March 31, 2011

Oreo Bars

Oreos and milk ... but even better! Because there's a brownie under the Oreos. And a vanilla icing glaze over them. Is your mouth watering yet? Mine sure is.

This recipe calls for making a from-scratch brownie batter, which I did.  You could absolutely take a shortcut and use a mix, but the from-scratch batter is actually really easy.  The only thing that makes it take longer than a mix is melting the chocolate and butter together, and then letting this cool to room temperature.  It adds a few minutes, but it's not hard.  So if you've ever been afraid to make from-scratch brownies, don't be.  It'll be okay.  You can do it!

Start creating this sinful Oreo deliciousness by beating some eggs and salt together until they're good and fluffy, like this:

Fluffy beaten eggs
Then add in your vanilla and sugar (gradually) ...
Adding sugar from my good-ol' favorite measuring cup
Ooooooohhhh, then the best part - pour in your melted chocolate and butter mixture.  Yummy, yummy!  I love chocolate.
Fold in your flour, and then put the batter in a baking pan.  Now the second-best part ... or maybe the best part, it's hard to decide ... scatter crushed Oreos all over the top.  Then pop the pan in the oven.
Ummmm, yum!
While the brownies are baking, make a really simple vanilla icing glaze with butter, powdered sugar, vanilla, and hot water.

Drizzle the glaze over the brownies just after they come out of the oven.  Cover the top really good!
Drizzle, drizzle
The first batch I made, my husband said "I think I'd like these better without the white stuff on top."  Well ... a comment like that is like double-dog-daring me to do something.  I had to put that to the test.  So, I made another batch - and this time glazed half the pan, and left half "without the white stuff," to quote my husband.  Mark and I then put the two versions through a taste test, and ...

1/2 & 1/2 pan
... the "white stuff" won!  Mark had to eat his words.  And a lot of Oreo bars.

Oreo Bars
Source:  A Friend
(Printable recipe)
4 oz. unsweetened chocolate
1/2 c. butter
4 large eggs, at room temperature
1/2 tsp. salt
2 c. sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
1 c. flour
2 c. crumbled Oreo cookies

Icing Glaze:
1/3 c. butter
2 c. powdered sugar
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla
2 to 4 T. hot water

For the Brownies:
1.  Melt chocolate and the 1/2 cup butter in the top of a double boiler, or in a small saucepan over low heat.  Let cool to room temperature. 

2.  Beat eggs and salt until very fluffy.  Gradually beat in sugar and 1 teaspoon vanilla.  Fold in chocolate mixture.  Add flour and gently fold until blended.

3.  Pour batter into a greased 9x13" pan.  Scatter crushed Oreos evenly over the top.  Bake at 350 degrees for 25-30 minutes (I had to bake mine for another 8 or 9 minutes).

For the Icing Glaze:
4.  While the brownies are baking, heat the 1/3 cup butter until melted.  Stir in powdered sugar and 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla.  Stir in water, 1 tablespoon at a time, until glaze is of desired consistency (I used 3 T. water).

5.  Once brownies are out of the oven, drizzle the glaze on top.  Cool before serving.


March 28, 2011

Shrimp & Grits Casserole

Shrimp & grits is a southern-tradition dish with which I was absolutely not familiar until I moved to North Carolina.  And, I'll admit, I was afraid to try it at first.  I mean, what was a grit, anyway??  Well, I've gotten past my fear - and I'm so glad I did.  I now love shrimp & grits.  This is a creamy-comfort food version to make easily at home.  A lot of shrimp & grit dishes are spicy - this one certainly is not.  It's a very mild-flavored, cheesy, shrimpy grits casserole-style dish.

I like my shrimp & grits with limas
The original recipe for this is from Cooking Light magazine, one of my favorite reads, but I think I've tweaked it to put back in all the bad things they worked so hard to take out.  Oh well. 

Start by cooking up your grits.  I've learned from my southern friends, who've grown up cooking grits, that the secret to good grits is to add the grits to the liquid mixture very slooooooowly.  Whisk them constantly while you're adding the grits, and cook them until they're very thick.

