Sunday, March 31, 2013

Vegan Spinach Pie (Spanakopita)

We love the cheese and spinach version (see it here) almost as much as this one without cheese. The crisp crunch of the phyllo contrasts perfectly with the softer cooked spinach and onions all set off with a hint of lemon and dill for a punch of fresh. These are even better rolled into individual-sized pies so they so they can be eaten by hand, which is just about the best way to eat phyllo.

Serve spanakopita warm, but not hot out of the oven, since the spinach is more flavorful closer to room temperature. It is terrific cold too but the phyllo loses its crunch once stored in the refrigerator. However, leftovers will crisp up in just 5-10 minutes in a 400-degree oven, and since the spinach is better if it isn't too hot, no need to cook it through again. At our house spanakopita is impossible to resist directly from the refrigerator and since this version has less fat than the cheese version, it is a terrific way to start the day.

This recipe makes twelve spinach rolls which are a healthy serving size, both in quantity and nutritious value. If the full recipe is too many, don't worry spanakopita freezes well, so make these ahead and prior to the final baking freeze them on a cookie sheet and place in freezer bags for individual servings that can be devoured later.

Fresh spinach can be cost prohibitive, nearly double what we pay for frozen, so use what works for your budget. The reason that I prefer fresh is that squeezing out cold wet spinach to get that excess moisture removed is yucky and frigid, but I now have a new technique. I purchase un-chopped or whole leaf frozen spinach and run it under cold water in a strainer to thaw it in minutes. Once it is no longer hand numbing-ly cold I simply let the water run off and then press it against the sides of the colander to remove the water, since the leaves are uncut, they don't escape through the holes. I run the water (put the colander in a bowl and run the water very low, it needs only the energy of the moving water to thaw) while I prepare all the rest of the ingredients so it takes far less planning ahead than what is needed if the spinach thaws in the refrigerator. I always use the food processor for this recipe so once everything else is prepared I throw the spinach in too just to break it up a bit.


2 lbs frozen spinach or 3 lbs fresh spinach
1/3 cup olive oil
1 large yellow onion, rough cut
8 green onions
2 medium-sized leeks
1 bunch Italian leaf parsley
1/2 cup fresh or 1/4 cup dried dill
2 teaspoons salt
1/4 cup lemon juice (approximately one lemon's worth)
black pepper to taste
1 lb phyllo dough
1/4 cup margarine (or butter)
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 cup club soda

Spinach orientation
  1. Heat oven to 400-degrees.
  2. If using fresh spinach, sprinkle with salt and allow to sit while preparing other ingredients. When ready to use, squeeze out any moisture drawn out by the salt. Frozen spinach should be thawed and all the excess moisture pressed/squeezed out (see note above, pressing against the sides of a colander works great to remove the water.)
  3. In a large skillet heat 1/3 cup olive oil over medium heat, saute onions just until transparent, toss with the leeks and turn off heat and allow to cool a few minutes.
  4. In the bowl of the food processor combine onions, leeks, parsley, salt, pepper, lemon juice and dill, pulse to mince.  Add spinach and pulse until the spinach is chopped and the mixture is evenly combined.  Taste and salt as needed.
  5. Heat the oil and margarine in a sauce pan to melt. Brush the bottom of a cookie sheet. 
  6. Using a pastry brush, brush one sheet of phyllo with a thin layer of oil. Layer two more sheets on top, brushing each with oil in the same manner. Place 1/2 cup of the spinach mixture in the middle bottom portion. Fold the outside edges over the spinach and roll up. Place each roll on the cookie sheet seam side down. 
  7. Continue rolling spinach pies until all spinach is used. Use the remaining oil to brush the rolls before placing in the oven. 
  8. Bake for 15 minutes at 400-degrees, remove from the oven and pour the club soda over the rolls. Return to the oven and bake another 25-30 minutes, or until golden brown. 
  9. Allow to cool 15-20 minutes before serving or eat cold. 

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Quest: Vegan Doughnuts, Chocolate

Two more days and another four batches of doughnuts under my belt (literally) and I can definitely say I have learned a bit more about vegan baking. My goal here is to create a doughnut that I'm proud to feed my kids for breakfast, not a deep-fried, sugar-laden pastry that shuts down their metabolism to digest, but a treat that provides at least a portion of the the nutritional support they need for their day. Yesterday I believe I pushed that notion a bit too far. 

One of my worries is that my kids may get sick of eating doughnuts before I perfect the recipes, so yesterday  while three teenage girls were here I decided to test out several ideas. With new blood to aid in the taste testing and consume the leftovers, I made three batches one right after the other. 

Day 4, batch 1:  Apple pie.  This was just bad in almost every way. I knew this would be a grown-up flavor combination anyway, but I really thought they would turn out better than these (lower right hand corner of above picture.) The problem wasn't the flavor, that actually turned out okay, but I mistakenly thought that I might be able to switch out all the flour in the recipe for oats (blending it into a flour in the food processor) all the while contemplating how important gluten development may be to the baked doughnuts structure, turns out that it is pretty significant. This doughnut  had so much going wrong that I cooked it for twice as long as any others and never could get it to set up in the middle. There was no saving these, they went into the garbage.

Day 4, batch 2:  Almond. Personally I felt these were the best of the day, and they could not have been entirely bad since all six were eaten (which is saying a lot since they had nuts on them -see picture upper right.) They were no different than the Nutty Pecan and Almond Doughnuts but I switched out the pecans for almonds, and while I thought the texture was okay, feedback from the family was that it was 'gummy' - a lot like days 1 and 2.  I suspect they were under-cooked, but I need to revisit using almond flour because it has a lot of potential, so more experimentation to get a great almond doughnut is definitely on the to-do list. 

