The movie in 2004 was my first exposure to Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. I still haven't read the books, but after this latest article from NPR about all of the delicious food to be found throughout the series - "often [as] a supporting character," I may just be tempted to give them a try too! At the very least, these recipes for pasta puttanesca, chilled cucumber soup and coconut cream cake are worth a taste.
Based on the title alone, Maria Semple’s Today Will Be Different seemed like a novel with an uplifting outlook. At the same time, I was also reading The Happiness Project, a nonfiction book with a similar self-improvement theme that one of my book clubs had chosen for January to kick off the New Year. Goodbye, 2016! Hello, 2017! Let’s start fresh.
I had loved Maria Semple’s last novel Where’d You Go Bernadette? It was laugh-out-loud funny with a surprising format, and I still recommend it to people constantly. Naturally, I was looking forward to her follow-up. As the title suggests, Today Will Be Different takes a peek at a day in the life of our main character Eleanor. She wakes up with the intention to be a better person than yesterday.
On a day that’s anything but ordinary, Eleanor certainly does her best to follow through with her resolutions. As the day unfolds, she is greeted with several surprises, including an adventure down memory lane. It definitely had some chuckle-worthy moments and relatable insights, but even for a novel about just one day, it felt rushed, incomplete, and in the end, a bit too contrived.
Still, it wasn’t a bad read - certainly enjoyable, and I took it as a bit of an inspiration to do a little better every day than the day before.
Best to start with breakfast, I think. I found an easy recipe for a breakfast casserole that’s greatest appeal was that most of the work could be done the night before. It ended up being a perfect dish to make between Christmas and New Year’s, when everything feels a little lazier and there are heaps of leftovers - especially, in our case, of spiral sliced ham. All I really had to buy was the frozen hash browns.
My parents came over for brunch late one morning, so the night before I did all of the prep, knowing tomorrow would be better. Easy satisfying breakfast is always a great way to start the day!
I chopped up what we had left of the Christmas ham, which ended up being just shy of 2 cups, but was still plenty for the recipe.
I poured the shredded frozen hash browns into the bottom of a greased 9x13 casserole dish and whipped up a dozen eggs.
Next, I added the cheese (a little more cheddar and a little less pepper jack, since my mom isn’t a huge fan of spiciness), the chopped ham, seasoning salt and whole milk (which I used instead of half-and-half because we had it on hand). I stirred it all together and then poured it on top of the potatoes. My prep was complete, so I covered the dish in foil and set it in the fridge, ready to relax for the rest of the night.
The next morning, about an hour and half before my parents arrived, I preheated the oven to 350 degrees and then placed the foil-covered casserole into the hot oven. Towards the last 20 minutes, it started bubbling over, so I placed a cookie sheet underneath the dish - I suggest doing this as a precaution when you first put it in the oven.
After the first 90 minutes, I removed the foil and baked it for an additional 5 minutes uncovered. The casserole looked finished, but the top was a little wet because the moisture had nowhere to go underneath the foil. This last 5 minutes helped the cheese become a little more golden and got rid of all the excess moisture, without overcooking the casserole. It was still fluffy and delightful for brunch.
I made my parents and Scott wait while I took some photographs (sorry, guys!), but luckily this recipe had a 10-minute anticipation time built right in.
Everyone loved it, and I look forward to making this for special occasions and everyday weekends alike in the coming year.
The Best Breakfast Casserole
From: Alyssa, The Recipe Critic
- 24 oz frozen shredded potatoes
- 12 eggs
- 2 cup half and half [or whole milk]
- 1 tsp seasoning salt
- 1½ cups cheddar cheese, grated
- 1½ cups pepper jack cheese, grated
- 2 cups chopped ham (or your preferred meat, sausage would also be great)
- Grease a 9x13 inch pan. Add the frozen and shredded potatoes to the bottom of the pan. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
- In a large bowl, whisk the eggs together. Then add half and half, seasoning salt, cheeses and chopped ham or meat.
- Pour over the top of the frozen potatoes. Cover with foil and refrigerate for 2 hours or overnight.
- Bake covered in foil at 350 degrees for 90 minutes. Let rest for 10 minutes before serving.
