Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Autumn in Maine

At the end of last week I spent a few days in Maine for work. The leaves there were a little ahead of the Chicago area in terms of changing, but still a couple weeks away from "peak" color. Nevertheless, it was beautiful to spend a few days in a place where the land undulates and the trees WAY outnumber the people. This shot was taken on a misty morning, looking down the road from the home where we held our meetings.

Friday, September 17, 2010

An Apple a Day: Friday

I won't be posting the recipe for today's apple dish until later because, well, I made it up, and I'm not sure how it's going to turn out. A few hours ago I threw a bunch of stuff (including 3 apples) into my crockpot. When it's done cooking in a few hours, it will be Slow-Cooker Chicken, Apple, & Sweet Potato Curry. Right now it's creating lovely aromas in my kitchen. How it will taste at dinner, however, is yet to be discovered. If it's a hit, you'll see the recipe posted here in the near future. If it's a miss...well, I suggest you go back to Tuesday and make apple butter, because that stuff is GOOD. I've been eating it every chance I get - on English muffins at breakfast, on my turkey sandwich at lunch, as a dip for crackers...

- BTW -
I'm participating in the inaugural edition of The Pick of the Patch over at Windy Poplars - a Friday collection of best posts from the week.

Windy Poplars

Thursday, September 16, 2010

An Apple a Day: Thursday

Today's apple recipe comes from Aarti, winner of the most recent season of The Next Food Network Star. Travis and I really enjoyed watching this show over the summer. I was pulling for Aarti all the way and was delighted when she won in the end, giving her a shot at her own show on Food Network, called Aarti Party. Her "angle" is adding an Indian touch to both familiar and new dishes, thereby helping home cooks get comfortable and familiar with the spices, flavors, and cooking techniques used in Indian cuisine.

On Tuesday my best friend and I joined cooking forces for our second "Aarti Party dinner & pinochle night" and made two dishes from her show. The main dish was Mango BBQ Pulled Pork Sandwiches, which turned out super yummy. The second dish (and this is where the apple comes in) was an Apple-Lime-Peanut Slaw. The lime juice base of the dressing really gives it a kick, and the cumin brings in some Indian warmth. This is not your typical slaw, but it's very tangy and refreshing and we all liked it. When I make it again, I will probably go the easier route of buying a bag of pre-shredded cabbage. This was my first encounter with a head of cabbage, and I discovered that achieving small, even strips is no easy thing!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

An Apple a Day: Wednesday

It's my turn to bring refreshments to our Wednesday evening small group meeting, which was a wonderful reason to bake my apple spice bundt cake. After a couple of harrowing entries into the RC 2010 Challenge, I am relieved to return to my familiar friend, the bundt cake. So much less fuss and stress. And way fewer dishes and things to wash. Happy all around!

Apple Spice Bundt Cake

1/3 cup vegetable or canola oil
1 cup unsweetened applesauce
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups sugar (or Splenda for baking)
3 large eggs
3 to 4 tart apples, peeled, cored, and diced
1 cup chopped pecans or walnuts (optional...I usually leave them out, but if you're nuts about nuts, by all means, throw them in!)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Preheat oven to 350. Spray a bundt pan with non-stick cooking/baking spray.
2. In a medium bowl, sift together flour, cinnamon, baking soda, and salt.
3. In a large bowl, combine oil, applesauce, eggs, and sugar. Using a hand mixer, mix on high speed until bright yellow.
4. Gradually add dry ingredients to the wet mixture, mixing on medium speed until just incorporated.
5. Fold in vanilla and apples and, if desired, nuts.
6. Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 75 to 90 minutes.
7. Remove pan from oven and let cool on a wire rack for 5-10 minutes.
8. Invert cake onto wire rack and let cool completely.

If you're feeling indulgent, serve drizzled with warm caramel sauce.

