Friday, October 24, 2014

Bacon and Cheese Pierogi Casserole

Warning: There was no way to make this look pretty on a plate. I did not even try. But don't let that deter you from recognizing the deliciousness and awesomeness of this casserole!

My only experience with authentic, homemade Pierogies happened a couple months ago when the kids and I met Paul for lunch at a tiny Polish diner near his office. The little diner advertised their homemade Pierogies all over interior and exterior walls of the tiny establishment so we naturally had to give them a try. I was also curious to see how homemade Pierogies measured up to my beloved Mrs. T's frozen Pierogies. In a matter of minutes, the waitress brought us a plate-sized Pierogi floating in a pool of grease with a melting pat of butter on top. I, being the snob I am, pushed it away. I could already feel my stomach rejecting the pile of grease in front of me. Paul, on the other hand, dug right in and declared the dish "fantastic." Afterwards, he kept teasing me about it, saying: "When you ordered a Pierogi, what did you expect - a salad?"

Fast forward to October 22nd of this year, the feast day of Saint John Paul II. I really wanted to make something Polish in remembrance of one of my favorite saints. When I asked my Polish husband what kinds of authentic Polish dishes he liked, the only thing he could come up with was cabbage rolls, kielbasa, and pierogies. The Pierogies sounded the most appealing to me, but I honestly did not feel like rolling out the dough and stuffing individual Pierogies. I decided to go the simpler (and admittedly less-authentic) route and make a "casserole-style" Pierogi. This is nothing like what your Polish grandmother used to make, as I'm sure she did not run to the Italian section of her grocery store to buy a box of lasagna noodles before making her Pierogies! I got the idea for this dish from some friends of ours who made something similar for their son's high school graduation party. I know I did not make it exactly how they did - I'm pretty sure they did not add any bacon. But, I was really wanting some bacon. It's been months. Paul did not object to this idea, so I used this recipe as an excuse to buy some bacon.

The casserole was easy to assemble and ready in no time! We served it with a simple tossed salad and lots of sour cream. I was amazed that both kids cleaned their plates! Matthew, who has historically spent the majority of his childhood gagging his way through mashed potatoes, ate his entire meal without incident. Emma picked out the bacon - but Paul the vulture was ready to swoop down and take care of her scraps: "I can't let good bacon go to waste!"

If you are feeling indulgent, want something to eat the night before a marathon, or are just in the mood for some good, old-fashioned, not-quite-Polish comfort food, than this is the dish for you!

*If you are wondering why I keep capitalizing the word "Pierogi", I do not have a good answer for you. It's something I'm doing subconsciously and am too lazy to go back and correct.

Bacon and Cheese Pierogi Casserole

5 large potatoes, peeled and quartered
1 tablespoon salt
1/2-3/4 cup milk warmed
3 tablespoons butter
1/2 lb. bacon, chopped
1 large sweet onion, chopped
6 cloves garlic, minced
8 ounces cheddar cheese, minced
6 lasagna noodles
Salt and Pepper
Sour Cream (for serving)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Place the potatoes in a large stockpot and fill with enough water to cover by 1-inch. Bring to a boil, Add the salt to the water, stir, and allow the potatoes to cook until tender. Drain well.

Push the potatoes through a ricer into a large bowl, Add the warm milk and butter and enough salt and pepper to taste. Make sure the potatoes are very well seasoned! You can also add some garlic powder and paprika if you like. Set aside.

Cook the bacon and onion together in a large skillet over medium heat until the bacon is crispy. Add the garlic and continue to cook for an additional 30 seconds. Drain the onion-bacon mixture on paper towels.

Cook the lasagna noodles according to the packaged directions. Once done, cool the noodles under cold running water.

To layer the casserole: Spread half the potatoes on the bottom of a 13x9 casserole dish. Top with 1/3 of the cheese and half of the onion-bacon mixture. Place a layer of lasagna noodles over the top, Repeat with the potatoes, cheese, onion/bacon, and lasagna noodles. Sprinkle the top layer of lasagna noodles with the rest of the cheese.

