French Toast Won’t Make Me Fat, Right? (Or How to Make Candied Pecan French Toast)

French Toast is more interesting with it’s stuffed with cream cheese and candied pecans. For real.

My dad’s mother, Agnes, was Finnish, and she was an excellent cook. She was a sweet, reserved woman, and she expressed her love for her seven children and their families by making meals for them. She passed away in April, and it’s a lasting regret of mine that I never had the opportunity to sit with her and copy her recipes.

I feel like a part of my culinary heritage has been lost. A piece of the past went to the grave with my Grandma five months ago….

I mean, she made her own pickles. How do I not have those recipes?!? (See more on my pickle obsession here. God help me if I ever get pregnant; I’ll probably hijack a Vlasic truck.)

I can remember visiting her as a kid and thinking she was some sort of magician because she knew how to make pickles. I was a city kid, so it was somewhat of a revelation that pickles came from cucumbers and not the Vlasic Stork.

I need to see if any of my aunts have her pickle recipes….

She also made thin Finnish pancakes that sort of resembled crepes and the most amazing Finnish Nisu bread. Nisu is similar to challah, which I also adore. They’re both sweet, egg-based breads and, honestly, I forget I’m trying not to be fat in the presence of both of those breads.

A good friend of mine brought me a loaf of challah left over from Rosh Hashanah, and after I decimated most of the loaf in one sitting, I decided to use the remainder to make French toast. I was in the mood for something with a little more pizzazz than the typical variety, so I decided to stuff it with cream cheese and candied pecans.

Why not, right?

In case you’re wondering… the why not came a few days later when I put on my don’t-you-dare-get-fat-jeans and discovered that I am indeed fat. I mean, I know I’m not really fat, ‘cuz the only other people more critical of their bodies are 16 year old girls currently residing in eating disorder clinics.

Whatever….

The rational half of my brain is telling the vain half of my brain not to freak out (too much). It has been murderously hot the last two months so my hikes have been shorter than usual. Plus I have been recipe testing all kinds of cupcakes, which you will see in the coming days.

OK, enough lamenting. Let’s just be happy and talk about egg saturated bread slathered in syrup.

This is how I made the French toast. I served it with real Canadian maple syrup and spicy sausage because I can’t have all sweet without some savory.

I think this would also be awesome with Trader Joe’s sweet and spicy pecans, by the way.

Challah French Toast with Candied Pecans
The portions are approximate.

2 thick slices of Challah
2 eggs
¼ C whole milk
½ tsp vanilla
4 T cream cheese, room temperature
8 candied pecans, finely chopped
whole candied pecans for garnish

2T butter
½ T vegetable or grapeseed oil

Whisk together milk, eggs, and vanilla. Pour the mixture into a casserole dish or pie plate. Tear a small hole in the center of the slices of challah (but do not tear all of the way through the bread) and place the bread in the egg mixture. Allow the bread to become saturated with the egg mixture. Flip the bread over allowing the other side to absorb the mixture.

In a separate bowl, mix the finely chopped pecans and the cream cheese together.

Heat the butter and oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat. (Adding oil to the butter will prevent it from burning too easily.)

Place the bread into the pan with the hole in the bread facing the bottom of the pan. After the pan side of the bread has become golden, flip the bread over so that the fully intact side is on the bottom of the pan. Spoon the pecan cream cheese mixture into the hole. Allow the second side to get golden brown.

Remove the bread from the pan. Serve with real Canadian maple syrup and garnish with additional pecans, if you wish.

Bloody Mary’s in the Land of Badgers (Or How to Make the Best Bloody Mary)

My senior year of college, my roommate, Becky, and I went to Madison for the Michigan vs.Wisconsin football game. I made many more trips to Madison after that one, but having Becky by my side for that wild weekend is one of my favorite college memories.

Barry White tunes, tasty Bloody Mary’s, late night burritos, and beating the Badgers were basically the highlights of the trip. To this day, I can’t listen to What Am I Going to Do With You – or drink a Bloody Mary – without thinking of the fall of 1999.

The Bloody Mary at State Street Brats is particularly fabulous, and it was a staple that weekend. They garnish the cocktail with a dill pickle, and as a result I am convinced a pickle is a prerequisite for a Bloody Mary.

My love of pickles is well documented, by the way. Becky will tell you. I used to roam the halls of our sorority looking for someone who wanted to order a sub sandwich just so I could have a pickle delivered to Pi Phi. She’ll also tell you lots of other things about living with me – like how I used to make her dance to the Beastie Boys in our bathrobes, how we’d read each other’s course packs aloud so we didn’t have to do our own reading, or how I’d use a pile of clothing on the floor as a pillow during all nighters so I wouldn’t fall asleep.

She could also tell you other things that are not fit to print. This is a family kind of blog.

Or something.

