A Personalized Gratitude Journal

If you have been sticking around since October (thank you!), you are familiar with my inner child. She’s out and about again and it’s all for Christmas.
I love giving gifts, and – I feel like maybe I should “shhhhhh” about this – but I love getting them too.

This doesn’t mean I need anything fancy. In fact, most of my favorites are ones that were homemade. It warms my heart to know someone took the time to make something for me – even if it’s just a little note or drawing. They thought about me, and that makes me smile inside and out.
That’s where the inspiration for my latest little project with my little guy came in. He and I are both self-proclaimed artists, so while there was a little squabble back and forth between us, it all turned out just right. The concept was mine, the execution was his.

This journal is intended to be a gratitude journal – one in which each day you enter one, or two, or three things for which you are thankful. Little things or big things, it doesn’t matter. One day every page, from front to back, will hold a record of positive events and happenings that might have otherwise been overlooked. It serves as an unassuming reminder of the love and blessings we receive on daily basis.
This particular mini-masterpiece turned out looking a bit Dali-ish. Maybe I do have a budding master-of-the-arts on my hands!
I bought a simple little $3.00 journal from Michael’s, he picked out paint from our paint bin, and we scoured magazines for pictures that spoke to us about our special loved one.
Once we completed those tasks we were on our way.

Here’s how you can DIY:

Personalized Journal for a Loved One

Materials:

Blank Journal – preferably with a hard cover
Acrylic paint
Brushes and a cup of water for rinsing, and a paper towel for drying
Magazines for clippings and scissors
Decoupage or mod-podge and a separate brush

Directions:
Paint the front and back cover of the journal. This should not be a picture, just a background.

Let the paint dry fully while you clip and cut pictures from magazines that remind you of your “giftee”. Before you continue with your clippings, paint the inside edges of the front and back covers if necessary, and let them dry.

When the paint is dry, take your clippings and test out different arrangements without any decoupage or mod-podge. When you have the arrangement you like best, lightly brush the backs of your clippings (or the area on your journal where it will be placed) and gently press it on. Remember to start with your bottom layer of cut-outs first if you are layering. Once you have glued all your clippings in this fashion, let the decoupage dry.
Once that layer is dry, brush a thin layer of decoupage/mod-podge over the top of everything – even the paint. Smooth out bumps with the side of your paintbrush handle if necessary. Let that layer dry, and repeat. Let it dry, and your project is complete!

And then, before you wrap it, write a secret note inside for them to find later.

When you’re shopping. . . .

Today is Cyber Monday. If you’re going to park yourself at the computer to do some shopping and snag some great Christmas deals, there are a few things you should remember:

1. a bowl of jellybeans by your side. . . um, is that just me?
2. your list – and check it twice.
3. a drink to re-hydrate – jellybeans can take it out of you.
4. a pen – to check people off as you buy them the perfect gift.
5. and last but not least, see below:

If you haven’t seen it already, check here to see how you can donate to the Children’s Shelter of Cebu as you shop online – without spending any extra money.
Thanks for taking a peek.
Happy shopping!

(Leftover) Sweet Potato Fritters

If you are anything like us, you are still working your way through your Thanksgiving leftovers.
The first couple of days immediately following the big meal, I consider myself lucky that there are only two of us who appreciate leftover sweet potato casserole. On day four, neither one of us even want to look at it any more.
I hate wasting food, so now I’m on a kick to try to work leftovers into things everyone will eat, and since it’s a holiday weekend, decorations are up, and Christmas music is playing in the background, I don’t mind being a little on the unhealthy side.
Enter sweet potato fritters.
Not even close to the trouble of doughnuts, they require very little prep and cook up quickly so you still have plenty of time to spend your morning doing in other holiday-ish activities. . . i.e. lazing around in your jammies until at least 1 PM, but certainly NOT cooking and doing dishes.
Those are, in fact, little toddler fingers trying to steal a fritter from the plate in the photo above. I really don’t know how many this recipe makes because those little sugared puffs kept being snatched off the plate as they were cooked up and dusted, and I lost count.
I’m guessing it makes somewhere between two and three dozen.

