Sunday, August 23, 2009

Baked Ziti Recipe

Baked ZitiThis time last year I didn't know anyone that I could write on my children's school emergency forms, I never ran into people I knew at the Target, and my doorbell only rang when my kids were trying to annoy me. Now fast forward one year and I have at least two people that I can write on my kids' school emergency cards, I often bump into acquaintances at the Target, and my doorbell is constantly rung by neighbors and friends. Ahhhhh, I am part of a community and it only took one year.

My community is giving my family security, comfort, and joy. I am grateful and I am trying to give back. Recently I was able to give back to my Texas community by making a casserole to be served at the reception after my co-worker's mother's funeral. It was so sad that a life was lost, but it was so inspiring to arrive at church and see people sacrificing their Saturday afternoon to set up the buffet line, deliver casseroles and desserts, and serve food.

Food is an expression of love and it is one that we can freely give to families when they are in need. I was able to communicate this message to my children as I prepared the casserole. They asked me what I was cooking. I told them I was making two pans of baked ziti, one for our family and one to share at a funeral. This provided an opening for us to discuss death, funeral, and ways to support people who are sad and grieving.

I have made baked ziti many times in my life, but my family and I agree that this is the best. This recipe which was given to me by a co-worker contains a combination of provolone and mozzarella cheese slices that are layered with ziti noodles, sour cream, and a meat sauce. It can be made ahead of time and then cooked right before a meal. It tastes great freshly baked and can be warmed up for the next day. I think it's the perfect dish to prepare over the weekend and then store in the fridge to be baked for dinner on a busy weeknight. I also think it's the ideal dish to share with someone in your community.

Baked Ziti Recipe

1 (16 ounce) package ziti pasta or other tubular pasta
1 pound lean ground beef
1 onion, finely chopped
2 (28 ounce) jars spaghetti sauce - I used less because my kids like to see their pasta.
6 ounces sliced provolone cheese
6 ounces sliced mozzarella cheese
1 1/2 cups sour cream
1 cup grated parmesan cheese
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil - optional

  1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add pasta and cook for 8 to 10 minutes; drain.
  2. In a large skillet, saute onions until tender. Add ground beef and brown over medium heat. Drain off fat. Add spaghetti sauce. Simmer sauce for about 15 minutes.
  3. In a lightly greased 9 x 13 baking dish, place about half of the pasta; top with a layer of provolone and mozzarella cheese slices. Spread on a layer of half the spaghetti sauce mixture and all the sour cream.
  4. Cover with remaining pasta, cheese slices and sauce; sprinkle a layer of parmesan cheese and fresh basil (optional). Your baking dish will be very full. You may want to use a foil baking dish that is deep and can be thrown away if you are making this to share.
  5. Bake at 350 degrees for 30-40 minutes or until cheese is melted and slightly browned and edges are bubbly.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Lemon Cheesecake Pie Recipe

Lemon Cheesecake Pie

Last week my father-in-law visited our home in Texas all the way from his home in Maryland. He is our first Maryland visitor since we moved here from Maryland a little over a year ago. My husband, kids, and I were all thrilled and couldn't wait to show him around our little corner of the Lone Star State and introduce him to some authentic and regional fare. My husband graciously treated his dad to kolaches, barbecued beef brisket, and queso. I, however, chose to introduce him to a food of real significance, Blue Bell ice cream.

I must admit that prior to moving to Texas I had never heard of Blue Bell, but it sure didn't take long. My husband's co-workers, acquaintances from church, and even strangers in the grocery store all raved about this frozen delight. At first I was skeptical. I've had Breyer's, Edy's, and Ben & Jerry's. What's so special about this Blue Bell? Considering the fact that the temperatures were in the triple digits the first few weeks after we arrived my family and I were more than willing to try a bit and see for ourselves what all these Texans were raving about.

Oh, my! Blue Bell ice cream did not disappoint. My family and I started by sampling the company's most popular flavor "Homemade Vanilla" and have been huge Blue Bell fans ever since. The texture is creamy and smooth, the flavors are unique and intense, and the quantity is still a half gallon, which I didn't realize until Blue Bell so kindly pointed it out, is not the case with most other ice cream brands. Now whenever Blue Bell ice cream is on sale or when we are having out-of-town guests we stock up on flavors such as Dutch Chocolate, Southern Blackberry Cobbler, Moo-llennium Crunch, and, of course, Homemade Vanilla.

