Homemade Ricotta Cheese

DSC_0030I took a cheese making class a few years ago. We learned how to make chevre, yogurt, sour cream, feta, cheddar and ricotta. The only cheese I have made since is ricotta. I need to try making other cheeses. Someday.

Cheese is one of those things that is so easy to buy in the store. And regular commercial cheese is pretty reasonably priced, and it can be pretty good. Cheese from the grocery store specialty cheese section and even cheese shops is even better, and still not that expensive.

Ricotta cheese is especially reasonably priced, so it is a toss-up if you want to make ricotta to save money. It is cheaper to make your own, if you are going strictly on the price of ingredients, but you do have to factor in your time.

Homemade ricotta is sweeter and creamier than commercial ricotta. It tastes more like milk than commercial cheese. Is the difference huge? No. Do I make all the ricotta we eat? No. But it is fun to make it sometimes, just to do it. There is something fulfilling about learning how to make a food we usually buy, and then doing it.

We use a lot of ricotta cheese – in stuffed shells, eggplant lasagna and on pizza. Occasionally we use it in desserts and once we used it in breakfast crepes. Homemade ricotta takes these dishes to a whole new level. Some of that might be psychological, knowing that I made that cheese myself. But the cheese does taste fresher and is creamier than commercial ricotta.

The only special equipment you need to make your own ricotta is a candy thermometer and some cheesecloth, both of which you can pick up at the grocery store. The process isn’t complicated and requires no special skills. In just about an hour you can make your own cheese.

Bring out your inner dairymaid and make some ricotta cheese. Buy some milk, block off an hour and get started.

Download or print the recipe here.

Ricotta Cheese
From The Cook’s Life
Makes about 1 cup, easy to double

You need to use pure salt in this recipe; iodine or other additives can give the cheese an odd flavor. Buy fine sea salt or other salt that is just salt, read the label to check for any additives. I use fine sea salt, which has slightly larger grains than table salt. If yours is finer, use less than ¼ teaspoon. Don’t use coarse salt without grinding it first or it won’t dissolve well.

4 cups whole milk
2-3 tablespoons white vinegar, approximately
¼ teaspoon salt, approximately (see head note)

Special equipment:
Candy thermometer
Cheesecloth
Colander

Pour the milk into a large pot, at least 3 quarts, though bigger is fine. Clip the candy thermometer to the side of the pot and turn the heat to medium.

Fold the cheesecloth in half and line the colander with it. Set it on top of a large bowl that is a smaller diameter than the colander so the colander rests on top of the bowl, or down inside it just a bit. You need height so the cheese can drain.

Stir the milk gently and watch it as it gets warmer. Stir more often as it gets warmer, so it doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pot. Don’t be tempted to turn the heat up – you risk scorching the milk.

Heat the milk it until it reaches 165-180° F. My stove took 15 minutes to reach 165° and 20 minutes to reach 180°.

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When the milk is at least 165°, add 2 tablespoons of vinegar and stir. The milk should separate into white curds that look like cottage cheese, and greenish liquid. The liquid is whey. If the milk doesn’t separate after 1 minute of stirring, add another tablespoon of vinegar and stir for another minute. If you don’t have definite separation after the additional vinegar, add more vinegar, a teaspoon at a time and stir for a minute after each addition. Never fear, it will separate.

Take the pan off the heat and stir occasionally for 10 minutes. After 10 minutes, slowly pour the curds and whey through the cheesecloth into the bowl. Pour slowly so you don’t splash – everything is still hot at this point. Let the curds drain for about 5 minutes.

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After 5 minutes, the curds should be drained and look like ricotta cheese. If they still look wet, give them a few more minutes to drain. Scrape the ricotta off the cheesecloth and into a small bowl. There will be about 3 cups of whey in the large bowl. Don’t throw it away – see note at the end for ways to store and use it.

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Add ⅛ teaspoon salt to the cheese and stir. Taste the ricotta. If it tastes salty to you, stop adding salt. If it’s not salty enough, add another ⅛ teaspoon salt and stir and taste again. Add a touch more salt, if it still doesn’t taste salty to you.

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Stir gently for 5-10 minutes. The curds will get smaller and the cheese will get amazingly creamy as you stir.

Congratulations, you have made ricotta cheese!

The whey:
You will have about 3 cups of whey left over. Don’t throw it away. Store it in a jar or container in the fridge for up to a week. Freeze it for longer storage. Use it instead of milk or buttermilk in pancakes, muffins or bread.