Tomorrow's Apple a Day Recipe: Apple-Lime-Peanut Slaw

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

An Apple a Day: Tuesday

Today I'm cooking up a big batch of apple butter. Early this morning I peeled, cored, and cut into eighths a combination of Cortland, McIntosh, and Gala apples (15 in all) and set them to cook on low for 8 hours in my 6-quart crockpot, with a tablespoon of vanilla extract drizzled over the top. While I was peeling I had the idea to include a few of the long, curly peel pieces on top, thinking perhaps they'll lend some of their color and flavor to the apples cooking below. Not really sure, but it looks pretty!
When time's up on the first phase of cooking, I'll pick out the peels and mash up the apples. Then I'll stir in 1/2 cup white sugar, 1/2 cup brown sugar, 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon, and 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves, then let the mixture cook on low for another 6 hours.(Below: the apple mixture after phase one)
This is a new recipe for me, so I am eager to see how it turns out. It should be done cooking just before bedtime tonight, so I will update this post tomorrow some photos, a report on the taste, and whether any recipe adjustments are in order.


After cooking for 6 hours in phase two, the apple mixture smelled AMAZING but was still rather thin, so I set it to cook on high for about 45 minutes with the lid off to cook off some of the liquid. That seemed to do the trick. Next, I was looking for a smoother consistency, so I used an immersion blender to even out the texture, then let it sit for another half hour or so on low to really come together and get thick. (In case you're wondering, bedtime got moved back quite a bit! Next time I think I'll do phase one overnight and begin phase two in the morning.)

The 15 apples I started out with cooked down to about 7 cups of apple butter. On my last trip to the grocery store I was happy to discover that Ball (the canning company) now makes plastic 8 oz. freezer jars (in a pack of 5) perfect for projects like this.
I had some of the apple butter on an English muffin for breakfast this morning and it was a perfect taste of autumn. I like my apple butter just a little on the tart side, so the amount of sugar I used was perfect. If you try this out, you'll want to adjust the sugars (up to 3/4 cup of each) based on your taste preferences and the natural sweetness of the apples you use.

Tomorrow's Apple a Day Recipe: Apple Spice Bundt Cake!

Monday, September 13, 2010

An Apple a Day: Monday

Since I have a bushel of apples in my fridge from going apple-picking on Labor Day (see previous post), it's time to put them to good use. Each day this week (M-F) I'll be posting a recipe that uses apples...some of them are tried-and-true favorites, while others I'll be testing out for the first time this week. I hope you'll find one or two recipes intriguing enough to try yourself! Happy autumn!

Today's recipe is for Creamy Chicken Apple Chili. There are so many things I appreciate about chili. Among them: (a) the way it warms you up from the inside out; (b) beans are a really inexpensive, healthy, and filling ingredient; and (c) there are endless variations. Of the many different kinds of chili I've made (including three-bean turkey chili, Hawaiian chili, smoky BBQ venison chili, vegetarian chili, and pumpkin chili), this is the recipe I come back to most often. It's not what most people think of when they think chili, but BOY OH BOY is it good. It's like a hug in a bowl. Even my meat-loving husband has declared this his favorite chili.

I make a few changes to the original recipe (by Rachael Ray):
  • I use only about a pound or so of boneless, skinless chicken breasts (vs. 2 lbs of chicken tenders)
  • I use about half as much shredded cheese (1 cup is plenty!), and whatever I have on hand, whether it's a jack-cheddar blend, sharp cheddar, mozzarella, or most recently, havarti. The flavor changes a little bit, of course, but it's always been good. 
  • I make it with pinto beans; I really like their texture in this.
  • I usually serve it with corn muffins instead of tortillas.

Leave a comment and let me know if you try this recipe yourself!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Labor Day Adventures

My husband and I spent Labor Day meandering our way home from Kalamazoo, MI where we'd spent the weekend helping friends get settled in their new home. With adventurous spirits and no agenda or time restraints, we ventured off the highway at several different exits, bent on exploring and celebrating the beginning of autumn.

