Valentine’s Day (non-candy) Treats

As you know, I’m in school these days, so I need to think about Valentine’s Day. My class will be having a party and I wanted to make sure I had Valentines for everyone in my class. Mommy figured there would be lots of candy and other sweet treats, so wanted me to do something that wouldn’t involve an early trip to the dentist. Also, you may remember from this post that some of my classmates have allergies that would make candy-giving more complicated than it needs to be. So, we went with an option that Mommy thinks my teachers, my classmates, and their parents will all like: crayons. Not just plain, old crayons though. Heart-shaped crayons.

Options

Don’t they look great? Okay, some are prettier than others. But I think they’re still pretty cool. And I get to keep some of them because there are more than enough for my classmates. In fact, each of my classmates will get three of them and I still have lots to keep (I’m lucky to be in class with fewer than 20 students.)

So, you know I wouldn’t show these to you and not tell you how Mommy and I made them, right? So, here it is.

Mommy bought two big boxes of crayons at the dollar store. We took the paper off of them and broke them into small pieces.

Crayons

Mommy also bought an ice “cube” mold that is hearts instead of rectangles. It’s silicon, so it can go in the oven.

Heart Mold

Preheat the oven to about 250 degrees (Mommy says our oven is on the cool side, so we played with a little before we got these to melt, but if your oven is more accurate, 250 should do the trick.)

Fill the molds with small pieces of crayon. You can use all of the same color, different shades of the same color, or mix a few colors together. Just avoid black and dark browns because they tend to turn the whole thing into a dark blah.

First Batch

Put the mold on a cookie sheet (to catch any overflowing wax) and put in the oven. Now how long it takes will depend on how hot your oven is, how big your mold is (how many crayon pieces are in there,) how small your pieces of crayon are and (I think) the quality of the crayons (ours were cheap and took forever to melt!) I say keep your eye on them (at least the first batch, until you get the hang of it.) Like I said, ours took awhile – about 20 minutes. But once they start to melt, they turn to liquid quickly, so watch them.

Out of the Oven

Let them cool completely so they solidify again. Using a silicon mold makes them easy to pop out once they are solid. This is the first batch:

First Batch Done

While we waited for the crayons to melt and re-solidify Mommy and I prepared the envelopes that we’d put the hearts in.Envelopes Ready

Then I got to pick which hearts I wanted to give each of my friends, we put them into the envelopes and sealed them with a sticker.

Stuffed and Sealed

Do you think my friends will like them? I sure hope so.

 

Oh, and since I’m a foodie, Mommy made one of my favorite meals after spending the day working hard melting wax!

Spaghetti and Meatballs

Will you be my Valentine?

Frankenstorm Cookies

Sorry this post is delayed in arriving to you. We were having some technical difficulties (funny enough, they weren’t related to the storm mentioned herein.)

So, last week it was known as Frankenstorm. Now it is being called “Super Storm Sandy.” Either way, Mommy and I had to make cookies for my Halloween party at school, so we took advantage of being stuck at home and baked. We were very lucky here in Baltimore. The storm was not as bad as it could have been. Mommy lived in Baltimore when Hurricane Isabel came right up the Chesapeake Bay in 2003. She says Sandy didn’t impact us as much as Isabel did. We are counting our blessings and are very sad about NYC and the Jersey Shore though. Those are both places we visit at least once every year. We go to NYC the weekend before Christmas every year to celebrate with my Uncle David and Aunt Lindsey who come down from New Hampshire. And we spend a week at the Jersey Shore every summer. We have lots of friends and family that are still without power and some who are homebound because of the damage caused by the super storm. Hopefully the thought of these cookies will bring a small smile to your face, no matter the damage in your area.

Mommy had a great plan. In preschool we are learning to recognize our written names, so she was going to make big cookies, one for each of my classmates, with each student’s name on it. Best laid plans, as she often says… One of my classmates has a wheat allergy. That means baked items need to be gluten-free. Unfortunately, sugar cookies need gluten to be rolled out, so she was concerned her idea wasn’t going to work after all. But she did a little research and learned there are some companies that make gluten-free sugar cookie mix. This would save needing to buy a variety of different flours and xantham gum. It didn’t solve the problem of rolling them out though. Mommy decided to buy a mix anyway and give it a try. She was going to make regular sugar cookies too and just be sure to keep the two recipes completely separate.

