Friday, February 19, 2010

The Meal of Love

After Brian's special Valentine's Day gift to me, I purposed in the very depths of my soul to make him a V-Day meal as good as any he'd order in a restaurant. This is the menu I came up with, a compilation of some of my favorite recipes. Friends, I give to you:

The Meal of Love.

Shrimp and Penne Pasta with Tomato-Basil Cream Sauce, courtesy of The Pioneer Woman Cooks. This is a very simple, straightforward recipe that, quite frankly, will make you wonder why you ever ordered something like this at a restaurant when it's so easy to make at home. Flat-out delicious. I made the sauce in the morning and reheated it in the skillet before dinner, after sauteing the shrimp. I didn't bother to photograph this because, well, the Pioneer Woman has already done a fantastic job.

Rosemary-Romano Dinner Rolls, courtesy of me, the Maeg.

Green Salad with Oil and Vinegar

Chocolate Mousse, courtesy of Alton Brown. I've made this more times than I can remember, and the gelatin makes it a great make-ahead dessert. I've used this as a cake filling, too, with substantial results. You can even watch a how-to video, here, at Part 1 and Part 2. Heck, even if you're not going to make the mousse, you better watch the video anyway. Good Eats is just about the best show on television.

Cheesecake-Stuffed Chocolate Strawberries, courtesy, again, of the Maeg.

This is a fairly simple menu that can be started the day before and cooked single-handedly with ease and flair. Yes, even if you're not the Wonder Wife. Anyway, it's filling, delicious, and will make anyone you serve it to fall in love with you.

And, well, I guess that's why it's called the Meal of Love.

So make it! Make it for your parents, make it for your sweetheart, make it for your landlord if you're going to be late with the rent! Whatever you do, just make it!

And don't wait!

Wonder Wife Recipe: Cheesecake-Stuffed Chocolate Strawberries

If you've ever made chocolate-covered strawberries, you know there is probably no dessert as impressive that is so easy to make. Literally - melt, and dip.

But if you're interested in doing something a little more special than even that, you should try Cheesecake-Stuffed Chocolate Strawberries. Not only are they ALSO very simple, they will impress the socks off your sweetie. Oh, and they taste good, too.

Better than good.

The following step-by-step only makes enough "cheesecake" filling for 6-8 strawberries - perfect for two. But you can easily double, triple, or quadruple the filling to make more.

Let's start with half a brick of cream cheese - four ounces.

Throw it in a bowl to let it soften and come to room temperature.

Wash and dry your strawberries. Pick big ones for this recipe.

Now, this step is NOT hard. Repeat after me: "This is not going to be hard."

But you DO need to be careful on this step. With a small paring knife, cut a V out of the top to remove the leaves. Then, with the same small knife, cut out the center of the strawberry. Imagine that you're cutting out a "cone" from the inside of the berry.

Invert the hollowed berries onto a paper towel and refrigerate while you prepare the cheesecake filling.

Get out your hand mixer! Your four ounces of cheesecake should be softened enough to mix easily.

Add a scant quarter-cup of flour. In the photo below, I am using a half-cup measure that also has a line in the middle to denote a quarter-cup. So you can see that a "scant quarter cup" falls below that line.

And add a heaping quarter-cup of sugar. (Again, see that the sugar is over the quarter-cup line.) You can use either granulated or powdered sugar. I prefer powdered sugar, but I discovered I was out and had to resort to using granulated sugar. If you DO use powdered sugar, use a quarter cup of sugar and taste the filling after you blend it to make sure it's sweet enough. Feel free to add more.

Blend together the flour, sugar, and cream cheese. Then add 1/2 teaspoon vanilla and 1/2 teaspoon lemon juice.

Mix well, scraping down the bowl to make sure it's thoroughly blended.

It's done! It should be nice and soft.

I'm using a fancy frosting bag here with a fancy star tip, but you can cut a corner out of a plastic bag if you don't have one of these.

Use a glass to stabilize the bag while you fill it with the cream cheese mixture.

