No-Bake Strawberry Ice Box Cake

April 29, 2012

 It's strawberry season in my neck of the woods!  And I'm very excited about it.  I absolutely love fresh strawberries, straight from the field.  I'm so fortunate that my husband passes by a local farm stand every day on his way home from work.  So what did I do with my first delivery from my sweet hubby this past week?  Whipped up this delicious No-Bake Strawberry Ice Box Cake from 6 Sisters' Stuff.

As soon as I found this dessert on the Sisters' blog, I knew it was right up my alley.  Creamy.  Fresh strawberries.  A touch of chocolate.  Yes, please!

I'm happy to report it was a great choice for my first strawberries of the season.

The method to make this is very similar to the No-Bake Chocolate Eclair Dessert I posted a little bit back.  Except, this no-bake cake uses real whipped cream laced with a touch of almond extract (soooooo good!) instead of Cool Whip between the graham cracker layers.  I love Cool Whip, don't get me wrong ... but I really need to whip up the real stuff more often.  Real whipped cream is such a little bite of heaven!

So, whip up some whipped cream.  Then layer it with graham crackers and sliced fresh strawberries.

Make a really simple ganache with dark chocolate and a little bit of warmed whipping cream ...

... and drizzle it over the top.

Refrigerate over night, and then cut yourself a big piece.  No ... cut yourself a huge piece.  (You'll be glad you did.)

Now, a note to my blogging friends.  If you make this and want to photograph it, remember to save a couple of your most gorgeous strawberries to garnish your photo shoot plates. 

If, by chance, you happen to forget to save any strawberries and decide to stop at a vacant lot on your drive home from work to 'borrow' a few flowers ... you know, so you'll have something red for the side of your photo shoot plate .... make sure not to stand in a fire ant hill while picking said flowers.  Especially while wearing flip-flops.

If, by chance, you happen to accidentally stand in a fire ant hill while 'borrowing' flowers and wearing flip-flops, try to refrain from eating all three pieces of this you cut for the photo shoot to help drown out the fire ant 'fire' burning in your swollen toes.

Then, if by chance, you happen to decide to place a bag of frozen vegetables on your burning swollen toes as an ice bag to help soothe the fire ant 'fire,' make sure the bag doesn't have a hole in it.  Because if the bag does have a hole in it, as the vegetables inside thaw you'll end with green asparagus-water seeping out onto your carpet leaving a lovely pea-greenish stain.  Which you'll end up spending some time the next day steam-cleaning out.

You know, not that any of this happened or anything.

I'm just sayin' ... be sure to save out a couple of your most gorgeous strawberries for your plates.

No-Bake Strawberry Ice Box Cake
Source:  Adapted from 6 Sisters' Stuff
2 lbs. fresh strawberries, washed and sliced into thin slices
3 1/2 c. whipping cream, divided
1/3 c. confectioners' sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
1/2 tsp. almond extract
1 box graham crackers (about 24 to 28 whole graham crackers)
4 oz. dark chocolate, finely chopped

1.  With an electric mixer, whip 3 cups of the whipping cream until it just holds stiff peaks.  Add confectioners' sugar, vanilla, and almond extract and whip to combine.

2.  Spread a small spoonful of whipped cream in the bottom of a 9x13" dish.  Place down a layer of graham crackers. Spread on a thin layer of the whipped cream over the graham crackers, and then top with a single layer of sliced strawberries. Repeat with two more layers of graham crackers, whipped cream, and strawberries; then top with the last of the whipped cream.

3.  To make the ganache, heat the remaining 1/2 cup whipping cream until bubbles just begin to form around the edges in the pan.  Immediately pour over the chopped dark chocolate.  Let stand for a couple of minutes, and then whisk until combined and smooth.  Drizzle over the top of the layered cake.

