Monday, July 29, 2013

"Lasagna" Pasta

Tonight I needed a "dinner in a hurry." If you're not a follower of my blog, let me explain. A dinner in a hurry is a meal that I can whip up in 30 minutes or less (usually 15 minutes). They are also usually "pantry pasta" meals (meals that consist of pasta and whatever else I have on hand). This morning I was thinking about dinner. I remembered that I had ricotta and mozzarella in the fridge, so naturally I was thinking lasagna. I pulled out some Italian sausage from the freezer and then thought : "I'm going to be away from the house all day, and there's no way I'm keeping the oven on for an hour or more to cook lasagna in the summer." So . . . not knowing what I would make this evening, I left the house to go about my day and decided I would figure it out later. . .
   Then 5:30PM rolled around. Realizing that my wonderful husband would be home in less than an hour, I quickly wrangled the kids into the car and drove home. We got home at 5:45PM and I had 30 minutes to figure out dinner. Still not having much of a plan . . . I started cooking and came up with this pasta. It was ready by the time my hubby is usually home (6:15-ish) even though my brave husband never made it home. (He's a wildland firefighter, so this is not an unusual occurrence. There are many summer nights when he never comes home and can't call. It really makes me cherish the time we have together, when I realize that every morning when he leaves for work -If I'm lucky enough to see him before he goes- it might be the last time I see him for days or weeks. But, I digress.) So, dinner was done on time and it only took roughly 20 minutes from start to finish. The kids and I enjoyed a wonderful meal that hits all the flavor notes as lasagna but only took a fraction of the time. I love it when a plan (even half baked) comes together. :)

Here's what I did:

I started by putting a large pot of hot water on to boil. Then I started browning up 1 pound of mild Italian sausage in a large skillet with 1 small onion (from my garden of course). I like to use my potato masher to break up and ground meat while it cooks. It's much faster than trying to chase the meat around the pan with a spoon or spatula.

When the meat is all broken up, I turned the heat to high and browned the meat as much as I could. ("Brown food tastes good." - Anne Burrell)

When the water was boiling, I generously sated it and added 1 pound of Rigatoni pasta. (Any shape would work, but when I have big pieces of meat, I like to have big noodles too.) Stir the pasta and let it do it's thing. According to the box, it was ready in 12 minutes (I always taste as I go and drain the pasta when it's at the texture I prefer.)

While the pasta was cooking, I added 1 can of pasta sauce. (Marinara sauce, spaghetti sauce, what have you. Sometimes I used canned, sometimes I used jarred. I like to make my own, but when I'm in a rush I usually grab a pre-made one from the pantry.)

I always dress it up with a little herbs. Today it was 1 tsp of dry basil (fresh is best, but I always have dry on hand).

I let everything simmer together, over low heat for about 5 minutes. Then I added 1/2 cup of ricotta cheese. (This is to taste. If you like more, add more.) I just stirred it in and let it simmer for another 5 minutes.

While I was waiting for the noodles and sauce, I cut up some mozzarella cheese. I just cut a block of it into slices, then planks and then cubes. Nothing too exact. I think I used about 4 oz total, but again, we're talking about cheese. Cheese, in my book, is always "to taste." ;)

When the pasta was done, I reserved 1 cup of the pasta water (which you should always do when making pasta). I add it back into the finished dish to help everything meld together. I've heard pasta water be referred to as the "magic glue that makes the sauce stick to the noodles." (I accidentally scooped up 1 noodle too. Haha. No big deal, it will go in with the other noodles in a minute.)

I drained the noodles . . .

And then added them to the meat sauce on the stove. NEVER rinse the pasta! Just drain it and dump it into the sauce. I also added in 1/2 cup of the reserved pasta water.

I stirred the noodles, sauce and water together. Then I turned heat off and added the cheese cubes I cut earlier.

All that was left to do was to stir everything together and finish it will a little parsley. Again, fresh is best. If I had any Parmesan cheese, I would have added about 1/2 cup of that as well, but I'm fresh out. :( Oh well. Next time.

Wanna know my favorite part? When the cheese cubes get all melt-y and stringy.

