Twice Baked Potatoes

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You can’t really go wrong with potatoes and cheese. And if you brown the cheese it’s even better.

Rich and I had a date night a few weeks ago and we were looking for something that was tasty, but not too indulgent. We are still coming off our holiday indulgences and are happy with lighter meals. We decided on spuds and salads, but we wanted to jazz up the potatoes just a bit. Twice baked potatoes to the rescue.

The potatoes are a nice change from regular baked potatoes and are only a little more work. You can cut the work down even further if you use leftover baked potatoes – it is easy to throw a few extra potatoes in the oven for later in the week.

Twice baked potatoes are the epitome of a customizable dish. Make them early in the day, or even the day before, and stash them in the fridge until ready to bake. Or make them right before you want to eat them. Use less cheese, or more. Add bacon, chives, green onions, garlic or bits of whatever you have in the fridge. I kept the recipe pretty basic, but feel free to make it yours.

What’s your favorite way to eat baked potatoes?

Print just the recipe here.

Twice Baked Potatoes
From The Cook’s Life
Serves 4

Use more cheese if you like your potatoes really cheesy.

You can make bake, mash and fill the potato shells ahead of time. Store them in the fridge until ready to bake them the second time.

4 large baking potatoes, scrubbed
1 egg, slightly beaten
2-4 tablespoons milk
Salt
Pepper
1 cup grated cheese (Cheddar, Swiss or a combination of your favorites)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bake potatoes for about an hour, or until they are soft when poked with a fork. Cool potatoes until you can handle them comfortably. Increase the oven temperature to 400 degrees.

Cut potatoes in half lengthwise. Scoop out the insides of each half, leaving about ¼ inch shell of potato inside the skin. You don’t have to be precise. Set potato shells aside.

Mash the scooped out potato with a fork or potato masher. Try to get most of the lumps out, but don’t get obsessive. Add the egg, about 2 tablespoons of milk and a few sprinkles of salt and pepper and mash again. If the mixture seems too dry, add a bit more milk and mash again. You want a mixture that is a little wetter than mashed potatoes.

Mix in about ½ cup of cheese. Reserve ½ cup of cheese for topping the potatoes later.

Fill the potato shells with the cheese-potato mixture, mounding the tops fairly neatly.

Place the filled potato halves on a lightly greased or parchment lined baking sheet, propping the potatoes against each other if they won’t stand up.

Bake the potatoes at 400 degrees for about 10 minutes, or just until the tops are starting to turn golden brown in spots. Remove the potatoes from the oven and sprinkle the tops with the reserved cheese. Return to the oven for 10 more minutes, or until the cheese is melted and starting to brown. Broil the tops for a couple of minutes if you want the cheese browner.

Back to Basics – Homemade White Bread

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When I asked for requests for topics in the Back to Basics series I got one for basic white bread. I must admit that I don’t bake much white bread these days. We prefer to eat whole wheat, oat or rye bread. But I decided I could make a batch of white just this once. It’s all for the blog, right? I’ll endure the hardship of making (and eating) white bread for the cause.

All jokes aside, homemade bread leaves store and bakery bread in the dust. At least once in your culinary life you need to bake your own bread. It isn’t hard, you don’t need any special equipment and you will feel so accomplished. And then you get to eat the bread you made.

You can do this.
Let’s start with what you don’t need to make bread. You don’t need a bread machine. You don’t need a fancy stand mixer. You don’t need a kitchen full of gadgets. You don’t even need bread pans.

I started baking bread in college and really honed my skills after Rich and I got married. We had a tiny, barebones apartment kitchen and an oven that only had one rack. We did have loaf pans, but not much else. I baked my way through three bread books during those early days – baking was cheap entertainment. I did eventually save up for a Kitchen Aid stand mixer, but only after I had baked many, many loaves of bread.

The only things you need to make yeast bread are a big bowl, a sturdy wooden spoon or spatula and a baking sheet. That’s it.

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Will your first loaves of bread be perfect? No. Will they be pretty? Probably. Will they taste fabulous? Definitely. What are you waiting for? Let’s get started.

You only need to remember a few things when baking bread: Kneading isn’t scary. Yeast is your friend. You can do this.