Let’s just let this poor boy sleep in blissful ignorance. He doesn’t need to know I used to dance on furniture. K?

So, anyway, back to Bloody Mary’s.

I experimented with some recipes I found on the Absolut site, and riffed a bit based on what I had in the house. I came up with this version I like. You can find more Bloody Mary recipes here.

Bloody Mary
Makes one small drink

4.5 oz vodka
4.5 oz V-8
1 dash of ketchup
2 dashes of soy sauce
2 dashes of Worcestershire
2-3 dashes of salsa picante
1 dash of olive juice
2 dashes of pickle juice
1 pinch of black pepper
1 pinch of red pepper flakes
1 olive, finely diced
1 jalapeno slice, finely diced

Dill pickle for garnish

Place all of the ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice cubes and shake. Pour the contents into a glass and garnish with a dill pickle.

The ratios are approximate and can be adjusted for personal taste. I add more pickle juice because I’m obsessed with pickles (see above). The ketchup sounds redundant since you’re adding V-8, but it’s not. It adds a hint of sweetness that nicely compliments the spicy and sour elements.

What is your favorite Bloody Mary recipe?

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On Football and Eating My Feelings (Or Ice Cream Cookie Sandwiches Are Kind of My Consolation)

I eat my feelings during football season.

I grew up in East Lansing, Michigan. About five minutes from Michigan State University and Spartan Stadium, to be exact. Much of my childhood was spent in that stadium with my dad, watching his Spartans suck at football.

See, my dad went to MSU, and he’d lose his religion each time his team took the field. My dad was a usually a super polite protestant, but the minute the ball was snapped he’d become another person entirely.

The White Anglo Saxon Protestant code only allows emotional outbursts during sporting events and while behind the wheel of a car, so we have to vent a lot of frustration in short bursts. The rest of the time we’re required to drown them in alcohol and baked goods.

Luckily for us, MSU served amazing ice cream sandwiches in the stadium in the ’80s. Given the serious Spartan suck factor back then, my dad and I ate a LOT of them.

Even though I packed my bags for Ann Arbor, became a Michigan Wolverine, AND made my poor Spartan dad pay the enemy’s tuition, those memories of game day cookie sandwiches in East Lansing will always be fond.

This past weekend while I was watching my own alma mater fail at football, I made some ice cream cookie sandwiches to soothe myself. (Michigan is basically going through a rebuilding decade, and I’m kind of inconsolable about it.)

We played Notre Dame, and our quarterback, Denard Robinson, basically handed the game to the Fighting Irish.

If one more announcer says, “Denard is an exciting athlete,” I may hurl something at my television. He’s “exciting” like it’s exciting to date a musician with a meth habit. Sure, he’s an explosive runner, but he can’t do the other half of his job, which is to throw the ball to his own teammates. I can’t take much more of it. I mean, it’s like I’m watching the Spartan teams of the ’80s when I watch the Wolverines these days.

So, anyway, that’s my rant for this week. I’m done for now. It’s time to tell you about the ice cream cookie sandwiches I ate to console myself after the horror I endured on Saturday.

I used these chocolate chip cookies and some Hagen Daas for the center.

You should make some for yourself if your football team is breaking your heart. Or even if it isn’t.

Sometimes It’s OK to Be Stupid (Or I Put Cornstarch in My Chocolate Chip Cookies)

Sometimes I do stupid things. Like try to hike near the Griffith Observatory the day Endeavour is flying over LA. Or secretly date someone my boss knows because that sort of thing never ends badly. Or bake chocolate chip cookies from recipes I find on the internet.

Sometimes these stupid things turn out well, but not usually. The parking situation at Griffith Park was stupid annoying this morning. And that breakup? It’s a great story now, but maybe not so much at the time. There might have been a moment when I had to hold back tears while rolodexing the contact information for the actress said boss was setting said ex up with. Or there might have been more than a few awkward incidents at premiere parties where everyone present was secretly wishing for a swift and merciful death.

So, anyway, the internet cookie recipe? It’s for chocolate chip cookies. And it uses cornstarch. I feel like absolutely everyone pinned this recipe at some point and then forgot about it. I decided to try it today because the curiosity was killing me.

And…?

I’m pleased to report it’s not an internet hoax: the cornstarch actually works, and it does produce fluffy, delicious cookies. There are a few tricks to keep in mind if you’re going to make the cookies, though. They won’t spread out on the baking sheet like traditional cookies. They remain kind of blob like unless you press the dough into discs before baking.

Plus they still look doughy on top even when they’re done baking so you just have to trust the baking time in the recipe otherwise you will probably burn them.

See how the top still looks like dough and the bottom is starting to turn golden brown? This is how the cookies will look when they are done. You just have to trust the baking time in the recipe.

I think these cookies would be great for ice cream cookie sandwiches and I plan to use them for that purpose this weekend. I’ll get back to you on that experiment next week.

