Category Archives: other

Foodbuzz 24×24: The Make-Ahead Holiday Breakfast Party (Recipe: Salted Caramel Mocha Hot Chocolate)

I remember that Christmas morning with all the clarity of the glass icicles adorning our Christmas tree — at least one of which was shattered each year, an inadvertent Christmas tradition. Mom was sitting on the couch in her dramatic floral robe. The scent of coffee — which I loved, despite being averse to the bitter taste — filled the house. The rest of the family was milling about the living room, preparing to distribute the presents.

Suddenly, with a pine needley, jingle-jangly harrrrrumph!, the Christmas tree outright fell on my mother.

I mean, one minute that thing was standing tall, looking regal and festive, and the next it was on her head. She let out a startled cry and flailed from between its branches, sending ornaments and pine needles flying around the room.

Mom will disagree — and okay, my little brother’s First Christmas ornament broke, and that was sad — but this was quite possibly the most hilarious and lively Ruble Christmas morning to date.

Other Christmas mornings were notable too. There was the one where I found, after opening all my gifts, that I hadn’t received the one thing I wanted most: a pedal go-kart. I pasted on a happy face, but I was disappointed. I did have one present left, but it was a card and didn’t look promising.

The card turned out to be from Santa. I scanned it halfheartedly, and realized that it was a set of instructions. I was supposed to head upstairs to my sister’s room. Suddenly, my heart filled with hope. I charged up the stairs eagerly and shot through the door. There, in all its bright yellow glory, was my go-kart!

Other years brought a dose of holiday reality. When I was around 6, I opened my parents’ closet a few days before Christmas to put some clothes away. To my great surprise, I found myself staring at a gigantic dollhouse. I was so stunned that it took me a few moments to realize that this must be a poorly hidden Christmas present.

My tiny heart filled with glee as I briefly surveyed the three-story mansion, complete with furniture, a balcony, and landscaping. I’d always been enamored with miniatures, and now my parents had apparently decided to indulge my dollhouse obsession. I closed the door, thrilled at my discovery and determined to act surprised when I received my gift.

On Christmas morning, I ran downstairs and sure enough, the dollhouse was standing in the living room like a beacon of childhood happiness, boasting a big bow. I squealed joyfully and ran over to it, only to hear my parents call out, “That’s for your sister!

Those four words — so tiny! so brief! — cut me down faster than a fir tree on a Christmas farm.


family photo!

Then there was the Christmas morning I woke up and accidentally stabbed myself in the nose while trying to brush my hair out of my face. My entire family, probably bemused but not surprised by the fact that I’d managed to injure myself immediately upon waking, waited patiently while I tried to stop the bleeding.

I couldn’t make this stuff up.


salted caramel.

It’s true; Christmas morning has varied wildly over the years — exciting, disappointing, joyous, dangerous, absurd. One constant that we’ve all come to cherish, though, is Christmas morning breakfast. Every single year, without fail, my mother wakes up early, bakes an egg casserole, and rolls out dough to make fresh cinnamon rolls. While we’re all still counting sugar plums in our jammies, she’s hard at work in the kitchen.

This year, in her honor, I decided to design some recipes specifically for a holiday breakfast — dishes that in addition to being fancy and indulgent, could be prepared almost entirely in advance. To test my menu — that’s my excuse, and I’m stickin’ to it — I threw a Make-Ahead Holiday Breakfast Party, where I decked my halls and created a make-believe Christmas morning.

The party turned out to be special even beyond the menu. See, Mike and I have never spent a Christmas morning together, despite being in a relationship for most of the past 12 years.

I’m not complaining. So many families are separated on Christmas morning because of deployment, distance, and even death. Our situation is downright joyful by comparison. We’re separated each year because both of our families have Christmas morning traditions. We spend time with our own parents in the morning before meeting later to enjoy Christmas afternoon together. This year, though, my Make-Ahead Holiday Breakfast Party was the perfect way to create a “Christmas morning” for just us.

So yesterday morning, we donned our PJs and slippers in true Christmas morning fashion. I lit my first ever fire, put the finishing touches on all of the make-ahead dishes I’d prepared earlier in the week, and we sat down together to eat. Little Byrd sat between us eating her Christmas kibble. Our plates, however, were loaded down with Gingerbread Coffee Cake, Cinnamon Stix with Eggnog Glaze, Savory Bread Pudding with Cranberries and Fennel, Winter Breakfast Chili in Sourdough Bowls, and Buttered Toast with Bright Pepper Jam.

Between bites, we sipped this Salted Caramel Mocha Hot Chocolate. I’m not one for hot breakfast drinks, usually, but I’d make an exception for this thing any day. You coat the mug with hot, buttery salted caramel before pouring in the steaming mocha hot chocolate (where coffee plays a supporting role rather than the lead). The whole thing is topped with a mess of caramel whipped cream and a caramel drizzle.

I’ll be sharing the other make-ahead breakfast recipes with you throughout the coming weeks as you prepare for the holidays. In the meantime, share your favorite Christmas morning memories. Anyone have any harrowing experience with falling Christmas trees?