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Expecting to die from cancer, Lang does her best to make sure her husband survives without her. She leaves notes for important moments and even prepares dessert for his next birthday. When he unexpectedly dies before she does, her life is turned upside down. In Ferris Robinson’s novel Making Arrangements, Lang has to learn how to cope when life doesn’t go exactly as she planned.
While the story itself is an important reminder to expect the unexpected, I found most of the characters to be quite unlikeable. Even Lang herself was weak and self-defeating for most of the novel, probably due to her son Teddy’s and late husband’s attempts to keep her in the dark and stifle any ounce of gumption she may have once had. It was refreshing when she gave in to her impulses, finally forging new relationships and learning to be self-sufficient.
Baking comes effortlessly to Lang. Skilled at making cakes, it’s important to her to provide her husband with a birthday cake even after she’s gone. She lovingly makes and then freezes his favorite, a caramel cake, so it will be waiting for him.
The theme of this book makes it an appropriate read for the end of the year; likewise, this caramel cake seemed to be a perfect treat to bring along to a holiday party or New Year’s celebration. Ferris Robinson provided me with a copy of her recipe for Decadent Deep South Caramel Cake (along with a copy of the book), so I set to work making what I hoped would turn out to be a decent imitation of Lang’s own masterpiece.
I preheated the oven first, greased and floured the cake pans, and assembled all of my cake ingredients. (I also got out the 2 sticks of butter for the icing so that it would be easier to use when I was ready later.) In a large bowl, I combined the plain white cake mix, whole milk, 3 eggs, vanilla extract and another stick of butter, melted. Once blended, I used an electric mixer on medium for 2 minutes.
I split the cake batter evenly between my two cake pans and set them in the 350-degree oven for 27 minutes.
After they were finished, I put them on a cooling rack in the pans for 10 minutes and then inverted onto the racks so that they could continue to cool.
While they fully cooled, I worked on the caramel icing. In a non-stick saucepan, I melted 2 sticks of butter and stirred in 1 pound of brown sugar and ¼ teaspoon of salt, until the sugar dissolved. I added in the evaporated milk and stirred until it was fully incorporated. This mixture came up to a boil and I left it boil softly for about 4 minutes. (At one point, my boil got a little out of control, but I just turned down the heat and kept stirring until it became a little less vigorous. Just go with it - caramel can sometimes be a little intimidating but it doesn’t have to be difficult.)
I took the saucepan with the caramel mixture off the heat to allow it to cool. I used this time to sift my powdered sugar and even out the tops of the cooled cakes. I also began boiling some water in a smaller saucepan to use for my double-boiler. After cooling for about 7 minutes, I added the caramel mixture to my bowl of powdered sugar and vanilla, using the electric mixer to thoroughly combine the icing.
My bottom layer of cake on a plate, I spread a thick layer of caramel icing along the top. Once it was well-coated, I placed the second cake on top of it and poured the icing on it, allowing it to spill off the edges and coat the sides. I’m not great at cake-decorating or evenly icing cakes, so given the consistency of the frosting I thought this would be the best way. If you use this method, be careful that the icing doesn’t spill over the sides of the plate (or that you have something in place to catch the overflow). It did provide even coverage, but it made a bit of a mess. Sadly, my presentation wasn’t as great as it could’ve been, but I was hoping the taste would make up for it.
The good news is, it absolutely did. The cake was delicious, very moist and airy. The caramel icing had great flavor and once set, it provided a nice thick and slightly hard coating on the cake. A decadent cake for sure, one that is worth making for any special occasion.
Decadent Deep South Caramel Cake
- 1 package (18.25 ounces) plain white cake mix [Note: A 16.25 ounce package was the largest I was able to find in the store; I used it and had no problems.]
- 1 cup whole milk
- 8 tablespoons butter, melted
- 3 eggs
- 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract (not imitation)
- 2 sticks butter
- 1 (16 oz.) box of light brown sugar
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- ⅔ cup evaporated milk (canned)
- 2 cups sifted confectioner’s sugar
- 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
Lang’s Famous Decadent Caramel Icing
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
- Grease two 9-inch round cake pans, then dust with flour.