Here’s the recipe if you want to give it a shot. I think you should. Just don’t bake them when you’re really hungry or you might eat too many.

Blerg.

I just did another stupid thing.

Sometimes the internet doesn’t steer you wrong. The cornstarch in these cookies makes them super soft.

Supper and the Single People (Or How to Make Zucchini Lasagna)

This recipe uses the same marinara sauce as the spinach manicotti I made earlier. Total time saver.

Even though I like to cook fairly elaborate dishes that include expensive ingredients, I’m always looking for ways to cut costs or make the dishes simpler to prepare. Sometimes that means cutting back on the more items expensive like the lobster in this seafood macaroni and cheese or making dishes I can freeze easily like this sausage and white bean dish. Other times it means repurposing an ingredient or an element of a dish.

This week, I used the same marinara sauce for two different dishes, and I will be freezing extra servings of both.

See, I have lived alone for more than ten years, so unless I’m throwing a dinner party for like 25 friends, I’m probably eating alone. Since I don’t like eating the same meal more than twice a week, this means the freezer is my friend.

What’s this about living alone? I have been keeping you company in the kitchen for like five years, lady. I don’t do it for the celery that sometimes falls from the counter either.

And if you really live alone, then who is this enormous animal using your pillow?

OK, point taken. I haven’t exactly lived alone for the last ten years, but it’s not like the dogs sit at the table for meals, though.

Oh, never mind. I’m losing this argument.

Let’s just get to the lasagna recipe.

It’s my aunt’s recipe and it probably came from a 1980s issue of Bon Appetit, but I can’t find any links to it online.

Zucchini lasagna

Marinara Sauce
(I made extra marinara when I made the spinach manicotti and saved it for the zucchini lasagna.)

4 T olive oil
1 C finely chopped onion
5 garlic cloves, minced
2 celery stalks
2-1 lb can diced tomatoes
4 T minced parsley
4 T tomato paste
1/2 C red wine
fresh basil, torn in small pieces
salt and pepper

Heat olive oil in a large pot over medium high heat. Add onion, celery, and garlic and cook until softened about 5-7 minutes. Stir in tomatoes, juice, parsley, tomato paste, wine, and half of the basil. Season with salt and pepper and simmer for about 45 minutes.

Add the remaining basil and simmer for 5 more minutes.

Filling

1/2 stick of butter
2 small zucchini, sliced into ¼” slices
1/2 lb crimini mushrooms cut into 1/4” slices
1/2 C whipping cream
4 T,  plus 1/2 C fresh grated parmesan
8 oz provolone cheese
salt and pepper

Lasagna noodles

Preheat oven to 450.

Cook lasagna noodles until al dente. Drain and set aside. (Or you can use the no cook noodles. Either works.)

Melt the butter in heavy skillet over high heat. Add zucchini and mushrooms to the butter and sauté until the zucchini are lightly browned. Reduce heat and stir in the cream. Cook until the mixture is reduced to a smooth consistency. Add 4 T parmesan, salt, and pepper and mix to blend.

Put a thin layer of marinara in the bottom of a 2.5 quart casserole dish. Next add a layer of noodles, followed by a layer of filling and a layer of cheese. Repeat the layers of marinara, pasta, filling and cheese. Top the stack with the remaining marinara sauce. Sprinkle with freshly grated parmesan.

Cover with foil and bake at 450 for 30 minutes. Remove the foil and cook for an additional 5-10 minutes until the lasagna is bubbly and the cheese is lightly browned. Allow the lasagna to stand for 5-10 minutes before serving.

Note: If you wish to make a 9×13” pan, you will need to double the recipe and it may require additional baking time.

Of the Mess in My House and Manicotti (Or How to Make Spinach Manicotti)

Spinach manicotti is the perfect meal to freeze for housesitters. Or something.

It’s time to talk about manicotti. Why? Because I made it this week and it wasn’t just for my own amusement (or consumption).

It’s the sort of dish you can make ahead and reheat before serving, which is essential if you’re busy and come home ravenous on a regular basis. (This is basically me, always.) Plus it’s the sort of thing I can freeze for my housesitter.

See, my whole family is flying back to Michigan for my Grandma’s birthday, and I’m going to have someone staying in my place for a few days to feed my fish and scratch the spoiled dogs behind their ears.

We’re not spoiled, lady. We’re just refusing to look at you until you return with bison biscuits.

When I have houseguests or house sitters, it gets me thinking about all kinds of things. Like, scrubbing my shower with a pot scraper. And hiding my good knives. I’m kidding.

Kind of.

I mean, I have some knives that shouldn’t go in the dishwasher and instead of seeming like an ass for saying so, I just hide them in the linen closet. Or behind the Xbox.

Also, it’s common for me to take a pot scraper to the shower just to relieve stress, but I become more motivated to do this sort of thing when I know someone else will be standing in it.