Recipe:

(Leftover) Sweet Potato Fritters

Ingredients:
canola oil for frying
1 cup mashed sweet potato (from your leftover casserole is perfect)
1 beaten egg
2 1/3 cup Krusteaz buttermilk pancake mix
2/3 cup yellow cornmeal
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
dash of nutmeg
2 cups of water
2/3 cups granulated sugar + 1 teaspoon cinnamon, mixed

Directions:

In a medium to large pot, dutch oven (depending on how many you want to fry at the same time) or deep fryer, heat oil to 325-350 degrees F. It’s best to use a candy thermometer to measure the heat here, but if you’re winging it, you can put it on medium-low to medium and then watch the way the fritters fry up and play with it from there.

Combine mashed sweet potatoes and egg in a small bowl. Set aside.
In a medium bowl, combine Krusteaz, cornmeal, cinnamon and nutmeg. Mix.

Add sweet potato mixture to dry ingredients and slowly add water. Batter may be a little lumpy, but that’s ok.

Carefully drop batter by the teaspoon-full into hot oil. It’s best to do a test run before frying too many. The batter should sink to the bottom, then float to the top.
Gently flip the fritters by tipping them with a spatula or spoon, and flip several times during cooking. Each fritter should cook till golden brown on both sides.
On your first test run, remove the fritter from the oil and place on a plate lined with paper towels. Cut it open with a fork and make sure the middle is cooked through. If it’s cooked through, and you’ve got a golden brown finish, your temperature is right. If it’s golden, but the inside is un-cooked, your oil is too hot and they’re browning too fast.
Once you have your magic oil temperature, continue cooking fritters in the same manner, making sure to leave enough space, when cooking several, to allow easy flipping.
Remove fritters to paper-towel lined plate and let them cool slightly.
While still warm, either roll or gently shake them (in a large Ziplock bag) in the sugar-cinnamon mix.
Serve warm.

Source: Sara – out of leftover desperation. . . .

Snickerdoodle Cupcake Cookies

These are Snickerdoodle cookies on steroids. Need I say more?

My love for snickerdoodles combined with the intrigue of the name drew me to this recipe. Cupcake cookie? What the heck is that?
I’ll tell you what it is. It’s probably the richest snickerdoodle you will ever eat, baked into the form of a cup and filled (yes, filled) with a delectable spiced buttercream frosting that is reminiscent of egg-nog, and it will probably make you roll your eyes back in pure pleasure with the first bite. This is the kind of cookie (cupcake?) you might want to save until you can be alone with it – so you can enjoy it fully and appreciate each cinnamon-sugar-y, frosting-y bite without interruption.

Once again, pecans have stalked me. I tagged this recipe at least a month ago, and didn’t even realize they were here. But they were. I’ve never made snickerdoodles with pecans before but enjoyed them in this version.
My mind wandered a little bit when I was chopping, so the toasted nuts were finely minced rather than chopped, but I have to say I think this was a good mistake. I don’t know that I would have liked the cookies as well with larger chunks.

These are truly a giftable indulgence. Just a single cupcake cookie wrapped up in a shallow coffee mug and finished off with a pretty ribbon, a little handmade card, and some cellophane wrap would make a beautiful token for someone you appreciate. The recipe makes 24 – peeeeerfect. One for the teacher, 23 for you. . . .

Doesn’t this little guy look lonely?? I should probably eat him. . . .