In the words of my three year old, "Oh yeah, baby." :)

Just scoop and serve. Let me know what you think!
Here's the recipe:

"Lasagna" Pasta

1 pound mild Italian sausage (or hot Italian sausage if you like it spicy)
1 small onion, diced
3 cups marinara sauce
1 tsp dry basil (or 2 Tbsp fresh)
1/2 cup ricotta cheese (I used whole milk, but any is fine - to taste)
1 pound Rigatoni Pasta
salt (to generously salt the pasta water)
1 cup reserved pasta water
4 oz Mozzarella cheese, cubed (to taste)
parsley (and fresh basil if you'd like) for garnish (to taste)
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese (to taste)

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. While waiting for the water, brown up the sausage and onion, breaking up the sausage into small pieces. Cook the sausage over high heat, to get a nice brown color. When the water is boiling, salt the water generously and add the pasta. Stir and cook according to the package directions (should be done in about 12 minutes). When the sausage is brown, add the marinara sauce and turn the heat to low. Add the basil and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the ricotta cheese, stir and simmer for another 5 minutes. When the pasta is done, reserve 1 cup of the pasta water and then drain the noodles. Add the noodles to the meat sauce along with 1/2 cup of the pasta water. Stir and add the mozzarella cheese. Stir again. Add the remaining pasta water, if the noodles are soaking up too much of the sauce (if it looks dry). Garnish with the parsley (and more basil if you like) and the Parmesan cheese. Serve hot.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Slow-Cooker Creamy Italian Chicken

In the summer I try and do as much crock-pot cooking as possible so that I don't have to turn on my oven and heat up the house. (One of these days I'm going to break down and get a solar oven, but I haven't done it yet.) This Creamy Italian Chicken is a dish that was first introduced to me at a book club meeting. My friend Michelle served it with potatoes (I think). I asked how she made it and she said it was Italian dressing, chicken and cream cheese. No amounts given, but I got the idea. Super simple, right?
   Well, of course, I make my own version. Hubby took it to work a while back and one of the guys raved about it and asked for the recipe, so I e-mailed him what I did. It only has 5 ingredients (plus salt and pepper) and it's a complete "fix it and forget it" kind of meal. My family likes it over rice, but noodles and potatoes work well also.
   I made a double batch when we were visiting the in-laws this summer. I also made a single serving for my cousin-in-law Brooke who is allergic to garlic and gluten. (In case you were wondering how: I just mixed together some Italian Seasoning (herbs only), olive oil, water, vinegar, salt, pepper and a little onion. I browned her chicken and then cut it into bite-sized pieces. I put the chicken back in the pan with my make-shift garlic free Italian dressing and turned the heat to high to boil the dressing down a bit. Then I added a little cream cheese and stirred it all together. Served it over rice and she felt like she could eat what everyone else was eating!)
   Feel free to take liberty with the recipe and add or remove things to your liking. You are cooking for yourself and your family so it is ultimately up to you what gets served at your dinner table. :)

Here's how it starts. Either spray your crock-pot with no-stick cooking spray, or just use a crock-pot liner (like I show here). Then put 2 chicken breasts (mine are frozen, hence the square zip-top bag shape), 1/2 medium onion, 1/2 bottle of Italian Dressing (the brand doesn't matter), 1/2 cup of water and a little salt and pepper. (Sprinkle it on like you are salt and peppering each piece of chicken. You can always add more in later if you need it.)

Then just put the lid on and cook on low for 6-8 hours. If I'm home while it's cooking, I come back after about 4 hours and make sure the chicken is all submerged in the liquid. It looked like this:

1 hour before I want to serve dinner, I use my tongs to break up the chicken into shreds.

And I added in 8 oz of cream cheese, that I cut into large chunks. I just put these on top and then put the lid on and cook for another hour on low.

When the hour is up, I stir it all together. . .

and serve it over rice. A little touch of my homegrown parsley for color and it's done! Everyone loves this dish and I'm sure it will become a staple in your home too! This dish is a great blank canvas for adding any veggies you'd like. If the veggies are small, just add them in when you add the cream cheese and everything will be done nicely. :) Some of our favorites are corn, peas and green beans but anything that tickles your fancy will work. Let me know your variations!

Here's the recipe:
Slow-Cooker Creamy Italian Chicken

2 boneless skinless chicken breasts (or thighs if you prefer)
1/2 bottle (about 8 oz) of Italian Dressing
1/2 cup of water
1/2 medium onion diced
1 tsp salt (to taste)
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper (to taste)
8 oz cream cheese (cut into chunks)

Put all ingredients into a sprayed (or lined) slow-cooker. Cook on low for 6-8 hours (or on high for 4 hours). 1 hour before you want to serve, shred the chicken and add the cream cheese. Put the lid back on and cook on low for 1 more hour. Then turn the heat off, stir everything together and serve over cooked rice, noodles or potatoes.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Amish Friendship Bread Muffins

