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Holiday Treat Ideas
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Whether you’re stuffing your treat packages, decorating the tree, heading to a cookie swap, or hopping from one holiday party to another, here are some fabulous homemade treat ideas for you!  I also pulled a few of our favorite cookies together last week for quick access in the sidebar column to the right so be sure to check ‘em out.  Merry Merry!

Cakes, Pies & Tarts:

Vanilla Bean Eggnog Bundt Cake

Vanilla Bean Eggnog Bundt Cake

Black & White Cranberry Tarts

Black & White Cranberry Tarts

Chocolate Truffle Tart

Chocolate Truffle Tart

Grasshopper Pie

Grasshopper Pie

Cookies & Brownies:

Lofthouse Style Soft Frosted Sugar Cookies

Lofthouse-Style Soft Sugar Cookies

Orange Cranberry White Chocolate Biscotti

Orange Cranberry White Chocolate Biscotti

Peppermint Brownies

Peppermint Brownies

Chocolate Dipped Orange Butter Cookies

Chocolate-Dipped Orange Butter Cookies

Candy & Confections:
Baileys Marshmallows

Bailey’s Marshmallows

Homemade Peppermint Patties

Peppermint Patties

Orangettes

Orangettes

Sea Salt Caramel Corn

Sea Salt Caramel Corn

Drinks:

Cranberry Lime Champange Bellinis

Cranberry Lime Champagne Bellinis

Homemade Hot Chocolate Mix

Homemade Hot Chocolate Mix

The Packaging:

Treat Packaging Ideas

Putting it All Together

DIY: Soft Flour Tortillas
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I’m so excited to tell you guys that I’ve got this big item to cross off my ever-daunting and always-growing to-make list!  These flour tortillas were major for me.  We eat a lot of Tex-Mex food that requires soft flour tortillas (and I always use them in place of corn tortillas) and when we have leftovers, I bring wrap sandwiches to bring to work.  And if you’ve been around these parts long enough, you’ll know that in the past couple of years, I’ve been DIY-ing more and more in order to cut out ingredients we can’t pronounce (check out the short and basic ingredient list below!) and to save a few bucks in the process.

These tortillas are my latest feat and when I tell you that they are soooo worth the little bit of effort, I’m not kidding.  After only 30 minutes, I had a warm stack of these guys ready to use for multiple meals.  And as far as quality goes, there is just no comparison with store-bought tortillas; where store-bought are rubbery and dry, the homemade version yields soft and always pliable tortillas.  You don’t have to worry about the bottoms splitting in your hand and you can fold them and roll them without any cracking.  Basically, for the Tex-Mex lovers that we are, these DIY soft flour tortillas couldn’t be more perfect.

DIY: Soft Flour Tortillas

Prep Time: 25 minutes

Cook Time: 5 minutes

Total Time: 30 minutes

Yield: 12 (8-inch) tortillas

I rolled my tortillas out into 8-inch rounds and they yielded some pretty hefty-sized tortillas, even for soft tacos. So in the future, I'll reduce the size to 6 inches by cutting the dough into approximately 1 1/2 oz pieces (or about 16 pieces). If you want larger tortillas, like for burritos, cut the dough into fewer pieces and roll them out to 10 or 12 inches in diameter. If you don't have a food processor, you can make these tortillas by hand, using a pastry cutter or two knives to cut the ingredients into each other and a wooden spoon to mix everything up.

Ingredients

  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 heaping tsp table salt
  • 5 tbsp shortening, lard, or softened unsalted butter
  • 3/4 cup warm water

