Saturday, March 26, 2016

Buffalo Chicken Dip

If you love the flavor of buffalo chicken wings, but don't like the mess it makes when you eat them, give this recipe a try. It takes only 10 minutes to prepare before baking and is an excellent appetizer.

Julian's Buffalo Chicken Dip with Celery
Perfect anytime you have friends over and want to serve a hot appetizer, without requiring bibs and hand washing. All the flavors are here, along with celery sticks which go well and are customary. You can of course use toast or crackers in place of the celery if you prefer.

Ready for the cheese topping before baking.
I'm using canned chicken today and often do so, but if you have some left over chicken (especially rotisserie chicken) then by all means use that. It will be even better!  Also when I've not had any blue cheese dressing in the house I have substituted ranch dressing and it works fine too. As I always say, use what you have on hand. I keep cream cheese spread on hand all the time, so I'm using it in this recipe, but you could easily substitute the block of cream cheese which is more commonly available. Let it soften at room temperature for a couple hours before using.

Ready for the oven.
You can make this dish ahead and then bake it just prior to serving. I've done this several days in advance with success.

Simple Ingredients
8-ounces cream cheese spread
1/2 cup buffalo wing sauce
1/2 cup blue cheese dressing
1 1/2 to 2 cups cooked chicken, shredded
1 green onion, chopped, partially reserved
2 cups shredded sharp cheddar or other similar cheese, divided
Celery sticks, crackers, etc. for dipping

Preheat oven to 350F degrees unless you are making ahead. Stores covered in the refrigerator 3-4 days in advance in necessary.

In a large bowl, beat the cream cheese until smooth using an electric mixer. Blend in wing sauce and bleu cheese dressing. By hand, stir in the diced chicken, 1 cup shredded cheese and the white and a little green of the onion. Spread in a baking dish and sprinkle with remaining shredded cheese.

Bake for 25 minutes or until cheese is bubbly. Serve warm with celery, crackers, etc for dipping.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Whole Roasted Garlic ~ Garlic Bread

Today I'm making garlic bread and thought I'd use a whole head of fresh roasted garlic. If you've not roasted garlic before, it's quite simple. You can actually serve each person a whole roasted garlic head and just let them scoop out the buttery tender cloves onto their bread. But today I'm going to mix mine with butter to make a fresh, delicious garlic spread to put on crusty bread.

Peeled, Cut and Ready to Roast
If you are giving everyone a whole head of roasted garlic, you'll need one per person. As I'm mixing mine with butter and making a spread, I'm using one head for four persons. Either way the technique is the same when it comes to roasting the garlic.

Roasted and ready to squeeze.
If making a garlic butter spread as I am doing today, make sure you purchase a good quality butter. Not all butter is the same and for superior flavor, make your selection carefully. I've provided a guide here.

Peeling off the loose outer skin.
Whole garlic head(s)
Olive oil
Aluminum foil (or covered baking dish)
Salt and fresh ground pepper
Butter, softened
Dried onion flakes (optional)
French or Italian bread
Seasoned Salt or Paprika

Preheat the oven to 400F degrees. Peel the loose papery outer leaves from the garlic, but keeping the head intact. Cut off a small amount of the top the garlic until the meat of the garlic is slightly exposed (as shown). Place on alumimun foil or in your baking dish. Sprinkle generously with olive oil, salt and pepper. Wrap tightly or cover and bake for 50-70 minutes, until the garlic is tender. (Note: I usually go for the longer baking and do not check it. Sometimes the garlic darkens a little, but the flavor is unaffected.)

Remove from the oven. If serving each person an entire head for spreading on bread at the table, serve immediately. If making a garlic bread, continue instructions below.

Let garlic cool to nearly room temperature. Squeeze out from the garlic from its casing into a bowl, and mash until smooth.  Add the soft butter and dried onion and mix until combined. Taste and add more salt or pepper if needed.

Roasted garlic and fresh Amish butter.
Cut the bread into single sized portions. Spread each piece lightly with the compound butter mixture. Sprinkle each piece with a little paprika or seasoned salt. Place on a baking sheet and bake in a 400F degree oven until the bread is crisp and the butter melted, about 3-5 minutes. Serve warm.

