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Friday, September 30, 2011

Introducing the Fall Comfort Food Series

After one of my few readers recently consulted me for some comfort food recipes, I decided to begin the Fall Comfort Food Series.  Each week from now until the week before Thanksgiving I will share one of my favorite comfort food recipes with you.  The last entry in the series will include a step-by-step guide to a delicious Thanksgiving dinner. 

DISCLAIMER:  The foods in my Fall Comfort Food Series will in no way, shape, or form be consider or classified as healthy, “skinny”, heart-healthy, or calorie reduced.  Comfort foods are stick-to-your-ribs foods meant to warm your soul, not loosen your waistband.  If you’re looking for a healthy alternative to these foods, look somewhere else.  These recipes are full fat and full flavor, not meant to be eaten on a daily basis, but to be enjoyed every so often when the occasion calls for celebration.  If you think I’m in the wrong by cooking these recipes as my family has for generations, go eat another salad. 

Recipes featured in the Fall Comfort Food Series will include but aren’t necessarily limited to:

-My Famous Baked Chicken
-Momma’s Torcher Texas Chili
-Blue Plate Special Meatloaf
-Pumpkin Parmesan Ravioli
-Macaroni & Cheese, Katie’s Way
-Poor Man’s Supper
-The Last Roast Recipe You Will Ever Want
-Not the Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving Dinner

Don’t see a recipe for a comfort food you’re craving??  Don’t fret my pet.  Just shoot me an email ( and I will promise to make your request a blog posting!

Now, without further ado, I present to you my recipe for My Famous Baked Chicken.

I know, most of you are thinking that any fool can bake chicken.  It is true.  Put chicken breasts in ovenproof dish and bake until finished.  But making a moist, delicious, craveable piece of chicken isn’t always as easy as it would appear.  What’s the secret?  Fat, my friends.  Fat is always the answer to this question.

Any of my closest friends can attest to my ability to bake chicken breasts.  One of my closest, dearest, and oldest friends had the pleasure of enjoying this delicious dish after a long night of revelry in suburban DC when we decided to cook a feast.  At 4am. In our bras.  Alas, I have lost the valuable photo of us tableside in bras and jeans with juicy chicken breasts on our forks.  But the recipe remains, and is an old standby when I’m feeling lazy in the kitchen.  Its simplicity is what makes it so good.  You can serve any side along this dish, but I tend to like it with baked or mashed potatoes and steamed broccoli or carrots.  You’re the master of your kitchen; serve with it whatever you like!!!

My Famous Baked Chicken
4 skinless, boneless chicken breasts, trimmed of fat
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 eggs
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup of buttery crackers (my favorite brand is Town House, but Club and Ritz work well too), crushed
1 teaspoon dried parsley
4 tablespoons butter

Adjust the oven rack to middle position and preheat oven to 375°

Place 1 cup (about 1 sleeve) of buttery crackers in zipper bag and crush into small pieces (doesn't have to be a dust, just small enough to adhere to chicken).  Pour crushed crackers into a pie plate or shallow dish and mix with salt, pepper, and parsley.  Whisk eggs and place in 2nd pie plate or shallow dish.  Put flour in a third pie plate or shallow dish. 

Heat vegetable oil in ovenproof 12” skillet (if you don’t have an ovenproof skillet, you can transfer to ovenproof baking dish after you brown your chicken) over medium-high heat until shimmering.

Salt and pepper both sides of chicken breasts.  Dredge chicken through flour, then eggs, then cracker mixture, patting mixture onto breasts.  Place chicken breasts in skillet and brown on first side, 5-8 minutes.  Using tongs, turn breasts and brown on second side, 4-6 minutes. 

Top each breast with 1 tablespoon butter.  Transfer skillet to oven (or chicken to greased ovenproof baking dish) and bake until chicken is cooked thoroughly, 25-30 minutes.  

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Comfort Food You Never Knew You Loved

The weather is cooling (more so for my northern neighbors).  The leaves are turning... er, kinda.  My ferns are turning, anyway.  What does this change of the season call for?  Comfort food.  It's this time of year that I start getting hungry for chili.  My mom makes what she calls Texas Chili that could win awards, I'm sure.   I'm hoping she will share that recipe with me sometime soon and when she does, I will share here.

