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It’s summertime!  The living is easy.  Pools, picnics, concerts in the park, BBQs, beaches, homemade ice cream and movies under the stars.  When you see me drinking iced instead of hot chais, reading a book instead of cooking dinner, indulging in an ice cream cone every evening and dreaming of a California coast vacation, it’s safe to say that it’s summer.  Best summer activity ever:  movie under the stars at the Big Sur library.  Cool breeze, redwood trees, popcorn made in a pot, not a machine, international short film screening and hot chocolate.  Heaven.

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Here’s an easy snack to make and pack for your summer adventures.

Sugared Spiced Almonds   adapted from Gourmet 1999

  • 1 large egg white
  • 1 teaspoon water
  • 4 cups almonds, toasted in a 350 oven for about 5 minutes, then cooled
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons cinnamon

Preheat oven to 250°F.

Whisk together egg white and water in a large bowl until frothy and stir in nuts. Stir together sugar and cinnamon and stir into nuts, coating well. Spread nuts in a lightly buttered large shallow pan and bake in middle of oven until dry, about 40 minutes. Cool and break into bite-size chunks.

Nuts keep in an airtight container at room temperature 5 days.

 

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It all started with “Fun Night.”  It was the biggest night of the year at Vandalia Elementary school, and it was magical.  My sister and I looked forward to it all year.  Forget trick-or-treating, the highlight of Halloween was Fun Night!  The drama, the intrigue, the suspense!  It was an evening affair, and for kids who spent the other 364 nights at home, it was quite exotic to be out at night.  The biggest draw of the carnival, and my favorite, was the Cake Walk.  Is there a better prize than a homemade cake?  I don’t think so!  So, now you know why I love Halloween. Here is my treat for you – a very easy, delicious caramel corn recipe.  No oven time required for this.

What’s your favorite Halloween memory?

Happy Halloween!

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Caramel Corn Clusters   adapted from Gourmet magazine

  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1/3 cup popcorn kernels
  • 1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter
  • 11/2 cups packed light brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup light corn syrup
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 cup salted peanuts (5 oz)

Heat oil with 3 kernels in a 3-quart heavy saucepan, covered, over moderate heat until 1 or 2 kernels pop. Remove lid and quickly add remaining kernels, then cook, covered, shaking pan frequently, until kernels stop popping, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat and uncover.

Line bottom of a large shallow baking pan with foil. Lightly oil foil. Melt butter in a 6-quart heavy pot over moderate heat. Add brown sugar and corn syrup and bring to a boil over moderate heat, stirring, then boil, without stirring, until syrup registers 285°F on thermometer, approx. 8 minutes. Remove pot from heat.

Using a wooden spoon or a heatproof spatula, stir salt and baking soda into syrup, then quickly stir in peanuts and popcorn to coat. Immediately spread mixture in baking pan as thinly and evenly as possible. Cool completely, then break into bite-size pieces.

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It is Labor Day, and that means “Back to School” for me.  Time to buy school supplies!  I love when the school supplies arrive at Target.  The sights, smells, colors.  It is one of the highlights of the year in my book.  I guess I should say I don’t need any school supplies.  Both boys are in college so don’t require the elementary school component of colored pencils, markers, glue sticks, pencil sharpeners, etc.  For them, I only stock up on the 32 cent college-ruled notebooks.  But, that doesn’t stop me from digging into the offerings.  The notebooks these days are so cute.  And, one can never have too many colored pens.

My friend Jennifer gave me the nicest “Back to School” surprise ever.  It is a little lunch box filled with treats.  Hidden under the journal are apple napkins and a granola bar.  Thank you, Jennifer!

And, we can’t go “Back to School” without an after-school snack!  These Oatmeal Butterscotch bars are perfect for that.