Have you ever had Amish Friendship Bread? It usually comes to you with a bag of "starter" that you have to faithfully take care of for 10 days and then you can bake with it (and give the rest of the starter to 3 of your friends). Well, my amazing husband works with a guy that loves this bread. It's his favorite thing of all the wonderful baked goods I have brought to the station. So, a few months ago I made my own starter and then kept it going just enough so that I could bake with it every couple of weeks. (Not enough that I had to give any away.) I bake the bread in muffin tins so that it's easier for the guys at the station to eat. We all love it!
   There's nothing like Amish Friendship Bread. A soft, almost chewy bread, that is moist inside and slightly crunchy outside from the cinnamon sugar coating. I've tried other copycats that you can find on the web. (Like this one that requires no starter.) But it's just not the same without the texture and flavor of the starter.
   Well, I haven't baked anything in a few weeks (because the weather has been so unbearably hot) but this morning I woke up to an overcast, drizzly day and I had the urge (no need) to bake!! I still had the starter in the fridge, so I made 2 loaves and used up the last of my starter. (I'll just make more in the fall when I want to bake more often.)
  Sorry there are no step-by-step instructions but the directions are easy to follow. If you have any questions, please comment and let me know!! :)

I usually make the plain vanilla/cinnamon sugar flavor. It's my favorite.

These are the last ones I made for the guys at the station a few weeks ago.

I also made a chocolate version (by adding less flour, chocolate pudding mix and extra dark cocoa powder - recipe follows).  I've heard that butterscotch pudding with butterscotch chips is also a yummy combination, but I've never tried it myself. Aren't the chocolate ones beautiful? They are definitely the most aesthetically pleasing.

Here are the loaves that I made this morning:

The loaves sink in the middle, where the muffins don't do that. 
Here are the recipes:
adapted from

Starter (This is a cut down version so you don't have to give any away)
1 package of yeast (2 1/4 tsp)
1/4 cup warm filtered water (105-115F)
1 cup flour
1 cups milk
1 cups sugar 

In a gallon sized freezer zip-top bag, add the water and yeast. Let sit until foamy. Add the milk, sugar and flour. Zip up the bag, leaving air inside. Mush the ingredients together until combined. You can leave the bag on the counter or put it into the fridge (I usually opt for the fridge). This is the start of your 10 day cycle. On days 2 thru 4 just mush the ingredients. Opening the bag and letting in fresh air before or after each "stirring." On day 5 add 1/4 cup each milk, sugar and flour. Mix again. Days 6 thru 9, mush/stir the ingredients, and let fresh air in. On day 10 add another 1/4 cup each of sugar, flour and milk. Mix well. Now you can bake! (You can use all the starter and make 2 large loaves, or you can use 1/2 the starter and make muffins or one large loaf of bread. Then you will have starter left over to use in another 10 days.)
**I have left the starter unattended in the fridge for 2 weeks (while on vacation) and everything was fine when I came back. So no worries about doing everything to a "T".

Vanilla/Cinnamon Sugar Amish Friendship Bread Muffins

1 1/4 cup starter
1 cup oil (or 1/2 cup oil, 1/2 cup applesauce - this is hubby's fav.)
1/2 cup milk
3 eggs
1 Tbsp vanilla

In a separate bowl combine the following dry ingredients and mix well:
2 cups flour
1 cup sugar
1-1/2 tsp baking powder
2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 - (5.1 oz) box instant vanilla pudding
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup nuts or chips (optional)

cinnamon sugar for dusting pans, and more to sprinkle on top

Add dry ingredients to wet ingredients. Mix well and pour into one large (or two small) well greased and cinnamon sugared bread pans (or 24 muffin/cupcake tins). Sprinkle the tops with more cinnamon sugar. For loaves, bake at 325F degrees for 1 hour, or until a skewer or cake tester comes out clean. For muffins, bake at 350F for 20-25 minutes, or until a skewer, toothpick or cake tester comes out clean. Let cool for 10 minutes. Use a knife or spatula to loosen the bread/muffins from the pan and cool on cooling racks.

Chocolate Amish Friendship Bread Muffins

1 1/4 cup starter
1 cup oil (or 1/2 cup oil, 1/2 cup applesauce - this is hubby's fav.)
1/2 cup milk
3 eggs

1 tsp vanilla
In a separate bowl combine the following dry ingredients and mix well:
1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 cup Hershey's Special Dark Cocoa Powder
1 cup sugar
1-1/2 tsp baking powder

1 tsp cinnamon (optional)
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 - (5.1 oz) box instant chocolate pudding
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup nuts or chips (optional)

cinnamon sugar for dusting pans, and more to sprinkle on top

Add dry ingredients to wet ingredients. Mix well and pour into one large (or two small) well greased and cinnamon sugared bread pans (or 24 muffin/cupcake tins). Sprinkle the tops with more cinnamon sugar. For loaves, bake at 325F degrees for 1 hour, or until a skewer or cake tester comes out clean. For muffins, bake at 350F for 20-25 minutes, or until a skewer, toothpick or cake tester comes out clean. Let cool for 10 minutes. Use a knife or spatula to loosen the bread/muffins from the pan and cool on cooling racks.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Jell-o Cream Cheese Pie AKA Cream Cheese Jell-o