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Mini Chocolate-Striped Cakes

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Calvin often takes enough dessert in his school lunches to share with a couple of his friends. I hear back, through him, which of our homemade desserts are the lunchroom favorites. Gooey butter tarts are tops on the list so far. Even when I don’t hear the compliments firsthand, and when the compliments are from always-hungry teenage boys, I enjoy baking for an appreciative audience.

Last week, Calvin came home from school asking if we could make our own version of Little Debbie zebra cakes. One of his pals had shared some at lunch and Calvin was a fan. I don’t have to tell you what my answer was.

After some thought, I decided to use our tried-and-true white Texas sheet cake recipe for both the cake and the icing. I wanted to make the cake layers thin, so we used half the recipe and baked it in a large pan.

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We used a cookie cutter to cut circles out of the big cake. Calvin lobbied for hexagons like the originals, but I vetoed that. If we had a hexagon cutter I would have done it, but we don’t. Next time I might just cut squares and skip the whole cake scraps part. But the scraps were tasty. And I used a few to make a mini trifle with some leftover pastry cream from a batch of almost failed cream puffs (more on those another day).

At first I thought the cake layers were too thin, but once we sandwiched two layers together with icing they were the perfect size. A drizzle of melted chocolate on top of the icing and they were good to go.

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I iced the sides of the first cake, but then I nixed that idea. The icing was thickening quickly and I wasn’t sure I wanted to take the time to ice the sides anyway. I will only go so far when copycatting a recipe. The cake and icing are both very sweet and icing the sides is probably overkill.

If you do decide you want to go all out, you will probably want to double the icing ingredients. Just be aware that the icing thickens very fast. You might have to re-warm it part way through if it gets too thick to spread onto the tender cake.

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Our zebra cakes were moist, buttery and sweet. We stuck with the original recipe’s combo of vanilla and almond, but I think I want to make it all vanilla next time. For the record, Rich and Calvin do not agree.

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Download or print the recipe here.

Mini Chocolate-Striped Cakes
From The Cook’s Life
Makes 12 mini cakes

If you don’t like almond extract, you can substitute an equal amount of vanilla extract for the almond extract. If you don’t have a large baking sheet, you can use two 9 by 13 inch pans. If you only have one 9 by 13, you can bake half the batter at a time.

Cake:
½ cup butter (1 stick)
½ cup water
1 cup flour
1 cup sugar
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking powder
1 egg, well beaten
¼ cup sour cream or plain yogurt
1 teaspoon vanilla
½ teaspoon almond extract (see headnote)

Icing:
¼ cup butter (½ stick)
2 tablespoons milk
2¼ cups powdered sugar, sifted (DON’T skip sifting or you’ll have lumpy icing)
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon almond extract (see head note)

Stripes:
3 tablespoons semi-sweet chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line a 12 by 17 inch half sheet pan or a 15 by 10 inch jelly roll pan with waxed or parchment paper. Set aside.

Bring butter and water to a boil in a saucepan or the microwave. In a large bowl, stir together flour, sugar, salt and baking powder. In a separate bowl, mix together egg, sour cream or yogurt and extracts.

Add hot butter and water mixture to dry mixture and stir until smooth. Add egg mixture and stir until well combined. Pour into prepared pan and spread in a thin, even layer. Bake for about 7 minutes, or until the edges are golden brown and the cake bounces back when touched lightly. Let cake cool, in the pan on a wire rack until room temperature.

Use a round cookie cutter to cut circles out of the cake. I used a 2¾ inch diameter round cutter and got 24 circles, to make a total of twelve sandwiched cakes. Save the cake scraps to make a mini trifle, or just eat them.

Once the circles are cut and ready, make the icing.

In a saucepan, bring milk and butter to a boil. Remove from heat and add powdered sugar and extracts and stir until smooth.

You need to work fairly quickly – the icing gets thick as it cools, and the cakes are tender. Spread icing on the tops of half of the cake circles. Top with the remaining circles. Spread icing on the tops of the stacked cakes. There won’t be enough icing to cover the sides of the cakes. If you really want to ice the sides, double the icing amounts and find another use for any leftover icing.

Let icing set up and harden, which probably will take about 30 minutes.