Day 4, batch 3: Chocolate Chocolate Chip (left). These were awful, gross, really yucky...the kids ate them instantly, as soon as they were cool enough to devour and they were gone. I was pushing the health food idea with switching out the wheat flour for oat flour again, this time I added 1/4 cup cocoa and chocolate chips, processing the chocolate chips a bit to break them into a smaller size. It was clear to me in this batch that the problems I had with the apple pie doughnuts were clearly from the use of oats and omitting the flour, so at least in reproducing the same weak cake structure a second time I actually learned something in the process.

Day 5: Chocolate Vegan Doughnuts. Having had such a disastrous day the day before I thought I would play it safe and revisit a working recipe. I admit it does seem a little cheaty resorting to chocolate, but after a day like yesterday, I was looking for an easy win. Of course these were devoured too, but unlike yesterday, these were actually really good, so they get a recipe entry. Note that the frosting on these is intentionally lean, as my goal was to give them the visual enticement, but to minimize the overall sugar content, so spread it thin.

Chocolate Vegan Doughnuts

2 teaspoons vinegar
1 cup milk of choice (I use soy)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup cocoa
1/2 cup pecans
1/2 cups white sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 Tablespoons coconut oil
  1. Preheat oven to 350-degrees. Grease a non-stick doughnut pan with cooking spray. 
  2. Measure out the milk in a liquid measure and add vinegar to curdle the milk, then add vanilla.
  3. In the bowl of the food processor, combine all the dry ingredients with the pecans and blend until the nuts have been pulverized and the mixture is uniform. Add the coconut oil and pulse to blend evenly. 
  4. Slowly pour in the liquid to blend it into the dry ingredients and immediately spoon the mixture into the prepared doughnut pan. 
  5. Bake 13-14 minutes and remove the pan from the oven, carefully loosen the doughnuts and turn them over in the pan. The middles may have baked over the hole section of the pan, but carefully just press them back down into the pan. This crisps up the bottoms and gives them a better doughnut form.  Return them to the oven and bake another 5 minutes. The doughnuts should feel firm to the touch.
  6. Allow to cool a few minutes in the pan and then remove to a cooling rack. 
  7. Frost doughnuts while still warm (see below.)
Chocolate frosting: This makes a very small amount of frosting, exactly enough for a thin coat on 6 doughnuts, if you want a thicker frosting double the recipe.

1 1/2 Tablespoon milk of choice
1/4 cup powdered sugar
1/4 cup chocolate chips

Microwave all ingredients in a microwave safe bowl 20-30 seconds. Stir until smooth and lightly frost each doughnut while still a bit warm.

This recipe makes 6 doughnuts. 

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Quest: A Great Vegan Doughnut

Day 1 of  the Great Vegan Doughnut Quest

Vegan doughnut are trendy and all over the country you can find doughnut shops specializing in vegan offerings to high acclaim. If they can do it, I can probably figure it out. However if I am going to be perfectly honest here, I am not a big fan. Most doughnuts are too sweet and too fat-laden for my taste, but the kids love them. Luckily our doughnut shop is clear across town and we rarely make it over there to treat the kids with a doughnut breakfast, but that doesn't keep them from asking for them all the time. 

In looking at's analysis of Dunkin Donuts fat and calorie totals it is no wonder the kids love them, they are loaded!  I always opt for the chocolate ones with chocolate frosting when we do splurge but I am rethinking that decision after doing a little research on the CalorieLab website that says that particular doughnut happens to be the highest in fat and calories that Dunkin Donuts makes, topping the list with 20 grams of fat and 360 calories -- Yikes! Hardly worth it for a bit of hours-old deep fried dough topped with sickeningly sweet frosting that stimulates the appetite in such a way that within an hour I am starved and craving more. No thanks, I can make better food decisions than that!

So I'm on a quest to create a terrific vegan doughnut. Vegan because some in my family eat vegan and I would like to make them for everyone to enjoy, but they have to be good...I mean really good, so that the kids ask for mine instead of Dunkin's. That's a tall order!

Day 1:  The picture above is from the first attempt, I used the 'Perfect Vanilla Doughnuts' recipe from only I made them in my doughnut maker, a plug-in unit that used to be my grandparents. The recipe had a good base flavor, but the consistency was a bit lackluster. I tried adding applesauce to the batter for the second batch into the machine and that improved the texture some, but they were still kind of 'gummy.' In Katie's defense however, some of that was a result of using the doughnut maker, not necessarily her recipe's issues.

Day 2:  The second day I abandoned the tired doughnut maker, it was clearly not the route to greatness so I broke out the doughnut pan, which had been in storage since I received them as a gift years ago and I tried the recipe again. This time I added in the applesauce and increased the vinegar. I also threw in a 1/2 teaspoon of almond extract because my mom always made terrific almond doughnuts when I was a kid and I figured it certainly couldn't hurt. Looking for more lift I switched out 1 teaspoon of the baking powder for soda. These were a definite improvement from day 1, not great, but certainly better. The soda addition however was overpowering and the flavor came through as an aftertaste, so back to powder in the next batch.

Day 2:  Even with nuts there was little to get excited about with this doughnut.

Day 3:  Something had to be done about the texture, that was for certain. My first thought was that nuts would bulk up the batter and provide a bit more tooth to the cake structure. The problem with using nuts though is that I'm after a doughnut my kids like to eat, and kids, my kids included, really don't like nuts. So I turned to the food processor for help in pulverizing the nuts until they were nearly undetectable.  

Now I had a big food processor to clean, this had better be worth it -- and it was! The bulk of adding just 1/2 cup of chopped pecans made a world of difference in the texture, but even more surprisingly, these doughnuts had a discernible crust that developed more as they cooled. These doughnuts actually seemed fried with a crispy exterior and a nice light interior. That nut idea was worth repeating. They seemed a tad too sweet to me, but these doughnuts are worthy of a recipe entry, and yes - even the kids thought so! 