Instructions

  1. In the bowl of the food processor fitted with the dough blade, pulse the flour, baking powder, and salt a few times to stir up the ingredients. Add in the fat and process in quick pulses until the mixture starts become crumbly. With the food processor on, slowly stream in the water through the feeder at the top, just until the a cohesive ball forms and starts traveling around the sides of the bowl.
  2. Turn the food processor on and let the dough knead for about 30 seconds. The dough should clear the sides of the bowl and be soft but not overly sticky.
  3. Turn the dough out onto a well-floured board or countertop and divide it into 12 equal-size portions, 2 oz each if you're weighing them. Cover the dough pieces with a kitchen towel and let them rest for 10 minutes.
  4. Meanwhile, heat a large, dry saute pan (cast iron works great here) over medium-high heat.
  5. One at a time, roll the dough balls into thin rounds (about 8 inches each), dusting the top with just enough flour to keep the tortilla from sticking to the rolling pin. Try not to roll out too many at a time or they will start to dry out while they wait to be cooked.
  6. Lay one tortilla flat in the heated pan and cook on each side for 20-40 seconds, until the tortilla starts to bubble in places and the bubbled areas start to brown. While each one cooks, you can roll out the next tortilla to get it ready for the pan.
  7. Keep the finished tortillas covered with a kitchen towel to keep them warm and pliable until you're ready to use them. Unused tortillas can be cooled completely and refrigerated in a large zipper bag for up to 5 days.

Source

source: adapted from Confections of a Foodie Bride

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http://www.smells-like-home.com/2012/07/diy-soft-flour-tortillas/

Strawberry Sour Cream Ice Cream
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We headed out to the strawberry fields one Sunday morning a few weeks ago and the minute we stepped into the field, I knew we were in for an outstanding day.  And it was the mouth water-inducing smell of fresh strawberries that made me almost want to cry with regret for not having asked for a larger box for picking.  I didn’t even have to get on my hands and knees before the smell hit me – luscious, robust, perfectly ripened strawberries.  Peak season strawberries.

And what did I do with them when I got home?  I froze them.  I’m almost embarrassed to admit that those amazing peak season strawberries got plucked of their breath so early on after being picked.  Well actually, some of the berries hit the freezer in the form of ice cream so it’s totally justifiable, right? (Some of them also made it to this strawberry stuffed french toast.)  This strawberry sour cream version is an eggless ice cream (which also means no-cook!) with a base that I let macerate while I got ready for work then whipped up in the food processor before I ran out the door.  I let the base – it isn’t really a custard since there aren’t any eggs – chill in the fridge all day and I churned it when I got home around 5pm.  By 8, we had fresh strawberry ice cream for dessert.  It was the perfect consistency – that of the few creamy spoonfuls you skim off the top of the carton when you get it home from the grocery store.  You all know what I mean.  The sour cream replaces the eggs for the creamy-factor and it also brings a bit of tang to the bowl.  The strawberries, though, truly are the star of this ice cream and I know I say this every.single.time I post a new ice cream recipe but I think we have a new favorite!

Looking for other frozen treat ideas for the summer?  I pulled together a few in this post.

Chipotle Ranch Dressing
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I can’t pinpoint when it happened but all of a sudden, I want to dip everything in ranch dressing.  Well, maybe not everything – just dippable things like sweet potato fries and broccoli.  And tortilla chips.  And even though I was truly mortified when I first saw my girlfriends dipping pizza in ranch dressing back in college, I realize now they were totally on to something.

It’s not hard to love homemade ranch dressing, especially since it’s low in fat (i.e., low in guilt) and doesn’t reside in a bottle from the grocery store.  It’s even more difficult not to love a kicked-up version of this dressing: chipotle.  Smoky chipotles immersed in cool ranch dressing?  Bring.it.on.  I love it almost as much as the original but when the right food calls for it (like honey-lime marinated chicken salad or plain ol’ garden tomatoes), this version certainly delivers.

Chipotle Ranch Dressing

Total Time: 10 minutes

Yield: about 2 cups

Ingredients

  • ¾ cup light mayonnaise
  • ¾ cup (about 6 oz) plain nonfat Greek yogurt
  • 1 canned chipotle pepper, roughly chopped
  • 1 tbsp lime juice
  • 1 small bunch of chives
  • Medium handful of cilantro (about 1/3 cup)
  • 1 clove garlic, roughly chopped
  • ½ tsp salt
  • ¼ tsp pepper
  • ¼ to ½ cup buttermilk

Instructions

  1. In a blender or bowl of a food processor, combine all of the ingredients, starting with just 1/4 cup buttermilk. Blend for 10 seconds. Check the consistency and if you’d like it thinner, blend in additional buttermilk, 1 tablespoon at a time until the dressing reaches desired consistency. Use less buttermilk if you’re looking for chipotle ranch dip and more buttermilk for dressing.
  2. Store in a sealed container or jar in the refrigerator for up to 3 weeks.