Recipe:

Snickerdoodle Cupcake Cookies

Ingredients:

1 cup butter, softened
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup toffee pieces
1/2 cup chopped pecans, toasted
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg or 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
Spiced Buttercream Frosting (recipe follows)
Crushed toffee pieces

Directions:
In a large mixing bowl beat butter with an electric mixer on medium to high-speed for 30 seconds. Add the 1 1/2 cups sugar, the baking soda, cream of tartar, and salt. Beat until combined, scraping the side of the bowl occasionally. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, and the vanilla until combined. Beat in as much flour as you can with the mixer. Using a wooden spoon, stir in remaining flour, the 1 cup toffee pieces, and pecans. Cover and chill dough about 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Line muffin tin with paper baking cups. Set aside. IN a small bowl, stir together the 1/4 up sugar, the cinnamon, and the nutmeg. Set aside.

Using a rounded 2-tablespoon scoop, shape dough into balls. Roll balls in the sugar mixture to coat. Press each ball lightly into a prepared muffin cup, making the tops even.

Bake for 15-18 minutes or until tops are light brown and edges are just firm (centers will dip slightly). Cool in muffin cups on wire rack for 5 minutes. Remove cupcakes from pans, cool completely.

Spoon Spiced Buttercream Frosting into a pastry bag fitted with a large star tip. Pipe frosting into a tall swirl on each cupcake. If desired, sprinkle with crushed toffee pieces. Makes 24 cupcakes.

Spiced Buttercream Frosting

Ingredients:
2/3 cup softened butter
2 cups powdered sugar
1/4 cup milk
1 teaspoon Vanilla
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg, or a dash of ground nutmeg
5 cups powdered sugar
additional milk

Directions:
In a large mixing bowl beat 2/3 cup softened butter with an electric mixer on medium speed until smooth. Gradually beat in 2 cups powdered sugar. Beat in 1/4 cup milk, vanilla, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Gradually beat in 5 cups powdered sugar and enough additional milk (2-4 tablespoons) to make frosting piping consistency.

Source: Just slightly adapted from Better Homes and Gardens Foodgifts 2011.

Happy Thanksgiving, and a Bailey’s Pumpkin Pie Coffee

I hope I get to spend at least part of Thanksgiving weekend quietly sipping one of these and reading a favorite book; but it’s okay if I don’t, because this year my focus will be on having an “attitude of gratitude” – no matter what.
If I can’t because my kids want me to play a game with them, I will be thankful that my kids love me and want to be with me.
If I can’t because my husband wants to cuddle up and watch a movie, I will be grateful that I am blessed with a healthy him and a happy us.
If I can’t because I need to fold laundry, I will be grateful that we have more than enough clothes to wear.
If I can’t because I have to cook dinner, I will be grateful that we have plenty of food to eat.
If I can’t because the house is full of the noise and chaos of four children, I will be grateful that they are all healthy and enjoy being together.
If I can’t because someone needs me to help them, I will be grateful that others know they can count on me.
If I can’t because I am busy putting up Christmas decorations, I will be grateful that my favorite holiday is just around the corner, and my whole family loves it just as much as I do.
If I can’t for any reason, I will find a way to be grateful for whatever is stopping me.

But I really hope I can sip one. . . per day. It’s dreamy – even without the Bailey’s if you must. Maybe that’s what we’ll do the morning after Thanksgiving. Wake up late, fix a nice breakfast, and snuggle in with everyone to sip hot cocoas or coffees and watch our first Christmas movie of the year.

I am grateful for new holiday traditions.

Have a very happy Thanksgiving. I hope your blessings are countless and your heart is warm with gratitude this holiday!

Recipe:

Bailey’s Pumpkin Pie Coffee

2 ounces Bailey’s Original Irish Cream
4 ounces Espresso or Strongly brewed Coffee
1 teaspoon Pumpkin Pie Spice
Cinnamon Stick
Whipped Cream

Combine Bailey’s Original Irish Cream and Pumpkin Pie Spice in a mug. Pour in coffee and stir. Top with a dollop of whipped cream (optional – (not really!)), a sprinkle of pumpkin pie spice, and a cinnamon stick.