Day 3:  The addition of pecans earned these doughnuts a place in the recipe archives. 

Nutty Pecan and Almond Doughnuts

2 teaspoons vinegar
2/3 cup milk of choice (I use soy)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup pecans
1/2 cups white sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 Tablespoons coconut oil
  1. Preheat oven to 350-degrees. Grease a non-stick doughnut pan with cooking spray. 
  2. Measure out the milk in a liquid measure and add all remaining liquid ingredients, adding vinegar first to curdle the milk. 
  3. In the bowl of the food processor, combine all the dry ingredients with the pecans and blend until the nuts have been broken up and the mixture looks uniform. Add the coconut oil and pulse to blend evenly. 
  4. Slowly pour in the liquid to blend it into the dry ingredients and immediately spoon the mixture into the prepared doughnut pan. 
  5. Bake 13-14 minutes and remove the pan from the oven, carefully loosen the doughnuts and turn them over in the pan. The middles may have baked over the hole section of the pan, but carefully just press them back down into the pan. This crisps up the bottoms and gives them a better doughnut form.  Return them to the oven and bake until they begin to develop a rich golden color, approximately 5-7 minutes. 
  6. Allow to cool a few minutes in the pan and then remove to a cooling rack. 
  7. Once cool, glaze (see below) and enjoy.
Glaze the doughnuts with 1 cup powdered sugar, a 2-3 drops vanilla extract and 1-2 scant drops of almond extract mixed with approximately 2 tablespoons of milk (I use soy.)  The consistency should be only a bit thicker than the milk when done, allowing the doughnuts to be dipped in and left to dry to get that nice crackling glaze finish. That is assuming of course you can hold back the tasters long enough to let the glaze set up.

This recipe makes 6 doughnuts. 

Still more to come, there are lots of flavors and additions yet to try on the path to greatness...

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Applesauce Brownies

These applesauce brownies are actually an old family recipe from my husband's German grandmother. Grandma's original recipe however required twice the oil, two eggs, and one-third more sugar, but when made with store bought applesauce I thought it might be possible to cut back on some of grandma's original ingredients and still achieve a moist and delicious brownie, and I was right! With half the fat of the original and less sugar these are a great alternative to traditional brownie recipes and provide a healthier version for the kids (if they will suffer the walnut additions.) Of course if the kids refuse nuts completely, that simply means more for the adults and with less fat and sugar, you don't even need to feel guilty about eating the entire batch.  At my house however, I find that those chocolate chips on top are too hard to resist and even my pickiest kids can be caught devouring a brownie or two.

Applesauce Brownies

1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
3 Tablespoons cocoa
2 cups cinnamon applesauce
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons vinegar
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 cups flour

Topping:  2 Tablespoons sugar, 1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips,  1 cup chopped walnuts

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Mix together sugars, cocoa, applesauce, oil, salt, and vinegar in the bowl of a stand mixer.  Add flour and baking soda. Mix until combined.
  3. Pour into greased 9 x 13 baking dish. Stir together topping ingredients and sprinkle over the brownie batter.
  4. Bake for approximately 30 minutes or until toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. 

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Homemade Macaroni and Cheese

I have a reputation among my kids' friends as making "The Best Macaroni and Cheese Ever" which is pretty fun, since I can please a crowd of starving teenagers with very minimal effort. Truth is though, I take macaroni and cheese seriously; as the ultimate comfort food I look at it as the kind of dish that holds a family together. Mac-n-cheese is one of those foods kids come home from college requesting because "no one makes it like Mom." In order to get to that status, no orange powder from the box is going to do; real cheese is involved and a tiny bit extra dish washing, but there is no comparison, every second of effort is worth it. 

I can make this mac-n-cheese in the amount of time it takes to bring the water to the boil and cook the noodles, somewhere between 20-30 minutes, only a few minutes longer than the orange powder version - btw, have you checked the ingredients list on that orange powder packet? Oh sure, they make fancy organic, all-natural versions of the orange powder too, but that still isn't real mac-n-cheese, not even close.

Here's the thing about noodles, if left in liquid they continue to soak it up eventually becoming mushy and kind of yucky. So to get perfectly cooked noodles married with a delicious cheesy sauce that stays lovely and creamy to the end, the two need to be introduced to each other immediately before serving. The idea that the noodles 'take on' more cheese flavor if cooked together, even for a short bit in the oven is unfounded in my experience, the only thing that happens is that the cheese gets drier and the noodles get soggy and usually the crumb topping is ruined too since it takes an enormous amount of liquid to keep the dish from drying out if baked together.  

Macaroni and cheese does not need a crumb topping. I make it often just in a stock pot on the stove, no crumb topping needed, however when serving in a buffet line or to adults, I go to the extra effort of adding the crusty top just because people in general think it is more gourmet that way. Funny thing is, the underlying recipe is exactly the same whether I put the crumbs on or not.  Crumbs just look more refined, but its all a simple presentation illusion. 

The bread, cracker, or biscuit that you use for the topping makes little difference. The key is to break it up into fine particles and fry those in butter and garlic powder until browned. My experience with real garlic has not been very good, so I stick with garlic powder because chopped garlic burns before the crumbs are golden.  Once the mac-n-cheese is done, it goes into a warmed pan and the crumbs are sprinkled on, instantly you have created a magazine picture perfect cheesy side dish that looks as though you have slaved for hours. Your guests will be so impressed. 