Yeast Bread 101
You need happy yeast to make bread rise. All yeast really needs to be happy is food, in the form of flour, and water. This recipe uses milk in place of water to make the bread softer and to help it to stay fresh longer. It also has a little sugar and salt for flavor, along with a little butter. The butter will add flavor and also help with the keeping qualities.

When yeast is happy and fed, it grows and reproduces. And when it grows it makes the bread rise. Or rather, the yeast itself doesn’t help the bread rise, but the by-product of its digestion, carbon dioxide, does. The little bubbles of carbon dioxide, along with gluten, make yeast bread light and fluffy.

Gluten is not evil, unless you are allergic to it. That is all I’ll say on that. I’m not going to get in a debate about gluten’s nutritional role. For yeast bread, we need gluten. It forms the structures inside the bread that hold the carbon dioxide bubbles we just talked about. Without gluten, the bread wouldn’t rise.

Kneading develops the gluten in the dough. Yes, you can make bread without kneading. But to make close-grained, dense but fluffy sandwich bread, you need to knead. It isn’t hard. It can be a little messy, but it isn’t hard.

Finally, bread does not take all day to make. And you don’t have to sit around watching it rise. From start to finish, the process will take a little more than two hours. But for most of that time you can be doing something else while the bread rises. Set a timer and do other things around the house. Heck, for the first hour-long rise, you can even run errands. When I made the bread for the photos, I made the dough and then washed the dishes, ran to the store and folded a load of laundry while it rose the first time. During the second rise I washed the rising bowl, did a little housecleaning and put away the laundry I folded earlier. Make the baking fit into your schedule and you will get other things done and end up with freshly baked bread.

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The recipe below is detailed so don’t let the length discourage you. I included some pictures to help you along. I didn’t get pictures of the actual kneading process. That is hard to do and photograph yourself. I think Rich would be a little perturbed if I covered our shared camera with crusted-on dried dough. But follow the directions and you will be fine.

This recipe was the first bread I ever made. I found it in one of my mom’s Better Homes and Gardens cookbooks. I was home from college on Christmas break and looking for something to do. First try the bread turned out perfectly. And a baking habit (addiction?) was born.

Repeat after me: I can make bread. Then get some flour and some yeast, pull out a bowl and just do it.

Print just the recipe.

Basic White Bread
Adapted from Better Homes and Gardens
Homemade Bread Cookbook
Makes 2 loaves

If you don’t have 9 by 5 inch loaf pans, you can use a large baking sheet. Follow recipe directions for shaping and simply place the loaves on a lightly greased baking sheet, far enough apart so they have room to rise. Bake as directed, but for only 20-25 minutes.

2¼ cups milk
5¾-6½ cups all-purpose flour, approximately
1 package instant or active dry yeast (2¼ teaspoons)*
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon butter, room temperature

*Be sure you don’t buy rapid rise yeast. That particular yeast only works in recipes written specifically for it. Look for instant or active dry yeast packets in the baking aisle of the grocery store.

Heat milk until very warm (120-130 degrees). It will feel very warm if you test it with your finger. If it is hot, let it cool a little before you use it. Combine 3 cups flour, yeast, sugar and salt in a large bowl. Stir to combine. Add butter and warm milk. Stir vigorously until combined.

Add 2½ more cups of flour gradually, about a cup at a time. Dough will become stiff and hard to stir. Continue to work and stir the flour in until the dough is firm enough to knead. You might need an additional cup of flour, but try not to make the dough dry.

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Lightly sprinkle a kneading surface with flour. Turn dough out of the bowl onto the flour. Flour your hands and start to knead, adding sprinkles of flour as needed.

Knead gently at first: pull the far side of dough toward you and fold over, pressing it away from you with the heels of your hands. Turn dough a quarter turn and repeat. When dough is less sticky, you can be less gentle. At first you might need to scrape your kneading surface with a rubber spatula if dough sticks. Add flour as necessary to the dough and your hands to prevent sticking. Knead the dough 5-8 minutes or until it is no longer sticky. It will become smooth and elastic.

