Monday, January 30, 2012

Chinese Hot Pot Dinner

Yesterday I experienced my first Chinese hot pot meal. I am always up for a little adventure, always willing to try something new, and I love food... so this was perfect! Our friends, Howard and Janet, invited us to their home for this exciting experience. They were such lovely hosts!

Our evening started with an edamame appetizer.

Janet taught us how to make these little boxes out of paper (magazine pages shown here) to hold our edamame pods.
It makes for very easy clean up!
I'll share the step-by-step in a blog post soon.

Each place setting was perfectly arranged with everything you need... the cup for tea at the top, the bowl (upside down) ready for THE SAUCE, the small plate for each delicious piece of food pulled out of the pot, chopsticks, the basket for the "treasure hunt" in the pot, and a spoon to enjoy the broth at the end.
Look at this beautiful teapot (the tea was delicious too)
Here's a shot of Howard adding fish cakes and veggies to the pot of boiling broth while Janet explained to us how to use the basket for the "treasure hunt"... finding all of the good things you want to eat out of the pot and lifting it to your plate (without getting burned).
This is just a small fraction of the food we ate...
sweet potatoes, little mushrooms, meatballs, lobster rolls, various fish cakes

 Let me stop here and say that I had never tried a fish cake before this meal. There were many different varieties, all with different flavorings. They were soft and tasty. I've never had anything quite like them, so I wouldn't even know how to compare it to something I've eaten in the past. You'll just have to try them for yourself.

 OK, this sauce is the best part! It starts with some kind of paste (the brown stuff in the bottom left in the picture below). Then you add some garlic, green onion, and cilantro to your liking. Janet also had some hot chili paste, which Mark generously added to his sauce. Last you add some soy sauce and stir it all up. The fun part is that you get to make your own sauce, adding as much or as little of each ingredient. You then proceed to dip the goodies you pull from the hot pot into the sauce - YUM!

Here's a view of THE SAUCE ready for some fish cake dipping.

This is the hot pot full of various fish cakes. Those golden brown ones in the lower left of the pot were one of my favorites. I tried each one!  The sweet potatoes and daikon were also quite tasty. And the taro and lotus root were so extremely delicious (I ate several pieces of each of those). I was so focused on eating those two root vegetables that I neglected to take a picture!

 Cory liked the fish cakes too!
Mindy and Cory enjoying dinner with us.

I ate so much food at dinner. But I ALWAYS have room for dessert... And it was just as exciting as the main course. Janet served mochi in three flavors - peanut, red bean, and black sesame. They were all fantastic! I savored each one.

Mochi are soft balls made of rice that's been smashed to a paste and shaped around a delicious filling. They're boiled and served hot. Oh so tasty!

This is the mochi on my spoon... an innocent soft ball with a hidden surprise in the middle.
Here's what it looks like on the inside. This one is the black sesame. I think it was my favorite.
Our sweet hosts - Howard and Janet

What a wonderful evening! The food was delicious, but the company was even better. I am so thankful that Howard and Janet opened their home to us and took the time (and it took A LOT of time) to prepare this unforgettable experience. If you ever get the opportunity to try a traditional Chinese hot pot meal - you've gotta do it! You'll love it.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

How to do a Gradient Manicure

I'm always up for trying a new trend. The gradient manicure is one of those that looks very cool and is  surprisingly easy to do. I first saw a tutorial for this on I had my nails painted and they were starting to chip a bit. So I added the gradient and I think I'll get several more days out of it... great way to extend your manicure!

Here's what I used. You could use any color combination you like. 

Essie in Berry Hard for the base color.
Sally Hansen in Commander in Chic (gray/beige) for the tip gradient.
Essie in Carnival (a silver glitter).
1. Start with just painting your nails any solid color you like. 

2. Paint your tip gradient color onto the corner of a make-up sponge.
3. Dab the sponge onto the tips of your finger nails until you get the look you like. Add more color to the tips and gradually fade it out by dabbing more lightly as you move down your nail toward the cuticle. I faded my tip color gradually to about the middle of my nail.

4. Add more polish to your sponge as needed to add the gradient to each nail.

5. Here you could just stop at the solid gradient color. I decided to add a glitter coat to help blend it a bit more. For this step, you don't need the sponge. Just get some of the glitter polish on the brush and start at the tip of your nail, dabbing and lightly brushing the polish over the tip gradient color. I used the brush to fade out the glitter also (having more glitter polish at the very tip and gradually less toward the middle of the nail). 

