230 degrees, remove it from the heat and allow the bubbles to dissipate. With the mixer on low speed, slowly add the sugar syrup to the egg whites and then increase the speed, add the vanilla, and beat until stiff peaks form.

Normally meringue does not store well, but the addition of the cream of tartar meant that I was able to keep this in a sealed container in the refrigerator for a day without it beginning to weep or shrink. Place a layer of wax paper directly on top of the meringue to avoid condensation from getting into it.

Spread an even layer of the meringue over the top and sides of the cake and then arrange sliced strawberries in overlapping circles. I wouldn’t recommend glazing them with anything as it will likely cause the icing to melt and spread.

Enjoy—and happy birthday again, Lynn!

Ciao for now,


An Ice Cream Layer Cake for Roger

18 Oct

Celebration cakes are my favorite cakes to make. I’m not particularly apt at piping icing designs or writing messages, but I can usually come up with something creative to complement the flavors under the icing. The person the cake is to be for inspires me with their choice of flavors and then from there…a blank canvas. No rules, no rubrics to follow, no required homework, just good creative fun.

When Joe told me several weekends ago that his dad’s birthday was coming up, I offered to make the cake and asked what kind he thought Roger (his dad) would like.

“Can you make an ice cream cake?”

I had no idea. I didn’t even know if I had a powerful enough freezer, or for that matter, one with enough space to freeze multiple cake layers. I resolved to try, because (as they say) if you don’t try, you’ll never know.

One thing I did know was that Roger loves chocolate, so what better to include than my personal favorite perfect chocolate cake recipe. I made two 9in. layers of Ina Garten’s Beatty’s Chocolate Cake. After cooling completely on a rack, they were wrapped and placed in the freezer to firm up.

The next step was to create the ice cream layers. After lining two nine-inch rounds with plastic wrap (so I could lift the layers out later), I scooped and flattened softened ice cream into each–cookies and cream in one, and vanilla in the other. Using an offset spatula, I smoothed the surfaces even as best I could, then covered each with another layer of plastic wrap and then put them in the freezer to harden.

 After a day, I lined a springform pan with plastic wrap and stacked the layers together. First the cookies and cream ice cream, then a layer of chocolate cake, then the vanilla ice cream and finally the second chocolate cake layer. I wrapped the whole cake tightly in plastic wrap and returned it to the freezer.

Two days later, I turned the cake out of the springform pan and onto a turn table. By that time, the layers had frozen firmly together and I was able to do a quick crumb coat of icing. I used Cool Whip, by the way, as it will firm up in the freezer, but won’t get too hard. I let another 8 or so hours pass and then put on a final coating. I also moved the cake from the turn table to an aluminum foil covered piece of cardboard that I’d cut to fit inside of a cake box that the kind folks at the bakery near my office had graciously given to me.


As for decorating? Well, by the time I’d iced the cake I was so amazed that it had actually come together that I was hesitant to ruin it with a bad attempt at writing “happy birthday” on top. What I did instead gave me a lot of flexibility.
I melted a bag of semi sweet chocolate chips over low heat, mixing constantly until just smooth. I then poured the melted chocolate into a pastry bag fitted with a rounded point and piped lots of little shapes onto big sheets of wax paper. I made swirls, stars, zig-zags, curls and other odd little designs that I thought might look interesting. After they hardened, I topped the cake with them by gently pressing an edge of each into the icing until it stood. I wanted an explosion of chocolate stars and fireworks bursting forth from the icing. Because this cake, if it were to personify anything, I would want it to be joy.

With the freezer turned to its highest setting, I returned the cake to it once more to prepare for its final 10 minute trip to Joe’s parents’ house.

Fortunately, Joe had pre-warned his mom to make freezer space, and it was quickly tucked away to wait patiently for its unveiling after dinner.

At last I saw it opened, still decorated and stable, and was finally able to breath a sigh of relief.

And the inside looked really cool!

I was really proud of this, especially once I saw how well it held up after we took a few slices out. Aside from the icing starting to get soft, the layers of cake and ice cream remained remarkably firm and tasted oh-so-good. After Roger had two slices, I felt comfortable in assuming that it was in fact, delicious.