Source

source: adapted from Confections of a Foodie Bride

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http://www.smells-like-home.com/2012/06/chipotle-ranch-dressing/

DIY: Cinnamon Graham Crackers
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DIY cinnamon graham crackers

Oh those horrible teenage years with a mouth full of braces.  Eating Oreos was devastatingly embarrassing.  The time I got hit in the mouth with a softball trying to tag out a stealing runner at 3rd base was a pretty horrific event.  And for me, it always seemed like the two days following the orthodontic visits where my braces were tightened were worse than dealing with teenage-PMS.  Imagine when they occurred together?!

DIY cinnamon graham crackers

Yet, I had a solace aside from the inordinate amount of Advil I consumed during those years: mush.  Broken up graham crackers soaked in a bowl of ice cold milk.  To the unfamiliar “palate” it probably sounds horrible.  But when your mouth hurts so much to even close your jaw, you’ll try almost anything.  I hated Carnation.  Smoothies were almost unheard of in my neck of the woods (bagel- and egg sandwich-centric Long Island) and yogurt wasn’t considered a full breakfast for an active teenager in my house.  This mush is actually what my mom ate when she had braces and I fell in love with it.

DIY cinnamon graham crackers

But I won’t go on and on about the mush.  It’s my general love for graham crackers that made me want to try a homemade version for so long.  I don’t typically buy them any more unless I need to make a crust for a cheesecake so it’s been a true delight having a stack of fresh graham crackers at home…and that include a list of ingredients that I can pronounce.  This version uses all dark brown sugar (that’s why they are so dark in the photos – I didn’t burn them) which really helps to develop a deep caramel-ish flavor in the grahams.  After cooling, they crisp up perfectly and can be eaten as they are (I love a schmear of peanut butter on them), ground down into crumbs for crusts, broken up to mix into strawberry cheesecake ice cream, or used for homemade s’mores (more on that soon).  I haven’t tried them soaked in milk yet, but maybe that’s in my future this weekend…you know, for old time’s sake.

Classic American Sandwich Bread
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classic sandwich bread

Is there nothing more satisfying than a warm loaf of freshly baked homemade bread?  Not in my book and apparently, not according to so many of you who entered the KitchenAid Mixer giveaway last week and told us that the first thing you would do with said mixer is make homemade bread.  Well folks, congrats to Steph who said:

Steph is the winner of the KitchenAid mixer and even though her plans are to make chocolate chip cookies (her coworkers are really excited about her win, by the way), I’m pretty sure she’s going to want to make this bread also.  Heck, you’re going to want to make this bread because it is quite possibly the most fantastically amazing homemade white bread ever created.

classic sandwich bread

Overly effusive?  Yes.  Lying?  No.  Seriously, it’s difficult for me to accurately describe the perfectly soft crumb without snacking on a piece of it with some softened butter and tangy rhubarb strawberry jam as I sit and write this post (actually, it’s not so difficult for me to do this).  It’s difficult for me to tell you how four adults nearly devoured an entire loaf in one day.  And it’s difficult for me to tell you that I will be making my third loaf this weekend in as many weeks.  I beg you, please go and make this bread so you can start telling me how awesome it is.  This bread is the epitome of what homemade sandwich bread should be.  It’s bread that can make you squeal with delight over eating a turkey sandwich.  We love it dearly.  You will too.

Classic American Sandwich Bread

Prep Time: 2 hours

Cook Time: 50 minutes

Total Time: 2 hours, 50 minutes

Yield: 1 loaf

Ingredients

  • 3 ¾ cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for work surface
  • 2 tsp table salt
  • 1 cup milk, warm (about 110° F)
  • 1/3 cup water, warm (about 110° F)
  • 2 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
  • 3 tbsp honey
  • 1 package or 2 ¼ tsp instant yeast