4.  Refrigerate over night.

- This recipe can easily be halved and prepared in an 8x8" pan, which is what I did.
- The almond extract is optional, but it makes the whipped cream so delicious!  I highly recommend including it.
- I used Dove dark chocolate.
- This is best eaten the day after it is made.  While it was still good on the second day, the strawberries do start to 'wilt' and lose some of their 'perkiness.' 
I can't really speak for the 3rd day.   :-)


Guacamole Grilled Cheese

April 27, 2012

Until now, I have always just made your straight-up, regular ol' grilled cheese.  I never really thought to change it up much, or thought there could be so many amazing-sounding combinations.  Then, I started seeing all these fabulously crazy grilled cheese variations popping up all over blogland.

So, I had to start giving some of these combinations a try.  I'm so glad I did.

I started with this Guacamole Grilled Cheese from The Captivating LifeI really didn't know what to expect ... but, hey, ... I love guacamole, and I love grilled cheese.  So I was up for the adventure.

Turns out, this combination is really yummy!

First, you mix up a really quick and simple guacamole ... mash together an avocado and some chopped tomato ...

... and then hit it with some fresh lime juice.  See, I said it was simple!

Layer the guac with some delicious sharp cheddar cheese on slices of nice sourdough bread.  I use Cabot, Vermont sharp cheddar ... it's my favorite.  (As a native Vermonter, I use Cabot cheese whenever I can!  And, no, Cabot does not pay me to say this.)

Grill it on up, and enjoy!  For me, the tang of the fresh lime juice with the sharp cheddar was an unexpectedly wonderful flavor combination.

Look for some more grilled cheese variations coming soon.  A new adventure has just been unlocked for me, and I can't wait to keep trying out this new world of grilled cheese!

Guacamole Grilled Cheese
Adapted from The Captivating Life Makes 3 sandwiches
(Printable recipe)
1 medium to large avocado
1/4 c. chopped tomato
Juice of 1/2 a lime
About 1/4 tsp. salt, or to taste
Dash of pepper, or to taste
4 drops tabasco sauce, or to taste
6 slices good quality bread (I used a crusty sourdough boule from the grocery store bakery)
Sharp cheddar (preferably the block you cut yourself, not pre-sliced ... I used Cabot extra sharp)

Prepare the Guacamole:
1.  Mash together the avocado and chopped tomato.

2.  Add the lime juice salt, pepper, and Tabasco sauce. Stir to combine.  (If you prefer your guacamole smoother, give it a whirl in a food processor.)

Prepare the Sandwich:
3.  Butter one side of each of the bread slices.  Flip over three slices of bread and spread the unbuttered side generously with guacamole.

4.  Cut slices from the block of sharp cheddar and place on top of the guacamole; top with the remaining bread slices, butter side up.

5.  Grill in a heated pan, coated with cooking spray or a bit of butter, until golden browned.



Ham & Cheese Grits Casserole (... & kissing a giraffe)

April 23, 2012
For breakfast, brunch, lunch, or dinner ~ Ham & Cheese Grits Casserole is true Southern comfort food at its best.

Ham & Cheese Grits Casserole

I kissed a giraffe.  Well, kind of.  


Actually, during our class field trip last Friday, I fed a giraffe a leaf out of my mouth.  But his lips gave me a little peck (read that *slobber*) on my chin ... so, I consider that getting a big ol' kiss from good ol' Mr. Giraffe.

As you can see in the photo, I was a bit apprehensive about my giraffe feeding adventure.  It's just a tad unnerving to see this giant giraffe head (look at his head! ... it's huge!!) coming straight at your face.  To block this out, as you can also see in the photo, I closed my eyes.  As if this makes a giant giraffe head coming straight at your face any better.  But despite my apprehension, I really wanted to feed the giraffe.   I mean, how often do you get the chance to feed a giraffe from your mouth??

Plus, my students thought I was the coolest teacher.  Ever

So, what does me feeding a giraffe have to do with Ham & Cheese Grits Casserole?  Nothing.  Absolutely nothing at all.  I just couldn't pass up sharing that story with you.

Now let's look at some Ham & Cheese Grits Casserole, shall we?

Ham & Cheese Grits Casserole

This is an original recipe of mine, based on this Shrimp & Grits Casserole adapted from Cooking Light magazine.  I figured if Shrimp & Grits Casserole was so yummy, then Ham & Cheese Grits Casserole would be too.  I was right.