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Lightly grease a large bowl (at least 3 quarts). Place the ball of dough in the bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap. You don’t want the dough to dry out while it is rising. Let dough rise in a warm place until doubled, about 60 minutes. I like to use the turned-off oven with the light on. It gets surprisingly warm.

While the dough is rising, lightly grease two 9 by 5 inch loaf pans.

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If you aren’t sure if your dough is doubled, poke your finger into it at the edge. If the hole doesn’t fill in immediately, your dough is ready. Turn the dough out onto your kneading surface and knead briefly to press out any large air bubbles. You shouldn’t need any flour.

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Divide the dough in half. Working with one half at a time, flatten the dough into a rough rectangle about 9 inches wide (as wide as your pan is long). See the pan I was using as my guide in the picture below.

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Starting from one 9-inch side, tightly roll the dough into a cylinder.

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Pinch the seam and the ends closed. Roll the top side against the surface to smooth. Here I didn’t get the rolls as smooth as I should have. I like the design at the ends, but if you want smoother finished loaves, keep pinching and rolling until your log of dough is smooth. Rising will only magnify any ridges, it won’t smooth them out.

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Turn seam side down and fold the ends under slightly. Place in pan, seam side down. Repeat with the second half of the dough.

Lightly cover the loaves with a sheet of parchment or waxed paper. Let rise at room temperature for about 30 minutes, or until the middles of the loaves are about 1 inch above the tops of their pans.

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Preheat the oven to 375 degrees while the loaves are rising.

Bake the risen loaves for about 30 minutes, or until they are golden brown and sound hollow when tapped with your finger. Check the loaves after 20 minutes, and tent loosely with foil if the tops are browning too fast.

Remove loaves from the pans and cool on wire racks. Try to wait at least a few minutes before cutting into the loaves. Ideally wait until they are fully cool before slicing. You are going to want to sample your bread before it cools. I know you are. That is fine, but be very gentle when you slice the warm loaves or you will crush them.

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Store at room temperature in an airtight container or ziplock bag. Homemade bread dries out much faster than commercial bread. Slice loaves and freeze if keeping for longer than a couple of days.

Vacation, Snow Storms and Elusive Chicken

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Vacation is over, or at least almost over. Calvin was supposed to go back to school on Monday, after two weeks off, but he had a snow day. And he has today off again. Twelve plus inches of snow and subzero temps kind of throw a wrench in things around here. We had blizzard conditions on Sunday and brutally cold temperatures Monday. Today we are supposed to hit the upper 20s, which sounds marvelous. I like winter, but in moderation, and there is nothing moderate about this weather.

The past two weeks have been pretty much a bacchanalia of good food and fun. Christmas week was full of cookies, turkey and gravy, eggnog (homemade, thank you) and all manner of other goodies. Our week in Florida was much the same, with a little beach time and a not-so-successful trip to the u-pick citrus farm thrown in. Partner crabby proprietors and less than stellar fruit and you get customers that won’t go back. But we laughed it off and went home to make a lemon tart with store lemons.

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All the fun led to a burning desire to eat better. We are just a little overindulged, to say the least. All we are craving are healthy dishes and hot beverages (it is -3 F as I type this. Can I have another cup of tea, please?). Oh, and funny of funnies, what we really want is roast chicken with plain vegetables and we have yet to find chicken in the stores. Well, there were a few packages of drumsticks, but we aren’t fans. Nothing like a weekend snowstorm with almost record-breaking accumulations to slow down deliveries and ramp up demand. We had veggie pasta Sunday and fish tacos last night. Pork tenderloin is substituting for the chicken tonight. I imagine the chicken truck will arrive sometime soon and we can get our chicken fix later in the week.

I know we probably aren’t the only ones who are craving healthy dinners. And if they are easy to throw together, all the better. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

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Blackened fish on a bed of greens

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Citrus roasted chicken (hopefully your grocery store has chicken)

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Roasted vegetables over pasta

Easy Fudge for Last Minute Treats

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Everyone needs a go-to recipe for those holiday dessert emergencies. And, yes, there are dessert emergencies – those times when you forgot you said you’d take dessert to a party, when you need a quick hostess gift or when the stresses of life call for an indulgence. This fudge fits the bill. Yes, it takes a few hours to set up, so it truly isn’t a last minute, but the hands-on requirements are short and then you can rush around doing whatever else you forgot while it sets. And it keeps for days, so you can make a batch and have it ready for when you need it.

