Saturday, October 31, 2009

Dinner on the Table in 25 Mins or Less

I’ve received a few cookbooks as gifts from concerned family members over the years. My favorite – Any Blonde Can Cook – illustrates just how little faith they have in my cooking ability.

Personally, I feel like a fish out of water in the kitchen, which is one reason I usually avoid cooking. (The other being my fail-to-success ratio weighing heavily on the fails).

Tackling a new recipe can be a daunting experience. But the truth is, if you can follow directions, you can cook. The catch is understanding what you’re reading.

That’s pretty much the extent of my cooking ability. I can usually follow a recipe without incident, providing I can comprehend the terminology.

I find cookbooks with illustrations or a glossary of foreign cooking terms are helpful. When in doubt (which is usually at least once per recipe), I refer to an online Food Dictionary.

But some of the best meals I’ve ever tasted have been intuitive creations. This is how my fiancé cooks. So many times I’ve seen him open the cabinets, survey possible ingredients and whip up a delicious meal on the spot.

Determined to reach that level of cooking, I started paying closer attention to the meal descriptions on menus when I’m out to eat.

If you’re as clueless as me, reading menus is a great way to get ideas of possible flavor combinations. And it was this technique that inspired one of my only intuitive creations: Naan Pizza.

It’s incredibly easy and pretty quick. It also has the potential to be a relatively healthy meal – compared to ordering a traditional pizza.

All you have to do is put the Naan bread on a cookie sheet or baking stone. Next add your sauce, followed by your choice of toppings and cheese. Finally, put the tray in the oven at 400°F for 10-15 minutes or until the edges look golden brown.

To get you started brainstorming ideas, here are a few of my personal favorites.

Lasagna Pizza
Marinara sauce

Chopped or sliced meat balls (already cooked)

Ricotta cheese

Mozzarella cheese

Chicken Pesto Pizza
Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Fresh garlic

Small pieces of chicken (already cooked)

Fresh mozzarella cheese

Shredded parmesan cheese

Four cheese pizza
Extra virgin olive oil

Fresh mozzarella cheese

Goat cheese
Parmesan cheese

Fontina cheese

Tomato slices

Everything Pizza
Peppers (bell and/or hot)

Tomato slices



Chicken (already cooked)

Feta cheese

Parmesan cheese

Mozzarella cheese

*Consider adding mushrooms – I’m personally not a fan, but have heard they make a nice addition.

Getting Started

Ready to Bake

The Finished Product

Monday, October 26, 2009

Baking Day

Half a dozen hours and dozens of cookies later – I can honestly say the baking experiment was a success.

I did have the help of a more experienced baker – which was great. Not only did I learn a few things, but it also helps keep the whole experience enjoyable when you have some company in the kitchen. Definitely recommend baking with friends.

We made four different recipes: pumpkin chocolate chip cookies, chocolate krinkles, chocolate toffee crunchies and peanut butter cup cookies. You can find all of these recipes in the comments section after “Calling All Cookie Recipes.”

The pumpkin chocolate chip cookies make a delicious seasonal treat and were the clear favorite among our volunteer taste testing crew. But out of 10 taste-testers, each cookie earned at least one first place ranking. And so far everybody has agreed that all four recipes are worth the calories!

For all of you novice bakers considering giving one (or all) of these recipes a shot, the good news is that none of them were difficult to make. If I can do it, anybody can… especially when armed with the right equipment.

Tools of the Trade:

First, I’m definitely registering for a KitchenAid stand mixer. My more experienced counterpart brought one with her and once we got the right attachment on there, it was perfect for mixing the dough. Definitely easier than using a hand mixer or worse – a whisk. (Side note: Can you even mix cookie dough with a whisk?)

Second, have you heard of the push up measuring cup? I was introduced to the Metric Wonder Cup this weekend and discovered it’s awesome for measuring sticky ingredients (the pumpkin and peanut butter in our case). I also heard it’s great for Crisco. And it’s easy to use.

Third, we tried a baking stone, Silpat and greased cookie sheet to see which worked the best.

As it turned out, the pumpkin chocolate chip cookies didn’t stick to any of our baking trays and the chocolate krinkles stuck to all of them. Still, I think a baking stone is a great investment if you’re also going to use it to bake pizzas and other things. The Silpat really works and definitely protects the cookie sheet. You can also probably salvage cookie sheets that have lost their non-stick coating by using a Silpat. But don't count out the good old fashion cookie sheet. A good quality tray with a little Pam also produced quite a tasty cookie.

Hands down the best part of the day? Enjoying the end products of our labor!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Quick Tip: Ironing Sans Iron & Board

I’ll admit, I’ve blamed a wrinkled outfit on riding public transportation several times before. “There’s just no way to avoid wrinkles when you’re crammed into a seat with three bags in your lap!” Actually, it’s kinda true.

But sometimes excuses don’t cut it. That's when I turn to my hair straightener.

You're already removing wrinkles from your hair -- so why not remove them from your clothes while you’re at it.

I find it works best on cotton blends. Lightly clamp the straightener over the wrinkle and move it along the fabric at a consistent pace. Be careful not to pause for too long in one place. Then simply repeat until the wrinkle is gone.