At our first stop we enjoyed free tastings at two different wineries (the second included a tour also). From the first we selected a bottle of red currant wine. We walked away from the second (a little unsteadily...that was quite a bit of wine before lunch!) with a bottle of concord dessert wine. Thankfully, there was an Irish pub right across the street where we steadied ourselves with a very-non-Irish but delicious chicken pesto pizza. After that it was back to the highway.

Several more miles down the road we pulled off I-94 at Exit 39 (Coloma, MI), which turned out to be a wonderful decision. First we visited The Chocolate Garden, which is heavily promoted by billboards on 94. We weren't impressed and declared it overrated. Next we visited Grandpa's Cider Mill, where we bellied up to the bar for another free tasting; this time, the offering was custom-mixed cider, available in over 25 flavors! We tried probably 12-15 flavors before deciding on peach, amaretto, and horchata for pints to purchase and take home. Since by that point we'd pretty much established that the whole day would be one big sugar fest, we picked up pumpkin and blueberry donuts as well. 

We continued down the road and stopped at Vineyards Gourmet Chocolate--unadvertised, but vastly superior (in our opinion) to The Chocolate Garden. It's a family owned shop (dad, mom, and son were all there working, and friendly as could be) and they had a wonderful selection of chocolates, candies, and fudge. After more sampling, we each decided on a sliver of fudge to take with us: maple walnut for Travis, and Pumpkin Pie for me. This shop also had decor items for sale, and we decided one of the Amish-made wooden signs belonged in our home:

Since we'd had such a great time picking blueberries earlier in the summer, we were hoping to find a fruit farm where we could do some more picking. Enter Jollay Orchards, where we quickly picked a bushel of apples (Gala, McIntosh, and Cortland) for 89 cents per pound.

We rounded out our trip home with some shopping at the Lighthouse Place Premium Outlets in Michigan City, IN. I was on the lookout for a celebratory "Welcome Autumn" sweater or jacket. Travis helped me pick out a cozy zip-up jacket in deep eggplant at Gap.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Wee Bit Wednesday

I've decided to participate in my first Wee Bit Wednesday, hosted by fellow blogger Leigh Ashley as a way for bloggers to connect with one another and share a little bit about themselves with their readers. Hope you enjoy learning a wee bit (more) about me!

{one} what was your first pet and how did you come up with its name?
My first (and only) pet (so far) was a white toy poodle named Frisky that my family brought home when I was in second grade. Naming the dog fell upon 7-year-old me, who (at the time) believed Frisky was the perfect name for the fluffy little guy. He was small and active--frisky, even! At least in his early years. Frisky lived a fairly long life (11 years) and by the end (thanks to some iffy-poodle-genes) he suffered from seizures, tooth loss, cataracts, and glaucoma (the latter two of which caused blindness). The end result: a not-so-frisky and rather pathetic bony little creature who did little more than sleep and yelp in pain. Lesson learned: be wary of naming pets with adjectives, for later in life they may be ripe with irony.

{two} do you like your ice crushed or cubed?

{three} do you believe in love at first sight?
I think someone can fall in love with some aspect of a person upon first sight (for example, seeing them help a little old lady across the road, as evidence of their gentle and helpful nature), but it's impossible to KNOW someone upon first sight, and frankly, it's easy to be duped on first sight, too (have you ever found someone really attractive, until they opened their mouth?). So, I think someone can fall in love with the *idea* of someone upon first sight, but when we truly fall in love it's with the person we've come to know them to be - their character, their personality, their interests, their hopes and dreams. 

{four} do you have any nicknames?
Several! Suz being the most obvious (for Suzanne). Suzinator. RedSuz. Squit. Daisy. And a host of sappy pet names known only by my husband.

{five} what movie do you never get tired of watching?
The A&E Pride and Prejudice. I watched it three times all the way through after I got my wisdom teeth out. And the drugs had nothing to do with it.

{six} how do you like your eggs cooked?
Over easy.