While mixing up the gluten-free dough, Mommy came up with an idea that she wanted to be sure I shared with you because it is a way of getting cut out cookies from gluten-free dough. She spread the dough in one, thin layer on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper (we used tin foil, but parchment would probably be better.) After baking as directed (they took a little longer than the package said because it was one big cookie) she let them cool slightly before using the cookie cutters to cut the already baked cookies. Then she pulled away the excess cookie and was left with the shapes she wanted. Just beware: gluten-free cookies are more likely to break because the texture is more crumbly than regular sugar cookies.

The regular cookies were easy after the glutton free ones. Here’s our recipe:

3/4 cup butter, softened

1 cup granulated sugar

2 eggs

1 tsp vanilla

2 1/2 cups flour

1 tsp powder

1/2 tsp salt

Using an electric mixer, cream together butter and sugar until fluffy.

Add eggs and vanilla and mix thoroughly.

Mix the dry ingredients together in a separate bowl and then add the slowly (otherwise flour will go flying everywhere!)

Scrape together all the dough onto a piece of plastic wrap and create a disc.

Refrigerate the dough for at leat two hours. And wait…

Once the dough has chilled, preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Using about 1/6 of the dough, roll it out on a well-floured surface to about 1/4 inch thick

Using the cookie cutters of your choice, cut cookies and place on a cookie sheet (ours were lined with silpat, but parchment paper would work well too.)

Bake 6-8 minutes until they just begin to turn golden around the edges. Watch them carefully at the end because they will go from golden to burnt very quickly.

Move cookies to a cooling rack. Allow them to cool completely and then decorate however you like. I had lots of fun decorating mine.

Enjoy!

My Birthday

I just had my second birthday. I posted about a month ago that we had decided on a butterfly cake but just hadn’t picked a flavor yet. Mommy went with her new go-to cake recipe and made it lemon flavored. If you want the recipe, you can find it in the post about my birthday last year. It’s the same as the lime cupcakes except it had lemon zest and juice and to make it even more lemon-y Mommy replaced the vanilla extract with lemon extract. Mommy promised we would try making this in a few other flavors. I’ll keep you posted on them.

I’m going to dedicate this blog entry to how Mommy made my cake look just like a beautiful butterfly.

She bought two heart-shaped cake pans in two different sizes – one just the next size up from the other. She baked two smaller heart cakes and one larger heart cake. Once the cakes were completely cool, she cut the larger heart in half. The two smaller hearts were the top wings and the halves were the bottom wings (points all meeting in the center and cut edges facing each other.) Then Mommy made cupcakes for the body of the butterfly. She frosted the whole thing by just pouring on a thin buttercream that just dripped over the edges and then she decorated the wings with black gel icing (nothing fancy here – just the store-bought stuff in a tube.)

I think it looked and tasted pretty great.

Cupcakes, cupcakes and more cupcakes

My Great Aunt Maryanne (I call her Zia Maryanne) turned 80 recently. We threw her a surprise party and invited family we rarely get to see (some I had never even met, and I’m 2 now!) and lots of old friends. It was a great party and I think Aunt Maryanne was even surprised (if not by the party then by the people who were there to celebrate with her!)

We didn’t do a lot of fancy food – it was just a cookout – but rather than ordering a boring store-bought sheet cake Mommy and I made cupcakes. And we made a lot of cupcakes (6 dozen, to be exact.) Okay, if you’re a serious baker maybe that doesn’t seem like a lot. But, Mommy is not a professional chef and I am only 2, so it was a lot for us. We decided to do cupcakes so we could have some variety and we didn’t have to worry about anyone cutting a cake or needing plates and forks and all that. Cupcakes are really pretty *green* if you think about it.

We made 3 varieties: lemon with lemon frosting decorated with a raspberry, chocolate with vanilla frosting decorated with a mint sprig and vanilla/yellow cake with blackcurrant (creme de cassis) frosting decorated with blueberries. They were all yummy and I had no problem being the taste-tester (quality control is very important) for all of them. When they were finished, we arranged them in a big “80” on the table.