Let's return to the berries. Starting at the bottom of the strawberry, pipe the filling slowly into the hollow.

Stand the berries on their end in a bowl small enough to support them. Since the filling is soft, it will lose its shape if you lay the strawberries on their sides.

Refrigerate for at least an hour to allow the filling to firm up.

Once the filling feels firm to the touch, it's time to dip your strawberries.

Melt 4-5 ounces of good-quality chocolate chips in a dish that will be conducive to dipping - shallow and kind of narrow. (I used Ghirardelli 60% Cacao Bittersweet Chips.) The lower-quality chocolate you buy, the less nicely it will melt for you.

(To melt, microwave for 30 seconds at a time, stirring after each 30-second interval. It should take two or three 30-second turns before it's melted.)

Prepare a flat cookie sheet with some wax paper or parchment paper. We're good to go!

Very carefully, dip your strawberries, holding them near the top and tipping the chocolate dish as needed to cover the sides.

It's okay if they don't look perfect, because I'm about to show you a sweet Wonder Wife tip.

See this leftover chocolate? We're going to put it to good use.

Take a sandwich-size plastic baggie and fold it into/over/whatever a mug or cup.

Scoop the chocolate into the bag with a spatula, and THEN cut off the teeniest, tiniest corner of the bag with a pair of scissors.

See where the red line is? I'm talking a TINY corner. If you make the corner too big, your strawberries will not have dainty drizzles, they will have chocolate worms.

You can always cut the corner bigger if it's too small.

And, pretending you are a world-famous pastry chef, artistically fling the chocolate all over those strawberries. However you want to do it, it will look just perfect.

Be prepared to go a little crazy with this. You will probably have a little bit of chocolate left over in the bag, and so you will find yourself wandering around your kitchen looking for food to decorate.

Pardon my frankness, but even the dog's business would probably look delicious with a chocolate drizzle.

And just think of the possibilities! Instead of using the leftover dark chocolate, melt up some milk chocolate or even white chocolate to drizzle! What a contrast! What a delight! What a work of art! And from your own kitchen, no less!

For what it's worth, I experimented by piping some of the leftover cheesecake filling onto hollowed out halves of strawberries and then dipping those too. These would probably be better for a wedding shower or a ladies' luncheon, because as delicious as the whole strawberries are, they are BIG. And eating them in a few bites can get messy. The halves were easier to pop into my mouth without getting chocolate all over my face. But next time, if I do the halves instead of whole berries, I won't cut off the leaves. It would look prettier and they'd be easier to dip, too.

Refrigerate until the chocolate is firm, and then feed to whomever you would like to woo. Your mission will be a success - and therefore, so will mine.

Go forth, and strawberry it up!

Wonder Wife Recipe: Dinner Rolls

These rolls kick butt. Soft, chewy, and delicious, they are also very, very simple to make. No mixer needed. And really, no kneading needed. So no more talking. Let's get to it, shall we?

Mix 4 cups of bread flour (PLEASE use bread flour if you can - makes for way chewier and crustier bread) with 2 teaspoons salt and 1/2 teaspoon yeast.

Get some hot tap water running. Once it's hot, pour two cups into your flour mixture.

And there you have it! Kick-butt rolls! See how easy?!

Ha-ha. Just kidding. Mix well until it's all combined, and cover with a lid.

Let rest for an hour and a half, or longer if you like. Just keep punching down the dough when it's risen to keep it from deflating on its own. Then, I believe, it would be a lost cause. So don't let that happen!

Once the dough has risen at least once, it's ready to bake. Prepare your pan. I'm using a stoneware baker from Pampered Chef, which makes the bread nice and crusty. But you can use a cookie sheet, pie pan, Pyrex dish, anything!

Please, please go heavy on the olive oil.

Because good fats are good for your heart, and omega-3 fatty acids have been proven to BLAH BLAH BLAH - honestly, because it will taste good.