Melt the chocolate chips in a microwave safe bowl for about 75 seconds on high power. Stir them halfway through. Transfer melted chocolate to a small ziplock baggie. Cut off the corner and use the baggie like a piping bag to pipe melted chocolate in stripes across the tops of the cakes. Let chocolate set up before covering cakes for storage.

Make these a day ahead of time, if possible. Cakes improve with age and are good keepers, staying moist for 3-4 days, if they last that long. Cakes freeze well.

Brown Sugar Cookie Ice Cream Sandwiches

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Saturday is dessert-baking day at our house. We try not to eat too many desserts during the week, so the weekend is our time to indulge. We started our weekend with a freezer full of ice cream – mint chocolate chip, brown sugar cinnamon and a dab of chocolate amaretto. We also had homemade caramel and hot fudge sauces in the fridge. I wanted more than just ice cream sundaes for dessert, but I wanted something that would go with all the ice creams and toppings.

Somehow our Saturday lunch conversation wandered to what to bake for dessert. I decided mentioned that we should make something that would go with our bounty of ice creams and toppings. We thought about cookies, cupcakes and then somehow came up with ice cream sandwiches. We wanted something soft and chewy, and maybe vanilla flavored.

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I used our adaptation of the Tollhouse chocolate chip cookie recipe as a starting point. I made half a recipe, switched out the white sugar in favor of all brown sugar and substituted some white whole wheat flour for all-purpose flour to make them chewier. We figured out pretty quickly that the chocolate chips would interfere with getting the cookies thin enough, so they had to go.

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I knew that the full recipe spread into a half sheet pan made cookies about as thick as a brownie. We needed them to be half as thick (twice as thin?), so I spread the adapted half recipe into a half sheet pan. I figured the job would be harder if I started with the whole batch of dough in the middle of the pan, so I dolloped it out with a spoon all over the pan before I started spreading.

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Right away I realized the dough was going to stick like crazy to my spatula. First I tried spraying the spatula with cooking spray, but the dough still stuck after a few swipes. I had to wipe it and re-grease it way too often, losing a little dough each time.  I then tried dipping it in water, which was the ticket. I didn’t bother to wipe it off when a little batter stuck, but just dipped quickly and kept spreading.

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It worked beautifully and I was able to get the whole thing spread out to less than an eighth inch layer over the whole pan. I then went around the edge and made sure there was slightly more batter at the edges than in the middle so the edges wouldn’t burn.

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I set the timer for five minutes and pulled up a stool to watch the show (which Rich thought was pretty funny). I didn’t want to risk burning the cookie and I knew it would bake quickly since it was so thin. After just a minute it started to look melted all over. After another two minutes it was starting to set on top. Then big bubbles welled up in places, heaving slightly as the bottom cooked. Just as the timer rang, the whole top looked set except for one corner. I turned the oven off and set the timer for one minute. Perfection – set, but soft, just starting to turn golden on the edges. I cut them while they were still hot; to make sure I got clean edges, then let them cool in the pan on a rack.

We made deconstructed ice cream sandwiches the first night since we were too impatient to let the ice cream soften and then refreeze the sandwiches. And we could also use more sauce that way. Rich and I had brown sugar cinnamon ice cream with caramel sauce. Calvin had chocolate chip mint with hot fudge sauce. That didn’t sound like the best pairing with the brown sugar wafers, but he enjoyed it. The sandwiches were perfect. The cookies were soft and pliable, and stayed that way even when topped with cold ice cream. The brown sugar came through loud and clear, with undertones of vanilla and a slight nuttiness from the whole wheat.

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We made a few sandwiches to freeze for another day. We had more cookies than we had ice cream to top them. Now we need to make more ice cream. But then we will have more ice cream than cookies. Guess we’ll have to make more cookies. Then we’ll have more cookies than ice cream. We’ll have to make more ice cream. Oh, what lovely problems to have!

Download or print the recipe here.

Brown Sugar Cookie Ice Cream Sandwiches
From The Cook’s Life
Makes about 24 large, thin cookies
12 ice cream sandwiches

Cookies:
½ cup butter, room temperature
¾ cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 egg
½ cup white whole wheat flour*
¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt

*You can substitute all-purpose flour if you don’t have white whole wheat flour.

For serving:
Softened ice cream
Ice cream sauces

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease a 12 by 17 inch baking sheet, or two 9 by 13 inch pans. Set aside.

Beat the butter, brown sugar and vanilla until light and fluffy. Add egg and beat well. Add flours, baking soda and salt and mix well.

