Sunday, May 30, 2010

May Birthday Cake: Sunshine Cake

I hope everyone is having a great Memorial Day weekend! If you’re looking for a last minute dessert addition to your menu, I’d like to recommend the Sunshine Cake, which happens to be the birthday cake of the month for May. It is a light, spongy cake that is easy to make and is the perfect treat to kick off the summer season. Orange rind and freshly squeezed juice give this cake a delightful citrus flavor that is just enough to satisfy any sweet tooth, but at the same time is refreshing on a hot summer afternoon. I chose to skip the gum drop flowers; I think the cake is perfect all by itself and the sugary candy would detract from the fresh fruit flavor. Also, if you do decide to make this cake, it only took 30 minutes to bake in my oven instead of the 1 hour suggested on the card so keep an eye on the cooking time. 

I hope you all have a happy and safe Memorial Day weekend!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Celebrating the Arrival of Summer: Spinach Salad & Cornbread

Summer has arrived with a vengeance. Technically, it doesn’t officially begin until the middle of June, but the record-setting high temperatures we had in Minneapolis this week have left everyone agreeing that summer has settled in for the season.

It was too hot to tackle the weeds in the garden so I decided to cook instead. Murphy hates the heat so he stayed curled up on the cool kitchen floor, right in the middle of all the activity. He thought about cooling off in the pool a few times, but as soon as I opened the door and the heat hit him in the face, he turned around and returned to his spot at my feet.

To celebrate summer, I wanted to make a meal complete with all the wonderful treats we get to enjoy this time of year. My goal was to make dishes that didn’t require turning on the oven, but that didn’t happen.

I started with a spinach salad. When I began reading the ingredients on the card, I was intrigued by the combination of flavors in this salad. I never would have thought to combine bacon, oranges and avocado, but I have to say that I was more than pleasantly surprised. This is a refreshing and very tasty mix of flavors and textures. And the dressing is the perfect way to top it all off. I usually make salads with green leaf or romaine lettuce and just add some spinach leaves in, but I loved that this salad was entirely made of spinach. The leaves seem to have more density to them; they feel thicker and more robust than regular lettuce. It reminds me of eating whole wheat bread or whole wheat crackers. There’s just more substance to the bite. 

Dressing for the Spinach Salad

To accompany the salad, I chose to make cornbread. I’m so used to getting the little blue box of Jiffy mix from the store that I feel embarrassed to admit I wasn’t even sure of what goes into making real cornbread. But, as I’ve learned from so many other recipes in this box, it’s really not very complicated at all. And the other benefit of making it from scratch is it tastes SO much better. This cornbread has a full flavor that isn’t overly sweet and makes you mumble “mmmmmm” as you take your first bite. It was a great side dish to serve with the spinach salad.

For dessert, I chose to make a variation of the Tiny Shortbread Tarts. As I mentioned in the original post for these little cookies, I thought fresh raspberries would be a great way to top them off as opposed to the can of pie filling. Now that summer is unofficially here, the price of raspberries is starting to come down so I bought a carton and decided to test my theory. Instead of making the tarts, I patted the dough down into an 8” x 8” pan (which caused the baking time of the original recipe to increase by almost 10 minutes). While that was cooling, I made a cream cheese mixture to spread across the top which consisted of 1 package of cream cheese, ¼ cup sugar and ½ teaspoon of vanilla. Once the cookies were cool, I frosted them with the cream cheese mixture and topped it all off with raspberries. And I was right, it was divine. This variation would work for the tiny tarts as well. 

As I took the last bite of dessert and savored the explosion of fresh raspberry in my mouth, I thought of how much this project has expanded my taste buds and forced me to break out of my comfort zone. As I’ve said before, I’m a picky eater and although I enjoy oranges, bacon and avocado on their own, I never thought I’d be as bold as to throw that odd mixture of flavors into one dish and eat them all together. But, as I learned from my adventure to Canada, it’s good to break our boundaries, to push ourselves a little farther every now and then. Who knows, we may just discover something about ourselves we never would have known had we not taken that leap of faith. Each discovery makes us just a little wiser and just a little stronger. And in addition to broadening our minds, sometimes our discoveries will leave our bellies full of wonderful summer treats as well.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

When Life Hands You Lemons…Canadian Road Trip Part II: Lemon Squares

In my last post, I told the first part of the story about our trip to Canada. Only, I never even got to the part where we crossed the border. So now, I’ll pick up where I left off…
Crossing into Canada:

We thought we’d never make it, but after a few mishaps along the way, we were finally leaving US soil and I was using my passport for the very first time.

