Soft Pretzels

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When I was but a young punk, wasting my time in the malls of Milwaukee, WI, I ate lots of junk food. McDonald's fries aside, my two favorites were Cinnabon and Auntie Anne's original pretzels (interestingly, those are also the things with the strongest odors...another mystery solved). Oh, those pretzels. So salty and crispy on the outside, chewy on the inside, and oh-so-buttery. Even now, when I step foot in a mall just a few times a year, it's dangerous for me to go near Auntie Anne's. To a food junkie, that stuff is not unlike crack.

Well, the good news is that I can now make my OWN delicious pretzels, thankyouverymuchAuntieAnne's. And what's more, I can make them as big or as little as I see fit! I can also be as naughty as I want with them.....which I may have done when I made two big ones and stuffed them with sharp cheddar. :-/

Soft Pretzels (modified a bit from Paula Deen via The Village Cook)
-1/2 c warm water
-1 package active yeast (or 2 1/4 teaspoons)
-1/4 c melted butter (cooled)
-1 egg yolk (reserve the white)
-1/4 cup sugar
-1 teaspoon salt
-1 cup milk
-5 cups flour
-3 tablespoons baking soda, dissolved in 1/2 cup warm water
-Salt and pepper, or other spices for topping (oregano, garlic, red pepper flakes, sugar-cinnamon, etc)
-Optional: Cheese for stuffing!

1. Dissolve yeast in warm water and let stand for 5 minutes until bubbly. To the bowl, add melted butter, egg yolk, sugar, salt, and milk. Stir well.

2. Using a stand mixer with a paddle attachment, add 1 cup of flour to the liquid, mix well, and add another cup. Keep doing this until you put in about 5 cups (or slightly less if the dough is getting too dry). Switch to the dough hook attachment and knead for 5 minutes. (**Note: My dough was VERY stiff. I tried kneading it by hand for awhile, but it was really difficult to do. I added more warm water to try to help the dough, but that just made a wet mess, so I ended up having to coat with more flour anyway. :p The moral of the story is that you will probably not end up with a silky smooth bread dough, and that is, apparently, OK.**)

3. Place dough in an oiled bowl with a cloth over the top. Let rise 1 hour. (**Note: Okay, so mine didn't "rise" at all. But, you do have over 6 cups worth of dough, so, it's not like you need it to.**)

4. Preheat oven to 425. Cut your dough into however many pretzels you want. I think I got about 15-18 of varying size. Roll each ball of dough out into a rope, of whatever thickness you want your pretzel to be (thinner ropes for thin, big pretzels, etc). Shape into a pretzel form.
--Note: If you want stuffed pretzels, form the ropes and then flatten them with your hand or a rolling pin. Put the stuffing down the center of the flattened rope, leaving room on the sides. Fold the edges over and then flatten again to make sure the filling is sealed in. Rub into rope shape again and form into pretzel shape. Whala! Cheesy pretzel!

5. In a smaller bowl, dissolve the baking soda and water by mixing well. Dunk each pretzel in the mixture after you're done shaping them (remembering to stir the mixture with a whisk before dunking). Place the finished pretzels on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or a silpat mat.

6. Mix the reserved egg white with 1 tablespoon water. Brush the tops of the pretzels with the egg wash and sprinkle with whatever spices you want. Bake for 10-12 minutes, or until golden-brown. I highly recommend eating them straight out of the oven.

Verdict: AWESOME. You should make these right now (so easy!) and enjoy them with a nice cold beer. These taste like soft pretzels that you get from Auntie Anne's or at stadiums...the bitter tang of baking soda mixed with sharp cubes of salt, and a buttery soft crumb make a truly great pretzel. Me? I'm imagining impressing my friends with these babies at our next get together. ;)

Greek Burger with Garlic-Oregano Fries

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I have SO slacked on putting up this post. I made this on Sunday! But this week has been flooded with all sorts of work stuff that has left me completely drained at the end of each day. And then all I want to do is put on my jammies and crawl into bed (something I was ready to do at 7:30 last night...because I'm not 90 years old or anything...).

This is an excellent healthy revamp of a classic bad-for-you meal. Who doesn't like a nice, juicy burger with a side of salty, crispy fries? Here, I've swapped beef for ground turkey, and deep-fried fries for baked. The result? No loss of flavor, and a big, full belly! This is a winner of a dinner all around.

Greek Burgers (from me)
-1 package (about 1.25 pounds) lean ground turkey
-8 ounces frozen spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
-4 tablespoons crumbled feta (or more, or less, depending on the intensity of your feta-fetish)
-2 large cloves garlic, minced
-1 tablespoon fresh oregano, finely chopped
-1/2 teaspoon lemon juice (or more, if you want a more lemony flavor)
-3/4 teaspoon salt
-1/4-1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1. Preheat broiler on high.

2. Place all ingredients in a mixing bowl, and incorporate thoroughly. Shape into 4 equally sized patties and place on a broiler pan coated lightly with cooking spray (optional).

