RECIPE: Pumpkin Apple Butterscotch Spice Cookies

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Sometimes, you need some shortcuts. Sometimes, your kid tells you at 8 p.m. that you need to be the one to bake something for class the next day, because "the kids said you were such a good baker, mom"!
Well, we can't disappoint. We also can't be up all night. SO a quick short cut is to start with a prepackage mix, and do some strategic add-ins to make it special-and not taste like it came from a box or pouch.
This little recipe I made up all by myself. Subbing applesauce for some shortening is a well known trick to cut fat down on a recipe. The flavor adds a a subtle "appleness" that goes well with the pumpkin. After that, the butterscotch morsels are just sheer genius-if I do say so myself.
Pumpkin Apple Butterscotch Spice Cookies
1 package of pumpkin spice cookie mix
4 oz. softened butter
3 oz. apple sauce (the size of a lunch snack cup)
3/4 cup butterscotch morsels
1 egg

Mix it all up, starting with a whisk, then fold in chips at the end with a spoon. Preheat oven to 375˚. Line cookie sheets with foil, drop cookie batter by the 1 1/2 Tbsp. about 2 inches apart. Bake 12 min, until cookies are puffed up and set with slightly golden edges. I flip pans halfway through cooking time for even browning. let col slightly on the sheets, then transfer to a cooling rack using a spatula to cool completely.

RECIPE: 3 Cheese Quinoa Cups

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Quinoa is a staple at our home. It's a great grain with a giant protein punch. My daughter groans when we make a quinoa pilaf, however. She thinks it has a bitter aftertaste, and I have to agree. The bitter aftertaste is on account of the natural coating on the grain itself. Aggressive prewashing can take that down a bit, but when we make it at home, it seems to always linger. I have even bought the prewashed sort, and it still  is a bit bitter. I gave up trying to "fix it", until I had a delicious lunch at a hot chain restaurant in the city called "Protein Bar". The quinoa tasted nutty and delicate with no bitterness at all. So I recommitted to figuring out how to make quinoa less bitter. And I discovered it!

We used the prewashed kind from Trader Joe's, but didn't stop there. I soaked it in cold water for 20-30 minutes, jostling it a few times in the water as it sat. Then I drained it and rinsed it through cold water twice in a strainer. Then I cooked the quinoa in chicken broth (ratio 1 part quinoa : 2 parts liquid) and a dash of olive oil. I rose it to a boil, lid off. Then lowered the heat to simmer, covered, for 20-30 minutes. Fluff with a fork and you are ready to make your cups. The quinoa was the mildest yumminess I had ever had.

3 Cheese Quinoa Cups

1 cup ricotta cheese
2 cups cooked quinoa (read notes above)
2 egg whites
2 eggs
1 1/2 cups shredded zucchini
A sprinkle of salt
1 cup sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
1/2 cup diced, cooked smoked Canadian bacon
1/4 cup chopped parsley
2 Tbsp. grated Parmesan cheese
2 green onions, chopped
2 Tbsp. fat free half and half
Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 350˚.

Whip the eggs and whites with a whisk. Add the half and half, ricotta, Parmesan, parsley, salt, pepper and onions, and mix well. Meanwhile in another bowl, sprinkle a little salt over the zucchini to draw the water out. After about 20 minutes, the zucchini will be ready to be squeezed dry. Squeeze the water out of the vegetables, tipping the bowl to drain off the water. Do it a few times, then add the zucchini into the egg mixture. 
Next add the quinoa to the egg mixture, and mix well. Add the cheddar cheese and the diced bacon. Mix well again. 
Spray a muffin tin with nonstick cooking spray. Ladle the quinoa mixture into the muffin tins to the tops of the molds. Bake the cups for about 15-20 minutes. They will puff up slightly and sizzle, as well as have a light golden top when ready. After a few minutes of cooling in the pans, they should pop right out. Serve warm, or store for a few days in the fridge for easy lunches. They can easily be frozen for up to 3 months.