Get the grits good and thick ... like this
Then put in stuff that makes the grits even yummier ... Parmesan cheese, cream cheese, and butter!
Then you'll add in chives and shrimp, and bake it until it's set and getting golden around the edges.
All baked and ready to gobble up
Once it's out of the oven, dig in!  I like it just the way it is, but you can add a dash of hot sauce on the top if you like.  Enjoy the comforting creaminess!

Shrimp & Grits Casserole
Adapted from Cooking Light magazine
(Printable recipe)
2 c. milk
3/4 c. chicken broth
1 c. quick-cooking grits
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 c. shredded Parmesan cheese
2 T. butter
4 oz. cream cheese
1 or 2 T. chopped fresh chives (you can also use dried)
3 T. fresh parsley or 1 T. dried parsley
1 T. lemon juice
1 egg
1 lb. peeled shrimp, roughly chopped

Bring milk and chicken broth to a boil in a medium saucepan.  Gradually add grits and salt to pan, stirring constantly with a whisk.  Cook 5 minutes or until thick, stirring constantly.  Remove grits from heat.  Stir in Parmesan, butter, and cream cheese until melted; then stir in remaining ingredients.

Spoon grits mixture into a 11x7" baking dish generously coated with cooking spray.  Bake at 375 degrees for 25 minutes, or until set and the top is just starting to get some golden brown areas. 


March 25, 2011

Strawberry & Greens Salad with Honey Viniagrette

It's almost strawberry season! Nice-looking fresh strawberries are starting to make their appearance in grocery stores here, and I'm really excited about it!

Here's a really simple, very flavorful, and beautifully eye-catching salad starring those little red beauties. And I love, that on top of all that, it's "different" than just your basic tossed salad. Not that I have anything against your basic tossed salad - eat it all the time - but, sometimes you just want something a little bit different.

This salad is so tasty and pretty, I often make it when I have guests for dinner.  Or, when I'm bringing a dinner to someone.  One "warning," though - the vinegar begins to take its toll on the strawberries pretty quickly.  I recommend dressing the salad right before serving.  You can certainly keep the leftovers overnight, but the strawberries will be a bit faded and puny the next day!

Strawberry & Greens Salad
Source:  Adapted from Cooking Light
3 T. white wine vinegar
3 T. water
1 T. honey
2 tsp. olive oil
1/8 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. pepper

About 6 c. salad greens (I use mesculin or spring mix greens)
3 c. quartered strawberries
4 tsp. pine nuts (or slivered almonds)

Whisk together all dressing ingredients.  Combine strawberries and greens.  Add dressing and toss to coat.  Sprinkle with pine nuts.


March 22, 2011

Whole Wheat Waffles & Pure Vermont Maple Syrup

With these Whole Wheat Waffles' delicious hint of cinnamon and vanilla, you'll want waffles for breakfast {or dinner} every day.

Whole Wheat Waffles
Every now and then, you just gotta have breakfast for dinner.  At least I do.  My favorites? ~ French toast ... and these delicious whole wheat waffles (smothered with pure Vermont maple syrup, of course.  We'll talk detail about syrup later). 

But just one little syrup note before we move on -- usually, maple syrup would be flowing all over my plate when I have waffles.  A terrible thing happened while I was preparing the plate above, though - I ran out of maple syrup!!!  Totally unbelievable in my household.  So, I had to place an emergency order to have some shipped in from Vermont.  Fortunately, it arrived today.  And rest assured, future waffles will be appropriately syrup-bathed.

I absolutely adore these whole wheat waffles ~ the batter has just a touch of cinnamon and vanilla that give a fabulous flavor to the finished waffle.

When the batter is mixed up, I think it's totally cool how the leavener starts to work right away - and you can actually see the batter getting "puffy" right in the bowl.  Like, immediately.

Toss some of that beautiful batter into a preheated waffle maker.  I use a Belgium waffle maker so I get really big-and-thick waffles.  I like 'em that way.

Whole Wheat Waffles

And then cook until the waffle maker sounds it's alarm.  Now, why can't our ovens have alarms that let us know when baked goods are done?  It would be so much easier that way.  But I digress ...

Whole Wheat Waffles

Serve up your whole wheat waffles with a generous ... very very generous, if you're me ... slathering of maple syrup.  Or butter.   Or honey.  Or strawberries.  Whatever you prefer.  I'm a maple syrup girl, myself.  And growing up in Vermont, I'm absolutely a maple syrup snob.  So let's talk syrup for a minute.