3. Broil for 15 minutes or until cooked through. You may try flipping them over after 10 minutes and cooking for an additional 10 minutes to try to get patties browned on both sides. Serve immediately after they cool for a couple minutes.

-Serves 4

Garlic-Oregano Fries (also from me)
-3 baking potatoes (about 2 pounds), sliced into thin fry slices
-3 tablespoons olive oil
-2 cloves garlic, minced (or more! I always encourage upping garlic for an increased deliciousness quotient.)
-2 teaspoons fresh oregano, chopped finely
-1 teaspoon salt
-1/4-1/2 teaspoon pepper (I used 1/2 teaspoon, because I like things a little spicy)

1. Preheat oven to 350.

2. Put all ingredients in a large mixing bowl. Mix thoroughly so that the fries are coated.

3. Spray a baking sheet (with edges!) with cooking spray. Pour the fries out onto the pan and spread into one layer. Bake for 25 minutes or until crispy, turning over once for even browning. Serve immediately.

-Serves 4 or more

**NOTE: If you're making both things at once without a double oven, you might wonder how I worked this out logistically. I put the fries in first for about 15 minutes or so, while I was busy making the burgers. When I was ready to put the burgers in, I flipped the switch to "broil" and put the burgers on the middle rack, and the fries on the lower rack. When the burgers were done, I took them out and let them sit, but switched the fries to the middle rack again for a few minutes of direct broiler-crispiness. It worked great.

Sausage, Veggie & Goat Cheese Stuffed Shells

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If you're anything like me, you saw "goat cheese" in the title and said, "SOLD!"

I made up this recipe a year or so ago to dispose of a bunch of leftover ingredients in our fridge and pantry. So, if you go out and buy ingredients specifically for this recipe, know that the ingredients tend to be in lots of other family-friendly recipes. You can also mix up the ingredients however you'd like. In fact, I might suggest trying a different type of marinara sauce. Whatever works for you and yours! The only thing I find to be the crux of essentialness in this recipe is the goat cheese. Please leave that in there. It's so good and creamy.

Sausage, Veggie & Goat Cheese Stuffed Shells (by me)
-Olive oil for sauteeing (about 1 tablespoon)
-2 Sweet Italian Turkey Sausages, casings removed
-1/3 cup white onion, minced
-1/3 cup zucchini, finely chopped
-1/3 cup (or more) red pepper, finely chopped
-2 cloves garlic, minced
-8 ounces frozen spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
-1/2 teaspoon salt
-1/4 teaspoon pepper
-1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
-1 teaspoon Italian seasonings
-4 ounces goat cheese log, softened
-20 jumbo pasta shells, cooked to package specifications
-1 jar Sweet Basil Marinara sauce

1. Preheat oven to 350 and get your pasta cooking.

2. In a skillet, heat olive oil over medium-high heat. Add sausages, crumbling with spatula. When cooked through, add all vegetables and seasonings, mixing thoroughly. Saute for a few minutes, until vegetables are tender.

3. Place the mixture in a large mixing bowl. To the mixing bowl, add goat cheese log. Mix until everything is coated with the goat cheese.

4. Once the jumbo shells are cooked and cooled down with cold water, begin stuffing them. It's easiest to use a regular spoon to assist you in stuffing--but your hands will definitely get covered in delicious cheesy goodness anyway. You may want to be a little conservative when stuffing the shells, so that all 20 can be filled. You can always go back and add more to shells if needed.

5. Cover the bottom of a 13x9 pan with a thin layer of marinara sauce. Place the stuffed shells seam side down in the pan. Cover well with the remaining sauce.

6. Cook in oven, uncovered, for 25 minutes. Let stand for 5 minutes or so before serving.

-Serves 4

Satisfyingly Simple Chocolate-Peanut Butter Cupcakes

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Watch out...Badgers like cupcakes...

There are some days in a woman's life where all she wants is cupcakes and beer. Ladies, youknowwhatimsayin.

All week long, I pined for what would come on Friday night: Frosted cupcakes, beer, and Badger hockey.

You may remember how I love Badger hockey. Well, below is just one example of why--the 2006 NCAA Championship Games against Boston College. The video is extremely long and is partly made up of photo montages--but just click to about 4:58. We were in the last 15 seconds or so of a game in which we were only 1 point ahead. Our goalie, Brian Elliott, was amazing all night long, and continued to be so until the end. It's hard to tell from the video's vantage point, but in the last 2-3 seconds of the game (you can hear people counting down), Boston College shoots and hits the goal post, deflecting it back out onto the ice. You can see Brian Elliott fall down trying to get it. I was not at the game, but watching it with my fellow rabid hockey buddies at home. When the puck went "DING!" off the goal post, our hearts stopped collectively for 2 seconds. And then we went absolutely nuts (it sounded like the stadium did, actually). Brian Elliott stood there for a few seconds, seeming to not comprehend the fact that they had just won--until his teammates came streaming toward him. It was an exemplary moment in an otherwise spectacular 2 years of being a season ticket holder.


Anyhoo--you now might better understand my love of Badger hockey, and why I felt it necessary to commemorate it being aired in Illinois with cupcakes and beer.

