Friday, December 18, 2009

Baked Ziti - Take It Easy, Make It Easy

We're down to the wire with holiday preparations around here. Everything is in the works, but nothing is completely done.  Not to worry though!

I used to panic about this time every year. Now I'm much more likely to pick up a book, watch a Christmas movie, go to lunch with a friend or bake something. It took me way too long to learn to enjoy the Christmas season, so I guess I learned to make up for lost time.

Christmas Day always arrived, whether I was "ready" or not. Creating Christmas perfection left little time to enjoy the month of preparation, and by Christmas Day I was in no mood to be merry and bright. Then I decided to simplify -- do less and enjoy more.

Now when life gets busy during the holiday season, I know something has got to give. Dinner gets easier. We want something fast, comforting and delicious.

Baked Ziti is perfect for just such days.

I used to make this dish with browned ground beef, or sometimes without any meat at all. Now I prefer the richer, spicy flavor from browned bulk Italian sausage in the mix, especially when added to a jar of Newman's Own Sockarooni sauce, with it's nice bits of green pepper and onion. 

Of course, if I have homemade sauce in the freezer, that's perfect. But it's difficult to beat the total ease of these five simple ingredients when I have shopping . . . wrapping . . . mailing . . . decorating . . . Christmas cards . . . 

And if the stars align and everything comes together perfectly, I just might make two batches at once and put the second casserole in the freezer for later. Now that takes fast and easy to a whole new level.

Rolling into the new year with a dinner already made in the freezer! Things are looking good for January!

But for now, let's just take it one day at a time. And take it easy. And make your life merry and bright for all the days leading up to Christmas. 


1 lb. Italian sausage
1 jar pasta sauce ( I like Newman's Own Sockarooni Sauce)
1 16 oz. container part-skim ricotta cheese
1 13.25 oz. box penne pasta ( I like Dreamfield's)
½ c. freshly grated Parmesan cheese
6 slices provolone

Crumble and brown Italian sausage; drain grease or rinse sausage under running water. In a bowl, mix cooked sausage, sauce and ricotta cheese until well blended; set aside. Cook penne pasta according to package directions; drain and add to sauce mixture. Pour mixture into a large baking dish. Sprinkle Parmesan cheese over top of pasta and then cover with provolone. Bake at 325 degrees for 30 – 45 minutes. Cheese on top will be slightly browned and bubbly. Serves 6 – 8

Print Recipe

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Season’s Eatings – Cookbooks Make Perfect Gifts

(my monthly food column for Heartland Women)
December 2009 

I have a dream. It’s a dream about a cookbook. Not just another cookbook to add to the hundreds already in my collection though. A special cookbook. My own cookbook. I want to write my own cookbook . . . see my name in big letters across the cover. . . admire it on local bookstore shelves . . . and yes, click it on! Wouldn’t that be exciting, amazing and wonderful? I’d be published! 

For food bloggers, cooking and writing about food is fun. Bloggers love to share their favorite recipes and create new ones and, since the family is going to eat anyway, why not write about it? Cook, eat, write, repeat. Simple. Anyone can do it! 

Writing about food, or at least good writing about good food, is not quite so easy. And writing a cookbook-worthy blog requires more than just typing a recipe on the computer keyboard and clicking “publish” on the screen. It takes time, talent and organization to plan meals, shop, prep, and cook something good enough to put out there two or three times a week. 

And then there’s the part of blogging that my friends and family like most of all – the pictures. The best blogs feature lovely pictures of food prep and/or finished dishes to entice, educate and encourage readers. The food does not always cooperate. Even with a good camera, most meat looks like a brown blob on a plate and beef stew looks like . . . well, we won’t go into that here. Anyway, while I’m searching for the perfect angle to capture steam rising in a seductive swirl above an enticing plate of food – everyone else is waiting, with fork in hand (and scowl on face), to eat that food. They are not amused! 

After the pictures are snapped and edited, everything leading up to the actual work of writing is done. So what would you say about that stew, for instance? Smells heavenly, tastes divine and looks like something the dog wouldn’t eat – or already had! Good! Just keep that sense of humor and indomitable spirit to your list of credentials, and you’ve got it made. 

But the cookbook, ah the cookbook. It’s the icing on the food blogger’s cake! Yeah, the fun really begins when you go from sitting at home in your jammies writing about last night’s dinner to negotiating with publishers, agents, and editors about legal stuff, edits, and marketing strategies. 

Good books usually come out in the fall, just in time for Christmas. That’s when the book tours begin too. Authors criss-cross the country by plane or load up the car and hit the road for several weeks leading up to Thanksgiving. Readers like to meet authors and authors want maximum exposure for their books at bookstores, kitchen shops, radio stations and, with a little luck, appearances doing live cooking demonstrations in front of TV cameras. And one more thing – book signings. Lots of book signing. Hours of book signings. Is that Kathy with a “K” or a “C,” and a “Y,” an “I,” or an “IE?” 

I have three food blogger friends who have just had their first cookbooks published this fall, just in time for Christmas. I’ve followed their blogs and watched their progress through most of the book publishing process, especially the book tours. All three of them are different in how they approach their food and their writing, but they are all excellent at what they do. It’s been fun to get to know them and to see their success from bloggers to authors. 