6. Finish with a clear top coat for a smooth, shiny finish.

7. I always use a drying drop product at the end of my manicures at home (because I can't sit still very long to allow them to dry completely). Essie and OPI both make great ones. After you've applied your top coat, you add a drop to each nail. Wait about 5 minutes and your nails are perfectly dry!

Hope you like it. I'd love to hear what color combinations you try. Have fun!

Friday, January 27, 2012

Chocolate Fudge

I've tried to duplicate my mom's fudge recipe, but I can never quite get it right. So I've decided to rely on her for the smooth, creamy chocolaty goodness. Maybe I'll be able to convince my mom to make some soon and allow me to share it in a future post. Until then, here's my chocolate fudge... 

Chocolate Fudge
1 cup (6 oz) dark chocolate chopped or semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 (7oz) jar marshmallow creme
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 cups packed brown sugar
1 (14 oz) can sweetened condensed milk
3/4 cup heavy cream
6 tablespoons butter
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup mini chocolate chips (optional)

Line an 11 by 7 inch metal pan with foil so that the foil overlaps the sides. Spray with cooking spray. 

Combine the chocolate, marshmallow creme, and vanilla in a large bowl. In a large sauce pan or pot heat the brown sugar, sweetened condensed milk, cream, butter, and salt over medium heat. Stir until sugar dissolves. Increase heat to high and bring mixture to a boil. Once boiling, reduce to medium, insert a candy thermometer, and stir constantly until the mixture reaches 230 degrees. 

Immediately pour the hot mixture into the large bowl containing the chocolate, marshmallow, vanilla mixture. Stir quickly to melt the chocolate and combine all of the ingredients. The fudge will start to thicken in after about 1 minute. Pour the fudge into the prepared pan and smooth with a spoon or spatula. Sprinkle mini chocolate chips on top if desired. Let sit at room temperature for at least 2 hours.

When fudge is set, lift out of the pan using the foil and place on a large cutting board. Cut fudge into pieces using a sharp knife and wiping the knife clean after each cut. Store in an air-tight container at room temperature.


recipe adapted from / Bon Appetit, December 2002

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Easy Fondant Cupcake Toppers

Need to add a little something extra to your cupcakes? Yesterday I posted a how-to for making your own fondant at home. Here's a simple way to use it...

Roll your fondant to about 1/8 to 1/4 inch thick using a rolling pin on a flat surface that's been dusted with powdered sugar. Just like you would if you were making cut-out cookies.

TIP: If your fondant has been wrapped in plastic wrap in a sealed plastic bag for a day or two, you can put it in the microwave for about 7 seconds. You just want to warm it up slightly so that you can roll it more easily. Knead it with your hands a little before starting to roll.

Once you've rolled out the fondant, use a cookie cutter to cut a simple circle (or any other shape you like). You can now decorate the fondant using royal frosting in a piping bag (shown above) or you could use edible markers to draw a design. 

You can place your cut-outs on top of your frosted cupcake right away or you can make these ahead and let them harden. Just place them on a piece of waxed paper uncovered in a safe place and they'll harden over night.

The possibilities are endless... I'll share more fondant ideas again soon. But until then... You're on your own to be creative! Enjoy!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

How to Make Fondant at Home

Fondant is that sugary, smooth dough-like substance that's covering most cakes these days... often on wedding cakes, groom's cakes, birthday cakes, and all of the cake shows you see on TV. It looks great! But usually people don't like to eat it. Some people say it doesn't taste very good. Others say they don't like the texture. 

You can buy fondant in the cake decorating/candy making isle of most craft stores such as Michael's, Hobby Lobby, or Jo-Ann Fabrics. It's typically made from almond paste (I personally think it doesn't have a very sweet flavor). This type of fondant is great if you have a small project or you just want to use it for accents. It comes in many pre-made colors too!

I often make my own fondant at home with a few simple ingredients. It has a sweet vanilla/marshmallow flavor that's much more appealing than a store-bought fondant. The texture is still the same as the store-bought king so if people dislike the fondant because of it's texture, they might not like this either. But if it's about the taste, this marshmallow fondant will fit the bill.

I bet you have these in your pantry right now
I've been making this fondant for at least 4 or 5 years now. It has taken me many tries to get it right. Hopefully my tips will help you succeed on your first try. But if it doesn't work exactly as you expect at first, give it a try again and you'll get the hang of it. I'm happy to answer questions too!