Back to the cupcakes: These are the easiest cupcakes in the entire universe to make--and you probably have all (or most of) the stuff you need to make them in your pantry. They only require 1 bowl. To top it off (pun not intended), I got real lazy with the frosting and did a semi-homemade deal. It was awesome.

Satisfyingly Simple Chocolate-Peanut Butter Cupcakes (adapted from Martha Stewart)
-3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
-1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
-1 1/2 cups sugar
-1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
-3/4 teaspoon baking powder
-3/4 teaspoon salt
-2 large eggs
-3/4 cup warm water
-3/4 cup buttermilk (**I used normal 2% milk out of sheer laziness. It worked great.**)
-3 tablespoons safflower oil (**I used vegetable oil.**)
-1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
-1/2-3/4 cup peanut butter chips, chopped

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line standard muffin tins with paper liners; set aside. Sift together cocoa powder, flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, and salt into a large bowl. Add eggs, warm water, buttermilk, oil, and vanilla, and mix until smooth, about 3 minutes. Scrape down the sides and bottom of bowl to assure batter is well mixed.

2. Divide batter evenly among muffin cups, filling each 2/3 full. Bake until tops spring back when touched, about 20 minutes, rotating pan once if needed. Transfer to a wire rack; let cool completely.

-Makes 18-24 cupcakes

Lazy Day Frosting
-1 can frosting
-1/2 cup powdered sugar (give or take)

1. Put ingredients in the bowl of a stand mixer with a whisk attachment. Whisk on high until ingredients are thoroughly incorporated and the frosting stands up on its own on the end of the whisk. Place bowl in the freezer for 5 minutes. Put in a pastry bag and start piping away!

You can also try doing fancy piping, if you're so moved.

Verdict: Laziness for the win! These cupcakes turned out great for how little work they entailed. The frosting is VERY sweet, of course (duh--obviously), but it just makes it seem like they came from the store. Except the cake is better than if it came from the store, so it's a win all around. By the way, I'm sad to report that the Badgers (who are not the same Badgers who so awesomely won the Championship game) had one hell of a crushing loss against the University of Minnesota (our arch nemeses!) last night. It was a good thing I had the cupcakes and beer after all, because that was depressing.

Daring Cooks: Cold Noodle Salad and Tempura

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Hi, I'm Heather, and I'm an amateur deep fryer.

(Hi, Heather.)

All my life, I've been intensely afraid of deep frying. All attempts to 'fry' things have resulted in burned/too oily/not crispy/downright scary items that get tossed in the garbage. Then there is the inevitable weeping and damning myself for not being better at life. If it weren't for the Daring Cooks, I might never have faced a vat of hot oil again and learned to embrace the fear.

(Applause.)

But seriously. Frying stuff is scary. But NOT scary if you have a simple candy/fry thermometer and good instructions! I really had low hopes for tempura because of my track record. Lo and behold, by following the instructions and monitoring the temperature, even *I* can make a crispy, deep fried vegetable.

Wanna know the best part? It was excellent practice for one of the scariest bits of my baking challenge: Doughnuts. Stay tuned for that!

Emeril's Cold Noodle Salad (Emeril Lagasse)
-1/4 cup honey
-1/4 cup soy sauce
-4 teaspoons sesame oil
-1 pound soba noodles, cooked until tender and refreshed in ice water
-1/2 cup thinly sliced green onions, cut on the bias
-1/2 cup bean sprouts
-1/2 cup thinly sliced carrots
-1/2 cup cucumber, peeled, seeded, and thinly sliced
-1 cup lightly crushed toasted cashews
-3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
-2 tablespoons black sesame seeds

1. In a small bowl, whisk together honey, soy sauce and sesame oil. To the noodles, add green onions, bean sprouts, carrots, cucumber, cashews, cilantro, sesame seeds, and the soy mixture and mix thoroughly.

Verdict: This recipe isn't new to me, but it hasn't stopped in the deliciousness department. It is the perfect no-cook recipe for summer bbq's. Fresh, tasty, and healthy to boot!

Tempura Vegetables (from pinkbites and itsybitsyfoodies)
-1 egg yolk from a large egg
-1 cup (240 ml) iced water
-½ cup (120 ml) (70 gm) (2½ oz) plain (all purpose) flour, plus extra for dredging
-½ cup (120 ml) (70 gm) (2½ oz) cornflour (also called cornstarch)
-½ teaspoon (2½ ml) (2½ gm) (0.09 oz) baking powder
-oil, for deep frying preferably vegetable
-ice water bath, for the tempura batter (a larger bowl than what will be used for the tempura should be used. Fill the large bowl with ice and some water, set aside)

Very cold vegetables and seafood of your choice ie:
* Sweet potato, peeled, thinly sliced, blanched
* Carrot, peeled, thinly sliced diagonally
* Pumpkin, peeled, seeds removed, thinly sliced blanched
* Green beans, trimmed
* Green bell pepper/capsicum, seeds removed, cut into 2cm (¾ inch)-wide strips
* Assorted fresh mushrooms
* Eggplant cut into strips (traditionally it’s fanned)
* Onions sliced

1. Place the iced water into a mixing bowl. Lightly beat the egg yolk and gradually pour into the iced water, stirring (preferably with chopsticks) and blending well. Add flours and baking powder all at once, stroke a few times with chopsticks until the ingredients are loosely combined. The batter should be runny and lumpy. Place the bowl of batter in an ice water bath to keep it cold while you are frying the tempura. The batter as well as the vegetables and seafood have to be very cold. The temperature shock between the hot oil and the cold veggies help create a crispy tempura.