Salted Caramel Mocha Hot Chocolate



Recipe by: Willow Bird Baking, inspired by Savory Sweet Life, adapted from Martha Stewart (caramel and cream) and TLC
Yield: 2 big mugs of hot chocolate

I can’t really quantify how buttery, caramelly, chocolatey, and delicious this Salted Caramel Mocha Hot Chocolate is, so let me just say: mmmmmm. I don’t like coffee, but in this recipe it’s there to add richness and balance, and isn’t the dominant flavor. The recipe is designed to be completed mostly in advance, making it lovely for a holiday morning breakfast — or anytime you’re in a festive mood. Also, don’t be afraid of caramel. This recipe includes temperatures, and as long as you use a candy thermometer, you’ll be great!

Mocha Hot Chocolate Ingredients:
1 1/2 cups milk
1/2 cup brewed coffee
2 tablespoons semi-sweet chocolate chips
2 tablespoons bittersweet chocolate chips (I love Ghirardelli 60% cacao)
2 tablespoons sugar

Caramel Sauce and Cream Ingredients:
3/4 cup sugar
1/8 cup water
3/4 cup heavy cream
1/8 cup creme fraiche or sour cream
1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Pinch of coarse salt

Directions:
1 to 3 days in advance: Make the hot chocolate and the caramel. First, heat the milk, coffee, chocolate, and sugar in a saucepan over medium heat, whisking constantly until it comes to a boil. Remove it from the heat and whisk it to ensure it’s fully combined. Pour it into a bowl and let it cool, stirring periodically, before covering it and refrigerating it.

Make caramel sauce: Prepare an ice-water bath and set a heavy bowl in it. Heat the sugar and water in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat until mixture boils and sugar dissolves (don’t stir at all, or crystals will form and make your caramel grainy). Use a pastry brush to wash down sides of pan often to prevent crystals from forming. When the sugar starts to turn amber, you can swirl a couple of times to ensure it’s caramelizing evenly.

Cook until the sugar turns a dark amber (definitely use a candy thermometer here! You’re looking for it to read about 345 degrees), 5 to 7 minutes more. Immediately remove from heat, and slowly whisk in 1/2 cup cream (reserve the rest of the cream in the fridge). It will bubble up when you do this, so be careful. Return the caramel to medium heat, whisking and heating until the sugar melts completely and the mixture boils.

Remove the pan from the heat and pour the caramel into a bowl set in an ice-water bath. Let the caramel cool, stirring often, for 10 minutes. Whisk in creme fraiche or sour cream, vanilla, and salt. Cover and refrigerate this.

The morning of: Reheat the chocolate mixture in a saucepan over medium heat on the stove (or for a couple of minutes in the microwave), stirring often. In the meantime, whip your remaining 1/4 cup cream in a cold bowl to stiff peaks.

Coat the sides of two mugs with caramel sauce, reserving a little over half of it. Gently fold most of the rest of the caramel sauce into your whipped cream (reserving a little to drizzle on top). Fill caramel coated mugs with mocha hot chocolate. Top with caramel cream and drizzled caramel. Serve immediately.

Note: I received a stipend from Foodbuzz for creating this meal.

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Salted Caramel Chocolate Trifle

The first face to poke through the door of my classroom was that of an older woman. She was followed by one of my 7th grade students, who was followed by a white haired man. “Come in! Find a seat anywhere!” I called as I made last minute adjustments to the position of the projector.

Soon people were pouring into my room. They had arrived for Grandfriends Day, where Woodlawn students invited their grandparents (or grandpeople they’d “adopted”) to eat lunch with them and participate in their classes.

I’m going to go ahead and publicly admit that I was terrified of Grandfriends Day. What activity could I plan that both a 60-year-old and a 12-year-old might enjoy? We usually read novels or tackle projects that take weeks to complete. What concept could I introduce and cover in a meaningful way in 30 minutes?

Thankfully, I learned a trick at the beginning of my teaching career that always serves me well in these types of circumstances: when you’re scared of a new thing, get enthusiastic and give it an honest, earnest try. (This also works with baking, writing, and life in general.) So as the students and their grandfriends filtered into my room, I pasted on a smile.

Once they were all somewhat assembled, I took a deep breath and did something a little ridiculous. I turned on the projector and pressed play on this video (no, really, go watch it). Confusion turned into giggles as Maru the cat repeatedly attempted to gain access to a huge cardboard box. Young and old alike cheered when he finally sprang into its depths. I surveyed the classroom as they watched, concluding that funny YouTube clips were, indeed, a language that spanned the generations.

When the video ended, I posed a question: “What was Maru’s goal?”

“To get in the box!” the class cried in unison.

“Did he accomplish his goal the first time he tried?”

“No!”

“How about the second?”

“No!”

“Did he eventually get in the box?”

“Yes!”

Their enthusiasm was cute. They were still riding the wave of cheer that Maru’s antics had created. I distributed sheets of notebook paper as I issued their assignment: “Write about a time when you, like Maru, had a goal you couldn’t accomplish right away.”

Some dove at their paper with ardor while others thoughtfully drummed fingers or pencils on the desk. A short ten minutes later, though, everyone sat staring at their finished anecdote. I asked for volunteers to share, wholly unsure about the quality of work I was about to receive. I needn’t have been concerned, though. I have great students and, it turns out, they have amazing grandfriends.

