Shepherd’s Pie

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When people find out that I love to cook, try my food, or find out that I have a food blog I get several pretty regular, frequent reactions:

“Oh, you’re a REALLY good cook: have you ever thought about going to culinary school?”

“Wow, you should open up a restaurant and/or catering company!”

“You should totally go on ‘Chopped’ ‘Next Food Network Star’ or ‘Master Chef’!” (Popular food tv shows)

I always politely laugh off these remarks and questions in the real world. However, since this happens to be my blog and here I’m not obligated to laugh or even be all that polite about it, I can just give the straight up honest answers that go off in my head when this happens. Because I know you guys can take it.

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Do I ever think about going to culinary school?

Never.  Not once. It’s a notion that has not, nor ever will be a possibility in my life. For one, culinary school tuition is not cheap. I already signed my life away in five years worth of student loans for my B.A. degree- I’m still trying to get it back now in the small loan re-payments I make now every month. Signing off on more loans to go to culinary school? Ain’t nobody got time for that. Second, culinary school is not something I would ever want to pursue because for me, shaping the act of cooking around the very regimen and structure of school would completely take all the fun out of it for me. When I cook for myself and my family, I like having the freedom to not only add or take away from a recipe as I see fit, but also to mess it up. In culinary school you learn so-called rules of making this and that, having to add this many ingredients, and these exact seasoning with very little wiggle room for freedom and personal interpretation of a dish. And if you do make a mistake and blow a dish, you could fail a mid-term or a final. Where’s the fun in that?

I’ll pass, thank you.

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Would I ever open a restaurant?

Heh. Honey, you couldn’t pay me enough to do that. Long, endless hours of thank-less work. An almost guaranteed loss in profit in the first 1-2 years. Disgruntled, rude customers. The stress of continuity in putting out good food. Just a few reasons for me to steer clear of the restaurant business like it’s the Plague. I would want to have a life outside of my restaurant- most restaurant owners don’t. I want to be able to see my family on a regular basis- most restaurant owners don’t. I don’t do so well with failure- statistically speaking, most restaurants go belly up. There are virtually no pros to balance out those cons, at least not for me. A restauranteur, I am most definitely not.

Do I want to go on tv shows like ‘Chopped’ or ‘Master Chef’?

H-E-double hockey sticks, NO! No. No. No. And, uh no. I don’t do very well cooking under pressure,much less the added pressure of cooking on national television. Although it would certainly be nice if I did get to win one of those contests,the emotional repercussions if I didn’t wouldn’t be pretty. I’m a really sore loser, folks. Plus, if I had to cook for celebrity chefs (several of whom I really like and revere) and they didn’t end up liking my food, I would seriously give up cooking for the rest of my life, no joke. Why put myself through all that?

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Okay, moving on.

It’s fall, and that means you have to have a shepherd’s pie. Seriously: you HAVE to. I keep mine pretty simple; it’s a real meat and potatoes kind of dish-literally. If you’re not in the mood to make mashed potatoes from scratch, then please feel free to use the potato flakes you can microwave- I’ve done that in the past and the dish still comes out perfectly fine. We also don’t add cheese to ours, but I know that most people do, so I added it in the recipe. My only regret is that I didn’t make some brown gravy for these pictures, because that’s how I serve it to my family. This is pure comfort food, folks. No frills, no fancy stuff. But it sure is good for what ails you on chilly winter nights.

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 Shepherd’s Pie

CLICK HERE FOR PRINTABLE VERSION

Ingredients

  • 4.5 lbs. ground beef
  • 12 medium russet potatoes, peeled & cut into 1 inch cubes
  • 12 oz. frozen, mixed vegetables, thawed and drained
  • 3/4 cup heavy cream
  • 1/2 cup butter (1 stick)
  • 1 15.25 oz. can of tomato sauce (like for Hunts Meatloaf sauce)
  • 1/2 cup low sodium beef broth
  • 2 tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 tbsp. garlic powder, divided
  • 2 tbsp. onion powder, divided
  • 1 tbsp. sugar
  • 1 tsp. basil leaves
  • 1/2tsp. Ground thyme
  • 1 tsp. garlic salt, divided
  • 1 tsp. pepper, divided
  • Cheese (optional)

 Directions

1. Preheat oven to 350°

2. Set a large pot of boiling water over the stove. Cook potatoes, fully submerged in water for about 15 minutes, or until they are fork tender and drain.

3. Mash potatoes using a potato masher (or a mixer fitted with paddle attachment). Don’t worry about making them completely smooth– lumps aren’t a bad thing here. Add the heavy cream, butter, 1 tbsp. garlic and onion powder, and 1/2 tsp garlic  salt and pepper. Taste and adjust for seasoning if need be.