Source: Baileys Irish Cream via Drink of the Week

To make without the Bailey’s:

4 oz of coffee
1 teaspoon of sugar
2 oz half and half
1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
Cinnamon stick
Whipped cream

Combine coffee, sugar, pumpkin pie spice, and half and half. Add a cinnamon stick, top with whipped cream and sprinkle with pumpkin pie spice.

Breakfast Empanadas

I feel the need to clarify here. One of my friends, (yeah, you know who you are 😉 ) is under the impression that I am a good cook – as in, I can just throw things together and I already know how it will  work together, and it will come out tasting awesome.
No way.
I am not, and I do not.
I am secretly tickled at the idea that someone thinks I have that skill, but it’s so not true. My hope is that someday that will be me, but for now, I am a recipe collector. Before I even realized I was doing it, I started filling a box, then a file, and now a counter-top lined with several binders (to my family’s chagrin).  All of them filled with recipes I salivate over and think would be tasty. Most of them veer towards dishes I feel would fit the tastes of my family, a few of them I know would pretty much only appeal to me but I  want to push the envelope a little. Either way, I test them out and wait for the results. Sometimes the verdict is underwhelming, sometimes it’s acceptable, sometimes it’s good, and on rare but blessed days it’s outstanding and we have success.

By “success”,  I mean we get at least 10 thumbs up, completely vertical in the air – no tilting (yes, we operate on a thumb scale). The number of recipes I have invented that have collected the top-notch rating of two completely vertical thumbs up (by everyone of thumb-voting age in our house) I can count on one hand. That’s it.  And when something I dream up gets that rating, my heart skips a little beat. Oh the simple joy of pleasing other people’s taste buds.

So imagine. I fell in love with the crust on that mushroom potpie. ( I told you it would be making another appearance!) It’s clearly not my recipe, but I started dreaming about ways to use it again and this is my first go-round. Can I tell you something? My little guy actually cried the other morning when I told him these were all gone. That’s how much he loved them. SCORE! (Not that I want him in tears of course, but forget the thumbs – he liked them enough to shed tears!)

So here they are, my very own Breakfast Empanadas (using the crust from The Pastry Queen). They are rich and filling, savory and melt-in-your-mouthy. I happen to think they would be the perfect addition to a holiday brunch. You can make them ahead and keep them in the refrigerator for a quick breakfast on a school morning or for an impressive little breakfast for house guests (and you can breeze around the kitchen like it was simply no trouble at all!)

Recipe:

Breakfast Empanadas (should make 14-16 empanadas)

Ingredients:

2 cups firmly packed fresh spinach, microwaved in a microwave safe dish with 1 tsp of water for about 40 seconds on high. Squeeze out excess water, and chop.

1 cup ground or chopped Chorizo

4 eggs + 1 for the pastry wash

Milk for eggs (just a splash)

4 oz. Queso Fresco

1 batch dough for crust (below)

Directions:

Prepare crust. This can be done all the way up to the stage of cutting your discs, and then refrigerated for up to three days. Recipe below.

Prepare two baking sheets by lining with parchment paper, or spray lightly with vegetable oil.

Place dough discs, 7 or 8 per sheet, on prepared baking sheets.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.  

Filling:

In a medium bowl whisk eggs with a dash of milk. Set aside.  In a medium saucepan over medium heat, cook Chorizo until just starting to brown. Remove from pan, set aside. Scramble eggs. Cook until just slightly under-done (leave them with some liquid so they don’t dry out too much while baking in the oven). .Remove from heat. Add sausage back to the pan. Add spinach.  Stir to combine.

Scoop two tablespoons of the egg and chorizo mixture onto each disc. Crumble 1/2 oz. Queso Fresco on each mound of egg mixture.

Gently fold dough of each disc over the mound to the other side, gently stretching it if you must, to contain the egg mixture. The dough is very workable. Tuck in any egg/sausage that might topple out. Seal edge of pocket by pinching together with fingertips. Complete all pockets.

