Monday, October 31, 2011

Jack-O-Lanterns and Roasted Pumpkin Seeds

Koda's, Keanna's, and Lukas's jack-o-lanterns.

Happy Halloween!!!  Tonight’s the night!  Our neighborhoods will be decorated and lit up with jack-o-lanterns!  How fun!  Our dad has already finished three grandkid-o-kins and just has two more to carve today.  (Click here to see last year’s, at the bottom of the post.)  We’ll be sure to post a photo of them tomorrow.

2009 grandkid-o-kins.  No April yet.

Robbie and I spent yesterday afternoon helping our kids carve their pumpkins.  I bought them at Raley’s for only $3 each!  And they’re huge!!  I don’t have pictures of the process—it was just too messy and too crazy.  We started by using a crayon to draw around the stem where we planned on cutting the top out.  Then they got to draw their design on the pumpkin, knowing that they could not go inside the circle.

Robbie and I scooped out the insides and Keanna separated out the seeds for roasting.  You can find our roasted pumpkin seed recipe here.  They are soooo yummy!  One tip that we didn’t mention:  to help separate the seeds from the strings, place it all in a large bowl or sink full of water.  The seeds will float and the strings will sink.  Squish the seeds between your fingers to separate them from the strings then skim the seeds off the top of the water.

Once all the pumpkins were cleaned out, we moved on to carving.  As much as the boys would love to carve their own jack-o-lanterns, Robbie and I still do the cutting for them.  Keanna carved almost all of hers this year.  My mom just helped her with the mouth.

There are a few ways you can extend the life of your jack-o-lantern.  The first is to store it in the fridge.  Of course, this takes up a lot of space.  You can also spray or rub all the cut surfaces with vinegar to discourage bacterial and fungal activity.  The third method is to apply a coat of petroleum jelly to the cut surfaces to prevent loss of moisture.  This is what our dad does on the faces of his pumpkins.

Be sure to stop by tomorrow to see our dad’s 2011 grandkid-o-kins!  Have a safe and happy Halloween!

Friday, October 28, 2011

Chocolate Covered Caramel Corn

I apologize for another sweet post, but Monday is Halloween, so this is the last chance to get this in before Halloween.  It's not necessarily a Halloween recipe, but it can be good for all of fall...or all year long, actually.  It's different than the chocolate-caramel corn recipe I posted a while back.  Instead of popcorn coated in chocolate caramel, this is caramel corn drizzled with chocolate.  How can you go wrong with popcorn, caramel, and chocolate?!

The recipe calls for 12 cups of popped popcorn.  There are several ways you can make the popcorn.  The first is in a good, old-fashioned air popper.  You can also use a microwavable popcorn popper.  Actually, though, you don't need any sort of special equipment.  There are two ways of making microwavable popcorn with things that you probably already have on hand.  One is the paper bag method Sumiko wrote about last year.  Another way is to put a tablespoon or two of kernels in the bottom of a Pyrex mixing bowl, cover it with a plate or a microwave cover, and microwave until most of the kernels are popped.  If you use this method, be careful when getting the bowl out of the microwave - it will be hot!!

A simple microwavable popcorn popper!


Chocolate Covered Caramel Corn
12 cups popped popcorn
1 stick butter
1 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup corn syrup
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp vanilla
Chocolate chips (I used dark chocolate)
White chocolate chips (optional)
Food coloring (optional)

Butter the bottom and sides of a jelly roll pan and set aside.  Place popcorn in a large mixing bowl; set aside.  If you're feeling nutty, mix some peanuts or almonds in with the popcorn.  Sorry for the (pop)corny pun!

Preheat oven to 250 degrees.

In a medium saucepan, melt butter over medium heat.  Add brown sugar, corn syrup, and salt.  Stir constantly until mixture boils.  Let it boil for 5 minutes without stirring.  If you stir it, you may end up with crystallization (i.e. grainy caramel).  So resist the urge and just let it be!

After 5 minutes, remove from heat and carefully stir in the baking soda and vanilla.  There will be a reaction and it may spray out a little bit, so be careful (trust me, having hot caramel splashed onto your skin is no fun)!  Pour the caramel over the popcorn and stir to combine.  Turn caramel corn out onto prepared pan and spread it evenly over the pan.  Bake the caramel corn for 1 hour, stirring ever 15 minutes.  Remove from the oven, cool completely, and break it apart.

Melt chocolate chips.  Drizzle as much or as little as you'd like over the caramel corn.  Allow to harden.  If you want each piece to have a lot of chocolate on it, wait for the chocolate to harden, break it apart and mix the caramel corn, and drizzle more chocolate on it.  If desired, melt some white chocolate with shortening, then add food coloring.  Drizzle over the chocolate covered caramel corn; allow to cool and harden.