One man told of learning to drive a car with a manual transmission and repeatedly killing the engine before finally getting the hang of it. Another told of being determined to get his garden planted despite the rain that threatened to prevent it. A third detailed how he and his construction crew had created a machine that could drive 16 nails a second to accomplish their goals more efficiently.

Two women discussed taking a pottery class and working for months before they produced the bowl or vase they’d envisioned. My students relayed sports goals they’d attempted to accomplish: a back set in volleyball, a backflip in gymnastics. Finally, one of my students raised his hand and asked to read his grandfather’s composition.

His grandfather had worked with a veterinarian as a young man and decided to enter into that profession himself. His application to NC State’s veterinary program, however, was denied. Undeterred, he entered the college for agriculture instead, and — my student articulated the following with great pride — became the first person in his family to graduate from college.

We were all quiet for a minute before one clap — and then another, and then another — began a round of applause for this man’s accomplishment. It was one of those moments (you teachers out there will know just what I mean) when I thought, “Oh, this is why I teach.”

Some folks that day had reached their goal by pushing through the obstacles. Others had used trial and error, learning from their mistakes and adjusting their actions. Still others had created a tool to help them accomplish their objective. That man, though, had courage and flexibility I sometimes lack. Instead of getting discouraged, he changed his goal. He created a path for himself that wasn’t what he’d originally envisioned. The pride his whole family felt at his accomplishment was a testimony to his success.

I wish I’d had that much grace this week when making this Salted Caramel Chocolate Cake. Yes, I said cake, because that’s what this dessert was supposed to be.

My goal was to create a towering chocolate cake drenched in gooey salted caramel and frosted with a smooth, fudgy icing. I saw that goal crumble before my eyes, however, when I opened my refrigerator and found all 6 layers sliiiiiiding down like they were preparing to do the limbo. The skewers I’d added for support were leaning right along with the cake.

I could pretend I handled it well, because this is the internet. For all you know I’m a supermodel who, apart from saving puppies and keeping a perfect house, never loses her temper. In the spirit of honesty, however, let’s just say that there was a solid 30 minutes of angst in my kitchen Wednesday night.

Then somehow I flipped a switch. I stopped trying to restack the layers, grabbed a spoon and my trifle dish (thanks for my trifle dish, Joyce!), and started building this bucket o’ cake. As I worked, my mood improved drastically.

Not only was my trifle pretty, less fuss to frost, and easier to transport, but it was also going to taste every bit as delicious as the cake I’d envisioned. The satisfied faces of my family around the Thanksgiving table the next day confirmed that it was a success.

Your turn: tell me about a time when you had a goal you couldn’t accomplish right away.

Salted Caramel Chocolate Trifle



Recipe by: Adapted from Martha Stewart
Yield: About a billion servings. Or at least 10-15.

This is actually a recipe for a 6-layer salted caramel chocolate cake. Feel free to attempt the cake and keep the trifle as a backup plan in case it doesn’t work — or just make the trifle from the beginning! Either way, the dessert you end up with will be rich, moist, and covered in the most delicious salted caramel and fudgy frosting. By the way, if you’re scared of making caramel, don’t be — just make sure you use a candy thermometer, which takes the guesswork out of the process.

Cake Ingredients:
3 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for pans
3 cups granulated sugar
1 1/2 cups unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder
1 tablepoon baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons coarse salt
4 large eggs
1 1/2 cups low-fat buttermilk
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons safflower oil
1 1/2 cups warm water
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

Caramel Ingredients:
4 cups granulated sugar
1/4 cup light corn syrup
1/4 cup water
2 cups heavy cream
1 teaspoon coarse salt
2 sticks cold unsalted butter

Frosting Ingredients:
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons Dutch-process cocoa powder
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons warm water
2 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar
Coarse salt
1 pound semisweet chocolate chips, melted and cooled
flaked sea salt, such as Maldon

Directions:
Note on scheduling: You can make the cake layers a few days in advance. Just wrap them and refrigerate them, and take them out and freeze them the day you’ll be cutting and assembling them (which will make them easier to work with). You can make the caramel up to three days in advance and keep it in the fridge — just let it come to room temperature for a couple of hours before using it. The entire cake can be assembled a day in advance and refrigerated, allowing its flavors to meld.

Make the cake: Cut 3 circles of parchment paper and use cooking spray as “glue” to adhere them to 3 9-inch round cake pans. Then grease the pans and the paper (I use Wilton’s Cake Release, but you could also use butter and flour). Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Sift the flour, sugar, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder, and coarse salt together in a mixing bowl. Beat the dry ingredients on low until combined before increasing the speed to medium and adding eggs, buttermilk, warm water, oil, and vanilla. Beat about 3 minutes until the mixture is smooth. Divide it among the three pans.

Place the pans in the oven and bake until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out with just a few moist crumbs, about 30-35 minutes. Rotate the pans about halfway through so they’ll bake evenly. Let them cool on a wire rack for about 10 minutes before turning them out onto sheets of wax paper and leaving them to cool completely. Stick them in the freezer if you’re going to make a cake; if you’re going for a trifle, just leave them out.