Dollop cookie dough on baking sheet in small mounds. No need to be neat, you will be spreading the dough out, but the many dollops make it easier than starting with one large mound in the middle of the pan.

Use an offset spatula or table knife to spread the dough into a thin layer, all the way to the edge of the pan. Make sure the edges are a tiny bit thicker than the middle so they don’t burn. Keep a glass of water next to your workspace (but far enough away that you don’t knock it over if you turn the pan – ask me how I know). When the dough sticks to the spatula, and it will, dip it into the water. Keep the spatula wet and the job will go much faster. Be patient and you will get it all spread out to a thin layer, about an eighth of an inch thick.

Bake the cookie layer for 5 minutes. Stay in the kitchen. Check the cookie after the 5 minutes – if there are any wet-looking places, turn off the oven and set the timer for another minute. When it is done, the cookie will just be starting to brown on the edges and will feel set, but soft, if you press on it.

If you watch it bake, the cookie will start to look melted after a minute or two of baking. Then it will start to set around the edges and bubbles will appear under the middle. It may even heave and buckle. Then it will start to set all over and look dry on top.

Let the cookie cool about 2 minutes and then carefully cut it into 24 rectangles with a sharp knife. Let rectangles cool in the pan on a wire rack until room temperature.

To serve, top a cookie with a small amount of softened ice cream. Add a thin layer of ice cream sauce and then top with another cookie, mashing the ice cream so it fills the sandwich to the edge. Eat immediately, or wrap individually in plastic wrap or store in an airtight container. Freeze until ready to eat. Cookies will stay chewy, even after freezing.

Almond Tuile Cookies

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Tuile recipes have intrigued me for awhile, but I have never gotten around to making any. I had the perfect opportunity last week when we were on spring break. Calvin had requested almond crème brûlée when we gave him the choice of what to make for dessert. I wanted something crunchy to go with the custards – tuiles fit the bill. And with my mother-in-law, Mary, visiting I would have extra help to shape the hot cookies.

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The cookies aren’t hard to make, and they are truly impressive. They would be beautiful turned upside down and filled with ice cream – a nice dinner party dessert that would knock the socks off your guests for sure. They are crispy, fragrant with almond and a subtle hint of vanilla. I preferred the sesame seed tuiles, though the sliced almonds were a close second. The chocolate-topped ones were good, but I thought the chocolate overpowered the almond just a bit.

The original recipe called for a vanilla bean, which I didn’t have and didn’t want to go out and buy for an experimental recipe. I used vanilla extract, and threw in almond extract to go with the flavor of the crème brûlée.

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Be sure to watch the cookies like a hawk. I left the kitchen, trusting the baking time in the original recipe. Mary’s nose just saved that pan – we were able to snatch them out of the oven before they burned. I shaved over five minutes off the original baking time when I tweaked the recipe. Your oven may vary from mine, so be vigilant until you see how long each pan takes to bake.

It was easy to get all the cookies shaped before they cooled, with two of us working. Calvin said he was going to help, but the lure of the computer pulled harder than baking on this particular afternoon.

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If you are by yourself, you might have trouble getting them shaped fast enough. You can either do fewer per pan, or leave some of them flat. Flat ones would be pretty tucked into the top of a scoop of ice cream. Next time I think I might make them smaller, especially if I leave them flat. I expected them to be about the size of a Pringle potato chip, but they were twice that size. The cookies are on a standard sized dinner plate, to give you an idea of how big they are.

No matter what size or shape you make, your tuiles will be crunchy, crispy goodness packaged in a cookie. Add a little ice cream, custard, crème brûlée and you will be in dessert heaven.

Download or print just the recipe here.

Almond Tuiles
Adapted by The Cook’s Life from Everyday Magazine
Makes 24 large cookies

⅔ cup granulated sugar
7 tablespoons flour
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ cup butter, melted
3 egg whites
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon almond extract
½ cup sliced almonds, chopped chocolate or sesame seeds (or a combination of all three)

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone baking liners. You can grease the baking sheets instead of using parchment, but it might be hard to get the cookies off without wrinkling them.

Mix sugar flour and salt in a medium bowl. Add butter, eggs whites and extracts and mix until smooth.

Use about a teaspoon of batter for each cookie. Do no more than 6 cookies on a sheet, leaving plenty of room between them. Use a wet finger to spread cookies into large circles, about 4 inches in diameter. Use a ruler – 4 inches might be bigger than you think. Sprinkle each cookie with your topping of choice.