- Blend cake mix, milk, melted butter, eggs, and vanilla extract in a large mixing bowl with an electric mixer. When blended, beat on medium speed for about two minutes.
- Pour batter into greased cake pans and bake until they are golden brown and spring back when lightly to touch, about 27 to 29 minutes. Let cool 10 minutes before inverting onto plate. Make sure they are completely cool before icing.
- While the cakes cool, prepare the Decadent Caramel Icing. Heat butter, brown sugar and salt in a saucepan, stirring until the brown sugar dissolves. Add milk and stir until blended. Bring to slow boil for about four minutes, stirring constantly. Let hot mixture cool for several minutes.
- Add confectioner’s sugar and vanilla and mix with electric mixer until lighter in color and caramelized. Ice that cake! Work quickly, while the frosting is still warm because it will set up. If the frosting gets too hard to work with, place it over low heat for a minute, stirring constantly. [I mixed in the sugar and vanilla in a homemade double-boiler (glass bowl over gently boiling saucepan) and this helped to prevent it setting up.]
The icing recipe made significantly more icing than I needed. If you wanted to make an additional cake layer, so that it has 3 instead of 2, you would still likely have enough without altering the above icing recipe.
I hope everyone has a safe New Year's celebration! Looking forward to seeing you all again in 2017!
* This book was given to me by the author in exchange for an honest review.
My parents watched The Thorn Birds miniseries in 1983. My name is Megan, the same as the main character - it also happened to be the 10th most popular name in 1985, just before I was born. Not a coincidence. Thankfully, they watched the show and didn’t read the book, in which her name is spelled Meghann. Anyway, I’ve been meaning to get around to reading this book, my namesake, for years. I finally did.
For anyone who has seen the miniseries, The Thorn Birds book (written by Colleen McCullough six years prior in 1977) is pretty similar. It tells the story of the Cleary family as they move to Drogheda, a sheep station in Australia, and live there through the years. Meghann, usually called Meggie, is the only daughter in a family of 8 brothers.
Already a regular Drogheda visitor when the family first arrives, the local priest Ralph befriends them but takes a special interest in Meggie. Her mother pays her little notice, preferring her sons, so he makes it a point to see that she doesn’t lack for attention and is given the opportunity for a good education and taught to ride a horse. As Meggie grows older, their familiarity breeds stronger feelings.
In a cruel turn of events, Ralph must make a choice that is really no choice at all for the devout priest. The family’s future is forever changed, but Drogheda remains a part of all of their lives no matter what. To honor their massive homestead, I decided to make shepherd’s pie. I found a recipe from Alton Brown and went to work.
First, I chopped my onion and carrots, taking care to make them roughly equal in size. Then, I peeled and cut up my potatoes, putting them into a saucepan of water as I did so. I put them on stove, covered to bring to a boil.
Meanwhile, I preheated the oven to 400 degrees and began on the meat filling. I cooked the onions and carrots for about 4 minutes, added the garlic, and then added the lamb. I seasoned with salt and pepper. Once that was cooked through, I added all of the remaining ingredients - tomato paste, Worcestershire sauce, rosemary, thyme and chicken broth.
While the sauce thickened, I mashed the potatoes with the half and half, butter, salt and pepper. I separated an egg and stirred in the yolk. Then, I added the peas and corn (both frozen) to the filling. It went into a glass baking dish and I did my best to smooth the mashed potatoes over the top.
It baked for about a half hour and smelled delicious the entire time. It was torture waiting for it to cool before we could enjoy it.