Just like with the Shrimp & Grits Casserole, start by whipping up some creamy grits.  Then stir in lots of ham, lots of cheese, an egg, and some seasoning.

Ham & Cheese Grits Casserole

Bake it up until its set and lightly golden brown on top.

Ham & Cheese Grits Casserole

Finally, dig in and serve up a big bowl.  Hmmmm, I wonder if my new friend the giraffe would like it?

Ham & Cheese Grits Casserole

Ham & Cheese Grits Casserole
Source:  A Tracey creation
(Printable recipe)
2 c. milk (I use whole milk, but any 'slimmer' variety is fine too)
3/4 c. chicken broth
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 c. quick-cooking grits
1/4 tsp. salt
1 c. shredded cheddar cheese
2 T. butter
4 oz. cream cheese (less fat Neufchatel-type is fine)
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
2 c. chopped ham

1.  Bring milk, chicken broth, and chopped onion to a boil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Gradually add grits and salt to pan, stirring constantly with a whisk. Cook 5 minutes or until thick, stirring constantly.

2.  Remove grits from heat. Stir in cheddar, butter, and cream cheese until melted; then stir in remaining ingredients.

3.  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.


Please enjoy these other ham dishes from The Kitchen is My Playground ...


Pico de Gallo

April 14, 2012

Whew - I've had a string of cooking flops lately.  Hate it when I have a run like that.  I've been trying out some new recipes, making a couple of things from my "30 for 2012 Project" list, and working on a new frosting.  Well, after three runs at the new frosting, I don't have it nailed yet (but I'm close!).   Made a terrible salad for my family's Easter get-together.  Had two disappointments from my "Project" list.

I felt the need to have a success.  So I decided to bring you one of my all-time, pretty-much-fool-proof favorites ... pico de gallo (aka - salsa fresca).  Mark and I love this stuff.  We eat it the traditional way with tortilla chips, straight from a spoon, spooned over Mexican dishes, or over brown rice as a meatless main dish.  And I swear Mark can eat a quart of it in a single sitting.

We love it made with Roma tomatoes ...

... and LOTS of cilantro and fresh lime.  Oh, and don't forget the jalapenos!  Mark can never get enough jalapenos.

Mark loves jalapenos so much, we ... and by 'we', I mean Mark ... have a joke about them now.  Whenever I cook something Mark says, "It needs more jalapeno."  Give him pico de gallo? ... "Needs more jalapeno."  Give him spaghetti? ... "Needs more jalapeno."  A brownie?  ... "Needs more jalapeno."  You get the point. 

Well, last night, I actually came up with something for which he DID NOT say "Needs more jalapeno."  Yay!  You'll have to wait to see what it was ... I'll post it soon.  Until then, enjoy some pico de gallo.  You decide if it needs more jalapeno!

Pico de Gallo
Source:  Inspired by many Mexican restaurants  :-)
(Printable recipe)  
  • 8 Roma tomatoes, chopped
  • 3 large jalapeno peppers, finely chopped, seeded to taste
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 1 bunch cilantro, chopped
  • 2 limes, juiced
  • 1 to 2 tsp. salt
  1. Combine all ingredients. Refrigerate for at least an hour before serving.
  2. Taste, and adjust salt if needed. Serve with tortilla chips, alongside main dishes, or over rice as a meatless meal.
  3. NOTE: I remove the seeds from 1 1/2 peppers, and leave the seeds in 1 1/2 peppers. Adjust as you'd like to get your desired 'heat.' The more seeds, the more 'heat.'



My Food Photography Woes

April 12, 2012

Food photography is hard.  Really hard.  It may just be my blogging nemesis.  My blogging archenemy, so to speak. 

I've debated and debated with myself about whether or not to actually write those words in a post.  But I've really found comfort in reading other bloggers' posts about their challenges ... knowing others experience similar difficulties and frustrations makes one, well ... feel a bit better.  So I decided to share my photography challenges with you.  Just in case it makes someone else feel even just a tiny bit better.  Or, to at least give you all a little laugh.  My behind-the-scenes secrets are about to be revealed!