Make the caramel: Slice your butter into tablespoon chunks and set it back in the fridge for later. In a large saucepan, gently combine the sugar, corn syrup, and water. Once you put it on the heat, you won’t stir it anymore to ensure that the sugar will not crystallize and give you grainy caramel. Put a candy thermometer on the pan and heat it over high heat (no stirring!). Once the mixture starts turning amber around 320 degrees, you can gently swirl it every now and then (not stirring!) to ensure the sugar caramelizes evenly. Heat it until the mixture is dark amber (350 degrees on your thermometer), about 14 minutes. Remove it from the heat.

VERY CAREFULLY and slowly, pour in the cream. The mixture will bubble up and spatter so just be prepared and stand back — flaming sugar is no joke! Once you add the cream, whisk the mixture until it’s smooth before returning it to the heat and cooking until it reaches exactly 238 degrees (I know it sounds weird, but apparently this is crucial for the texture), about 2 minutes. Pour the caramel into a medium bowl and add the salt. Let it cool for about 15 minutes before whisking in the butter 1 tablespoon at a time (you’re definitely going to want to enlist another set of hands here; otherwise your arm will fall off).

Make the frosting: In a small bowl, whisk together the cocoa and warm water. In a separate bowl, beat together butter, confectioners’ sugar, and a generous pinch of coarse salt until pale and fluffy. Gradually beat in the melted chocolate and the cocoa mixture. Let this sit for about 30 minutes before you use it.

Assemble the cake (or trifle): If you’re making a trifle, simply tear up the cake and alternate layers of cake and 3/4 cup of caramel in your bowl, using a spoon or offset spatula sprayed with cooking spray to help spread the caramel. Do a layer of frosting in the middle of the dish and another layer on top before drizzling with caramel and sprinkling with sea salt.

Alternatively, if you want to try the cake, freeze your cake layers until they’re firmer (this makes them much easier to work with). Use a long serrated knife to level their tops and cut each layer in half. Place one layer on a serving platter and spoon 3/4 cup of caramel on top, using a spoon or offset spatula sprayed with cooking spray to help spread the caramel. Place another cake layer on top and repeat the process, alternating layers of cake and caramel, leaving the top cake layer uncovered. For goodness’ sake, place dowels through your cake (I’d say at least 4), mark them at the height of the cake, remove them, and cut them down to size. Then replace them in the cake. I’d also wrap the entire cake tightly in plastic wrap before chilling it to prevent sliding. Refrigerate it until it’s set (about an hour) before frosting the top and sides of the cake and sprinkling with sea salt.

Serve the trifle or cake: I think this dessert is delicious no matter what, but it’s absolutely out-of-this-world if you heat a serving of it for about 30 seconds before spooning a big hunk o’ vanilla ice cream on top. I didn’t try this with a cake slice, so I don’t know that it’d hold together — another benefit of a messy trifle.

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A Dozen Pumpkin Recipes from Willow Bird Baking

My pumpkin craze is far from over, y’all. Just a fair warning.

The pumpkin shortage over the past two seasons must have really scarred me, because it seems like every time I pass a display I pick up a couple more cans. I don’t mind; my pumpkin stash has come in handy plenty o’ times. Here are a few of my favorite pumpkin recipes, hand-picked to be perfect for your Thanksgiving meal. Enjoy!

1. Jack O’ Lantern Whoopie Pies
2. Pumpkin Spice Pull Apart Bread with Butter Rum Glaze
3. One-Skillet Gooey Pumpkin Cookie Cake

4. Mini Pumpkin Pies
5. Pumpkin Cheesecake Stuffed Snickerdoodles
6. Pumpkin Streusel Swirled Cream Cheese Pound Cake

7. Pumpkin Cheesecake Bread Pudding
8. Vegan Pumpkin Nut Bread
9. Easy Sopapilla Pumpkin Cheesecake Bars

10. Chocolate Pumpkin Truffles
11. Pumpkin Pecan Streusel Breakfast Braid
12. Browned Butter Pumpkin Croquemcake with White Chocolate Chai Mousse

…and you guys know there’s more where that came from. Pumpkin and I are BFFs.

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Fresh Open-Faced California Sandwich

This past weekend I attended the Foodbuzz Blogger Festival in San Francisco, California, 2,700 miles away from my home. Traveling alone is always a meaningful, reflective experience for me, and over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be sharing vignettes that I hope are meaningful to you, as well.

. . .

“Can you tell we’re tourists?” the gossamer-haired man asked the woman at the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) information desk after she guided him through the process of purchasing a ticket. He chuckled toward his smiling wife, and they walked over toward the ticket machine.

I walked up to the information desk, wondering if I was about to annoy the attendant by asking a question she’d already been asked a hundred times this morning. Like everyone else I’d met so far in the Bay City, though, she cheerfully offered detailed advice. With some help from the tourist couple who’d gone before me, I successfully purchased a subway ticket and stepped onto the escalator to descend into the rumbling belly of the city.

After a posing a few more clueless questions to kind San Franciscans, I stepped onto a BART train and settled into my seat with a self-congratulatory sigh. We sped off only to hear a robotic voice a few seconds later announcing the next stop: “Montgomery.”