- For the potatoes:
- 1½ pounds russet potatoes
- ¼ cup half-and-half
- 2 ounces unsalted butter
- ¾ teaspoon kosher salt
- ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 egg yolk
- 2 tablespoons canola oil
- 1 cup chopped onion
- 2 carrots, peeled and diced small
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 ½ pounds ground lamb
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons tomato paste
- 1 cup chicken broth
- 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
- 2 teaspoons freshly chopped rosemary leaves
- 1 teaspoon freshly chopped thyme leaves
- ½ cup fresh or frozen corn kernels
- ½ cup fresh or frozen English peas
For the meat filling:
- Peel the potatoes and cut into 1/2-inch dice. Place in a medium saucepan and cover with cold water. Set over high heat, cover and bring to a boil. Once boiling, uncover, decrease the heat to maintain a simmer and cook until tender and easily crushed with tongs, approximately 10 to 15 minutes. Place the half-and-half and butter into a microwave-safe container and heat in the microwave until warmed through, about 35 seconds. Drain the potatoes in a colander and then return to the saucepan. Mash the potatoes and then add the half and half, butter, salt and pepper and continue to mash until smooth. Stir in the yolk until well combined.
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
- While the potatoes are cooking, prepare the filling. Place the canola oil into a 12-inch saute pan and set over medium high heat. Once the oil shimmers, add the onion and carrots and saute just until they begin to take on color, approximately 3 to 4 minutes. Add the garlic and stir to combine. Add the lamb, salt and pepper and cook until browned and cooked through, approximately 3 minutes. Sprinkle the meat with the flour and toss to coat, continuing to cook for another minute. Add the tomato paste, chicken broth, Worcestershire, rosemary, thyme, and stir to combine. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer slowly 10 to 12 minutes or until the sauce is thickened slightly.
- Add the corn and peas to the lamb mixture and spread evenly into an 11 by 7-inch glass baking dish. Top with the mashed potatoes, starting around the edges to create a seal to prevent the mixture from bubbling up and smooth with a rubber spatula. Place on a parchment lined half sheet pan on the middle rack of the oven and bake for 25 minutes or just until the potatoes begin to brown. Remove to a cooling rack for at least 15 minutes before serving.
Almost all books can open your eyes to new experiences - whether it be new cultures, new points of view, or just something you didn’t know before. The same book can have different meaning from person to person, and it can have a different meaning from reading to reading. I don’t love everything I read, but I do appreciate the opportunity I have to come away with a new knowledge of the world, be it big or small.
The House of the Spirits, a selection for one of my book clubs, was one such book. By Isabel Allende, and originally written in Spanish, it is the story of strong Chilean women, spanning three generations. I don’t have a strong opinion about it either way, but in the end, I’m glad I read it.
It was not the easiest book for me to get into, and if I hadn’t been on vacation with a limited selection of reading material, I might have put it down and called it a day. As captivating as these three women were, the common thread throughout all of their narratives was Esteban, a really rather unlikeable character, who outlived all of them.
With elements of magical realism, like many Latin American stories, we follow Clara the Clairvoyant, her daughter Blanca and her granddaughter Alba as they live in Esteban’s orbit. For all of the beautiful writing and the expansive time covered, it feels as though the story slags on, with so little happening in any given chapter. Until the end, when Alba - the joy of Esteban’s life and who feels like the most important character - takes revolutionary steps that not only change her family forever but her country too.
It is in this part of the book, while stuck in the house during a curfew, that the maids decide to make empanadas as a way of entertaining themselves. I have always loved empanadas and thought making them on a very snowy day in Detroit would be a great way to entertain myself too!
I found a recipe from The New York Times for beef empanadas and went to work. In an attempt to save time, I used refrigerated dough, as suggested by a different recipe. Looking back, I wish I’d made the dough included in the original recipe (I’ll include it below). If you do decide to use refrigerated dough, you will probably need 2 packages, or 4 total pie crusts.
Since my dough was already made, I started with the filling. I used ground beef and ground chorizo, because I already had them on hand - I think they work just as well. I chopped the onion and set the beef to cooking on the stovetop.
While the beef browned, I peeled and diced my potatoes. Once the beef was nearly cooked through, I added the onion and the chorizo to the pan, allowing them to cook for about 10 minutes. Then I added the potatoes, garlic and spices, seasoning with salt and pepper.
After a few more minutes, I added the tomato paste, paprika, cayenne pepper (about an ⅛ teaspoon) and a cup of water. It began simmering and I let it all cook together for another 10 minutes.
While that cooked, I also chopped my scallions and made two hard-boiled eggs. Once the filling was finished, I put it in a bowl to cool and added the sliced scallions.
