RECIPE: Triple Chocolate Candy Cane Cake

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10 years ago, I had a cake at a friend's party around Christmas. It was the most AMAZING cake I had in a while. It also had all my favorite flavors-peppermint combined with rich chocolate. She told me it came out of Kraft's Food and Family magazines they used to print and mail to loyal consumers, and secretly told me it starts with a box cake. The cake always stayed with me, and I always meant to look through my old Food and Family magazines to find the cake recipe. Needless to say I was shocked it was made from a box cake, it certainly did not taste like it at all. This year, I decided to try and find it. Thanks to the almighty Google, I FOUND IT. 

It did not disappoint. The cake was as delicious as I remembered it, and my in laws were raving about it all evening. For the frosting you use non dairy whipped topping, making the cake seem creamy and light. If you want a richer frosting, my whipped vanilla frosting also would be lovely. I posted it below the main recipe here. 

Triple Chocolate Candy Cane Cake

Ingredients

1 box chocolate cake mix, we like Betty Crocker
1 package instant chocolate pudding
4 eggs
1 8 oz. container sour cream
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup milk
1 package (4 oz.) semi-sweet chocolate, roughly chopped
1 cup crushed candy canes, divided (3 Tbsp. in batter, rest for middle and top frosting)
1 tub (8 oz.) non dairy whipped topping (like Cool Whip) for frosting

Alt Frosting Instead of Cool Whip
Whipped Vanilla Frosting:
1 cup milk (full fat or low fat) 
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup butter, softened
2 well rounded teaspoons vanilla

Directions

Preheat oven 350˚. Spray 2 9" round cake pans with nonstick cooking spray. Set aside.

 


In a large bowl, whip 4 eggs briefly, then whip the sour cream and oil until well blended. Next pour the cake mix and pudding mix into the same bowl, and whip on slow until just combined. Then add the wet ingredients (milk and water) and whip until blended, creamy and thick. 




With a spatula, blend in the chopped chocolate and the 3 Tbsp. crushed candy cane bits until evenly distributed. Pour batter evenly between the two cake pans. Bake in the middle of the oven until center springs back when touched and toothpick at the center comes out clean-about 30-40 minutes.


Let cool in pans for about 10 minutes, then invert on wire racks to cool completely. Meanwhile defrost Cool Whip.





 

Spread 1/2 cup frosting on the bottom cake layer. Then sprinkle 2 Tbsp. crushed candy canes on top. Place the 2nd cake layer on top of the first, then frost the sides and top of the whole cake. Chill until ready to serve. Just before serving, sprinkle the top with the crushed candy canes. If you do it earlier the candy cane gets melty and runny on top.


Alt Vanilla Frosting Directions
In a small saucepan over medium low heat, whisk flour with the milk. Whisk constantly, moving to a spoon midway until mixture becomes very thick. Take off heat and cool completely. It may be a good idea to get this done earlier so it has time to sit and cool. If this mixture is warm in any way, the frosting will not come together, but separate and get congealed and well...weird.

With a mixer, whip the butter until light and fluffy. Add the sugar and beat until fluffy. Gradually add the milk mixture a few Tablespoons at a time until all combined. Add the vanilla and give it a minute more. It should look like a fluffy buttercream, and quite spreadable.

CRAFTS: One Day Quilt Using Square By Design® Fabric

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Walking around JoAnn Fabrics this fall, I found a really cool line of fabrics called Square By Design®. The design that caught my eye was the fish square. Each of the squares has a lovely tapestry-like embroidery, and is very thick. I think they are usually used for upholstery or pillows. The fish one stayed with me, as my husband is an avid angler and has been teaching me how to fly fish. He ties his own flies and fishes at all times of the year. He always has asked me for a quilt, and I never made time to make him one, and I have always felt guilty about that. I wondered if I could use the square fish piece at the center of a throw quilt for our "fixer-upper" lakehouse as a christmas gift for him.