What I learned throughout this little endeavor is that ice cream cake doesn’t take a ton of time on any given day, just the patience to take small steps in between freezings. While it took me the course of a week to make, I worked on it for maybe 5 minutes each day either stacking, unmolding, icing, or decorating. An exercise in patience? Yes.

Worth it in every way when I saw the smiles on the faces of the folks around me eating it? You bet.

Ciao for now,

The Happiest Cupcake

20 Aug

This is a very happy cupcake:

I tried some Deep Chocolate Vitamuffins over the weekend and really liked them. The chocolate flavor was neither fakey or overly sweet. I even took them to a get together at a friend’s house and they got rave reviews. Last night I had an epiphany and realized that not only was there a possibility of making them taste even better, I could even improve their nutrition in the process.

Here’s a warm batch of my Vita-Protein Cupcakes with the necessary ingredients in the background.

Cast of Characters:

1 box Deep Chocolate Vitamuffin Mix
2 scoops whey chocolate protein powder (I usedLean Dessert Chocolate Fudge)
3 egg whites
1/2 tsp. baking powder

Not pictured: 1/4 cup of semi-sweet chocolate chips and 1 1/4 cups of water as called for in Vitamuffin mix recipe. ***NOTE: To reduce the sugar content of this recipe, use sugar-free chocolate chips or skip them altogether. The cakes still taste great!***


Preheat your oven to 400 degrees fahrenheit

Begin by mixing the egg whites and water together in a large bowl. Add the protein powder, muffin mix, chocolate chips, and baking powder. Mix everything until thoroughly combined. Line a 12 cup muffin tin with paper cups and coat them with non-stick spray. Spoon the batter equally into the cups. It will take about 3.5 tablespoons per muffin. Bake for 23-27 minutes or until the tops spring back when lightly poked with a finger. Don’t overcook them or they’ll dry out.

They’ll look like this when they come out:

They’re absolutely wonderful as-is, but if you want frosting (who doesn’t?) here’s an easy recipe for a good frosting that keeps well stored in the fridge.

Combine 1 oz. light cream cheese, 1/2 tsp. vanilla, 1 tsp. cocoa powder, and 1/2 of a small package of sugar-free chocolate pudding powder in a food processor. While processing, slowly add milk until the frosting reaches the consistency you like. I used about 1/4 cup of skim milk in mine. If you want a fluffier frosting, fold in a few spoonfuls of cool-whip free. Personally, I like my frosting thick and creamy. Tonight, I also added a pinch of unsweetened coconut to the top of one.

Generally, I leave the frosting in the fridge in a small plastic container and only frost a cake just before eating it (or packing it for a post-lunch dessert!). That way, I can have different flavors if I’m not in the mood for all chocolate. For instance, you could try butterscotch or cheesecake pudding mix instead of the chocolate. Or, nix the pudding mix all together and replace it with some all-fruit preserves. I bet a strawberry-cream cheese frosting would be great!

The final (and very delicious) verdict: Each cupcake is 122 calories (about 130 with frosting), contains 2 grams of fat, 20 grams of carbohydrates, 6 grams of fiber, 9 grams of sugar, and 7 grams of protein. They also provide 50% of the recommended allowances for vitamins A, C, D, E, B-6, B-12 and 50% of recommended allowances for iron and zinc.

Now you have an excuse to eat a cupcake for breakfast (or any other time for that matter). How awesome is that? It’s certainly the happiest and healthiest cupcake that’s ever been in MY kitchen. Anyway, I hope you get a chance to try them and that you enjoy them as much as I do.

That’s all for now, friends. Mangia bene!

The Search for Protein: Product Review

18 Jul

Protein powder and I have long been at odds. In my many kitchen experiments, it’s been the one ingredient that I only add because it’s good for me. For the past week or so, I’d been using Wegman’s soy protein powder in vanilla flavor and a lot of my baked goods had been coming out dense. It was very frustrating. I consulted my friends on to learn what their favorite powders were and then headed to my local nutrition store to see what was in stock.

