Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Cake Balls

I'm usually a decent cook (hence this blog), but sometimes, I botch a recipe so royally that there's no redemption. Tonight was one of those occasions.
If you Google "cake balls," you'll find various recipes and articles about these little, um, "confections." I use the term lightly because to me, they taste like mushy gobs of old cake crumbs and sugary shortening. But when you think about it, that's what they are: mushed up cake with store-bought frosting and a chocolate coating. In this case, not even the chocolate could redeem these balls from their rightful place in the garbage. Should you be inclined to try them, take my word for it -- don't! And, to recognize the recipe when you see it, here's the general gist:

Cake Balls
1 box cake mix (chocolate or vanilla works best)
1 container frosting
Almond bark or dipping chocolate

1. Make the box cake mix and bake according to package directions. Cool, then crumble into very small pieces. (I used a food processor.)
2. Mix in a container of frosting, then chill until the mixture hardens (you can add jimmies if you want).
3. Form into 1-inch balls, then dip in melted chocolate and refrigerate until hard. Once chilled, throw the entire thing in the trash and grab a container of Hagen Daaz and a spoon.

Lessons Learned: I wanted to try these because they sounded similar to a cookie I tried at Christmastime that had me oohing and aahing in chocolate ecstasy. Only, those cookie balls were made with crushed Oreos. If you have THAT recipe, please post it in the comments. The only redeeming value of this recipe is that the cake made the house smell good while it was baking. But, I can buy an air freshener for that.

Lemon Chicken with Olives

As a writer, I admire good writing when I see it. That's one of the reasons I love Real Simple magazine. Another reason is because, well, the information is helpful, practical and timely. And, the recipes really embody the goal of the magazine: they're simple, real (as opposed to processed) and full of flavor and value. The following recipe is one of RS's reader favorites. I gave it a whirl. Though I have recipes higher up on my list of favorites, my husband raved about this one, especially the moistness of the chicken. I loved that I could substitute many of the ingredients and still have a successful dish. If you start some rice pilaf before you do this, both dishes will be ready to serve at the same time.

Lemon Chicken with Olives
2 tbsp all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp ground cumin
2 tsp lemon zest, plus 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Kosher salt and pepper
1 1/2 pounds chicken cutlets, thawed
2 tbsp olive oil
2 shallots, thinly sliced
1 cup pitted green olives
1/2 cup flat-leaf parsley, roughly chopped
1/2 cup dry white wine

1. Mix the flour, cumin, zest, 1/2 tsp salt, and 1/2 tsp pepper on a flat plate. Pat the chicken dry with paper towels and dredge in the flour mixture.
2. Heat 1 tbsp oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Cook the chicken in two batches until golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes per side. Transfer to a plate.
3. Wipe out the skillet and return to medium heat. Heat the remaining oil. Add the shallots and cook until soft, 5 to 7 minutes. Stir in the olives, parsley, lemon juice, and wine and bring to a boil. Return the chicken to the pan, nestling it in the olives and shallots. Reduce heat to low and cook, covered, until the chicken is cooked through, about 5 minutes.
4. Divide among individual plates, spooning the olives, shallots, and any sauce over the top.

Lessons Learned: I didn't feel like messing with a lemon, so I just used a bottle of lemon juice and omitted the zest. No harm, no foul, no zest, no problem. Instead of working with whole cutlets, I cut the chicken breasts into smaller pieces for faster cooking. They came out incredibly moist and flavorful. No grainy dryness anywhere. Also, I did not wipe out the skillet before adding the second round of oil and onions (I didn't have shallots, so I substituted onions). Since the recipe calls for so little oil, there wasn't much to wipe out anyhow. And, I used crushed dried parsley instead of fresh. I also used a mixture of green and kalamata olives (rinsing off the brine before they went in the pan). They absorbed the flavors really well. Since my husband does not like olives, it just meant more for me. The whole thing went really well with the pilaf and I foresee doing this again in the near future. I might add sliced mushrooms next time and increasing the sauce ingredients to drizzle over some fettucine.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Chocolate Crinkle Cookies

When I think about my dad, two things come to mind: chocolate and his tickle gun. In my formative years, we always had chocolate chip or chocolate crinkle cookies around. And if we were out of those, we definitely had brownies. My parents came to visit us last weekend in DC and the weekend was not complete without chocolate crinkle cookies. Though I made them, the recipe comes from the recipe he's been using for years.