Oatmeal Butterscotch Bars  from America’s Test Kitchen Baking Book

Makes 24 bars

Bars

1 ¼ c flour

2 c oats

½ tsp baking soda

½ tsp salt

¾ c butterscotch chips

2 sticks butter

1 c dark or regular brown sugar

1 lg egg

2 tsp vanilla

Glaze

¼ c butterscotch chips

2 Tbs reg or dark brown sugar

1 Tbs water

1/8 tsp salt

  1. For the bars:  Adjust an oven rack to the lower-middle position and heat the oven to 350.  Line a 13×9 in pan with foil and spray foil with Baking Pam.  Whisk the flour, oats, baking soda, and salt together in a med bowl.
  2. Place the butterscotch chips in a large bowl.  Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium-low heat and continue to cook until golden brown in color, about 12 minutes.  Pour the hot butter over the butterscotch chips and whisk until melted and smooth.  Whisk in the brown sugar until dissolved.  Whisk in the egg and vanilla until combined.  Stir in the flour mixture, in 2 additions, until just incorporated.
  3. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top.  Bake the bars until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out with just a few moist crumbs attached, 16-20 minutes,  rotating the pan halfway through baking (I baked them for 18 min).
  4. For the glaze:  While the bars bake, place the butterscotch chips in a medium bowl.  Bring the brown sugar, water, and salt to a simmer in a small saucepan over medium-high heat.  Pour the hot sugar mixture over the butterscotch chips and whisk until melted and smooth.
  5. Drizzle the glaze over the warm bars.  Let the bars cool completely in the pan, set on a wire rack, about 2 hours.  Remove the bars from the pan using the foil, cut into squares and serve.

Happy “Back to School” time to you!

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Summer Berry Mocktail

Don your summer whites and aviator shades, and stir up this little mocktail.  You will be set for a charming summer afternoon on the patio.

Summer Berry Cooler   adapted from Williams-Sonoma

1 pint blackberries

1 pint blueberries

1/4 cup fresh mint, coarsely chopped

1 cup simple syrup (see note below)

1/2 cup fresh lemon juice

Ice

4 cups club soda

In a pitcher, muddle berries and mint. Add simple syrup and lemon juice and stir to combine. Fill pitcher three-quarters full with ice and top with club soda. Serve at once in individual glasses. Serves 3 to 4.

Note: To make the simple syrup, in a small saucepan, combine 1 cup sugar and 1 cup water. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring to dissolve sugar, about 3 minutes. Let cool. Refrigerate overnight. Store in refrigerator for up to 3 weeks. Makes 1 1/2 cups.

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A visit to the county fair marks the beginning of our summer.  This fair is in the middle of a bustling suburb.  It is amazing how quickly the busy suburb fades behind me as I enter the gates to the fair.  Scale it down a few notches in size, and I could be at the small-town fair of my youth.  Most things change over time, but not the fair.  Delicious corn dogs (really!), lemonade, crazy rides and even crazier carneys are still there.  Even in the 1970’s and 80’s, everything seemed so old-fashioned.  Enter the exhibition hall today and tell me you are not in the 1950’s.  Jam, pickles, quilts, sewing projects.  Even the display tables appear to be from an earlier era.  No rainbow-hued plastic IKEA-inspired displays here.

I am a 4-H alum so I have a soft-spot for all the youth entries.  Because of that, or maybe because I wanted to relive my youth, I encouraged my boys to enter the fair when they were younger.  They entered scout projects and cookies.  It was exciting for them to come home with blue ribbons or a coveted “Judge’s Favorite” rosette.  They are too old for the youth division now but not for the cookies that won a blue ribbon a few years ago.

Blue Ribbon Oatmeal Cookies

1 ½ cups quick-cooking rolled oats

¾ cup unbleached all-purpose flour

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon baking soda

8 tablespoons (one stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature

½ cup (packed) light brown sugar

½ cup granulated sugar

1 egg

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

½ cup raisins

¼ cup chopped walnuts

  • Preheat the oven to 350°F.  Lightly grease baking sheets.
  • Toss the oats, flour, cinnamon, and baking soda together in a bowl.
  • Cream the butter and both sugars together in a mixing bowl until light.  Beat in the egg and vanilla.  Then slowly beat in the dry ingredients, then the raisins, and walnuts.
  • Drop the batter by rounded teaspoonfuls, 2 inches apart, onto the prepared baking sheets and bake until golden, 10 minutes.  Leave the cookies on the baking sheets for 2 minutes; then transfer them to wire racks to cool.

Makes 4 ½ dozen cookies.

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This past weekend, my son’s college friend Scott was stopping over at our house on his long drive home.  While my son slept in, Scott sat at our kitchen counter as I cooked breakfast.  I was surprised that a 20 year old young man that I had met only a few times would want to sit with me while I cooked and my son slept.  I just smiled to myself as we chatted.  I would venture to guess that most 20 year old young men would find the nearest computer or iPhone to distract themselves with in this situation.  Then, he said, “You really know your way around a kitchen.”  I was tickled and curious.  He went on to say he liked to cook and described things he made for dinner.  I am still thinking about him today.  He and my son are college students with little time to cook but like to experiment and produce tasty meals.  This is a recipe for them.