Marshmallow Fondant
1 bag (1 pound) mini marshmallows
1 tablespoon vanilla (or any other flavor you like)
1 tablespoon water
1 1/2 pounds (about 6 cups) powdered sugar
1/4 cup Crisco

Place mini marshmallows in a large bowl. Drizzle the vanilla over the marshmallows. Microwave at 30 second intervals for approximately 2 minutes, stirring every 30 seconds until completely melted.

very sticky melted marshmallows
Add about 4 cups of the powdered sugar to the bowl and carefully stir with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula. Dump everything from the bowl onto your heavily greased work surface. Get a good coat of Crisco all over your hands (in between your fingers and even onto your wrists). Start kneading the melted marshmallows and powdered sugar together with your hands. Be careful because it might be a little hot!

Right about now it's a big giant mess... it will get better... just keep working the powdered sugar into the melted marshmallow and it will start to feel more like a soft dough. If it's sticking to your hands too much, put another coat of Crisco on your hands. If it's too soft and sticky, add more of the powdered sugar. If you don't use all 6 cups of the powdered sugar, that's OK. Keep kneading the dough until all of the powdered sugar has been absorbed and your fondant is smooth.

I'm not going to lie... this is going to take a while. At least 15 minutes of kneading.

the fondant should stretch easily without tearing
If your fondant is too dry and stiff, add a teaspoon of water and work it in. Add more one teaspoon at a time until you get a smooth, soft texture that isn't sticky, but that also doesn't break apart easily. If your fondant is too sticky, add a little more powdered sugar. Remember to keep your hands covered in Crisco.

At this point you have white fondant.
TIP:  If you used vanilla extract that has a brown color, it might be a little more like "off white." To get a more pure white color, use water in place of the vanilla or a clear vanilla extract (Wilton makes one).

If you'd like to color your fondant, use a gel paste food coloring (not the liquid kind you can buy at the super market). Add a smear of the color to your fondant and just keep kneading until you reach your desired color. You will get food coloring on your hands. You could wear rubber gloves, but I prefer to just keep a thin layer of Crisco on my hands which keeps the food coloring from staining my hands.

Now it's your turn to give it a try. Good luck!!

TIP: To store your fondant if you don't want to use it right away, rub a thin coat of Crisco on it, wrap it very tightly in plastic wrap, and place in a sealed plastic bag.

Monday, January 23, 2012


This is a favorite in our house. It's one of those meals that everyone is always excited about. It is so full of flavor and actually rather healthy. Another thing I love about Jambalaya is that everything can be thrown in the crock-pot in the morning - making it a perfect weeknight meal.

Mardi Gras is right around the corner too... I often serve this on Fat Tuesday with King Cake for dessert (I'll share King Cake soon). Always a fun evening for our family! I'm a big fan of celebrating just about anything. Any type of holiday (traditional or more obscure) gives me a reason to add a little something extra to the day, and my family is usually entertained. They truly are very good sports when it comes to trying all of my creations (experiments).

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound medium shrimp, peeled tails off
2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into approx 1 inch pieces
1 pound andouille sausage, sliced to 1/4 inch and then halved (or 1/2 inch cubes)
1 onion, chopped
2 to 3 stalks celery, chopped
1 green bell pepper, chopped
3 large cloves garlic, minced
1 (14 oz) can diced tomatoes (or a generous cup chopped fresh tomato)
4 cups chicken broth
1/4 cup chopped parsley
2 teaspoons thyme
3 teaspoons oregano
2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon Creole or Cajun seasoning
2 tablespoons flour
salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup chopped green onions/chives (for garnish)

2 cups rice, cooked

Drizzle olive oil in bottom of crock-pot. Whisk flour with about 1/4 cup water in a small bowl. Add all ingredients & seasonings except for shrimp, green onions, and rice. Add flour mixture and stir in crock-pot to mix everything together. Put the lid on and enjoy your day! Cook in crock pot on high for 3 to 4 hours or low for 7 to 8 hours. Add the shrimp for the last 10 to 15 minutes of cooking time.

If you don't have a crock pot, you could also make this on your stove top in a large stock pot on medium-high heat. Add olive oil to stock pot, add chicken and brown. Add veggies and seasonings and cook until softened. Add 2 tablespoons butter and flour to make a roux. Pour in the chicken broth. Add the andouille sausage and stir everything together. Simmer, covered, for 20 minutes. Add shrimp and simmer for another 10 minutes until shrimp is cooked through. Remove from heat and let sit 5 to 10 minutes before serving.

Serve jambalaya over rice. I garnish with green onion and/or parsley and serve with warm corn bread. 


Sunday, January 22, 2012

Happy Birthday Michelle

Today is my sister-in-law Michelle's birthday. Even though we're over 1300 miles apart, I made her this birthday cake.

spice cake with maple frosting covered in marshmallow fondant
(recipes and how-to coming in a post soon)
These fun colors are perfect for Michelle - she's sweet, fun, and a little spunky (a true McKinnon trait).