This was the only fudge we made when I was growing up, and it is pretty much foolproof. As soon as my mother trusted my brother and me around a hot stove, she let us make it totally on our own. And it always came out right. The marshmallows ensure the fudge will work. Someday I will make real fudge, with no marshmallows, but not during the busy holiday season.

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Yes, this is one of those annoying recipes that use half a can of evaporated milk. Feel free to double the recipe so you use the whole can. I imagine you could buy the small five-ounce can and make up the rest with regular milk, but I have never tried that. I think it would probably work, but don’t quote me.

There isn’t much else to say. The fudge is sweet, very, very sweet. And it is chocolatey and well, fudgy. Use the darkest chocolate chips you can find, and good vanilla extract, as they are the only flavors beyond sweet. Then cut the whole shebang into tiny squares and wrap them up for gifting. Or eat them.

Print the recipe here.

Five-Minute Fudge
Makes 30-45 small squares
Doubles easily

If you want to make a double recipe, use a 5 to 6-quart saucepan and pour the fudge into a 9 by 13 inch pan.

¾ cup (6 oz.) evaporated milk
1⅔ cups sugar
½ teaspoon salt
1½ cups chocolate chips, semisweet or dark
1½ cups mini marshmallows
1½ teaspoons vanilla extract

Lightly grease a 9-inch square pan. Line the pan with parchment if you want to turn the fudge out of the pan to cut it. Set aside.

Combine evaporated milk, sugar and salt in a 3-quart saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring constantly. When mixture comes to a boil, reduce heat to medium low and cook for 5 minutes, still stirring constantly.

Remove from heat and add chocolate chips, marshmallows and vanilla extract. Stir until marshmallows melt and mixture is smooth.

Pour into prepared pan and level top. Let cool to room temperature for about 4 hours, or until firm. Cut into small squares, removing from pan first, if desired. Store in an airtight container for about a week.

Get the Scoop on Chilling Your Dough

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The weeks leading up to Christmas are cookie-baking time around our house. We give cookies for presents, take them as our contribution to potluck holiday parties and package them up for hostess gifts. We have done this since the first year we were married, and I don’t see us ending the tradition any time soon.

We make about twelve different kinds of cookies every year. Most of them are drop cookies, or the kind you roll into balls before baking. Some of them require a little more effort, but none of them are complicated or time consuming. As I write this, I realize many of our favorites are the roll-into-balls recipes – gingersnaps, Russian teacakes, chocolate chip doodles and snickerdoodles. The recipes instruct, “chill the dough before forming into balls for baking.” This often ends up with me using my forearm muscles of steel to scoop rock hard, chilled cookie dough.

The other day, when I was fiddling around, fixing my Russian teacake mistake, I had a revelation. If I scooped the dough balls first and then chilled the dough I would be getting the best of the process. I could scoop soft, creamy dough with ease and then chill the balls. Then, when I was ready to bake, the heavy lifting (so to speak) would be done and I could just place the balls on the pans and bake.

It works beautifully. Mistakes lead to innovation. And no, I’m not comparing myself to an inventor of say, rubber or the Slinky. It did kind of rock my cookie-baking world, though.

Try the method with any dough that calls for an hour or two of chilling. Portion out the dough right after you mix it and then chill the balls in an airtight container for up to a week. You can freeze them if you want to make them further ahead.

Oh, and in the free time that you will have if you use my revelatory method, you can kill some time on the internet. Try typing, “mistakes that led to inventions,” into any search engine and you will get some interesting reading.

Deep Dark Chocolate Olive Oil Cookies

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My mind was wandering the other day as I was cooking dinner. I wondered if anyone had actually made any of the recipes I have on the blog. And then I thought about all the food blogs I read. I can probably count on one hand the times I have actually made anything off of them. I decided I needed to make more of an effort to actually make some of the recipes and then either blog about them or comment on them to the original poster.

I had been thinking about these deep dark chocolate cookies since I read about them on The Monday Box in early November. They are part of a post explaining the traditions behind Chanukah and the chocolate gelt that children traditionally receive during the holiday. Wendy, the author of The Monday Box, painted her cookies with edible gold glitter to resemble the foil wrapped chocolate coins.