I’m recommending all three of these cookbooks as great gifts for the cooks on your list, not just because I know the authors, but because the recipes are good, really good. Good enough to eat!  

Keep cooking, keep reading and have a Merry Christmas! 

Make It Fast, Cook It Slow – The Big Book of Everyday Slow Cooking by Stephanie O’Dea 

Remember the slow cooker (that’s a Crock Pot®, without the ®) you keep on the shelf and haul out a couple of times a year – once to make chili and once to make beef stew? Well, clear a spot for that baby on the counter and get ready to make it work for it’s keep. 

In 2008, Stephanie O’Dea made a New Year’s resolution to cook with her slow cooker everyday for a whole year. Her idea was to enjoy the convenience of a slow cooker, while feeding her family money-saving and delicious meals. And now she has a cookbook to prove that it worked! 

Stephanie’s book has over 338 recipes, divided into 16 different food categories, from Appetizers to Take-Out Fake-Out. She uses lots of common panty items and staples. She helps keep grocery costs down for her family, buying meat when it’s on sale. And best of all, her philosophy is “I don’t like to cook before I cook” eliminating a problem many of us have with slow cooker recipes – it’s supposed to do the cooking for us, not the other way around! 

Each recipe includes a “verdict” on its success but, of course, no failures were allowed into the book! Stephanie decided to eliminate the pictures in her book to keep the price down for the big 400-page  paperback book. Pictures are still available for every recipe on her blog. There’s also an unexpected bonus feature in the book. Because the O’Dea family must maintain a gluten-free diet, all of the recipes are also gluten-free, if you choose! 

Give this book to busy moms, hungry families, financially challenged college students, food lovers who can’t cook, anyone swearing off white bag drive-thru syndrome, gluten-free eaters and the kitchen clean-up crew members. 

Stephanie’s Black-Eyed Pea Soup
1 lb. black-eyed peas, soaked overnight
1 yellow onion, diced
1 c. diced carrots
1 c. diced celery
1 lb. spicy sausage, sliced
6 c. chicken broth
4 garlic cloves, chopped
½ tsp. kosher salt
½ tsp black pepper
Tabasco sauce 

Use a 6-qt. slow cooker. Put the drained beans into the stoneware with the vegetables and the sliced sausage. Pour in the broth, and stir in the garlic, Italian seasoning, salt, and pepper. Cover and cook on low for 8 hours, or on high for about 6 hours. Before serving, use a handheld immersion blender to smoosh up some of the beans. Don’t blend too much—just enough to get the broth thicker and creamy-looking. Ladle the soup into bowls, and add Tabasco sauce to taste. Serves 8.
Stephanie’s Verdict – This tastes amazing. Perfect to eat on New Year’s Day for prosperity and good luck. 

Print Recipe

The Steamy Kitchen Cookbook by Jaden Hair
When Jaden Hair walks into a room the energy escalates. She’s smart, talented, creative, funny, hard working and energetic with a quick smile and easy laugh. It’s easy for everyone to see she knows what she’s doing and she loves her work.  

Jaden, lives with her husband and two young sons in Florida, where she blogs, writes a newspaper column, and makes regular TV appearances. Her work ethic and energy are amazing. And now, Jaden has written a cookbook that makes me want to cook Asian food every night! 

Born in Hong Kong, Jaden learned to cook from her mom, via cell phone. Since then, the passion she discovered in the kitchen has led her to embrace elements of Asian cooking, well beyond her Chinese heritage. In her book, too, her extensive knowledge and information about Asian ingredients crosses borders and demystifies the whole Asian food experience. I want to copy the amazing ingredient pages, staple them into a little booklet and carry it with me to the international market. I’m sure Jaden’s already working on that! Most of the recipes can be made with Asian ingredients found in most supermarkets. 

The pictures in The Steamy Kitchen Cookbook are good enough to eat and sure to have you craving Asian tonight. And, as if that’s not enough, Jaden’s recipes are designed to be fast, easy, family-friendly and delicious. This is the only Asian cookbook I need in my collection and my kitchen – at least until Jaden’s writes her next one. You’ll be seeing more of her, I’m sure! 

Give this cookbook to armchair travelers, adventurous cooks, heat and spice lovers – a little or a lot, foodies without access to good Asian restaurants, meal-in-a-bowl fans and the chopstick challenged. 

Jaden’s Asian Crab Cakes
2 eggs
1 lb. good quality crabmeat
1 tomato, finely diced
1 green onion, finely minced
1 tsp. grated fresh ginger
generous pinch of salt
freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 tsp. fish sauce
1 tsp. freshly squeezed limejuice
1 – 3 tsp Sriricha chilli sauce
¼ c.  plus 1 c. panko breadcrumbs
2 tbsp. high-heat cooking oil
1 tomato, finely diced, for garnish
1 green onion, thinly sliced for garnish 

Sriracha Mayo
1 tbsp. Sriracha chilli sauce
1 tsp. freshly squeezed limejuice
½ c. mayonnaise 