My one worry was the thickness of the square. What fabric could I match with it to make an evenly stitched and weighted quilt? Quilts are usually a light cotton, making it easy to cut into all sorts of shapes and stitch. A fellow quilter friend suggested denim. That was a perfect suggestion, and denim comes in all shades of blues. At one point I considered upcycling all of the old denim jeans and skirts in my house that were in the donation pile. I ran out of time for that, so resorted to getting new denim from the fabric shop. Denim comes in all kinds of designs, shades, stripes and colors, but I kept it basic. I also found a beautiful, thick fabric that had shades of aqua and blue that matched the fish. It's an upholstery fabric too, but figured this quilt was going to need dry cleaning anyway, so using more upholstery fabric didn't matter.

The design is very basic, with just color blocks. Considering the square in the middle measures 24 x 24 (25" assuming a seam allowance), using 1 foot squares (12.5" assuming a seam allowance) made measuring and cutting super simple. Also, most fabric bolts are 50" wide, you are only really needing 1 yard per color-and that gives you a bit of extra if you screw up or want to make some special strips for some edging. I used the aqua color as the main block and flip flopped the cream stripes and the darker denim in between. For the back piece I used a cream denim, 2 yards at 50" wide, one piece covered the whole back with a horizontal cut at the bottom to fit.

I cut the pieces using a rotary blade at around 10 a.m, and had it filled and stitched (by machine) by 2 p.m. BOOM.

My husband was delighted and surprised! Check out some of the other designs at JoAnn's-see if it inspires you to make a quick little blanket for a loved one. I am eying up the cardinal for my daughter-she loves cardinals.

One Day Quilt Using Square By Design® Fabric




Pieces cut, and pinning front to front.


Just keep pinning front to front, following your schematic.



All pinned! Now to the machine.


Straight stitch blocks together, pulling out pins as you stitch. Keep going until it's all sewn together.

 

You need a bit of an open space to assemble your quilt. Lay your top piece on the floor or a large table, upside down. Then roll out 1-2 layers of quilting fiber fill in an even layer, patted down gently with no air bubbles or wrinkles.


Next, lay your quilt back fabric, right side up. Using large safety pins, pin all three layers together in place. I try and use 3-4 pins in a row, then roll the quilt a color block's worth and pin another row. Continue pinning, rolling, pinning, rolling, until all pinned up.




Now right under the machine, follow your color blocks along the seam edges, starting about 1 1/2" in from the outer edges to give you room to properly close the sides, horizontal and vertically, through all three layers, sewing it all together. If you want to stitch a more complex design, go for it, but I wanted to keep mine simple and masculine for the hubby. Next go around the outer edge in a giant square, about 1" in. Finally, fold and tuck the outer edges into each other, rolling in any extra fiber fill, creating a clean seam, and sew the edges shut. This is a very basic edging and you will see a seam. You can also do edging strips that hide the stitching, but this takes more time and artistry. Here is a great how to video on binding a quilt properly.

VIDEO RECIPE: Fresh Italian Ravioli

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Christmas Day 2016, all cooked up with my mom's meat sauce all over them. Yum!

Over the years I have been making an effort to document my parents making all the yummy things I have come to take for granted. One of those things, especially around the holidays, is my mother's cheese ravioli.

I decided last week to video tape her making them. Lucky for us! Here it is.

We enjoy fresh ravioli on Christmas Day with a luscious meat sauce. It's a hearty meal accompanied by tenderloin and lots of sides-a large contrast from the night before (Christmas Eve) where we enjoy the "Feast of the Seven Fishes" and abstain from meat.

You have one week, so get your ravioli dough made and get ROLLING!



RECIPE: Amaretti for the Holidays

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As some of you may know, I am a first generation Italian. SO there are certain cookies around the holidays that are a must, like the tri-colored Neopolitans, or Struffoli, or Cartellate. One cookie we keep trying to tackle every year is the treasured Amaretti. We've tried my Aunt Silvana's recipe, my Aunt Rita's recipe, with huge fails. (I have often wondered if my Aunts left out steps on purpose-Italian women are competitive with their baking.) Then we moved on to famous chefs, trying a Batali and a Giada recipe. Those were bigger fails then even my Aunts' recipes, with the dough spreading out flat and burning on our trays.

We vowed to try one last time this year, and what we found out in our research was that yes, one of our Aunts missed a step (whipping eggs into stiff peaks). Also, some recipes added lemon zest that seemed funky to us. We also discovered that you need not-so-fine almond meal and very, very fine sugar. The fine sugar gives you the soft on the inside, crispy on the outside texture. But the big learning was almond meal versus almond flour (too fine and oily, and your Amaretti goes flat) or grinding it yourself (too course and crumbly). To get a clearer understanding of the differences check out this post.