{seven} are you named after anyone in particular?
Not that I know of.

{eight} what are three things that you would like to do that you haven’t done yet?
Eat my way through Italy, photograph my way through Ireland, and cook my way through an entire deer (that final one's in progress, nearing completion!)

{nine} what one thing always brightens your mood?

{ten} what five things will you always find in your purse?
Cell phone, wallet, hand lotion, lip balm, coupons.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Million Dollar Cake

Back in January, a conversation with one of my groups of girlfriends produced the Round Cake 2010 Challenge. It's pretty simple, really. We realized that most of us had never attempted to bake, assemble, and decorate a round layer cake. And so we challenged each other make at least one attempt during the year. Well, today I finally made my second attempt. I learned some things from my first attempt back in March. I've also learned some cake-related tips and tricks since then by watching a lot of Food Network this summer (which I will share below - lucky you!).

The delightful occasion for today's cake is having my friends Tom & Lisa over for dinner. Tom and Lisa have known me since I was a shy, awkward, and very tall junior higher in FBC's youth group, the Wave. The year I entered high school they were appointed to full-time missionary service in Africa, first in Ivory Coast, and now in Mali. I am eager to catch up with them and hear their stories. I work with a lot of missionaries in the course of my job, but it's special when those missionaries are also friends.

But without further ado, on to the cake! I wanted to do something a little more involved this time than "box of cake mix + canister of frosting," so I decided to make a Million Dollar Cake (found on The frosting, while deliciously light and fruity, was a little goopy in consistency, which was fine until it came time to frost the sides of the cake. I made quite a mess. I am not sure how successful the transfer from pizza pan to pretty cake stand will be. I have a feeling another mess will be involved, especially when it comes time to cut the cake. But, for the sake of my pretty cake stand (which was a gift from Travis' Aunt Cindy, and when not employed to display cakes, hangs out on the dresser in my bedroom as a way to corral my various lotions in a decorative manner) I am going to make the attempt anyway. Stand by - I will update this post tomorrow with (hopefully) an attractive "after" photo!

A few photos from the process: 

Since this was only my second time making a round layer cake, I decided I'd give the "one box of mix : two 9 inch cake pans" ratio one more try, since the box says you can. I should not have bothered. As last time, the two cake layers came out pathetically short. Even more than last time, they were also a rather comic reminder of how NOT level the lines are in this apartment, the kitchen floor being no exception.
After seeing the results of round one, I decided to do what I should have done in the first place, and bake an entire box of cake mix in one 9" pan. Much better. I also made sure to rotate the pan about 10 minutes into baking, before the cake had really started to set, to compensate for the floor.
To level off the tops of the cakes I used Trick #1: Dental floss. Like cutting clay with a piece of string. Except cake. With floss. Worked like a charm. Then I employed Trick #2: Brush each layer with liquid (in this case, some of the juice drained from the fruit) to make the cake nice and moist. I think I learned that one from an episode of Throwdown with Bobby Flay. Mostly, I was excited to use my pastry brush.
Half-way through assembly:
When all the layers were in place, it was clear the layers were far from even, and that the bottom two were slightly smaller in circumference. Oh well. That's why you cover the whole thing in frosting, right?
The cake is currently sitting in the fridge, fully frosted, awaiting our the arrival of our dinner guests and the moment of truth.

The transfer from pizza pan to cake stand went more smoothly than anticipated. Here's the finished product, along with my friends Tom & Lisa, who enjoyed the cake very much. We all did.
However, even after serving cake to 5 people, and sending a sizable portion home with them, we still have half a cake in our fridge! And so there will be dessert tonight when we get home from our date...and perhaps breakfast tomorrow morning before we leave for Michigan. Because as Travis pointed out this morning as we ate cereal instead of cake..."but there's fruit in there, and some eggs...those are breakfast foods, right?"

And finally, because cake + cake stand was too tall to fit in the fridge, the cake went back on the pizza pan and the stand back to its regular duty in my bedroom.