2. Heat the oil in a large pan or a wok. For vegetables, the oil should be 320°F/160°C; for seafood it should be 340°F/170°C. It is more difficult to maintain a steady temperature and produce consistent tempura if you don’t have a thermometer, but it can be done. You can test the oil by dropping a piece of batter into the hot oil. If it sinks a little bit and then immediately rises to the top, the oil is ready.

3. Start with the vegetables, such as sweet potatoes, that won’t leave a strong odor in the oil. Dip them in a shallow bowl of flour to lightly coat them and then dip them into the batter. Slide them into the hot oil, deep frying only a couple of pieces at a time so that the temperature of the oil does not drop.

4. Place finished tempura pieces on a wire rack so that excess oil can drip off. Continue frying the other items, frequently scooping out any bits of batter to keep the oil clean and prevent the oil (and the remaining tempura) from getting a burned flavor.

5. Serve immediately for the best flavor, but they can also be eaten cold.

Verdict: Awesome! I used two types of squash (summer and something like zucchini, but started with a 't'....damn my memory!), carrots, and sliced white onion. I won't lie--the onion was my favorite part. Mmm....tempura onion rings....

The February 2011 Daring Cooks’ challenge was hosted by Lisa of Blueberry Girl. She challenged Daring Cooks to make Hiyashi Soba and Tempura. She has various sources for her challenge including japanesefood.about.com, pinkbites.com, and itsybitsyfoodies.com

Honey Cashew Granola

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Ever since I made Molasses-Almond Granola, I've been trying out new variations every week. You would think I'd get sick of granola, but you would be wrong. It's a snap to make during the weekend (less than 1 1/2 hours total), lasts all week long for 2 people eating it every morning, and it probably costs under $20 for 2-3 batches when you shop in the bulk bins. Buying high quality granola gets expensive. Why not make your own?

I got a little hankering for cashews instead of the standard almonds (which I do adore, don't get me wrong). Cashews are just so sweet and buttery, and I knew they would lend themselves well to granola. My standard liquid ratios for the past few weeks have been heavy on maple syrup, and Greg suggested upping the honey instead for this batch. The man is a genius. I don't mind telling you that this might be the best batch so far.

Honey Cashew Granola (by moi)
-3 1/2 cups rolled oats
-1 cup raw, hulled sunflower seeds
-1 1/2 cups cashew pieces (cheaper than whole! woohoo!0
-1/3 cup honey
-1/4 cup maple syrup
-1/4 cup vegetable oil
-1 teaspoon cinnamon
-1 teaspoon bourbon vanilla
-1/4 teaspoon salt
-1 teaspoon barley malt syrup
-1 generous teaspoon blackstrap molasses
-1/2-1 cup raisins, craisins, dried blueberries, or other dried fruit (here, I used a mixture of craisins and dried blueberries, which gives a nice tangy bite!)

1. In a large mixing bowl, mix oats, sunflower seeds and cashews thoroughly.

2. In smaller mixing bowl, whisk together honey, maple syrup, vegetable oil, cinnamon, vanilla, salt, barley malt syrup, and molasses. Combine well.

3. Pour the honey mixture over the oat mixture and combine well with a wooden spoon. It may take a few minutes of constant stirring to coat each bit evenly.

4. On an edged sheet pan lined with a silpat mat (or parchment paper), pour the granola out, evening it with the spoon. Bake in an oven preheated to 300 for 1 hour, taking care to stir the granola every 10 minutes to prevent burning.

5. Cool on the sheet pan on a cooling rack. When cool, stir in dried fruit. Store in an airtight container.

-Makes at least 14 1/2-cup servings.



West African Peanut Soup

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Have I mentioned my wonderful husband who not only cooks for me, but actively enjoys cooking? He has an arsenal of tried and true recipes--both his own creations and recipes that he's modified over the years. One such modification (Gregification?) is this West African Peanut Soup, which comes from the "Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant" cookbook. This is unbelievably delicious. It's so hearty and nutritious and has a nice spicy kick to it. Also, I just realized that it's vegan! It's so rich, creamy, and flavorful that I would never have guessed.

The recipe below is typed up with commentary from Hubster. He is the best, dontcha think?

West African Peanut Soup (from "Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant")
Note: I definitely recommend all the changes I made to the recipe (noted below). Especially, add tofu to the onion when you sauté, and (unless you are wimpy) double the cayenne--it's a pretty mild recipe otherwise. Finally, I recommend not puréeing the whole thing--the texture is rather unpleasantly viscous, and you get more diverse flavors if you don't.