So you might be thinking, "What does any of this have to do with Lemon Cheesecake Pie?" Well, just giving my father-in-law a bowl full of Blue Bell ice cream was not enough for me, so I took him to their factory in Brenham, Texas. It was fun, informative, and sweet! My father-in-law, my kids, and I all loved it. We ended the tour at the Blue Bell gift shop. Already extremely satisfied, I was beyond thrilled to spy "The Best Recipes in the Country" a cookbook filled with recipes from Blue Bell employees. I couldn't wait to get home and peruse it.

The first thing I made from my new cookbook was the Lemon Cheesecake Pie. I served it to my family, my father-in-law, and a few friends we had over for dinner. It is amazing! The lemon flavor is bright and the texture is smooth. It is easy to prepare and this pie can be made up to a day in advance. I will surely make Lemon Cheesecake Pie again and I can't wait to try many more recipes from my new Blue Bell compilation cookbook.

Lemon Cheesecake Pie

from "The Best Recipes in the Country" the Blue Bell cookbook

1 1/2 cup (12 ounce can) evaporated milk, undiluted

1-3 1/2 ounce package instant lemon pudding

2-8 ounce packages cream cheese, softened

3/4 cup (1-6 ounce can) frozen lemonade concentrate, thawed

1 graham cracker crust

1 cup (8 ounce) whipping cream, whipped

In a small mixing bowl, combine evaporated milk and pudding mix; beat 2 minutes; set aside. In a large mixing bowl, beat cream cheese until light. Gradually add lemonade concentrate; continue beating until smooth, light and fluffy, 3 to 4 minutes. Fold pudding mixture into cream cheese mixture; blend thoroughly. Pour filling into crust; chill 3 to 4 hours, or overnight. Top with whipped cream; decorate as desired.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Stop 'n' Go Cookie Pops Recipe

Last week my two youngest sons experienced a summer lull. I prefer to say summer lull rather than use the dreaded b-word. When I was a child (an only child, I might add) my mother went to great lengths to avoid my use of the b-word. She shuttled me to camps, swimming lessons, library clubs, and friends' homes all because she hated it when I said, "I'm bored." She detested it so much that she couldn't even utter the word bored and, therefore, referred to it as the b-word.

Now that I am all grown up and the mother of four children, I have acquired my own aversion to the b-word, but have adopted another positive approach to these summer lulls. When one of my children sluffs over to me and mutters, "Mom, I'm bored" I take a deep breathe, smile, and say something cheerful like "Oh great!  In Chapter 18 of the book Don't Sweat the Small Stuff it says that all human beings should allow themselves to be bored occasionally in order to achieve greater peace in their lives." At this point the b-word child usually glazes over and wanders off in order to avoid further quotations from my latest book selections. If they remain in my presence for more than thirty seconds, however, I often turn to my next approach which is to cook something.

The recipe we chose during our most recent summer lull was from my youngest son's cookbook Snack Attack! He received it from his little friend for his 3rd birthday. Oh, be still my parental heart. . . a kid's cookbook as a birthday gift! What a fabulous idea! And my son loves it! He often picks it from our book shelf as his before-bed story time selection. He'll cuddle up beside me and chirp, "Wet's wead about wecipes!" We always start by reading the handwritten inscription from my son's friend and his mom. It says, "Happy Birthday! We got you this book because we know you love to eat snacks. We hope every time you use this book to make a snack you think of us. Enjoy!" This is another way that recipes create loving memories, awwwwwww, so sweet. Although my son would totally dig it if I read him every single ingredient, utensil, and step in this cookbook, I force him to choose just one chapter of recipes such as "after -school favorites" or "travelin' food".

The Stop 'n' Go Cookie Pops come from the chapter called "travelin' food". My sons love them because they're on a stick and who doesn't love any food more when it's on a stick? I love them because they require basic pantry ingredients and the dough is very forgiving. They are a cakey chocolate cookie dough that is shaped into a rectangle, poked onto a stick, and embellished with colorful candies. Although the example on the recipe shows these cookies in the shape of a traffic light (hence the name Stop 'n' Cookies), my kids have made them into squares, circles, hearts, and blobs. This cookie dough lends itself very well to all types of creative possibilities.

So the next time you encounter a summer lull and your kids get that look on their faces like they just might utter the dreaded b-word try cooking something fun, easy, and delicious, such as Stop 'n' Go Cookies.