So what do we think of when someone mentions comfort food?  For me comfort food means chili, of course, chicken noodle soup or chicken pot pie, french roast, macaroni and cheese, fried chicken, shrimp and grits, pizza, french fries, mashed potatoes with gravy.  I think a lot of Americans will say that the ultimate in comfort food is your traditional Thanksgiving dinner: roast turkey, stuffing and/or dressing, corn, mashed potatoes with gravy, candied sweet potatoes, and pumpkin pie.  Until recently I requested a full Thanksgiving dinner for my birthday, even though the date falls in the middle of June.

Comfort food can be polarizing.  Everyone has their favorite chili recipe, and everyone has their favorite side to go with fried chicken. One camp loves a good beef chili with ample heat, the other swears by white bean chicken chili.  Some people love their fried chicken with waffles, others prefer to pair them with collards and mac and cheese.  No one is right.  No one is wrong.  But everyone has an opinion.

While all the above comfort food is great, and on my menu at some point during the course of the year, I'd like to share with you some less known comfort food.

Each year for Christmas my grandparents whip up countless batches of their Party Cheese Ball.  A spherical conglomerate of cream and cheddar cheeses, pimento, green pepper, and spices rolled in chopped pecans; everyone in the family looks forward to celebrating the holidays with this delicious appetizer.  And if you're a close friend of my grandparents, you can expect to receive a Party Cheese Ball as a gift!!  The recipe is easy and doesn't require too many ingredients, so I'm not sure why it has been designated only for the holidays.  It would be great for your next cocktail party or movie night with the family.

Next, the hamloaf.  You might be familiar with hamloaf's more cosmopolitan cousin, meatloaf.  Another polarizing comfort food menu item, people generally love or loathe meatloaf.  Hamloaf was common where I grew up (you can still purchase Gahr's Meatloaf at the Giant Eagle, pre-made), but as I ventured further and further from northwestern Pennsylvania it became harder and harder to find someone who didn't look at me, puzzled,  when I would mention this overlooked dish.

Moist and flavorful, Hamloaf has a crisp, sweet crust with a tangy body. When exhausted with ham lunch meat after a big ham dinner, my grandmother often would make a hamloaf to use up leftovers.  It's so good, it's usually one of the things I now request when I visit my family (since we don't often have a ham).

Finally, a recipe for a dessert I have never seen on anyone's table or menu other than my grandmother's; Shoo Fly Pie.  An old timey recipe, the pie is sweetened with molasses and has a crumb topping.  Definitely a favorite in our family, it is what my uncle requests for his birthday celebrations.  If you like ginger snaps (which are often sweetened with molasses) you might enjoy this pie.

The next time you're searching for something a little different to quench your comfort food craving, try one of these recipes!  (I will try to add photos as I make these recipes!)

Party Cheese Ball

2 8oz. Packages Philadelphia Cream Cheese, softened
2 cups shredded sharp cheddar cheese
1 tablespoon chopped pimento
1 tablespoon chopped green pepper
1 tablespoon finely chopped onion
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon lemon juice
Dash cayenne pepper
Dash salt
Finely chopped pecans

Combine softened cream cheese and cheddar cheese, mixing until well blended.  Add pimento, pepper, Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice & other seasonings and mix well.  Shape into a ball & roll in nuts.  Makes 1 large ball or 2 small balls.  (You can make into a small loaf, if you prefer)

Hamloaf (Grandma Nancy's Recipe)
1 ½ lb of ham, finely ground (if you're using a leftover ham, put it through the food processor until finely ground)
1 cup bread crumbs
1 egg
1 cup milk
¾ cup tomatoes

Baste with:
1/3 cup vinegar
1 cup sugar
1/8 teaspoon mustard

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Line a rimmed baking sheet with non-stick aluminum foil.  Mix ingredients together and form into loaf on baking sheet.  Bake at 350° for 1.5 hours. 

Shoo Fly Pie
1 cup water
1 teaspoon soda
1 cup molasses
3 cups flour
1/2 cup shortening
1 cup sugar
Pinch salt
1 pie crust (recipe to follow)

In kettle, bring 1 cup water to boil.  Remove from heat.  Add teaspoon soda, stir.  Add 1 cup molasses.  Stir, set aside.  Mix together flour, shortening, sugar, and pinch salt. Add molasses mixture to pie crust, top with flour mixture.  Cook 1 hour at 375°.