Chocolate Crinkle Cookies
½ cup vegetable oil
6 Tbsp. cocoa**
2 Tbsp. shortening**
2 cups sugar
4 eggs
2 tsp. vanilla
1/2 tsp almond extract
2 cups flour
½ tsp. salt
2 tsp. baking powder
Powdered sugar

1. Combine cocoa and shortening, heat in microwave until shortening is melted.**
2. Combine oil, cocoa mixture and sugar. Add vanilla, then add salt, flour and baking powder.
3. Cover and chill for several hours.
4. Drop teaspoon of dough into powdered sugar, roll around and shape into balls.
5. Place about 2 inches apart on greased baking sheet.
6. Bake 10-12 minutes at 350.

**Can also use 4 sq. unsweetened chocolate (4 oz.) melted in place of melted shortening and cocoa.

Lessons Learned: I never have bars of unsweetened chocolate around, so I always use the cocoa powder/shortening blend. These cookies really do need to chill before you roll them out. Otherwise, you get mush. I think the original recipe comes from Betty Crocker. Since these are my cookies, they have a little almond extract in them. It helps enhance the flavor of the chocolate. You can increase the almond extract if you like. I probably dumped a full teaspoon in by accident, but it didn't ruin the cookies.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Chili Chicken Pasty Puffs

My brother bequeathed a subscription to Tastes of Home to me for Christmas and I'm thoroughly enjoying this new magazine. I flipped through the issue that arrived today and knew that we'd be having some version of chili chicken sandwiches for dinner tonight. With some tweaking, it was a tasty (if somewhat fattening) dinner.

Chili Chicken Pasty Puffs
1 box puff pastry shells
8 oz. cream cheese, softened
2 cups chicken, cooked and shredded
1 cup Mexican-blend cheese, shredded
1 small can chopped green chilis
3 tbsp. green onions, chopped
1 tsp. cumin
1/4 tsp. chipotle powder
2 tbsp. bacon bits
2 tbsp. cilantro

1. Bake puff pastry shells according to package directions. (Pepperidge Farms calls for 20-25 minutes at 400 degrees. The oven MUST be preheated)
2. Mix cream cheese, chicken, cheese, chilis, cumin, chipotle powder and bacon bits in bowl.
3. Hollow out pastry shells.
4. Warm cream cheese mixture until warm but not too hot. Fill pastry shells and top with cilantro.

Lessons Learned: The original recipe called for hard rolls, but since I didn't have any, I went with the shells. If you use rolls, cut them in half, hollow out the middles, fill with mixture, then heat (open-faced) in the oven until warmed throughout. Include some sliced tomatoes and avocados just before serving.
The original recipe also called for crushed red chili flakes and chili powder. I prefer chipotle, so I substituted. The bacon addition was mine; it added the salt content that the dish otherwise needed. When I do it again, I may add a little sauteed onion and olives. The green chilis are a must in this recipe. That's what makes it successful. And, I love the fact that you can literally throw this together in five minutes (sans baking time) if you have a can opener and a spoon -- a package of cream cheese, a can of Costco canned chicken, a small can of olives, a small can of green chilis. None of the measurements need to be exact, which is perfect for my kind of cooking.
I think this mixture would work really well wrapped inside Pillsbury croissant rolls. Simply put little mounds of the mixture in the middle of a croissant triangle, then wrap the dough around it until it forms a ball. Bake rolls according to package directions for plain rolls. (Or, if you're feeling really decadent, form the balls, then roll in butter and seasoned breadcrumbs before baking. Serve with a spicy cheese sauce.)