Oh. Montgomery? I looked at the map on the wall. I was trying to head to the Mission area to visit the gorgeous, iconic Tartine Bakery. Montgomery, however, was in the opposite direction — toward Oakland across the bay. Once again I turned to a stranger. “If I’m trying to get to 16th and Mission–” I began.

“Oh, you’re headed the wrong way,” she said with a smile. “You needed the train on the other side of the tracks.” It suddenly dawned on me that of course the trains, like cars, would go in two different directions. I felt a little sheepish.

“Oh, thanks! I guess it’s a good thing I realized after only one stop,” I said.

“Definitely. You’re fine. You’re not under the water yet!” she replied.

Her reassurance at once comforted me and alerted me to an alarming fact that I hadn’t considered about the trains: they go under the water. Under the San Francisco Bay. Seriously? I could hear my mom’s voice in my head saying, “What if there’s an earthquake while you’re under there?!” I jumped off at the next stop and changed trains, relieved that I didn’t have to go under the water until I visited Oakland later in my trip.

A couple of hours later I stood at a bus stop, blissful after devouring a frangipane croissant, a gruyere and black pepper gougere, and a Mexican Coke at the communal table in Tartine. I hurriedly grabbed $2 out of my pack as the bus pulled up, but I had the good sense to pause on the bus steps and ask, “Do you head toward Lombard?”

I expected the bus driver to wave me onto the bus, impatient with silly tourist questions, but again, I was met with generosity: “Oh, you want the 22 that runs on the other side of the street.” He pointed to the bus stop across the way. A kind man at the bus stop confirmed the bus driver’s words, “Just wait over there and another bus will be along in a moment.” Buses, it seemed — like trains! and cars! and everything else, Julie! — ran in both directions. Since you might be wondering at this point, I promise I’m not dumb.

I walked across the street, once again redirected by the kindness of others.

Are you plowing ahead on your own power lately? Personally, I never grew out of that independent toddler stage of life — the one where you’re constantly insisting, “I’ll do it myself!” There’s nothing quite like being alone in a strange city across the country from your home to break you of that intransigence, though.

I found my way to Tartine and then up to the Golden Gate Bridge on Friday because I was willing to accept the generosity and support of others. (And if I hadn’t found my way to Tartine, what a tragedy that would’ve been!)

Reach out for help when you need to. You don’t have to handle everything alone. And hey, you’re not under the water yet.

. . .

What better way to kick off my California posts than with a gorgeous open-faced California Sandwich? It’s just as healthy as it looks, but don’t worry — it doesn’t lack a thing in the taste department. In fact, it’s one of the best sandwiches I’ve ever made in my kitchen. It’s a fresh, tangy combination of flavors that you just feel good eating. I made it on sourdough bread, which I love — and how appropriate for all this talk of San Francisco.

Was there a time in your life when you’ve had to break down and accept the help and kindness of others?

Fresh Open-faced California Sandwich



Recipe by: Adapted from Ezra Pound Cake
Yield: 2 open-faced sandwiches

This quick sandwich is cool and refreshing. The bright California salad is comprised of tomatoes, cucumbers, cilantro, and avocado bathed in lime juice. It rests on a tangy chive spread and a thick, toasty slice of sourdough bread. I was pleasantly surprised at how delicious the finished product was considering how little effort went into assembly. This sandwich would make the perfect lunch or light dinner.

Chive Spread Ingredients:
2 tablespoons plain yogurt
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh chives
Salt and pepper, to taste

California Salad Ingredients*:
1 avocado, peeled, pitted and diced
1 tomato, cored and chopped
1 cucumber, peeled, seeded and diced
Squeeze of lime juice
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
Salt and pepper, to taste
*This makes enough salad for 4 sandwiches, if you wanted to put a smaller amount on each, but I really heaped it on. I wanted more salad and less bread per sandwich. Yum!

Other Things You Need:
2 slices of thick sourdough bread
1/2 cup alfalfa sprouts

Directions:
Make the chive spread by mixing the yogurt, mayonnaise, chives, salt, and pepper in a small bowl. Set aside. Toast the 2 slices of bread in toaster or in a buttered skillet over medium heat. Lay these out on a plate.

Make the California salad by tossing avocado, tomato, cucumber, lime juice, cilantro, salt, and pepper together in a bowl. Spread each slice of bread with half of your chive spread and pile on half of the alfalfa sprouts. Then top with half of the California salad, piled high. I ate mine with a knife and fork and considerable enthusiasm.

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Quick Dinner: Garlicky Peanut Noodles with Crunchy Vegetables

I was a mess of elbows and ankles today as I ran around school, the grocery store, the bank, and my apartment desperately trying to tug loose ends together.

In the store, I deftly ran over my own foot with a grocery cart just minutes before dropping not one but two 12-packs of diet Sunkist.

People stared. I acted nonchalant: Whatever, don’t act like you’ve never thrown some soda around. Totally under control over here.

I’m now doing laundry, packing Byrd’s things, packing my things, fixing up lesson plans, adjusting my budget, wrestling with Squirt’s stupid filter, and trying to find a moment to shave my legs. Oh, and writing a blog post, naturally.

All of this craziness came about because tomorrow I’m waking up at 3 in the flippin’ morning, collecting my mountain of luggage, and heading to San Francisco (with flowers in my hair! Except not really.) The 3rd annual Foodbuzz Blogger Festival is this weekend, and I can’t wait to eat lots of good food and see some sweet people.