Spread the oil around on the baking dish, a step that I have not photographed. Actually, there are going to be a few steps without photos from here on out, because my hands were oily and I just... figured you guys would be smart enough to fill in the gaps.

Scrape the dough out onto a floured cutting board and knead briefly. Use lots of flour here, because this stuff is STA-HICKY! (Sticky.) The high water content makes the bread moist, but it also makes it treacherously gooey.

With a knife, cut the dough into nine pieces (for large rolls) or as many as twelve (for smaller rolls).

Form each piece into a ball using the "bubble gum" method - use your thumbs to push in the center while using your other fingers to pull the outer skin taut. Pinch the excess underneath together like the extra "wad of gum" you'd have after blowing a bubble.

Brush with more olive oil to help the toppings stick. You'll want to sprinkle on 1 teaspoon of freshly chopped rosemary (Don't use dried! Using nothing is better than using dried rosemary here!)...

... And a light sprinkling of crunchy sea salt. I bought this oh-so-cheap brand in Ocracoke at the grocery store because it was all they had and I was in a pinch because all I had packed for our camping trip was salt SUBSTITUTE by mistake. This is no fancy salt. But the rolls are still great, so hey! Go ahead and use that fancy grey British salt you have in the cupboard if you want, but I'm here to tell you it's not required.

The rolls would be just fine without anything more, but because I was in the mood, I sprinkled about half a cup of grated Romano cheese on top of the rolls.

Cover with plastic wrap and wait for the oven to preheat to 375 degrees F.

Bake for 30-40 minutes or until nicely browned.

I accidentally left these in for about 50 minutes, so they were CRA-hunchy! (Crunchy. But still great. Fantastic, in fact. Because these rolls are hard to screw up.)

Are further words required? I didn't think so. Pardon my pushiness, but MAKE THESE.

Rosemary-Romano Dinner Rolls with Olive Oil and Sea Salt
(I came up with the recipe, so I get to call it this long name, and so there!)
  • 4 cups BREAD flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon yeast
  • 2 teaspoons salt, or to taste
  • 2 cups hot tap water

  • Olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon freshly chopped rosemary
  • 1/2 cup grated Romano or Parmesan cheese
  • Sea salt or kosher salt
Mix together flour, yeast, and salt. Stir in hot water and mix well. Cover and set aside until risen, about 1 1/2 hours, or longer. Just keep pushing down the dough when it's risen. You can do that all day long if you want to.

Prepare a baking dish - stoneware, glass pie plate, whatever - by pouring in a few tablespoons of olive oil.

Dump dough out onto a floured board. Have lots of flour at hand - the dough will be sticky. Form as many rolls as you like - I made nine, and they were fairly large. I like to use what I call a "bubble gum" method: use the thumbs to push in the centers while using your other fingers to pull the outer skin taut. Pinch the excess underneath together like the extra "wad of gum" you'd have after blowing a bubble. This is a pretty sticky dough, so I've found that to be the easiest way to do it.

But whatever floats your boat.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

Place rolls into the dish, keeping in mind that they will spread in the oven. Brush with more olive oil, sprinkle with rosemary, and top with Romano cheese. Cover with plastic wrap until the oven is preheated.

Bake, uncovered, for 30-40 minutes or until nicely browned.

For the record, if you have neither rosemary nor sea salt nor Romano cheese, you should still make these rolls. Heck, top them with cheddar, Lowry's, and bacon if you want to!

Just make them.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The moral of the story is to have low expectations and a spectacular husband.

“Babe,” I said to Brian one evening last week, “I can’t make you a nice, fattening meal on Valentine’s Day this year. We don’t have any time to lose with this Bahamas diet.”

He shrugged. “Okay.”

“We can have shrimp, if you want,” I offered, “and a salad. And maybe some fruit for dessert.”

“That sucks,” he replied.

“I’m sorry.” I paused. “But maybe you can think of something you’d like for a present, instead.” I flashed him a winsome smile. “I know you’ve had your eye on some new arrow accessories… weight rings? New nocks?”

