a lemony birthday treat for a sweetie!

just before we started exams in early december, my adorable roommate celebrated her 19th birthday (lucky her– she had to study that night!).  we decided to order pizza and hang out at the apartment for a low-key celebration instead of going to Boylan as we do traditionally for every birthday.

and as is custom, i whipped up a delectable birthday sweet in honor of her big day!  now, my silly roommate is known for eating cookies for breakfast, and croissants with nutella multiple times a day– she definitely has a sweet tooth.  i decided to make some cupcakes instead of a whole big cake so that she could snack on the leftovers all by herself!

it was super simple, but elegant and a little different from the traditional chocolate or vanilla confection.  i started with a common boxed yellow cake mix (i like to use dunkan hines because it is really, really moist) and baked it according to the directions on the back of the box.  i used a regular muffin pan but skipped the liners since i didnt have any on hand (use ’em if you’d like!).

while the baked in the oven, i started the extra-special component of these cupcakes–the lemon simple syrup!  i eyeballed these measurements, but i added about 1/3 c. lemon juice and 1/8 c. water along with 1/8 c. of regular cane sugar to a small saucepan.  turn the heat on low and stir the mixture until the sugar has completely dissolved.  the syrup should be sweet, but very lemony (not tart).  it won’t be the consistency of syrup– don’t worry!

i took the cupcakes out of the oven and out of their muffin tins so they wouldn’t continue cooking.  now for the fun part: take a long-tined fork or some poking implement and pierce the cupcakes several times all over the top.  once poked, take two spoonfuls of the lemon syrup and pour right over the cupcakes into the pokes you’ve made.  this will keep the cake SUPER moist and delicious, and will also add a sweet lemon flavor.  
now don’t throw out the rest of the syrup that you don’t use!  i wanted to make a light lemon glaze for the tops of these cupcakes, so i used the leftover syrup as the liquid base for the frosting.  take the syrup (i had about 1/6 c. left) and add in about two cups of powdered sugar.  i know this sounds like a lot, but powdered sugar dissolves almost instantly and you’ll need a lot of it for just a little bit of liquid!  keep adding sugar until it makes a semi-thick glaze.  i added a few drops of yellow food coloring to the frosting for a cute sunshiny look!
take the slightly cooled cupcakes from their resting place (a baking sheet works well) and carefully turn them top-side down into the glaze, letting the excess drip down the side of the cakes when you put them upright on the baking sheet.  let the glaze harden slightly on the tops before you enjoy them!
these cupcakes are inexpensive, super easy, and very impressive!  plus, they keep wonderfully in the refrigerator for a few days (if they even last that long!) because the simple syrup keeps the cake moist and delicious.
happy 19th birthday, marwa!  heres to many more fun ones together!

sweet treats and holiday eats!

i promised you a whole cookie-post, didn’t i?  well today is your lucky day!  this will be a fairly long posting because i have had the pleasure of making zillions of cookies with friends over the past few weeks.  get your sweet-tooths ready!

i hosted a cookie swap for my lovely Belles the other weekend, which turned out to be a great success.  for anyone not familiar with the concept, a cookie swap is a party that you throw for a big group of friends where everyone brings around two-dozen cookies to swap for everyone else’s creations, and everyone leaves with a whole assortment to take home.  there are just a few rules i imposed on my guests: no store-bought cookies, no nuts (allergy reasons), and no plain ol’ chocolate chip cookies. but i didn’t limit the baked-goods to just cookies– bars and brownies were also welcomed. with sixteen Belles, we sure had a great variety of sweets!

since i was the hostess for the event, i decided to make two different sets of cookies (some for swapping, some for eating!) and provide hot spiced cider, the movie “Elf”, and holiday music.

i am a fan of a good shortbread cookie and decided to make that the base for my two different kinds of christmas cookies.  i hunted around for a great recipe online and settled on making a key-lime meltaway shortbread, and a peppermint crunch shortbread (for the cute red and green theme).  they were so incredibly simple to make and packed a lot of flavor!

here’s what you need for each batch: (i’ve color coded the ingredients specific to the flavor you’re making)
-3/4 c. of room-temp butter, unsalted (that’s 1 1/2 sticks)
-1/2 c. confectioners sugar (and more for dusting at the end)
-1 3/4 c. plus 2 tbsp. all-purpose flour
-2 tbsp. cornstarch
-1/8 t. salt
-1 tsp. pure vanilla extract (we all know how i feel about that imitation garbage)
-zest of two limes
-2 tbsp. fresh squeezed lime juice
OR
-1 1/2 tsp. peppermint extract
-1/3 c. crushed candy-cane or peppermints
-1 tsp. red food-coloring


to make the dough (whichever you choose), cream the softened butter and 1/2 c. confectioners sugar in a bowl.  then add the vanilla, lime zest and lime juice or the peppermint extract and the crushed peppermints to the mixture and combine.

