Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Time for Change - Baked Oatmeal

Enough with the cookies and candy and chocolate!  I woke up this morning actually craving something healthy for breakfast, and decided on one of my favorites, Baked Oatmeal.

Like most things food-related in my life, this one is again heavily influenced by a recipe I found on Allrecipes, Baked Oatmeal II

...of course, I do tend to tweak recipes!  And this recipe is so easily tweakable, you'll find you might want to do it, too!  My changes included the following:

  • Reduce brown sugar from 1 cup to 1/2 cup
  • Add 1 tbsp, honey along with the wet ingredients (maple syrup works well, too!)
  • Reduce butter from 1/2 cup to 2 tbsp...also, I have used canola oil in place of the butter (2 tbsp) and I'm pretty sure applesauce would work nicely if you're REALLY cutting fat..but let's not get carried away just yet!
  • Use egg substitute instead of eggs (My EggBeaters turned out to be a carton of half and half, so I'm using real eggs today)
  • And last but not least, double the dried fruit and use a variety.  Dried blueberries were made for this dish....but I'm out of those!

 Step One:  Unwrap the world's greatest Christmas gift ever, your shiny, new Wusthof knife, and chop up some dried fruit.  

I'm using dried cranberries, dried apricots and prunes.  Don't laugh - these are not your Grandpa's prunes.  Prunes are actually excellent in baked goods - they add moisture, sweetness and even a little richness without adding fat.  Pureed prunes are awesome in (are you ready for this?)...Chocolate Cake.  But let's not get sidetracked here...  

Throw all your dried ingredients into a bowl - oats (I've used quick or old fashioned, and I bet steel cut would be lovely, too), brown sugar, cinnamon, baking powder and salt.  Whisk or stir them together.
Add the milk (I'm using nonfat), eggs/egg substitute, honey, melted butter and vanilla, and mix together until combined.
Stir in the dried fruit and pour into a baking dish - something along the lines of an 8"X 8", or 9"X 9" will be perfect.  

To help retain moisture, I like to cover with aluminum foil and bake (at 350 degrees) for 20 minutes, then remove the foil and continue baking for another 20 minutes.

This is what it looks like when done....

You can certainly dig in right away, but I like to let it sit for a while to help it set up.  I like to serve with some fresh fruit on the side.  The texture of the baked oatmeal will be a bit crumbly - it's not oatmeal, but it's not exactly cake either - it's something in between.  If you're more in the mood for oatmeal, crumble some up and pour a little milk over it.
Bonus tip:  This stuff freezes beautifully.  Let it chill in the refrigerator to really set up, then cut into squares, wrap each in plastic wrap and put the individually wrapped squares in a big Ziploc bag.  Reheat for a few seconds in the microwave and you've got a healthy breakfast or snack item.


Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Fancy Schmancy Pretzels

Today I thought I'd share one of my new favorite last minute gift/party favor/bake sale ideas....Gourmet Pretzels! They are deceptively easy, impressive, delicious and decadent, and their Sweet/Salty flavor combination makes them a winner.

Gourmet Pretzel Rods, inspired entirely by a recipe I found in that happy cyber place called Allrecipes. Sigh. I love AR. Here's the recipe that caught my eye:

Now you'll notice, I did shake things up a bit. I do that. I rarely follow a recipe to a "T", when I first made them for a bake sale in November I opted to dress them up a bit. The great thing about these is you can use your imagination, and if giving out as gifts, give a couple different flavors to each person. Besides, I just happened to have a bag of caramels (for the caramel apples that never happened), and several open half empty (of half full, depending on how you look at things!) bags of various chips, mini-M&M's, Heath bits....I not only made some yummy treats, but I also cleaned out my pantry! ( shelf anyway...)

For now, here's what I used...