I wondered how much things would change once we crossed the imaginary line and entered foreign soil. It was the same piece of land, how much different could life be for our neighbors to the north? Surprisingly, quite different in some ways. In others, it was exactly the same. The first thing we noticed was that we had entered into the metric system. Luckily the GPS we were using changed to kilometers and told us our speed so that Ryan didn’t have to decipher it from the little red kilometer lines on the car’s speedometer. And gas was in liters so that required some mental conversions before we knew how much we were paying for a tank of gas. Have I mentioned that I hate math? I let my engineer husband handle the calculations.

The other thing we noticed as we drove down the highway was their street signs. Our favorite was the caution sign with a silhouette of a moose on it and the notice of “Night Danger” posted below. Sadly, we never did see a moose. 

And of course, there was the difference in currency. We had changed money to Canadian before crossing the border. The US dollar that day was worth two cents more than Canadian so we got a little extra money. Yea! And their currency is very similar to ours so there was no confusion there. But their taxes are substantially higher than those in the U.S., especially on beer.

In doing our research into Thunder Bay, we couldn’t decide whether we wanted to stay at a hotel downtown or one a little farther into the wilderness. We opted for the wilderness because we wanted a little peace and quiet. Also, we had read some online reviews for the downtown hotels and were a little afraid of what we’d find. When we finally hobbled up to our hotel, we were glad we made the choice to stay farther outside of town. The hotel was surrounded by a fairly wooded area with a small range of mountains and a pond in the back. Our luck temporarily shifted to our favor because we ended up with a mountain-view room. The room was nothing spectacular, but it was clean and had a sliding door that opened onto a beautiful vista, which we stared at for several minutes before tackling the chore of finding someone to fix a busted tire on a Sunday. A few minutes of searching told us that the smaller local shops were all closed on Sunday, but there were a few bigger chains that would be open and hopefully able to help.

Next, we decided to explore Thunder Bay and find dinner. Pizza and a cold beer was the only thing that sounded good. And with a GPS, we thought finding dinner would be no trouble at all to find. We could not have been more wrong. First, if you’ve never been to Thunder Bay, it’s not a touristy town. It’s very industrial. If you’re familiar with Duluth, MN, I was expecting something similar to that type of area: cute shops and restaurants along the water, a marina area, and beautiful water views. Instead, Thunder Bay has factories occupying the best water real estate and the downtown area is much more run-down and dirtier than Duluth. As we undertook the quest to find a pizza place, we became more and more frustrated. Each location the GPS suggested was either out of business, carry-out only, or really disgusting. We finally found Boston’s Pizza, a local chain that reminded me of a nice Pizza Hut. So far, we were pretty discouraged with our trip, but hoped the next day would be better.

Our main priority for Sunday was to fix the car. Then vacation could begin. The first place we tried said they might be able to fit us in Monday afternoon. That wasn’t going to work. We eventually found a WalMart and they were able to get us an appointment. After waiting for the tire to be evaluated, finding out it couldn’t be fixed and had to be replaced, waiting for installation, losing a credit card at the place we had lunch (thankfully it was found), finding out the car had been done for about half an hour and nobody told us, spending a nice chunk of our vacation fund on a new tire, then spilling a full, hot cup of coffee all over ourselves and the car, we were finally on our way. The first stop: Sleeping Giant Provincial Park.

There is a fascinating story behind this rock giant. It’s too long to tell, but if you click here, you can read about the legend. 

The Sleeping Giant

As I mentioned in the last post, Lake Superior is breathtaking and we wanted to get some nice photographs of the lake. We thought a provincial park would offer the best opportunity for that. Had we been more prepared, it would have. After driving quite some distance away from Thunder Bay, we reached the park and immediately noticed how thick the woods were on this peninsula. The trees were as dense as matted dog hair on either side of the road. Looking into them was nearly impossible, but that didn’t stop the deer from coming crashing out of the trees in front of our car. I swear we saw at least 100 deer on our drive through the park, which made for a very slow ride. But the coolest thing we saw was a wolf running down the side of the road and ducking into the cover of thick foliage. Unfortunately it all happened too quickly for me to take a picture.

We kept waiting for a break in the trees so that we could see the lake. One never appeared. At a gravel parking lot along the road, we pulled over and looked at a map posted on a park sign hoping we’d find access to a scenic overlook or public beach. Instead, we discovered that those things could only be reached by hiking quite some distance through the woods or by the campground area that was currently closed because it was still considered off-season (a term we’d encounter several times throughout the weekend that would alter our entire trip). We considered hiking into the woods until we calculated how long it would take and that we were in no way prepared for a long-distance hike (improperly dressed, no bottles of water, etc…) And after seeing a wolf, we both admitted this wilderness needed to be taken seriously. Neither of us wanted to become those unprepared tourists who get attacked by a bear and end up on the evening news as examples of what you don’t want to do in a Canadian provincial park. So we got back in the car and decided to drive a little farther to see if we could find water.