-2 c. chopped onions
-8 oz. extra firm tofu, cubed (not in original recipe)
-1 tbsp. peanut or vegetable oil (definitely worth it to buy peanut!)
-1 tsp. cayenne or other ground dried chilies (original recipe calls for 1/2 tsp.)
-2 tsp. grated peeled fresh ginger (original recipe calls for 1 tsp.)
-1 c. chopped and peeled carrots
-2 c. chopped and peeled sweet potatoes
-4 c. vegetable stock or water (I recommend the stock; you can buy it, or I have a recipe if you want it; can also substitute all or part chicken stock)
-2 c. tomato juice
-1 cup smooth peanut butter (I highly recommend old fashioned un-homogenized PB, with the oil and solid separate--otherwise, the soup is too sweet)
-1 cup scallions or chives (the recipe notes these are essential, not a garnish, and I agree!)

1. Sauté the onions (and tofu) in the oil until onions just translucent.

2. Stir in the cayenne and fresh ginger. Add the carrots and sauté a couple more minutes.

3. Mix in the potatoes and stock (or water), bring to a boil, and then simmer for about 15 minutes, until the vegetables are tender.

NOTE: I skipped the puréeing the second time I made it, and liked it a lot more. Instead, I just added the tomato juice in, turned off the heat to prevent scorching, and then stirred in the peanut butter until smooth and well-mixed. If you want to purée, here's the original instructions:

4. In a blender or food processor, purée the vegetables and cooking liquid with the tomato juice. Return the purée to the soup pot. Stir in the peanut butter until smooth.

5. If necessary, reheat the soup gently to prevent scorching of the peanut butter (use a heat diffuser if you want). If you want a thinner soup, you can add more water or stock.

6. Serve topped with plenty of scallions (or chives).

-Serves 6-8

BBA: Light Wheat Bread

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The name of Peter Reinhart's "Light Wheat Bread" is probably a misnomer. I think he meant that it was "light on the wheat," instead of being a whole wheat bread. Of course, the name implies that it is light in calories--or is not heavy in density. While there is nothing offensive caloriewise in this recipe, I have no idea if it's actually healthy or not. And this bread is far from a light and flaky, namby pamby loaf. This is dense, chewy, crusty sandwich bread. I just sat down with a lightly buttered piece, but am already imagining a higher purpose....say, roast beef and horseradish. We'll be enjoying it with a bowl of Greg's marvelous "West African Peanut Stew" tonight, and I am sure it will be nothing short of spectacular.

It's probably worth mentioning that this recipe comes together really easily. I would definitely recommend it for the beginner bread maker.

Light Wheat Bread (from "The Bread Baker's Apprentice" by, Peter Reinhart)
-2 1/2 cups unbleached bread flour (**I accidentally used 1 cup of AP flour before I realized the mistake. I think it might've helped, since the dough was super stiff anyway.**)
-1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
-1 1/2 tablespoons granulated sugar or honey
-1 1/2 teaspoons salt
-3 tablespoons powdered milk
-1 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast
-2 tablespoons shortening or unsalted butter, at room temperature
-1 1/4 cups water, at room temperature
**NOTE for a beginner bread maker: If you only have "active dry yeast" and not instant yeast, you must proof the yeast. This means putting warm water (approximately 115 degrees--not room temperature!), yeast (and sugar if you want) together in a bowl, mixing, and letting sit for 5 minutes until bubbly. This is very important. The recipe only uses instant yeast, which is quite different. IF you use this method, do as described above, and then add it to the dry ingredients with the shortening/butter and honey (if using).

1. Stir together the bread flour, whole wheat flour, sugar (if using instead of honey), salt, powdered milk, and yeast in a 4-quart mixing bowl (or in the bowl of a stand mixer). Add the shortening/butter, honey (if using instead of sugar), and water. Stir (or mix on low speed with paddle attachment) until the ingredients form a ball. If there is still flour in the bottom of the bowl, dribble in additional water. The dough should feel soft and supple. It's better for it to be a little too soft than stiff and tough.

2. Sprinkle flour on the counter. Transfer dough and begin kneading (or mix on medium speed in the stand mixer with a dough hook). Add more flour if needed to make a firm, supple dough that is slightly tacky but not sticky. Kneading should take about 10 minutes (6 by machine). Lightly oil a large bowl and transfer the dough to the bowl, rolling around to coat in oil. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap.

3. Ferment at room temperature for 1 1/2-2 hours, or until doubled in size.

4. Remove the dough and press it by hand into a rectangle about 3/4" thick, 6" wide, and 8-10" long. From the short end, roll it up tightly, stopping to pinch the seams together with every revolution. Don't shape or taper the ends. Place in a lightly oiled 8.5x4.5" loaf pan. Mist the top of the loaf with spray oil and loosely cover with plastic wrap.

5. Proof at room temperature for approximately 90 minutes, or until the dough crests above the top of the pan.

6. Preheat the oven to the 350 with the rack on the middle shelf.

7. Place the loaf pan on a sheet pan and bake for 30 minutes. Rotate the pan 180 degrees for even baking, and continue baking 15-30 more minutes, depending on your oven. The finished loaf should register 190-F degrees in the center, be golden brown on top and sides, and sound hollow when thumped on the bottom.