Well, I can totally wait for the airplane part, though. In fact, can we just delete that part altogether? I’m one of those hyperventilating-just-a-little, having-occasional-panic-attacks, making-weird-faces people you hope you don’t have to sit next to on the plane. It’s cool; as long as I take my pills I should be able to limit the panic to some periodic weeping in the window seat.

I kid, I kid. The pills actually knock me straight out. I may snore, but at least I won’t be convulsing?

Anyway, back to the current chaos. Even with all the hubbub tonight, I threw together a homemade dinner. I’ve been eating this quick, 15 minute pasta dish like it’s goin’ out of style since I saw it on Not Without Salt. It checks all of my most important boxes for a weekday meal: it’s low calorie, it’s almost effortless, it’s tasty, and it’s piled sky-high with fun toppings.

The peanut butter and soy sauce together form a hearty, savory sauce that’s saved from straight-up bitterness by a few glugs of white wine and some gorgeous carrot curls. I threw on some green onions, chopped peanuts, lime juice, and tons and tons of bean sprouts before mixing the whole dish together and digging in. I love that gorgeous salty soy sauce flavor in every bite.


crunch.

All right, my loves. On that crunchy, delicious note, I’m off to ‘Frisco (I know, don’t worry. I’ve already read all the blogs about how much locals hate it when tourists call it that) for a food adventure. Stay safe, and stay off airplanes, you crazies! If people were meant to fly, God would’ve given us jet engine biceps. Or helium-filled love handles. Or, like, wings or something.

P.S.: My apartment will be occupied and supervised while I’m gone. Probably by robots that throw themselves into bonfires so they can incinerate you in a fiery embrace. Nice try, thieves of the interwebz!

P.S. 2: AHHHHHHHH AIRPLANES.

Garlicky Peanut Noodles with Crunchy Vegetables



Recipe by: Adapted from Not Without Salt‘s recipe inspired by Nigel Slater
Yields: 4 servings

These noodles are bathed in a salty, garlicky peanut sauce before being topped with an array of crunchy toppings: carrot curls, bean sprouts, green onions, chopped peanuts, sesame seeds. A spritz of lime juice and a good toss finishes the dish in just 15 minutes. I love simple weekday meals.

Ingredients:
3 tablespoons peanut butter (or tahini if you’d rather, but I haven’t tried it)
1/3 cup soy sauce
2 tablespoons rice wine (or dry white wine)
1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
1 1/2 tablespoons Sesame oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon chopped shallot
4 servings’ worth of spaghetti (or other long noodle)

Optional Toppings:
carrot curls (just take a vegetable peeler to a peeled carrot to get these)
bean sprouts (boil these for a few minutes and then rinse in cold water for safety)
chopped green onions
chopped peanuts
sesame seeds
squeeze of lime

Directions:
Boil salted water over medium-high heat and cook pasta to al dente according to package instructions. Drain, return to pan, and set aside.

In a food processor, combine the garlic and shallots and process until fine. Scrape down the sides of the processor bowl with a spatula and then add the peanut butter, soy sauce, wine, vinegar, and sesame oil and process until combined. Add this sauce to pasta in pan and toss to coat.

Serve pasta on plate topped with shredded carrots, green onions, chopped peanuts, sesame seeds, bean sprouts, and a slice of lime.

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Dark Chocolate Pumpkin Truffles

Despite the fact that I’ve been inexplicably bought and paid for by the Son of God Himself, I feel guilty all the time. Call it a complex.

adorable napkins courtesy of sweet Erin

Sometimes it’s Byrd’s fault. She does this thing when I’m leaving for work every morning — do your dogs do this? — where she ramps up her cute factor by 200%. Suddenly she seems fluffier and snugglier. She’ll kiss my ankles and roll over for belly rubs. She’ll look up at me with eyes that I could swear weren’t that adorable yesterday.

It’s as if she’s saying, “You’re not gonna LEAVE me, are you mom? You couldn’t possibly leave your innocent wittle baby puppy, could you?”

But every morning, I break her heart by telling her goodbye and shutting her up in my bedroom. Then I walk out to my car feeling like a heel.

Other times it’s my own fault that I feel guilty. I’ll have a mile-long list of things I need to accomplish, but I’ll allow myself 5 or 10 minutes to check Facebook. And, you know, I have to check Pinterest. And what if something important happened in the world? I’ll read CNN online for just a minute or two. And what if something important happened to Reese Witherspoon? I’ll hop over to People.com for a bit. Of course I need to check my site traffic. And gosh, it’s been forever since I’ve checked Facebook . . .

Suddenly it’s 1 o’clock in the morning and my to-do list suddenly looks a lot like an accusation staring up at me from my notepad.

Last night my guilt was even more justified. I always feed my turtle, Squirt, in a plastic storage container on the kitchen counter. I usually keep an eye on him so he doesn’t climb out and get hurt, but yesterday I was just so preoccupied. I had piles of 7th grade essays, 6th grade quizzes, and 6th grade projects to grade. Modern Family was playing in the background. Byrd was playing in the floor. My head was lost in a cloud of thesis statements and Gloria’s Colombian accent.