It is an easy recipe that tastes like a complicated recipe.  The poblanos add a nice depth of flavor.  I wasn’t sure what poblanos looked like but asked the produce manager for help.  Turns out you need to look for poblanos or pasillas. They are the same thing.  They are large in size and mild in flavor.  Here is what they look like:

You cook the poblanos first to soften them and char them a little before adding the other ingredients.

Chicken Poblano Burritos  adapted from Bon Appetit

  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 3 medium-size fresh poblano chiles,* seeded, chopped (about 1 1/2 cups)
  • 1 1/2 pounds skinless boneless chicken breast halves or cutlets, cut crosswise into 1/2-inch-thick strips
  • 1 3/4 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 1 3/4 teaspoons chili powder
  • 1/2 cup red salsa (Casa Sanchez is good – located in the deli area of the grocery store)
  • 2 cups frozen corn kernels, thawed
  • 6 burrito-size flour tortillas
  • 2 cups grated four-cheese Mexican blend cheese (about 8 ounces)
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro

Heat oil in large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add poblano chiles; sauté until beginning to soften, about 7 minutes. Add chicken, cumin, and chili powder; sprinkle with salt and pepper. Sauté until chicken is almost cooked through, 7-10 minutes. Mix in salsa; cook 1 minute. Stir in corn; sauté until heated through, about 1 minute. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Remove from heat; cover to keep warm.

Working with 1 tortilla at a time, heat tortillas in a pan until beginning to soften and brown in spots, about 15 seconds per side. Spoon chicken mixture in strip down center of each tortilla; top with cheese and cilantro. Fold in sides of tortilla over filling; roll up, enclosing filling.

*Poblano chiles are often called pasillas; available at most grocery stores and Latin markets.

 

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When I was in my twenties, I worked my way through The Silver Palate cookbook.  And, wow, what a cookbook it was and is.  It is my favorite cookbook of all time. The recipes are outstanding, dependable and impressive when served to guests.

When I was in my thirties and had two little boys who grew into big boys, I experimented.  The boys might tell you I never made anything twice.  That is not entirely true.  There are a few things I made regularly, but the majority of the time I was trying new recipes.  Reading cookbooks, cooking magazines, and epicurious.com was my entertainment.  I was always on the hunt for the best recipes.  The best scone, the best blueberry muffin, the best chocolate chip cookie, the best brownie, the best roast chicken, the best Spanish rice, and the list goes on.  You name it, and I have probably tried it.  Many of these recipes have been complicated, and some have been easy.  Some have been disasters; some have been gems.

Now, in my forties (gasp!), I have finally gotten smart (or lazy, I am just not sure).  I have narrowed down my collection of “go-to” recipes.  Now, not only do they have to be the best, they have to be easy.  These are the recipes I return to again and again.  These are the recipes I want to share.

Here is one of the easiest desserts in the world:  ice cream pie!  And, it is sooo good.

Butter Pecan Ice Cream Pie with Caramel Topping  adapted from Bon Appetit

Ingredients

  • Prepared graham cracker crust
  • 1.5 quarts butter pecan ice cream, slightly softened
  • 1/4 cup pecans, toasted
  • Purchased caramel ice cream topping

Directions

Spoon ice cream into crust, packing firmly and mounding in center. Freeze pie until ice cream is firm, about 1 hour.

Drizzle some caramel topping over pie. Sprinkle with reserved chopped nuts. Serve pie immediately or cover and freeze up to 2 days.

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And now, if you would like to get really decadent, you can make homemade (and easy!) caramel sauce!

Easy Caramel Sauce   from the Pioneer Woman

Ingredients

  • 1 packed cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup half-and-half
  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • Pinch salt
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract

Directions

Mix the brown sugar, half-and-half, butter and salt in a saucepan over medium-low heat. Cook while whisking gently for 5 to 7 minutes, until it gets thicker. Add the vanilla and cook another minute to thicken further. Turn off the heat, cool slightly and pour the sauce into a jar. Refrigerate until cold.

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