Bake only one pan at a time. Bake until cookies turn golden around the edges, about 9 minutes, depending on your oven.

While cookies are baking, set up your area so you will be ready. Have a rolling pin, or two, if you have them, on a folded towel to keep it from rolling. You could also use a glass bottle or smooth glass if you don’t have a rolling pin. Set these up next to a rack or trivet for the hot pan. You will also need a thin metal spatula (I used an offset icing spatula and it worked beautifully).

When the first pan is baked, move it immediately to your work area. Quickly, but gently remove each cookie from the pan and place it on the rolling pin. Press it gently around the curve of the rolling pin and then move on to the next cookie. By the time you get two cookies done, the first should be cool enough to remove from the rolling pin, if you need the space. As the cookies start to cool they won’t be pliable enough to curve.

Note: If you don’t want to mess with the curved cookies, use you can also just leave them flat. I would recommend smaller cookies if you are doing this, with maybe a ½ teaspoon of batter for each.

Cool cookies to room temperature before eating. Store in an airtight container for several days, or freeze for longer storage.

Whole Wheat Bagels from Your Own Kitchen


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I have been holding back on posting a lot of yeast baking recipes, since I know yeast intimidates a lot of people. Above all I want The Cook’s Life to be approachable, and for you to actually make some of the recipes. But I also don’t want to miss out on highlighting how much fun it can be to make your own bread, bagels, English muffins and rolls.

Bagels are a great project for a weekend, especially if you want to get the whole family in on the fun. Or you can hole up in the kitchen by yourself and have some time with the flour, as I like to do sometimes. If you can stir, and you don’t mind getting your hands in the dough, you can make bagels.

Above all, don’t let the fact these have yeast in them intimidate you. When I teach bread classes, I hear from so many people that they could never make anything with yeast. But if I ask how many people have made pizza dough or soft pretzels, some of those same people raise their hands. They weren’t afraid of the yeast then, because they were using a mix. Yeast is yeast, whether you are using a mix or baking from scratch, and you can do it.

There are just a few things to remember when baking with yeast:

  • Don’t get the water too hot. Hot water kills the yeast – too cool is better than too hot. Warm water wakes the yeast up the fastest, but cool water works too, you just might have to wait longer for the dough to rise. The water should feel warm to your finger, but not hot. And yes, you should stick your finger in to test it.
  • If the dough isn’t doubled after the time stated in the recipe, give it more time. The recipe writer can’t predict how warm your kitchen is, or exactly how warm your water was when you started.
  • Kneading is not difficult. You are basically turning and folding the dough, adding flour as you go. Kneading develops the gluten in the dough, helping it to support the dough as it rises. At first the dough will be sticky, but as you knead and add flour, it will become smooth and bouncy and no longer sticky.
  • Have fun with it. You will produce something tasty. I pretty much taught myself how to bake with yeast, and there was a learning curve – but I never made any bread, bagels or rolls that we couldn’t eat. Sure, some of my results were flatter than expected, or weren’t very pretty, but they tasted good.

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Homemade bagels definitely rival any bakery bagels you have ever had. And they leave grocery store bagels in the dust. Try them once and see what you think. And above all, have fun with them!

Download or print the recipe here.

Whole Wheat Bagels
Adapted by The Cook’s Life
From King Arthur Flour
Makes 12-16 bagels

Your first bagels might not be pretty. The shaping isn’t hard, but it does take a little practice. The bagels will be delicious, no matter what they look like.

The recipe includes malted milk powder, which is in the grocery store, next to the chocolate syrups. It isn’t absolutely necessary to the recipe, but it adds a nice hint of maltiness. You can leave it out if you like.

2 cups warm water
1 packet dry yeast (2¼ teaspoons)
¼ cup instant malted milk powder
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 tablespoon salt
5 cups white whole wheat flour (see note)
¾-1 cup all-purpose flour, plus more for kneading

Water bath:
2 quarts water
2 tablespoons granulated sugar

Note: You can make these will less whole wheat flour, or use entirely all-purpose flour – you might need to add a little more all-purpose flour than stated in the recipe.

Pour water in a large bowl. Add yeast, malted milk powder, sugar, salt and 4 cups white whole wheat flour. Mix well. Add remaining whole wheat flour and mix until combined. Add about ½ cup all-purpose flour and mix again. You should now have a sticky ball of dough and you will be using a chopping motion instead of actually stirring.