Bake in the preheated oven for 30-45 minutes, or until the cheese has melted and the casserole is warmed throughout.

Serve topped with sour cream! Enjoy!

Thursday, October 9, 2014

First Haircuts

Emma had her first haircut the other day!

However, this trim was neither planned nor wanted.

Matthew has been bringing home pages for him to practice cutting with scissors. The pages have various diagonal lines and shapes drawn in thick black marker for him to cut out using his kid scissors. The other day, both him and Emma were engrossed in The Animal Alphabet. Emma was down on the floor near the television playing with blocks while she watched and Matthew was up at the table practicing with the scissors. Paul and I were cleaning the kitchen after breakfast.

A few minutes later, Paul glanced over to see Matthew and Emma standing next to one another in front of the television, completely engrossed in the program. Matthew had the scissors in his hand. Emma was wearing a tight, Alfalfa-style pony tail on the top of her head. As if in slow motion, we saw Matthew glance at Emma's ponytail and, with an impish grin spreading across his face, swiftly snip off the tip of it with his scissors. Emma, still completely engrossed in The Animal Alphabet, did not care or notice when little bits of her fine, brown hair came raining down. But Paul and I freaked!

We sent that naughty child up to his room and told him the scissors were off limit for the time being. After he had shut the door and was out of earshot, we both started laughing. It was funny! And honestly, Emma is such a wild child right now with her hair anyway that this trim is hardly that noticeable. However, I want to drive the point home to Mr. Matthew that he really should not ever try to play barbershop on his sister again - next time he might completely bald her!

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Five Favorites: The Kid Edition

While I'm still not feeling up to baking and cooking or even thinking about food, there is no reason why I should not update everyone on what's going on with the kids by linking up with all the other lovelies for another Five Favorites post. The children are as busy as ever and already lamenting the cooler weather we've been having. They miss playing outside all the time! Here is a quick collection of their recent favorite toys and distractions.

1. Davy Crockett

Everyone remembers this Disney classic, right? Matthew and Emma have both been really into these movies lately. Since we are some of the only people on this earth who still have a VHS player, our family has bequeathed us various VHS movies from our childhood. Paul's parents gave us both Davy Crockett movies and our kids have been hooked since the first viewing. I was really surprised that the movies actually amuse Emma as well, but she will bring me one of the cases asking: "Crockett? Crockett?" I wish I was joking.

Matthew sings the theme song every day - while getting dressed, while using the bathroom, while cleaning his room. All the time. He's been singing it so much, that I found myself dreaming while that song played through my mind. If his obsession continues until his next birthday, he might be getting a coonskin cap and a toy rifle.

Will Davy Crockett make it out of the Alamo?!?
*Spoiler Alert*

2. Baby Animals Book

This is Emma's favorite board book. She is obsessed with books anyway and will sit in my lap and let me read to her for hours, but this book has completely enchanted her. The pictures are super adorable of various baby animals. She is also into the concept of "babies" anyway, so I think it fascinates her to see what baby animals look like. Whatever it is, she sleeps with this book, insists on studying it like a textbook, and carries it with her pretty much everywhere. Sad reality is, we do not actually own this book. It is from the library, and I have just exhausted the maximum renewal limit (she's had it since June). We'll be returning it this week and I'll be trying to get her hooked back on Moo, Baa, LaLaLa - her previous favorite.

3. Magnetic Drawing Board

This toy is a blessing and a curse. Both kids love to doodle but sometimes end up coloring on surfaces they shouldn't. So, I got one of these drawing boards from the store - mainly for Emma, since she has the most difficulty - but Matthew has really fallen in loves with it. They use it constantly. And fight over it constantly! Matthew especially will get quite angry at Emma because he would have just finished drawing a "masterpiece" on it and they she'll come along and erase it. I try to explain to him that if he really wants to draw an important work of art, then he should not use a magnetic board to do so, but this normally does little to console him. This toy is currently hidden under my bed because I could not take another moment of their fighting over it this morning.

Sometimes they share. But inevitably....

....a fight ensues. Excuse the near-mooning from my son.