1.   In a large bowl, beat the eggs. Add the crabmeat, tomato, green onion, ginger, salt, black    pepper, fish sauce, lime juice, chilli sauce and ¼ c. of the panko breadcrumbs. Mix gently.
2.   With your hands, gently form 8 equal-sized crab cakes. Do not squeeze too hard. It’s easier if you form the crab cakes on a clean, flat surface and pat gently to form the cake.
3.   Set a frying pan over medium-high heat. When it is very hot, add the cooking oil and swirl to coat.
4.   On a plate, spread out the remaining 1 cup of panko breadcrumbs. Using a small spatula, gently lift one of the crab cakes and set it on top of the breadcrumbs. Spoon some of the breadcrumbs on top of the cake and press gently to adhere. Immediately transfer the crab cake to the frying pan and bread the remaining crab cakes, each time transferring to the frying pan after breading. Sauté the crab cakes for 2 minutes on each side, until golden brown.
5.   Prepare the Sriracha Mayo by combining the Sriracha, limejuice and mayonnaise in a small bowl. Stir well to blend. Top each crab cake with some of the Sriracha Mayo and top with diced tomato and thinly sliced green onion. Serves 4.

Print Recipe 

The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Recipes From An Accidental Country Girl by Ree Drummond 

Ree Drummond lives on a cattle ranch in 
Oklahoma, but that wasn’t the life she had planned. Before a trip back to her hometown in Oklahoma and falling head over high heels for her future husband, Ree lived in Southern California where life included manicures, pedicures, Thai food and sushi. Today she lives on a remote working ranch with Marlboro Man, cooks for assorted ranch hands and kids, home schools her four “punks,” takes amazing pictures, writes about her love story and life on the popular blog and shoos cows off the front porch.

Ree cooks hearty and nourishing midwestern fare – honest food for kids and cowboys. It’s the simple, easy comfort food found on the dinner tables throughout the Midwest. Real food like Mom made at home, before fast food became a way of life and trendy culinary and dietary gurus dictated what was in and what was out. 

While some find fault with her “simple” dishes and her use of prepared pantry ingredients, beef, butter and cream, it’s good to remember she lives on a cattle ranch, miles from a grocery store of any size, and feeds kids and hungry ranch hands – just like the pioneers who settled the frontier. Real food for real people – no apologies needed! 

In a world where it is sometimes difficult to tell the good guys from the bad guys, or the heroes from the villains, it is refreshing to find a woman you’d want for your friend and neighbor – if she had neighbors. Someone who is very comfortable in her own life – even if it isn’t the one she planned. Someone who makes living on a ranch in the middle of nowhere with cowboys, kids and cows seem like a dream come true. 

Give this cookbook to incurable romantics, horse lovers, cowboy wannabes, and women who feed good ol’ comfort food to their own hard-working cowboys and kids, at home or on the frontier. 

Ree’s Simple, Perfect Enchiladas
The Sauce:
1 tbsp. canola oil
2 tbsp. all-purpose flour
1 large (28-oz.) can enchilada or Mexican red sauce
2 c. chicken broth
½ tsp. salt
½ tsp. black pepper
2 tbsp chopped cilantro, plus extra for serving
The Meat:
1 lb. ground beef
1 medium onion
8 oz. diced green chilies
½ tsp. salt
The Rest:
10 to 14 corn tortillas
canola oil for frying
½ c. chopped black olives
1 c. chopped green onions
3 c. grated sharp cheddar cheese

1.   In a saucepan over medium-low heat, combine the canola oil and flour.
2.   Whisk together and allow to bubble for 1 minute.
3.   Pour in the red sauce, chicken broth, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil.
4.   Reduce the heat and simmer while you prepare the other ingredients.
5.   While the sauce is simmering, prepare the meat. Finely chop the onion.
6.   In a large skillet over medium-high heat, brown the ground beef with the onion. Drain the fat, then add the green chilies. Add the salt and stir to combine. Turn off the heat and set aside.
7.   In a small skillet over medium heat, lightly fry the tortillas in canola oil just until soft. Do not crisp. Drain on a paper towel-lined plate. Repeat until all the tortillas have been fried.
8.   Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spread ½ cup of the sauce in the bottom of a 9x13-inch baking dish.
9.   Next, dip each tortilla into the sauce in the saucepan.
10. Set the sauce-soaked tortillas on a cookie sheet. Onto each tortilla, place some of the meat mixture, black olives and green onions.
11. Top with a generous portion of grated cheddar cheese.
12. Roll up the tortilla to contain the filling inside.
13. Place the tortilla seam side down in the baking dish. Repeat with the rest of the tortillas. Stir the cilantro into the sauce, and pour the remaining sauce over the top.
14. End with a generous sprinkling of cheese.
15. Bake the enchiladas for 20 minutes, or until bubbly. Sprinkle the extra chopped cilantro over the top. Serve with beans, rice and margaritas . . . (if you’re into that sort of thing).
Makes 8 servings.

Print Recipe

FULL DISCLOSURE - All three of these cookbooks were purchased by me, for my own cookbook collection . . . and a few more for Christmas gifts . . .  shhhhh!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Sunny Orange Maramalade Mornings

Several years ago, I stumbled upon a can of Seville oranges cut for making orange marmalade. The notion of making my own orange marmalade had never occurred to me, but reading the fine print at the bottom of the can, I discovered just how easy it could be.

I dearly love the sunny flavor of orange marmalade and have purchased many an expensive imported jar over the years. So, although I didn't know a thing about Seville oranges, nor had I ever seen one, I was ready to try my hand at orange marmalade. Could it really be that simple?