If you're looking for some savory Halloween recipes, check out Sumiko's slime soup and pumpkin pizza from last year!  She didn't post the pumpkin pizza recipe, but it's basically regular pizza made in the shape of a pumpkin with creatively placed toppings.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Caramel Apples!!

You can tell autumn is coming when the price of apples starts to drop.  Though they won’t hit their lowest prices until winter, you can still find some great sale prices.  Of course, you would want to eat most of those delicious apples plain—that’s how they’re healthiest.  But it is okay to sweeten them up a bit every now and then.

With Halloween right around the corner, I thought it would be fun to make caramel apples with orange coating.  I think this is what my neighbors are going to be getting in their trick-or-treat bags, at least the neighbors I know personally.  I really wish our society was such that I could hand out homemade candy to everyone.

Anyway, there are a few ways to go about making caramel apples.  The most common (and fastest) way is to buy caramels at the store and melt them down with some milk.  If you’re interested in making caramel apples this way, you can find Paula Deen’s recipe here.  I can’t vouch for it, though to make sure you get it right, be sure to read the recipe and directions with a Southern drawl.

The way I choose to make caramel apples is from scratch.  Caramel is basically a lot of sugar, a lot of fat, and a little flavoring.  The ingredients are simple, but combined and cooked properly, the result is decadently delicious.

The key to making successful caramel is to cook it to the correct temperature.  Basically, the higher the temperature the sugar reaches, the thicker or harder it will be once it cools to room temperature.  To successfully coat apples, the ingredients must reach 244° but not go over 246°.  Because accuracy is essential, be sure to use a thermometer.  You can buy a candy thermometer which clips to the side of your pot.  I use my probe thermometer so it will alert me when the correct temperature is reached.  Regardless of what type of thermometer you use, be sure it is not resting on the bottom or against the side of the pot.

To keep my probe off the bottom of the the pot, I
hang the wire over my cupboard knob.

When choosing a pot, pick one that is a lot bigger than you think you need.  The sugar will bubble up as it cooks.  I use a three-quart pot for the recipe below.

For sticks, I use the wooden dowels that I use to stack tiered cakes.  They are made by Wilton and are available at Michael’s.  I just use pruning sheers to cut them to the desired length.

Caramel Apples
6 medium apples, stems removed
6 wooden dowels
1 c. sugar
1 c. dark corn syrup
½ c. (1 stick) butter
1 c. cream
¼ tsp. salt
1 tsp. vanilla
Nuts, chopped (optional)
Chocolate, melted (optional)
White chocolate, melted (optional)

Line a jelly roll pan with parchment.  Wash and dry apples.  Insert dowel in each apple and place on jelly roll pan.  Store apples in refrigerator until ready.

Place sugar, corn syrup, butter, cream, salt, and vanilla in large pot.  Cook over medium-high heat until caramel reaches 244°-246°.  There is no need to stir, just let it go.

Once the target temperature is reached, turn off the heat and let caramel cool to about 220°.  Twirl apples in caramel and place on pan.

Roll in chopped nuts if desired.  Place in fridge to cool caramel quickly.  If adding chocolate, place melted chocolate in piping bag or zip-top bag with corner cut off.  Drizzle over apple while turning.

Sorry there's no photo of the process.  I just can't turn the
apple, pipe the chocolate, and take a picture at the same time.

Be creative with your drizzle!

Place in fridge to harden.  Store caramel apples in refrigerator.  Remove from fridge about 1 hour before eating.

I added orange gel coloring to white chocolate to make
these apples more festive.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Chicken Chili

I recently discovered Tammy's Recipes and have been going there for inspiration!  Her recipes look amazing and the two that I've tried so far have been delicious.  The last one I made was chicken chili and it was so yummy!  I served it with my favorite cornbread for a delicious meal!!!

Chicken Chili
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1 green bell pepper, chopped
1 onion, chopped
2 Tbsp vegetable oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups diced tomatoes (if canned, do not drain)
1 1/2 cups water
1 Tbsp chicken bouillon
2 cups kidney beans
2 cups salsa
1 cup corn
5 tsp chili powder
1 tsp ground cumin
Salt and pepper, to taste
2 cups cubed, cooked chicken
Toppings, i.e. Sour cream, shredded cheese, avocado, etc. (optional)

Heat oil in a large saucepan.  Saute bell peppers and onion until tender, but firm.  Add garlic; saute 1 additional minute.

Add tomatoes, water, bouillon, kidney beans, salsa, chili powder, and cumin.