I think it was really pretty – and looked good enough to eat!

But… 6 dozen cupcakes is a lot and Mommy says she doesn’t ever want to make that many cupcakes at one time ever again. I guess that means no big birthday parties for me… Maybe she’ll change her mind if I give her enough time (to forget.)

This is only pans and papers for 4 dozen cupcakes – we only had two pans.

Here’s the recipe for the chocolate cupcakes. It’s adapted from Smitten Kitchen.

3.5 ounces bittersweet chocolate (In this case we used Hershey Special Dark)
1 1/2 cups hot brewed coffee
3 cups sugar
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups unsweetened cocoa (we used Nestle because it was what we had, but we usually use Hershey SD here too)
2 teaspoons baking soda
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
3 large eggs
3/4 cup vegetable oil
1 1/2 cups well-shaken buttermilk
3/4 teaspoon vanilla

Preheat oven to 300°F. and place cupcake papers in pans. If you are going to make a layer cake, this will make enough batter for 2 10-inch pans (most pans are 9 inches, but this is too much batter for them, so beware – we made 24 cupcakes with enough batter left over for a thin, one-layer, 8 inch cake.) Also, beware this is an incredibly moist cake, so if making a layer cake you will want to do the grease pan, line with parchment, grease parchments and dust with flour (or cocoa!) routine. Otherwise this cake WILL crack as you remove it from the pan. Actually, it might crack anyway. It will still taste good, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Break chocolate along perfectly convenient lines on the bar and combine with hot coffee in a bowl. Let mixture stand, stirring occasionally, until chocolate is melted and mixture is smooth. Try to refrain from drinking it.

Into a large bowl sift together sugar, flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. *In the interest of full disclosure, we forgot to add the cocoa here, so we sifted it in at the end without any problems.*

In another large bowl with an electric mixer beat eggs until thickened slightly and lemon colored.

Slowly add oil, buttermilk, vanilla, and melted chocolate mixture to eggs, beating until combined well. Add sugar mixture and beat on medium speed until just combined well.

Adding cocoa at the end – oops.

We found the easiest way to get this thin batter into the cupcakes papers was to ladle it into a large, liquid measuring cup and then pouring it into the papers.

Bake on the middle rack. They are done when a tester inserted into a cupcake in the center of the pan comes out clean. I started checking on them after about an hour and they probably took an hour and half.

Cool slightly before removing from pan and then allow to cool completely on racks before frosting.

These cupcakes stayed moist for at least 4 days – then they had all been eaten, so I can’t speak to beyond that. We made them on a Thursday and frosted and served them on Saturday.

Happy birthday, Zia Maryanne. Surprise!

Birthday Planning

My birthday is just over a month away. Last year I had a big party with lots of food and lots of people. I don’t think this year is going to be quite so big, but I have to have a cake (or perhaps cupcakes) so Mommy and I started brainstorming today. Mommy has a lot to live up after last year. She made this delicious monkey cake:

It makes even more sense if you know this is my best friend:

Since there were so many people at my party, Mommy also made cupcakes. The cake was chocolate with vanilla frosting and the cupcakes were lime with lime frosting. They were both delicious.

Here’s the recipe for the lime cupcakes:

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
3 cups all-purpose sifted flour
1 tbsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
2 cups granulated sugar
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 1/4 cups buttermilk (I used regular milk with some lime juice to “create” buttermilk)
1 1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
grated zest of two limes

Place a rack in the center of oven and preheat to 350. Place cupcake papers into a cupcake pan (this recipe will make 24 cupcakes. If you want to make a cake instead, butter two 8 inch round cake pans; line bottoms with parchment paper. Dust bottoms and sides of pans with flour, tap out any excess.)

In a large bowl, sift together flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt.

Using the paddle attachment of an electric mixer, cream butter on medium speed until softened, 1-2 minutes. Gradually add granulated sugar, beating on medium speed until lightened, 3-4 minutes, scraping down sides occasionally. Drizzle in the eggs, a little at a time, beating after each addition until the batter is no longer slick, about 5 minutes. Stop once or twice to scrape down the sides.

On low-speed, alternatively add the flour mixture and buttermilk, a little of each at a time, beginning and ending with the flour mixture. Beat in the vanilla and the lime zest.