Stop 'n' Go Cookie Pops

very closely adapted from Better Homes and Gardens Snack Attack

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
1 egg
1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
red, yellow, and green candy-coated milk chocolate pieces

  1. Turn on the oven to 350 degrees. Put the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder, and slat in the medium bowl. Save until step 4.
  2. Cut up the butter using a table knife. Put butter in a large bowl. Beat with the electric mixer on medium speed for 30 seconds or until butter is softened. Stop the mixer.
    Add the sugar. Beat on medium speed until combined, stopping the mixer occasionally and scraping the bowl with a rubber spatula. Stop the mixer.
  3. Add egg and vanilla. Beat on medium speed until combined, stopping the mixer occasionally and scraping the bowl. Stop the mixer. Add the egg and vanilla. Beat on medium speed until combined.
  4. Add the flour mixture 1/2 cup at a time, beating as much of it in as you can with the mixer. Stop the mixer. Stir in as much of the flour mixture as you can with a wooden spoon. If necessary, use your hands to work the remaining flour mixture into the dough.
  5. For each cookie, shape 1-2 tablespoons of dough into a rectangle on the ungreased cookie sheet (we used a silpat lined cookie sheet). Push a wooden stick halfway into a short side of each rectangle.
  6. Press red, yellow, and green candy piece into each rectangle for the lights of the stoplight.
  7. Put the cookie sheet in oven. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes or until the edges are firm. Use hot pads to remove cookie sheet from oven. Let cookies remain on cookie sheet for 1 minute. Transfer cookies to a cooling rack. Makes about 26 cookies.

    Dough also works well for other cookie shapes such as hearts, circles, and blobs.
Linked to the following link parties:  Summer Link Party, Favorite Summer Activities, Made By You Monday

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Friday, August 7, 2009

Julie & Julie Movie Review

Oh, what a happy day it is for movie goers and food bloggers! An extremely well-done film, entitled "Julie & Julia" has been released. It is the story of Julie Powell, a food blogger turned published author, and Julia Child, a food lover turned iconic cookbook writer. This movie perfectly assimilates the lives of these two women while simultaneously entertaining and inspiring people of all interests. Seeing this movie made me grateful that I started my own little food blog a few months ago, made me glad that I ventured out by myself on opening night to enjoy this unique biographical film, and made me embrace the fact that I often ask the question, "What should I do?".

This is my first official movie review as the writer and creator of Heidi's Full Plate so I will begin by sharing my criteria for a fabulous movie:

  1. Do my eyes smart with tears a few times during the movie?

  2. Do I belly laugh at least a couple times while viewing the film?

  3. Do I want to be best friends with the main characters or, better yet, do I want to abandon life as I know it and become the main characters?

  4. Do I want to live where the characters live or at least decorate my house like theirs?

  5. Do I forget for just a few hours about the laundry and the dentist appointments and the call I need to make to the exterminator and become fully immersed in the story?

  6. Do I desire to clap and cheer as the credits roll or, even better, do I actually clap and cheer as the credits roll?

  7. Do I want to be a better 'me' when the film is over?

After viewing Julie & Julia, I say "Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!" This film met all my criteria and more. I loved every second of it! The theater was packed, the music was enchanting, and for a 2 hours and 3 minutes I was not in Cypress, TX anymore, but was transported to Paris, France and New York City, New York.

Yes, Julie & Julia met all my criteria.

  1. My eyes welled up with tears when the film subtly conveyed that Julia was unable to have children and when Julie took her anger and frustration with herself out on her husband.

  2. I chuckled when Julia stuck out her tongue at the cooking instructor and when Julie dropped her half-trussed chicken.

  3. I had a strong desire to be BFF's with Julie and to 'be' Julia

  4. I now covet a large peg board in my kitchen on which I will hang all my imagined copper pots and I feel a strong urge to start a collection of vintage state samplers and hang them above my bed.

  5. During the movie, I didn't once check my watch or consider my 'to do' list.

  6. As the credits rolled, I began to loudly clap and was glad when that the rest of the theater joined in. The lady next to me said, "Delightful! Just delightful!"

  7. I no longer see the question "What should I do?" as a depressing and overwhelming necessity but now view it as a challenging and exciting adventure.

Considering that Julie & Julia met all my criteria for a fabulous film, I surprised myself by crying as I drifted back to reality after the movie. I arrived home, my husband asked, "So how was it?", and I began to sob. "Was it that sad?" he said as I continued to cry into his shirt. No, it wasn't that sad at all, it was amazing, entertaining, inspiring, and real, oh so real. I was crying because this movie weaved together the lives of two women (Julia Child and Julie Powell) who were seeking to answer the question, "What should I do?" Julie Child, who was portrayed flawlessly by Meryl Streep, asked this question of her husband when they arrived to live in Paris. Julie Powell , played perfectly by the adorable Amy Adams, also rambles on about this question after a particularly stressful day at her government cubicle job. I can relate! Can't you relate? "What should I do?" or my version "What should I do now that I'm 40 years old, happily married to my best friend, have 4 little people who call me mom, and live in a home with 2.5 baths? What should I do?"