Homemade Macaroni and Cheese

For every 1 pound box of macaroni you need 12 ounces of cheese and 1 cup of milk: I always use 6 ounces of Velveeta, it simply melts best and will never get stringy or globby. However if you are fundamentally against the thought of using processed cheese product in your mac-n-cheese, then use an American or Super-Sharp, these too are processed of course, however that generally means that a mix of cheeses have been melted together and combined in such a way as to make them more stable when melting. Any combination of these work well, but I grew up on Velveeta, so there is a bit of nostalgia in the flavor for me, however when the other 6 ounces of cheese are a mix of Cheddar (Sharp preferred), Gouda, smoked Gouda (delicious addition one of my favorites) Jack, Swiss, Havarti, Colby, or Muenster, the underlying Velveeta flavor is not discernible but that perfect creaminess is unmistakable.

  • VitaMix:  Blend the cheese combination of your choice with the milk. This can be done while the noodles cook. The VitaMix is perfect for cheese sauce, simply throw the chunks of cheese in and start processing on slow, increasing speed gradually until the mixture is perfectly smooth. That's all there is to it, pour it on the hot noodles after draining off the water. If not quite hot enough, turn pot to warm through. Done!

  • Food Processor:  It is a bit trickier without a VitaMix only because the average food processor doesn't have the power the VitaMix has, and don't even think about doing this in a regular blender - I ruined our KitchenAid testing the idea (so I could write about it here as instructions) and we had to throw it out when I was done. Since the food processor is getting dirty anyway, shred all the cheese first, starting with Velveeta, as the other cheeses go through they will do a decent job of getting the sticky Velveeta off the shredding blade. Then switch to the chopping blade and add the one cup of milk and blend the mixture further. When adding to the hot pasta, this mixture needs to melt slowly, so keep the temperature low since there is a small risk of the cheese curdling if melted too quickly at a too high a temperature.

One pound pasta of your choice: I prefer a Campanelle pasta, they have little ruffles to hold on to the cheese sauce and I think they are a bit more festive, but any pasta meant to hold a bold sauce will work, I often use  large elbow or shell macaroni, Gamelli is another favorite. 
  • Cooking Method: Cook as directed on the package just a bit shy of true al dente, since once the pasta sits in the cheese it will cook a bit more, error on the side of just a bit too much bite (aim for a minute less than the package directs for al dente and always set the timer!) Be sure to add plenty of salt to the cooking water. 

Crumb Topping:

  • 1/4 to 1/2 cup crumbs, bread, cracker, or biscuit; crushed or chopped fine
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 3-4 Tablespoons butter
  • 1/4 cup Parmesan, shaker can style, optional
  • black pepper to taste
  • Parsley, chopped fine optional
Melt the butter in a small skillet, add the bread crumbs of your choice and sprinkle with the garlic powder.  Fry over medium heat until crumbs begin to brown. Remove from heat and add Parmesan, these act more like a dry bread crumb than cheese and add a nice nutty salty flavor, so if not used, sprinkle with salt, add pepper to taste. Parsley adds another color splash, so sprinkle on just before serving to a discerning crowd.
Blend the cheese, add it to the hot pasta, eat as is, or pour it into a warm and buttered/greased casserole dish just before serving and sprinkle on the crumb topping. Initially the mac-n-cheese will appear too creamy, but it sets up quickly, the bit of extra milk compensates for the cool down on the plate. Macaroni and cheese can be held in the oven for a very short period, but longer than 5-10 minutes and the cheese sauce will begin to dry out and that luxurious creamy sauce will suffer.

If serving to a crowd, mix the cheese sauce up ahead (several days if needed works fine) along with the crumb topping and hold in the refrigerator until needed. Bring to room temperature prior to combining, cook the pasta last minute and put it all together as usual.

Spinach and Cheese Pie (Spanakopita)

Down some side alley  in old-town Athens is a little hole-in-the-wall cafe that serves a magnificent spanakopita, one that has earned legendary travel-food status in my book. The meal was only made more memorable by the rich okra and lamb stew and the perfectly prepared meat pastitsio that it came with, but to send the entire experience over the top was Victor and Nikki Newman's drama on the 'Young and the Restless' playing in the corner on a 17-inch tube TV, all dubbed in Greek. Fantastic!

No spanakopita could match that Greek trip, but this one certainly comes close. I have been making spinach pie for years, long before that trip and every year since, all the while tweaking the recipe, and never completely satisfied with the results. However I have I finally stumbled upon a version that meets my expectations.

The cheese version of spanakopita is really just a quiche wrapped in a phyllo crust with Greek flare, and quiche is really nothing more than a savory custard, so what seemed like the best approach was to create a better custard base and build up from there. While I like feta, I rarely if ever have enjoyed biting into a chunk hot, I prefer feta cold, but the flavor is essential to the dish and far more appealing when mixed with a less pungent cheese. For years I've cut the feta with Swiss (but Kasseri would be equally as good) to get a slightly less intense feta bite, and overall I think spinach and Swiss are a terrific match. However, even with these adjustments I felt the spanakopita was falling short on the satisfaction scale.

In comparing recipes I noticed many included cream cheese, usually as a substitute for the feta (probably for the same reasons I was cutting in the Swiss) but most seemed a bit too Americanized for what I was after in terms of a flavor profile. Adding in cream cheese did make sense though, not as a cheese substitute, but as a cream base to improve the custard-like consistency I was seeking for the middle. Pulsing the works through the food processor was inspired more by laziness than any culinary genius  but it worked! Now I was on to something, the flavors all seemed to meld together with a more consistent texture, and using the food processor meant it all came together in a snap with less knife work. I adopted the dill, green onion, and parsley additions that I liked so much in the vegan version I make and finally I wowed the family with memorable spanakopita; no drama needed.