Spoon the batter into the cupcake papers, about 2/3 of the way full. Bake 10 minutes, then rotate the pans in the oven for even baking. Continue baking 10-15 minutes longer, until a toothpick inserted into the center of a cupcake comes out clean. (For a cake, bake a total of 10-15 minutes longer.) Transfer pans to a rack to cool, 15 minutes. Remove cupcakes from pans, set on rack until completely cool.

For frosting:

Add one package (1 lb) of powdered sugar to the bowl of a food processor. Drizzle in, until the consistency of firm butter, fresh lime juice (a few tablespoons – juice of 2-3 limes.) If you add too much liquid, add more sugar. When it reaches the right consistency, add 1 1/2 cups butter (firm, but not too cold or too soft) and the zest of one lime. Pulse until blended.

Note: this frosting will be runny as it warms, so don’t mix it too long and refrigerate your cupcakes after you frost them.

 

So, for this year, we’re thinking a butterfly (farfalle) cake. We’re open to suggestions for flavor though. I do like chocolate…

Easter Preparations

You didn’t think I’d write about our Italian traditions for Christmas Eve and leave out Easter, did you? Easter will be here very soon, which can only mean one thing – time to make the Easter Pizzas. These go by many names – Pizza Gaina (Chena, in Italian,) Pizza Rustica, among others – in my family they are known as delicious and Mommy is the keeper of the recipes.

Sorry, I’m not allowed to put the recipes here because Mommy says they are secret family recipes. She says I will have them one day, when I am old enough to become the keeper and I can decide what to do with them then, but for now she is not willing to share. Apparently, there are not many people in the family that even have the family recipe. I know it is an old one. Mommy has put the recipes on her computer and has put away the thin pieces of paper with the handwritten recipes so they don’t get ruined. These recipes come from my great, great Aunt Michelena (or Merch, or Marge, depending on how close you were to her.)

I never had the chance to meet her, but Mommy and Nonno say she was a wonderful lady who was always welcoming and always had food. If you stopped to visit her, she would say, “Do you have time for a little piece of cheese? Maybe a little sandwich?” And before you knew it there would be an amazing spread of antipasti on the kitchen table. I think I would have liked her.

So, Mommy got the recipes from her great aunt Merch, and aunt Merch probably got them from her mommy (that would be Nonno’s Granma!)

Anyway, you can imagine these are pretty special recipes. If you want to make Easter Pizzas yourself, you can find recipes in many places – just “Google it.” There are many variations. The ones Mommy makes are like Italian cheesecake. She makes a few variations herself. This year she made two different kinds: a sweet and a savory. Here’s a bit of what the process looks like:

First, the crust is pretty sticky. It includes egg and quite a bit of shortening. I don’t know if it’s shortening because butter changes it too much or if butter was just too expensive. Either way, we don’t mess with it.

Mommy let me help roll out the dough, even though I was feeling a little under the weather with a spring cold.

 

The fillings have lots and lots of ricotta and eggs. They both start with the cheese being mixed with some flour (and sugar and a little orange zest for the sweet one) and then adding the eggs and beating it until it gets frothy.

Then the sweet one gets poured into the crust and baked.

The savory one gets an assortment of meats and cheeses mixed in before being poured into the crust. This year Mommy used some hot sausage, Genoa salami, sharp provolone and Romano.

They get baked at 350 for about an hour.

Don’t they look yummy?

La Vigilia (Part II)

I’m sorry it has taken so long for me to get back to the blog. Things have been pretty crazy around our house with all the shopping and cooking and family visits and so on. Probably a lot like your house, right?

I promised I’d post the full menu from our Feast of the Seven Fishes and I didn’t want to leave you hanging, so here it is:

Antipasti:

Vongole (Clams) – Daddy put these on the grill just until they opened. Mommy served them just like that with a squirt of lemon juice. I didn’t like the clams whole – they were just to big – but Mommy cut mine into smaller bites and I thought they were delicious.