1 14-oz. bag of caramel squares
1 tbsp. water
1 12-oz. bag long pretzel rods (I used Rold Gold)
Mini M&M's
Crushed Heath Toffee Bits (you could certainly use the chocolate covered bit - I didn't this time)
White chocolate chips
Semi-sweet chocolate chips
Unwrap the caramels and place in a medium sized microwave-safe bowl with the water. Microwave on high about a minute. Stir and microwave in additional 20 or 30 second intervals until smooth.

Let it cool a bit, otherwise you'll have a melty runny mess on your hands. The bowl should be barely warm to the touch. Coat about 3/4 or the pretzel rod with the caramel - I find using a spoon to spread it around works best. If you find the caramel is getting too hard, just nuke it for a few seconds to loosen it up.

Roll the caramel dipped pretzel in your choice of toppings - you may need to gently press them into the caramel with your hands, because at the correct cooler temperature you'll find the caramel isn;t really all that sticky. Here I'm making Mini-M&M coated ones...

Lay them on a parchment lined tray or baking sheet - if you're just making this kind, pop them in your refrigerator for a few minutes to let them set up.

But if you like variety, here's the crushed Heath Bar method...

Again, kind of press them into the caramel...

I added some mini-chocolate chips to this one...

Lay them next to their cousins on the baking sheet.

Hello my beauties!

They really only need about ten minutes in the fridge to set up. Cooling them helps this next step set up quicker...the drizzling of chocolate! Mmmmm!!!

In two separate bowls melt about a half cup each of white chocolate chips and semi-sweet chocolate chips. Let them cool a bit - again, the bowls should barely be warm to the touch. Otherwise, your chocolate will be too warm and will actually soften the caramel.

Drizzle away! I found no need to let each type of chocolate set - they come out looking great all blended together.

Place them back on the parchment lined tray and pop in the fridge again until set. A half hour is good, but I've left them overnight and they were fine.

In a pinch, I wrapped mine in plastic wrap, tied with some ribbon and taped on a tag indicating what flavor. I didn't get a photo, but I found these great snack boxes at Target that looked like they were made for these things! Sort of an envelope style with a little cellophane window.

Our QC Manager hard at work....we await her response anxiously!

Whew! They are as good as they look!

Wishing you all the Happiest of Holidays!

Thursday, December 18, 2008


I've been tagged by Lissaloo! (One Step At A Time)

Ok, Now what do I do???

Seven weird things about me?

You mean only seven? Let me see....

1.) I'm coulrophobic. What, pray tell, is that, you ask? While there is dispute as to whether it's an actual phobia, coulrophobia is an excessive if not irrational fear of clowns. It all started with an evil Jack-In-The-Box when I was three.

2.) I cannot kill a spider. Not saying I've never done it, but it really bothers me to do it. My mother told me once it was bad luck to do so, so therefore I don't do it...even though I'm not really superstitious. Well, maybe just a little....

3.) I have a history of melanoma. I didn't even know what it was when I was diagnosed in 1989, but thankfully it was caught early. Now I'm very proactive about skin checks, sun protection and getting suspicious moles removed...tough when you're part Dalmation like me! :)

4.) Which brings us to number four...My daughter and I have the exact same birthmark on our tummy's!

5.) I love horses. Although I don't own any and haven't ridden in years, a certain calm comes over me when I am near one. I think I was one in a previous life! I have always been partial to black horses.

6.) Speaking of previous lives...I was once told by a psychic that I was a passenger on the Titanic. I survived, but later died..obviously. Otherwise it wouldn't have been a previous life, right? Anyway, we KNOW it must be cost me $20 so she must have been legit, right? RIGHT?!? ;)

7.) I (think) I saw a ghost once. I have always been spiritual, but as far as actual ghosts go I'm a skeptic who wants to be proven wrong. I've almost convinced myself I imagined it, but if I saw what I think I saw that night, it was an apparition of a young man I knew who had died a year or two earlier. I was driving in my car, he was walking along the side of the road. My first thought was to stop and give him a ride, but when I turned around he had disappeared. Then my brain caught up to me and I remembered he had died.

I am so weird!!!