Happy Birthday, Michelle!  Hope your birthday is full of surprises :)  Enjoy!!

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Shrimp and Chorizo Paella

This is a great weeknight meal - tasty, quick, and only uses one pan. I use a cast iron skillet, but you could use any deep skillet that's oven safe.

Shrimp and Chorizo Paella
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 large links chorizo, sliced 1/4 in thick*
1 onion, finely chopped
3 large garlic cloves, minced
1 package Alessi Risotto Milanese Style with Saffron**
1/4 cup dry white wine
1 1/2 cups chicken broth
3/4 cup water
16 shrimp, peeled with tails off

*chorizo is a spicy Latin style sausage. If you don't want this dish to be spicy, you could substitute your favorite smoked sausage or kielbasa (Polish sausage).

**If you can't find this particular risotto mix, you can substitute with a similar risotto mix that contains Arborio rice or you can simply use 1 1/4 cups plain Arborio rice and add a pinch of saffron.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Heat oil in a cast iron skillet or heavy ovenproof skillet over medium heat. Add sliced chorizo and cook until browned. Add the onion and cook until softened (about 5 minutes). Then add the minced garlic. The garlic browns much faster than the onion... so if you put them in at the same time, the garlic will burn before the onion is soft.  Stir in the rice just to coat. Add the wine and bring to a boil. Add chicken broth and water. Once the liquid is boiling again, transfer the skillet to the oven.

Bake for 15 minutes. Then add shrimp, pushing it into the rice mixture a bit. Bake for about 10 minutes more until the shrimp is cooked (it will be a pink/orange color when it's cooked). Remove from the oven and let sit for 5 to 10 minutes, covered. 


Thursday, January 19, 2012

Lemon Thyme Bars - Gluten Free

Looking for a fresh dessert? I've got it for you... these lemon thyme bars remind me of spring. The combination of the bright lemon with the woodsy thyme is perfect. Sometimes a break from the typical chocolate dessert is necessary. It wakes up your taste buds!!

I made these gluten free, but it's easy to make them with gluten (just use 1 cup of typical wheat all-purpose flour in place of the gluten free all purpose flour & oat flour).

Lemon Thyme Bars
1 stick (1/2 cup) butter at room temperature
3/4 cup oat flour
1/2 cup gluten all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves, chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup powdered sugar
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Prepare an 8 inch by 8 inch square pan with cooking spray. Dust the bottom of the pan with a thin layer of flour. Tilt and tap the sides to get them coated with flour also.

Using an electric mixer, blend together the butter and powdered sugar on high speed until light and fluffy. Add the lemon juice and vanilla and mix until combined. Slowly add the flours, thyme, and salt to the bowl while the mixer speed is reduced. Press the mixture into the prepared pan using your fingers.

TIP: Get your fingers a little damp to keep the dough from sticking to your fingers while pressing it into the pan.

Bake at 325 degrees for 30 minutes or until golden brown. Remove from the oven and cool.

Make the glaze...
In a medium bowl, whisk together 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice with 1/2 cup powdered sugar until smooth. Spoon the glaze over the cooled crust and allow it to harden at room temperature for at least one hour. 

Cut into squares and place a sprig of fresh thyme on each square. Enjoy!

recipe adapted from Giada De Laurentiis

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

ham & onion frittata

Try this for brunch. It's simple and full of flavor. Extra bonus --- minimal clean-up because you only need to use one bowl and one skillet.

ham & onion frittata
1 1/2 cups cooked ham, cubed
1 onion, chopped
3/4 stick butter
9 large eggs
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
1 cup Parmesan cheese
1/2 cup shredded cheddar/jack cheese
12 ounces ricotta cheese

Melt butter in a large cast iron skillet or an oven-proof non-stick skillet on your stove top. Add chopped onions to the pan and saute until softened. Add ham, salt & pepper and continue to saute until onions and ham just start to brown slightly.
onions and ham lightly browned on the stove top
Beat eggs in a large bowl. Whisk in 3/4 cup of the Parmesan, all of the cheddar/jack, and all of the ricotta. Leave some clumps of ricotta. Add the egg & cheese mixture to the skillet. As the egg begins to cook, mix the onion and ham into the egg so it becomes evenly distributed and not all sitting at the bottom of the skillet. Cook on the stove top until the edges are just set (about 10 minutes).