Stuffed Calamari (Squid) – Mommy sautéed half a diced onion in 4 tablespoons of butter, added 2 sliced green onions/scallions and about a teaspoon of lemon zest, then the chopped tentacles. Then she added a couple of handfuls of crumbled butter crackers (like Ritz or Townhouse) and removed it from the heat, tossing to coat the cracker crumbs, until all the moisture was absorbed. Then she added some chopped fresh parsley, just to give it a little color. When the stuffing was cool enough to handle, she stuffed it into the bodies – this was messy work and you can’t be squeamish – the best tools for the job are your hands. When it was time to eat, Daddy put the stuffed calamari onto the grill just for about 5-6 minutes until the flesh became opaque. Then Mommy sliced them into rounds and served them. Yum!

Pan-fried Smelts – This was nothing fancy, but very tasty. Mommy dipped the smelts in lemon juice and then dredged them in seasoned flour (just salt and pepper) and then put them into hot oil in the frying pan – about 6-8 at a time so she didn’t overcrowd the pan. She tests the oil with a little flour to make sure it’s hot. If the flour sizzles when it hits the hot oil, your oil is hot enough. The smelts were fried about 2-3 minutes on each side and then removed to a plate lined with paper towels to drain the excess oil – though if your oil is hot enough there shouldn’t be a lot of excess. Working in batches, Mommy fried about 2 dozen smelts. Then, she put them all into a serving dish, drizzled them with some really good olive oil, lemon juice and sprinkled on a little fresh, chopped parsley – again, for a little color. Everyone said they were delicious – including me!

Zuppa e Insalata:

Maryland Crab Soup – No, it’s not very Italian, but Italians (most immigrants, really) are good at using local ingredients, so it made sense to have Maryland Crab soup in Baltimore. And the crabmeat was from Maryland, which is important. Like most soups, this one is relatively simple and made with few ingredients. The really nice thing about this one is that it takes no time at all and it can be doctored to your taste. Here’s how Mommy made ours: In a large saucepan or Dutch oven, empty one 28oz can of crushed tomatoes. Using the empty can, add about one and a half cans of water. Also add three packets of concentrated vegetable stock (lots of soup companies make these now, so pick your favorite – this is not bullion though – it should be like a paste, not granules.) Most recipes call for beef broth instead of vegetable, but this needed to be a completely vegetarian menu for the Feast of the Seven Fishes. To the liquid, add 2 tablespoons of Old Bay seasoning (even if you’re not in Maryland, most grocery stores carry this now) and one bag of “Soup Vegetables.” You should be able to find something along these lines in the frozen veggie section of your grocery store. Otherwise, use about 3-4 cups of a mixture of veggies of your choosing. Bring the whole thing to a boil on medium heat and then reduce to low; cover and simmer about 5 minutes. At this point Mommy turned it off and left it sitting on the stove so we could go to Christmas Eve Mass. When we got home she turned it back on and let it come up to a simmer and then added 1 lb of crabmeat, stirred it, covered it and let it simmer another 10 minutes. You can skip the turning it off and bringing it back to simmer before adding the crabmeat if you’re ready to eat right away.

Insalata di Bacala – this is Nonno’s secret recipe (okay, it’s not really secret…) so he made it and brought it with him to dinner. Bacala is traditional for Christmas Eve and it can be prepared in lots of different ways. Bacala is dried, salted cod. It gets rehydrated, cooked and broken into little pieces and mixed with olives, roasted red peppers, fresh herbs, olive oil and lemon juice for this salad.

Pasta:

Gamberi alla Luciana con Rigatoni – this is one of Mommy’s favorite dishes and she usually only has it for Christmas Eve (though I liked it so much too that she might start making it a little more frequently.) It has been adapted from the famous Alfredo Viazzi’s cookbook (yes, he’s that Alfredo.) His recipe assumes you are operating in a commercial or restaurant kitchen and have access to all the different sauces that they keep simmering away on the stove top. That’s why it’s been modified a bit. It has quite a few ingredients, but isn’t really that complicated: Melt 5 tablespoons of butter (or a combination of butter and olive oil if you want to try to lighten it up a bit) in a deep saucepan. Add 2-3 cloves of garlic, chopped; saute until golden. Add 3 anchovy fillets (and if you think you don’t like anchovies, just trust me and add them anyway,) 5 leaves of chopped, fresh tarragon, 1 tablespoon of chopped, fresh parsley, a pinch of thyme, a pinch of nutmeg (Mommy uses freshly grated – she keeps whole nutmegs in the freezer and grates them on a microplane whenever she needs it,) 1/2 teaspoon of dry basil, a pinch of cayenne, a pinch of ginger, a pinch of tumeric, 10-12 grinds of black pepper, a couple of “glugs” of Worcestershire sauce, 5 drops of Tabasco (more or less to taste) and cook until the anchovies turn to paste. Add 1/2 cup of dry white wine (something you’d be willing to drink, Please!) and reduce – about 5 minutes. Add a jar of basic tomato sauce (Mommy uses Ragu – this really shouldn’t be anything fancy since you’ve got all those other flavorings already in there) and cook 15 minutes.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the juice of half a lemon and salt. Drop in 1-2 lbs of peeled and de-veined shrimp (depending on how many people you’re feeding. Also, the size of the shrimp is up to you. Mommy has used jumbo and medium – it usually depends what is on sale.) Cook exactly 3 minutes. Drain shrimp. Melt 3 tablespoons of butter in a baking pan or casserole dish.

Pour half of the sauce into the dish.

Arrange shrimp and then cover with remaining sauce.

Sprinkle 3 tablespoons of breadcrumbs and 1/2 cup of grated, good, hard, Italian cheese (Mommy uses Locatelli Romano) on top. Bake at 350 for 10 minutes. Mommy tossed it with Rigatoni when it came out of the oven and served it family style.

There was enough for me to have leftovers later in the week. This time Mommy was smart and took me out of my fancy clothes – I could have probably eaten right in the bathtub!

Secondi:

Rockfish in Salt Dome – this is just as it sounds, and I wrote about it in the last entry so I won’t go into too much detail again here. It was delicious, again.

We also had spinach sautéed in garlic and olive oil and baked, caramelized fennel for contorni, or side dishes.

All in all, it was a pretty delicious meal. I hope it inspires you to consider trying the Feast of the Seven Fishes (or even just a fish dish or two) next Christmas Eve.

La Vigilia (Part I)

So, in case you couldn’t tell by my name (which the pediatrician keeps asking Mommy if we’ll shorten to “Grace” – snooze) I’m Italian. At least partially. But hey, some is better than none, right. And I’ll take the food part of being Italian any day.

In Italian-American homes, the feast for the holidays is not on Christmas Day. Yes, yes, we eat plenty then too, but the real feast is on Christmas Eve. It’s called La Vigilia, or the Vigil, but is probably best known as the Feast of the Seven Fishes. The feast really is an Italian-American phenomenon. Italians do eat fish for La Vigilia, but it’s not likely to be quite the feast it is here. For Italians, Christmas Eve is a day of abstinence, meaning they don’t eat meat. In Italy, it is also a day of fast, meaning they probably wouldn’t eat a feast. But, as is the case with so many traditions in the United States, we like to make them bigger and better than the original, right? And so, we have the Feast of the Seven Fishes.

This will be my first La Vigilia. Last year we spent Christmas Eve with my Oma and Pop. Oma is German, so they do a big celebration on Christmas Eve too, but they eat meat. Mommy and Daddy said when I was born they would start holding all Christmas celebrations at home, but you may remember last year Mommy wasn’t thrilled about having just moved and we didn’t even have a tree. Like I said, she’s making up for it this year.

And so, the menu is planned. Seven fishes it is. I counted. And if you count the anchovies that are mixed into the sauce for the shrimp dish, we actually will be having eight seafood items.

I promise to post a full menu, pictures and my complete review after Saturday, but I will tell you this: the main event is a whole Rockfish (that’s striped bass for those of you not from the Chesapeake Bay area.) Mommy and Daddy tried it out – a practice run, if you will – a few weeks ago and it was delicious! I couldn’t get enough. I had to eat it mashed up because everyone said there could be little bones, but I didn’t care. It was moist and tender and mouth-wateringly amazing. My mouth is watering now just thinking about it. Daddy put lemon and orange slices, pieces of fennel, parsley and thyme in the body and then covered it in a salt dome and then baked it. He loosely followed Alton Brown’s recipe.

So, if you’re planning a fancy meal for Christmas Eve, why not try Italian? But not spaghetti and meatballs. Fish!