I couldn’t forget her descriptions of the deep, dark chewy cookies. I had all the ingredients, so I decided to make them one evening. I cut the recipe in half. I do this a lot of times when I don’t want a huge amount of treats hanging around the house, tempting me.

It would have worked beautifully, except I somehow used the full amount of baking soda. Yes, baking soda is a leavener, which should make things rise. But if you use twice as much as you need, it makes things very, very, very flat. As in so flat that the mini chocolate chips in the batter were the high points. Note to self – don’t mix up cookies while you are doing two other things.

The flavor was there in the flat cookies, so I saved them to top ice cream sundaes and mixed up another batch. This time I was careful to pay attention. The cookies baked up into chewy, dark chocolate disks of deliciousness.

I got about 24 small cookies from the half batch – I made them about half the size of the original recipe. Next time I might make the full batch, but for now I am satisfied with the smaller amount of cookies. Those are the amounts I am posting in the recipe below. I did increase the vanilla extract. I like the added depth this gives to dark chocolate baked goods. Visit The Monday Box to get the full recipe. Or you can just double all the amounts listed.

Recipe Note:
I adapted the recipe from The Monday Box. She in turn adapted it from Something Swanky. I love the evolution of recipes as we change them to suit us.

Print the recipe here.

Deep Dark Chocolate Olive Oil Cookies
Adapted from The Monday Box
Makes 24 small cookies

6 tablespoons all-purpose flour
6 tablespoons natural cocoa powder
⅛ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking soda
1½ teaspoons hot water
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 egg, room temperature
½ cup granulated sugar
1½ teaspoons vanilla extract
½ cup mini chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and lightly grease two baking sheets, or line with parchment.

Stir flour, cocoa powder and salt together in a small bowl. In a separate bowl, dissolve baking soda in hot water.

Beat olive oil and egg with an electric mixer until slightly thickened, 3-5 minutes. Add sugar and vanilla extract and mix until sugar is no longer gritty.

Stir in flour mixture until almost combined. Add dissolved baking soda mixture and stir well. Add chocolate chips to dough.

Use a small cookie scoop or a spoon to place dough on baking sheets. Leave room between the cookies for them to spread.

Bake cookies for 7-9 minutes, or just until edges are set. The cookies will puff up and then crack as they are close to being done. The tops will not look completely baked, especially inside the cracks.

Cool on pans until room temperature. Store cookies in an airtight container for several days. Freeze for longer storage.

Homemade Eggnog

DSC_0030Note: This post is sponsored by Safest Choice Eggs and I received compensation as well as coupons for free Safest Choice Eggs. All opinions and thoughts are my own.

Eggnog has been one of my favorite holiday treats since I was a child. I could never get enough of the sweet creaminess, drinking as much as my parents would let me. As an adult I used to get a carton or a jug every year and drink most of it myself over a week or so.

Then I started wondering why I had never made eggnog myself. Well, I knew really. It was the raw eggs. I just couldn’t get past the possibility of salmonella. Who wants to serve up a glass of food poisoning to their families at the holidays? I gave up on the idea of making my own until I figured out how to get around the raw egg thing.

I discovered Davidson’s Safest Choice pasteurized eggs a few years ago, just about the time I was hunting for eggnog recipes again. They are pasteurized in the shell, so you can use them raw without fear of salmonella. And you can use them in recipes that call for beaten egg whites, like eggnog.

I made haste to the grocery store to get the eggs and the rest of the stuff to make a batch of eggnog. We were heading to my parents’ house for Christmas day that year and I figured we could have fun making and drinking the eggnog with the whole family.

We realized when we were pouring the finished eggnog into a pitcher that the recipe we were using was a little inaccurate. It was supposed to make six servings, but we filled two pitchers, and then some, with the eggy creaminess. Eight of us had a taste and hardly made a dent in the supply.

We all tried our darnedest, but by the time we were a few days out from Christmas, we were all sick of eggnog. We needed some way to preserve it, and Rich had the brilliant idea to make ice cream out of the leftovers. We poured the rest of the eggnog into the ice cream maker and hoped for the best.