Spinach and Cheese Pie

1/2 large white/yellow onion, chopped
2 lbs fresh spinach
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 lb Swiss cheese, chopped/slices
1 cup parsley
8 green onions, white and light green parts included, chopped
8 oz feta, crumbled
1/2 cup heavy cream
3 ounces cream cheese
1/4 cup dill
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
1/2 teaspoon fresh ground nutmeg
6 large eggs, slightly beaten
1 lb phyllo/fillo dough
1/4 cup + 1 Tablespoon olive oil
1/4 cup butter

Heat oven to 350-degrees.

Using the food processor, chop the white onions to medium consistency and saute in 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a skillet until translucent. Add the spinach and salt and toss until wilted and water has been released. Turn off heat.

In a small sauce pan, melt the butter with the 1/4 cup olive oil as the rest of the ingredients come together in the food processor.

Pulse the Swiss cheese, parsley, and green onion until finely chopped. Combine the feta, heavy cream, cream cheese, dill, white pepper, nutmeg, and eggs and pulse to combine. Press out any remaining water from the spinach and onion mixture, discard water and add vegetables to the food processor bowl. Pulse to chop lightly with each addition, if the food processor bowl is small, this may require working in batches.

Layer half the package of phyllo in either a 9"x 13" baking pan or a large 12" pie dish, brushing each sheet lightly with butter.  If using the round pan, stagger the sheets to make an even overhang and brush those sections so the sheets do not dry out. If using a rectangular pan, place the sheets so they continue up the side of the pan so that the filling will be completely enclosed once added. Continue until half the phyllo sheets have been used.

Pour in the spinach, cheese, and egg mixture. Apply phyllo sheets to the top of the custard mix in the same manner. Cut all the sheets intended for the top layer if using a round pan to square to eliminate unwanted overhang. If using the rectangular baking dish, fold any longer sides from underneath over the filling and place all remaining sheets even with the dish sides. To create the crust appearance on the round dish, cut the excess phyllo with scissors to create 3/4-inch strips all the way around the outside of the dish. Twist these strips to the right, twisting the one beside under the other as you work around the outside edge until all the strips are used and the top is sealed under the bottom edge overhang. Brush any remaining butter mixture on top of the pie. Score the top phyllo into serving portions with a sharp knife.

Bake the spanakopita for 75-80 minutes or until golden brown (rectangular pan will take a shorter time.) Allow to cool at least 20 minutes before eating. Spanakopita is best at room temperature, but it can be served either warm or cold. Prior to serving, use a sharp knife to cut through all the phyllo layers. Store leftovers in the refrigerator.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Perfect Brownies

You know that perfect brownie? That crackling crusty top, the moist dense fudge middle that never sticks to your teeth, the cake crumb holding itself together but then melting away into the perfectly sublime bite of chocolate goodness? Oh yeah, that's these!

I don't like a gooey brownie. I prefer a  perfect blend of cake and fudge that holds a consistent texture throughout and then hits me again with a pocket of chocolate for the ideal finish. Lucky for me, I need look no longer, in my opinion I have found the perfect brownie.

What makes these even better is that they are mixed in the same pan that is used for melting the chocolate, no fancy mixing method, no real tricks involved at all. I would be willing to bet that nearly anyone can recreate these and once you do, no other brownie will ever satisfy. Say goodbye to the box mix forever!

Perfect Brownies

6 ounces good quality bittersweet chocolate, chopped
2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped
1 1/2 cups unsalted butter
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
4 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350-degrees. Butter 9" x 13" glass pan. For a fancy presentation, create a 'cake sling' the width of the pan with parchment paper to facilitate lifting the brownies completely out of the pan once baked (just loosen edges with a knife and they should lift out easily after cooling) or don't hassle with that at all, up to you.

In a 3 quart stock pot, melt the butter and chocolate over low heat. Once the butter is melted, turn the pan off, the residual heat of the pan will easily melt the chocolate if left to sit. The goal is to melt the chocolate using as little heat as possible so that the mixture cools down a lot faster for the next steps. Cool to lukewarm. 

Whisk in the sugar and vanilla, adding eggs and mixing them in one at a time until smooth and glossy. Stir/fold in the salt and flour with a spatula just until combined, add chocolate chips. 

Pour into prepared pan. Bake for 25-30 minutes or until toothpick tester in center comes out clean. 

Cool as long as you can stand to wait, consume. Store in air tight container. Have milk on hand.

Yes, if you want nuts, add about a cup of chopped walnuts ....a fool-proof way to keep at least a few kids from devouring them all so you can have more for yourself. Enjoy!

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Tuna Melt Panini

Comfort food like the humble tuna melt shouldn't be fussy or time consuming. Essentially it should require nothing more than to mix up some stuff you have on hand and throw it in the panini grill (or smush it good with the spatula in a regular pan.)  At our house easy doesn't mean plain though, just a few tricks make the ho-hum tuna melt pretty fabulous, and I'll let you in on the secret...banana pepper rings. Easily overlooked, perhaps not in everyone's refrigerator, but they should be - banana pepper rings are tasty and they completely transform this sandwich!

I also put pepperoncini on our sandwiches too, they give them a bit more bite, which honestly, all the mush of tuna and cheese needs that spark. A really great onion, cut not too fine so that it holds a bit of crunch when cooked in the sandwich is also a must.  Since a tuna melt should be easy, the recipe below is just a suggestion, not exact measurements (eyeball it), but the onion and peppers are mandatory! Follow these suggestions and I bet your family will elevate the humble tuna melt to "Favorite Sandwich" status just like mine.