RECIPE: Tutti Frutti Baked Donuts

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Maybe I'm behind the times...but evidently baked donuts are all the rage lately. I decided to get myself a baked donut pan, too. I love mixing up the breakfast repertoire. As spring slowly arrives, so does the spring produce. I decided to mix up some fresh spring berries in these donuts with a heavy dose of lemon. What turned out was what my husband referred to a tutti frutti flavor, thus the name.

The donuts were a big success, even if they weren't fried. Baking makes them healthier. Sprinkles are optional!

Oh, one final note- the blueberry donuts from inspired this recipe!

Tutti Frutti Baked Donuts

2 cups cake flour
3/4 cup sugar
2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
grated zest of 1/2 a lemon
3/4 cup fat free half and half
2 eggs, lightly beaten
2 Tbsp. melted butter
1 tsp. vanilla
1 cup cleaned/hulled halved blueberries and diced strawberries, mixed
1/2 Tbsp. sugar

Lemon Glaze
1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
1 Tbsp. milk
1 Tbsp. lemon juice
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
sprinkles (optional)


Preheat oven to 400˚. Spray a donut pan with nonstick cooking spray, and set aside.


In a smaller bowl, mix the zest with the berries and the 1/2 Tbsp. sugar and vanilla. Let macerate for about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, make the glaze. Whisk the powdered sugar with the milk, lemon juice and vanilla. Add either lemon juice or powdered sugar 1/2 tsp. at a time to get the right consistency-not too runny, not too thick.

Whisk the flour, sugar, salt and baking powder in a medium bowl. In a large bowl, whisk the eggs until beginning to foam. Add the butter and half and half, and whisk until creamy and thick. Whisk the flour mixture into the egg batter until combined, but don't over mix. Fold the berries into the batter. 

Then gently fill the donut molds 2/3rds full with the batter. Bake 8-9 minutes, until puffy and lightly golden. Let cool in the pan for 4 minutes then turn them out onto a cooling rack.

Dip the donuts, top facing down, and cover the top half with the glaze. Pull up gently, twist and flip upright. Let it dry on the cooling rack for the glaze to set. If adding sprinkles, sprinkle them on while the glaze is still wet. Continue with the rest of the donuts and serve.


RECIPE: Tarragon Lemon Blueberry Bars

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I have been meaning to play with tarragon and blueberries. And I am also trying to will spring to come to Chicago. This was my attempt to do both.

Will it work?

Let's see. In the meantime, this will have to do. It's not spring..but it's really close. They are delicious.

Tarragon Lemon Blueberry Bars

Crust and crumble:
1 1/2 cups flour
1/4 tsp. dried tarragon
3/4 cup sugar
pinch of salt
1 1/2 cups chilled butter, cubed

3 cups fresh blueberries
2 eggs
1 cup plus 1/2 Tbsp. sugar, separated

1/3 cup flour
1/2 cup sour cream
pinch of salt
1 1/2 tsp. dried, crumbled tarragon
zest and juice of half a lemon


Spray a 9 x 13 pan with cooking spray, and set aside. Preheat oven to 350˚.

In a food processor, pulse the butter, then add flour, sugar, 1/4 tsp. tarragon and salt. Pulse until crumbly. Take 3/4-1 cup of crumble mixture and set aside. Press the rest into the botttom of the baking dish, making an even level crust. Bake the crust for 15 minutes. Then let cool for a few minutes.

 Meanwhile, mix the blueberries with the lemon zest and juice, dried tarragon and 1/2 Tbsp. sugar. Let sit and macerate for about 30 minutes. Meanwhile, whisk the eggs in a medium bowl. Add the sugar and whisk until creamy and thick. Whisk in the sour cream, flour and salt.

Once the crust has cooled down a little. Pour the blueberries over the crust and spread evenly. Then gently pour the egg batter over the berries, spreading gently over the berries so it is even. Take the reserved crumble mixture and sprinkle over the egg mixture. Bake in the oven for about 1 hour. Top will be puffy with a light golden color. Cut into squares and serve with vanilla ice cream.