4.Brown beef over stovetop, then add mixed vegetables beef broth, Worcestershire sauce, remaining garlic and onion powder, sugar, basil leaves, Ground thyme and garlic salt and pepper. Bring to a medium high heat and allow to cook for a further 10 15 minutes, or until most of the liquid is absorbed (it’s okay if there’s a little bit left). Taste and adjust for seasoning if needed.

5. Spray a 9 x 13 baking dish (or any casserole dish) with cooking spray. Spoon meat filling into bottom of dish, then spread mashed potatoes over the top. Make sure potatoes completely cover the meat to prevent any juices from bubbling up and spilling over.

6. Bake in preheated oven for 30 minutes, until potatoes begin to barely brown across the top. Remove dish from oven and turn on broiler.

8. Spray the potato layer with Butter-flavored cooking spray, or dollop with unsalted butter. You may also add cheese here if you like. Place dish back into oven, directly beneath the broiler and allow to cook a further 1-2 minutes, until potatoes are golden and browned.

Squash Casserole

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When I was putting this post together, I couldn’t stop thinking about this game that me and my twin sister Jas would play when we were little kids.

We grew up in the 90’s, where there were still such things as boom boxes, walkmans and cassette tapes around. I’m sure most of you still remember those, but for the ‘youngins’ that don’t, it’s cool- just google it. Anyway, my mom kept a large number of blank cassette tapes around that she used to make copies of music albums or church sermons. Eventually it got to the point where we had too many lying around that really weren’t serving any particular purpose.

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Jas and I has this weird quality of being able to make a game out of just about anything. Blank cassette tapes were no different, and one summer day we came up with the idea of using the cassette tapes, as well as two double deck boom boxes we had to record ourselves in a game. We would pretend that we were DJs on our very own imaginary radio station. I played the radio station’s primary ‘Host’, and Jas played the primary ‘Sponsor’- (why the sponsor would be on the actual broadcast of the radio show, I don’t know but we always just stuck with that title).

We even gave it a name and slogan: “WSFJ-Where Jesus Is the Way.” We gathered together all of our music cassette tapes and assembled a playlist of mixed Christian contemporary music that we recorded onto the tapes using the double deck. In the true style of actual radio stations, we had commercial breaks in between the songs where Jas as the ‘Sponsor’ would give product endorsements, ads and recommendations. We had a Book Club segment where we shared our favorite books and read off our favorite excerpts. Then there was even a Debate & Discussion segment where the two of us would discuss and debate various topics on the air, taking ‘questions’ from imaginary ‘callers’.

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 It may sound silly to you all now, but for us, it was a real blast. I think we accumulated over seven double sided cassette tapes from our imaginary little ‘radio station’.My mom insisted we keep them even after we grew up, saying that we would like listening to them later.  And it’s nothing if not entertaining  to listen a period in my life when I was young, silly and just having a lot of fun with something seemingly ordinary that me and Jas were able to turn into something we made a lot of fun.

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 What does that have to do with this post? Well, zucchini is one of those things that people tend to have a whole lot of around this time of year as they harvest their gardens, then try to find as many uses of it as possible just to not let it go to waste. When they run out of ideas, they usually start handing it out to other people to see if they can find something to do with it. Unfortunately, I don’t have a personal garden to grow my own zucchini, but fortunately I know a few people that do. And when they unload some of their surplus zucchini on me, I like finding other uses for it other than just zucchini bread (not that zucchini bread isn’t awesome enough on its own.)

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This recipe is one of the easiest, but tastiest ones I’ve ever tried when cooking with zucchini. Once you get our zucchini all chopped up, it all literally comes together in minutes and bakes in less than thirty. I serve it as a side dish, but it’s certainly good enough to eat all on it’s own. I used regular butter Ritz crackers to top it, but I can also see using some other flavored crackers to give it a twist, like ones flavored with garlic or herbs.

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Squash Casserole

Recipe Courtesy of Paula Deen

CLICK HERE FOR PRINTABLE VERSION

Ingredients

  • 6 cups large diced yellow squash and zucchini
  • Vegetable oil
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • 1/2 cup sour cream
  • 1 teaspoon your favorite seasoning blend (like Mrs. Dash or Emeril’s Essence)
  • 1 cup grated cheddar cheese
  • 1 cup crushed butter crackers (recommended: Ritz)

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

2. Saute the squash in a little vegetable oil over medium-low heat until it has completely broken down, about 15 to 20 minutes.

3. Line a colander with a clean tea towel. Place the cooked squash in the lined colander. Squeeze excess moisture from the squash. Set aside.

4. In a medium size skillet, saute the onion in butter for 5 minutes. Remove from pan and mix all ingredients together except cracker crumbs.

5. Pour mixture into a buttered casserole dish and top with cracker crumbs. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes. Serve.