Suddenly, I heard a thump. I walked into the kitchen and found Squirt not in his feeding tank on the counter where I left him, but standing in the middle of the kitchen floor, looking around thoughtfully.

He had fallen off the counter.


quick, think of something happy. like pumpkin truffles.

MY BABY FELL OFF THE COUNTER BECAUSE I WAS TOO BUSY TO WATCH HIM CLOSELY. After bursting into tears, repeatedly checking all of his little turtle limbs for injuries, hugging him (much to his dismay), and investigating the scene of the accident, I sat in floor, awash in a sea of guilt. I promised myself I’d be a better mother. I thanked God profusely that he’d fallen on the carpet and not the linoleum. I called Mike and confessed my negligence.

Meanwhile, Squirt swam around in his tank and chomped at carrots, pleased as a plum to be back in the water and apparently none the worse for the wear.

The truth is, guilt is useful insofar as it leads us to make a change. The discomfort I felt after Squirt’s fall has convicted me to never leave him unsupervised again. For some people, discomfort about the way they’re living is what leads them to submit to Christ and be changed. It’s a good thing.

But beyond that, guilt is a disease. Once you’ve made a change, lingering guilt serves no purpose but to cripple you. It’s a lying voice telling you that you’re unworthy, incapable. Don’t believe it.

Today as Squirt basks under his sun lamp, I’m going to ignore the deceitful voice of guilt. I’m going to believe that I’m the best mommy for that reptile. I’m going to give myself a blank slate. And I might even try to cut down on the Facebook…

…after I post another status update about pumpkin truffles.

Since we’re on the topic of guilt, here are some truffles for you to eat way too many of — and to forgive yourself for later!

They’re worth it. In this super simple recipe, rich pumpkin cheesecake middles are coated in indulgent dark chocolate. The resulting truffles are adorable and totally poppable. Give yourself a break and make some dessert.

What kinds of things do you feel guilty about sometimes?

Chocolate Pumpkin Truffles



Recipe by: Adapted from Whole Foods
Yields: About 30 truffles

A creamy pumpkin mixture spiced up with gingersnap and graham cracker crumbs is rolled into a ball and coated with rich dark chocolate. These delectable truffles would make a lovely autumn gift since they’re so cute and poppable, but don’t feel guilty saving them all for yourself!

Ingredients:
2 cups dark chocolate chips (see note below recipe)
1/2 cup white chocolate chips
1/4 cup pumpkin puree
3/8 cups finely ground gingersnaps
3/8 cup graham cracker crumbs
1 tablespoon powdered sugar
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Pinch of orange zest (I used a dash of orange extract)
2 ounces cream cheese, softened
pretzel sticks (optional, for pops)
sprinkles or extra cookie crumbs (optional, for decoration)

Directions:
Make the pumpkin middles: In a large bowl, melt the 1/2 cup of white chocolate chips according to instructions on package (usually in the microwave on half power in about 30 second intervals, stirring between each). When the white chocolate is melted, let it cool down for a bit before adding the gingersnap crumbs, pumpkin, graham cracker crumbs, sugar, extract or zest, cinnamon, salt and cream cheese. Beat this mixture until it’s completely smooth. Cover it and refrigerate it for about 2 hours until it’s firm enough to roll into balls.

Roll ’em: Roll the pumpkin mixture into balls and place them on a wax-paper lined baking sheet. Refrigerate them for another hour to let them firm up. When you’re ready to make your truffles, melt your dark chocolate according to the instructions on package (usually in the microwave on half power in about 30 second intervals, stirring between each).

Insert the pretzel sticks: (Obviously skip this step if you’re making truffles and not pops!) Take a few pumpkin balls out of the fridge at a time. Poke the end of pretzel sticks into the melted chocolate and stick one in the center of each pumpkin ball, placing them back in the fridge to set. Repeat with all of the pumpkin balls.

Dip ’em: Take out a few pumpkin pops at at time (if you just inserted pretzel sticks, use the ones that have been chilling the longest) and carefully dip the balls into the melted chocolate while holding the pretzel, using a spoon to help you coat them. Gently bounce and turn the pop (while supporting the whole pretzel stick) to let the excess drain off. Sprinkle on some sprinkles, graham cracker crumbs, or gingersnap crumbs if desired, and then stick the pop into a foam block in the fridge to dry. Alternatively, if you’re making truffles instead of pops, use two forks to dip the pumpkin ball into the chocolate and pass it between the forks to drain the excess. Roll it carefully onto a sheet of wax paper in the fridge to dry. Chill the pops about an hour, until they’re completely dry and set.

NOTE ON COATING CAKE POPS OR TRUFFLES: When it comes to coating cake pops or truffles, there are several options. My favorite coating is usually Candiquik or candy melts, because they have a lovely texture when melted, dry quickly, and don't melt if they sit out of the fridge. In this recipe, though, I chose to use plain dark chocolate to coat my truffles. Though it takes longer to dry and can get melty in your hands even once it's set, I wanted the taste of rich dark chocolate to contrast with the pumpkin. My chocolate of choice is always Ghirardelli 60% cacao chips — they are seriously delectable.