About ten minutes later, we finally found what we had been so desperately searching for. Silver Islet is a small town at the end of the peninsula and was the first silver mine in Ontario. The old miner’s homes are now private summer cottages and the general store has been restored and is open during the summer. Since we were there in the off season, no one was around and nothing was open. It was a little creepy. But the view is beautiful and we finally got the shots we were looking for.
That night we celebrated with an anniversary dinner at The Keg Steakhouse. I don’t eat a ton of red meat, but that night I had filet mignon with asparagus, shrimp and scallops in a béarnaise sauce. Everything about it was perfect. The meat was just a little red, but not raw. The asparagus was the perfect combination of crispy and soft. And scallops are my most favorite thing in the whole world; it’s not too often that I don’t enjoy a scallop.

The next day we checked out of the hotel and embarked on our final two Canadian adventures. The first was a stop at Kakabeka Falls, a trip which would have gone smoothly if we had trusted our instincts to follow the signs and not the GPS which led us on an excursion through unmarked, unpaved farm roads. After the previous tire adventure, we weren’t hoping for a repeat in the middle of nowhere Canada. Thankfully, we made it to the falls, car intact. However, we had to scramble to find change for the parking meter. Stupidly, we had the idea that morning to use all of our Canadian change in the vending machine at the hotel to buy unique candy and prevent a return home with pockets full of money we couldn’t use. Once correct change was in the meter and we had taken photos from every possible angle of the majestic, but nearly dry waterfall, we stopped at a cute little place called the Metropolitan Moose for muffins and hot coffee. That morning the temperatures were in the upper 30s and my hands had nearly gone completely numb while firing off photos of the falls. 

Kakabeka Falls

On a full stomach and with ten fully functions fingers, we made our way to the last stop: Fort William Historical Park. The park is a recreation of the original fur trade post from the early 1800s. The detail and accuracy of the fort is quite spectacular. But once again, that nasty little term “off-season” would come back to rear its ugly head. The fort is open year round and offers tours, but the real action is in the summer when all the activities are in full swing and the park is fully staffed with actors who take you back and give you the opportunity to experience what the fort felt like when it was operating in the 1800s. We were the only ones on our tour, but, in a way, it worked to our advantage. We had a tour guide who was fully decked out in authentic 1800s attire and took us on a complete behind-the-scenes tour of the fort. Although it would have been a lot of fun to see it fully operational, we had an amazing afternoon stepping back in time and learning what life was like during the height of the fur trade. One of my favorite parts was learning of the journals that were kept and how they were used, along with a lot of tedious note-taking, to create maps of that region in North America. Sadly, not many journals survived, but some endured the harsh environment and were later printed as books. The journals of Alexander MacKenzie, explorer and employee of the North West Company (the company which owned Fort William), are one example of journals that were published (I’m working on tracking down a copy of the book). 

Fort William Historical Park

After leaving Fort William, we began the long trek back to Minneapolis, somewhat relieved to be putting an end to this crazy adventure. On the way back, we listed all the things that had gone wrong: the blown-out tire, a lost credit card, spilled coffee, an elusive lakefront, somewhere along the way I scratched my eye, everything being “off-season,” and at one point, I was even rammed by a young cow complete with a small set of horns (I was told he was “friendly,” thankfully no serious damage was done). But then we started to list all the things that we never would have experienced had those things not happened: meeting Anne and realizing the power of the kindness of strangers, seeing a wolf dive into the dense forest, learning the legends of the people who were the original inhabitants of this great nation, and realizing that there are more ways to live than just the one we’re used to. I think the best thing we got out of our trip to Canada was stepping outside of our comfort zone, granted it was only a small step, but even shaking up your life a little bit is a good thing. I thought of how much my life has changed in the year I’ve been unemployed and how thankful I am for that. I’ve taken a chance on trying many new things and most importantly, I’ve taken a chance on my writing. It’s terrifying to write about my experiences and throw them out to the world not having any idea or control over how they’ll be received. But I also realized that the only thing more terrifying than that, is not writing at all. Since I changed my major from biology to writing in college, I knew I wanted to be a writer. After graduation I accepted a job in the corporate world, which provided a steady paycheck and an opportunity to do some copywriting, but also became an excuse for why I wasn’t continuing with the writing life I dreamed about prior to accepting my diploma.