Compound Butter - Garlic and Onion
If you're making garlic bread, your final results should look something like this.

Julian's Homemade Garlic Bread

Friday, March 18, 2016

Chopped Salad and the Chopper that Works Best

UPDATED:  Lately there's been a lot of interest in chopped salad, and perhaps this has been made more popular since Subway restaurants have begun doing it as you watch. As we happen to have a friend that owns a Subway shop we asked about the chopper they use, as many of our friends seem to want one. Don't we all love chopped salads?  Why not just use a knife, you ask?  Because if you've used a knife to make a chopped salad on a flat chopping board, you know the salad goes all over the place. You want to chop the salad in a bowl to contain the ingredients as you chop them.
Norpro 578 Stainless Steel Mezzuluna Chopper
Subway previously used a double-bladed mezzuluna chopper like the one above. But even at Subway, this didn't work perfectly. The staff reported that certain foods get stuck between the double blades or the food works it's way up through the channel between the blades and presses against your fingers, which requires you to stop and clear the channel. And keep in mind, Subway is chopping lettuce that is already pretty finely cut for use on sandwiches. So if you want to avoid this problem, use instead my preferred device.

Amco Stainless Steel with Silicone Handle Mezzaluna
The single blade Amco mezzaluna (shown above) simply works better. No channel for salad to get stuck between. Plenty of room between the handle and the top of the blade to keep your hands out of the salad. A strong, sturdy blade ideal for use in a a rounded bowl. Chops salad perfectly every time with less effort than the double bladed variety.

To be certain my experience was not unique, I consulted the Amazon reviews and found many comments the same as mine. Ratings mirror my recommendation. So if you want to make chopped salad and want to do it in a bowl, use the single blade mezzaluna.

However, Subway subsequently switched their chopped salad method to a double-bladed pizza wheel style chopper (shown below) and available on Amazon. I tested this and it works relatively well if you have already shredded lettuce, they way they do at Subway. But it's much more likely your home lettuce is not shredded and only at best hand torn when it enters the bowl. As such, I still found the single bladed mezzaluna noted above to be the best option for chopping consistently sized lettuce and other items for your salad.

But what about the bowl? A cutting board is a sure-fire way to make a mess. The chopping bowl at Subway is a heavy resin material, not at all like the thin plastic one pictured above. The set that comes together above seemed to work pretty well because the chopping device isn't that hard on the surface. I feel however that if you really worked the bowl over with a mezzaluna, you'd have the bowl cracked pretty easily. I did not attempt this. Rather I have a wooden bowl that I use for chopping salads, herbs and other items to be sure that they remain in the bowl as I chop with the mezzaluna.

Amazon sells the bowl and mezzaluna together.
The above bowl, which I also purchased on Amazon, is a bit pricey because it's solid cherry wood, but does the job. Amazon sells a larger size as well.  If I could find one of the resin bowls used by Subway, I certainly would give that a try. The wood bowl requires a certain amount of care because it is a natural wood. It does get small scrapes from the knife, but so far has worked quite well. The bowl even doubles as a family salad bowl at table.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Easter Egg Sugar Cookies with Royal Icing & Wilton Stencil Color Mist

Soft sugar cookies decorated with a smooth royal icing are sure to make an impression on your Easter cookie tray and taste good too.

Julian's Easter Sugar Cookies with Royal Icing
While these sugar cookies are soft and delicious and can be made year-around, here they are dressed up in their Easter best. If you haven't worked with royal icing previously, know this is very different than working with traditional buttercream frosting. Buttercream, which tastes better, cannot be made into the smooth line-free surface you can get from royal icing. Royal icing is however, more difficult to work with and I have a variety of tips for you in that regard below.

Julian's Stencil Sprayed Easter Sugar Cookies ~ Wilton Color Mist
I'm re-posting the soft sugar cookie recipe separately if you don't have a favorite. I really do suggest these cookies with just sugar sprinkled on top before baking. No frosting necessary. They are sure to be a hit with your family even without the fancy icing. My mother made these for me weekly as a child and they were may favorite. They are also the favorite cookie of my sisters great grandchildren.