Vermont is the largest producer of pure maple syrup in the United States, and it's some amazingly fabulous stuff.  Being a syrup snob, I only eat pure maple syrup ... and preferably only pure maple syrup made in Vermont.  None ... absolutely none ... of that fake stuff for me.

Some syup details ... Maple syrup comes in several grades, ranging from fancy to grade C.  Maple trees naturally produce lighter colored maple syrup early in the season that gradually deepens in color and flavor toward the end of the sugaring season.  Fancy is the lightest in color, followed by Grade A Medium Amber and Grade A Dark Amber.  Then ... late in the season ... you get really dark, bold-flavored Grade B.  That's what I love!  The last grade, Grade C, typically is produced at the very very end of the season, and is sold in bulk to industrial producers of maple flavored products rather than packaged for retail sale.

What grade you prefer is purely a personal choice.  As for me, I'm a Vermont Grade B girl, all the way!

For me, there's just simply no other way to enjoy my waffles.

Whole Wheat Waffles
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Whole Wheat Waffles
(Printable recipe)
1 ½ c. whole wheat flour
½ c. all-purpose flour
¼ c. sugar
½ tsp. cinnamon
3 T. baking powder
¾ tsp. salt
1 ½ c. milk
3 eggs
½ c. unsweetened applesauce
1 ½ tsp. vanilla

Combine dry ingredients.  Add wet ingredients; stir to combine.  Cook in waffle maker according to manufacturer’s directions (I use a Belgium waffle maker for big, thick waffles).
Makes approximately 12 waffles.


Enjoy these other delicious waffle and pancake treats from The Kitchen is My Playground ...

March 20, 2011

Sausage & Balsamic-Caramelized Onion Pizza - and a homemade whole wheat crust recipe

We love, love, love homemade pizza.  Not only can you make it healthier than what you buy at the pizza shops, you can put together some way crazy-delicious flavor combinations that you just can't buy.  Now, don't get me wrong - I love pizza from pizza shops ... swear I could eat it every day and never get tired of it.  Unfortunately, I don't think my pants would be very happy with me if I did that.  So I've played around at home and come up with several homemade pizzas we really enjoy, and with a whole wheat crust to boot.  Here's the first of our favorites - Sausage & Balsamic-Caramelized Onion Pizza.

Sometimes I make my own crust, but most of the time - I'll admit - I buy pre-made dough balls at the grocery store.  My favorites - 1.  Trader Joe's for $0.99 (can you believe that price??), and 2.  Harris Teeter for $1.99.  When I go to Trader Joe's, I bring a cooler and buy like 10 or 15 dough balls at a time.  Then I stick them in the freezer and pull them out as I need them.  Harris Teeter just started carrying the whole wheat dough balls (in their deli section), so that's a great option now, too.  Check your local grocery stores to see what's available.  If you'd like to make your own, I've included my recipe at the end of this post.

Pre-made Dough Balls
The beauty of the toppings for this pizza is you can prepare them in advance and just stick them in the frig until you're ready to assemble the pizza.  A lot of times, I get the toppings ready the day before.  First, fry up your sausage (I didn't take a picture of that), and then caramelize your onions.  To do that, slice them in rings and put them in a fry pan with a little butter (or olive oil):
Starting the onions
After they've softened a bit, add in the balsamic vinegar and continue to cook them until all the liquid has been absorbed.
With the Balsamic vinegar added
When you're ready to assemble, roll out your dough ...
Rollin' out the dough ...
... and put it on a pizza stone or baking sheet.  As you can see, I don't try to get real precise with the shape.
... you can be very rustic with the dough shape
Spread on your sauce.  I use just a very simple sauce of crushed tomatoes.  Straight out of the can ... yup, just a thin layer of canned crushed tomatoes.
Simple sauce - just crushed tomatoes!
Then add your toppings.  I like to sprinkle on just a tiny bit of cheese first, then the sausage, and then the onions.
Putting on the onions ... they taste better than they look
Then top with a good layer of cheese - however much you want.
Mmmmmmm - ready to bake
Bake it up and enjoy.  I think leftovers are just as yummy, if not even yummier, the next day!