Lately I’ve been hearing a lot about your “authentic self” and realized how much I’ve crushed my own spirit and destroyed that authentic being. Sure, it was easy to blame work for a lack of time and energy to write, but there was also that inner critic who kept pounding into my head that I wasn’t good enough. We all have that voice, whether we want to be a writer, an artist, an athlete, a scientist, a musician, an actor, or anything else. And we all need to find the strength and the courage to tell that voice to SHUT UP. It’s easier some days than others. And sometimes we let that voice completely take over until we don’t even recognize our authentic self at all. That’s when we need a wake up call, maybe several. For me, it started with a bout of unemployment and I got a reminder during a trip to Canada.

As Ryan and I were thinking of all the good experiences that came from the bad, a famous saying came to mind: When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. And that’s just what I did. Well, lemon squares to be exact. I knew I could count on The Found Recipe Box to deliver the perfect recipe for this post and it didn’t let me down. Not only is this the best lemon square recipe I’ve ever tasted, but it’s easy to make and the ingredients are ones that I commonly use so there was no need to run to the grocery store and risk losing another tire (although, it might have provided another great story!). And the bottom layer is shortbread – my favorite! So if you’re looking for a delicious way to prove that something sour can be turned into something amazingly sweet, take your lemons and make some squares. Now that raspberries are starting to come into season, the prices are lower and they make a great addition to this treat. The combination tastes like summer and you can’t help but smile when you take a bite. 

I’m already looking forward to the next time I get to use my passport. Hopefully it will be as I cross the Atlantic and step into one of the European countries on my list of places to visit. Or maybe it will be in Vancouver when I finally get to explore the Pacific Northwest. Regardless of where it is and how many tires are lost along the way, I will keep the taste of lemon squares in my mind to remind myself that inside every adventure resides a poem, and that shortbread and sugar can transform any puckered mouth into a smile.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

There’s A Poem In That – Canadian Road Trip Part I: Three Tier Bride’s Cake

My husband and I celebrated our 4-year wedding anniversary this month. His gift to me was the opportunity to use my passport for the very first time. It was the best gift ever, even if the trip didn’t go as smoothly as we had planned. Basically, it was one of those trips where, if it could go wrong, it did.

We drove to Thunder Bay in Ontario, Canada. It is just over the border from Minnesota, about a six hour drive from Minneapolis. Once you get to Duluth, the rest of the trip is along the beautiful coast of Lake Superior. Every time I see this lake I am marveled by her beauty. When the sun shines on her frigid waters, she smiles back with the colors of the Caribbean. But don’t be fooled by her siren’s call. Although she may resemble the warm waters of the Caribbean on the outside, if you dive in, you’ll quickly learn Lake Superior more closely resembles a freezer than a hot tub. That being said, her majestic beauty is unrivaled in this area. The shores of Lake Superior are truly a place of inspiration and wonder.

Perhaps it was the spell of the lake or just Ryan and my excitement of getting out of town for a long weekend, but we felt untouchable. We had high hopes for the days ahead and spent the hours in the car planning our trip, discussing the places to visit, and mapping out a schedule for the weekend. We stopped for lunch in Grand Marais at the Crooked Spoon Café and had a lunch that rivaled Peg Leg’s grouper sandwich. We both ordered the fresh Lake Superior trout that was sautéed with a crispy cornmeal crust and served on a toasted ciabatta roll with lemon basil aioli, tomatoes, red onions and lettuce. It was simply amazing. I’m not sure which was more impressive, the fish or the bread. Usually that isn’t even an issue, but the roll was so wonderfully crispy on the outside, warm and soft on the inside and was the perfect match for the fish that it was tough to decide which I liked more. And the lemon basil aioli was the only condiment worthy of this incredible sandwich. Writing this makes me want to get in the car and drive to Grand Marais to get another one. At least it’s a shorter drive than Pensacola Beach!

After lunch, we stopped at Beth’s Fudge & Gifts and picked up some fudge for the trip – caramel chocolate. It was so good that we stopped on the way back to Minneapolis and got another small box! The fudge was creamy and rich, and the caramel had that wonderful homemade flavor. I need to try adding caramel to the top of the Never Fail Fudge recipe.