Tuna Melt

3 5 ounce cans Albacore tune in water, drained
2/3 cup mayonnaise
2 Tablespoons dill relish
1 Tablespoon sweet relish
1/2 cup onion, chopped
4 slices Sharp American
4 slices Swiss
1/2-3/4 cup pepperoncini/banana pepper rings
1/4-1/2 cup butter
Bread of your choice, enough for 4 sandwiches

  1. Mix together tuna, mayonnaise, dill and sweet relishes and onion.  Be careful not to break up the tuna by over stirring. 
  2. Divide the tuna evenly between 4 slices of bread/rolls/buns, and place the cheese on top. Apply a generous amount of pepper rings and place another piece of bread on top. 
  3. Butter top bread, place a large pat of butter in the pan or the panini to melt and place sandwich in press. The sandwich is done when golden brown and cheese is melty. If using a pan on the stove, cook the sandwich over low heat slowly to develop the best crust, pressing firmly on the sandwich and turning to melt it all together. 
  4. Multiple sandwiches can be kept warm in a 170-degree oven on a wire rack to serve all at once. 
  5. Allow sandwiches to cool 5 minutes on a wire rack before cutting. 

Monday, March 11, 2013

Green Chili Cheese Puffs

These cheesy bites are quick, low in carbs, vegetarian, and tasty! What more reason to try them do you need? Terrific for brunch buffets or to boost protein in an otherwise carbohydrate laden vegetarian meal, these cheesy little chili accentuated puffs make it hard to eat just one!

I make these in a spouted 4-cup measuring cup, measuring the cottage cheese in first, so that no other measuring cups need to get dirty (eye-ball the rest, this is not a technically challenging recipe!) Use a stick blender to make short work of mixing, but finish it with a stir to keep a bit of the cheese and all the chilies whole for texture variation.

Green Chili Cheese Puffs

1 cup cottage cheese
4 eggs
3 Tablespoons flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 cup butter, sliced
1 1/2 cups Fontina or Monterey Jack, sliced thin, diced or shredded
1 4-ounce can chopped green chilies, drained

Warm oven to 350-degrees and generously grease a non-stick mini-muffin pan. 

In a 4-cup spouted measuring cup, measure 1 cup cottage cheese and add eggs. Using an immersion blender (alternatively use a food processor or upright blender) blend the cottage cheese and eggs until smooth. Add the flour, baking soda, and butter and blend to combine. Blend about half the cheese into the egg mixture, leaving the other half in small chunks/shreds and using a spoon, stir the last of the cheese and the chilies together until combined. 

Immediately pour egg mixture into greased muffin pan, filling each cup right to the top. The cheese puffs will grow upwards as the bake but then deflate a bit when out of the oven, they don't spill over the edge. Bake immediately for 12-15 minutes or until lightly golden brown. Allow to cool only a minute or two and then remove from pan, the top edge may stick, but running a knife around the edge generally loosens them easily. 

These have the best flavor served at room temperature. Store leftovers in refrigerator.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Cream Cheese Frageelay (Breakfast Pastry)

This is one of the first recipes hand-written in my personal recipe book (back when people used to do such a thing - imagine, hand-written recipes) but I have absolutely no idea where it came from. I know I ate it at work all those many years ago, but to be able to give credit to any individual or entity; I'm afraid the source has been lost.This recipe however is far too good to fall into a similar state. We enjoy brunch regularly with both friends and family and these decadent cream cheese pastries make it on the menu often. I find that they are the perfect sweet note whenever we serve a savory breakfast bake or casserole.

In all honesty, I don't have a perfect track record with this recipe, about half the time I make it the entire thing cracks down the middle and it looks like a train wreck on the pan, hence I have dubbed it "Frageelay" (fragile) in honor of one of our favorite movies A Christmas Story, it seemed only fitting. The pastry tastes the same whether it explodes or not and I've learned to cook it on aluminum foil, which if I see a blow out happening, I simply push the foil up to create a dam in that area and all is saved. Years ago I played with all different proportions, butter, cream cheese, crust to filling, mixing methods, and I never seem to hit on a fool-proof method, I still get blow-outs. The pictures here are of just such an unfortunate episode but prove that a little powdered sugar and creative presentation hide all flaws, so don't sweat it!

The other thing that makes Frageelay a breakfast/brunch buffet champion is that it serves 12 easily (that is, normal sized portions, but no one can ever be satisfied with one normal sized portion, so I mean that it serves 12 with seconds) and it can be made the night ahead. Win/win!

Cream Cheese Frageelay

1 pkg dry yeast
1/4 cup lukewarm water
1 teaspoon sugar
1 egg
2 cups flour
1/4 teaspoon salt (omit salt if using salted butter)
3/4 cup butter

16 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
1 cup sugar 
1 teaspoon lemon juice
powdered sugar for dusting

  1. Warm oven on to 370-degrees.
  2. Mix yeast, water, and 1 teaspoon sugar in medium bowl and let stand for 10 minutes, mixture should bubble to indicate yeast is active. Mix in the egg.
  3. In the bowl of a standard sized food processor, measure flour and salt. Cut butter into 1-inch pieces and place evenly over the flour. Pulse until evenly incorporated and the mixture looks like pebbles. 
  4. Add the yeast mixture slowly, pulsing until combined and uniform.
  5. Turn out the dough onto wax paper and roll the dough between wax paper sheets into 12" x 15" rectangle (this is important, measure). Set aside, sealed within the wax paper.
  6. In the now empty food processor bowl, combine the cream cheese, sugar, and lemon juice, pulsing until well incorporated. 
  7. Carefully peel away wax paper from both sides of the dough and re-use the wax paper under it (turn it over, using the side previously not stuck to the dough) and lightly flour to keep it from sticking as the filling is applied. 
  8. Spread the cream cheese filling on the dough to within 1-inch of the edges. Fold each long edge toward the middle (this will make a shorter, squat shaped pastry versus a longer, more likely to blow out one - this is where I generally goof it up) making sure the edges overlap. Pinch lightly to seal. 
  9. Fold the remaining open ends up about 1 1/2-inches. Pinch lightly to seal.
  10. Carefully flip the pastry onto a baking sheet lined with aluminum foil so that all folded edges are down.
  11. Bake immediately for approximately 30 minutes. Check half way through the baking time to see if the crust has had a blow out. If concerned over the loss of filling (top cracks generally do not produce a lava flow of cream cheese, only small ones from the bottom are worrisome), push foil up against any emerging cracks to contain the filling. Pastry is done when lightly browned.
  12. Cool completely. Frageelay can be refrigerated overnight without any appreciable difference to the crust. 
  13. Dust with powdered sugar and cut into serving size pieces. Devour at will. Store leftovers in refrigerator.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Rainbow Fish