Instructions

  1. Adjust oven rack to low position and heat oven to 200° F. Once oven temperature reaches 200° F, maintain heat 10 minutes, then turn off oven heat. I use the proof setting on my oven which maintains the heat at 85° F so if your kitchen is warm enough, there is no need to use the oven for proofing – just keep the bowl in a draft-free area of the kitchen.
  2. Mix 3 ½ cups of the flour and salt in bowl of standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix milk, water, butter, honey, and yeast in 4-cup liquid measuring cup. Turn mixer to low and slowly add liquid. When dough comes together, remove the paddle attachment and switch to the dough hook – the dough will be very sticky at this point. Increase speed to medium (setting number 4 on a KitchenAid mixer) and mix until dough is smooth and satiny, stopping machine two or three times to scrape dough from hook if necessary, about 10 minutes. If, after 5 minutes the dough still sticks to the side of the bowl, add another ¼ cup of flour to the dough, 1 tablespoon at a time until the dough clears the sides of the bowl. Turn dough onto lightly floured work surface; knead to form a smooth, round ball, about 15 seconds.
  3. Place dough in very lightly oiled bowl, rubbing dough around bowl to lightly coat. Cover bowl tightly with plastic wrap; place in warm oven until dough doubles in size, 40 to 50 minutes.
  4. Form dough into loaf by gently pressing the dough into a rectangle, 1-inch thick and no wider than 9 inches long, with the long side closest to you. Next, starting with the long side, roll the dough firmly into a cylinder, pinching the seam with your fingers to make sure the dough sticks to itself. Turn dough seam side up and pinch it closed. Place dough in greased 9-by-5-by-3-inch loaf pan and press gently so dough touches all four sides of pan. Cover the pan with plastic wrap; set aside in warm spot (not in the oven) until dough almost doubles in size, 20 to 30 minutes.
  5. Meanwhile, heat oven to 350° F and adjust the racks to the center and bottom positions. Place an empty baking pan on the bottom rack. Bring 2 cups water to boil.
  6. Remove plastic wrap from loaf pan. Place pan in oven and immediately pour heated water into empty baking pan; close oven door. Bake until instant-read thermometer inserted at angle from short end just above pan rim into center of loaf reads 195° F, about 40 to 50 minutes. Remove bread from pan, transfer to a wire rack, and cool to room temperature. Slice and serve.

Source

source: adapted from Baking Illustrated, by the editors of Cook’s Illustrated Magazine

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Soft Pretzel Bites with Cheese Sauce
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I am a complete sucker for mall pretzels.  And it’s a darn good thing that you’ll only find me at the mall once or twice a year because more trips would like equal more pretzels.  And as much as I love them, I’ve only made them once before, admittedly to great success but since Kyle isn’t a huge fan (crazy boy), I haven’t made them again.  But in all the years since I first made them, there’s been one recipe I’ve been saving and I finally decided to bust it out just in time to share it with you while you’re all getting crazy planning your Super Bowl (or maybe anti-Super Bowl?) party menus.  For the record, we’ll both be watching movies this Sunday, as is our annual tradition, while the rest of the nation is either watching the Super Bowl or waiting for the commercials (rarely both).

So this recipe isn’t any big secret; in fact, it’s probably the most widely adored one out there but if you haven’t made it yet, you need to get.on.it.  Like now!  And don’t be intimidated by making homemade soft pretzels either because this recipe is practically fool-proof.  I not only halved the recipe (something that isn’t always recommended with yeast recipes), but I also refrigerated the dough overnight after the rise (something that is usually done to yeast dough before the rise, if at all).  I let the dough come back to room temperature for about 2 hours before using it and the pretzel bites turned out like a dream.  Seriously awesome soft pretzels.  And dipped in the homemade cheese sauce (no processed ingredients with this recipe!), I was floating through mall pretzel heaven.  Josie made this recipe back in October and suggested brushing the pretzels both before and after baking them and I couldn’t agree more – buttery soft pretzels might just be the perfect snack food!

Soft Pretzel Bites with Cheese Sauce

Prep Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Cook Time: PT10-12M

Yield: about 10 dozen pretzel pieces

If one batch of pretzels is too much for your needs or you want to make them in advance for a party, these pretzel bites can be frozen after you cut them and before you boil them. Place the dough pieces on a parchment-lined baking sheet and freeze then toss them in a zip-top bag. When you want them later, boil them directly from the freezer (add an extra 15 seconds to the boil time) and bake for the time instructed.