8. When the bread is finished baking, remove it immediately from the loaf pan and cool it on a rack for at least 1 hour, preferably 2, before slicing and serving.

-Makes 1 loaf

Classic Mac & Cheese

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Is there anything better than creamy, full-fat, indulgent Macaroni & Cheese? No? I didn't think so.

Frankly, "real" Mac & Cheese is something I avoid making due to its insanely high calorie count. I usually get my jollies from a Cooking Light Chipotle Mac recipe. And while that's great, grand, and wonderful, there is an unparalleled level of joy that extra-sharp cheddar in a creamy, mustard sauce brings me.

I'd also like to throw this out there for your consideration: It's too damn cold to not eat fatty food. That's my excuse, and I'm sticking to it.

Classic Mac & Cheese (from the incomparable Reeni, who got it from Betty Crocker)
-8 ounces uncooked Elbow Pasta
-1/4 cup Butter + 1 tablespoon
-1/4 cup All-Purpose Flour
-3/4 teaspoon Sea or Kosher Salt
-1/4 teaspoon Black Pepper
-1/2 teaspoon Ground Mustard
-1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire Sauce
-1 teaspoon Dijon Mustard (**I used stone ground mustard...it was awesome.**)
-2 1/2 cups Milk
-3 cups Shredded Extra Sharp Cheddar Cheese, 1/2 cup set aside for topping (12 ounces)
-1/3 cup Cornflake crumbs

1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 2-quart or 8x8-inch casserole pan.

2. Cook and drain elbows to al dente according to package directions. Pour into casserole pan and toss with a tablespoon of butter.

3. Meanwhile in a medium saucepan melt butter over low heat; whisk in flour, salt, pepper, both mustards, and Worcestershire. Cook over low heat, whisking
constantly until the mixture is smooth and bubbly. Slowly whisk in milk and heat to boiling whisking continuously. Boil for one minute and stir in cheese. Stir
until all the cheese is melted. Remove from heat.

4. Pour evenly over the top of the elbows. Sprinkle with 1/2 cup cheese set aside, and then with the crumbs.

5. Bake uncovered 20-25 minutes until bubbly and golden.

-Serve 4-6

Verdict: THIS is a Mac & Cheese recipe. It's what I want, but usually don't find, in restaurants. It's got a super creamy, luxuriously velveteen sauce, which has a nice-yet-understated flavor. I don't see a reason to experiment with other 'classic' Mac & Cheese recipes, because this has everything you could want in a traditional dish. Make your nagging conscience feel better, and toss some green veggies on the side.

BBA: Ciabatta (poolish version)

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In my post last night, I mentioned something about "Gus' 16-Hour Pulled Pork on Homemade Ciabatta" during the Super Bowl. There is something you should know about my friend Gus: He loves to make sandwiches. A lot. He is a true master of the art of sandwich building. Even though he's inches away from getting his PhD, I've told him to quit and become a full time sandwich-making-guy. That's how good the sandwiches are.

So, because I'm flogging myself over the head with a baking challenge this year, and because Gus loves sandwiches, we came up with pulled pork and ciabatta rolls. There was a lot of drooling for about a month until this actually came to fruition. Gus used a crockpot to cook a pork shoulder with onions and ginger ale for about 12 hours, and added Stadium Sauce for the last 4 hours. The pork literally melted in your mouth.

As for the ciabatta? Well... it was fine, but it was not ciabatta. I had many problems with Peter Reinhart's recipe. In trying to find an online version, it appears that a lot of people have problems with the poolish version. The most common complaint is one of my major issues--there are very few holes, and very small crumbs. That is just simply not ciabatta, no matter what the crust looks like. My other major problem was presumably my fault somehow (because no one else's dough looked like this), and that was my dough was in no way soft or sticky. It was super heavy and kind of hard. Obviously, there was too much flour. The end product was a really heavy, soft roll (which worked well for pulled pork, but it ain't ciabatta!). I know now by looking at other people's doughs online, that the dough should be wet, wet, wet. Really wet. Too wet to handle. Well, live and learn.

Mmm....sandwich....

Ciabatta - Poolish Version (from "The Bread Baker's Apprentice" by Peter Reinhart)
Poolish:
-2 1/2 cups unbleached bread flour (11.25 oz.)
-1 1/2 cups water (12 oz.) -- at room temperature
-1/4 teaspoon instant yeast

Dough:
-3 1/4 cups Poolish (essentially, all of it)
-3 cups unbleached bread flour (13.5 oz.) **NOTE: One site said to use AP flour here instead of bread flour, as it resulted in yielding larger holes in the bread. Something to consider!**
-1 3/4 teaspoons fine sea salt (preferred) -- or table salt
-1 1/2 teaspoon instant yeast
-6 tablespoons - up to 3/4 cup buttermilk (milk or water can also be used)

1. In a medium bowl, combine all the poolish ingredients and mix well to be sure the flour is fully hydrated. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and set aside for 3-4 hours to ferment, or until the sponge becomes bubbly and foamy. Immediately refrigerate. Poolish will keep for up to 3 days in the refrigerator.