So I cried, and continue to cry, not because I'm sad but because I feel the weight and the freedom of that question. I cry because this movie tells the story of Julie and Julia while they are in the process of asking and answering this question not when they've got it all figured out. Each of these women had an idea of what they wanted to do and they did it. Many scenes portray how they were never perfect, but how they always made progress. They were often discouraged by circumstances but they continued to be true to themselves and their passions. "Never apologize," says Julia Child as she attempts to flip an egg and it splats onto her stove.

Finally I cry because another enjoyable element of the movie is that both of these ladies had men that loved them. Julie and Julia's husbands listened when their wives babbled on for days and years about "What should I do?" The movie shows how the husbands were both encouraging and challenging toward their wives. I love that and I am grateful that I also have that type of support in my life!

Julie & Julia is a movie about two women who love food, who love to cook, and who accomplished amazing things after honestly pursuing answers to the question "What should I do?" It is entertaining to watch and inspiring to ponder. I'm glad that I spent $8.25 to see it in the theater and I hope that when the question "What should I do?" pops in your head in this weekend you will answer, "I should go see Julie & Julia!"

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Ukrainian Tomatoes Recipe

Ukrainian TomatoesFresh ripe garden tomatoes have the power to turn an ordinary meal into a flavor explosion. They are a superb addition to grilled cheese sandwiches, chef salads, tacos, quiche, and my list goes on and on. I am always amazed at how much a slice of local ripe tomato can improved my lowly ham and cheese or tuna sandwiches. These juicy fruits that often pose as vegetables are also perfect all by themselves with a sprinkling of kosher salt and freshly ground pepper. During their peak season my mother always serves a plate of sliced tomatoes with dinner. When I get my hands on a basket of garden fresh tomatoes, my mind begins to reel with all the culinary possibilities.

One of these potential recipes is Ukrainian Tomatoes. I first had this unique appetizer or summer side dish at the home of a beautiful Ukrainian woman. She cooked all day in order to present my family and I with a feast full of items from her home country. After the meal I was anxious to get all the recipes, especially the one for her tomatoes. She told me that she didn't have written recipes but instead prepared the dishes the way her mother had taught her back in Ukraine. Although I was completely mesmerize with her stories about growing up in a foreign county, I was able to ask a few questions about the food and record the steps for each of her dishes. I am so grateful to have this recipe as part of my tomato repertoire and I will always think of her when I make Ukrainian Tomatoes for my family.

Ukrainian Tomatoes

1 large ripe garden fresh tomatoes

1/2 cup mayonnaise

1 Tablespoon water

2 cloves garlic

kosher salt

freshly ground black pepper

1 cup shredded white cheese (Russian white cheese, white cheddar, or mozzarella)

  1. Thickly slice a ripe garden fresh tomato. Arrange on a plate or platter.
  2. Sprinkle with kosher salt and freshly ground pepper.
  3. Mix mayonnaise and water. Grate garlic using a rasp grater or finely dice. Add to mayonnaise and water mixture. Mix well.
  4. Place a dollop of the garlic mayonnaise on top of each tomato slice. Spread with the back of the spoon.
  5. Freshly grate cheese. Sprinkle each tomato liberally with cheese.
  6. Serve immediately or chill.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Heidi's Tips for Creating Kitchen Cakes

Cake TipsI don't know about you, but when I was a kid and my birthday rolled around, my mom asked me what kind of cake I wanted and then she called the "cake lady" to place an order. On the day of my birthday party she would go to the "cake lady's" house and pick up a white cardboard box filled with a cute and home baked confection. Throughout the years, I had Cinderella, Raggedy Ann, a box of crayons, and more. After the birth of my second child I realized "cake ladies" (and even good bakeries in our area) were few and far between and grocery store cakes were often gross and expensive (although I have been known to serve a few and the world did not come to an end).

When I realized that the "cake lady" was no more, and that the "cake fairy" wasn't going to deliver delicious, inexpensive, and theme-related cakes to my home on each of my children's birthdays, I decided to attempt to make birthday cakes for my kids in my own kitchen. I call them kitchen cakes. Preparing kitchen cakes for my family gives me a much needed diversion from folding laundry and is just the creative outlet I need to stay sane. I've yet to take cake decorating 101 at my local craft store (although I aspire to someday), but I have now manage to create about a dozen cakes for my children's birthday parties. Practice makes. . . well, not perfect, but I have made a lot of progress.