Zucchini Pizza Lasagna

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My mom is really, really REALLY crafty.

When I say that, I mean that she’s one of those people who can take the most ordinary, seemingly common objects and turn them into something really cool and awesome.This happened a lot when we were little kids. She would buy one of the cheap stuffed animals from the dollar store, then go to the fabric store to buy the clearance fabrics that she would sew into beautiful, sometimes even elaborate dresses to dress the animals in. A lot of the glass and porcelain knick knacks and show pieces in my grandma’s living room are ones that my mom bought from the dollar store and jazzed up on our her own so that they look like they came from a gift shop and cost a fortune. For a while, she even made and sold floral wreaths and jewelry boxes.

When I was around six or seven, me and my sisters were in our church’s Vacation Bible School in the summertime for kids and there was this costume contest. We didn’t have a lot of money at that time, and certainly not enough for my mom to buy three girls fancy costumes to wear. So, being the crafty, innovative person that she is, she decided to construct costumes for all of using items she already had in our house.

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Oh yeah, and I should probably mention that the items were white garbage bags, silver wrapping paper ribbon, glitter and dress-up wigs (two pink, and one blue). The result? Three little angels.

My mom sprinkled glitter over the white garbage bags, then cut holes out of them to fit our arms and legs. She then used the silver ribbon to cinch them at the waist, then curled the ends so that the bags looked like dresses. After putting on the wigs and a little bit of lipstick and blush, our costumes for the contest were complete.

I know it sounds weird and crazy now, but I can still remember feeling so pretty in that costume at the time. I thought my mom was a genius and was so proud of her for coming up with the idea. The reality is that instead of angels, the three of us looked like The Paper Bag Princess meets The Jetsons.

I can’t decide whether the greater miracle was that no one laughed or made fun of us…or that me and my sisters actually won that costume contest.

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Unfortunately, I don’t have my mom’s crafty abilities in using ordinary objects to create physical art that wins contests and makes money.Art’s not my thing- never has been, and likely never will be. I’m just a home cook. However that does mean that I can take ordinary ingredients that some people (including myself) may underestimate and make them into a dish that really exceeds even my own expectations. That’s what happened with this dish.

Small confession: I don’t like ordinary lasagna. For one, I hate ricotta cheese. Two, there’s something about the texture of the noodles, that puts me off. So for years, I’ve just avoided it all together. But then, I found myself with a whole lot of zucchini that I simply had to find something to do with that didn’t involve zucchini bread. I’ve seen variations of this dish done before, so I decided to create my own rendition, specially tailored for my ricotta/lasagna noodle-hating tastes.

I was REALLY impressed with how this came out.  The zucchini is such a great alternative to the pasta, and I actually think it’s a vast improvement on the original. It tastes like pure comfort food, and I’m planning on adding it to the dinner rotation for my family as a regular dish. I’m also bringing it to the party at this week’s Fiesta Friday #32, hosted by Angie@TheNoviceGardener . Give it a try, folks. I don’t think you’ll regret it 🙂

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Zucchini Pizza Lasagna

CLICK HERE FOR PRINTABLE VERSION

Ingredients

  • 2-3 Large Zucchini
  • 1-2 tablespoons salt
  • 2 15 oz. cans of pizza sauce
  • 1 1/2lb ground beef
  • 1lb roll of pork (or turkey) sausage
  • 1 medium sweet onion, diced
  • 1 bell pepper, diced
  • 1 7 oz. pouch of pepperoni
  • 8 oz. shredded Mozzarella cheese
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

 Directions

1. Preheat oven to 350°.

2. Using a mandolin (or a VERY sharp knife), slice zucchini length-wise into very thin slices, about 1/8 thick.

3. Lay slices on cookie sheets lined with parchment paper and sprinkle liberally with salt. Bake in oven for about 10-12 minutes.

4. Using a paper towel, press all the remaining moisture from the zucchini and set aside.

5. Brown ground beef and sausage together in a pan, then drain off excess fat. In same skillet, saute onion and bell pepper in same skillet, until softened.

6. Pour pizza sauce into a bowl and stir in the ground beef, sausage, onion and bell pepper.

7. Turn up oven heat to 375°. Spray an 11 x 13 baking dish with non-stick cooking spray. Layer the zucchini slices in the bottom and spread with pizza sauce. Sprinkle mozzarella cheese over sauce, then lay pepperoni over cheese. Repeat layers, ending with pizza sauce.

8. Cover lasagna with aluminum foil and bake for 45 minutes. Remove foil and sprinkle top with the parmesan cheese. Bake for 10 more minutes.