next, add the flour, cornstarch, and salt carefully to the butter and sugar, and mix gently until the dough comes together.  it won’t look like a smooth dough but rather kind of crumbly (like shortbread dough should!).  at this point, add the red food-coloring if you’re making peppermint dough.  adding it this late in the process makes the color just barely mix in so the dough looks like a pretty red marble!
take the dough out of the bowl and transfer it on to a flat work space.  using confectioners sugar to dust it if you need to, knead the dough slightly until it comes together in a ball.  then, form it into a log shape with the circumference of about a tomato paste can (or around 2 in. diameter).  put the log on a piece of plastic wrap and wrap it tightly, sealing both ends.  these are ice-box cookies, so they’ll go in the fridge to chill for two hours, and when they come out you can slice ’em and bake ’em!    
when you’re ready to bake, preheat your oven to 350 degrees and slice the cookies into about 1/3 to 1/2 in. thickness (depending upon how many you want to get out of the batch!).  bake on a silpat-lined cookie sheet if you have one, or on an unlined regular cookie sheet for 8-10 minutes.  *note: when you take a batch out of the oven, let the pan cool completely before you put another batch on it (or use another cookie sheet).  if you use a hot pan, the butter will start to melt before its in the oven and your cookies might burn!*
once completely cooled, decorate the cookies however you’d like.  the traditional way to finish the lime meltaways is to toss them in powdered sugar.  i decorated the outside edge on some cookies with green sprinkles and then tossed them in the sugar.  for the peppermint cookies, i made a quick glaze (1 c. powdered sugar and a few tablespoons of milk) and topped them with red and white sprinkles.  here’s how they came out!

along with the cookies, i mentioned that it was my duty to provide spiced cider.  this is the easiest thing in the world, and much less expensive than buying gallons of cider from the store for 5 bucks (or more!) a pop!  i purchased 3 gallons of 100% apple juice on sale at the grocery and some whole cinnamon sticks.  in a large pot on the stove, i added the juice (in batches), 1 tsp. nutmeg, 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon, and three broken cinnamon sticks.  i let it sit on the stove on very low heat (so the sugars wouldn’t burn) until my guests arrived.  i served it up in mugs with some whipped cream on top!
there are too many photos of cookies to post (although they were all absolutely divine), but i can surely name them all.  we had snickerdoodles, seven-layer bars, chocolate chip rice-krispy treats, no-bake cookies, peppermint and chocolate angel-food cake, forgotten cookies, snowflake sugar cookies, peppermint creme bars, chocolate mint cookies, and oatmeal chocolate chips.  i can confidently say that we were all in sugar comas by the end of the evening.  
***
just last night, i had another cookie party, but this time it was all about baking and decorating sugar cookies.  a bunch of good friends stopped by and we managed to bake off about 4 dozen heart, snowman, and flower cookies.  
because sugar cookie doughs are a dime a dozen, just use your favorite recipe.  i rolled my dough out to about 1/4 inch and we punched the shapes out from there.  the nice thing about rolled-dough is that you can mush the scraps together and roll it out again!  batch after batch baked for about 12 minutes and cooled outside before the next one went in. (yep, since its so cold outside, i just pop my cookie sheet outside my doorstep on the concrete steps and it cools off in no time!)
my mom bought me these adorable little holiday sprinkles: one was candy canes, one was holly leaves and berries, and the last was snowflakes.  we made homemade buttercream frosting (1/2 stick of softened butter, 1 1/2 c. powdered sugar, 4ish tablespoons of milk, splash of vanilla) to apply a thin layer on the tops of the sugar cookies, and then got to decorating!  here is how they turned out:
we ate a bunch (who wouldn’t?) and plated a bunch more to drop off a friends’ houses in the area.  what a nice study surprise!  i wish you all happy holiday baking and hope you will try some of these delicious recipes–or a cookie swap of your very own!

go greek! (with some spanakopita!)

in the midst of studying for a million exams, i decided to take a break and make dinner that would yield enough leftovers for me to nom on throughout the next few days.  during one of my study breaks, i flipped on Barefoot Contessa and Ina was making spanakopita.  PERFECT.  i made a whole batch and they are the perfect thing for dinner the first night, breakfast in the mornings (really its just spinach and eggs and cheese!), and a light lunch with a salad.  not too many ingredients later, i had the most delicious spanakopita, which i am actually eating as i blog this :]

if you search for ina’s recipe for spanakopita, it has a million ingredients and a million steps.  i simplified mine waaaay down and it is even better than i imagine her’s would have been.  who needs one tablespoon of pine nuts or 2 tablespoons of green onions?  it is still kind of time intensive to make because we are working with phyllo dough, but i promise it is completely worth the trouble!