2. Remove the poolish from the refrigerator at least 1 hour prior to mixing up the dough to take off the chill.

3. Into the bowl of your mixer whisk together the flour, salt and yeast. Add the poolish and 6 tablespoons of the water. Using the paddle attachment with mixer on low speed, mix until ingredients begin to form a sticky ball, about 3-4 minutes. Switch to dough hook, increase speed to medium, and mix/knead for 2-3 additional minutes.. The dough should just clear the sides of the bowl and be very soft, wet and sticky, and stick to the bottom of the bowl.

4. Sprinkle enough flour onto the kneading surface to make a bed about 8 inches square. Using a bowl scraper or spatula dipped in water, transfer the sticky dough to the bed of flour and proceed with the stretch-and-fold method. Stretch the dough to twice its size, then fold the dough over itself like a business envelope. Mist the top of the dough with spray oil, again dust with flour, and loosely cover with plastic wrap or in a large food grade plastic bag.

5. Let dough rest 30 minutes, then repeat the stretch-and-fold process again. Mist with spray oil, dust with flour and re-cover. Allow dough to ferment on the counter for 1-1/2 to 2 hours. It should swell considerably but not necessarily doubled in size.

6. Carefully remove the plastic from the dough and shape the dough (**this is the point at which you would cut it into rectangular thirds for 3 loaves, or several pieces for rolls!**), placing the loaves into the troughs of the couche. Mist the dough with spray oil again and dust with more flour. Cover with a clean kitchen towel. Proof for 45 to 60 minutes at room temperature or until the dough has noticeably swelled.

7. While the loaves are proofing, prepare the oven for hearth baking by placing an empty sheet pan in the bottom of the oven, and preheat to 500 degrees.

8. Generously dust a peel or the back of a sheet pan with semolina or cornmeal. VERY GENTLY transfer the dough pieces to the peel or pan, using a bench knife or pastry scraper to support. Lift the dough at each end and tug the dough out to lengths of 9-12 inches. If the dough bulges, dimple it down lightly with your fingertips.

9. Load the loaves into the oven---either directly onto the baking stone or tiles, or else bake the loaves directly on the sheet pan. Pour 1 cup of hot (simmering or boiling) water into the pan in the oven, taking care to avoid the steam. Shut the oven door immediately. After 30 seconds, spray the sides of the oven with water, then shut the door. Repeat two more times. Reduce the oven temperature to 450 degrees and set timer for 15-20 minutes (depending on your oven and the way it bakes). Check half-way through the baking for uneven browning---if so, rotate the loaves 180 degrees and finish baking.

10. The bread should register 205 degrees in the center and should be golden in color---the flour streaks will also give it a dusty look. Transfer the bread to a cooling rack and allow to cool at least 45 minutes before serving.

There were some holes...but not enough to be ciabatta!

Yields: 2 large loaves, 3 small loaves, or 6-10 buns (depending on how big you want them to be)

Hot Cheesy Reuben Dip

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I will admit: I'm not a huge football fan. But it seems that after I moved to Illinois, my resolve to prove my love for all things Wisconsin heightened intensely. This included watching the last few Packers games, complete with much yelling and beer and chest-clutching excitement.

Naturally, being that I am married to a Packers fan, and my friend Gus is the biggest Packers fan ever, I watched the Super Bowl with them. And we didn't just watch the Super Bowl. We watched it Wisco-style. That means "Heart Attack Style." We had 4 dips (and there were only 4 people). We had 16-hour slow cooked pulled pork sandwiches on homemade Ciabatta. We had asiago-beer bread. We had a pound bacon as an appetizer. Excess, thy name is Wisconsin.

One such dip that we enjoyed while grabbing our cholesterol-clogged chests in fear and joy, was this Reuben Dip. Fortuitously, I saw this dip on Brown Eyed Baker's blog a day or two before the big game. I knew it would be perfect for us. And it was.

Hot Cheesy Reuben Dip (from Brown Eyed Baker)
-8 ounces cream cheese, softened
-6 ounces swiss cheese, shredded
-4 ounces deli sliced corned beef, diced small
-1/2 cup thousand island dressing
-1/2-3/4 cup sauerkraut with caraway seeds, drained and squeezed dry

1. Preheat oven to 400.

2. In a bowl, mix cream cheese, 3 ounces of swiss cheese, corned beef, and thousand island dressing. Pour into the bottom of a pie plate and spread evenly. Place sauerkraut over the top. Top off with the rest of the swiss cheese.

3. Bake for 15 minutes, until the cheese is melted and bubbly. Serve with pretzel crisps, beer bread, or cocktail rye squares.

Verdict: This was seriously fabulous. Everyone raved. And clutched their chests.