9. Remove lasagna from oven and heat broiler. Place back in oven and bake until cheese is browned, about 2-3 minutes.

10. Allow lasagna to sit for about 30 minutes before eating to allow to settle. Serve.

Dornish Garlic Strata

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Game of Thrones Series Week #7

I swear that every time I think I’ve seen the most dramatic Game of Thrones episode this season, the next one will come on, and I will be freshly stunned and shocked by the jaw dropping ending. I think this may be the best season yet, and from what I understand from my twin sister (who knows what’s going to happen with the story ahead of time), the best is still yet to come in the final two episodes we have left. There was a lot to recap from this past week’s episode- yes, even more than that last scene, which I’ll get to in a minute. So let’s review, shall we?

  • I find the romance between Grey Worm and Missandei to be cute. They definitely have chemistry between each other, and although I think they may be one of the sweeter couples in the GoT series, I can’t see that they have much of a future together. Unless Missandei is one of those women who don’t mind being in a relationship with a guy who’s been ‘handicapped’ (if you know what I mean), which she doesn’t seem to be for now. Peeping Tom or no Peeping Tom, she’s definitely into Grey Worm. Side note: the Mother of Dragons braids her servants hair and does Girl Talk in her spare time? Since when did this happen?

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  • Speaking of Daenerys, oh man, how about  her kicking Ser Jorah to the curb? I understand her suspicion of him now that she’s found out the truth about the poison, but I still feel like this may be her one, big ‘fatal error’ that sets things into motion towards her losing her shot at ever being able to take over the Iron Throne for herself. Whether she realizes it or not, Jorah was the best and truest friend that Daenerys has EVER had. Tywin Lannister certainly realizes it, and she’s playing right into his schemes to thwart all of her plans just because of one mistake that Jorah made years ago. All that he’s went through with Daenerys should have been more than enough for her to at least grant him the opportunity to properly explain himself to her and allow him to give his side of the story. Not only that, I’m also disappointed that she made the blunder of throwing him out of her country alive when he now has so little to lose and now, so much to get revenge on her for. Let’s not forget, Jorah still had sour grapes over her new dalliance with Daario Nahaaris. To be rejected by the woman you’ve loved, served, protected and stood by through thick and thin is hard enough for any man- but to then be kicked to the curb over 1 misunderstanding without even the chance to properly defend himself is probably going to be enough to send Jorah over the edge and straight into the enemy’s camp. He knows her mind, her secrets, the workings of her kingdom, army, and her plans. If Daenerys was really set on ridding herself of him, she should have just had him executed and let that be the end of it; Banishing Jorah is going to be the nails in her coffin, mark my words.

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  • You know, I’m definitely not going to say I’m thrilled about this turn of character for Sansa, but I’m also definitely not going to say that I don’t completely understand why she’s decided to stay on Littlefinger’s ‘good side’ and try to make herself an ally for him, and not a mere prey. She knows that he was obsessed with her mother, she saw him shove her aunt through the moon door without blinking an eyelash, she knows that he poisoned Joffrey- all with that cool, sneaky smile on his face. It took her a while, but our Sansa has finally grown up and seen the way that the world works. She knows she’s not tough or strong enough to take Littlefinger on as an enemy, but she obviously feels strong enough to try and play his (creepy/disgusting) infatuation with her as Catelyn’s daughter to her own advantage. I can’t say that I can see any other way for her to survive at this point. Women do what they have to do when they have to do it- it’s just the way things are. (Another side note: was I the only one reminded of Maleficent by Sansa’s new threads and hair job? Maybe it’s just because Angelina Jolie’s movie just came out, I don’t know. But she did  seem very reminiscent of of the Disney icon to me,)
  • In other news, Ygritte’s heart wasn’t completely demolished by Jon Snow’s diss as she was willing to let Gilly and her baby live. To be honest, I can’t wait to watch it freeze right back up when the two of them meet back up again. I don’t care how good a fighter he is; Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned and that means that our Jon is in for SUCH a beat down when Ygritte gets her hands on him again.It’s bound to be epic.
  • Well, Theon turned his ‘faux’ performance out after all- resulting in more people dying and Ramsay Snow dropping the ‘bastard’ title from his name. Oh joy. Oh rapture. I’m sure this will go splendidly.