Monday, February 2, 2009

Crab Rangoon Dip and Chips

I love crab rangoons. I'm not sure if it's because of the cream cheese filling or the fact that the appetizer is deep fried. Either way, I was delighted to find this version of it ... along with directions on how to make it healthier.

Crab Rangoon Dip
8 1/2 ounces crabmeat, drained if using canned meat, and flaked
8 ounces cream cheese
1 tbsp chopped red onion
1-2 green onions, diced
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp soy sauce
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Wonton Chips
24 wonton wrappers
Chinese five-spice powder

1. Combine the cream cheese and crab meat mixture. Stir in the remaining ingredients, mixing thoroughly.
2. Place the cream cheese mixture in a small baking dish. Bake at 350 until the cream cheese is heated through and just starting to bubble (18 to 20 minutes). Remove and serve immediately with the wonton chips for dipping. If desired, also serve hot mustard and/or sweet and sour sauce.

1. Spray 2 baking sheets with non-stick spray.
2. Cut wonton wrappers in half diagonally, and then in half again (also along the diagonal).
3. Spread on baking sheets and lightly dust with Chinese five-spice powder and salt (no more than 1/8 tsp powder for every four chips. Spray tops of wontons with additional cooking spray.
4. Bake until lightly browned (approximately 7-8 minutes), rotating the pan once during baking. Remove and cool.

Lessons Learned: Wonton wrappers dry out quickly, so while you're placing them on the cookie sheet, keep the rest covered with a damp towel. I actually did an entire package of wonton wrappers (60 wrappers, each cut into four triangles). Using two cookie sheets, I had to do four batches to finish them.
I highly recommend using the five-spice powder. It is a blend of the five essential flavors in Chinese cooking: sweet, salty, bitter, savory and sour. Without it, the chips are incredibly bland. McCormick makes a decent version.
My can of crab didn't quite equal the measurement required here (I was two ounces short), but it didn't adversely affect the flavor. I'd add a dash of salt to the dip next time. If you use full sodium soy sauce, don't worry about adding extra salt.

Bacon-Wrapped Chestnuts

Bacon makes everything taste better. I think if my mother had crumbled bacon over the runny scrambled eggs she made when I was little, I would have a better opinion of scrambled eggs. I digress. I made these for the Chinese New Year party. They were pretty tasty, but I give all the credit to the bacon.

Bacon-Wrapped Chestnuts
16 fresh water chestnuts
1/3 cup soy sauce
1/3 cup brown sugar, or as needed
8 slices raw bacon, cut in half
16 toothpicks
1. Peel and rinse the fresh water chestnuts. (If using canned water chestnuts, rinse in warm running water and drain).
2. Soak the water chestnuts in the soy sauce for 2 1/2 hours.
3. Remove the water chestnuts from the soy sauce and roll in the brown sugar. Wrap a piece of cut bacon around the water chestnut and secure with a toothpick.
Place the water chestnuts on a rack in a shallow pan. Bake at 350 for 30 minutes, turning them once. (Alternately, they can be broiled for 5 - 6 minutes). Makes 16 appetizers.

Lessons Learned: I wish I knew a way to make the chestnuts a little softer. They were a little too crunchy for my taste, but I'm still posting the recipe because after all, it has bacon in it! One can contains approximately 16 water chestnuts. I always use low sodium soy sauce, which gave the appetizer just the right amount of salt content. And, the brown sugar countered it nicely.
Next time I make these, I will increase the oven temperature to 375 or 400. At 350, it took longer than 30 minutes to crisp the bacon. And, cooking them on a rack is a must. Otherwise, they'll sit in grease and get soggy. And as much as I love bacon, I won't eat it if it's soggy.
I went to a baby shower a few weeks ago and ate bacon-wrapped dates. Now there is a fun little treat -- sweet and salty at the same time.

Fortune Cookies

I hosted a Chinese New Year party a few days ago and thought it would be fun to make my own fortune cookies. These are surprisingly easy to make. From what I could tell, they were a hit. (If they hadn't been, I would have had a picture to post with this since I forgot to take a picture before the party started.)