MaMade is produced in Spain and the Seville oranges are grown throughout the Mediterranean countries. The contents of the can were bright and my hopes were high. Pour the orange goo into a large saucepan with 4 lbs. of sugar -- that's a lot of sugar, I know -- but stick your finger in the orange goo and 4 lbs. will seem just about right. Seville oranges are also known as "bitter" oranges.


Apparently, the can of orange goo comes in either "thin cut" or "thick cut" peel. It seems the thick cut is difficult to find in this country, but the thin cut is a little easier to locate. I ordered mine from Amazon, since our local international market carries only those expensive, imported jars of ready-made marmalade.


So, when you mix the goo, the sugar and 12 oz. of water in a pan and let it boil for about 15 minutes, presto! . . . orange marmalade! Oh yeah, the instructions on the can say to "add a knob of butter to disperse the foam" while boiling. After deciding "a knob" is about the size of a walnut, I added it. Alas, no discernible dispersing occurred! I used a big flat spoon with little holes in it to skim the foam. I didn't want some unsightly yuck in the finished marmalade. No big deal -- skimming just took a moment.

The cooking is quick, so remember to wash the jars, lids and rings, before you start to assemble the ingredients in the pan, and keep them warm until time to add the marmalade.  I placed the jars on a towel to minimize the risk some sort of cold-granite-meets-warm-jar-meets-hot-marmalade disaster. I also used a wide mouth canning funnel to ladle the hot marmalade into the jars -- no burns and no sticky mess to clean up! Four pounds of sugar can be really sticky!

So here is the finished product! Beautiful, isn't it? The MaMade can produced 5 pints of marmalade, which I put into little 4 oz. and 8 oz. jars. Just yesterday, my neighbor Dan and I were talking about opening a big jar of jelly, jam, preserves, marmalade or apple butter, only to discover we're tired of it before the jar is empty. Then the rest of the jar sits in the back of the fridge until no one remembers how long it's been there and nobody wants to eat it. Then it gets dumped in the trash. We agreed little bitty jars were much better, and much less wasteful in the long run.

Whether you are an orange marmalade devotee like me, or a willing but reluctant first-time home-canner, nothing could be easier than turning a can of MaMade Seville orange goo into lovely little jars of sweet-tart-chewy orange marmalade.

I'm really looking forward to the wide-awake citrus flavor burst to brighten my cozy winter tea and toast. Winter sounds a little sunnier and happier already!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Can't Get Enough Cheese Wafers

There are a great many names and variations for this recipe. My recipe is called Cheese Wafers -- cheesey little shortbread-esque rounds. Plain or crunchy. Savory. Satisfying. Addictive.

The recipe is from my friend Gayle, in Mississippi. Southern girls seem to come into marriage armed with a box of handy little recipes to suit every occasion, and this is one of Gayle's. I've been baking them since 1977, when I first lived in North Carolina, but had never tasted a cheese straw.

I make them small, about the size of half-dollars when baked -- the Cheese Wafers, not the half-dollars. And I give lots of them as gifts.

I've tried hiding them from myself, but apparently I'm a lot smarter than I look. I always find them.

Christmas is a wonderful time of year for baking Cheese Wafers, because the recipe makes lots and is so, so easy -- just when time and money are at a premium.

Cheese Wafers are similar to the ubiquitous Southern-style cheese straws seen at parties and in very small bags or tins at pricey little boutique gift and gourmet stores. Sure, they're good. At $25 - $30 a pound! 

But this is all it takes to make them at home -- four ingredients you probably have in your kitchen right now!

In a matter of minutes you can dump four simple ingredients into a bowl, mush them up with your hands, roll them into little balls, smash them with a fork and bake. Oh yeah, and kids love to make them too!

One bowl . . . one measuring cup (if you don't leave yours in the flour canister, like I do) . . . one fork . . . one baking sheet (or two, for assembly line efficiency bakers.)

Four ingredients. Four items to wash. Forty-five minutes, start to finish. For about $4!

Five d-o-z-e-n Cheese Wafers!

Place a few of these on a pretty plate, in a decorative tin, a colorful box or a crinkly cellophane bag and you have the perfect gift for the hostess, sick friend, new mother, welcome neighbor, teacher or . . . just because. Add a cute and functional container (think mug, plate or bowl) you're still saving a ton of money over store-bought cheese straws!

Not the same old Christmas cookie.  Not the same old cheese straw. Something even better.

How about Cheese Wafers for Santa? He might be all cookied out by the time he gets to your house.

Step aside cookie elves -- there's a new elf in town -- with Cheese Wafers all 'round! 

2 sticks (1/2 pound) butter, softened
2 cups grated sharp cheddar cheese - 8 oz. block of cheese (I've had much better luck with quality name brand cheese than generic or store brand)
2 cups flour
several dashes of hot sauce - more is better! - (Tabasco, etc.)
Optional: 1 cup crushed Rice Krispies or finely chopped pecans

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  In a bowl, mix butter and cheese with hands until blended completely. Add flour and hot sauce (and optional Rice Krispies or chopped pecans) and continue to mix with hands until dough is formed. Roll mixed dough into balls about the size of large marbles and place on ungreased baking sheets. Flatten balls with a fork.  Bake for 15-20 minutes, until just lightly brown around edges. Cool and remove from baking sheet.  Store in airtight container. Can be frozen in airtight container for later use. Great served with cocktails or to accompany soups and salads.  Makes 5 dozen. 
Note: The dough could be shaped and flattened to cut into strips - for diehard cheese straw fans.