Beat one egg with a whisk.With a pastry brush (you can get away with a basting brush here – I did!) Gently brush each pocket on both sides with beaten egg.

Bake in oven for 20 – 25 minutes, until golden brown. Let cool for a few minutes before serving.

Empanadas can be stored in the fridge for a few days. You can easily re-heat them in the microwave by wrapping them in a paper towel and cooking on high for 40-60 seconds. Let stand for at least 2 minutes before eating.

Recipe for Crust:

Ingredients:
16 tbsp. cold unsalted butter
3 cups all-purpose flour
10 oz. cream cheese, chilled
1 tsp. salt
¼ tsp. pepper
1 large egg

Directions:
To make the crust, cut the butter into 16 pieces. In the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade, pulse the butter and flour until crumbly. Add the cream cheese, salt and pepper. Continue pulsing just until the dough forms a ball. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured work surface. Use a floured rolling pin to roll the dough out to about ¼-inch thickness (less for these rounds – a little more than 1/8-inch). Cut out dough rounds to be about 5 inches in diameter. You can use a small plate or round lid to be your guide. Lay the dough rounds out on prepared baking sheets. 

Source:

Empanada filling by Sara; crust from The Pastry Queen, via Ezra Pound Cake and Annie’s Eats.

Mushroom Potpie


I really wish my entire family liked mushrooms. Unfortunately, only my husband and I will eat them for a meal, or an appetizer, or on salad, or. . . . at all.
Which is too bad, because this was yummy.
When I made this the first time around I knew the kids would not eat the mushrooms and would end up eating just the crust for their dinner, so I made the same recipe sans mushrooms and plus ground beef. It passed, but just slightly. No matter how many times I put them in front of them, they’re just not fans of stewed veggies.
The one thing everyone loved was the crust. It’s dense and buttery, and it melts in your mouth. I too, could have been easily satisfied eating a meal of crust only. . . with a glass of wine. I’m positive this crust will be making an appearance in more recipes.
The mushroom filling on the first try was fine. It was like any other stew or pot pie filling, but kind of ho-hum. I had split the recipe in half so I could share with my vegetarian friend, and when I delivered it, I felt the need to make all kinds of disclaimers about how it was nothing exciting. I hate sharing food like that!
I was having it for lunch that same day, and after mulling over what might possibly make it better, I settled on a generous splash of white wine. Guess what happened. MAGIC. It went from being a sort of boring dish with an amazing topping, to an all-around mouth-watering main dish that I could be proud of serving.
Prep-wise these are time-consuming, but you can make them in advance – which is awesome. A prepared pie can be kept in the refrigerator for a day, and you can even make the pastry dough up to three days early. They can also be baked and then frozen so you can just pop the whole thing out of the freezer on a busy night – just make sure you allow enough baking time – 45 minutes to an hour if the pie is frozen.

Recipe:

Mushroom Pot Pie

Ingredients:
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 pounds mushrooms (such as cremini or button), halved, or quartered if large
4 carrots, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
3 celery stalks, sliced 1/4 inch thick
1 medium onion, chopped
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
kosher salt and black pepper
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups vegetable broth
1 cup frozen peas
1/4 cup dry white wine
1 recipe “crust” dough (recipe below) or 1 sheet puff pastry thawed (half a 17.3 oz package)

Directions:
Heat oven to 400° F. Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the mushrooms, carrots, celery, onion, thyme, ½ teaspoon salt, and ¼ teaspoon pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are tender, 12 to 15 minutes. Add the flour and cook, stirring, for 30 seconds. Add the broth, wine, and peas; bring to a boil.
Transfer the mushroom mixture into an 8-inch square baking dish. Lay the pastry on top and cut several vents in it. Place the baking dish on a rimmed baking sheet and bake until the crust is golden, 25 to 30 minutes. Let rest 15 minutes before serving.