Ingredients

    For the pretzels:
  • 1 1/2 cups warm (110 to 115 degrees F) water
  • 1 tbsp sugar
  • 2 tsp kosher salt
  • 2 1/4 tsp instant yeast
  • 22 ounces all-purpose flour, approximately 4 1/2 cups
  • 2 ounces unsalted butter, melted
  • Vegetable oil
  • 10 cups water
  • 2/3 cup baking soda
  • 2 tbsp butter, melted
  • Pretzel or Kosher salt
  • For the cheese sauce:
  • 2 tbsp unsalted butter
  • 2 tbsp all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup milk
  • 8 oz extra sharp cheddar cheese, shredded (not package pre-shredded cheese - shred your own)
  • Kosher salt

Instructions

  1. To make the pretzels: In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix together the water, sugar, yeast, and salt on low speed for 10 seconds. Switch to the dough hook and add the flour and butter. Mix on low speed until well combined. Change to medium speed and knead until the dough is smooth and pulls away from the side of the bowl, approximately 4 to 5 minutes. Remove the dough from the bowl and transfer it to a well-oiled bowl. Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap and set it in a warm place for approximately 50 to 55 minutes or until the dough has doubled in size.
  2. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper. Set aside.
  3. Bring the 10 cups of water and the baking soda to a rolling boil in an wide 8-quart saucepan or roasting pan.
  4. In the meantime, turn the dough out onto a slightly oiled work surface and divide into 8 equal pieces. Roll out each piece of dough into a 24-inch rope. Slice each rope into 1 1/2-inch pieces. Place a lightly damp towel over the pretzel pieces to prevent them from drying out while you roll and cut the other pieces.
  5. Using a slotted spoon lower a handful of the pretzel pieces into the boiling water and boil them for 30 seconds, flipping them around in the water with the spoon a couple of times. Remove the pretzel pieces from the water using the spoon, drain as best you can, and place them on the baking sheets. Brush the top of each pretzel with the melted butter and sprinkle with the pretzel/Kosher salt. Bake until dark golden brown in color, approximately 10 - 12 minutes. Brush with remaining melted butter before serving. Serve warm.
  6. To make the cheese sauce: In a small saucepan set over medium heat, melt the butter. Whisk in the flour and cook for 30 seconds, whisking constantly.
  7. Slowly whisk in the milk until no lumps of flour remain. Stirring constantly, bring the milk to a simmer over medium-low heat until it thickens, about 3-5 minutes. Remove the pan from the stove and stir in the shredded cheese until all of the cheese has melted. Add a pinch of salt, if needed. Serve warm. Leftovers can be reheated in the microwave on medium power at 30 second intervals.

Source

source: pretzels adapted from Alton Brown; cheese sauce is a Smells Like Home original

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Homemade Peppermint Patties
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IMG_0436

When I set out to create my holiday treat packages last year, I knew I wanted to make treats I’d never made before but that had been on my to-make list for a while.  Like marshmallows.  And hot chocolate.  And these peppermint patties.  And let me tell you, these little minty treats probably made me the most proud I’ve been in the kitchen in quite a while.  The filling is easy to put together, but dipping them in chocolate will require some patience.  You’ll need to dip them in batches and keep the extra little rounds of filling really cold (like frozen) while you dip because as soon as they start to come to room temperature, dipping them in warm chocolate is impossible.  And impossibly messy.  Trust me.  The chocolate will harden but make sure all of the filling is covered by chocolate – otherwise it will ooze out.  But needless to say, my peppermint patty connoisseur (Kyle) LOVED these (so did I!), as they are waaaay better than the store-bought version.  You’ll find that they will be gushed over and will certainly be worth the little extra effort it takes to make them.

Baileys Marshmallows
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Baileys Marshmallows

I swear my candy thermometer has gotten more of a workout this past week than in all of the past year!  As I mentioned a couple days ago, I’m not making a whole lot of cookies this Christmas and have opted instead for candies, confections, and other treats for my treat boxesHot chocolate mix and homemade marshmallows were the first items to go on my list and it wasn’t until Shawnda posted these Baileys marshmallows was I sold on a recipe.