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Thursday, November 26, 2009

I Could Go For A Turkey Sandwich, How About You?

The kitchen is finally cleaned up and everything is put away from dinner. Must be time for a turkey sandwich!

I love turkey sandwiches as much as Thanksgiving itself. It's the reason for the whole turkey thing , as far as I'm concerned. It's all about the sandwiches.

This is an updated list of last year's turkey sandwiches I have known and loved -- and still do. Ham is an acceptable substitute in most cases, but give me a few slices of roasted turkey breast and I could make a feast between two slices of bread.

How does your favorite turkey sandwich compare? 

Pier 39 Turkey Sandwich
Kaiser Roll
Turkey Slices
Cranberry Sauce
Leaf Lettuce

Dam Turkey Sandwich
Pita Pocket
Leaf Lettuce
Turkey Slices
Stovetop Stuffing Patty
Canned Cranberry Sauce Slice

Fist Full of Feast
B-i-g Pita Pocket
Leaf Lettuce
Turkey Slices
Cranberry Stuff
Mashed Potatoes
Sweet Potatoes
Green Bean Casserole
Gravy, if you dare

Thanksgiving Dinner Sandwich
Good Homemade Bread Slices or Rolls
Turkey Slices
Fresh Cranberry Orange Relish
Leaf Lettuce

Classic Turkey Sandwich
Store Bought White Bread
Sliced White Meat Turkey
Iceberg Lettuce

Hearty Thanksgiving Turkey Club Sandwich
Pumpernickel Bread
Turkey Slices
Crisp Bacon
Havarti Cheese
Cranberry Sauce
Leaf Lettuce

Little Gobbler
Dinner Roll
Cranberry Sauce

Print Recipes

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

From Cora Cooks to You!

Sweet Potato Pudding - A Twist on Tradition

Sweet Potato Pudding is the one dish that makes my Thanksgiving just right. The benchmark for the real and true holiday dinner.

While many families enjoy some form of sweet potatoes as part of their Thanksgiving meal, mine is the only family I've ever come across that prepares them with a twist.

We are not typical brown sugar, maple syrup, cinnamon, coconut, pecan or marshmallow people when it comes to sweet potatoes. We do not boil, bake, microwave or mash them.

I suspect if we didn't have any Sweet Potato Pudding, we wouldn't have sweet potatoes at all.

My Great Aunt Martha first made this dish for us so many years ago that I don't ever remember any other sweet potato dish at our holiday meals. Every year she would walk into my grandmother's house on Thanksgiving Day with one very small casserole dish of the golden orange treat we all craved. Due to the small amount she made, each individual portion amounted to about a spoonful, so we treasured and savored every delicate morsel.

No one dared ask Aunt Martha to bring, maybe, two dishes of Sweet Potato Pudding. We just assumed the preparation was so labor intensive, the ingredients so costly and rare, that we were fortunate to have just one taste at Thanksgiving and another at Christmas. We'd shake our heads in wonder, but never asked why the single dish.

Eventually, my mother and grandmother could stand it no longer and became co-keepers of the recipe, thus assuring the continuation of our treasured holiday tradition for future generations, god forbid something should happen to Aunt Martha.

That's when they discovered the answer to the unspoken question. And, indeed, there was a very good reason she never doubled her recipe.

Sweet Potato Pudding, a la Aunt Martha, was made with grated, raw sweet potatoes. Hand grated, raw sweet potatoes. Lots of hand grated raw sweet potatoes went into that single, small dish.

Now, Aunt Martha was from very sturdy stock, and lived most of her life on a farm. Hard work was certainly not anything she shied away from but, apparently, she drew the line of sacrifice at knuckles scraped raw, hands cramped and arms strained -- even for her family.

My grandmother, Beema, and my mother passed the Sweet Potato Pudding duties back and forth for all of hand-held box-graters years that followed. Sure, they made a larger recipe than Aunt Martha ever did, but they always let us know a supreme sacrifice had been made for us, as we sat down to our generously prepared two spoons of that heavenly pudding.

The advent of the Cuisinart significantly reduced the risk of raw knuckles, hand cramping and muscle strain, and increased the amount of Sweet Potato Pudding passed at our holiday table. But it is a bittersweet reward.

Our holidays are missing Aunt Martha and Beema, the people who created the tradition we still enjoy today, some 50 years later. But with each sweet bite I savor, I will always remember them, for the love and tradition they gave our family -- our very own Sweet Potato Pudding, with grated, raw sweet potatoes

Happy Thanksgiving!

4 cups grated, raw sweet potatoes 
1 1/2 cups sugar 
2 eggs, beaten 
1/2 cup melted butter 
1 1/2 cups milk 
1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg 

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  In a large bowl, toss sweet potatoes and sugar to mix. Add beaten eggs, melted butter, milk and nutmeg.  Pour into a heavy casserole dish and bake covered at 375 degrees for 30 minutes. Remove cover and bake for another 40 - 45 minutes, until lightly browned and crisp on top.