This Kindergarten project is based on the book The Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister which is one of my favorites. It has the most delightful story about a selfish little fish who is covered in beautiful shiny scales. When asked to share one of his wonderful scales he refuses and then he wonders why none of the other fish like him. However with some coaxing from the wise octopus he finally shares his scales and discovers the joy of giving, so that he ends up "the happiest fish in the sea." The kids love the story, and it is well-known to most of them, almost all have heard it many times before I read it to them in class.

My goal with my kindergartners is to maintain art confidence and expose them to different art mediums. We talk about the basics like primary colors and line, but ultimately I want them to think art is fun and I want them to take home projects that make mom and dad say "Wow! You made that?!" so that their hearts grow to love art and their minds resist the silly notion of "I can't." Of course, that goal is the foundation of all my art classes, no matter what age.

Fish on canvas.

The how-to illustrations here use pictures I took as I went through the process with my girls at home. I liked the kindergarten fish so much that I thought they would make lovely original art for my bathroom. Making them in a classroom follows the nearly the exact same process.

We used canvas and primed it blue, but blending the color on canvas is significantly more abrasive than on paper, so I don't suggest that for little fingers. We used a toothbrush to blend the background colors because our fingers were getting a bit raw by the end.


18" x 20" blue construction/art paper
8 1/2" x 11" copy paper (excellent use for paper from the recycle bin)
pencil/blue colored pencil
white glue
colored pastels

These fish are the biggest art project I do with kindergartners, which makes them all the more magnificent! However filling that large paper space is always an issue, so to overcome that problem with this project I walk them through how to draw a fish using regular copy paper as a pattern.

Fold paper and cut an oval for the fish's body shape.
We start by folding the copy paper in half and then into quarters.

We open the paper back up and make a giant 'X' on the outside across the middle fold area. This is a trick I use with all the students since not cutting the fold edge seems to be a difficult concept for most kids of all ages.

Refold the paper and hold it across the the marked areas to protect the fold, cut off the loose corners just to make the paper an oval. Even a bumpy oval works fine for a fish shape, but I do encourage the kids to open up the body and look at it, if something seems a bit too lumpy or square simply have them cut to smooth it out; most of them have an easy time with this concept. Trace the body shape by placing the paper in the middle of the large blue paper.

Cut the fins from the body and trace.
Fish need fins. The back fin is cut by folding the body shape in half and cutting a big 'C' that simply cuts the fold off so that two back fin shapes are created. Students accomplish this much easier if they draw it first and almost all ask if they have done it correctly (which causes a ruckus, but that is part of art too) so few mess it up. If a student cuts theirs funny, have them ask a student next to them to borrow their extra fin to trace, this project is about sharing after all!

The top fins and lower fins are traced from pieces they find on their desk, or they can cut the folded paper remnants one more time right next to the fold, and trace them to get the look of the fins they want. I show them the book images of the Rainbow fish again at this point to remind them of the objective.

The Rainbow Fish has a lovely little fish face, so we copy Mark Pfister's illustrations and draw a line from the top fin to the bottom fin to make a face area, then I show the kids how to add scales, give them ideas for other lines to add but always reinforce the fact that these must be large areas. Drawing big is a challenge for little hands, so I show them with my fingers the size of a half-dollar, don't make any areas smaller than 'this'. Of course they all do, but I remind them repeatedly because their lines all need to be traced with glue for the next steps. Smaller lines fill in with glue, even on my example below the circles I made for the back fin filled in, but in the grand scheme of things, it doesn't really matter.

This is a two-day project, once the kids have the decorative parts filled in on their fish they are done for the day. Reading the book, cutting and tracing the fish generally takes the full 45-minute class period. After the students leave I find a few parent helpers, older students, (or take these home with me) and apply the glue to their lines. The glue takes 12-24 hours to dry and your hand can get exhausted from squeezing the glue bottle that long, so pace yourself. For student work I fill in one scale with glitter glue, which delights kindergartners and ties our artwork forever to this wonderful book.

The next class period is the fun part: coloring. Students need paint shirts. We are lucky to have some very good quality pastels at the school. I insist that every scale has to be a new color, that no two scales touching each other should be the same, but I also show them how to color three shapes apart from each other with one pastel, then apply a second color over it to blend, since coloring one scale or area at a time can take forever! I also tell them that every scale has to be blended, two colors in each scale, simply for the fun of learning what colors do when put on top of one another. They actually love that part, always lots of oohs and aahhs, and "look at mine" followed by "hey, what colors did you use to make that color?" I love that.

Blending colors is great fun!

Remind students: 

  • Try not to touch the scales they have already colored to reduce finger prints. 
  • It takes only one finger to blend pastels, not an entire hand (or both!)
  •  Students also need to hold the paper only on the edges. 
  • Keep their sleeves rolled up past elbows. 
  • Color should be pushed all the way to the glue lines until no paper shows.