  • It removes wrinkles from linen, but it also removes the color.
  • If you put any products in your hair before you straighten – don’t try this. Your hair product will likely rub off on your clothes.
  • I’ve never tried it on wool – if you have, let me know how it went!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Calling all Cookie Recipes

My friend (& coworker) recently eloped, and we decided to welcome her back to work in style. This involved a fully decorated cube complete with a display of delicious cookies.

As I plopped the pre-made, pre-cut blobs of chocolate chip cookie dough (with caramel in the center) onto the baking stone the night before, I decided the next time there’s an occasion for cookies, I want to actually make them.

Does anybody have any great cookie or other desert recipe they’d be willing to share? If so, please leave the recipe in the comments section below or email it

Next weekend: cookie baking! I’m going to try a few new recipes in preparation for the rapidly approaching holiday season. Maybe I can actually contribute something edible to Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner this year. Stay tuned for a full report on my baking escapade.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Shopping for Domestic Success

I’m in a bit of a tricky situation – we’re moving to our new house in a few weeks, and of course I want to decorate each room, plus get new bedding, bath and kitchen supplies. But we also have a wedding coming up in just under a year, which means gift registration is right around the corner.

What to do? Buy new stuff now? Or get by for a few months and save it for the registry? Anybody else been in this same boat?

I decided to get the towels now – they seemed essential for practicing good hygiene – so I picked them up at a JR Outlet Store in North Carolina.

There was a huge selection of colors and they felt like good quality towels, so I settled on a dark green and gold color combo. I decided we needed a few towels in every size from the extra large bath sheets right down to the washcloths. I even tossed a few decorative towels in for good measure.

I love a good deal, so I was pleased to discover the towels at JR cost less than same sized towels at Walmart, Target and Bed, Bath & Beyond (even if you use the 20% coupons).

Thinking they’re cheaper because they’re lesser quality? You’re not the only one.

When I told my mom about my new towel purchase, she asked if I checked to make sure they were 100% cotton. No, I didn’t check. Does it really matter? They felt nice.

Apparently it does matter. If the towels have rayon or silk in them, they stop absorbing water after the first time through the washing machine. Who knew?

Fortunately, I snuck by with a win this time. Our new towels are 100% cotton!

And for my second success in one week, turns out I’m an expert towel folder.

Anybody ever watch “Step by Step” (the ‘90s version of “The Brady Bunch”)? I kept thinking of this one episode where Carol Lambert (Suzanne Somers) is teaching the kids how to fold the towels so they have all smooth edges. Who knew the cheesy TV I grew up with – and I’ll admit, loved – would actually be useful in my adult life.

Check out the clip – the towel folding scene is about 1 minute into it.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Quick Tip: Dining Etiquette 101

We all know to “start on the outside and work our way in” when we sit down to a multicourse meal.

But it gets a little more complicated when there isn’t much space between table settings.

Is that my water? Which bread dish do I use? For this predicament, I use what I call the “b&d” method.

Hold your hands out over the table setting (or do it in your lap if you’re trying to be discrete) and touch your first fingers and thumbs together, while leaving your other fingers extended.

Your left hand forms a “b” for bread, and your bread dish is conveniently located on your left. Your right hand forms a “d” for drink, which you’ll find to your right.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Square One for the Domestically Deficient

I was born deprived of the domesticity gene – which is really hard to believe considering my genealogy. For as long as I can remember, my mom has played Domestic Goddess at home, while maintaining her full-time career. And so far my younger sister is shaping up to follow in her foot steps. So how can it be that I don’t have an ounce of domestic ability in me?

I’ve learned the basics through trial and error – lots of errors:

If you’re boiling water for Mac & Cheese and the flame disappears, don’t assume the stove is off. Gas is probably leaking into your kitchen, setting the scene for a massive explosion when you relight that burner. [Fail: 8th grade]

No matter how long you beat the egg, water and oil with the mixer, it will never look like cake batter unless you add the cake mix. [Fail: 9th grade]

New sweat pants usually leave a million fuzz balls behind during the first wash. Thus, washing them with your nice “party tops” is not a good idea (unless you want to buy all new clothes). [Fail: sophomore year of college]

Repainting the old retro-colored bathroom tiles to give the room a little face lift works great. But it does require the use of gentle, all-natural cleansers when cleaning. If you spray the heavy-duty stuff and start scrubbing you’ll likely remove a layer or two (or all) of the paint. [Fail: last year]

Trying to iron the bottom of your dress when you're already wearing it is more complicated than it sounds. The probability of removing all of your wrinkles is low, considering it’s impossible to reach the back of the dress. Plus you run the risk of knocking over the whole ironing board with one clumsy movement. [Fail: one month ago]

Given my track record, it’s no wonder my own mother asked me what I was planning to contribute to my household when the news broke that the fiancé and I are buying a house. My reply: “Show up and look good?”

My fiancé – bless him – accepts me despite my domestic deficiency, but I don’t want to be this way forever. So I’m determined to find quick, but quality house keeping techniques and share my trials, tribulations and successes with all of you along the way.

And I hope that you’ll let me in on your secrets, too!