After we filled up on fish and fudge, we began the last stretch of the journey to Canada. We were about 15 miles away from the border when we noticed that the road had become very loud. We surveyed the asphalt and it didn’t appear any different than what we had been driving on, so to be cautious, we pulled over and examined the car. Sure enough, we had a flat tire. This stretch of road has woods on either side, is far from any semblance of a town and is out of reach of a cell tower. Of course it is, where else would my car decide is the best place to breakdown? Ryan and I looked at each other and nearly at the same time asked, “Do you know how to change a tire?” I pulled out the owner’s manual as Ryan dislodged the spare tire and jack. While we began to wrack our brains trying recall the lessons from driver’s ed in high school, a woman pulled over and called out to us, “Did you lose your dog?” It was then that I noticed the beagle sitting in her lap, looking eagerly at us from the open window.

I explained that we were trying to fix a tire and that yes, we had a dog, but we dropped him off at “camp” that morning, almost six hours away, and he didn’t look anything like the one struggling to jump out of her car. She introduced herself as Anne and immediately offered to help. She said she knew some people just up the road in Grand Portage and offered to take us there. Ryan got in the car with her, the beagle quickly leapt into his lap, and I stayed with my poor broken down vehicle. As they drove away, I thought of how this situation was the opening plot to so many slasher films I’d seen and quickly wrote down the license plate number…just in case. But then I looked into the thick woods along the side of the highway and realized that I was the one more likely to fall victim to a killer like the Hook Man and poor Ryan would be the one to come back to find nothing but an empty car and a bloody hook stump left dangling from the door handle (I must remember to thank my dad for telling me that story as a kid, as you can see, it left a lasting impression). As these nightmares danced around in my head, my bladder gave me a moment of respite from the horror by reminding me of the three diet cokes I’d had at lunch. I tried to read a book to take my mind off of everything, but couldn’t concentrate. My attempts at trying to write in my journal suffered the same result. Instead, I thought of my poetry group.

Every Thursday night when the group meets, we usually chat for a while before getting down to business. Quite often, someone recounts a tale that makes us laugh until tears roll down our cheeks or leaves our jaws suspended in a stunned silence. Regardless of the effect, we always call out the same response to the storyteller: “There’s a poem in that!” As I sat in my current predicament, I could clearly hear their voices in my head telling me those words I had said to so many of them over the years. I was sure there were words to describe this scene, and once I was a little farther removed from the situation (and had emptied my pounding bladder), perhaps I could find them. And maybe I’d even be able to chuckle about this little misadventure too.

About 20 minutes later, a man pulled up and said he’d heard I needed some help. I looked at him and said, “Have you seen my husband?” He replied that Ryan was right behind him and sure enough, the car with the kind stranger, my husband, and the crazy beagle pulled up moments later. As the man showed Ryan how to change a tire, I used Murphy’s leash to walk the beagle around so that he wouldn’t pee in the nice lady’s car. As I leaned down to pet him, I noticed rib bones protruding from his side and wondered if there was anything in our car I could offer him as a snack. I found some granola bars, not the best thing for him to eat, but better than the dead mouse I had just pulled from his mouth. No sooner had I unwrapped the first bar than he had swallowed it…whole. Not good. He was anxiously trying to get to the box so I unwrapped another and carefully broke it into pieces before feeding the dog. It didn’t matter, he barely chewed them. Although he was little, his hunger took over and he became hard to control. I broke up one more bar hoping that it would help ease his empty stomach then took him back to Anne’s car.

As I approached, she said Ryan told her I wrote poetry. She told me she used to write poetry too, but there was no money in it so she became a songwriter. Anne asked me to recite one of my poems for her. I drew a blank. I had just submitted a 17-page manuscript as part of an application for the Mentor Series at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis and couldn’t remember one word of it. I felt horrible. For everything she had just done for us and I couldn’t even give her one line of poetry. And especially after the voices of my poetry group had just invaded my head, their words echoing off the empty chambers of my mind, “there’s a poem in that, there’s a poem in that, there’s a poem in that…”

The man finished our tire and Anne loaded the beagle back into her car, saying she had an idea of who might own the lost dog. Once our car was reassembled we cautiously drove away on our spare tire. As soon as the pavement was beneath all four wheels, a few lines from one of my poems popped into my head:
Black eagle on weathered blue siding.
Black dogs who dig black holes,
one who lives for the sound of my voice.

These lines are about “my” dog, Dorie, that lives with my parents (technically she’s my parents’ dog, but we have a very special bond and I love that dog very, very much). Dorie recently had emergency surgery for bloat and nearly died. I haven’t stopped thinking about her since I found out, so I wasn’t surprised these were the words that came to me. It would have meant a lot to share those lines with Anne and I couldn’t believe that I recalled them only moments after she had disappeared from my review mirror. 