When dough is slightly less sticky, sprinkle with flour. Cover your kneading surface with flour and turn dough onto it. Knead dough for about 10 minutes, or until it is smooth, elastic and no longer sticky. Add flour as necessary to keep dough from sticking to your hands and your kneading surface.

Place dough back in the mixing bowl and cover with plastic wrap or a wet towel and allow to rise for 1-1 ½ hours, or until doubled. Lightly grease two baking sheets, or line them with parchment paper, and set aside.

Transfer dough to a lightly floured surface. Cut into 12-16 pieces, depending on size desired. Twelve pieces will give you truly massive bagels, akin to some bakery bagels. Sixteen gives you a smallish bagel that is just enough for a weekday, not-too-indulgent, breakfast. I prefer to make 16.

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Pick your shaping technique:

  • Roll each piece of dough into a smooth ball. Flatten the balls slightly and poke a hole in the middle. Use your fingers to widen the hole and smooth the edges. Place the shaped bagel the prepared baking sheet.
  • Roll each portion of dough into a snake about a foot long (like you are playing with Play-doh). Wrap the snake completely around your hand and join the ends at your palm, overlapping the last 2 or 3 inches of the ends. Roll the overlapping ends between your palms, with the rest of the snake still around your hand, until you can’t see the seams anymore. Ease the bagel off your hand and onto the baking sheet.

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Cover the bagels loosely with parchment or waxed paper and let rise for about 15 minutes. Don’t let them rise much more than this or they will deflate and/or stick to everything when you try to boil them.

While the bagels are rising, add sugar to the water in a 3-quart saucepan and heat over medium heat to a simmer. Keep the lid on the pot to keep your water from evaporating while it comes to a boil. Set up a dinner plate lined with about three paper towels or a clean kitchen towel (not a fuzzy one, which will stick to the bagels. Flour sack towels work nicely). Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

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After the 15-minute rising period, remove the lid from the pan and set aside. Ease a bagel off the baking sheet and into your hand. If the bagels stick too much, dip a pancake spatula in the hot water and then use it to ease the bagel off the baking sheet. Slip the bagels into the simmering water and cook about 30 seconds on a side. You can boil two or three bagels at once, depending on the size of your pan. Remove boiled bagels to the towel-lined plate and start more cooking. After bagels have drained for a few seconds, you can put them back on the baking sheet.

Bake the boiled bagels for 13-15 minutes, or until lightly browned on top and a little darker on the bottom. If you are using two baking sheets, switch them top to bottom in the oven after about 7 minutes.

Cool bagels on a rack until room temperature before slicing them in half. Store in an airtight container for a day or two, or freeze for longer storage.

Caramel Swirl Brownies

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Rich has been hankering for a caramel brownie for a few months now. Something always seemed to get in the way – a lack of ingredients, a glut of Christmas cookies or a need to make something else for a party or other obligation. Finally the stars aligned this weekend to satisfy his craving.

Our creation on Saturday started with a long-ago Cooking Light recipe for Caramel Fudge Brownies. We have since lost it, but it served as the inspiration for the brownies we made. The original brownies were more of a brownie crust with a caramel filling, and they were heavenly. If you ate just one, they did actually qualify as light, at least for a dessert. I don’t think we ever ate just one. Our weekend version ended up as dark, fudgy brownies with a thick ribbon of caramel, punctuated by a pool of chocolate here and there from the chocolate chips. They do not qualify as light.

We made the swirl with the last bit of the salted caramel Rich got for Christmas from his parents. It was divine, but you can certainly use regular grocery store caramels for this (we will have to next time, since the fancy stash is now gone).

I am not including a recipe, but more of a method. We started with a half recipe of One Bowl Brownies. I did fudge (pun intended) on the eggs a bit and used two. The full recipe calls for three and I didn’t want to mess with dividing an egg. I also took Rich’s suggestion and used the full amount of vanilla instead of cutting it in half. I baked the half recipe in a 9-inch square pan for about 25 minutes total.

While the brownies started baking, I melted about three ounces of caramels and a splash of milk in the microwave for about 30 seconds, or until they were melted. I estimate that is about the equivalent of eight grocery store caramels. Next time I will use about twice that to get more caramel swirls. After the brownies were half-baked, I drizzled them with the melted caramel and sprinkled them with about ¼ cup of dark chocolate chips. I put the whole concoction back in the oven for 15 minutes, until the middle was set and the edges were pulling away from the pan.