I've discovered through my blog photography adventures that the natural light in my house stinks.  Not just my kitchen, but pretty much my entire house!  I didn't know I had this problem until I started The Kitchen is My Playground.  There is absolutely nowhere in my kitchen I can take a photo without using a flash.  So, all my in-process cooking shots have flash.  I know ... cardinal sin of food photography.  But sometimes, we just don't have a choice.  Well, at least I don't have a choice.  Not if I want to share photos of preparation steps.  Which I do.

So I've gotten creative and tried some different spots for staging my photos.

Many of my photos are taken outside on my back deck.  The light is decent ... not great ... but decent.  Depending on the time of day.  This, however, does present some other challenges of it's own.  Like wind.  And carting my dishes and other props outside.  And, even outside, light is a huge challenge!  Just check out the shade vs. bright sunlight areas of my deck.

Take a photo in direct sunlight?  Too bright.  Harsh lighting.  Shadows.  Reflection spots.  Like this ...

Post:  The BEST Vanilla Cupcake + the BEST Coffee Buttercream

Move to the shade?  Not bright enough.  Washed out.  Like this ...

Post:  1st Bloggiversary! ... & Barefoot Contessa's Coconut Cupcakes to Celebrate

Super hot summer day?  Frosting droops, salads wilt, ice melts, beverage glasses sweat.  Like this ...
Post:  Refreshing Blueberry-Lime Iced Tea

And what to do once cold weather comes and, oh the horror --- daylight savings time when you have a full-time job and can't make it home before dusk??  Well, then the outside photo options are completely gone.

So, I got creative inside.  I scoured my house for places, any places, that had decent natural light.  I found two.  Are you ready for them?  You're going to laugh.  Or at least smile a teeny bit.

1.  Our stairs in the foyer.  With a make-shift table set up on a 5 gallon bucket.

Post:  Slow-Cooker Pumpkin Butter - 1st grade's been cookin' again!

Do you know how difficult it is to make sure the banister, or carpet, or foyer wall isn't in the photo?  On the plus side, the stairs made it easy to get different angles and vantage points from which to take the photos!

2.  Our bathtub.  Yup, the garden-style bathtub in our master bath.  Again, with my make-shift table set up on a 5 gallon bucket.  Classy, huh?

Post:  Caramel Apple Cheesecake Squares

(Now you're wondering ... wondering which photos on my site were taken in the bathroom, aren't you?  hee, hee)

On days the sun streaming through the big window over the tub wasn't enough, I resorted to augmenting the light with an old lamp.

Post:  Chocolate-Almond Flourless Cake

Probably needless to say, neither of these spots were ideal, to say the least.  Pain-in-the-you-know-what to cart all my food, dishes, props, etc. upstairs to the bathroom.  Frustrated husband when I blocked the stairs for staging.  At the mercy of the literally one-hour-per-day that each of these spots had the natural light I needed streaming in through the nearby windows.  Which pretty much relegated my photo-taking to Saturday or Sunday afternoons, which is prime spend-time-with-my-husband time.  And I really don't like giving that up.

So, I decided to explore purchasing special lighting.  Now, I love blogging - don't get me wrong.  But it is a hobby, not a profession for me.  So, I do need to keep that in perspective.  The cost of special photography lighting?  Quite a bit.  More than I wanted to spend, anyway.  But I didn't give up hope ...

I found this tutorial to build your own photography lighting.  The perfect challenge for my very-handy hubby!!  He didn't want to follow the tutorial, but rather wanted to come up with his own design based on the tutorial concept. 

So, after several trips to the home improvement store, my DIY-photo lights were born!  Made out of ductwork pieces!!!  They look like something out of Star Trek, but, hey, they work... Kudos to my hubby!!

We haven't built bases for the lights yet.  So ... the 'base' that light is sitting in is ... a fondue pot!  Hey, whatever works.

Now I'm able to do my photo shoots in the dining room, right next to the kitchen.   No more lugging my stuff to the nether-regions of my house.  Here's a typical set up with my new lights.  Still looks crazy, but it gives me much more flexibility with when I can take photos.