Fortune Cookies
2 egg white
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp almond extract
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 cup white sugar
2 tbsp water

1. Preheat oven to 400. Butter a cookie sheet. Write fortunes on strips of paper about 4 inches long and 1/2 inch wide. Generously grease 2 cookie sheets.
2. Mix the egg white and vanilla and almond extracts until foamy but not stiff. Sift the flour, salt, and sugar and blend into the egg white mixture. Add water.
3. Place teaspoonfuls of the batter at least 4 inches apart on a prepared cookie sheets. Tilt the sheet to move the batter into round shapes about 3 inches in diameter. Be careful to make batter as round and even as possible. Do not make too many, because the cookie have to be really hot to form them and once they cool it is too late. Start with 2 or 3 to a sheet and see how many you can do.
4. Bake for 5 minutes or until cookie has turned a golden color 1/2 inch wide around the outer edge of the circle. The center will remain pale. While one sheet is baking, prepare the other.
5. Remove from oven and quickly move cookie with a wide spatula and place upside down on a wooden board. Quickly place the fortune on the cookie, close to the middle and fold the cookie in half. Fold in half again and place it in a muffin tin or egg carton to hold the shape until firm.

Make 20 cookies

Lessons Learned: Since I have no idea how to fold fortune cookies like the prepackaged ones at Chinese take-out places, I simply folded these in half and then in half again. I printed fortunes from a site I found on Google, then cut them into thin strips.
I beat the eggs until they almost formed peaks. Then I folded in the other ingredients. You'll lose a lot of the volume from the whipped eggs, but that doesn't seem to affect the final product. The original recipe did not call for water, but I found that adding it decreased the cake-iness of the cookie. I like my fortune cookies crisp.
You must work fast. The cookies took about six minutes to bake, with me turning the sheet once during baking. You'll know they're done when the edges have turned a medium brown color. Do just four at a time. Otherwise, the cookies will harden before you get the fortunes in them. I folded the cookies and put each one in a metal muffin tin cup to help then hold their shape until they cooled. You'll need to grease the cookie sheet for each batch.
I couldn't get the middles completely hard and the sugar in the cookie can stick to the paper, so it might be best to use something other than printer paper for the fortunes.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Lemon Lover's Cookies

My friend Sabrina shared some melt-in-your-mouth cookies with me at Christmastime and ever since, I've been anxious to get the recipe. What stuck out to me is that the recipe calls for cornstarch.
Fast forward two weeks -- My brother gave me a gift subscription to Taste of Home magazine. The following recipe, a version of the one Sabrina had, was one of the featured recipes. I finally tried it this afternoon and holy lemony goodness -- these are good, or as my husband would say, De-Lish!

Lemon Lover's Cookies
3/4 cup butter, softened
3 tbsp sugar
2 tsp lemon juice
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup cornstarch
1 tsp lemon peel, grated

Lemon Frosting
1/4 cup butter, softened
1 cup confectioners' sugar
2 tsp lemon juice
1 tsp lemon peel, grated

1. In small bowl, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy.
2. Beat in lemon juice.
3. Combine flour, cornstarch and lemon peel; gradually add to creamed mixture and mix well.
4. Shape into 1 1/2 inch roll; wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 hour or until firm.
5. Unwrap and cut into 1/4 inch slices.
6. Place 2 inches apart on ungreased baking sheets and bake at 350 for 8-10 minutes or until edges are golden brown. Cool completely on pans on wire racks.

1. In small bowl beat butter until fluffy.
2. Add confectioners' sugar, lemon juice and peel, and beat until smooth.
3. Spread over cooled cookes; sprinkle with additional lemon peel if desired. Let stand until set. Store in an airtight container.

Lessons Learned: This recipe really is as easy as it sounds, and yes, you really need 1/2 cup of cornstarch. That's what makes them melt in your mouth. Some bakers say that their cookies fall apart. I didn't have too many problems with that. A few were too delicate to handle the move from cookie sheet to plate, so they ended up in my mouth. Darn! These cookies remind me of a spring morning. They would be perfect as part of a brunch or tea party. I'd post a picture, but they disappear pretty fast.