4. Pull Behind Ladybug

This is Matthew's torture device of choice for his little sister. While it is technically her toy (and she knows it!), he loves to use it to taunt her. He'll drag it behind him while calling: "Oh Emma! Over here! You can't get me!" And then he'll begin to run across the room with the noisy ladybug in tow while Emma runs to the best of her ability after him, arms outstretched Frankenstein-style, while screaming at the top of her lungs. I personally hate this game because they are SO LOUD, but there have been days where I've just stuck a couple plugs in my ears to mute the noise and then gone about my business because they're happy and I have to get a few things done.

5. Giant Stuffed White Bear

Referred to simply as "Bear" by Emma, this gigantic stuffed animal came to us by way of a gracious neighbor who was cleaning out her closets. It was so dirty when she handed it over that Paul wanted me to toss it immediately. However, Emma had taken such a fancy to it, that I instead opted to wash it and it came out looking perfectly white and clean! Emma carries "Bear" with her everywhere. She loves to lay on him, hug him, kiss him, sit in his lap (I wish I had a picture of that!), and read to him. She loves him to pieces. Matthew likes to steal Bear, hold him hostage, and make her mad.

That's all I've got for now! In the meantime, I'm itching to start baking with some pumpkin soon. If you have any new, unique pumpkin recipes you think I should try, please send them my way. I'm hoping to be feeling 100% by Halloween so I can bake my Mom's pumpkin dump cake. It's amazing.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

We're Still Here!

So sorry for the silence on my end over the past few weeks. I have been really sick and food has really not been my friend. Actually, most activities have been pretty rough as well. We've been surviving on quick and easy to prepare meals - usually in the form of Rice-a-Roni and frozen pizza. The kids have been happy - it's going to be tough coaxing them to eat vegetables and quinoa again after this! Paul has been great with keeping the household running while I lay on the couch waiting for death. Hopefully I'll start feeling better soon and everything will go back to normal.

In the meantime, I've been trying to suck it up and enjoy these beautiful fall days with the kids. The temperatures have been so pleasant, that we've been spending a lot of time outdoors. After all, we better relish our time outside now before we are forced to hibernate during the long winter months! I'm going to miss the fresh air!

The kids and I love to go on nature walks together. There is a lovely nature preserve a short distance from our home. They have a great, interactive interpretive center where the kids can see different types of animals, examine various animal skulls, skins, and pelts, and learn how plants grow and develop. Matthew especially loves going because they have a huge turtle pond right outside the interpretive center where the turtles (and frogs) are extremely active. He could sit there for hours and watch them. But, his restless mommy does not allow him to do that and makes him take a walk along the boardwalks weaving through the surrounding woods.

At the swamp. That might look like grass, but it is a thick layer of moss covering the swamp water. Kind of nasty.

Spotting a turtle.

Patiently waiting for another to pop to the surface.

Emma sometimes runs along with us - she's pretty active for being two feet tall. However, sometimes she gets a little too close to the edge of the bridges that I begin to have visions of her falling into the ponds and streams. So, I decided to strap her into the stroller for this particular jaunt. She wasn't too happy with me for that.

Attempting to escape the stroller.

 I've been trying to treasure these special outings with my children. I can't believe how quickly the time has already passed with them and I know that these moments will continue to be fleeting. Every time Matthew jumps into my arms and gives me a big kiss when I pick him up from school, I think of how heartbreaking it will be for me when he grows too old to show his mother affection in public. I'm going to savor it while I can.

Although, I really am looking forward to the day Emma stops running her greasy, post-meal fingers through her freshly washed hair. She's such a little lady.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Brewer's Blondies

Last night, Matthew knocked Emma over and began to drag her across the deck with a hula-hoop. We sent him to his room.

When he came down approximately 30 minutes later, he saw that we were pulling some enchiladas out of the oven for dinner. "I can't want like enchiladas. They are yucky!" he proclaimed.

Paul told him that he had to at least try them before he made that judgement call. Matthew began to throw a fit.