MOMMYHOOD: Letters to my daughter

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Years ago, when I was going through all the hoops to get confirmed in the Catholic religion, I remember a distinct moment that made an incredible impact on me. It was during a religious retreat, and unbeknownst to us, our parents were asked to write a letter to us. We were given our letters near the end of our retreat and asked to find a quiet, private corner to read them.

Not only was the fact my mother actually wrote a letter to me was surprising, but how well written, poignant, inspiring and moving it was. To give you a little context, my mother and father did not go to school to learn English. They learned it as they lived life here as Italian immigrants. They were very self conscious of writing in English. Add to that the fact that the rocky, early teen years of an 8th grader were not good to the relationship between my mother and I, and you can see why this letter made a mark on me that lasted a lifetime. I still have it saved in my "pre-teen box of goodies" I'm saving for my daughter. I saved this box of "stuff" because I wanted her to know my history- that I was 10, 11, 12, too. It's a concept most children don't completely understand. I thought if I saved my kitten-and-rainbow-sticker covered journals and share them with her over the next few years, she may understand that I get what she is going through. I was there, and I survived. So will she. And I can be there for her.

And there are other things I 've been saving. The letter from my mother moved me so much, I decided to start a tradition. I did not want my daughter to just have one letter. I wanted her to have a lot of them, I wanted them to help her and guide her even when I am not around any more. So every birthday, I have written her a letter-from when she was 1 on up. Sometimes I talk about some milestones she has accomplished, the qualities I see in her that are awesome, some things she needs to work on, advice that happens to be top of mind, observations about our family and life in general. I let the moment move me, and I document.

And lately, I have taken to documenting funny conversations or even a milestone that we have had as a family. I have also wanted to tell her things that maybe she won't understand now, but will someday. The day we moved out of our first house where she was born, I became very introspective. I found some dry cleaner paper off a wire hanger the movers left behind. As I sat in the empty house, I wrote her a letter right on that crumpled hanger paper with a sharpie. She was only 4, and didn't understand what a big move this was for all of us. I felt the need to document it and cherish it, and save it for her for when she was older. And now I have taken to documenting other things.

For example, we recently had a funny conversation in the car, and it was one of those things you wish you could just bottle and be able to go back to. My daughter is 10 now, and the preteen years are starting with the gas pedal all the way down. And during this conversation, my tomboy girl admitted liking a boy in her class. In telling me about her feelings, she said the most unique, funny, charming things about it, I just felt compelled to remember it. And I wanted her to look back and remember it, too. I want her to know that she is charming, funny and innocent. That she looks at life with a pragmatism and humor that I only wish I had at her age. I sat down that afternoon and wrote down the conversation so we would remember it someday with some giggles, adding all those qualities I just mentioned in the letter.

It's all just going so fast, and if we don't document our milestones, our feelings, our changes, our growth together as a family, how will we remember it? How can we share it? This is my way of doing it. And saying you don't have time is true. You don't. That's the whole point.

RECIPE: Pistachio Cupcakes with Milk Chocolate Frosting

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I love pistachio flavor, and pistachio nuts, pistachio color, pistachio anything really. My Dad does, too. So for his birthday last week, I was tasked to make a small dessert that the kids can easily eat and was portable and small. Cupcakes fit the bill, and this cupcake recipe I found at a great blog called looked easy and delicious. 

When it came to the frosting, I wanted to use some of the "overage" of milk chocolate candy my daughter had been given that I had saved this year-especially Easter candy.

My daughter gets a ton of Easter eggs, and the Italians like to give these giant Easter eggs that are hollow with a prize inside. There is only so much candy a kid can eat. SO I had one of these chocolate beasts stored and waiting for some baking extravaganza. I melted it down and used it in this delicious chocolate frosting. It's very versatile, and it doesn't have the heavy tang a cream cheese based frosting has. Give it a try! It's a good way to thin out the candy loot your kids have. You can freeze that extra candy and keep it on hand throughout the year to make this easy frosting.