These are big so some kids get tired and may need a bit of prodding to finish the background. Having an extra parent or helper in the room may be  beneficial in keeping kids motivated and on task. Blending a color over the background gets rid of all the finger prints that will undoubtedly appear even with the best intentions. Apply a fixative (I use an extra-hold aresole hairspray) to set the pastels.

Before and after, the glue lines make coloring easy and really cool looking!
Kindergarten student examples:

Monday, March 4, 2013

Cream Cheese Foldovers

One of my greatest joys is cooking with my girls. This Christmas we had a cookie baking marathon where my older daughter decided we needed to have eight different kinds of cookies on this year's Nativity trays, so we went on a full two day cookie blow-out. I provided the dough and any needed instruction while my oldest formed and baked most of the cookies. It was certainly a Christmas celebration to remember with all those beautiful cookies, and I had the wonderful opportunity to build lasting memories with my kids. 

Out of all the cookies we made, these cream cheese fold-overs were the first ones to disappear and my family members were the reason why; they may not be the most beautiful of the cookies on the tray, but they are so tasty none of us could stop at just one. Like vultures we picked those off the plates first before the rest of the crowd got wind of what they were missing. I'm sure someone else got to taste them, but unless they were fast, they probably didn't get two!

These are light and flaky like a pie crust wrapped around a tart fruit filling. I have found other recipes online that use any flavor jam or jelly, but I have always used apricot, however this time around I used lemon curd instead and I would have to say that is my new favorite!  This recipe makes 4 dozen.

Cream Cheese Foldovers

1 cup butter, room temperature
8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
2 1/2 cups flour + some for rolling dough
apricot or lemon curd for filling (approximately 3/4 cup)
powdered sugar for dusting (approximately 2 cups)

Warm oven to 375-degrees.

In the bowl of a stand mixer cut butter and cream cheese into squares and add flour. Mix on low just until uniform in color and dough is smooth. Divide dough into three equal portions, shape into a flat square, wrap in plastic wrap and chill for a few hours.

Roll dough to about 1/8" thick (this is about as thin as the dough can be rolled and still hold together.) Lift the dough from the work surface and turn it over to make rolling it out easier, add a bit of flour if it is too sticky. I use a plastic scraper tool to get under the dough if it gets sticky, but a thin spatula would work equally as well. Try to maintain an even rectangular shape to better facilitate cutting the dough into squares.

Cut the dough into 2 3/4" squares. Apply a scant 1/2 teaspoon of filling on the diagonal of each square. Apply a small bit of water with your finger to the underlying corner to act as 'glue' and fold the opposite corners over the filling and gently seal. 

Place on cookie sheet. Cream cheese foldovers expand very little (although the apricot filling may spill out a bit while cooking, the same does not happen as easy if using lemon curd) so they can be crowded on the pan. 

Bake for 9-12 minutes. The cookies should be golden on top; do not under cook as these are better with a bit of a crunch versus being doughy. 

Allow to cool and dust liberally with powdered sugar. 

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Sea Salt Caramels

Caramel making is not for the faint of heart. Not that it is incredibly difficult, but it does require near constant attention from beginning to end. I know this because the first batch I made just prior to this one scorched to such a degree that I had to soak the pan for hours and in the end boiling soapy water was the only way to get that burnt-black sugar to let loose. I had turned the pan to low while I was washing a few dishes, not remembering that stirring constantly really means "stirring constantly," not "frequently," and certainly not "stir once and then go do something else." No, caramels require constant stirring from beginning to end. 

These caramels are rich and soft, but not gooey. This recipe is exactly the same one I use without the addition of sea salt, in fact, it was my mother-in-law's idea to add the salt, and I would have to say it was a great idea!  I liked them perfectly well without the salt, but with the addition of salt they went from delicious to addictive. I can't stop eating them and most of the family feels the same way.  The kids however are not too fond of the salt, which simply means more for me, but it is easy to leave the salt off, next time I might be able to resist salting them all, as long as their rooms are clean. 

Sea Salt Caramels

1 cup butter
2 cups brown sugar
1 14 ounce can sweetened condensed milk
1 cup light corn syrup
1 tsp vanilla

fleur de sel for sprinkling (or other sea salt)

Before adding the butter to the pot, use it to grease a 9 x 13 glass pan.

In a 6 qt stockpot melt the butter and add in the rest of the ingredients, mix well. Over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, cook the mixture to 246-degrees. This takes some time and requires a flat-nosed stirring device (I use a wooden spoon with a squared bowl) to continually scrap the bottom of the pans. Be sure to be attentive while stirring, being careful not to miss any area of the pan as the caramel will scorch quickly and the burnt flavor will be detectable in the finished candy.

When the caramels begin to approach 245-degrees, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep the bottom from scorching. Watch the bottom of the pan as the candy comes up to temp, the darkened color will appear with each stroke of the spoon and will indicate that the caramels are very nearly to or at 245-degrees. If allowed to cook past 245, the caramels will quickly become too hard to chew. Below 245, the caramels will be too soft  to wrap successfully (refrigeration will help if they do come out too soft.) Once the caramels reach 245, immediately remove from the heat and mix in the vanilla.

Work quickly and very carefully to pour the caramel into the buttered dish. Sprinkle the warm caramel with a moderate dusting of salt. Press in the salt lightly to stick. Allow to cool to room temperature. Cut the caramels down the middle of the pan and use a scraper tool under the cut side to lift them out to a cutting board. Working with half the pan of caramels at a time, cut them into bite-sized  pieces and taste for saltines. If more salt is desired, sprinkle the cutting board with salt and roll each piece prior to wrapping. Wrap in wax paper cut a little longer than the caramels and twist the ends to seal. Caramel will soften a bit the next day. Store in refrigerator but consume at room temperature.