Restrain yourself for at least 30 minutes, so the brownies can set up a bit before you cut them. If you have any leftovers you can zap them in the microwave for a few seconds to get them warm and melty before you eat them.

This experiment was as successful as our cream cheese brownie recipe. We have also made spicy s’mores brownies that were a huge success. I am already thinking of other ways we can jazz up plain Jane brownies the next time we feel the need – brownie sundaes, almond paste-filled brownies, mint brownies, double chocolate brownies, triple chocolate brownies…

Bacon and Date Calzones

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We have homemade pizza in one form or another about every other week. We have tried all sorts of toppings, but haven’t done calzones in years. Calvin saw a commercial for some pizza place that had a crust-topped pizza. He thought it looked good and I remarked that we could do that, but ours would be better. Somehow that morphed into making calzones.

Rich had seen a menu for a local restaurant that only does calzones, with a fig and bacon version that intrigued him. When I made these, we didn’t have any figs, but we had a lot of dates, so I thought we would substitute. I wasn’t sure about the combo, so I used only a few bits of date and crisp bacon in each small calzone. As soon as we ate our first ones, we realized that we had made deconstructed bacon-wrapped dates in a pocket. Next time I will use more dates and bacon to really get the flavor.

The rest of the filling was shredded mozzarella, roasted garlic, ricotta and olive oil. Calvin had his without the dates and bacon, to make inside out white pizza. We made extras of his for him to have as after school snacks (and because we ran out of bacon).

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The instructions and assembly seem like a long process. You can do this in steps – make the dough the day before or in the morning, cook the bacon and chop the dates when you have a minute, shred the cheese and chop the garlic ahead of time. If you aren’t doing it all at once it won’t be as daunting.

As you can see from the pictures, our calzones are irregular shapes. Calvin was helping me and the goal was to get dinner made so we could eat. Aesthetics went out the window in favor of teenage help to get dinner on the table. And, as always, they tasted just fine, even if they weren’t pretty.

The following recipe doesn’t have exact amounts, because I was winging it, which you should too. Use what you have and see what works. Just remember not to fill the calzones too full or you will have leaks. Not that leaking cheese is all bad, since it browns on the pan and makes a nice addition to the calzone, but sometimes it makes a pathway for all of the filling to escape, leaving you with an empty shell.

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Have fun with your calzones and post in the comments if you have a favorite filling idea.

Download or print just the recipe here.

Bacon and Date Calzones
From The Cook’s Life
Makes 10-16 calzones, depending on size

I am giving only approximate amounts, since I didn’t measure and you need to adjust to your tastes.

1 recipe whole wheat pizza dough, mixed and risen (or your preferred dough)
Olive oil
Garlic, roasted and mashed, or minced if raw (4 cloves roasted, 1 or 2 if raw)
4-8 slices cooked bacon, crumbled
6-12 dates, diced
1-2 cups shredded mozzarella
½-1 cup ricotta, whole milk preferred (do not use fat free)
Parmesan cheese, grated

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or lightly grease.

Divide dough in half on a floured surface. Cover one half of dough to keep it from drying out while you work with the other half.

Roll dough out to a rough square or rectangle, about ¼ inch thick. Cut dough into 5-8 squares – size will depend on how big you want your calzones.

As you fill your squares, be sure to keep the edges free of any toppings so the dough will stick together when you seal the filled calzone. Drizzle about ½ teaspoon of olive oil in the middle of half of each square (the other half will be the top and gets no filling).

Spread a little garlic on each oiled square. Top garlic with bacon, dates, a little mozzarella and a tablespoon, or less, of ricotta.  Add a sprinkling of Parmesan to each calzone. Make sure you don’t over-fill your calzones, or you will have trouble encasing the filling in the dough and you will have leaks.

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Fold the empty side of dough over the filling of each calzone and press the edges to seal. Use a little water as glue if the dough doesn’t stick to itself. Transfer the calzones to the prepared baking sheet and sprinkle each with a little more Parmesan, if desired. Prick the tops with a fork to make steam vents.

Repeat steps with remaining dough and topping ingredients.

Bake calzones for 15-25 minutes, or until golden brown on top and bottom. Baking time will depend on size. Check them after 10-15 minutes to make sure they aren’t getting too brown.

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Let calzones cool on baking sheet about five minutes before serving. These store well – reheat in the oven or a toaster oven for best results.