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Sausage & Balsamic-Caramelized Onion Pizza
Source:  Inspired by Williams-Sonoma
(Printable recipe)
Store-bought pizza dough ball OR homemade pizza dough (see ingredients below)

For Homemade Whole Wheat Pizza Dough (enough for 2 pizza crusts):
1 envelope active dry yeast
1 c. warm water
4 c. whole wheat flour
1 tsp. sea salt
3 T. olive oil
3/4 c. + 1-2 T. additional warm water

1 lb. pork sausage
1 large yellow or Vidalia onion
3 T. balsamic vinegar
1 T. butter
1 (14 oz.) can crushed tomatoes
Shredded mozzarella

Prepare the Pizza Dough:
Combine yeast and 1 cup warm water to activate yeast - water should be just barely warm to the touch.  Add remaining ingredients and knead together, adding the 1-2 T. additional warm water in the amount needed to form a dough that holds together.  Let dough rise in a greased and covered bowl for about 45-60 minutes.  Divide dough into two halves and roll out for two pizza crusts.  After topping as desired, bake at 425 degrees for about 15-25 minutes.

Prepare the Pizza:
Slice onion in rings, saute in butter over medium-low heat until tender.  Add balsamic vinegar and continue cooking until liquid is gone, caramelizing the onions.  In a separate pan, brown sausage and drain.  Roll pizza dough out to desired size; place on preheated pizza stone or baking sheet.  Spread crushed tomatoes over crust for sauce (you may not use all of the can).  Top with sausage and onions, then sprinkle with cheese.  Bake at 425 degrees for about 15-25 minutes, or until cheese is bubbly and just beginning to brown.


March 14, 2011

Blueberry Crisp ... dee-lish

I may have a new favorite fruit dessert!  I don't know why I didn't think of this before.  Apple crisp, all the time ... pear crisp, yes ... but never blueberry crisp?  Didn't think of that until now.  Now that I've tried it, I'm hooked.  I think I even like it better than blueberry pie, which is one of my all-time favorite desserts!  And another plus for this recipe - it's so quick and easy.

I tried two different versions of this crisp - one with red wine, and one without.  I was so sure the one with wine would be better, but this was one time that adding wine was not a plus.  In my side-by-side taste comparison, the without-wine version won hands-down.  Not even a contest.  I then had Mark do a blind testing ... same result - the "not wine" one won.  No question.  And I thought wine with the blueberries would be so good.  Perhaps a different kind of wine ... or perhaps red wine and blueberries in a different type of blueberry dessert.  I may have to keep tinkering.  Until I tinker my way to a new blueberry-wine creation, enjoy this non-wine blueberry crisp!

First mix up your blueberry filling:

Then toss together your topping and sprinkle it over the blueberry mixture:

Bake it all up:

And enjoy it with a dollop of whipped cream ...

Or not....

It's dee-lish both ways!

Blueberry Crisp
Source:  Tracey-Original
(Printable recipe)
Blueberry Filling:
4 c. blueberries (fresh or frozen)
2 T. cornstarch
1/2 c. sugar
1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/8 tsp. ground nutmeg
1/2 c. water
1 tsp. lemon juice

1 c. whole wheat flour (or all-purpose flour)
1 c. old-fashioned oats
1 c. brown sugar
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 c. (1 stick) butter, melted

1.  Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Prepare the Blueberry Filling:  
2.  Place the berries in a large bowl, set aside.  Whisk together the cornstarch, sugar, 1/4 tsp. cinnamon, and nutmeg. Sprinkle over the berries and toss together. Add the lemon juice and water; toss together.

3.  Place in a 9x13” baking dish that has been sprayed with cooking spray.

Prepare the Topping:  
4.  Combine the flour, oats, brown sugar, and 1/2 tsp. cinnamon in a bowl. Add the melted butter and toss until it is all well combined.  Sprinkle the topping evenly over the blueberries.

5.  Bake for 45 minutes or until the berries are bubbling vigorously along the edges and the topping is golden brown.


March 11, 2011

How to Bake Classic Pound Cake - I did it!

Classic vanilla pound cake is the quintessential Southern dessert ~ and this version is pure Southern perfection.
Classic Vanilla Pound Cake
I finally did it!  I baked my first pound cake!!  Can you believe I had never made a pound cake before this?  In my defense, pound cake is decidedly a southern thing.  Growing up in Vermont, we just didn't bake pound cakes.  The only pound cake I had been exposed to prior to moving south was the Sara Lee loaf kind you buy in the freezer section at the grocery store.  