IMG_0457

This was my first time making marshmallows for the sake of actually making marshmallows (i.e., not marshmallow filling in other recipes) and I’ve learned from this attempt that my mixer is more powerful than I thought.  While the recipe instructs to beat the mixture for 15 on high, I think my mixture was finished at about 7 minutes because it only deflated from there, leaving me with semi-flat marshmallows.  Regardless of how they looked, they tasted fabulous and if I wasn’t already a Baileys Irish Cream fan to begin with (which I was – yum!), these marshmallows would have sealed the deal.  The flavor of the Baileys really comes through since it isn’t cooked and the combination of the melted marshmallows in a mug of rich hot chocolate is certainly the perfect way to end a harried winter day.  Dessert anyone?

DIY: Homemade Dulce de Leche
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DIY: Homemade Dulce de Leche

How many times have you come across an ingredient in a recipe that you just can’t find in your regular grocery store?  For me, it’s been countless times, and dulce de leche is one of those elusive ingredients that continues to confound me.  I often think that my grocery store has a fairly extensive selection of ethnic food but then again, I can’t find things like decent lo mein noodles or Thai chili paste…or dulce de leche, a product as common in Latin American markets as peanut butter is in any traditional grocery store in the U.S.  The first time I needed dulce de leche for a recipe, I foolishly spent over $10 on a jar from a specialty food store.

DIY: Homemade Dulce de Leche

Well, never again.  Never.  Ever.  Because I have found the secret to this elusive ingredient: a $2 can of sweetened condensed milk.  Yup, that’s all you’ll need!  Prick a tiny hole in the top of the can (this is a must!!), boil the heck out of the can for about 3 1/2 hours, and you will end up with simply gorgeous and over-the-top amazing dulce de leche.  It’s deeper, richer, and thicker in consistency than caramel and is fantastic in frosting (or this recipe), over ice cream, as a dip for apples or pretzels, as a filling in cupcakes or cookies, swirled into hot chocolate or a latté, spooned into mason jars for Christmas treat packages (it does need to be refrigerated though!)…I’m sure you guys could come up with a 100 more uses aside from eating straight off a spoon.  I have two more uses for it that I’ll share with you before Christmas so you may want to pick up a can or two sweetened condensed milk this weekend!

Homemade Hot Chocolate Mix
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Homemade Hot Chocolate Mix

With the bustling and chronically insane holiday season upon us, sometimes all I want to do is curl up on the couch with a cozy blanket (which usually involves a fight with the cat for usage rights), a book I can get lost in, and a steaming mug of hot chocolate.  OK, maybe it’s more like that’s all I want to do this time of year but life always seems to get in the way of these things.

Regardless of your crazy schedules, I urge you to take a few minutes in the kitchen to whip up this homemade hot chocolate mix and treat yourself to a divine mug of it.  I can guarantee that this homemade mix surpasses any of the higher quality mixes you can buy and what’s even better is that you control what goes into it.  Not a huge fan of bittersweet chocolate?  Replace some or all of it, if you’re feeling adventurous, with milk chocolate.  I added a few tablespoons of instant espresso powder because I love a shot of espresso in my hot chocolate but I don’t have an espresso maker at home.  If you’ve made enough chocolate recipes, you’ll know that coffee in one form or another amplifies the chocolate flavor and that’s what I was going for here.  This is also the time to consider making a big batch of vanilla sugar in advance of making the mix since you can use it quickly rather than having to wait 24hrs as this recipe instructs.  The recipe makes a huge amount of hot chocolate mix (almost 2 quarts, dry) and because it lasts up to 6 months, it will make the perfect addition to my Christmas gift packages this year.  I love my cocoa with a heaping spoonful of whipped cream but perhaps some homemade marshmallows are in my future as well…

Martha’s Mac and Cheese
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Martha's Mac and Cheese

Life doesn’t get any better than when you’re faced with a bowl of the most incredible homemade mac and cheese on the planet.  That’s a fact.  It’s time to forget about the woes of everyday life.   About the job that stinks.  About the kitchen budget that just went bust.  About the nasty head cold and sore throat.  Your week probably shaped up to be different than mine did last week but while the circumstances are probably different, we all deal with life’s crap.  And as a reward for dealing with said crap, it’s time to belly up to a bowl of this mac and cheese.  You won’t be sorry.