Dorie – my sweet, sweet girl

We pulled over at the gas station in Grand Portage so that I could relieve my aching bladder and Ryan could double check the spare tire. It’s a good thing we checked because the tire was already low on air. The first air pump we tried was broken – of course. As we began to lose hope of ever crossing the border into Canada, a gas station attendant informed us of another pump by the car wash. Although this one was finicky, it finally worked and we were back on the road.

As we drove, Ryan told me about his ride with Anne and said he wished I had been the one to ride with her because we had such similar interests. She was an amazing story teller, he said, and gave him the history of Grand Portage, told him of her poetry and song writing, and gave him tips of things to do (and not to do) in Thunder Bay. I told him of her request and how bad I felt that I had been unable to provide her even a few lines of my poetry.

So I have a request: if anyone out there knows Anne from Grand Portage who writes poetry and songs, works at the casino, has taken on the job of becoming a Census worker, and rescues lost dogs and stranded travelers from the side of the highway, please tell her to contact me ( I owe her a poem. And I have just the poem in mind. Ironically, the title is Lost Along the Way. How fitting not only for this blog, but also for the entire story of our trip to Canada and how we met Anne. It is the poem whose lines came to me moments after our departure and I would be honored to share it with her. And I really hope the dog didn't puke in her car. If he did, I owe her a little more than a poem.

And to everyone from Grand Portage who helped us out, thank you. We are so grateful for your help and cannot express enough how thankful we are for your generosity and kindness. The world needs more people like you in it.

There is much more to this story, I haven’t even gotten to the part where we finally cross the border, but it will need to wait until the next post. This one is quite long enough already. And I haven’t even gotten to the recipe yet, which has a story all its own.

As I mentioned, Ryan and I celebrated our fourth anniversary this month. The tradition for your first anniversary is to eat the top of your wedding cake that has been frozen for a year. However, we never got to do that because ours was stolen from our reception hall. Even though I’ve been told that 1-year old frozen cake is gross, I was still mad because our wedding cake was exquisite. The bakery we used was Lovin Oven Cakery (if you’re in the Chicagoland area and need a cake I HIGHLY recommend this bakery, they are amazing) and the flavor of our cake was “strawberry shortcake.” It was a white cake with a fudge layer, custard layer, strawberry layer and white frosting. It brings tears to my eyes, even four years later, thinking about someone else eating the top layer of our cake. 

Our wedding cake surrounded by the bridal bouquets

As always though, The Found Recipe Box provided the perfect recipe for this momentous occasion: Three Tier Bride’s Cake. 

Perhaps a 3-level cake was a bit much for just Ryan and I on our anniversary, but since we never got the top layer of our wedding cake, I thought we deserved it. Please note, if you do make this cake, make sure you have A LOT of people to help you eat it. It would be perfect for a graduation or anniversary party. The cake itself is a dense, heavy bread-like cake. It doesn’t have the typical sugary cake taste and a small piece will fill you up quickly. The recipe card calls for another boiled icing, my nemesis, but I chose to search the web for something a little tastier for my anniversary cake instead. The recipe I used was for “Creamy Chocolate Frosting” and I found it on (click here for the recipe). Since the cake was so large, it required a double batch. This is a great frosting recipe and I will definitely use it again. I attempted to decorate the cake with little white flowers and a shimmery cake glitter, but my cake decorating skills definitely need some work. 

I’m still working on writing the poem from our tire blow-out adventure. I think I needed to write the whole story down first before I could choose the pieces that were deserving of a place in a poem. In life, especially in the kitchen, it seems that the best stories come from unexpected places and most of the time, those are misadventures. Sure, our trip didn’t go smoothly, but we have some great stories to tell as a result. And the best part was that we experienced it all together. I guess you could say this trip was somewhat of a metaphor for the past four years of marriage. We’ve seen some breathtaking views and we’ve hit some bumps along the way, but regardless of the experience, we’ve been by each other’s side through all of it. There isn’t a chocolate recipe in the world sweeter than that. Thank you, Ryan, for these amazing years. I can’t wait to see what the future holds for us. Something tells me, no matter what we encounter; there will be a recipe in the box to help us tell the story. Happy 4th anniversary, I love you with all my heart.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

For the Gulf Coast: Baked Shrimp & Cheese

I apologize for the lack of posting this month. From the end of April until the first week in June, my schedule is packed with traveling and visitors and sadly I haven’t been able to write, or cook, as often as I’d like. But I have a quick break between travels and I wanted to catch you up on all the exciting food stories from my trip to Florida.