We ended up with the most delicious eggnog ice cream that satisfied a craving we didn’t even know we had. It was rich, of course, with eggs, cream and whole milk. And it was dense, creamy and decadent. It also had the beautiful feature of staying fresh in its frozen form. We didn’t have to worry about it going sour before we could finish it, like we had when it was in its liquid form. We doled out that ice cream like it was gold.

That was probably five years ago, and we haven’t made eggnog, or eggnog ice cream since. Rich periodically waxes philosophic about that ice cream, but we never seem to find time to make it.

Fast forward a few years to this summer – I was surprised and pleased to see that Davidson’s Safest Choice Eggs were a sponsor of the St. Louis Food Media Forum I went to in August. Seeing the brand, and sampling a few of their egg based dishes at the conference reminded me of that eggnog I made. I have been thinking about the eggnog since August, and looking for an excuse to make it.

When I was offered the chance to participate in an eggnog blog party sponsored by  Safest Choice Eggs I jumped on it. Well, almost. I have never done a sponsored post before and I wondered if that was a direction I wanted to head in. But pasteurized eggs are a product I have used in the past, and I was happy with the results. And the blog party gives you, my readers, a chance to win a great prize pack. So I decided to participate.

You have the chance to win one of two prize packages that include a $200 Amex gift card, a 7-piece Sur La Table Platinum Professional bakeware set, a set of Sur La Table snowman spatulas, a copy of Better Homes and Gardens Baking and coupons for a year’s supply of Safest Choice eggs. The contest is open until midnight Eastern time this Friday, December 13.

If you would like to enter the contest, click here.

Recipe Notes
Based on my notes from the first time we made the eggnog, I have developed a new recipe that really lets the cream and the nutmeg shine. I reduced the sugar and increased both the nutmeg and the vanilla. If you aren’t a fan of nutmeg, use the smaller amount. I also adjusted the recipe so it makes a manageable amount of eggnog. If you are serving a big crowd, the recipe is easy to double.

Print the recipe here.

Simple Eggnog
From The Cook’s Life
Makes about 1 quart, 8-10 servings

For best flavor, start the recipe several hours before serving. If you prefer, you can make and serve this right away if you don’t want to take the extra time. It will still be fabulous. If want to skip the resting step, whip the whites before you whip the yolks. Fold the whites into the yolk and cream mixture and serve immediately.

3 pasteurized eggs (I used Safest Choice)
6 tablespoons sugar, divided
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup whole milk
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
¼-½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
Freshly grated nutmeg for topping

Separate the eggs. Refrigerate the whites until you need them.

In a large bowl, beat egg yolks until almost doubled in volume, thick and pale yellow. This should take about 3 minutes of beating. Beat in 3 tablespoons sugar until no longer grainy.

Stir in cream, milk, vanilla and nutmeg. Pour into a pitcher or container. Cover and refrigerate for several hours, or overnight.

When you are almost ready to serve the eggnog, remove the egg whites from the fridge and let them come to room temperature for about 15 minutes. Then beat the egg whites in a large bowl until just staring to thicken and turn white. Gradually add remaining 3 tablespoons of sugar and beat until soft peaks form.

Gently fold beaten egg whites into cream and yolk mixture.

Serve immediately for optimal texture. Pour into small glasses or cups, top with extra ground nutmeg. When the eggnog sits a foamy layer will form on top. Stir the mixture gently to remix.

Store any leftovers in the fridge and use within a few days. The eggnog won’t be quite as thick and foamy later, but it will still be delicious. Whisk thoroughly to combine before serving any leftovers.

Eggnog Ice Cream

If you have any extra eggnog, you can make luscious, rich eggnog ice cream. Pour the chilled mixture into an ice cream maker and churn according to manufacturer’s directions. Because of the high fat content, the ice cream freezes very hard. If you like, you can add 1-2 tablespoons of vodka during the last five minutes of churning. The alcohol will keep the ice cream from getting quite so hard in the freezer, making scooping much easier. If you prefer not to use alcohol, let the ice cream warm up for a few minutes before scooping.