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  • And of course, there was the Trial By Combat. Oh man, what a scene. I’m trying to think of a more grisly, gruesome death scene in Game of Thrones up to this point (and we all know there have been plenty), but I’m coming up with blanks. Nothing tops Oberyn’s exit. Blegh. Here’s my take on the fight: Guys, I’m sorry, but this was doomed from the very beginning. You know why? Because Oberyn was going into this fight with his feelings. It was personal for him, and there’s always a much bigger risk when you fight with your feelings. I understand why he wanted to fight the Mountain; he wanted vengeance for his sister and her children. But it was this desire for vengeance that ended up getting him killed. Oberyn not only wanted to kill the man who killed his family, he wanted to get  a confession from both the killer and indict/humiliate the man who ordered the hit: Tywin Lannister. If he’d been satisfied with just killing the Mountain, he never would have gotten distracted enough to let him live long enough to force him to name Tywin as the mastermind behind the crime. He couldn’t afford to be that careless with that good (and huge) a fighter- it should have been a quick, clean, precise kill. Oberyn was obviously capable of doing that, but he wanted to kill the Mountain, he also wanted to humiliate the Lannisters. His own pride was ultimately his unfortunate downfall. God knows what Tyrion is going to do now that his champion is dead. I’m sorry to see Oberyn go; he was a very charismatic character, and I was touched by his devotion to avenging his sister’s rape and death.

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Because last week was our farewell to Prince Oberyn, I thought that I would dedicated this week’s dish to him. In thinking of aspects of Oberyn’s character, I obviously decided to draw on inspirations from his amorous, exotic nature, while also being substantive and delicious. (Yes, I did just use that word because Pedro Pascal = male deliciousness on a stick. Am I right? Of course right.)  What I came up was this strata recipe. What makes this an Oberyn recipe? The garlic and the eggs; both are considered to be ancient and modern aphrodisiac foods (you learn something new every day, huh?). I ate mine with jalapenos and salsa on top to give it that extra ‘Dornish’ kick; it was just as fantastic as it looked. This would make a great recipe for a brunch to feed a crowd, or an easy fix for a Breakfast for Dinner craving.

R.I.P. Prince Oberyn. You fought well. You (and your smoking hot accent) will be thoroughly missed.

Game of Thrones Series

Week 1: Pigeon {Chicken} Pies

Week 2: Winterfell Brown Bread

Week 3: Southron Spinach & Plum Salad

Week 4: Baratheon Smothered Pork Chops & Apple Gravy

Week 5: Lemon Cakes

Week 6: Dothraki Flat Bread

Week 7: Dornish Garlic Strata

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Dornish Garlic Strata

Recipe Adapted from Annie’s Eats and Ina Garten

CLICK HERE FOR PRINTABLE VERSION

Ingredients

For Garlic Oil:

  • 6 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 1 cup extra virgin olive oil

For Strata

  • 3 tbsp. unsalted butter
  • 1½ cups onion, finely chopped
  • 1 red bell pepper, finely chopped
  • 2 (10 oz.) pkgs frozen chopped spinach, thawed & drained
  • 8 cups stale, cubed bread, cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 1/2 cup plus 2 tbsp garlic oil
  • 1 1/2 cups shredded Parmesan cheese (6 oz.)
  • 12 large eggs
  • 2¾ cup milk
  • 1 1/2 cup meat of your choice (sausage, chicken, bacon, ham)
  • 1 tbsp onion powder
  • 1 tsp garlic & herb seasoning (like Mrs. Dash)
  • 1 tsp smoked paprika
  • 1/2 tsp black pepper

 Directions

1. In a small saucepan, bring garlic and oil to a boil, then turn heat to low, and cook for 5 minutes, until garlic is lightly browned. Turn off heat and set aside. The garlic will continue to cook.

2. Remove garlic cloves from the oil & slice them. Place them in a bowl & pour the oil over them.

3. Place bread cubes in a bowl, and pour garlic oil over them. Toss to combine, set aside.

4. Melt the butter in a medium skillet over medium heat.  Add onions & peppers to pan and sauté until soft, about 5 minutes.  Stir in the spinach, remove from the heat and set aside.

5. Butter the inside of a 2½-3 quart baking dish.  Layer the bottom of the dish with one third of the bread cubes.  Top with one third of the meat, one third of the spinach mixture and one third of each of the cheese.  Repeat these layers twice more with the bread, meat, spinach and cheese.

6. In a medium bowl, combine the eggs, milk, onion powder, garlic/herb seasoning, paprika, and pepper.  Whisk together until blended.

7.  Pour the mixture evenly over the bread and spinach layered in the baking dish.  Cover with plastic wrap and chill for at least 8 hours or up to 1 day.

8. Remove from the refrigerator 30 minutes before baking.  Preheat the oven to 350˚ F.  Bake uncovered until puffed, golden brown and cooked through, 45-55 minutes.  Let stand at least 5 minutes before serving.