He smiled back at me. “Naw, honey. But thanks.”

“We’ll just do something else special, okay?”


“Maybe you can write me a love letter or something.”

“AUGH!” He threw his head back and gave a plaintive cry. “You know I hate writing letters more than anything else. Hon-EEY!”

I smiled. “Okay, stop freaking out. We’ll figure something out. Don’t panic.”

The next day, after Brian had gotten home from work, the two of us stood in front of the hearth, with Bo at our feet. We watched the flames and talked about the day. He put his arms around me and I leaned against his chest, feeling the warmth of the fire.

“Brian, you don’t have to write me a love letter,” I conceded. “If you can keep writing me sweet cards every year on my birthday, that’s perfectly fine.”

“That’s right,” he agreed emphatically.

“We’ll find something else to do on V-day,” I continued. “Maybe we’ll just do nothing! That would be okay, if that’s what you want.”

He looked down at me and smiled. “Do you want your Valentine’s Day present now?”

Perplexed, I smiled back. “Um, well,” I said, “is it… a hug?”

“Just answer! Do you want your Valentine’s Day present now? Yes or no?”

“Well, yes,” I answered. And to my surprise, he grabbed the car keys and left the house.

And I was a little bit confused, because Brian is not a “gift guy”. And by that I mean that Brian does not ever want to receive gifts, nor does he want to give gifts… and if gifts went and jumped off a cliff he’d be just fine with the world. In fact, the world would probably be a better place entirely. And for this reason, Christmases and birthdays have usually been “go buy yourself something and say it’s from me” sorts of exchanges. Of course, Brian shows his love in other ways, many wonderful ways – ways that are far more important to me than presents. It’s just that in the world of love languages, the Language of Gifts, to Brian, is like Mandarin. Almost impossible to pronounce correctly, and completely useless to even try to learn. To Brian, anyway.

So to avoid getting my hopes up with Brian’s mysterious disappearance, I busied myself by getting dinner ready in the kitchen. And when Brian opened the front door, I craned my head around the corner to see –

A Valentine’s Day gift! A real, new, bought gift!

A beautiful, heavy, big, brand-new cast iron skillet and a new splatter screen to go with it.

It was like he’d gone on a reconnaissance mission into my brain while I was sleeping! And had figured out what I wanted without even asking me!

It was perfect! Absolutely perfect. I’d wanted one for a long time.

So I learned something this Valentine’s Day. I found that just when I think I’ve got Brian figured out, he goes and learns a completely new language. And surprises me with a whole new side of thoughtfulness.

I love my husband.

And I also learned that in the grand scheme of things, one fattening meal won’t do that much damage in a diet. So Brian and I feasted on bread and pasta and dessert on Valentine’s Day.

(And I took photos to show you all the recipes.)

The Meal of Love is coming soon!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Apple Pie, the Wonder Wife Way

On our dining room table, there’s a beautiful wooden basket, a wedding gift from my sweet sister-in-law Heather. But I never put anything in it. Why? Don’t ask me!

Even though, I guess, I AM the one to blame.

Anyway, a few months ago, I had an idea. Why not fill it with green apples? And then, before the apples rot, which I have been known to let them do, make an apple pie?

Let me tell you, this was as good an idea as ever I’ve had! And here, my dear readers, is how I make my apple pie.

I’m not about to say that there is one best way to make something as American as apple pie. What I AM about to say is that THIS particular way is downright DAH-licious. This recipe is not completely original – I’ve modified it from this recipe and I use a pie crust recipe adapted from my friend’s.

But all in all, this is apple pie, my way. And it kicks butt.

Let’s start with the crust, and if you don’t mind, I’m going to use my brand new food processor. Thanks.

Pulse together 2 1/2 cups flour with 1 teaspoon salt and 1 tablespoon sugar.

Grab one stick of butter and cut it into cubes. Throw it into the food processor, and process the heck out of it.