Post:  Baby Shower White Chocolate Popcorn

I can shoot *pretty much* any time I want.  I'm still dependent on having at least a little bit of daylight coming in through the dining room window.  I think I would need about three more of these light contraptions to be truly independent from natural lighting.  So, at times, it looks about like a house of cards with white poster boards bouncing the light, or creating a sort of make-shift lightbox.

Even with this 'studio' dining room set-up, I'm still cramped in terms of space.  My HUGE, most-frustrating challenge!!  Since my light is limited in it's reach, I'm really limited in the span of the shots I can take.  Which is why most of my photos are close-ups.  I don't have the opportunity to take shots with wide spans, gorgeous back-drops and backgrounds, or fully-set tables and place settings.

Oh well.

I'll keep working on my photography.  While I am showing improvement (I think), I still have a long way to go.  Hopefully ... maybe someday ... I can prove a worthy adversary for this thing called food photography.

Header Photo Collage Posts:
Gingerbread Cookies  (taken on the stairs)
Nutella Chocolate Chip Cookies  (taken in the bath tub)
Pizza Spaghetti Bake  (taken in the dining room 'studio' with my hubby's DIY lighting)
Granola {Oven & Microwave Methods}  (taken outside on the back deck)

Traditional Granola {Oven & Microwave Methods}

April 11, 2012
Make your own granola at home ... in the oven or the microwave.  {Yes, you can make it in the microwave!}

It's spring break week for me, and hubby took three days off too so we could do stuff together.  Isn't that sweet?

Here was my idea of what to do with our days off.

Here was my hubby's idea.  He's practical like that.

Unfortunately, I didn't win.

But between spreading wheelbarrow-full loads of mulch in our yard beds and taking in a viewing of The Hunger Games, I did manage to whip up a couple of batches of this tasty granola.  It's on my "30 for 2012 Project" list, so I'm very glad to have gotten to it.  I'm moving a little bit slow on my list!

This granola can be made in either the oven or the microwave.  So I tested both.  When there's an option like that, I like to know how both do.  I'm curious like that.

Both methods worked just fine.  The oven method gave a bit crisper-crunchier result, while the microwave method produced a bit softer-chewier granola.  Microwave is definitely much faster.  Either way, you use the same yummy ingredients ... but start just a tiny bit differently.

With the oven method, you start with melted butter and combine it with honey and vanilla ...
(that's our own honey, by the way ... isn't it gorgeous??)

... before adding the oats and other ingredients.

With the microwave method, you don't melt the butter.  You just chop it into small pieces and combine it with everything else in a microwave-safe bowl.

The only caution I give with the cooking is to watch your granola closely with the oven method ... as you may end up with some "extra-crispy" pieces if you're not careful.  See my "crispies" near the edges??  I wasn't watching closely enough toward the end of the baking time.  Oops!

I like the result of each method equally well ... so I'll probably go with the microwave method in future batches, just for ease and the time factor.

The best method for you? ... Just ask yourself ... "Crunchy or chewy?"  And there you'll have it!

Traditional Granola
Source:  My Mom
(Printable recipe)
1/4 c. butter
1/2 c. honey
1 tsp. vanilla
2 1/4 c. old-fashioned oats
1/4 c. wheat germ (optional)
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 c. coarsely chopped walnuts (or other nut of choice)
1/2 c. raisins or currants (I use currants)

Microwave Method:
Cut butter into small pieces.  Combine all ingredients EXCEPT raisins/currants in a large microwave-safe bowl.  Microwave on high for 6 to 7 minutes, stirring every 2 minutes.  Stir in raisins/currants.  Spread onto a baking sheet to cool.  Let cool completely.  Store tightly covered.

Oven Method:
Melt butter in a large bowl.  Add honey, vanilla, and cinnamon; stir to combine.  Add oats; stir until oats are well coated with butter mixture.  Add chopped nuts and stir to combine.  Spread mixture onto a baking pan.  Bake at 325 degrees for 20 to 25 minutes, stirring about every 5 minutes.  Remove from oven and stir in raisins/currants.  Let cool completely.  Store tightly covered.


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