One of my favorite foods is seafood. It’s usually my first choice from a restaurant menu and I’ve been experimenting with different fish recipes in my own kitchen. Living in the Midwest, my choice in fresh fish options is somewhat limited. But whenever I travel to Florida, I always take full advantage of the wide range of seafood choices native to the area. And this trip was no exception. There was only one day I didn’t eat some form of seafood.

Food was a big part of this trip. Our family has been traveling to Pensacola, FL since we were kids so we have quite a history with this city, which includes a long list of favorite restaurants. And we made sure to hit each one before the week was over.

One of our first stops was Peg Leg Pete’s on Pensacola Beach. We went at the beginning of the week and for the rest of the trip, Peg Leg’s grouper sandwich was a common topic of discussion. It’s a meal that makes you salivate just at the mere mention of its name. Imagine a big chunk of beautiful flaky white fish either char grilled or lightly fried that literally melts in your mouth with each bite. If I could eat that sandwich everyday, I would. 

I also discovered an unexpected new favorite dish on this trip: Snow Crab Mac & Cheese. It came highly recommended by the waiter at a restaurant named Crabs – We Got ‘Em, which is also on the beach. I’m not usually a big fan of crab meat, but this dish was divine. And they even added a few grilled shrimp which a delicious surprise! The crab and shrimp were tossed with cavatappi pasta and a cheese sauce that was a blend of cheddar cheeses from upstate New York and Wisconsin then baked – absolutely scrumptious. I need to figure out how to make this one!

But my favorite moments of the trip were sharing cooking stories with my grandmother and going through her recipe boxes. The Found Recipe Box, and even my personal recipe box, is broken into categories within the box. But my grandmother has an entire box for each category! I counted 17 boxes in total. I was in heaven! Most were typical metal or plastic recipe boxes, but one had rings and reminded me of a rolodex or a calendar that you flip over everyday. And one was an old cardboard box full of envelopes that were packed with recipes. In one of the boxes, each card was carefully tucked into a plastic sleeve to protect it. I need to find those for my own cards! And some of the recipes – the family favorites – were taped to the inside of her cabinets where they could be looked upon lovingly every time you reach for a cereal bowl or a measuring cup. I smiled when I saw the recipe for Swedish Pancakes hanging proudly among the favorites and told my grandmother of how I chose to make that recipe first for my project and that I dedicated it to her. I can’t even imagine how many recipes are tucked into her cabinets, but I figured that I would probably be about her age when I finally cooked my way through all of them if I started now. I don’t even want to know low long it would take me to log them into my spreadsheet (I need to find a way to share that with you, although after you see it, you might think I’m crazy…it’s pretty detailed!).
My grandmother's recipe boxes. 
Some of the favorites are pulled out for easy viewing.

These are loquats that grow in my grandmother's backyard. 
Luckily I don't have recipes that use them because I wasn't a fan.

While we were in Florida, the news was dedicated primarily to the oil spill. And being able to listen to the local news gave us a totally different perspective on the disaster and its effect not only on the marine life, but also on the local people who rely on the Gulf of Mexico to make a living. From the commercial fishermen to the tourism industry, Pensacola was already seeing a dramatic effect not long after the spill even though it was still far from reaching the area. The oil didn’t need to be washing up on those pristine white beaches to take its toll. We started to consider all of the amazing seafood meals we had just enjoyed and wondered how much longer they’d be served. There were huge lines at the fish markets so that people could stock up on Gulf fish before it was no longer available. The Gulf Coast has been ravaged by hurricanes for the past few years and is just starting to recover. They didn’t need this too. Since I’ve been home I’ve kept a close watch on the news regarding the spill. Sadly, it seems to get worse and more frustrating everyday. I keep the people and the marine life in that region on my mind and in my heart and wish there was an answer to provide quick remedy for this tragic event. Unfortunately, I can’t offer a solution to the leak, but I can provide hope in the form of a recipe: Baked Shrimp & Cheese.

As soon as I got home and was reunited with The Found Recipe Box, I dove right in and searched for a recipe that would be fitting for this post. And as always, the box delivered the perfect meal. Over the years, I have consumed a lot of Gulf shrimp. My grandfather used to get shrimp fresh from the boats for us. There is nothing like fresh shrimp and my grandmother’s cocktail sauce. It’s simply the best. So I was excited to find a recipe that used shrimp. This meal is really easy to make and is absolutely delicious. I think it’s one that opens the door to experimentation with spices. Since I’m not that brave yet to deviate too far from the instructions on the card, I stayed true to the recipe. I did choose to use fresh shrimp though instead of canned and for the cheese, I chose co-jack, but again, I think this is another area for exploration within this recipe. Next time, I will try a cheese that is a little more exotic. For the bread, I chose a fresh loaf of sourdough and thought it was a good compliment to the shrimp and cheese. If you try this and have suggestions for spices to add, a different cheese or bread, please let me know. This is definitely a meal I’ll make again.