I know that you’ve heard that pie crusts need large chunks of butter to make it flaky, and we’ll get to that. Here, we’re working half the butter into the flour so that the crust is not only flaky, but tender, too.

Meanwhile, get some ice water ready. You’ll need a half cup of ice-cold water. Grab the second stick of butter and cut it into cubes, too.

Place it in the food processor, then put the lid on. In short pulses, you’ll not only be cutting the butter roughly into the flour, but you’ll also be mixing in half a cup of ice-cold water. It takes two hands to drizzle the ice water into the food processor while you’re pulsing all of it together, so excuse the lack of photo here.

The crust will still look crumbly when you’re done. The way to tell whether there’s enough water is to reach in, grab a handful, and squeeze. If it breaks apart, it’s too dry. If it sticks together, you’re alllll good.

Here, I poured it into a big bowl, which helps me keep it tidy. You’ll need to gather it into two piles, one bigger (for the bottom crust) and one smaller (for the top crust).

Wrap it in plastic wrap. Stick it in the fridge. Leave it there for at least an hour.

Now, it’s apple time! Get eight large Granny Smith apples. Here, I have nine, and it turned out to be one apple too many. You’ll see why.

Wash, peel, and slice. For this, I use an apple corer/slicer, and then I slice each piece in half. Perfect width.

After you’ve sliced your apples, it’s time to make the decadent, delicious, downright dazzling sugar syrup. This syrup is the key to this apple pie. It takes this dessert from same ol’ simple to SNAZZY and SUPER. Watch and see.

In a saucepan, over medium heat, melt one and a half sticks of salted butter. You need that salt, baby!

Meanwhile, in a separate bowl, combine 3/4 cup EACH white and brown sugar, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, and 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg. Actually, you don’t have to combine it that well. Free and easy is the way to go.

Back to the melted butter. Stir in 4 1/2 tablespoons of all purpose flour, which I have conveniently forgotten to photograph. Whisk it in well – no lumps allowed!

Get 6 tablespoons of water ready. Have your whisk close at hand, because when you dump in the water, it’s GOING TO GET ALL CRAZY UP IN HERE!

Once you pour it in, whisk fiercely! It will thicken tremendously. Stir until it's lump-free!

Edited to add this NOTE: One day, after I posted this blog, I was making this pie again. I made the sauce and it did NOT WORK! Every time I stirred in the water, the sauce just turned lumpy and rude. I tried it again, and AGAIN, it did not work! Imagine my frustration! SO, on the third try, I added the SUGAR mixture first, blended it well with the butter and flour, then made sure the water was STEAMING HOT before pouring it in. It worked! So, in summation, you can add the sugar mixture BEFORE the steaming hot water, and it will turn out just the same.

My mother says to always add a WARM liquid to a roux (butter/flour paste) - i.e., no cold milk into a hot roux, no cold water into a hot roux, etc.

Now, add the sugar mixture. Whisk well until it’s fully combined. Bring to a boil, then reduce to low heat. Add 1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla. You can now leave it on LOW while we prepare the crust.

Rolling out the crust is easy with this technique. Throw a little bit of flour into a Ziploc bag and begin rolling the dough out inside the bag.

Once it’s fairly flat and manageable, take it out of the bag and finish rolling it out on the cutting board. For some reason, it’s much easier this way.

Um, this isn't perfect. My pie crusts are never, ever perfect. But I've reached a point in my life where I have peace with this. Life's not perfect. But it sure tastes great. Just like this crust.

Arrange the bottom crust in your pie pan – my favorite dish for this is a Pyrex pan – and start worrying about how the heck you’re going to fit those apples in.

Remember those apples? Time to give them some attention. So take that warm, horrendously wonderful syrup off the heat and pour about three-quarters of it over the apples. Oh baby. Anyway, mix together. And put the rest of the sauce back over low heat.

See why nine apples were one too many? Usually, eight is perfect, but remember too, apples shrink in the oven.

This pie was still awesome. The only problem was, um, fitting all the apples into the crust.