Transfer to the over and bake frittata in the skillet at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes. Let cool about 10 minutes. Serve warm.
fluffy goodness ready to be devoured

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Sausage and Cheese Lasagna

My favorite part of this recipe is the fresh basil. I believe I've said that before about the basil in a previous post. It is certainly one of my favorite fresh herbs. Lasagna can be assembled ahead of time and baked a day later making it a great option for a weeknight meal (if you do some prep work the night before).

Sausage and Cheese Lasagna
1/2 pound lasagna noodles (cooked aldente or 'as-is' if you have the ready-to-bake type)
3 to 5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 pound Italian sausage, casing removed
1 cup water
4 large garlic cloves, minced
your favorite marinara sauce (approx. 3 cups plus extra for serving if desired)
salt and pepper
1/2 pound shredded mozzarella cheese
1 container ricotta
1 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (plus more for serving)
1/4 cup finely chopped basil
1/4 cup thinly sliced basil leaves

In a large, deep skillet, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil. Add sausage and cook over moderate heat until browned. Add the garlic, salt & pepper and cook until the garlic is just golden (only about 1 or 2 minutes). Add all but 1/2 cup of the marinara sauce to the skillet and cook until warmed.

In a medium bowl, mix together to ricotta, 1/2 cup of the grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, and the finely chopped basil.

Spray a 9-by-13 inch baking dish with cooking spray. Place the 1/2 cup reserved sauce in the bottom of the dish. Place about three lasagna noodles in the dish to cover the sauce. Spoon some of the sausage/sauce mixture onto the noodles. Carefully spoon some of the ricotta/Parmigiano-Reggiano mixture on top and sprinkle with some shredded mozzarella. Add another layer of noodles. Top with the sausage and cheese mixtures in the same manner. Add a final layer of noodles, a bit of the sauce, and sprinkle generously with some mozzarella and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Bake the lasagna for about 20 minutes, until the sauce just starts to bubble. Raise the temperature to 450 degrees and bake for about 7 minutes longer until the top is browned. Let the lasagna rest for about 10 minutes. Scatter the sliced basil on top, cut into squares, and serve with additional sauce and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano if desired.

TIP: If you buy basil with the root ball attached, you can place it in a glass with water just covering the roots (not all the way up the stems). Place it in a spot that will get light, but not direct sun. Snip off the leaves when you need them and it will continue to refresh itself. Just be sure to keep the roots in water.

Monday, January 16, 2012


I think baklava might be my favorite dessert of all time. I'd probably even pass up something decadent and chocolate in favor of the sweet, flaky, buttery layers of a piece of this classic Greek treat. 

I've avoided making baklava because I was so intimidated by all of the flaky layers, but phyllo dough is really nothing to be afraid of. It's quite simple to use and assemble in this delicious dessert.

for the syrup:
2 cups sugar
2/3 cups honey
2 cinnamon sticks
1 cup water

for the baklava:
3 cups walnuts (or any mix of walnuts, pecans, almonds, pistachios)
3/4 cups sugar
2 teaspoons lemon zest
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 package phyllo dough, thawed
1 stick butter, melted

make the syrup...
Combine all of the ingredients in a heavy saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Reduce heat and boil gently until syrup is reduced to about 2 cups. Cool completely.

make the baklava...
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spread nuts on a baking sheet and toast for about 5 minutes. Cool and then transfer to a food processor. Add 3/4 cup sugar, lemon zest, and cinnamon. Pulse to chop until ground to a medium-fine texture.
TIP: When working with phyllo dough, it's a good idea to have everything you need at your fingertips so that you can work easily. Keep your phyllo dough covered with a piece of plastic wrap and a moist paper towel so that it doesn't dry out.

Brush an 8 inch by 8 inch square metal pan with melted butter. Place a single phyllo sheet into the bottom of the pan so that half of it is hanging over the side. Brush the dough in the pan with butter, then fold the other half of the dough over so you have two layers. Brush that with butter. 

Continue with another phyllo sheet in the same manner. Continue making layers with three more sheets so that you have a total of ten layers. Spoon 1/3 of the nut mixture on top of the dough. Repeat the layering as before until you have ten layers. Spoon another 1/3 of the nut mixture into the pan. Add the final ten layers on top. 

Cut the baklava in the pan so that you have nine equal squares before baking. Bake until phyllo is golden brown (about 35-40 minutes).

Remove the pan from the oven and spoon about 2/3 of the syrup onto the top of the hot baklava while it is still in the pan. 

Cool to room temperature. When ready to serve, cut the squares in half to create triangles and drizzle with additional syrup if desired.


recipe adapted from Michael Symon Bon Appetit, April 2011