start off with collecting your ingredients:
-two 10 oz. frozen packages of spinach
-one medium onion, chopped
-one clove garlic
-two eggs
-1/4 c. breadcrumbs
-1 1/2 c. reduced-fat feta cheese
-1 roll of phyllo dough (about 28 sheets), thawed in the fridge
-6 tbs. of butter
-olive oil, S&P
-nutmeg
-crushed red pepper flakes

start by defrosting your frozen spinach blocks.  i threw mine in the microwave (unwrapped from their packaging) in a glass bowl for about 6-7 minutes, stirring, then again for 5 minutes.  once it is all defrosted, put it in a colander and squeeeeeeeeze all the water out.  it should look like this!

next, chop up one medium sized onion and sautee it up in a skillet with some olive oil and a minced clove of garlic until the onions are soft and slightly caramelized (about 5 or 6 minutes on med.)

let both the onions and the spinach cool (stirring occasionally to release the heat) before you move on to finish the filling.  why?  we’re adding eggs next and you don’t want them to scramble because your other ingredients are hot!

in the mean time, get your phyllo dough out of the refrigerator and unroll it out on a large cutting board.  you’ll see that it is incredibly delicate and made of a million layers that you can separate from one another.  i used 5 sheets per batch of 2 spanakopita, so i made about 10 delicious bundles by the end.  melt 5 tablespoons of butter in a bowl and using a pastry brush (or if you don’t have one, get a paper towel, ball it up, then use that to mop the layers!).  carefully take one layer of phyllo and lay it down on the cutting board.  brush it with melted butter (very, very carefully so you don’t rip it!) and then lay down a second piece of phyllo on top of the buttered layer.  continue this until you lay down the 5th layer which you don’t need to butter.  cut the stack right down the middle lengthwise to get dough for two spanakopitas.  it should look like this!

now to finish the filling:  combine the spinach and the onions together in a bowl and mix together.  take your reduced-fat feta cheese (crumbled) and put about a cup and a half right in the filling (the more the better in my opinion!)  season with S&P, 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of nutmeg (go easy on this, its a strong spice!), and a sprinkling of crushed red pepper flakes.  once seasoned, add two beaten eggs and 1/4 c. of breadcrumbs, which both act as binders so your filling isn’t runny!  here’s what mine looked like:

now for the assembly (which i will kindly show you in photos!).  start off by placing 1/3 c. of your delicious filling at the bottom of each phyllo half.  next, you will be rolling these spanakopita up like a flag!  take a bottom corner and fold it diagonally into a triangle shape (making sure all the filling stays in!).  
  
                        
then continue to fold the triangles up like a flag until you get to the very end.  then take the little last corner and brush it with butter to help it stick when you make your last fold.  then voila!  repeat this entiiiiire process until you run out of filling and/or phyllo dough.  brush the tops of the spanakopita with the remaining tablespoon of melted butter and place them on a baking sheet.  *note: you won’t need to butter/spray your cookie sheet for these babies.. they have enough butter to non-stick themselves!*
bake these beauties off in a 375 degree oven for about 25-30 minutes until they are golden brown.  and then use an extreme amount of self control… because you will want to eat all ten spanakopita right when they pop out of the oven.  (i may have had two and a half…)
enjoy these flaky, buttery, salty spanakopita for the perfect greek night!  (oh, and you can make these half-sized for appetizers… but who would want to eat a smaller version of these when you can have a big one?) :]

flashback to childhood: aroni pasta!

so when i was growing up, my mom made dinner almost every night.  occasionally, she would have back-to-school night or parent-teacher conferences, so she would get home late and my dad would be in charge of dinner.  in my household, we made a menu every week so we always knew what was for dinner and who would be home when.  on those nights that my dad would have to cook, my mom would ask me and my brother what we wanted him to make.  and every single time we would shout the same thing and it always made its way on to the menu… aroni.


the name does require a little bit of an explanation, but i honestly couldn’t tell you the whole story behind it.  all i know is that it is similar in very few ways to the “rice a roni” box pasta meals, but that our much more delicious version took a piece of its name.  why its called specifically “aroni” i couldn’t tell you, but i guarantee if you like pasta, vegetables, and cheese, you will not be disappointed!

since this was a meal my dad could make for us kids, it is pretty simple.  here’s the ingredient list:
-one box of wagon-wheel pasta (no other shape will do.. this is KEY to making aroni!)
-one jar of your favorite marinara sauce (or make your own!)
-one pint of mushrooms, sliced
-one green pepper
-one medium onion
-one large bag of fresh baby spinach
-1/2 lb. of your favorite kielbasa sausage
-one bag of the shredded cheese of your choice (cheddar, mozz, anything will do)
-soy sauce (i’ll explain later…)
-garlic
-olive oil, S&P

first thing’s first: put a large pasta pot of water on to boil.  my dad always started off by chopping up all the veg.  dice the onion, dice the green pepper, and slice the button mushrooms (if they aren’t already pre-sliced).  toss them in a large skillet with a little olive oil and a nice spoonful of minced garlic (or one fresh clove).  sauté until tender!