Martha's Mac and Cheese

A perfect blend of sharp cheddar and gruyere melted into a luscious white béchamel sauce makes this mac and cheese everything I’ve ever wanted in this classic dish.  The recipe yields way more cheese sauce than you think it should but the sauce finds its way into all of the nooks and crannies of the basic elbow macaroni and even after baking, leaves you with the creamiest baked mac and cheese ever.  Yes, ever.

Martha's Mac and Cheese

If you’re not familiar with croutons on top of your mac and cheese, get used to it because after trying Martha’s version, you’ll never go back to breadcrumbs.  Cubed white bread gets tossed with melted butter and the oven bakes up the bread right on top of the mac and cheese – there’s no extra step to browning them like croutons!  The result is a topping of buttery croutons over creamy mac and cheese.  It’s pure heaven.  I made Martha’s recipe exactly as written (except that I halved the recipe and had no issues at all with the measurements) and wouldn’t change a single thing the next time I make it.  Somethings are better left untouched.  This mac and cheese recipe is one of them.

Grafton Village Cheese Company
Let’s talk cheese for a quick second and add in some fun stuff..  The recipe calls for sharp cheddar and gruyere and I don’t suggest you change this mix.  The cheddar melts beautifully as does the gruyere but the gruyere also adds a little nuttiness…or earthiness…to this mac and cheese.  It’s an amazing combination.  Go for the best cheddar you can afford.  I purchased mine while in Vermont last week (though any block of good white cheddar – not pre-shredded! – will work with this recipe) when Kyle and I met up with Annie and Ben.  We hit the Grafton Village Cheese Company for a cheese tasting, took a walk around the quaint and sleepy Grafton Village, and had a warm and cozy lunch next door to the cheese shop.  It was seriously so fabulous to finally, after nearly 5 years of being friends online and through our blogs, meet up and hang out!  You can bet that we’re already planning another get together soon!  I’ve got some additional photos of our trip to Lake George and VT in my Flickr photostream if you feel like checking them out.

Annie and Tara

Martha’s Mac and Cheese

Total Time: 45 minutes

Yield: 12 servings

Ingredients

  • 6 slices good-quality white bread, crusts removed, torn or diced into 1/4- to 1/2-inch pieces
  • 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, plus more for dish
  • 5 ½ cups milk
  • ½ cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 tsp kosher salt
  • ¼ tsp freshly grated nutmeg
  • ¼ tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • ¼ tsp cayenne pepper
  • 4 ½ cups (about 18 ounces) grated sharp white cheddar
  • 2 cups (about 8 ounces) grated Gruyere
  • 16 oz elbow macaroni

Instructions

  1. Heat the oven to 375° F. Butter a 3-quart casserole dish; set aside. Place bread pieces in a medium bowl. In a small saucepan over medium heat, melt 2 tablespoons butter. Pour butter into the bowl with bread, and toss. Set the bread pieces aside.
  2. Cook pasta 3 to 4 minutes less than the package instructions indicate.
  3. Meanwhile, in a medium saucepan set over medium heat, heat milk. Melt remaining 6 tablespoons butter in a high-sided skillet over medium heat. When butter bubbles, add flour. Cook, stirring, 1 minute.
  4. Slowly pour hot milk into flour-butter mixture while whisking. Continue cooking, whisking constantly, until the mixture bubbles and becomes thick.
  5. Remove the pan from the heat. Stir in salt, nutmeg, black pepper, cayenne pepper, 3 cups cheddar, and 1 ½ cups Gruyere. Set cheese sauce aside.
  6. Transfer the macaroni to a colander, rinse under cold running water, and drain well. Stir macaroni into the cheese sauce.
  7. Pour the mixture into the prepared casserole dish. Sprinkle remaining 1 ½ cups cheddar and ½ cup Gruyere; scatter bread pieces over the top. Bake until browned on top, about 30 minutes. Transfer dish to a wire rack to cool for 5 minutes; serve hot.

Source

source: Martha Stewart as seen on TheKitchn and Food52

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Homemade Halloween Oreo Cookies
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I really don’t think I’m unlike many food bloggers.  I make my way through the grocery store on the outer edges, starting with produce and ending with dairy with only a few random dips into the center aisles for things like dried pasta, canned tomatoes, sugar, and flour.  We’re increasingly using less and less bottled items since I’ve found it so easy to make my own dressings and bbq sauce (ketchup is next on my list).  But for some reason, when I don’t feel like making cookies, I can’t pass up Oreos.  It’s so rare that I buy them, though, that this usually only happens when the fun holiday colors show up or my hankering for a Double Stuf completely consumes me.  That said, I decided it was time to make my own and being that the Halloween Oreos have been taunting me for weeks, my timing was right.