Paul then picked up the jar holding all of our kitchen utensils, set them on the floor in front of Matthew, and told him that it was now up to him to select the spoon/whisk/spatula/ladle to be used for his spanking. Matthew groaned and selected a white plastic spoon. He received a quick swat on the rump and was an angel for the remainder of the night.

Sometimes Paul's parenting techniques really crack me up. He is really effective! I had to capture a couple pictures of the whole scenario. Yes, Matthew is actually laughing because he thought the whole thing was kind of funny...that is, until the whole spanking part.

Perhaps it is the stressful nature of parenting that compels Paul to pick up a beer every night immediately after the children are finally quiet for the night. He claims that even before discovering his love of beer and other malted alcoholic beverages, he always loved malted milk products - including Whoppers, his favorite candy. Thank goodness somebody likes those things because I personally hate them! While glancing through one of my favorite baking books, Paul saw a blondie recipe that called for both chopped up Whoppers and a generous amount of malted milk powder. He was sold! He wanted me to make those blondies the next time I baked. So, last weekend, Emma and I picked out the ingredients from the store (on a rare errand out just us women!) and these were happily baking in the oven within no time!

Waiting for them to cool was difficult, they looked and smelled heavenly. But they were more than worth the wait! I think this might be my new favorite blondie recipe. The malt really shines through combined with the salty batter, the crunchy nuts, and the gooey melted chocolate. These would be perfect served warmed with a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream over top. I loved that they were not too sweet and not any single ingredient overpowered the others. Everything worked together harmoniously to create a pretty fantastic treat! All four of us loved these cookies and I can't wait to make them again!

It was only after taking and then uploading these pictures that I noticed my camera lens was covered with tiny little fingerprints. The camera is no longer safe in its usual perch atop the microwave (a great spot for it, I know) since my 17-month-old has discovered that the dining chairs may be easily pushed to access any high spaces. Bear with the pictures, fingerprints and all!

Brewer's Blondies
from Baked: New Frontiers in Baking

2 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons malted milk powder
14 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 3/4 cups firmly packed dark brown sugar
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
3/4 cup malted milk balls (like Whoppers or Maltesers), coarsely chopped in a food processor
3/4 cup (9 ounces) semisweet chocolate chips
3/4 cup toasted walnuts, chopped

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter the bottom and sides of a 9-by-13-inch glass baking pan.

In a medium bowl, whisk the flour, baking powder, salt and malted milk powder together.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and brown sugar on medium speed until completely combined. Scrape down the bowl, add the eggs and vanilla, and beat until combined.

Add the flour mixture in two batches until just combined. Add the malted milk balls, chocolate chips and walnuts and beat until just combined, about 10 seconds. The mixture will be thick. Turn the mixture out into the prepared pan and use an offset spatula to spread it evenly.

Bake in the center of the oven for 25-30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the blondie comes out clean.

Transfer to a wire rack and let cool for 20 minutes. These blondies taste delicious warm and cooled to room temperature. Wait until the blondies have completely cooled before cutting if you desire to make neat little squares.

Friday, September 5, 2014

The Best and Easiest Homemade Flour Tortillas

Last week, we took Emma to  her first baseball game. We received tickets through Paul's work and figured it would be a fun family night out. We were especially excited to take Matthew but discovered that he was more interested in the food than the baseball game. Emma actually sat pretty quietly and calmly on my lap for the first two innings before she started to get restless. She climbed down during the third inning and insisted on standing and bobbing about for the next few at-bats. That was about the time a young Dad and his 6-year-old daughter climbed into the seats next to us each holding a gigantic plate full of nachos. Emma could not take her eyes off the nachos and pointed at them urgently.

"No Emma, those are not ours!" I whispered to her. She did not complain about it again, so I went back to watching the game. A little while later, she climbed back into my lap. I thought she just wanted to cuddle, but really the little chunk was trying to inch a little closer to those nachos.

A minute later, I heard the little girl yell: "HEY!"

I looked down to see Emma holding a gigantic cheese-smothered chip that she had grabbed from the little girl's plate. She looked guilty and quickly stuffed as much of the chip in her mouth before I could react.