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Coconut-Almond French Toast Casserole

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Happy Easter everyone! I’m a Christian, so today I’m celebrating Resurrection Sunday (Jesus Christ’s resurrection), but if you’re not a Christian and just celebrate ‘Easter Bunny Easter’, or if you’re a Jewish and celebrating Passover, then I wish you a happy holiday with your friends and family. True to Cooking is My Sport fashion, I’m sharing some trivia with you guys:

  1.  The name, “Easter” comes from a goddess: Her name is Eostre and She was the Mother Goddess of the Saxons of Northern Europe. She was, according to Grimm (yes, one of those Grimms), “goddess of the growing light of spring.” 
  2. Hot cross buns come from the wheat cakes that were baked in honor of Eostre. As part of the adoption of traditions, Christians added the cross on the top and had the cakes blessed by the Church. In England, it was believed that hanging a hot cross bun in the house would protect it from fire and bring good luck for the coming year.
  3.  Easter eggs once acted as birth certificates. During the 19th century, when many families were unable to get to the closest town hall to file a birth certificate, an egg would be accepted as a method of identification. The egg would be dyed and inscribed with the person’s name and birth date. It was completely legal and accepted by courts and other authorities

Source

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Besides the Easter holiday, today also  marks the final day of the Challah bread series we’ve been doing this week. You guys finally get to find out what I did with the three loaves of braided Traditional Challah and the Vanilla Bean Challah that I made (y’know, besides just eat it warm and slathered with butter). This time, instead of finding another way of doing Challah, I wanted to use it as a main ingredient in another dish. I went with a recipe that my twin sister has been asking me to make for a while now that she saw on the Food Network.

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I love this recipe for so many reasons- not least of which is how awesome it tastes, which I’ll get to in a minute. What I really liked about it was that it let find a use for the ‘end’ pieces of the challah loaves. Don’t look at me like that. I know I’m not the only one that usually ends up throwing them out. Let’s face it: no one really wants them-until now that is. At first I was concerned that only 9 slices of bread wouldn’t be enough to make a substantial casserole. I was also worried that they would be overly soaked and ultimately soggy from the egg custard.  Fortunately, I was surprised. The bread puffed up really well when baked. Challah’s a pretty sturdy bread, so it was more than able to stand up to the egg mixture. I will say this though: if you’re using plain old Texas Toast bread, then I would think about bumping it up maybe two or three slices, as it’s much softer than Challah. It also doesn’t taste near as good, but you guys knew that already, right?

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Okay, now to the good part: what does it taste like? Well first of all, what really (and I mean REALLY) sets this dish apart from any normal overnight French Toast Bake is the Coconut Almond Crust that’s baked on top of it. It’s like a crunchy, sugary almost candied carmelized effect that is doubly awesome when contrasted with the soft texture of the baked challah. If you’re not entirely convinced, then let me say up front that I’m not even a fan of coconut at all. I don’t care for the texture or overall flavor…and I STILL couldn’t imagine eating this dish without the coconut almond crust. It’s that good.

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As you can see, I sprinkled powdered sugar on top of mine and added some berries and syrup, but my mom and sister said that they thought it was good enough to eat all on its own. If you’re looking for an easy dish to make for breakfast or brunch guests that will still knock their socks off, this is the one to try. Or maybe you’re like me and baked a crap load of Challah or other sturdy bread that you have to do something with to avoid letting it spoil. Make this. You won’t regret it.

And I guess that does it for the Challah Series. Until I find another one to try. Then it’ll probably get a reboot. Don’t put it past me.

Challah- 3 Ways

Traditional Challah

Sweet Vanilla Bean Challah

Coconut-Almond French Toast Casserole {Challah}

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Coconut-Almond French Toast Casserole

Recipe Courtesy of FoodNetwork.com

CLICK HERE FOR PRINTABLE VERSION

Ingredients

  • Unsalted butter, for greasing dish
  • 9 slices Texas Toast or other thick-sliced bread
  • 6 large eggs
  • 3 1/2 cups half-and-half
  • 5 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • Pinch of salt

         Coconut-Almond Crust:

  • 1/2 cup plus 3 tablespoons sweetened coconut flakes
  • 1/3 cup plus 1/4 cup sliced almonds
  • 5 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 5 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • Pinch salt
  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 large egg plus 1 large egg yolk

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 300°. Lightly butter a 9-by-13-inch casserole dish.

2. For the French toast: Lay the bread slices in one layer (it’s OK if they overlap a little) on a baking sheet. Bake the slices (to dry them out a little) for 6 minutes, then flip and bake for 6 minutes more. Set aside to cool.

3. Whisk together the eggs, half-and-half, granulated sugar, vanilla, cinnamon and salt in a large bowl. Dunk each bread slice in the egg mixture to coat thoroughly and shingle the slices in the buttered casserole dish. Pour any remaining egg mixture over the bread. Cover the dish with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 6 hours or overnight.

4. For the coconut-almond crust: Put 1/2 cup of the coconut, 1/3 cup of the almonds, granulated sugar, flour and salt in a food processor and process until very fine. Add the butter, egg and egg yolk and process well to form a smooth paste.