To save money, I used dry beans instead of canned beans.
Bring to a boil; reduce heat and simmer about 40 minutes, until chili thickens and the flavors have developed and blended.  Add chicken; simmer 10 more minutes; add salt and pepper to taste.  Serve with desired toppings.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Cake Series: Leveling, Torting, and Filling Cakes

Whether you go with ganache, peanut butter filling, lemon curd, or fresh strawberries and whipped cream, filling a cake takes it to a whole new level!  With the addition of a couple layers of filling, a great-tasting cake becomes amazing.  And filling a cake is not hard.  Any home baker can do it without any special tools (though they do help).

Filling a Cake
Cake leveler or bread knife and toothpicks
Cake rounds (or other shaped cardboard)
Small spatula, knife, or spoon
Piping bag or sturdy zip-top bag
Large spatula

The first step to filling your cake is leveling and torting.  Cakes never end up with flat tops, so a layer is cut off to even it out.  The remaining cake must then be torted, or cut into layers.  Try to get the layers as uniform in thickness as possible.

I use Wilton’scake leveler and absolutely love it!  After many different trials, I now always set the leveler on the 2nd, 5th, and 8th notches to get the layers I desire.  This produces a tall cake with three layers of cake and two layers of filling.  If you want to invest in one of these, be sure to buy the one with the serrated blade.  They also sell one that is basically a wire held taught between the sides—I have used this one and do not like it.  Both levelers are available at Michael's--be sure to use a 40% off coupon!


Use one hand to hold the cake steady while
cutting with the other.

If you do not have a cake leveler, you can use a long serrated kitchen knife.  A bread knife is generally a good choice.  If you have great knife skills, you can freehand it—I’ve seen people do this.  If you’re not so great with straight lines, you can use the toothpick method.  Simply measure up the sides of the cake and insert toothpicks all around at the levels you want to cut.  Use the toothpicks as your cutting guide.

Regardless of what method you use, practice will make it easier.  And filling and frosting cover over a multitude of cake decorating sins.

The bottom tier of this cake crumbled as I was
handling it.  A lot of filling and frosting, no
one knew about the almost disaster!

Once your cake is leveled and torted, you can start constructing it.  You will need a cake round the same size as your cake.  I buy these by the dozens at Cash & Carry, our local restaurant supply store.  Michael’s also carries them.  You can also buy rectangle cake cardboards.  If you are doing a shaped cake, simply use an X-ACTO knife or similar tool to cut the cardboard into the shape you need.

To keep your cake from moving around on the round, pipe or spread a small amount of frosting onto it before placing the first layer of cake on it.  Carefully flip the top of the cake onto the frosting.  You will continue flipping layers, from top to bottom, so the finished cake ends up upside down from the way it was baked.

A turntable is not necessary, but EXTREMELY helpful.
I place a jar opener on top to keep the cake round
from sliding around.

Place some frosting into your piping bag or zip-top bag.  You will use it to make a dam to prevent the filling from squishing out.  If you want to use a piping tip, I recommend Wilton’s #12.  I simply cut a roundish whole about 1/4- 1/2-inch across.

Cuff down the top of the bag before filling.

Use a glass or small pitcher to hold your bag.

Pipe a sturdy line of frosting all the way around the perimeter of the cake, being sure that it stays on top of the bottom layer and doesn’t start to slip over the side.  Pipe a second line on top of the first.

Tightly twist the top before squeezing.  All
squeezing should be done by your dominant
hand at the top of the bag.  Your weak hand
is used only to guide the bag.

Spoon your filling into the outline of frosting and spread over entire surface.  Be sure the filling gets right up to the frosting dam and into any corners.  Someone is going to end up eating those pieces and you want them to enjoy the filling just as much as those who get the middle pieces.

Can't have chocolate and peanut butter without
caramel--SO YUMMY!!

Once you are done spreading your filling, carefully flip the next layer onto the first.  Look at it from above and from all sides to make sure the two layers are lined up with each other.  If not, gently nudge the second layer into place.

Repeat the damming and filling processes.  Carefully flip the last layer of cake onto the top.  This is what used to be the bottom.  Notice how smooth and flat the now top of the cake is.  This is why we build the cake upside down.

At this point, I like to go over the dammed areas with the piping bag again.  You don’t want any filling seeping out of the sides!

Once you are done filling the cake, it is ready to be frosted.  Generally, the best way to go about this is to apply a crumb coat first.  This is simply a very thin layer of frosting used to trap all the crumbs.  It’s kind of like frosting primer.  Don’t worry about how it looks or how many crumbs are in it—it will get covered up.  Stick the crumb-coated cake into the refrigerator until the dams and crumb coat are set, at least 30 minutes.

After the cake has chilled, it is ready to be frosted and decorated—both topics that will be posted at a later time.

The final product.

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