at this point, drop your wagon-wheels into the boiling water and cook according to the package directions!  (8-10 minutes generally)

next, cut up your kielbasa (ready-to-eat, not raw) into small pieces and toss into the skillet with the vegetables.  sauté this all together until the sausage is heated through.  at this point, add a splash of soy sauce.  this was my dad’s secret ingredient and he always added it to his aroni– it gives the whole dish a new layer of flavor and adds a nice salty bite to the vegetables!  drain the pasta and let it cool in the pasta pot while you finish the sauce. 
now for the last few things:  add the ENTIRE box of fresh baby spinach to the skillet and cook it down until it has wilted and absorbed the flavor of the other vegetables.  once wilted, add the jar of marinara sauce to the mess o’ veg and cook until everything is heated together.  season with salt and pepper to taste!  finally, add the simmering sauce to the pasta in its pasta pot and stir it around until everything is coated with flavor.  for my favorite part, add a few large handfuls of shredded cheese to the mixture and toss it around until it gets all melty and incorporated. 
 dish up in a large bowl with a fork and an appetite!  this is such a delicious blast from the past, and i hope you enjoy it as much as i do!  thanks for making this for me, daddy!
Aroni a la John

beef stroganoff… good for the soul.

now that i am back from the thanksgiving hiatus (where i stupidly forgot to take pictures because i was so excited about eating dinner that night…), i would like to wish you all a happy holiday season!  the holidays are my absolute FAVORITE time of year.  decorations, holiday music, snow fall in charlottesville, family and friends, and of course, christmas cookies.  but that is for a later post.

today i would like to share with you the recipe for the most delicious beef stroganoff i have ever consumed.    it is simple, inexpensive, and it makes a whole ton of food, so this would be a perfect dish to serve to guests around the holidays!

lets start with the obligatory ingredient list:
1 lb. of beef tenderloin (i used the more inexpensive cut called “stir fry” beef because its cut in to perfect strips already!)
1 medium onion, sliced
1 pint of baby portobello (or white) mushrooms, sliced
1 can low-sodium beef broth
1/3 c. reduced-fat sour cream
3 tbs. butter
2 tbs. AP (all-purpose) flour
1 lb. flat wheat (or egg) noodles
olive oil, S&P
parsely for garnish

this dish is deceptively simple and totally delicious.  start by coating a skillet with a little olive oil and sauté the tenderloin strips until they are just browned on all sides.  **note: you don’t have to cook them through now since they will finish cooking in the sauce later on!  put them aside.  then in the same skillet, melt 1 tbs. of butter and sauté the sliced onions and sliced mushrooms until they are tender.  set these aside in the same bowl as the beef tenderloin.

*note on slicing onions:  wanna know how to get those perfect half moons?  slice your onion in half from top to bottom (not around the middle) and put your halves cut side down on the cutting board.  then going in at an angle from the side, slice your onions into thin strips.  they will separate and be perfect every time!

next, put a large pot of water on to boil for the flat noodles.  add a splash of olive oil so that the noodles don’t stick to each other!

now for the sauce:  start by melting two tablespoons of butter in the same skillet we’ve been working in. once it has melted, add two tablespoons of flour and cook the mixture until it turns a light brown color (remember, this is a roux!).  once it starts to smell nutty, add your one can of beef broth and stir to combine.  make sure you stir as you add the broth or your sauce may get lumpy!  the roux will start to thicken the beef broth after a few minutes, but keep stirring to make sure that the sauce doesn’t burn.

once it has thickened, add 1/3 c. of reduced fat sour cream right to the sauce, stirring it in well.  this is the point where you’ll want to check your sauce for seasoning– salt, pepper, maybe even some dried oregano or crushed red pepper if you want a little kick!

drop your flat noodles in the boiling water (they only take about 7-8 minutes since they are flat!) and add the tenderloin, mushrooms, and onions right in to the sauce to simmer away.  let the meat and vegetables sit and finish cooking in the sauce until your noodles are ready.

once everything is set to be plated, grab a large platter (or serve on individual plates).  put the noodles down in a nice big pile on the platter and then ladle the stroganoff sauce right on top.  garnish with some fresh basil leaves or crisp flat-leaf parsley for your green pop of color :]

and here is what you’ll end up with!  a quick, simple, healthy dinner for you and yours this holiday season!

serve with toasty garlic bread or a nice wheat roll and some honey butter.  buon appetito!