Buttery Cream Wafers

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I first had these cookies several years ago. I was teaching a bread baking class to friends from church and their friends. While we were waiting for the bread to rise we snacked on some of the cookies one of the women had brought to share.

The cookies were rich and buttery, but not very sweet. Most of the sweetness came from the filling sandwiched between the shortbread-like cookies. I immediately asked for the recipe. And then I didn’t make them until now. That is how baking goes sometimes.

I did change the original directions just a bit. They were cut-out cookies, which I really don’t like making. I just don’t have the patience for the process. And the re-rolled scraps are never as good as the rest of the cookies. I prefer to make logs and slice off the cookies – faster and easier.

Just one note: if you follow my directions, the edges of the cookies aren’t quite as neat as  cut-out cookies would be. I’ll take a few ragged edges for the ease of slicing the logs. We sliced and baked the cookies in about twenty minutes. If you really want perfect edges, you can certainly roll out the dough.

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The original recipe has a simple butter and sugar combination for the filling. I added cinnamon to half the filling mixture. I liked the subtle spiciness next to the delicate buttery flavor of the cookies. I included the cinnamon variation in the recipe.

I also like the cookies unfilled. They are a nice contrast to sweeter cookies on a cookie platter. Sometimes butter and cream can do the job all by themselves.

Print the recipe here.

 Buttery Cream Wafers
From the Cook’s Life
Makes about 25 sandwich cookies

You can fill these your favorite icing if you prefer.

Dough:
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, room temperature
⅓ cup heavy cream
2¼ cups all-purpose flour
¼ cup granulated sugar, approximately

Filling:
¼ cup (½ stick) butter, room temperature
¾ cup powdered sugar
1½ teaspoons vanilla extract

Cinnamon Filling Variation:
Add ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon to the filling. Beat until it is uniformly mixed, with no streaks of cinnamon.

Don’t preheat the oven. The dough needs to chill before baking.

Beat the butter until creamy. Mix in cream and flour.

Divide the dough in half and place each half on a sheet of plastic wrap. The dough should be relatively easy to handle, though greasy. Shape each half into a log about 1 inch in diameter. You don’t have to be exact. Try to keep the logs uniform so your cookies will all be about the same size.

Wrap the dough logs in the plastic wrap and refrigerate for several hours until dough is firm. You can refrigerate the dough for several days, or freeze for up to a month. If you are storing for the longer period of time, slip the plastic covered logs in a plastic bag or airtight container to keep them from drying out.

When ready to bake preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Place granulated sugar on a large plate or piece of waxed paper or parchment. Slice the logs into ⅜ to ½-inch thick rounds. Press each flat side into the sugar and place on ungreased baking sheets. Prick the top of each with a fork a few times.

Bake 7-9 minutes, or until firm, but not browned. Cookies are fragile. Let them cool a few minutes on the pans before transferring them to wire racks.

While cookies are cooling, beat filling ingredients together until light and creamy. Spread filling in a thin layer on half of the cookies and top with the remaining cookies.

Store in an airtight container for several days. Freeze for longer storage.

Toffee Bars

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The Christmas baking season has started for us. We were busy baking last weekend and already have gingersnaps, almond shortbreads and chocolate chip doodles in the freezer. When we were planning what to bake this year, we thought we would add a few different recipes to the mix, in addition to our old standbys.

Toffee bars are an old favorite that we haven’t made for a few years. I first made them when I was in high school and then somehow lost the recipe. Rich and I later found a similar recipe on the back of a condensed milk can. Since then we have tweaked the recipe and directions a bit.

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The bars start with saltine crackers as the base. I love how the crackers’ layers separate a bit as they soak up the butter from the bottom and the toffee from the top. Butter and sugar elevate most anything, even plain Jane saltine crackers.

The toffee bars really play up the contrast between salty and sweet. I prefer to use salted butter and ordinary saltines in these bars, to offset the sweetness of the toffee and the chocolate. If you really don’t like the salty-sweet thing, you could use unsalted crackers and unsalted butter, but the bars might taste a little flat.

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As we have made these over the years we have reduced the baking time again and again. The shorter baking time helps the toffee layer to stay soft instead of chewy and overly sticky. We like the texture contrast between the crispy cracker, the soft toffee and the harder chocolate layer.