Grandma Nancy's Double Pie Crust (will make enough for top and bottom of one pie)
2 Cups Flour
1/4 Cup Sugar
1 Skant Teaspoon Salt
1 Tablespoon Vinegar
1/2 Cup Cream
1 Stick Butter
1 Stick Crisco

Sift together the flour, sugar, and salt.  Take 1 heaping tablespoon of sifted ingredients and place in separate bowl.  Mix vinegar & cream and add to teaspoon of dry ingredients.  Put in Freezer.  Mix butter, crisco, and remaining dry ingredients with hands.  Remove bowl from freezer and incorporate into the other mixture.  Do not over mix.  Roll into pie crusts between two sheets of wax paper.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Pierogies - Delicious Little Pains in the Ass

I recently decided that it was time to expose my husband to his first eastern European cuisine.  Coming from northwestern Pennsylvania, I am no stranger to these foreign tastes.  There is even a very reputable Polish restaurant in my hometown called Pierogi Palace, serving up haluski, cwikla, and of course, every variety of pierogi a girl could want.

Those of you who don't hail from areas with Polish or other eastern European influence might not be familiar with pierogies.  They are soft little pillows of dough, filled with your choice of filling (essentially the same thing as ravioli).  Traditional fillings are potato and cheese or sauerkraut.  The little filled pasta pockets are then fried crisp in butter and served with sour cream.

My adventure making pierogies began one week when hubby was in the field.  I had the whole house to myself and was looking for something to do.  I decided to make pierogies thinking it would be convenient to have them in the freezer ready to prepare for dinner some evening.  While this is true, I had forgotten how much I hate dealing with fresh pasta.  It tastes so much better than dried, it is a pretty big pain in the ass to roll out to your desired thinness without a pasta maker.  And this recipe takes a whole afternoon.  Because you have to make the pasta, you have to make the filling, you have to cut out the pierogies, fill them, boil them, and prepare them for storage.  While not necessarily hard, it is time consuming and will inevitably wreck your nice and clean kitchen.  When I was finished, it looked as though a flour tornado had visited my kitchen. They have indeed turned out to be a convenient dinner to make but this girl will likely be ordering her pierogies from the Pierogi Palace until she gets herself a pasta maker!  But give them a try if you're feeling adventurous!

4 cups all purpose flour
2 eggs
1/2 8oz container sour cream
1/2 teaspoon salt
warm water
Desired filling (potato cheddar filling recipe to follow)

In a large bowl, beat eggs, sour cream, and salt.  Stir in flour and warm water, a little at a time, until dough comes together and feels velvety.  Turn onto floured surface and knead until smooth.  Cover pasta ball with additional flour to keep from sticking and roll to desired thickness (1/8 to 1/4 inch - depending on the size of your work area, you may need to do this in batches).  Cut into small circles with a biscuit cutter.  Fill each circle with small amount of desired filling,  Fold pasta over filling and seal with a fork.  Boil closed pierogi until cooked (they will float when they are done).

Allow pierogi to cool and dry on wax or parchment paper.  At this time, you can freeze your pierogies for use at a later date or cook for serving.

To freeze:  Place cooled, dry pierogies in a freezer zipper bag.  Pour 1 tablespoon of olive oil in bag and turn to coat pasta.  This step keeps them from sticking.

Traditional Cooking & Serving Method:  Heat butter in skillet over medium heat.  Add pierogies in a single layer and brown, turning to brown the second side.  Serve with sour cream.

How I prefer to cook and serve pierogies:  Cut 4 strips of bacon into small pieces and chiffonade a handful of fresh sage.  Cook in skillet over medium heat until crispy; remove from pan with slotted spoon to drain on paper towels.  Add sage to skillet and allow to crisp, about one minute.  Add thawed pierogies to skillet and brown on both sides, 2-3 minutes per side.  Serve with bacon  and grated parmesan sprinkled over pierogies with sour cream on side.

Potato Pierogi Filling
3-4 medium to large baking potatoes, peeled and cubed
2-3 cups sharp cheddar cheese (to your liking)
white pepper

Boil cubed potatoes until soft.  Whip potatoes with cheddar cheese until melted.  Add salt and white pepper to taste.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Chocolate Banana Cupcakes with Peanut Butter Buttercream Icing and Pumpkin Cookies

Surprised to hear from me again, aren't you.  I know you, my enormous following (you five people are my very favorite), were wondering when you would hear from me again.  I apologize for my delay, but I have no excuse.  In order to make it up to you, I will share with you my recipe for Chocolate Banana Cupcakes with Peanut Butter Buttercream Icing AND My Momma's Famous Pumpkin Cookies.