Pistachio Cupcakes with Milk Chocolate Frosting

1 box yellow cake, preferably Betty Crocker
1 box instant pistachio pudding
4 eggs
1 cup buttermilk
1/4 cup canola oil
1/2 tsp. almond extract
3/4 cup sour cream

3-4 oz. left over Easter milk chocolate (or milk chocolate bars)
10 Tbsp. butter, softened
1/2 cup confectioners sugar
2 Tbsp + 2 tsp. light corn syrup
1/2 cup Dutch-process cocoa
1/2 tsp. vanilla
1/8 cup shelled pistachios, finely ground


Preheat oven to 350˚. Line a cupcake tin with paper liners and set aside.

Mix the cake mix and the pistachio pudding in a large bowl.

In a smaller bowl, whisk the eggs with buttermilk, oil, almond extract and sour cream. Whisk until light, foamy and combined.

With mixer on low, add the liquid mixture into the cake mix until combined. Fill the tins about 1/2 way. Bake for about 20-30 min, or until puffy and lightly golden. Toothpicks should come out clean.

Let cool on wire rack for 10 minutes, then carefully pull the cupcakes out to cool them completely on the wire rack. Meanwhile make frosting.

Melt the milk chocolate in the microwave at 50% power for about 1 minute. Mix, and heat for 30 seconds more if needed. You want things smooth and creamy. Cool chocolate down to 85˚.

Meanwhile add the butter, sugar and cocoa in a food processor. Pulse until well combined and smooth. While the processor is running, add corn syrup and vanilla extract until smooth. Next, add the cooled, melted chocolate and process until smooth and creamy. Cover and chill until ready to use, or use immediately. If chilled, you'll need to let the frosting sit out at room temp. for 10 minutes until it's workable.

Frost the cupcakes. I used a piping bag. Sprinkle the tops with the ground pistachios.You are good to go!

RECIPE: Cinnamon Creme Filled Grape Nut Bread

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You gotta love when you buy some specific product for some specific scouting project, and now don't know what to do with the rest of it. That happened to me with a box of Post Grape Nuts. Let's face it, not a cereal that makes you wanna get up in the morning and say, "YUM! Can't wait to pour myself a bowl of Grape Nut deliciousness!" It's a far cry from Cinnamon Toast Crunch-know what I mean?

But it is healthy, and it is crunchy. So I began wondering what else I can make with it. I came across a Grape Nut bread recipe that used to be on the box years ago. It seems to have been passed around the interwebs through the years. I messed with it, and added a soft cinnamon creme for the center of the bread. Because of the middle, it may fall in a little, but it is still yummy and healthy.

I still have half a box left (sigh). Trying cookies next.

Cinnamon Creme Filled Grape Nut Bread 

1/2 cup lowfat plain Greek yogurt
1/2 cup milk
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. vanilla
1 cup Grape Nuts Cereal
3 Tbsp. canola oil
2 eggs
1 cup sugar
1 cup light brown sugar
1 1/2 cup whole wheat pastry flour
1 1/2 cup regular flour
1 tsp. baking soda
2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt

4 Tbsp. soft butter
1/4 cup sugar
3 Tbsp. flour
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon

1 Tbsp. sugar
1/2 tsp. cinnamon


Preheat oven to 350˚. Spray 2 loaf pans with nonstick cooking spray. In a medium bowl, mix the yogurt, milk, cinnamon and vanilla. Add the Grape Nuts to this mixture, and combine. Let it sit for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, mix together both flours, baking soda and powder and salt with a fork in a bowl. Set aside.

In a small bowl, whisk the eggs and canola oil. Add the sugars and whisk until fluffy. Add the egg mixture to the Grape Nuts mixture and whisk until combined.

Make the filling. Beat the butter with a fork. Add the sugar, flour and cinnamon. Mix until a creamy paste.

Pour batter into each pan, halfway. Divide the filling among the two pans, spreading the filling evenly and gently over the batter. Now pour the rest of the batter over the filling, spreading it out with a spatula, dividing evenly between the two pans. Sprinkle the tops with the sugar/cinnamon mixture.

Bake for about 35-45 minutes, until breads are risen and lightly golden on top. Let cool on wire rack.

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