These go together in minutes and are pretty much foolproof. They are different than the usual Christmas cookie offering and they just plain taste great. You can’t go wrong with buttery, sweet toffee and chocolate.

Print the recipe here.

Toffee Bars
From The Cook’s Life
Makes 50-60 small bars

Don’t be tempted to try these with anything but butter. You need it for both the flavor and the texture.

1¼ cups butter (2½ sticks), NO substitutions
45-50 saltine crackers
1 cup dark brown sugar
1 (14 oz.) can sweetened condensed milk
1½ cups semi-sweet or bittersweet chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Melt ¼ cup (½ stick) butter in a medium saucepan over medium low heat. Pour into 12 by 17 inch baking sheet, or two 9 by 13 inch pans. Tilt pan to cover evenly with butter. Arrange crackers over butter in one layer, breaking crackers if necessary to fit.

In the same saucepan, melt remaining 1 cup (2 sticks) butter over medium heat. Add brown sugar. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium low and cook for 2 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and add condensed milk, stirring until combined.

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Pour toffee mixture slowly over crackers and spread evenly. Bake for 5-10 minutes. Keep a close eye on them after 5 minutes. When the bars are done the entire top will be bubbly and the edges will just be starting to darken slightly. Don’t cook longer, or the toffee will have a burned taste and be too chewy at the edges.

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Sprinkle chocolate chips evenly over the top of the hot toffee. Let stand 5 minutes, until chips are glossy and soft.

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Spread melted chips evenly over the bars. Let cool at room temperature for several hours until chocolate is set. Refrigerate or freeze to set chocolate faster.

Cut into small squares once the chocolate is set. Store bars in an airtight container, with parchment or waxed paper between layers. These keep at room temperature for several days. Freeze for longer storage.

Mini Meatloaves for Busy Nights

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Complicated recipes and experimental cooking haven’t been on my schedule lately. I spent last week baking for last Friday night’s craft fair (which went very well). This week I’ll be getting ready for Thanksgiving. And then we start the Christmas baking. Mix in a busy school year for Calvin, extra work for me and long workdays for Rich and we are running ragged lately. We are all looking forward to a few days off at the end of this week.

Dinners have been things we can eat in shifts, dishes that are easy to prepare ahead and pop in the oven or easy crockpot recipes. One of our favorite meals is meatloaf, and I have adapted it to make mini meatloaves that bake in just 20 minutes. In that time I can make mashed potatoes and heat up a few frozen vegetables. Or, I can put potatoes in the oven, make and bake the meatloaves and do the dishes in the time it takes the potatoes to bake.

I like to bake my meatloaf on a broiler pan, instead of a loaf pan. We like the sides a little crusty, which just doesn’t happen in a loaf pan. Any grease drains away, though I use lean ground sirloin, so there isn’t much.

I am including my recipe for meatloaf, though I know many people have strong feelings about the right way to do meatloaf. Feel free to use my mini meatloaf method with your favorite meatloaf recipe. Or adapt my meatloaf recipe to your tastes.

What do you make for dinner on busy nights?

Download or print the recipe here.

Mini Meatloaves
From The Cook’s Life
Serves 4

Adjust the Worcestershire sauce and spices to taste. I use a few shakes of each.

1 pound ground sirloin
3-4 tablespoons wheat germ or fine bread crumbs
¼ cup ketchup
1 egg
Worcestershire sauce
garlic powder
paprika
cayenne powder
salt
black pepper

Sauce:
½ cup ketchup
2-3 tablespoons brown sugar, or to taste

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Lightly grease a broiler pan, casserole dish or baking sheet with sides.

Mix all ingredients together in a large bowl until evenly mixed.

Divide mixture into quarters and form each quarter in a stubby football shape, packing the meat together with your hands.

Place meatloaves on prepared pan, leaving space between them. Mix the ketchup and brown sugar together for the sauce. Top each loaf with a dollop of sauce. Spread the sauce over the top and partway down the sides of each meatloaf. There will be sauce left over.

Bake about 20 minutes, or until cooked through and the outside edges are starting to brown.

Let rest about 5 minutes before serving with extra sauce.

Leftovers reheat well in the microwave.