Separating the icing and color it.
Keep in mind I am an amateur and there are many cookie artists out there that specialize in decorating cookies in this manner. Check out the websites of Julia Usher and Sweetopia who really are artists in this medium. You really should watch their videos before proceeding, so you have a full understanding of the various techniques and options. The cookies pictured here are from a practice run I made with my sister the end of February. It took us the better part of two days to bake and decorate these three dozen cookies. As always with baking, it's best to practice in advance of making your baked goods for your friends and family. Baking is a science and an art and requires practice to make perfect. Make a small batch even when making them for friends and family and use them as decorations with other cookies on your cookie tray.

Flooding a cookie with a decorative boarder using a bottle.
Now some tips for making these Easter cookies or really any cookie that is going to be fancily decorated with royal icing.
  • Getting the icing consistency just right is key. Learning what is 'just right' takes trial and error. For borders and top icing, a very stiff icing is required. For bottom layer fill (which is called 'flooding the cooking') a softer icing is necessary. If the flood icing is a little too thick and doesn't want to merge into a single seam free layer, shake the cookie gently to force it to combine or using a trussing needle to swirl it together on the cookie. The best tasting and easiest to use royal icing is a meringue powder based formula (below), as opposed to those made with corn syrup. 
  • You can use bottles, plastic bags or parchment cones to disburse the icing onto the cookies. It doesn't really matter. What matters more, is having very small tips. Wilton tips No. 1 and No. 2 will mostly be what you use, and you will need two for each color for the two basic consistencies of icing. I prefer the disposable plastic bags with metal decorating tips, because I am not good at making a parchment cone, which the experts often prefer. Whatever you choose, stand bottles/bags tip down in glasses with a wet paper towel in the bottom to keep the tips from drying out and closing.
  • Add the base layer of icing to each cookie placed on a single paper plate. It's easier to turn and move to other areas for drying this way.
  • Royal icing can spot after drying if it is applied when the environment is too high in moisture or the cookies are not dry enough and moisture is drawn up into the icing. Some cookie artists place freshly iced cookies into food dehumidifiers to solve this problem. If you make them in the winter in the north, this usually isn't a problem. Making them in the summer in the south can be challenging without using the dehumidifier as shown in Julia Usher's videos on YouTube.
  • A cookie with a very flat surface works best for flooding with royal icing. If your cookies are slightly mounded as most sugar cookies are, turn them over and use the flat side. No one will notice. You will note many of the artists use a ginger bread cookie which is very dry and very flat. I'm making cookies for eating, so I used my favorite soft sugar cookie recipe instead.
  • Wilton Cookie Icing is available pre-made in a 10 ounce bottle and can be used. It is actually royal icing. It is of the flood consistency and must be thickened with considerable powdered sugar for boarders and trim. The colors on the bottle fronts are not true. What looked to be a lemon yellow turned out to be almost orange. The pink was very hot pink and the blue very blue. If you are looking for pastel colors these will not work. 
Wilton Cookie Icing - Colors Not What They Seem To Be
  • A boarderless cookie is created by making a boarder dam in flood icing about 1/8 inch back from the edge of the cookie, then immediately flooding the center with the same color. The icings will merge together to give you an boarderless cookie.
  • Errors can be corrected or re-worked in most cases. If you have trouble with the top frosting details and get a line or petal in the wrong place, let it dry slightly and then using a toothpick or trussing needle to lift it off. 
  • Stencils and spray food color can be used over the base layer of royal icing if left to dry for at least 8-10 hours before spraying. We used stencils in various sizes, designs and colors with Wilton Color Mist. Because the spray may seep under the stencil it is very important this be done on a very flat cookie. We used the back sides of the cookies for this technique. Even with several flood colors and polka dots, the stencil technique was the quickest and easiest to apply. Several spray colors can be used on the same cookie.
  • Pre-make or buy flowers, bunnies, carrots and other top decorations. This can be done days in advance and held until you are ready to place them.
  • Start simple, with only 2-3 small cut-out cookies, like flowers that don't require 'scenes' to be added to them. A flower design can be outlined and centered in one color of more stiff frosting and flooded with another color and still look lovely with no further work. Or make petals several colors. 
  • A cut-out within the cut-out can be created using a small cookie cutter. In cookies that rise, as the sugar cookie does, it was necessary for us to take the hot cookie and cut out the shape again to make the edges more clearly defined. We also iced the bottom side of these cookies as it had the best defined cut out shape.
Imperfections are rarely noticed by most.
Royal Icing Recipe

6 ounces (3/4 cup) of warm water
5 Tablespoons Meringue Powder
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
2.25 pounds powdered sugar
Paste food colorings of your choice

Note; if your meringue powder has no vanilla flavor (vanilla powder) in it, add a teaspoon of clear vanilla or almond extract to this recipe.

