Monday, February 6, 2012

Put A Little Love In Your Heart

Wow.  A week from tomorrow is Valentine's Day.  Again.  Didn't I just do this?  Ah, well, it's going to be all pink and red hearts at my house, probably a little glitter, lots of fingernail polish, and buttloads of frilly things.

And that's just my daughter.

I'm not that big on Valentine's Day.  Honestly, I'm not.  But I have a wife and a daughter, so that makes it a big holiday for us in our house.  I seriously doubt my sons would even realize it was Valentine's Day without someone stopping them in their schizophrenic movements from one room to another and telling them specifically that that's what is going on.  I know I wouldn't.

But I'm warned ahead of time that it's coming.  So, I do try to prepare.

Hence the timing of this column. And it's a long one, so hold on to your butts.

While I'm not going to tell you what to buy for the Editors/Cub Reporters in your life, I will give you several recipes that are my family's favorites.  I haven't decided which I'm going to make yet, but I've still got eight more days to do that.  I'm fairly certain that I will do everything I can to make sure that I stick with my diet, though.  Much to my family's chagrin.  Especially 'cause the first recipe I'm going to give you is their favorite V-Day breakfast EVER.

Chocolate Gravy

Ingredients:
1 3/4 cups milk (doesn't matter which one, but I wouldn't recommend less than 2%.  Whole is MUCH better!)
1/4 cup coffee liqueur (the alcohol will cook out of this, and you'll never taste the coffee!  I PROMISE!)
4 tbsp cocoa powder (I use Ghirardelli sweet ground, but you can use Hershey unsweetened or whatever you want.)
1/2-3/4 cup sugar (if you use the sweet ground cocoa, go with 1/2 cup sugar, otherwise go with the 3/4 cup)
1/2 cup REAL unsalted, sweet cream butter
1/4 cup regular, all-purpose flour
biscuits

Directions:

  1. Pop your biscuits into the oven to bake.  I use whop-em biscuits (the kind that come in a can that you have to whop to get them to open up--hence the name) or frozen.  The frozen ones taste better, IMO.
  2. In a deep skillet over medium heat, melt the butter.
  3. While the butter is melting, mix together the cocoa and the flour.  Trust me on this.  If you don't mix it ahead of time, it becomes a pain in the butt later.  Once the butter is melted, stir in the cocoa/flour mix until you've got a thick chocolate-y paste on your hands.
  4. Pour in the coffee liqueur and the milk, mix until everything is dissolved into the liquids, and add in the sugar.
  5. Now the hard part.  STIR CONSTANTLY UNTIL THIS THICKENS UP.  This will take FOREVER to do.  I apologize for that, but there you go.  When this thickens up, your biscuits should be just about ready, if not already done.
  6. Split your biscuits open, and spoon this delicious chocolate-y goodness over it.  Your own cub reporters will rave, then get real hyper, then fall into a sugar coma.  You're welcome.

I <3 Toast

Ingredients:
Bread
Butter
Eggs
Dash of water
Ketchup

Directions:
  1. Find a heart-shaped cookie cutter.
  2. Butter your bread ON ONE SIDE.
  3. Using your cookie cutter, cut out a heart from the middle of your bread.***
  4. With the dash of water and in a small bowl, scramble the eggs.  Yes, I said to use water.  It will actually make your scrambled eggs a little fluffier than milk.  I don't know why.  I'm not Martha Stewart, so if you want to know, go ask her.
  5. Put the bread (buttered-side down) with the heart cut out of it into a small skillet, and pour in the egg.  Cook on LOW (so your bread doesn't burn before your egg is cooked).  Yes, the egg will actually cook all the way through, even though it takes some time to do this.
  6. When you serve it, use the ketchup to make little red hearts on it.  To do this, put two little dots of ketchup right next to each other, then use a toothpick to bring the dots down together into a point and turns them into a heart.  Your own Cub Reporters will LOVE this!
***Side note:  Save this for you and your Editor for later.  I've got another recipe coming up after this one for just the two of you, and it uses these pieces of bread!