"Emma! NO!" I tried to grab the rest of the chip away, but she held on tight. The little girl scooted away from Emma, scowling at her the whole time. At least her dad seemed to have a sense of humor about the whole thing. He couldn't stop laughing. They actually ended up taking off early from the game, leaving their half-full trays of nachos behind on the concrete below their seat. That was when we decided to take off - Emma kept fighting to get to those leftover nachos. I swear with the ways my kids act in public, people are going to think I never feed them!!

Watching our cat stalk a rabbit.

Switching gears for a moment...let's talk about tortillas!

Does this scenario sound familiar? You see that "enchiladas" are on the menu for dinner and the kids are napping so you figure it is the perfect time to start making those bad boys. You open the pantry and realize that you forgot to buy the tortillas! Kind of a necessary ingredient, right? Do you wake the kids up and drag them to the store? Do you phone your husband and ask him to stop by the store on the way home (and risk have him walking in with about 300 extra items you don't need - like the habanero flavored Cheetos he was drooling over last weekend)? Or do you fulfill your role as domestic goddess and take matters into your own hands and simply make your own tortillas? Believe it or not, you can have a beautiful, fresh batch of homemade tortillas in about the time it takes to run to the grocery store and back!

If you've never done it before, this is a great recipe to start with! It's easier than my previous recipe and rolls out like a dream. I was amazed at how simple it was to get these nice and thin! Since most of us humble folk probably do not have access to a tortilla press (we can't all be Rick Bayless), the most difficult part about making tortillas is rolling them into a perfect circle. It is a little difficult to get the hang of, but if you keep your surface well-floured and keep working at it, you'll develop the technique pretty quickly! Admittedly, my first two tortillas were closer to being a square than a circle. However, by the third one I had the shaping down! Both kids were sleeping while I was working on this and from start to finish, the whole process took me less than 45 minutes. I might have to start making a big, big batch of these to store in the freezer to make future meals easier!

The BEST Homemade Tortillas
barely adapted from The Cafe Sucre Farina

3 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1 cup warm water

Whisk together the flour, salt and baking powder in the bowl of a stand mixer. Using the dough hook, mix dry ingredients until well combined. Add oil and water with mixer running at a medium speed. Mix for 1 minute, stopping several times to scrape the sides of the bowl. After about 1 minute, or whenever the mixture comes together and begins to form a ball, decrease mixing speed to low. Continue to mix for 1 minute or until dough is smooth.

Transfer the dough to a well-floured work surface. Divide the dough into 16 portions. Form each piece into a ball and flatten with the palm of your hand a bit. Don't be afraid to use a little flour if the dough is too sticky to work with! Cover flattened balls of dough with a clean kitchen towel and allow to rest for 15 minutes before proceeding.

After rest period, heat a large pan over medium-high heat. Roll each dough piece into a rough circle, about 6-7 inches in diameter, keep work surface and rolling pin lightly floured. Again, do not be afraid to flour and re-flour the work surface as you roll each piece of dough.

When pan is very hot, place one dough circle into pan and allow to cook about 1 minute or until bottom surface has a few pale brown spots (I used this time to continue rolling out more dough into neat little circles - but don't forget to keep an eye on the tortilla in the pan or else it will scorch!!). The uncooked surface will begin to show a few little bubbles. If tortilla is browning too fast, reduced heat a bit. If it’s taking longer than a minute to see a few pale golden brown spots on underside of tortillas, increase heat a bit. Flip to other side and cook for about 30 seconds. You want the tortilla to be soft but have a few small pale golden brown spots on surface. Remove from and stack tortillas together. Keep them covered with a dish towel. Repeat until all the tortillas are cooked.

Use immediately or transfer to a ziploc storage bag and refrigerate or freeze! To rewarm, wrap in a few damp paper towels and microwave on high for 20-30 seconds.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

The BEST Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies

Ever since Matthew started preschool, he has been begging me to make chocolate chip cookies with him. Initially, I told him that we did not have any butter in the house and had to wait until next week (when our budget started over) to buy some. He waited patiently for our shopping trip this weekend and then asked politely while we were at the grocery store: "Mommy! Don't forget the butter for our chocolate chip cookies!" So, we bought the butter, gathered the rest of our groceries and returned home.