Homemade Halloween Oreo Cookies

These Oreos may have been some of the easiest cookies I’ve ever made.  In a stand mixer or food processor in an unorthodox cookie-making manner, you’ll add the dry ingredients first (including the sugar), then beat in the butter and then the egg.  It’s almost like making a pastry dough but you’ll end up with a firm dough that will be scooped into 1/2-inch balls, lightly flattened, and baked.  And inside of about 17.5 minutes (give or take) you will have homemade Oreo cookies!  The recipe states that you can vary the amount of sugar but for these cookies, I feel like less is more where next time I’ll use closer to 1 cup of sugar rather than 1 1/4 cups since I feel like they were just a tad too sweet – if you think about it, those chocolate wafers on their own aren’t all that sweet.  Regarding the colored cream filling, I split the white filling into three bowls and added enough color gel to achieve my desired colors then piped them on the cookie halves.  Really easy and such a cute effect for any of those upcoming Halloween parties or potlucks – you’ll definitely turn some heads if you show up with these Halloween Oreos!

Baked Oven Fries
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Baked Oven Fries

I’m all for easy weeknight meals and most nights when I get home from work, I’m pretty organized in the meal department.  Every week, I plan out a menu and keep it on the side of the fridge so that in the mornings, I’ll know what I need defrost and in the evenings, I’ve got a game plan for the meal at hand.  I’ve shared plenty of my weeknight meals with you here but it isn’t often that I share a side dish and that may be why I’m so excited to share these baked oven fries with you.

Simply cut the potatoes into wedges and after a short soak in some hot water, the wedges head into the oven on a baking sheet that you’ll have coated with vegetable/canola/peanut oil.  And believe it or not, it isn’t the olive oil that makes these fries so flipping amazing – it’s the soak!  The water pulls out some of the starch from the potatoes which allows them to bake up perfectly tender.  The oil on the baking sheet is what you’ll need to crisp up the outsides of the potatoes so don’t think you can skip this step to cut back on calories – the editors of Cook’s Illustrated always think of everything.  I’ve made these fries a few times and I feel like you can allow the potatoes to soak for between 10 and 20 minutes – 10 is the recommended time by CI and over 20 minutes results in a hollow oven fry…and nobody likes a hollow fry!

To further ease up my weeknight, I’ve been pairing these fries with bbq chicken burgers.  I make double-batches of burgers, shape the burgers, and freeze them in 2-pack portions so they are ready to pull from the freezer when we’re craving them.  I’ve also always got a batch of bbq sauce (included with the burger recipe) in the fridge to slather on the burgers…and perhaps to dip the oven fries in as well.  We adore these baked oven fries and we’re moving further and further away from buying frozen, store-bought fries and tator tots.  I think the natural next step is to grow our own potatoes – and you may see that happening in the next couple of years!

Cinnamon Vanilla Bean Ice Cream
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Is choosing an ice cream flavor to make ever easy?  Not for me!  But since I made this ice cream back in the fall to go with these Individual Pear Maple Cobblers and never blogged about it, I decided it was time to share the recipe with you.  It’s definitely time…because I know you’ll love it…and with Fall just around the corner (right? right???) you’ll need this cinnamon vanilla bean ice cream to go with just about every dessert you make.  Like those cobblers, or this Hill Country Peach Cobbler that you could totally make with apples and cranberries.

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Needless to say, this ice cream is outstanding.  I combined my favorite vanilla bean ice cream with a delightful cinnamon ice cream and the combination of sweet vanilla with warm and spicy cinnamon is just perfect.  As is usual with custard-based ice creams (made with egg yolks), this ice cream is dreamy-creamy and to ensure that it’s as creamy as you want it to be, allow the ice cream to sit at room temperature for 5-15 minutes (depending on how warm your kitchen is) before scooping.  I’ve found that homemade ice cream is virtually impossible to scoop right from the freezer so a little patience is key here. :)