Recipe for Crust:

Ingredients:
16 tbsp. cold unsalted butter
3 cups all-purpose flour
10 oz. cream cheese, chilled
1 tsp. salt
¼ tsp. pepper
1 large egg

Directions:
To make the crust, cut the butter into 16 pieces. In the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade, pulse the butter and flour until crumbly. Add the cream cheese, salt and pepper. Continue pulsing just until the dough forms a ball. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured work surface. Use a floured rolling pin to roll the dough out to about ¼-inch thickness. Cut out dough rounds to be about 1½ inches larger than the diameter of your pot pie dishes ( I prefer to cut the dough to match the size of my dish to prevent run-over). Lay the dough rounds on top of the individual dishes. Beat the egg with a whisk, and brush the tops of the dough rounds lightly with the beaten egg.

Source: Mushroom filling recipe slightly adapted from Real Simple Magazine November 2011 issue, crust recipe originally from The Pastry Queen via Ezra Poundcake, via Annie’s Eats. Wow – that’s a long trail!

Kool-Aid Scented Play Dough


If you wanted to, you could eat this stuff. Not that you would really want to, but you might be tempted to. It smells like you should eat it, and it’s warm and soft like you should probably at least taste it. I guarantee this will be the progression of your kids’ thoughts if you make this together:
1. Wow! This stuff is hot!
2. Yum! That smells good!
3. Hmmmm. I wonder what it tastes like?
And it can only go down-hill from there. . . . It tastes like salty play dough with an essence of Kool-Aid. So – it tastes gross. I’ll save you the trouble.
Some people like to call this “edible” play dough. I guess it could be – just more in the sense that it won’t put you in the hospital if you take a bite; certainly NOT in the sense that you might want to be eating it for a clever lunch.

Traditionally we make this in the summertime when it’s really just too hot to be outside, but I think it works just as well as an indoor wintertime activity.
The warmth and the smell of the dough as you knead it are irresistable. No one can be in the room when we’re making it and NOT play with it, and inevitably we all end up snorting and guffawing over the disgusting concoction someone has made by mixing orange and green together and hanging it from their nose.
Yes, the play degenerates as the colors begin to resemble “booger-green” and “poo-brown”, but the gales of belly laughter coming from the kids are certainly worth the temporary lapse in manners. This warm, squishy, yummy smelling dough spans every age gap and keeps us all engaged for a nice little chunk of time.

It might seem odd to post this right now, but is it?? This would make a spot-on Christmas gift for the special kiddos in your life – nieces, nephews, grandchildren, students, school-mates, even for siblings to make for one another. It’s an inexpensive gift and an afternoon of giggles and bathroom jokes all wrapped into one!
The nifty little plastic containers pictured above are called “Lock-Ups” by Design Trend and can be found at Jo-Ann stores. They stack, twist, and lock together. Each container was about $1.80, and each batch of play dough will fill roughly four of those cups.
So go ahead! Make a batch. Put on some Christmas music and pour yourself a cup of tea – maybe they’ll even let you get a jump on your do-gooder holiday shopping. . . .

Recipe:

Kool-Aid Scented Play Dough

Ingredients:
1/2 Cup salt
2 1/2 Cups Flour
2 packages Kool-Aid
3 Tablespoons Oil
2 Cups boiling water

Directions: Mix dry ingredients. Add oil. Add water and stir with a plastic spatula or wooden spoon. Once you can’t stir anymore, carefully (it’s hot!) start to knead. Make sure to let it cool enough to handle safely. Dough can be kept in an airtight container in the fridge for around a month.

*If this dough is too sticky, just continue to work in more flour, little by little, as you knead until it doesn’t stick to your fingers anymore. If you find that you’ve added a lot of flour and it’s still tacky, work in a tiny bit of oil, until it sticks no more.