Unfortunately, I was having a really bad day. I had just attended the funeral of a priest friend earlier in the day, Emma was being super clingy and whiny, and Matthew was just bugging me. I was in no mood to bake with him and planned on holding off on the project until another day. All I wanted was for them to take a nap (so I could take one too!). When we got home and fed them, it became perfectly obvious that my dear, obnoxious children were not going to nap. So, Paul gently suggested that maybe I should bake with Matthew to "make me feel better." I mustered up as much patience as I could and tried to humor him.

It did not go well.

First, Emma took a bite out of the stick of butter. And then went back for more. Matthew tried to pry it out of her hands and it led to a full-out fistfight between the two of them. Paul had to take a picture of Emma with the butter, claiming: "Photographic evidence that she is my daughter!"

Then, it became perfectly obvious that the kids were more interested in eating the extra chocolate chips than making the cookies.

Finally, while the cookies were baking, Matthew and Emma got into another fight over the vacuum cleaner of all things and Matthew was forbidden from eating any of the newly baked cookies.

This fun baking project turned out to be a complete disaster. However, the cookies themselves are fantastic and as I sit here typing out this post, my kids are sitting together (semi-quietly) by the window, enjoying their cookies and milk happily. It's a rare moment where they are not screaming at each other and I am going to enjoy it. Maybe the baking wasn't such an abysmal failure after all.

These cookies have been a family favorite for about four years now. I went on a search for the best chocolate chip cookie recipe a few years back and these won our hearts. I am a huge fan of thick, chewy cookies. If you are too, this recipe is from you. No surprise it comes from the editors of Cook's Illustrated  and my favorite cookbook. Luckily, in addition to being my favorite cookie recipe it is also the easiest because you do not have to wait for the sticks of butter to reach room temperature before whipping up the dough. The butter is melted instead - one of the apparent secrets to chewy cookies. Make these, serve with tall glasses of milk, and try your best not to eat half a batch at once! (Like my kids are doing right this second)

The Best Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies
From the New Best Recipe

Note: I use my kitchen scale to weigh all my ingredients. It's way easier and accurate than measuring. I highly recommend purchasing one if you are a serious baker. They are not that expensive and will make you feel wonderfully scientific in the kitchen! In fact, the scale I use is the same one I used in my college organic chemistry lab.

2 cups + 2 Tablespoons (10 5/8 oz) unbleached, all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
12 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled until just warm
1 cup packed (7 oz) light or dark brown sugar
1/2 cup (3 1/2 oz) granulated sugar
1 large egg, plus 1 large egg yolk
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 bag semisweet chocolate chips

Heat oven to 325 degrees.  Line 2-3 cookie sheets with parchment paper or silpat baking mats.

Whisk the flour, baking soda, and salt together in a bowl. Set aside.

Either by hand or with an electric mixer, mix both sugars and the butter.  Beat in the egg, the yolk, and vanilla until combined.  Add the dry ingredients and beat on low until just combined.  Stir in the chips.

If you want to make LARGE, delicious, bakery-style cookies, roll a scant 1/4 cup of dough into a ball.  Pull the ball apart, rotate the jagged sides to the top side of the cookie, and press the two pieces back together.  Put on the sheet jagged side up.  This makes them look really pretty and professional when they are done baking.  Be sure to space them 2-3 inches apart. If you don't want monstrous looking cookies, using a tablespoon scoop to gather a heaping tablespoon of dough and follow the directions as stated above. However, be sure to check the smaller cookies earlier as the baking time will be reduced.

Bake until the cookies are light golden brown, the edges are starting to harden, and the centers are still soft and puffy, about 15 – 18 minutes for LARGE cookies. More like 10-11 minutes for smaller cookies.  Halfway through the baking time, rotate the sheets front to back and top to bottom.  Cool the cookies on the baking sheets.  Remove them from the sheets with a wide metal spatula.