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Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Cranberry Chronicles

Like so many of my fellow food bloggers, I guess, visions of cookbooks dance in my head.

But not just any cookbook. I want my very own cookbook. Just like my friends who've had their first cookbooks published just this fall.

In the last few days, I may have seen my future as a cookbook author, and maybe as a blogger too.

A cookbook title has come to me -- in a vision -- from Google Analytics and Sitemeter.

Can it be that my sudden success with the almighty number gods is due to a post I did last year about making my own Indian Trail-esque Cranberry Orange Sauce. ITCOS is was a frozen blend of chopped cranberries, oranges and sugar. The taste was fresh, clean and sweet/tart -- and it made a jolly jello salad for the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.

My future is cranberries? Really?

I like cranberries, a lot. And I have several cranberry recipes. But . . .

The jello salad mold that my grandmother made every year for Thanksgiving and Christmas came from the recipe on the Indian Trail carton. Our family was not alone in this tradition, based on the number of people looking for the stuff, which is what I was doing.

But now that I've tracked down the sad but true facts from Bay Valley Foods, I've become the food blogging expert source for this information. All because I published the recipe for my own version  of ITCOS.

Me? Food blogger turned investigative reporter? I sent an email to Bay Valley Foods asking why I couldn't find it in my local market.

The metrics don't lie though, and the numbers are high. Well, for me anyway. In the last week or two, my blog has generated more traffic than ever before. Well, to be more precise, cranberries have generated more traffic on my blog than anything ever has before.

Cranberries! My claim to Google fame is from little ol' cranberries.

Hundreds and hundreds of people all searching for Indian Trail Cranberry Orange Sauce -- and they're coming to me!

I cannot disappoint them. My readers.

And so it seems I may finally have the answer to the questions that keep me up until the wee, small hours of the night, toiling away at my computer.

Is this how I make my mark as a food blogger? Is this where my blog is going? Is this is to be my niche in the crowded food blog world?

That's the answer? Cranberries!

Yeah, I'm kind of surprised too.

Wonder what the stats say about loyalty of readers seeking cranberries? 

My niche is cranberries, huh?

The good news -- I'll only have to blog for one month out of the year, at least until I can expand the horizons of cranberry lovers everywhere. Should I go worldwide with this?

Do they eat cranberries anywhere else in the world?

Note to self: Chapter One -- .

The bad news -- the cookbook thing has already been done, about six times. Yeah, really! But if I can break out above the top ranking cranberry cookbook (#680,194 on Amazon,) I'll be set!

I suspect you already have a favorite holiday cranberry recipe. Most of us do.

But tell me this, do you have a cranberry cookbook?

OK, let's just try this for now. If you're hoping to shake things up a bit this holiday season -- and you know how much the family appreciates an unexpected shift in holiday tradition, don't you -- I've got a good start on my book, and I've listed all some of my favorite cranberry recipes here.
I promise, I'll never be too big to remember the little berries that started it all.

The Cranberry Chronicles . . . I don't know . . .

Six cookbooks about cranberries already? Really?

Back to the blog-to-cookbook drawing board . . . again! . . . sigh . . .

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There is no reason to hide the fact that there are many, many people who grew up on the Ocean Spray wiggly cylinder cranberry sauce. No, I don't know how they make it, but at least you can find it on the store shelves any time of year, anywhere in the U.S. (and probably Canada, but I've never looked there, although I did have Thanksgiving there once -- Canadian Thanksgiving. They eat the same stuff we do, just a month before we do -- second Monday in October.) Cylindrical cranberry sauce is still my choice for adding to a turkey or ham sandwich -- or my favorite sandwich of all time -- pita, smeared inside with mayo, stuffed with lettuce, turkey, a sliced disc of cranberry sauce and a disc-shaped patty of stuffing/dressing/or Stovetop. Hey, I just thought of this! -- add mashed potatoes, gravy, sweet potatoes and that green bean casserole stuff too, if you can shove it all in that pita, that is. A new sandwich is born - Fistful of Thanksgiving! Yum!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Baked Pineapple Casserole - A New Tradition

T-minus 5 days and counting.

Thanksgiving planning is requiring an unusually high degree of flexibility on my part this year. 

I'm still coordinating scheduling conflicts to determine who will be here, and when we will eat. 

The guest list has undergone a number of changes. As it stands now, we have four tables in three rooms, with plenty of room to add another. And goodness knows we'll have enough food!

The cooks have been contacted and have their assignments, and a license to bring anything else they choose. They always do anyway!

Two turkeys and one ham.  Gail carves, because she can make a platter look like this, and now no one else will even go near the turkey carving knife now.

We have plenty of side dishes for everyone -- and his brother! That's why we need so much food. We've got a lot of brothers!

Aunt Cora's Best Mashed Potatoes In The World has been ordered. Gail makes the mashed potatoes. Janet tried to tell her kids that I don't make them, it's just my house, but I still get the credit.

Denise wants to try a new sweet potato recipe this year. Not everyone has adjusted to the traditional dishes of the smaller family units within our growing blended family. We are the family of inclusion. We want everyone to feel comfortable, and have plenty to eat. 

That's not really a problem. We've usually got enough food to last for the whole weekend, even after I fill plastic containers and shopping bags for all the locals to take home. 