In mixer bowl, pour in the warm water and the meringue powder. Mix it with a whisk by hand until it is frothy and thickened, approximately 30 seconds. Add the cream of tartar and mix for 30 seconds more. Pour in all the icing sugar at once and place the bowl on the mixer. Using the paddle attachment on the lowest speed, mix slowly for 10 minutes. Icing will get thick and creamy. It may seem too thick, but test at this consistency for top lines, flours, writing, etc. before thinning further with a little warm water. Separate the flood frosting from the top decorating frosting, and then the flood frosting further.

Cover the bowl with a dampened towel to prevent crusting and drying. Separate and tint with paste food colors of your choice.

Creating a 'boarderless' cookie as noted above.
Instructions for Icing the Cookies
Determine your cookie designs up front. It will be easiest to make only 3-4 designs and to repeat them. You will become more skilled with repetition.

Basic Flood Technique:  All of our cookies and most cookies done in this technique, begin with a base color or colors. To do this, using the flood icing, make a dam around the edge of the cookie and then 'flood' the center. If it fails to merge into a single smooth layer, using a trussing needle of toothpick to stir it together. If using various colors on the base layer, make line dams and fill each section with various colors. If your flood icing is not quite firm enough, flooding may cause the dam edge to break and run down the cookie side. Wipe it with your finger until it stops.

Flooded cookies drying before decorating.
Wet-on-Wet Technique:  For some designs, you have the option of either placing icing on top of the dry base layer, or you can embed the second color on the same layer as the first. This is called the wet-on-wet technique. Take for example, polka-dots. Put down the border dam around the edge of the cookie. Flood the cookie with the same color icing. While the icing is still wet, add polka-dots in a different color using flood consistency icing right on top of the wet base flood layer. The dot will sink into the base flood layer. You can also using trussing needle or toothpick to drag the second color dot into other shapes. We did this, then sprayed a stencil design over top after the base was dry, which worked well.

With a table covered in plastic, food spray is applied to the stencil.
Top Design Technique: A very firm icing made with the above meringue recipe works well for the top design, as it stretches nicely to make thin lines and clear round dots. Using a number 1 or number 2 icing tip if you use a bag or bottle, practice straight lines and dots for the classic decorating technique. Use pre-made flowers and other decorations that you've made or purchased, gluing them in place with the icing. Lift off 'mistakes' after they dry a little using a trussing needle or toothpick and re-do.

A wet-on-wet technique cookie, that has been sprayed through a stencil.
The pink dots are wet-on-wet. The purple design is food spray added to the dry icing.
We will now add a decorative edge.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Sugar Cookies - Soft, Delicious, Easy to Make

This is long-time family favorite cut-out cookie. Sprinkled just with sugar, they are exceptionally good and easy to make. They are so good, when my sister changed to a new cut out cookie last Christmas, the family immediately noticed and asked what had gone wrong.

Julian's Fresh Soft Sugar Cookies
My mother made these cookies for me almost weekly as a child, and they were my favorite above all other cookies. The flavor is mild, the cookie is always soft thanks to sour cream in the dough, and with just a sugar sprinkle they are not overly sweet.

Ingredients  (4-6 dozen depending on size)
6 cups flour, plus more for rolling
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup sour cream, room temperature
1 cup butter, softened at room temperature
2 cups sugar, plus more for rolling
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
Sanding or crystal sugars

In large bowl, whisk or sift together the 6 cups of flour, baking soda and salt.  Set aside. In the large bowl of an electric stand mixer, cream the sour cream and butter together at low speed. With the mixer running add sugar, eggs, and vanilla until combined. Scrape down the sides of the bowl several times during mixing. Switch to the dough hook attachment if you have one. With the mixer on low, spoon in the flour mixture and mix until just combined. Dough will be sticky. Turn the dough out onto a floured work surface and need until just fully combined. Shape the dough into a large round log. Divide dough into four discs and wrap with plastic wrap. Refrigerate until chilled, two hours or up to three days in advance. Dough can be frozen at this stage and saved for future baking (see below).