My kitchen cake resume now includes Pokemon, Wizard of Oz, Cars, Kirby, Mario, a monkey, and, most recently, a surfboard. The cakes are always met with huge gasps from my kids and lots of requests for second helpings from the party guests. Below is the process that has helped me add 'cake decorating' to my already full plate.
Heidi's Tips for Creating Kitchen Cakes
  1. A few months prior to the birthday: ask the birthday boy or birthday girl what type of cake they would love for their next party. Have them gather action figures, trinkets, and books that relate to their cake theme of choice. Use these items to get your creative juices flowing.
  2. A month or so prior to the birthday: search the chosen cake theme on the internet. Check out my group Kitchen Cakes on Facebook or explore the plethora of decorated confections on Flickr. As my kids are getting older they love looking at the pictures of cakes on the computer with me and offering their input. Our favorite cake pictures are always slightly imperfect ones made by amateurs. These photos serve as inspirations for me, but I never attempt to recreate them exactly.
  3. 3 weeks prior to the birthday: Record and watch all episodes of "Ace of Cakes" and begin to channel your inner Duff. Use all mental down times to contemplate cake.
  4. 2 weeks prior to the birthday: Decided on the flavor of cake you will be baking. I often use a box mix for my kitchen cakes and I'm not ashamed. I'd rather focus on the decorating. Also choose the flavor of icing. I always make a simple homemade icing. Domino's sugar has a nice recipe for basic butter cream that can be easily colored. Gather recipes as needed.
  5. 1 week prior to the birthday: decide on the pans, icing colors (I recommend gel colors), and embellishments that will be needed. Also consider what you will display the cake on when it is completed. I've put my cakes on pieces of cardboard covered with foil, cookie sheets, and my trusty cake stand. Stroll though your local Hobby Lobby or Michael's, and even the baking section of your grocery store. Keep your purchases to a minimum. Some of my most creative decorating techniques have been born out of necessity. I make sure I have a few basic icing tips, lots of gel colors, my trusty offset spatula, my mechanical pastry bag, tons of plastic disposable piping bags, and candles.
  6. The day before the birthday: Bake the cake, cool it completely, wrap it in plastic wrap. Clean the kitchen. Unload the dishwasher. Go to bed early. Set out butter to soften for basic butter cream if needed.
  7. The morning of the birthday party: Send your spouse and kids off on a grand adventure that involves being out of the house for as long as possible. Prepare tons of icing (better to have too much than not enough when mixing colors). Decorate the cake. Put on nice music and let your creative juices flow. Remember "progress not perfection". I never know exactly how my cakes will turn out, but I always love them in the end. Warning: At some point during the kitchen cake decorating process, I have to fend off a panic attack, but I have yet to have a failure.
  8. At the party: take tons of pictures, smile, enjoy yourself, eat cake!

Monday, August 3, 2009

Summer Cucumber Salad Recipe

Cucumber SaladNow I'm sure that I could make my cucumber salad recipe any time of the year, but I choose to make it and, totally enjoy it, only in the summer. In fact it is one of the dishes that I look forward to most during the warmer months. Cucumbers are inexpensive and readily available all summer so this is the perfect seasonal dish.

In addition to being seasonal, cucumber salad is also a fabulous and simple side dish that compliments any piece of grilled meat for dinner. It is great next to a fresh green salad or a sandwich for lunch too.

I love my cucumber salad so much that I often want to dive into it as soon as I prepare a batch, but it gets better with time. A few hours is nice, overnight is great, but making it a few days in advance works well too. In fact I often make a batch in the morning, serve it with dinner, and then add another thinly sliced cucumber to the leftover liquid mixture to eat the next day. My husband prefers a cucumber salad that has just vinegar, sugar, and water, but I like the creaminess that the sour cream adds. Feel free to add fresh dill or thinly sliced red onions to the this recipe, maybe adjust the spices, but, either way, do try Summer Cucumber Salad.

Summer Cucumber Salad

1 large cucumber, peeled and thinly sliced
1 cup sour cream (could use half plain yogurt)
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 Tablespoon sugar

optional: 1 teaspoon fresh dill, chopped
1/4 cup red onions, thinly sliced

  1. In a large bowl whisk together the sour cream, apple cider vinegar, salt, pepper, and sugar.
  2. Add the peeled and thinly sliced cucumber (along with the dill and red onions if using). Toss gently.
  3. Refrigerate for a few hours or overnight.
  4. Serve chilled.