Source: Adapted just a smidgen from this recipe on Cooks.com.

Baked French Toast Casserole

I believe I have gone a little bit pecan-crazy. Three out of the four recipes I have tried over the last ten days involve pecans in one way or another. I blame this on the fact that when November first rolled around, I happened to read an article that stated we were, in fact, celebrating the national month for pecans. There’s such a thing?? Such useful trivia gets stored in this thing between my ears.
Of course, I couldn’t let go of this little morsel of information. There have been times in my life that I felt like I would love to live in Georgia; mainly the summer, (for the peaches) and now November, (for the Pecans). Although now that I’ve looked it up on trusty Wikipedia, I see that if I am only after a pecan-growing location, there are many more options other than Georgia. I like fresh Georgia peaches in the summertime though, so I’ll stick with it.
Without even making an effort to draw them forward, pecan recipes kept finding me – and tempting me. Conversations, blogs, magazines – they have all be screaming “PECANS, DAD GUM IT!”, and I have embarked and a pecan-laden journey.
One of those conversations/recipes was a french toast casserole conversation I had with my mother-in-law. She mentioned a recipe her friend had suggested for Thanksgiving morning – that it was to-die-for and that she would make it this year. It brought to mind a recipe I had tagged over the summer from Paula Dean, and, since I am pecan-crazed at the moment and could’t possibly wait until Thanksgiving to see if it was the same recipe, I made it this weekend.

That delicious-looking topping wasn’t just delicious-looking, it was delicious-tasting too. . . warm, crunchy, praline-ish topping over something very similar to bread pudding. During the Saturday morning critique session from the male contingent in our house – which is roughly 67% of us, it was decided that, once a serving of the casserole was cut up into individual bites, there was too much variation in the quality of said bites. Translation: bites with topping were awesome, bites without were not.
I have some suggestions to remedy this, although, I felt it was pretty darn good just the way it was. I don’t want to walk away from breakfast feeling heavy and sick, and this recipe was good for that. Delightful little bites of heaven, balanced with mild bites of lighter stuff – and honestly, when you have maple syrup on your plate – just dip the “bland” bites! I’ll give you the recipe the way I prepared it, then follow with the suggestions to make it full of 100% awesome bites.
Oh – and lest I forget to mention – this is an incredibly easy, slap-it-together-the-night-before kind of recipe, AND it’s a great way to use up a leftover loaf of bread from your Thanksgiving feast.

Recipe:

Baked French Toast Casserole (my way)

Ingredients:
1 loaf French bread (go for the good stuff here – it makes a difference in the mushy-factor)
4 large eggs
1 Cup half and half
1/2 Cup milk
1 Tablespoon granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon Vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
dash of salt
praline topping

Directions:
Prepare 8×8″ glass baking dish by generously buttering bottom and sides. Slice French bread into 20 slices. In a large bowl, combine the eggs, half-and-half, milk, sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt. Beat with a rotary beater or whisk until blended but not too bubbly. Arrange half the bread slices in a single layer in glass baking dish. Tear or cut slices as needed to create a layer of bread that fits snuggly together. fit Pour half of milk/egg mixture over slices. Repeat by arranging second layer of bread slices over the first, and pour remaining milk/egg mixture over the top. If needed, spoon some of the mixture between the slices. Cover with foil and refrigerate overnight.

The next day, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Spread the Praline Topping evenly over the bread and bake for 40 minutes, until puffed and lightly golden. Serve with maple syrup.

Praline Topping:
6 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup chopped pecans
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg.

To make it with 100% awesome bites, I suggest these alterations:
Use a 15″ glass baking dish and use the same amount of bread in a single layer. Double the praline topping and spread over the entire casserole. I’m guessing the baking time would be less – I’d start checking after 20-25 minutes and watch it. Serve warm, with maple syrup – although I’m guessing you might not need it!

Source: Adapted from Paula Dean, on The Food Network.