Anyway, I'm a new blogger so I can't come up with seven people who haven't already been tagged a hundred times! ;) Any volunteers???

Have a great day!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Let the Baking Begin!!

There's Christmas music on the radio, the husband is cursing as he tries to untangle the Christmas lights and I just finished cleaning the oven.  LET THE BAKING.....BEGIN!!!

I love baking, especially at Christmas time.  There's just something about that marathon baking session, arranging platters of cookies, wrapping other confectionary treats and giving them all away that just makes me happy.  And there is one recipe that gets things rolling for me every single year - Chocolate Italian Spice Cookies.  Little balls of chocolate cookie, spiked with cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg, studded with chocolate chips and walnuts and finally drizzled with a simple white icing.  The smell of cocoa and spices epitomize the Christmas season, in a culinary sort of way.  
I've posted my complete recipe over on  If you want to give these a whirl, go here:

Otherwise, I'm not going to bother with the exact quantities here - I'll just run through the visual with you.
You'll want to preheat your oven to 350 degrees, then in a LARGE bowl combine your dry ingredients - flour, sugar, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg.
I like to whisk them to smoosh up any lumps.
Add your chocolate chips....
...and the chopped walnuts...
...and mix all of those together.
Crack the eggs into a separate bowl...
...beat them slightly...
...and whisk in the oil and milk.
While you have the oil out, pour a few drops into a small saucer or bowl.  This way you can dip your fingers in the oil as needed when you are working with the balls of dough.  Otherwise, things could get a bit sticky!
Add the egg mixture to the dry ingredients.
Stir together with a spoon as much as you can.
This is about as far as you will get with a spoon...
Roll up your sleeves and start working the dough with your hands, making sure to lightly oil them as necessary.  Just knead and fold the dough over, pressing the moistened dough into the dry portions, until it comes together in one big lump.  Don't give up! This might take a few minutes, but when it comes together it does so quickly.  
Soon you will have a big lump of dough like this...
...and you can stop swearing at me.  Seriously, the "oiling of the hands" tip will save you a lot of the headaches I endured over the years, perfecting this recipe.

WHICH, by the way, I did not create from scratch myself.  When I was in high school, my sister and her best friend finagled the basics of this recipe from her friend's Italian grandmother.  They are the ones who translated the "pile of flour, scoop of sugar and a big handful of cocoa" into actual measurements.  I might have tweaked the spices and made a couple minor changes, but this is really but a variation of what Susan and Candy created.

Candy's grandmother would tell you to "roll into balls the size of a walnut".  I'd say that's about right, if your walnuts are about 1 1/2" in diameter.  You could go 2", but just remember that these will rise ever so slightly while baking.  Continue oiling your hands as needed - just a drop or two will do - as you roll the dough into balls.
Place the balls on a lightly greased (and in my case, soon to be replaced) cookie sheet, about 2 inches apart, bake for about 10 minutes and let cool for a few minutes before removing to wire racks to cool completely.
Here's what the unbaked dough looks like in comparison to the freshly baked ones...
Let them cool completely, sampling one along the way if you'll thank me.
When the cookies are completely cooled, mix together the confectioner's sugar, milk and vanilla to make a thin icing.
This is what it looks like when it's ready to drizzle...
You can dip the tops of the cookies in the icing if you like, but I like the look of drizzled icing.  For easy clean-up, place a sheet of waxed paper under your wire rack to catch the run off...or just lick your countertop clean, whichever you prefer.  Let it sit until the icing is dry, then store in an airtight container.  These cookies also freeze beautifully - just lay them flat in a Ziploc bag and freeze.  They'll thaw nicely in a few hours in the fridge, or even quicker at room temperature.


Sunday, December 14, 2008

Ice Ice Baby

Thursday night, around 9:00 P.M., I just had to snap this picture of the ice gathering on our Christmas lights.