I preheated the oven to 375 degrees and started making the dough rounds. Unrolling the dough was surprisingly difficult, but it did add this bright spot to my cooking.
I got about 15 total rounds out of my two sheets of dough, only enough to use half the filling. (The rest of the meat and potato mixture made a great addition to breakfast burritos as well as a quick dinner of tacos.) On each round, I added about 1 tablespoon of the meat filling, a sprinkle of chopped hard-boiled eggs, and a sprinkle of finely chopped green olives. Using more filling made them difficult to close.
I brushed them with some melted butter and put them in the oven on a parchment lined baking sheet for 15 minutes. They didn’t come out quite as golden as they might have if I’d made my own dough, but they still tasted delicious.
From: The New York Times Cooking Section
- 4 oz lard or butter, plus more for brushing tops
- 1½ teaspoons fine sea salt
- 750 grams all-purpose flour, about 6 cups, more as needed
- 1 pound beef chuck, in 1/8-inch dice (or very coarsely ground)
- Salt and pepper
- Lard or olive oil, or a combination, for sautéing
- 1 cup diced onion
- 2 ounces diced chorizo (or ground)
- ½ pound potatoes, peeled and diced
- 4 garlic cloves, mashed to a paste
- 2 teaspoons chopped thyme
- 2 teaspoons chopped marjoram or 1 teaspoon oregano
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 1 tablespoon pimentón dulce or paprika
- Large pinch cayenne
- Beef or chicken broth, as necessary, or use water
- ½ cup chopped scallions, white and green parts
- ¼ cup chopped pitted green olives
- 2 hard-cooked eggs, sliced
- Make the dough: Put 2 cups boiling water, 4 ounces lard and 1 1/2 teaspoons salt in large mixing bowl. Stir to melt lard and dissolve salt. Cool to room temperature.
- Gradually stir in flour with a wooden spoon until dough comes together. Knead for a minute or two on a floured board, until firm and smooth. Add more flour if sticky. Wrap and refrigerate for 1 hour.
- Make the filling: Season chopped beef generously with salt and pepper and set aside for 10 minutes. Melt 3 tablespoons lard in a wide heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Add beef and fry until nicely browned, stirring throughout to keep pieces separate, about 5 minutes.
- Turn heat down to medium and add onion and chorizo. Keep turning mixture with a spatula, as if cooking hash, until onion is softened and browned, about 10 minutes. Add potatoes, garlic, thyme and marjoram and stir well to incorporate. (Add a little more fat to pan if mixture seems dry.) Season again with salt and pepper and let mixture fry for 2 more minutes. Stir in tomato paste, pimentón and cayenne, then a cup of broth or water. Turn heat to simmer, stirring well to incorporate any caramelized bits.
- Cook for about 10 more minutes, until both meat and potatoes are tender and the sauce just coats them — juicy but not saucy is what you want. Taste and adjust seasoning for full flavor (intensity will diminish upon cooling). Stir in scallions and cool to room temperature, then cover and refrigerate until ready to use.
- Divide chilled dough into 1-ounce pieces and form into 2-inch diameter balls. Roll each piece into a 4 1/2-inch circle. Lay circles on a baking sheet lightly dusted with flour.
- Moisten outer edge of each round with water. Put about 2 tablespoons filling in the center of each round, adding a little chopped green olive and some hard-cooked egg to each. Wrap dough around filling to form empanada, pressing edges together. Fold edge back and finish by pinching little pleats or crimping with a fork.
- Heat oven to 375 degrees. Place empanadas on parchment-lined or oiled baking sheet, about 1 inch apart. Brush tops lightly with lard or butter and bake on top shelf of oven until golden, 10 to 15 minutes. Serve warm.
I'm excited to announce that one of my blog recipes is featured in a new e-cookbook! Even better news - it's free! This cookbook is a compilation of recipes chosen/created by authors to go along with their latest books from Kindle Press. Jim Nelson, author of one of my favorite books this year - Bridge Daughter, kindly asked if he could use my recipe for Zucchini Pancakes for his entry. And look, it's right there:
If you have a Kindle, check out the link here to download the latest version of KP Authors Cook Their Books.