And there it was, shining like a beacon before me in a huge black canister that said NITRO CORE 24 on the side. It was Optimum Nutrition’s new line of powders and I’d heard rumors of it’s tastiness. Skeptically, I looked at the giant tub. The flavor was vanilla ice cream. It also comes in strawberry milkshake, ultimate chocolate, and extreme cookies and cream. What is extreme or ultimate about those flavors, I don’t know. I will find out in the future.

What makes O.N.’s new product so interesting is that each 48g scoop contains 24 grams of a protein blend. Most powders on the market are either whey (isolated from cheese) or soy (isolated from soybeans). Not so with this particular product. The protein blend contains 3 different types of proteins which are balanced by the rate at which they are digested in the body. For instance, whey protein isolate is quickly digested, egg albumins and milk proteins are digested slightly slower, and at the end of the chain are casein proteins (accounting for 80% of the proteins in cheese and milk) which take a long time for the body to digest. This all translates into feeling fuller longer and a chance for better protein absorption (in the case of those who have malabsorption issues).

But really, none of this matters unless you can actually get the stuff down. Most of the complaints I have with protein powders are chalky or gritty texture, lack of flavor, and a particularly strong smell. Since GNC has a “return it if you hate it” policy, I ponied up the $34 for a canister containing about 30 scoops and brought it back to the lab (read: kitchen) for some tests.

Test #1: Apple Cinnamon Protein Cookie (derived from this delicious recipe)

My modifications included using only 1 heaping scoop (48g is a much larger scoop than many other brands) of protein powder, nixing the chocolate and nuts, adding chopped dried apples as the fruit, and replacing 1 tablespoon of the sugar free caramel syrup with 1 tablespoon of my homemade spiced apple preserves.

I knew that all I had to do was open that canister and I’d know whether I had something acceptable or not. Warily, I opened it and peeled back the quality seal. Oddly enough, I smelled…well, melted vanilla ice cream. Yes, there was a slight hint of that unflavored gelatin smell but all in all it was a pretty good smell. I added a heaping scoop to my batter, portioned out the cookies and waited by the oven. They came out smelling wonderfully, but I’d have to wait until the next day for a taste test.

Test #2: Cinnamon Cheesecake Ice Cream

I needed a test to determine whether this powder could deliver a smooth, creamy texture. Once again, borrowing my base recipe from my friend Shelly’s blog here, I came up with the following:

1 1/4 scoops of Nitro Core Vanilla Ice Cream Protein Powder
1 tbsp. SF cheesecake pudding mix
A few shakes of cinnamon
1 cup 2% milk (do NOT use skim)
1 tbsp SF vanilla syrup (Torani is the brand I had on hand)

I tossed it in the ice cream maker and waited 30 minutes. What came out was still in the soft serve phase and would need a good 2-3 hours in the fridge to harden up, but it was worth tasting. And then there was ice cream. It was creamy, smooth, and decadent. I made a mental note that the SF pudding mix had made the batch slightly too sweet for me but that the protein had certainly done it’s job.

Just The Facts, M’am: Assuming that a batch makes 3 servings, each serving has 107 calories, 4 grams of fat, 5 grams of carbohydrates, and a whopping 11 grams of protein. If you’re a post-op in the “pureed foods” stage looking for more of a meal, consider dividing it into only 2 servings with each one having 160 calories, 6 grams of fat, 8 grams of carbs, and 16 grams of protein. The above recipe is pretty basic. Add fruit, nut butters, or different flavor syrups for some variety.

The next day at 3:00pm, I retrieved my recently baked protein cookie from my bag and took it down to tea. They always serve cookies at tea, so this one would need to be a really good cookie to distract me from those temptations. I took a bite and finally found the texture that my recent batches had lacked so horribly. It was chewy, soft, and had a taste similar to mulled apples. The caramel syrup and vanilla protein blended wonderfully to make a lovely background for this morsel of autumn.

Just The Facts, M’am: A batch yielding 9 cookies has 97 calories, 7 grams of fat, 9 grams of carbohydrates, and 7 grams of protein per cookie. A perfectly fine snack and while it clocks in under 100 calories, this is one that will stick with you.

So it seems that protein powder and I can finally be friends. With its mild, slightly sweetened vanilla flavor and creamy texture, Nitro Core 24 delivers quality protein that I actually want to eat. Many thanks to the folks at Obesity Help for their help in finding it!