Chocolate Chip Pancake Muffins

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Did you wake up this morning, see all the ice-packed snow on the ground, hear the wind howling, and think to yourself, "Holy crap. I want to put myself into a diabetic coma"? I know I did. And how fortunate that I just happened across this recipe for Chocolate Chip Pancake Muffins on Baked Bree's blog yesterday! I had all the ingredients in my kitchen--and whenever that happens (which is rare), I take it as a sign. It's like when I find jeans that actually fit....must buy them immediately, regardless of the price. Of course, you might argue that if I continue eating these Pancake Muffins, I'll never be able to find jeans that fit again....and you'd be right.

Chocolate Chip Pancake Muffins (from Bakerella originally, but I used Baked Bree's version)
-1 cup flour
-1 teaspoon baking powder
-1/2 teaspoon baking soda
-1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
-1/4 teaspoon salt
-2 tablespoons sugar
-2/3 cup buttermilk
-1 egg
-2 Tablespoons pure maple syrup
-2 Tablespoons melted butter
-1 teaspoon vanilla
-1/2 cup milk chocolate chips

Glaze:
-1 cup powdered sugar
-2-3.5 Tablespoons pure maple syrup

1. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, salt, and sugar.

2. In another small bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, egg, maple syrup, butter, and vanilla. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients.

3. Mix the muffin batter until just combined. Add the chocolate chips. Fold together.

4. Line a 24 cup mini muffin tin with paper liners OR use cooking spray to coat each cup, and put about a tablespoon of muffin batter in each one.

5. Bake the pancake muffins in a preheated 350 degree oven for about 8-10 minutes.

6. While the muffins cool slightly, whisk together the powdered sugar and maple syrup. If it is too thick, add a little more syrup or water. Dip the top of the muffin into the maple syrup glaze. Let excess drip off, tapping your wrist with your other hand to expedite the process if necessary.

-Makes 24 delicious pancake muffins

Verdict: Very sweet due to the glaze, but not inedibly so. If you don't like too much sweetness, these would be excellent on their own, or with a little side of maple syrup for light dunking. Obviously, these would be super popular with children, or adults who are childish...like me!

Orecchiette with Kale, Bacon, and Sundried Tomatoes

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So, let me tell you what happened to ME last night.

I had tickets to see Snoop Dogg. That's right--THE Snoop Dogg, here in Urbana-Champaign, at a smallish venue. At $30/ticket, I thought it was the deal of the century (more or less). I was so excited, guys. It's a rare day when culture arrives in this city, and I was ready for it. I was a little peeved that the doors opened at 9 (because, c'mon...I'm an old lady at heart), but figured the show would start around 10 and I could be outta there by 12.

Did I mention that, like 3/4 of the country, we were hit with some pretty crapass weather last night (and today, and tomorrow)? This meant that we couldn't really drive to the venue, and instead had to haul ourselves over there on the bus in the icy, sleeting, freezing cold. Allllll of this would have been worth it, but...

Guess who didn't show?

That's right.

Mildly entertaining DJs spun while people filed in. Around 10:30, it finally looked like we were getting somewhere, when two people from Snoop's entourage started rapping onstage. I kept thinking, "Aaaany minute, now, Snoop will join them. Yes. Any minute now." But he didn't. Eventually, those two left the stage. An hour and a half elapsed, and still, no Snoop. Being that it was 12:30am on a MONDAY, I stormed out in a pissy huff. Obviously, I am thrilled about paying $70 for an empty stage. Thanks, Snoop, for a magical evening.

Before we had a maddeningly long and boring evening, I whipped up this Cooking Light pasta dish. After this weekend's fat-filled shenanigans, I figured a calorie-light supper was in order. The issue, of course, is that I still had a package of bacon in my fridge. Cooking Light loves using bacon in marginal doses, and I can definitely get behind that.

This meal is super-fast and easy to make, and has a sharp, unique flavor. It's not a meal for kids, to be sure, but grown ups will love it. Even grown ups who have been soured by an evening of no show big ticket acts. ;)

Orecchiette with Kale, Bacon, and Sundried Tomatoes (from Cooking Light)
-8 ounces uncooked orecchiette pasta
-5 cups bagged prewashed kale
-2 slices center-cut bacon
-1/4 cup oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes, drained and roughly chopped
-1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
-3 large garlic cloves, chopped
-1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
-3/8 teaspoon salt
-1 ounce Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, shaved
-2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1. Cook pasta in boiling water 8 minutes or until almost tender. Add kale, and cook 2 minutes. Drain in a colander over a bowl, reserving 1/2 cup cooking liquid.

2. While pasta cooks, cook bacon in a large skillet over medium-high heat 4 minutes or until crisp. Remove bacon from pan with a slotted spoon; crumble and set aside. Reduce heat to medium-low. Add sun-dried tomatoes, crushed red pepper, and garlic to drippings in pan; cook 1 minute, stirring frequently. Add pasta mixture, reserved 1/2 cup cooking liquid, black pepper, and salt to pan; toss to combine. Top pasta mixture evenly with bacon and cheese; drizzle evenly with lemon juice.

-Serves 4
-Calories: 350, Fat: 9.2, Protein: 14.7, Carbs: 53.7