Now that I live in North Carolina, classic pound cake is everywhere, and in so many wonderful flavors. Oh, homemade is sooooo much better than that frozen stuff!

I'll admit I was very nervous, possibly even a little bit scared, to make my first pound cake.  

As I said before, I have absolutely zero background in baking this kind of cake.  Add to that the fact that my mother-in-law is pretty much a pound cake baking goddess.  You can be almost guaranteed that when you walk into her house, there's a pound cake in the cake cupboard.  Yep, she makes it so much there's a cake cupboard where it's kept.  Now if that's not intimidating, I don't know what is.

And there you have it - fear.  Fear of the pound cake.  But I desperately wanted to overcome this fear.

Classic Vanilla Pound Cake

So, after eight years of knowing my husband and eating his mother's wonderfully amazing pound cake, I decided to give her recipe a whirl myself.  

Trying to recall all the tips and tricks she told me, I set out on my journey.  Doubts still ran through my head - What if I don't get the batter mixed just right?  What if it gets a sad streak in it? (I've learned that this is when it doesn't bake evenly, creating basically an unbaked "streak" through the cake.)  What if ... and apparently this is one of the worst and most frequent pound cake mishaps ... it won't come out of the pan?  What if it bakes up ugly??  But I pressed on ... 

After combining all my ingredients and beating them for the full 15 minutes called for in the recipe, I poured my beautiful pale yellow, smooth, creamy batter into my pan.  I'm a sucker for batter, so of course I tasted it at this point.  Already yummy!

Making Classic Vanilla Pound Cake

But when my pound cake came out of the oven, one of my fears had come to be - the top of the cake baked up ugly, and one part of it was slumped down a little.  Fortunately, the pound cake settled down a tiny bit as it cooled - but it still certainly wasn't the prettiest cake around.  This made me very worried to cut into it.

Making Classic Vanilla Pound Cake

When it finally came time to cut, Mark and I did it together.  After all, he grew up with this pound cake and would for-sure know if it was up-to-snuff!  Because of the slumped side, he was positive there was going to be a sad streak in it.  When we cut, I was extremely glad to find no streak!

Classic Vanilla Pound Cake

Now came the ultimate test ... the Mark taste-test.  I'm happy to report that my pound cake passed with flying colors, ugly top and all!

The Mark quote:  "I think you've done it."  That's very high praise from my particular husband of few words.

As I do with most of my baked goods, I gave the majority of the cake away.  As I was packaging up my little pound cake care packages, I asked Mark if he wanted me to save him a few slices.  He said no - so I asked, "Are you sure?"  He said, "Yes, I'm sure."

I admit, I was surprised.  So, I decided to save just one slice for me to have the next day.

Here it is - all by itself on the cake plate:

Here's what the cake plate looked like the next morning when I came down for breakfast:

Guess what Mark had for breakfast...

Compliments of my mother-in-law, here is the recipe for this classic pound cake.  Eat it plain, or with berries or whipped cream (or both!) on top.  Even if it bakes up ugly, rest assured it will still taste delicious.

Classic Vanilla Pound Cake

Classic Vanilla Pound Cake
Source:  My Mother-in-Law
(Printable recipe)
3 c. sugar
1/2 lb. (2 sticks) butter
2 T. Crisco shortening
6 eggs
1 tsp. vanilla
3 c. flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1 c. milk (my mother-in-law and I use 2% milk)


  • Cream the sugar, butter, and Crisco with an electric mixer, about 3-4 minutes.  
  • Add eggs and vanilla; beat with an electric mixer about 10-15 minutes.  Be sure to beat for the full time.  
  • Combine the flour and baking powder.  With the mixer on low, add flour mixture and milk, alternately, to the creamed sugar and eggs mixture.  Mix after each addition until just combined.
  • Pour batter into a tube pan that has been generously sprayed with non-stick baking spray {or buttered & floured}.  Bake at 325 degrees for 1 to 1 1/2 hours until a toothpick inserted in the top comes out clean.  Cool about a 1/2 an hour in the pan; remove cake from pan.


Please enjoy these other tasty cakes from The Kitchen is My Playground ...

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