5. To assemble the casserole: Preheat the oven to 350°. Spread the coconut-almond mixture evenly over the soaked bread slices. Top with the remaining 1/4 cup sliced almonds and 3 tablespoons coconut and bake until puffed and lightly golden and the custard is set (the center of the casserole will no longer jiggle when shaken), 45 to 50 minutes.

6. Allow to cool for 1 hour before serving, or serve at room temperature. Serve with a sprinkling of powdered sugar and berries if using.

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Baked Corn Casserole

Baked Corn3

Let’s talk side dishes, shall we?

They’re mainly meant to be the wind beneath the wings of the main course. They usually don’t take very much effort to put together. They’re usually some kind of vegetable or starch. They’re also meant to be the back-up just in case the main dish doesn’t quite fill you up all the way.

Side dishes in my family are kind of a big deal. Whether it’s for a holiday or special occasion, or just an ordinary dinner, we always take them pretty seriously, even to the point where they can be just as popular and in high demand as the main dish.  Plain, store-bought steamed veggies that have just been heated up in a microwave? Uh, no. That’s not gonna fly ’round these parts. I’m gonna need for you to step up your game.

Baked Corn1My grandparents have their own vegetable garden and for as long as I can remember, we’ve been eating their produce for side dishes. My grandma’s greens are unsurpassed in the entire history of cooking. Period. I could seriously eat a bowl of her cabbage greens and cornbread every.single.day.of.my.life. No joke. Ditto with her green beans. Because of her, I had no problem eating my vegetables growing up. Smothered cabbage with bacon is another family favorite of ours- mine taste good, but I’m also willing to admit that Ashley’s taste slightly better (I said SLIGHTLY Ash, don’t get a big head).  No one else really digs them, but I’m crazy about oven roasted brussel sprouts too. I also make a mean pot of barbecue baked beans for our cookouts. Don’t worry. Come Memorial Day, you guys will be getting that recipe.

Then there’s baked corn. We’ve been eating this as a staple side dish in my family for a pretty long time now. One of my mom’s co-workers introduced it to her and from the first, we were huge fans. I’m sure many of you are familiar with this dish yourselves- and if you’re not, then you’re certainly gonna be. Because it’s not only really good, it’s also incredibly easy and quick to make. Most of the ingredients you probably already have in your kitchen, and you can put them together in a real ‘Jiffy’.

*Rimshot*

I know. That was a really lame joke. Just try to bear with me here.

Baked Corn4So for those of you that have never had it before, Baked Corn is like a cross between a very moist cornbread, and a tender corn souffle. If you’ve ever had spoon bread, this is very close to that, only a little more spongy in texture. As I said before, it’s really very good. In addition, unlike when when cooking a souffle, you don’t have to worry about things like ice baths, or the casserole rising or falling once out of the oven. It’s almost embarrassing how simple this recipe really is. So have no fear beginner cook-letes. You’d be really hard pressed to mess it up.

I’m giving a very basic, straight-forward version of this recipe, but after you try it for the first time and decide you love it (and you will), I’d recommend any number of ways to take it to the next level, even elevating it beyond a mere ”side-dish’. For instance, I could definitely see adding crumbled, pre-cooked sausage, ham or bacon along with a slew of diced onions and peppers to make this a ‘main casserole dish’. The original recipe also includes cheese- we’re not huge cheese fans in my family, so I never include it, but if you are then feel free to throw it on top of yours in the last 15 or so minutes of baking.

Baked Corn2

This is a really great dish not only for side dishes at dinner, but for a dish to pass at potlucks or picnics. It also tastes just as good cold as it does hot. I’ve never done it before, but I could easily see the casserole divided into muffin tins for individual portions as well- just be sure to lessen the baking time by about 15-20 minutes depending upon your oven.

Finally, for those looking to slightly ‘lighten’ this recipe up, that’s quite simple to do as well. The sour cream can be replaced with a plain Greek yogurt (I say Greek yogurt because it has a thicker consistency than regular that more closely mimics the sour cream.  Butter could be substituted for melted coconut oil, or even melted Earth Balance spread. I’m not going to promise you that it will taste the same as the original though. (because let’s face it, nothing competes with Butter. It’s a rule of nature, and who am I to argue with that?)

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Baked Corn Casserole

Recipe Adapted from Paula Deen

CLICK HERE FOR PRINTABLE VERSION

Ingredients

  • 1 (15 1/4-ounce) can whole kernel corn, drained
  • 1 (14 3/4-ounce) can cream-style corn
  • 1 (8-ounce) package corn muffin mix (recommended: Jiffy)
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • 1/2 stick butter, melted
  • 1 tablespoon onion powder
  • 1 tablespoon garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon sweet paprika

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

2. In a large bowl, stir together the 2 cans of corn, corn muffin mix, sour cream, melted butter,  onion powder,  garlic powder and paprika.