Separating the dough into four discs.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees with no convection selected. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper or silicon pads. If you have two more, prepare those as well as the cookie sheets should be cool for subsequent batches and you can rotate usage. Use baking strips or silicon rolling pin spacing bands to ensure the cookies are of a consistent depth. If you don't have them, locate any strips that will elevate the the rolling pin to approximately 1/4 inch, which is the preferred thickness for these cookies. Generously flour and sugar your work surface to prevent dough from sticking. Rub flour on the rolling pin.

No baking strips? Use something else of 1/4" depth.
Remove one dough disc from the refrigerator and place it on the floured/sugared surface. Sprinkle the top of the dough with a little more flour. Starting at the center, roll the dough out to one edge then down to the other; repeating until dough is an even 1/4" thick all over, sprinkling with additional flour if needed, to avoid sticking. Dip cookie cutter in flour and cut out shapes beginning at the outer edge and working toward the center for maximum dough usage. Transfer dough shapes to baking sheets. If you plan to frost them, they are ready for baking.  If you want sugar topped cookies, sprinkle them now with crystal or sanding sugar, preferably.

Press left over dough together and continue rolling and cutting shape until the sheets are full. Remove the next disc from the refrigerator and repeat the process. Bake 2 sheets at a time for 8-10 minutes. Bake them just until they just spring back to the touch but haven't started browning. Transfer hot cookies to a wire rack to cool completely.

Amazon sells Baking Perfection strips.
Freezing The Dough
These cookies freeze great. It's best to freeze the dough where noted in the recipe above. Wrap in plastic wrap and place in zippered freezer storage bags for up to four months. When ready to use, remove a disc of dough from the freezer to the refrigerator for 24 hours to thaw. Then remove to your counter and continue with rolling as you normally would, using a flour and sugar mixture on the surface and rolling pin to prevent sticking.

My Sister's Sugar Cookies

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Bailey's Shamrock Parfaits

Looking for a simple treat for St. Paddy's day? Here is a fast recipe with the flavors of the holiday (Bailey's Irish Cream and optional Jameson's Irish Whisky). You can even make a non-alcoholic version of this dessert for the kids by separating the pistachio pudding into two batches and flavoring one of those for the adults. The kids version will still be tasty. You can also easily double the recipe and it will work fine.

You can make it all green if you prefer, although I did layers in canning jars. This recipe provides a great Irish flavor from the two alcoholic drinks. But on my group tasting, about half felt the alcohol flavor was too strong when I included the whisky. If you don't have folks that like the taste of whisky, I would recommend you not include it and just use the Bailey's Irish Cream.

Ingredients (makes 4 servings)
1 small box Jello brand pistachio instant pudding
3/4 cup cold milk or Half & Half
1/2 cup Bailey’s Irish Cream
1/4 cup Jameson Irish whiskey (optional)
1 (8 ounce) tub extra Cool Whip, thawed in refrigerator
1 pint blueberries, rinsed and drained
1 cup pistachios, shelled and lightly salted
1 spray bottle whipped cream
sprinkles (Shamrock)
Green food coloring (optional)

Place the pudding mix into a mixer bowl and add the milk. Using an electric mixer, combine for 2 minutes until thickened.  Ad the Irish cream and whiskey and using the mixer, combine on the lowest setting until blended. Stir in the Cool Whip. Separate into two batches and color one of the batches with the green food coloring. (Skip this is you are opposed to the artificial coloring.)

Reserve a few of the smallest blueberries for use as a garnish, along with a few of the nuts.

Place a layer of the custard of your choice on the bottom of the parfait glasses.  Add some of the blueberries and nuts. Add the next layer of opposite color custard and repeat the process until you are out of ingredients. This depends on the size of your parfait glasses. Finish with a layer of berry and nut if possible.  Refrigerate 2 hours minimum or over night, covered.

Just prior to serving, top the parfaits with the whipped cream. Sprinkle with the remaining berries and nuts. Add the shamrock sprinkles, and serve.