It's hot outside. Not just uncomfortable, make you sweat kind of hot. It's a fry an egg on the sidewalk, burn yourself on your leather seats, stay inside and walk around in your skivvies kind of hot. I took my son to the movies for his birthday the other day and it was 111 outside. And that was when it was starting to cool down! Needless to say, with no cool down in sight, I'm avoiding turning on my oven as much as possible. But I was in need of a dessert for book club that would be tasty and impressive - but also easy and cold. I decided on this Cream Cheese Jell-o.
   I have fond memories of my dad making a version of this while I was growing up. It was always my favorite jell-o dessert, and something I find myself craving throughout the year. It does take a little forethought (as it needs to set up in the fridge for at least 4 hours), but it's super simple to whip up. And with the addition of the blueberry topping I made to go on top, it was definitely company worthy. :)

FYI: If you're not making this for a crowd it can easily be halved to make only 1 pie (or 4 dessert cups). I was making this for both book club and my family, so I did 4 dessert cups and 1 whole pie. (If you prefer, it can make 2 pies instead.)
These are the main characters: 1 large package of jell-o and 16 oz of cream cheese (or Neufchatel).

The jell-o gets dissolved into 1 3/4 cups of boiling water. (If you are halving the recipe and using a small package of jell-o, you'll want to use 3/4 cup of boiling water.)

Stir it for at least 2 minutes . . .

. . . until the liquid is clear. Set this aside (or park it in the fridge) to get a little set.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the 16 oz of cream cheese and 1 cup of powdered sugar.

Whisk it all together until smooth.

Then slowly whisk in 1 cup of cream (or milk).

Again, make sure that everything is thoroughly combined, with no lumps.

Next comes the jell-o. My jell-o wasn't set very much, so I just stirred it in a little at a time (so as to not splash it all over the kitchen!).

When everything is mixed well (no lumps),

you can pour the mixture into dessert cups (I ladled half of the mixture into individual servings). These smaller servings will set in 3 hours and will stay firmer than the pie will.

I put the rest of the mixture into a graham cracker pie crust. (The pie needs AT LEAST 4 hours to set up. Overnight is best.) The texture of the pie is a little softer and creamier than those in the dessert cups.

What puts this dessert over the top is the blueberry topping. I mixed together 1/2 cup of homemade, low sugar blueberry preserves (store bought would do- you could also use fresh berries but you would need to boil the mixture longer to break down the berries), 1/4 cup of water and 1/4 cup of powdered sugar in a small pan.

I boiled the mixture for about 5 minutes (until the mixture thickened slightly, but still poured off the spoon easily.

I cooled the blueberry sauce a little (until just warm) and then strained it over 1/2 pint of fresh blueberries.

I tossed the berries in the sauce until they were all glistening.

Once the dessert cups were set (firm) I topped each one with some of the blueberry topping.

I whipped up some sweetened whipped cream, and put a dolup on top. For the pie, I piped the whipped cream around the outside and put the remaining blueberry topping in the middle. I had a little sauce left in the bowl, so I used that to decorate the whipped cream a little.

That's it! Just keep them in the refrigerator until ready to serve. (I actually kept the pie in the freezer, because I didn't have room in the fridge, and it served up beautifully.)
A nice, refreshing, summer-time dessert.

Here's the recipe:
adapted from Jell-o Cream Cheese Pie

Jell-o Cream Cheese Pie (AKA Cream Cheese Jell-o)

1 (6 oz) package of jell-o (I used blackberry fusion)
1 3/4 cups boiling water
16 oz cream cheese (or nuefchatele)
1 cup cream (or milk)
1 cup powdered sugar
2 baked and cooled pie crusts (pastry, graham cracker or cookie crusts are all fine)
*I made 1 pie and 4 individual dessert cups (with no crust)
*Sweetened whipped cream (optional)

Disolve jell-o into boiling water, and chill until slightly thick. Blend cream cheese and sugar until smooth. Mix in cream thoroughly. Add the jell-o and mix untlil smooth. Pour into dessert cups, or into pie shells. Chill for at least 4 hours (preferably overnight) until firm. Top with whipped cream and blueberry topping.

Blueberry Topping

1/2 pint of fresh blueberries
1/2 cup of blueberry preserves
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup powdered sugar (to taste)
1/2 tsp lemon zest (optional)

Combine the preserves, water, powdered sugar and lemon zest in a small sauce pan. Cook over medium heat. Boil for 3-5 minutes (just until it starts to thicken). Turn off the heat and strain the preserve mixture into a mixing bowl. Add the fresh blueberries to the blueberry sauce. Stir and chill. Use to top your Jello Cream Cheese Pies, or individual Cream Cheese Jell-o dessert cups.