The hostess is not complaining about leftovers, so no one else should either! It may take a gentle nudge with the hip to close the refrigerator anytime before Saturday, but I can live with that.

Baked Pineapple Casserole is one of my mother's recent contributions to our Thanksgiving meal. She introduced it a few years ago and it was a keeper -- for her anyway. She said it doesn't matter if anyone else likes it, she making it! I like it too, but the recipe below is mine. I like it better. 

Thanksgiving is a welcome time of year for counting our blessings.

Like big hearts to welcome new family and friends to our table . . . 

and open minds to share new traditions and make them our own . . .  

and good humor to adapt to change, both good and bad . . . 

and warm, loving thoughts of those we will miss around our table this year . . .

Earth to Cora! Do you have Joey's Pop Tarts on the shopping list yet?

Uh oh!

Next on my list of things to do -- make a shopping list!

The countdown continues . . .

1 20-oz. can pineapple chunks
1/2 c. sugar
3 tbsp. all-purpose flour
1 c. shredded Cheddar cheese
1/4 c. melted butter or margarine
1/2 c. Ritz cracker crumbs

Drain pineapple, reserving 3 tbsp. juice. Combine sugar and flour, and stir in reserved pineapple juice; add cheese and pineapple chunks, mixing well.  Spoon mixture into a greased 1-qt. casserole.

Combine melted butter and cracker crumbs, stirring well; sprinkle over pineapple mixture.  Bake at 350 degrees for 20-30 minutes, or until crumbs on top are lightly browned.  Makes 4-6 servings.

Print Recipe

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Harvest Table - A Work of Art

My friend, Sally, who lives in New Hampshire, sent this picture of her autumn harvest table arrangement -- a little something she just threw together. Simple and beautiful.

I think the big leaves of whatever kind of greens they are and the pale green colors of the squashes make it.

I'm going out to the garage to root around in the big plastic tub of fall decorations to see if I have what I need to create something similar.

What if I don't have any of those green leafy things though? Then I'll want to go to town and dig through all the fall stuff at JoAnn Fabrics and Crafts, Wal-Mart, and maybe I'll even have to drive all the way to Steven's and Target. Time. Trouble.

If I can't get it together, then I'm going to print out five copies of the picture on the color printer and glue them around an appropriately sized cardboard box and set it in the center of my table.

Come to think of it, I can go to the garage another day.  

So . . . shall I put up a picture of my box arrangement when I've finished it?

Would you like for me to send you my new Autumn Harvest Table Arrangement Kit?

Will that be the Economy Kit -- 5 photos plus glue stick, box not included, or the Deluxe Eco Kit -- Economy Kit, plus shipping box that doubles as part of the arrangement?

Thanks, Sally! You're always such an inspiration to me!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Pioneer Woman Book Tour - Meet Me In St. Louis

See our smiling faces! That's my daughter-in-law, Kristen, with me at Christ Church Cathedral in St. Louis, waiting for Ree, AKA The Pioneer Woman.  Her book signing tour stop in St. Louis, sponsored by Left Bank Books, was moved to accommodate the large audience. SRO -- which I had to explain to someone who wasn't sure what I meant. Huh? SRO means the 500-seat cathedral was packed.

I made the two-hour drive to St. Louis this afternoon and, in a week full of coincidences, guess what happened? Just as I crossed the river, I glanced over to the lane of traffic merging from Jefferson Barracks VA Hospital. And what do you think I saw?  Or, rather, whom do you think I saw? (Who, whom -- it's too late to diagram sentences, so that's my best look/sound test/guess. Sorry grammarians.)

I saw Kristen! No kidding! Of the hundreds of people getting off day shift and pulling onto the crowded lanes of I-255, at the exact instant I was nearing the end of my two-hour drive, Kristen merged right in front of me! Insert Twilight Zone music here. Strange goings-on in my normally dull little world. First, the kooky incident with the shortbread earlier in the week, and now this!

So anyway, I dialed up Kristen on my cell (without taking my eyes off the road, or my hands off the wheel, of course) and before I could say I was behind her, she said she could see me in her rear view mirror. Then she obligingly slowed down to a cautious-mother-in-law-just-in-from-the-prairie speed and I followed her home. 

After a quick change, we headed downtown and arrived early enough to get a good seat. We bought all the books we could carry in two shopping bags and then made a few friends while we waited. At one point in our wait, the church pastor stepped up to the mike, welcomed guests and invited everyone to explore the historic cathedral building, with the self-guided tour brochure  provided, during our wait. It is a beautiful old cathedral.

I thought the book signing was well organized and the Left Bank Books people (and Ree, of course!) were very accommodating. LBB had plenty of books available for us, transactions were handled efficiently, and Ree, after answering questions from the audience, sat there for hours and hours, cheerfully signing each and every book handed to her! I've never been to a book signing with an author who was so kind and patient! 

While we waited, Kristen and I decided to help all we could by writing the name for each inscription on the bookmark LBB had placed inside, and then we inserted the bookmark and tucked the jacket flap to mark the page to be signed. After we got in line, the LBB workers helped others do the same thing and I know that speeded up the process tremendously. That, and the fact that Ree can talk and sign simultaneously! 