3. Pour into a greased 9 by 13-inch casserole dish. Bake for 50 minutes, or until golden brown.

4.  Let stand for at least 5 minutes and then serve warm.

Baked Spaghetti

Baked Spaghettis 1

Here’s an interesting fact about me guys: I’m an identical twin.

For some reason, whenever people find this  out about me, they act like it’s the coolest thing since sliced bread. Their eyes get all big and they immediately subject me to a game of 21 questions where me and my twin sister Jasmine (I call her Jas) are supposed to answer every rumor, superstition and stereotype of twins that exists. And I’ve literally heard it all.

“What’s it like being a twin?” (After 24 years, I still don’t know to answer this to anyone’s satisfaction. I have an older sister and younger brother, the truth is that having a twin feels no different from having any other siblings.)

“Can you read each other’s minds?” (I really am tempted to just stare at people that ask me this until they actually begin to feel as stupid as what they just asked sounded.)

“Do you ever switch places to try and fool people?” (Uh, no. Just…no.)

“If I pinch you will she feel it?”  (No, I’m not making it up. I hear this ALL.THE.TIME. And yes, Some people have actually tried to pinch me).

“SISTA SISTAAA!” (In case you didn’t know, that’s taken from the Tia and Tamera Mowry television show from the 90s, “Sister Sister”. Jas and I have had it sung to us more times than we’d care to remember. It’s very annoying.)

Baked Spaghettis 2

All of the cliche stuff about twins aside, I will be honest and say that Jas really is one of my closest friends. She knows me better than just about anybody in the world, and vice versa. The telepathic/empathic connection between twins isn’t real, but Jas and I are close enough  and friends to the point where we can look at each other and make an instinctual guess as to what the other is thinking depending on the circumstances. But really that’s just because she’s been around me more than anyone else and we’ve had a lot of shared experiences and have a lot of inside jokes. There’s no ‘magic’ to it or anything. I’m sure some of you have friends or regular siblings that you’re like that with too.

Baked Spaghettis 3

Anyway. One of the things that Jas and I do NOT have in common is a love of cooking. Not that she can’t cook at all, it’s that she just doesn’t like to do it all that much. Now, I already shared before that my older sister Ashley loves the meat pies that I make for her. I also said that Jas likes baked spaghetti. Actually, no. I said that she could eat the stuff every day. That was not an exaggeration.

Jas LOVES baked spaghetti. Really, really, REALLY loves it.  I’d say it was right up there at the top of the list of her favorite foods, along with salmon, Teddy Grahams and chocolate milk. This baked spaghetti that I make for her is on a regular rotation in our house. I can make a lot of it at a time, and it pretty much doesn’t get any easier than this so far as easy meals go.

There are however 3 things that anyone cooking Jas baked spaghetti MUST remember: she wants lots of meat, she wants lots of sauce, and she doesn’t want a lot of cheese. So just keep that in mind when you make this recipe for yourself-my twin sister is a meat and sauce lover, and a cheese hater. However, since this recipe is so easy, you can always adjust the ratio of ingredients to suit you and your family’s taste.

FEED(ME) BACK: What’s a question you’ve always wanted to ask a twin? (Yes. I’ll answer anything you ask me…within reason.)

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Baked Spaghetti

CLICK HERE FOR PRINTABLE VERSION

Ingredients

  • 1 lb ground beef, browned and drained
  • 9.6 oz fully cooked sausage crumbles
  • 8-8.5 oz of angel hair pasta
  • 6 oz (1 can) tomato paste
  • 13 oz tomato sauce
  • 1/2 teasp pepper
  • 1 tablespoon onion powder
  • 1 tablespoon garlic powder
  • 2 heaping teaspoon light brown sugar
  • 1/4 teasp garlic salt
  • 1/2 cup green pepper, diced
  • 1 and 1/2 cup of Italian style cheese, shredded
  • 2 oz pepperoni (About 40 slices)

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 350°. Spray a 9 x 12 baking dish with cooking spray and set aside.

2. Heat a  pot over medium heat. Add tomato sauce, tomato paste, pepper, garlic powder, onion powder, brown sugar, garlic salt and green pepper and stir to combine.

3. When tomato paste has completely dissolved into sauce, add the sausage crumbles and ground beef. Cover and simmer over low heat for 30 minutes.

4.  Cook and drain pasta according to package directions.

5. Layer pasta, sauce and cheese in baking dish, making sure you start and end with sauce.

6. Bake in preheated oven for thirty minutes. Remove from oven and place pepperoni over the top of casserole, then sprinkle with remaining 1/2 cup of cheese. Bake for about 5-7 minutes more, until cheese in melted. Remove from oven, let stand for about 10 minutes. Serve.