Butternut Squash and Poblano Gratin

After my last attempt at making a dish with butternut squash, (an oh-so-NOT-good soup), fell flat and pretty much grossed me out when I pulled it out of the fridge for leftovers, I thought I had sworn the lovely butternut squash off for this year. I just couldn’t stomach it. . . or so I thought.
Then I saw this side dish. . . and I fell in love all over again. Tex-Mex style butternut squash?? I actually really like this variety of squash. I totally appreciate the sweet/nutty/creamy characteristics of it. It was just the soup that scarred my taste buds.
I just don’t think you can go wrong with hot peppers, melted cheese, onions, and creamy sauce – no matter what else you put in it. The recipe calls for pepitas (pumpkin seeds) to top it off – but c’mon, seriously? I’m trying to pass this off on my family. This dish would certainly be thrown to the curb if I had served it with pepitas, of all things! Now, a crunchy topping of buttery panko bread crumbs – THAT will give it a fighting chance.
The gratin was a little on the intense side as far as prep goes – not the kind of thing to do on a busy night – but to make it ahead and pop it in the oven when you’re ready? Sure, why not.
My wheels are turning about how to make this into a kid-friendly main dish. The kids begrudgingly worked their way through the squash, but what can I say? I never liked squash when I was a kid either. My guess is that I will end up with a dish that uses almost all these ingredients . . . .minus the squash.
In the end, it was only the grown-ups who were the gratin-lovers (at least the butternut-squashy part). But that’s okay. Some food is just like that.
It was a totally satisfying lunch the next day, and I could have happily eaten it for at least three more meals and not tired of it. It’s definitely worth a shot if you like spicy, cheesy, butternut-squashy things with buttery bread-crumb topping. How can you say no to that?

Recipe:

Butternut Squash and Poblano Gratin

2 large or 3 medium poblanos (about 3/4 lb. total)
1 (2 lb.) butternut squash, peeled, halved, seeded, and sliced 1/2″ thick
2 Tbsp. olive oil, divided
3/4 tsp. chopped thyme, divided
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 tsp. dried oregano
1/4 cup heavy cream or whole milk
scant 1/2 cup sour cream (light is fine) or creme fraiche
3 oz. Monterrey Jack cheese, shredded
3 oz. queso fresco or farmer cheese, crumbled
1 cup panko bread crumbs tossed with 2 tablespoons melted butter

Preheat the oven to 400. Roast the poblanos directly over a gas flame or under the broiler, turning, until they are charred all over. Transfer the chilies to a bowl and cover with plastic wrap or a clean dish towel until they are cool enough to handle. (I roasted mine in the oven under the broiler on top of aluminum foil to help ease clean-up. When I pulled them out, I just wrapped them in the foil to seal in the heat and moisture.) Peel the skins off, then stem and seed the chilies and cut into thin strips.

Toss the butternut squash with 1 Tbsp. of the oil and sprinkle with salt, pepper, and 1/2 tsp. of the thyme. Roast in the oven until tender, about 25 minutes, turning the sheet once midway through.

Increase the oven temperature to 425.

Prepare a baking dish – I used a glass 11″x7″ dish sprayed with vegetable oil.

Meanwhile, heat the remaining 1 Tbsp. oil in a pan over medium heat. Add the onion, garlic, oregano, and remaining 1/4 tsp. thyme. Saute for 5 minutes and then add the poblano strips and cook until they are very tender, about 5 more minutes. Add the cream/milk and simmer until thickened.

Remove the pan from the heat, and add the sour cream. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Spoon half the poblano mixture into a baking dish and top with half the roasted squash. Sprinkle on half of the cheese. Repeat the layers.
Top with panko/butter mixture.

Bake for about 30 minutes, until gratin is golden and bubbly. Let rest for 10 before serving.

Source: minimally adapted from Elly Says Opa, adapted from Food and Wine, via Our Life in Food.