Don’t worry. It was my problem, not yours. And despite a few sticky fingers, I managed it.

(And don’t forget to scrape the last bit of syrup out of that bowl for the apples. I assure you, you will be sorry if you don’t.)

Time for the top crust.

Once it's rolled out, take the time to cut some slits, if you so prefer. At this point, also PREHEAT the oven to 425 degrees F.

Carefully drape the crust to avoid an avalanche of apples.

Where you can, fold the bottom crust over the top crust's edge. Cut off any extra and seal it with a fork.

Feel free to do something prettier. If you want to. (COUGHoverachiever!COUGH.)

Yes, this looks ridiculous. RIDICULOUSLY GOOD!

Now, pay attention! DO NOT MISS THIS STEP! This step is what makes this pie KICK BUTT!

Take the rest of the syrup and carefully spread it over the top crust using a pastry brush to help.

See the photo below? IT'S NOT FINISHED. You HAVE to get the edge of the crust, too.

(I realize I keep yelling at you. But don't take it personally, please. It's just that this step - and this pie, for that matter - is incredibly important. Earth-shatteringly so.)

Be sure to cover every square quarter-inch of the top crust with this syrup.

Now PUT THE PIE ON A COOKIE SHEET! Do not, and I REPEAT, DO NOT attempt to bake this ooey-gooey pie without some sort of oven protection!

Bake at 425 degrees F for 20 minutes. Then lower the oven to 350 degrees F and continue to bake for 45-55 minutes. If the edge gets too brown, cover it with foil.

When the timer is close to completion, test the doneness of the apples by sticking a sharp knife into one of the slits and spearing a few pieces of apple. If it feels too crunchy, keep the pie in there a little longer. You want FIRM, but NOT crunchy.

It's done! Done, done, done!

See why it was so important to use a cookie sheet? What a mess! Also, had I not used so many apples, the crust would have stayed in place a little more. It sort of slid down, but it was still alllll good.

The syrup on the crust works miracles in the heat of the oven. It makes the crust taste like a cinnamon butter cookie, which, as you can imagine, tastes pretty darn good with an apple filling.

If you are physically able, let the pie rest for at least an hour for the filling to stabilize. If you don't want to do that, fine by me!

I certainly didn't.

Anyway, there's not much more to say. This is apple pie, the Wonder Wife way, and I double dog dare you to try it. Go forth, and conquer!

Alexis’s All-Butter Pie Crust
  • 2 1/2 cups flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tblp sugar
  • 2 sticks butter
  • 1/2 cup ice water
1. Mix together flour, salt, and sugar.
2. Work half the butter completely into the flour mixture.
3. Cut the remaining butter into the dough to form larger, pea-size pieces.
4. Add water, then knead dough. (Don't put the ice into the flour, though! It's just there to chill the water!)
5. Wrap into a top- and bottom-crust bunch, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least an hour. The crust can be frozen at this point, if desired.
6. Roll each chunk of dough into a circle to form the pie crust.

Apple Pie
  • 8 large Granny Smith apples
  • 3/4 cup salted butter
  • 4 1/2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 6 tablespoons water
  • 3/4 cup white sugar
  • 3/4 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees F (220 degrees C).
2. Melt the butter in a saucepan.
3. Stir in flour to form a paste.
4. Add the white sugar, brown sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg to the paste and WHISK WELL.
5. Add water (microwave to STEAMING HOT, if you want to be safe), stir until lump-free, and bring to a boil.
6. Reduce temperature and let simmer. Add vanilla.
7. Mix about 3/4 of the syrup mixture with the sliced apples.
8. Place the bottom crust in your pan. Fill with apples.
9. Cover with the top crust and brush the remaining syrup over the top of the pie.
10. Bake 20 minutes in the preheated oven. Reduce the temperature to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Continue baking for 45 to 55 minutes, until apples give fairly easily to a sharp knife.
11. Let rest for at least an hour. Enjoy!