I would also like to butter you up with sharing one of my new favorite things.  My dear beloved younger, beautiful, brilliant, witty, gregarious and hilarious cousin who shares my passion for food (probably instilled in us by our food pushing grandmother) has started a blog of her own, called Experimenting in the Kitchen.  She's just getting started so send her your love!!!

I have been inspired by my dear cousin, a cupcake lover, and decided to create some cupcakes of my own.  I combined a few recipes to make this little gem, which has been Army Man approved by guys other than my husband (who, let's admit it, is a little bit of a pushover for my cooking).

Chocolate Banana Cupcakes with Peanut Butter Buttercream Icing
I found the cake part of this recipe from another great blog: Joy of Baking.

Chocolate Banana Cupcakes
1 cup (200 grams) granulated white sugar
1 cup (130 grams) all-purpose flour
1/3 cup (35 grams) unsweetened cocoa powder (regular or Dutch-processed)
3/4 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 large egg
1/2 cup (120 ml) warm water
2 medium very ripe bananas, mashed
1/4 cup (60 ml) milk
1/4 cup (60 ml) canola, corn, or vegetable oil
3/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (180 degrees C) and place rack in the center of the oven. Line 12 regular-sized muffin cups with paper liners or spray each cup with a non stick vegetable spray.
In a large bowl whisk together the sugar,flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.
In another large bowl, whisk together the egg, mashed banana, water, milk, oil, and vanilla extract. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and stir, or whisk, until combined. (The batter is quite thin.) Pour or scoop the batter into the muffin cups, about 3/4 full, and bake for about20 minutesor until a toothpick inserted in the center of a cupcake comes out clean.  
Remove from oven and let cool on a wire rack. 

Peanut Butter Buttercream Icing
Ladies and Gentlemen, buttercream icing is simple and delicious.  But in a recent internet search to find the ratio, I found recipes with questionable ingredients such as cornstarch, gelatin, shortening, and even one with salt! EEEkkkkk!!!  My Nana just rolled over in her grave!!!

Buttercream should have three, MAYBE four ingredients if you want a flavor other than vanilla.  These ingredients are butter (not shortening, though it will give a comparable consistency, you will miss the butter flavoring of the buttercream - hence the name), confectioners' sugar, vanilla, and the flavor you desire.  Bakers, start your buttercream with 1 part butter to two parts confectioners' sugar, and 1/2 teaspoon vanilla.  Add additional confectioners' sugar little by little to get to the desired consistency and flavor, tasting along the way to ensure quality and deliciousness.  Now you're free to add whatever flavoring you desire.  For these cupcakes, I used 1/2 cup peanut butter (creamy).  Beat until well incorporated and smooth.  Top cupcakes and refrigerate for a harder consistency.

(Add 1/4 cup of cocoa for chocolate buttercream)

My Momma's Famous Pumpkin Cookies
My momma has always made an incredible pumpkin cookie.  These gargantuan monstrosities are a regular in the Craig home this time of year, as all Craigs (and this new Crenshaw) tend to love all things pumpkin.  Pumpkin Rolls, Pumpkin Torte, Pumpkin Spice Latte and my new addition to the pumpkin roster: Pumpkin Parmesan Ravioli (recipe to come later).  But by far, the Craig favorite is my mother's incredible Pumpkin Cookie.

Let me make something very clear.  You can buy a little sugar pumpkin and clean the flesh out for your pumpkin recipe.  But save yourself the trouble and buy Libby's.  Don't buy another brand.  My grandmother will come to your home and bitch slap you.  And let me tell you from experience, she has one mean bitch slap.  For a 74 year old, the woman packs a punch.

Momma's Pumpkin Cookies
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup quick or old fashioned oats
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup softened butter
1 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1 cup sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup solid packed pumpkin

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Combine first 5 ingredients.  In a separate bowl, cream butter and gradually add sugars.  Beat till fluffy.  Add egg and vanilla.  Mix well.  Gradually add dry ingredients, alternating with the pumpkin, to butter mixture until fully incorporated.  Drop 1/4 cup dough onto lightly greased baking sheet.  Bake 20-25 minutes, until firm and lightly browned.  Cool on rack and top with vanilla buttercream (recipe above).