We were thrilled with our Amaretti. We could not stop eating them, we barely had enough for our cookie plates for neighbors. We adapted this recipe from the blog kitchen sanctuary, and we give a big hats off to her. After all, I think we went through 5 recipes over the years before we found something successful!

We made some minor changes below, but the key is using a scale to measure your dry ingredients. If you want to skip the Amaretto, double your almond extract to keep that rich almond flavor, which is what this cookie is known for.


Amaretti

Ingredients:

3 egg whites from large eggs, room temp
9.9 oz. almond meal (see comments above)
9.9 oz. “Baker’s sugar” or Caster sugar
¼ tsp. vanilla extract
1 tsp. almond extract
2 Tbsp. almond liquor like Amaretto

For rolling:
¼ cup or so of Bakers or Caster sugar in a bowl

Directions:

Line baking sheets with parchment paper and preheat oven to 325˚.


 

With a mixer, whip the egg whites to stiff peaks. Fold in the sugar, almonds, both extracts and liquor. This is tricky, try not to overwork but make sure everything is well combined. Combine until the dough is a thick paste and can be formed into a ball, but it will be sticky.


By using a small teaspoon, scoop out some dough and shape/roll it with your hands and roll it in the sugar. Place on the baking sheet. Continue on with the rest of the dough, spacing the balls about 2 inches or so apart.


Using wet fingers, pat the balls slightly down.


Place in the oven and bake for 15-20 minutes. Cookie edges should be lightly golden and the tops have cracking. Let cool on the trays for at least 5 minutes, if not more. We found them easier to transfer the more they were left to set up on the trays.


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Store in an airtight container for about a week.

RECIPE: Greek Lemon Chicken CousCous Soup

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Chicago is known for it's food communities, and one of my favorite food trips is a visit to Greek town. One of my favorite things to have there is a nice bowl of lemon chicken soup. Traditionally, its made with rice. My recipe uses pearl couscous-but you can also replace it with quinoa or brown rice.

I adapted this recipe from 12 tomatoes, with the main change being the method of cooking. I like to brown my proteins first for a deeper flavor, and giving a fond to the base of the pan for a rich meat flavor. After browning the meat, it's nice to scrape up all the brown bits to help caramelize the vegetables at the bottom of the pan in phases, and then deglazing all of it with the chicken broth. Keep the couscous to the last 10-15 minutes of cooking.

This was a delicious meal after a snow storm last week. Have some crusty bread nearby for dunking!


Greek Lemon Chicken Cous Cous Soup

Ingredients:
2 chicken breasts
2 cups carrots, chopped
1 cup onion, chopped
1 cup celery, chopped
6 cups chicken stock
1 cup milk
1/2 cup cornstarch
1/2 cup pearl (Isreali) couscous
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
2 Tbsp. olive oil
3 cloves garlic, crushed
2 bay leaves
2 tsp. lemon zest
1/2 tsp. dried tarragon
1 tsp. dried chives
1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes
kosher salt and ground pepper to taste

Directions:


In a large stock pot, heat the olive oil. Add the chicken breasts and brown on both sides. Transfer breasts to a platter, and into the hot stock pot add the garlic and onion. 



Sauté until softened, scraping up whatever brown bits you can from the chicken meat as you stir. Next add the carrots, red pepper flakes and celery. Cook for about 10 minutes, or until nice and softened.


Next add the broth, scraping the bottom aggressively as you do to get all that rich flavor and caramelization into the soup. Add the bay leaves, tarragon, a sprinkling of salt and pepper to taste and bring up to a simmer.



 Add the chicken breasts, and partially cover the pot and simmer for about 10-15 minutes. Meanwhile whisk the cornstarch with the milk in a bowl, and set aside. 
When chicken is cooked through, carefully pull it out. Whisk in the milk and cornstarch mixture into the broth, and slowly bring to a simmer again. Meanwhile, shred the chicken, and add it to the soup.


 Add in the couscous too, and cook for another 10 minutes, or until the couscous is tender.

Pull out the bay leaves, add the chives, lemon zest and juice. Give it all a nice stir and serve hot.

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