It had been raining for a couple of hours, and little icicles started gathering on everything - they made the colorful lights even more beautiful, making me forget for a while that icy conditions like these can be dangerous whether you are on the road or supposedly tucked safely in your warm cozy home.  We went to bed, expecting to have to deal with a lousy morning commute and not much more in a few hours....

We woke up to this....

The power had gone out at 11:00 P.M. or so, and I gave a passing thought to my ability (or not) to wake up without the assistance of an alarm.  That wasn't a problem though, for during the night the sound of rain, sleet, wind and this eerie cracking sound disturbed my sleep just enough that when 6:30 rolled around I felt I had to get up to see what the world looked like.
This is one of our sentimental favorite birch trees - transplanted 12 years ago from a nearby lot destined to be cleared.  We knew it would come down sooner rather than later, but not like this.
As the sky illuminated our yard, we found a thin layer of ice covered everything, and even each individual blade of grass was frozen solid.  It crunched under your feet as if you were walking on glass.
Half of the birch had fallen into our yard, the other half along the fence to the left.  The woods behind us creaked eerily with every gust of wind.  We realized that the strange cracking noises we had heard during the night - they sounded almost like a crack of thunder, or a gunshot, followed by shattering glass.  What caused those sounds were the limbs or even entire trees, weighted by ice, snapped and falling.

Birches are not strong trees - they grow fast around here, too fast to build up the strength required to sustain severe weather.
We lost about 6 trees on our property - one of our Bradford Pears above, and our Autumn Blaze below.  This little tree survived being accidentally whacked by a backhoe ten years ago, but this storm was too much.
As the sun came out and the sky turned blue, the trees - those that had fallen and those that still managed to stand - looked as if they were made of crystal.
But upon closer inspection, we saw evidence of those loud cracking sounds that plagued us through the night.  Everywhere you looked, the tops of trees had been snapped off.

In our back yard stands a Sugar Maple.  It has been leaning precariously for many years, but we've pruned it and babied it, hoping to make it last.  Lately we've kept a close eye on it, as we are in a quarantine area for an Asian Longhorn Beetle infestation that is devastating this type of tree in our area.  Some 20,000 trees have been spray painted with red, marking it for removal.  Our tree survived that, but all day Friday and into the weekend we eyed our maple warily, expecting it to fall.  It still stands in our back yard, a symbol of how lucky we are. 

As shocking as our neighborhood looked, we soon realized we were lucky to have only sustained moderate cosmetic damage to our landscaping.  Our home, although without power, heat or hot water for over three days, is intact, no damage other than a useless cable torn from our house. (It had been for cable televison - we've had satellite for over three years now.)  Two houses away, our friends were virtually trapped in their house, their long driveway buried in fallen trees.  And beyond their house, a large maple had fallen into another neighbors house, practically cutting it in half.  Another friend not only had a tree land on his house, but his basement flooded.  I found that had I attempted to go to the office on Friday, I would surely have been turned back.  Trees and downed power lines covered nearly every road out of town.  Most of the roads we closed until Saturday anyway. 

But we have a lot to be thankful for - my husband, on a whim, went to the nearest Home Depot Saturday morning to see if by chance they had any generators left.  They did, and we now own one, however an hour later when we brought or neighbor to get one, there was a line of 50 people putting their names on a list to get one!   The barely used wood stove we purchased last year is now like a member of the family - one of my cats spent the powerless weekend curled up in front of it, content as only a cat can be.  Our power came back on at 3:30 P.M. Sunday....there are people not far from me who have been told to expect electricity to be restored in 2 weeks.  We did not turn on our Christmas lights at first - it almost felt like we would be flaunting our good fortune.  But then I remembered how seeing Christmas lights a few miles away on Saturday night had lifted my spirits and we switched them on.  I remember thinking, "Well, THOSE people have power.  It's getting closer to us!"  Hopefully our lights will give someone else hope that normality will soon be here, and all we'll have left are a few cool pictures, some crazy stories, and a 5,000 watt generator that hopefully we'll never have to use again.