Our new friends, who sat in the pew next to us, were Dee Ann and her daughter, Sadie, along with their friend, Katie, all from Mount Vernon, IL -- which is also a two-hour drive from St. Louis (but only a one hour drive from my home!) Small world! Half of our pew and several others were from the Illinois side of the river!

You do know which river I'm talking about don't you? I hope so, 'cause if I had a smartypants quiz, that would be on it!

Back to the book tour. Ree came out and talked a few minutes and then took questions from the assembled book lovers . . . oh, let's just call 'em as we see 'em . . . Pioneer Woman fans! She even did a bit of Ethel Merman for us. Kristen didn't know who Ethel Merman was, but was amused nonetheless.

In the meantime, Marlboro Man stepped out into the audience to snap a few pictures, just as two little boys made their way to the pulpit to get a better angle on Mom/PW and Dad/MM. Let's just say, the whole family knows how to work the room! And Punk Son#1 charmed the crowd a little later, too, as they waited in the long line for Ree to sign their books. He signed cookbooks -- and the hand of one very cute little girl! Sorry, no picture. I still haven't mastered rapid-fire photo ops in dimly lit stone cathedrals. 

It was so good to see Ree after all this time. Well, maybe not so long. We were just in Chicago in July for BlogHer '09. And then we were in San Francisco in September for BlogHer Food '09. We food bloggers are very busy people, I guess. OK, some a little busier than others, I'll admit. While I'm checking out the new Schnuck's in Des Peres tomorrow (they have wine to drink while you shop, and it's all in the interest of food blogger research, you know!) and then heading home tomorrow, Ree will be in Chicago on Thursday . . . and Minneapolis on Saturday . . . and Los Angeles on Sunday . . .

And then I'll be home, in my kitchen at Prairie Wood, trying to get a handle on Thanksgiving dinner, not to mention find enough tables, for 32 30* people.  Two fried turkeys and one ham . . . or two hams?

Hey, back up a minute. Does that make me, Cora The Prairie Woman Cooks?

I guess not. 

Back to the blog drawing board. 

*Grant, your mother says you better cook a lovely Thanksgiving dinner for your wife, who will be working on Thanksgiving Day . . . she is ever so nice to your mother. The recipe links are all in the left sidebar. ;-)

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Shortbread - Sweet, Simple, Serendipity

I've been working on this cookie post for a week and thought it would be just perfect for announcing the winner of the Jolly Holiday Cookie Baker's Dream Giveaway. I know that what I'm going to say will be difficult for you to believe, as you read on, but I promise this is a complete and total coincidence. A little weird, in a good way . . . but . . . well, you'll see . . .

My favorite cookie of all time is shortbread.  I love shortbread, in any form, but this is the form my homemade shortbread takes.

I bake my shortbread in a ceramic pan with hearts and flowers that leave a raised design on each cookie.  I've had it forever, but the Brown Bag Cookie Art people in New Hampshire are still making pans like this, in a artful array of designs.  Some pans are like mine, others are square and cut into smaller cookie squares.

When cut apart, the scalloped ruffled-edge triangles my pan makes are known as "petticoats."

Of course, shortbread also can be pressed into any round or square baking pan. No special equipment is required and the cookies will still be wonderful.

The Brown Bag company includes a little booklet with recipes and instructions with their pans, just like this one.

Print Recipe

Nothing is easier than making delicious, beautiful shortbread. Four ingredients -- butter, powdered sugar, vanilla and flour. Five minutes from mixing to oven, and then thirty minutes to bake. This classic version is still best,  in my opinion, but there are lots of variations in both sweet and savory flavors. 

A couple of tips for perfect shortbread baked in a ceramic pan -- spray the pan with cooking spray before pressing in the dough, prick holes in the dough after placing in the pan, bake in the top on-third of the oven, remove when the entire surface is browned, cool for ten minutes, invert and tap cookie out of pan, cut into shapes with a sharp knife (I use a pizza cutter!) while still warm. That's it.

You will be delighted by the every-so-slight flaky resistance of the center. The sandy texture melts into a sweet buttery sensation in your mouth. Oh, yes! Just sweet enough. Shortbread seems so simple and, yet, it is so surprisingly good, in a gotta-have-another sorta way!

Some people get fancy and dip part of the cookie, or the whole flat side, into melted chocolate and let them dry on wax paper before serving. I wouldn't know about that. Shortbread is never around here long enough to even wait for chocolate to melt!

Little boxes or wrapped plates, filled with homemade shortbread and tied with bright bows are a perfect hostess gift, neighbor gift, teacher gift, or anyone-anytime gift.

If you really want to be sweet, give a new ceramic shortbread pan filled with it's first shortbread as a gift to anyone who loves cookies or is a baker. 

It's sure to be a favorite -- a gift that keeps on giving!

And speaking of cookies . . . and gifts . . . the winner of the Jolly Holiday Cookie Baker's Dream Giveaway is Karen of the blog . . . are you ready . . . I'm not kidding . . . this is just too bizaare . . . her blog is called SHORTBREAD! Yeah, I know, I couldn't believe it either when her name popped up! Congratulations Karen -- I guess it was meant to be!

Karen, I'll send out your box of baking goodies right away, but how about sharing your favorite shortbread recipe here while you wait? You know, a little Shortbread serendipity for all of us!