I would like to specially dedicate this post to everyone in the Gulf Coast. I hope that a solution is found soon, that life can be restored to normal with the least amount of damage possible, and that Gulf shrimp can grace your dinner table in the form of a wonderful cheesy casserole. I wish I could do more, but I hope that this dish made with a local favorite will help offer a little comfort. 

 Beautiful Pensacola Beach

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Happy Cinco De Mayo: Taco Seasoning

I’m back! I have lots of stories to share about treacherous travel, my grandmother’s recipe boxes, snow crab mac & cheese, and the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, but first I want to share a recipe to celebrate Cinco de Mayo: Taco Seasoning.

As I’ve mentioned before, tacos are a weekly staple in our house. In fact, I think Taco Tuesday might be Murphy’s favorite day of the week. So I was very happy to find a recipe in the box that would become a part of our regular meal plan. I’ve always wondered how to make taco seasoning. I figured it couldn’t be too difficult, but it was so easy just to buy the pre-made packet for less than $1 at the store that I’ve never really looked into making my own.

Most of the spices already resided in the ever-growing collection in my pantry – I only needed to buy one new spice. And after preparing the mix (which took all of two minutes) I was curious to see how it would stack up to the store bought one I usually use. The first comparison was in the taste category. Ryan and I both agreed that we loved this mix as much, if not more, than the store-bought contender. It has a little more of a kick, but that’s easy to adjust.

The second comparison was nutrition. Since I prepared the mix, I knew everything that went into it and felt comfortable that each ingredient was a pure spice. Out of curiosity, I took a peek at the ingredient list on the packet for the mix we usually use. Here’s the list:

Maltodextrin, salt, chili pepper, monosodium glutamate, corn starch, yellow corn flour, spice, sugar. Contains less than 2% of: natural flavor, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, silicon dioxide (anticaking agent), yeast extract, and ethoxyquin (preservative).

Upon reading this list, I broke out in a cold sweat as I had flashbacks from organic chemistry. But once I shook it off, I really started to think about what I had been eating once a week for the past…well, for a long time. If taco seasoning is this easy to make and can be done with only a handful of spices, what were all these other things doing on the ingredient list? And what were they? I did a little research and here’s what I found: 

The first ingredient on the list, maltodextrin, is a white powder that can be made from corn, potatoes, or rice. It’s basically an artificial sweetener. The fourth ingredient, monosodium glutamate (or MSG), is a flavor enhancer that the FDA has labeled as “generally recognized as safe,” but a simple Google search resulted in a slew of articles debating the health effects of this ingredient. Under the list of “contains less than 2%” ingredients, three turned up an equally disturbing amount of articles debating their usefulness vs. negative effect on our health. These ingredients were: partially hydrogenated soybean oil (which qualifies as a trans-fat), silicon dioxide (a food additive), and ethoxyquin (a food preservative and controversial ingredient commonly used in pet food).

I’ll admit, I’m someone who, although is concerned about my health, doesn’t spend nearly enough time scrutinizing the labels of the food I eat. I’ve often wished I craved vegetables the way I crave chocolate and I’ve tried to foster a love for baby carrots, but it has just never worked. Trying to keep up on what is healthy and what isn’t can be overwhelming and confusing. It seems that every few months, researchers change their minds and issue new statements about what we should and shouldn’t be eating. Coffee is bad. Then it’s good. It’s the same story with red wine, chocolate, etc… It makes you want to bury your head in the sand to tune it all out. But, I do know enough to recognize that I’d like to limit my exposure to controversial food additives and preservatives when possible. And thanks to The Found Recipe Box, I can take one step in the right direction.

This recipe is easy to assemble and if you regularly make tacos like we do at our house, you can make a few batches, put them into snack-sized baggies, and pull them out when you’re ready to cook. Hopefully in my journey through the box, I’ll be able to find some more recipes that offer healthier replacements to the foods we typically eat. However, considering that the box is 60% desserts, I’m not too optimistic that will be the case. 

I also wanted to share our secret to building the famous double-decker taco. Every time we’ve introduced this version to friends or family, it has been a hit. Hopefully you’ll enjoy it too! 

Step 1: Start with a small flour tortilla and cover it with a thin layer of warm refried beans. 

Step 2: Place a hard taco shell on top of the refried beans. We have found that it works best to break the shell in half.

Step 3: Fill it with meat and your favorite toppings, then fold it up and enjoy!