OTHER TIPS:
– If you need to thin your chocolate or candy melts, stir in a scant spoonful of shortening until it’s melted. Add more as needed until desired consistency is reached.
– Don’t ever put water or water-based substances in chocolate or candy melts, or they’ll seize and become unusable.
– Keep your bowl of melted chocolate or candy melts inside of a larger bowl filled halfway with hot water. The heat from the water will keep your chocolate liquid while you’re dipping all of your truffles, so that you won’t have to keep reheating.
– See this video for a visual of how to dip cake pops and truffles.

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Naked Vegan Tacos with Corn Relish and Cilantro-Lime Slaw

Do not make naked vegan tacos while naked.

Yes, I know it’d be clever. I know it’d be a fun story to tell your friends (who would then promptly decline all future dinner invitations). But if one splatter of hot oil goes awry, all amusement you had hoped to gain from the experience will promptly disintegrate (along with patches of your skin, I’m just sayin’).


Make me with clothes on, please.

Also, do not assume Naked Vegan Tacos are made specifically for naked vegans. You may certainly eat these if you are a naked vegan, but clothed vegans are also welcome to partake. Even you omnivorous folks (clothed or otherwise) can enjoy this recipe if you’re so inclined.

This is an equal opportunity blog, y’all.

So why are Naked Vegan Tacos called Naked Vegan Tacos? ‘Cause they’re not wearing their taco shells! All the lovely stuffins of a vegan taco are included, but engineered for your fork instead of your hands.


Exposed.

This quick dinner was a take on sweet potato and black bean tacos, a dish I’ve had on my to-make list forever. Just as I expected, the sweetness of the roasted sweet potatoes was fantastic with the heat and cumin in the black beans. The cilantro-lime slaw added acid and crunch. The corn relish — boasting bright corn, tomatoes, and creamy hunks of avocado — cooled things off.

This huge, cheap, flavorful meal was so satisfying; I ate it over the course of 4 days and loved every bite, even though the avocados were oxidizing (i.e. turning all brown and creepy) after the first day.


Not vegan anymore.

Since it’s full of veggies, only 451 calories per serving, and includes components to make up complete proteins, I’m also going to decree that this meal is healthy (though I’m no expert). Serve it atop your favorite grain for an even more filling dinner. Heck, you could even go crazy and serve the tacos in flippin’ taco shells. You know, if you’re that kind of person.

What’s your favorite fresh vegetable?

Naked Vegan Tacos with Corn Relish and Cilantro-Lime Slaw



Recipe by: Adapted from Joy the Baker and Paula Deen
Yields: 4 servings

The focus of this meal is flavor. Roasted sweet potatoes sweeten, black beans with cumin bring the heat, cilantro-lime slaw adds crunch and acid, and a bright corn relish with creamy avocado and juicy tomatoes lends freshness. Filling my plate with all of these lovely bits and pieces and then spending my entire dinner creating various perfect “bites” was so satisfying — especially since it was also healthy.

Sweet Potatoes Ingredients:
2 sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into small cubes
1 tablespoon olive oil
salt and red chili flakes to taste
juice of 1 lime

Cilanto-Lime Slaw Ingredients:
2 heaping cups finely shredded cabbage
1/4 cup finely diced yellow onions
2 heaping tablespoons chopped cilantro
juice of 2 limes
salt and red chili flakes to taste

Black Beans Ingredients:
1 teaspoon olive oil
1/4 cup finely diced yellow onion
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 (15-ounce) can black beans, drained and rinsed
juice of 1 lime

Corn Relish Ingredients:
2 cups cooked corn, fresh or frozen
1 avocado, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved
1/2 cup finely diced red onion
1 teaspoon finely diced jalapeno (or to taste)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper

Optional Extras:
Fried or poached egg (obviously this makes it un-vegan)
salsa, fat free sour cream, green onions, fresh cilantro, limes

Directions:
Make sweet potatoes: Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. In a bowl, toss sweet potato cubes with oil, salt, chili flakes, and lime juice. Spread out on a baking sheet. Roast 40-45 minutes (stirring/flipping gently a couple of times during the process) or until tender and brown. Remove the potatoes from the oven and set aside.

Make Cilanto-Lime Slaw: While the potatoes are roasting, place shredded cabbage, onions, cilantro, lime juice, salt, and chili flakes in a bowl. Toss them together and set aside to let the cabbage soften.

Make Black Beans: Heat oil in a saucepan over medium-high heat. When the oil shimmers, add the onions and cook them for a few minutes until they’re soft and translucent. Add the cumin and garlic and toast these for a few seconds until fragrant. Finally, add the beans and lime juice and cook until they’re heated through.

Make the corn relish: Mix the corn, avocado, tomatoes, jalapenos, and onion in a large bowl. Whisk together the oil, lime juice, cilantro, salt, and pepper in a separate bowl. Pour it over the corn mixture and gently toss.

Assemble: Serve your naked tacos by heaping sweet potatoes and black beans on a place and garnishing with a big spoonful of cilantro-lime slaw and corn relish. Accompany your meal with a dollop of sour cream, fresh cilantro, chopped green onions, and salsa. If you fancy some added protein and aren’t vegan, you can top with a poached or over-easy fried egg.

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