See, my grandmother, whose birthday we’re celebrating, is Swiss. And she has made us all mental about matters of housekeeping. It has been said the Swiss make the Germans look like Italians… and if my family is any indication, this is not an understatement. I mean, my aunt vacuums every day. Just let that sink in for a moment….

So she’s nuts.

Anyway… on his deathbed, my grandpa told his wife, “Glady, you need to travel more and dust less.” I’m getting half of the equation right by going home, but I’m failing on the second part because I’m getting out the bleach at the thought of anyone staying at my place.

Oh, Lord, I just looked up and realized I need to dust my ceiling fan as well.

OK, so back to the manicotti because you don’t care about my crazy family and our obsession with filth.

Spinach Manicotti with Marinara Sauce

Marinara Sauce

4 T olive oil
1 C finely chopped onion
5 garlic cloves, minced
2 celery stalks, finely diced
2- 1 lb cans of diced tomatoes
4 T minced parsley
4 T tomato paste
½ C red wine
fresh basil, torn in small pieces
salt and pepper

Heat olive oil in a large pot over medium high heat. Add onion, celery, and garlic and cook until softened, about 5-7 minutes. Stir in tomatoes with juice, parsley, tomato paste, wine, and half of the basil. Season with salt and pepper and simmer for about 45-50 minutes.

Add the remaining basil and simmer for 5 more minutes.

Manicotti

2 ½ C frozen spinach
2 C ricotta
2 eggs, beaten
3 T butter
3 T finely diced shallots
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 C fresh grated parmesan, divided
2 T chopped fresh basil
prosciutto, torn, optional
pinch of nutmeg
salt and pepper

8 oz package of manicotti shells

Carefully place the manicotti shells into a pot of boiling water, cooking until al dente. Do not overcook.

Drain the noodles and set aside.

Place the spinach in a colander and run hot water over it to thaw. Squeeze spinach to dry. Heat butter in heavy skillet over medium heat. Add shallots and cook until translucent, about 3-5 minutes. Add garlic and spinach and cook for 2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

Transfer spinach mixture to a medium bowl. Mix in ricotta, eggs, 1 C of parmesan, nutmeg, and basil. If you’re adding prosciutto, mix it in now.

Transfer mixture to a pastry bag (or a Ziploc bag with a corner cut off) and carefully pipe the ricotta mixture into the shells.

Place 2/3 C of marinara on the bottom of a 9×13” pan. Place the shells on top of the marinara and cover with remaining marinara and 1 C of parmesan. Place foil over the baking dish.

Bake at 350 for 25 minutes. Remove the foil and cook for another 5-7 minutes.

Drive By Bike Insults (Or I’m Not Sharing My Steak with Blue Cheese and Jalapeños)

Here’s what I love about my neighborhood: it’s dog friendly and it isn’t an uptight community where overbearing people tell you how you should be holding your dog’s leash or whatever. Here’s what I don’t like: weird people who shout at you while riding by on their bikes.

Usually I walk the dogs in some sort of baseball cap and yoga attire, but yesterday I was dressed in a sundress for church when I took the dogs out. Some guy with a strange fauxhawk thing happening on his head shouted at me, “Get a boyfriend!” as he rode by on his BMX looking bike.

Um, what?!?

Freak.

Is that what he said to you? I should have bitten him through his skinny jeans.

First of all, who says I don’t have one. (I mean, I don’t, but how does HE know?) Second, why is this any of his business anyway? And third… what in hell does he think he’ll accomplish by shouting at me?

Does he think I’ll go out with him because he’s the perpetrator of a drive by bike insult? Does he think I have dogs because I’m some sad, lonely spinster? Or is he just some weirdo being weird? (Most likely scenario.)

Does this sort of thing happen to other people or is it just me?

I mean I have had baristas who would harass me for being single. Like it’s so hard to believe a woman can like dogs, steak, and football and not be some guy’s girlfriend. Whatever. (“Just hand me my whole milk latte, Chuck Woolery!”) I mean it’s not like I don’t date.

I just, oh, never mind….

Let’s change the subject to happier things. Like the new album by The xx. And steak.

I would like to eat one tonight while I watch Denver and Atlanta on Monday Night Football.

Even though I think a New York Strip can totally stand alone on its own merit, I also think it can benefit from blue cheese and chiles from time to time.

Tonight I used this recipe to make a jalapeno and blue cheese sauce for my New York Strip.

The longer I stay single, the better I get at handling power tools and lighting a charcoal grill without setting myself on fire, so there’s that.

I also added the blue cheese jalapeno mixture to my baked potato, but you should be careful with this because the blue cheese can get a bit overpowering if you slather it all over everything.

Suck it, weird bike boy, I’m not sharing my steak. Besides, I bet you’re a vegan anyway.