Chocolate-Stuffed Heart French Toast

Ingredients:
Four hearts you cut out of the bread from the recipe above
Eggs
Scant water
Dash of Cinnamon
A little sugar
Chopped chocolate bars/chips/whatever as long as it's chopped up small.
Fresh berries of your choice
Raspberry, Strawberry, or Cherry syrup

Directions:
  1. In the middle of one of the bread hearts, place a tsp of chocolate.  Place another bread heart on top.  Using a fork, crimp the edges of the bread hearts together, sealing the chocolate inside.
  2. Scrambled up the eggs with a little water, and add some cinnamon and some sugar.
  3. Dunk your hearts in the eggs, making sure you coat the outside of the hearts ON BOTH SIDES.
  4. Cook in a skillet on medium heat until golden brown on both sides.  The chocolate inside the hearts should melt beautifully.
  5. Serve drizzeled with some syrup, a few fresh berries and, if you're like me, a little shaved chocolate (which is easy to do:  take a chocolate bar and run a carrot/potato peeler down the side of it.  The shavings curl up and look awesome on a plate!)
If you want to get extra fancy with this French Toast recipe, you can do something that takes planning ahead.  Take some ROOM TEMPERATURE real sweet cream butter (at least two sticks), and, using a mixer and a small bowl, whip up the butter with some of the berries (I use chopped up cherries for this) until it's all incorporated.  Then, wrestle out a sheet of cling wrap until it's laying flat on a table.  Scoop the berry butter into the middle of it into the shape of a log.  Roll it up and twist the ends until it looks kind of like a funky sausage.  Wrap it in aluminum foil, and pop it in the freezer until it's frozen solid--I usually do this for at least eight hours.  When I go to make this French Toast, I get the butter out right before I start making the toast, and, when I go to serve it, I slice up the butter and put a pat on each piece of toast before I drizzle on the syrup.  

Speaking of which....

Berry Syrup  (This isn't really a syrup as much as it is a sauce...)

Ingredients:
1 bag of frozen berries (any kind, even mixed works well!), thawed
2-3 tbsp berry jam (I try to use whatever kind of berry jam that's the same as the frozen berries)
sugar (to taste)

Directions:
  1. If, like me, you forget to thaw the berries ahead of time, place them in a microwave safe bowl and nuke them for about 30 seconds at a time, stirring between times, until they're thawed out.
  2. Using a spoon, stir up the jam until it's no longer a solid lump, then drizzle 2-3 tbsp of it into your berries.
  3. Using a fork, mash away until you have a syrup.
  4. Taste.  If you need sugar, add a little.  Mash it up in there as well.
  5. When you're ready, heat it in the microwave for just a few seconds until it gets warm and can melt the butter on your French Toast.

For lunches, I typically do things for my Cub Reporters like cut out hearts from bread, cheese slices, and deli meats, and make heart-shaped sandwiches.  Yes, I do clean the heart cookie cutter before I use it again.  

I also have a little heart-shaped cookie cutter that I like to use to cut up apple slices, thicker cheese slices, etc. for them as side dishes.  I only use the cheese slices if the Cub Reporters are eating PB&J for lunch.

Now on to dinner (Yes, I know this is a long column, but hey, you're getting some of my best recipes here!)...

Italian Wedding Soup  (I DO NOT use spinach in mine.  But you can in yours if you want to.)

Ingredients:

2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil, 2 turns of the pan in a slow stream
2 carrots, peeled and chopped
2 ribs celery, chopped
1 yellow medium onion, chopped
2 bay leaves, fresh or dried
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 lbs ground beef
1 egg, beaten
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Romano (I use the triple cheese blend that Kraft puts out), a couple of handfuls
1/2 cup Italian-style bread crumbs, a couple of handfuls
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
6 cups chicken broth
2 cups water
1 1/2 cups macaroni

Directions:

  1. In a deep pot over medium heat add oil, chopped carrots, celery and onions and bay leaves. Season with salt and pepper. Cover pot and cook veggies 5 or 6 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  2. While the veggies cook, combine meat, egg, garlic, grated cheese, bread crumbs, salt, pepper, nutmeg.
  3. Uncover your soup pot and add broth and water to the pot. Increase heat to high and bring soup to a boil. When soup boils, reduce heat a bit and start to roll meat mixture into small balls, dropping them straight into the pot. You are making meat dumplings that will cook in the broth. When you are done rolling the meat, add pasta to the soup and stir. Cover and simmer soup 10 minutes. When pasta is tender, it's ready to serve!
Yes, that was a take on Rachel Ray's Italian Mini Meatball Soup.  But it's one that I've used for years now.  My family LOVES THIS SOUP!

Berried Chicken Salad  (Expensive, but oh so worth it!)

Ingredients:
3-4 chicken breasts
1 bag Field Greens salad
1 of those clamshell plastic boxes (1/2 pint?  I dunno) blueberries
1 of those clamshell plastic boxes (1/2 pint?  I dunno) blackberries
1 15oz can mandarin oranges, drained
1 cup pine nuts, toasted (just toast them in a small skillet over medium heat, stirring occasionally, making sure they don't burn)
1 pint strawberries, hulled and quartered
1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup seedless blackberry jam
Couple squirts yellow mustard

Directions:

  1. Whisk together the vinegar, EVOO, jam, and yellow mustard.  This makes your dressing.
  2. In a second bowl, place the chicken breasts and pour about a quarter of your dressing over the chicken breasts, making sure that you don't use all of the dressing, otherwise you'll need to make more later for your salad.  Coat the chicken breasts.
  3. In a skillet over medium-high heat, cook the chicken breasts until they're done (about 6 minutes per side) and discard the dressing that was left in the chicken bowl.  DO NOT EAT IT.
  4. In a large salad bowl, mix together the rest of the ingredients, then place a healthy portion of the salad on the serving plates.  Drizzle with a little of your reserved dressing.
  5. Slice up the chicken, and place on top of your salad.
  6. Serve immediately.
  7. Listen to the rave reviews you're going to get.

Pepperoni Hearts Pizza

Ingredients:
FRESH flour tortillas
Pizza sauce
Pepperoni
Sliced mozzarella cheese
Any other toppings you want (basil, oregano, black olives, whatever)

Directions:

  1. Take a SMALL (ie 1-inch tall) heart-shaped cookie cutter.  Stack up some of the pepperonis, and cut them with the cookie cutter.  I use a metal one, and it slides through fairly easily.  Do the same thing with the mozzarella cheese.
  2. Preheat your oven to 375º F.
  3. Fold the tortillas in half, one at a time.  Cut the half-moon shape into a half-heart shape.  Keep the scraps for "fun-shaped" baked tortilla chips.
  4. Unfold the tortillas, then place them on a cookie sheet.
  5. Spread a about a tbsp of the pizza sauce on each of the tortilla hearts, then get your own Cub Reporters in there and have them dress up their hearts with the pepperonis, cheese, and whatever else they're looking for.
  6. Put the scraps of the tortillas around the hearts so they'll bake as you're baking the pizzas.
  7. Bake for about 7 minutes.
That's it!  You've now got dinner covered.

And now for some desserts.  With the cookies/bars type things, I do try to make ahead of time so the Cub Reporters can have them as treats for their lunches, but sometimes I just save them back until they've made a Happy Plate/Bowl after dinner.

And I do use the same cookie cutters as above (if I'm going to spend that kind of money on these things, I might as well get as much use out of them as possible!).

Heart of My Heart Jigglers

Ingredients:
2 1/2 cups boiling water
2 boxes Strawberry/Cherry/whatever red color you like Jell-O (the box that says it makes 8 servings)
1 cup COLD milk (I use 2%)
1 box VANILLA instant pudding (the box that says it serves 4)

Directions:

  1. In a big bowl, mix the BOILING (!!!!! IMPORTANT!!!!!) water with the Jell-O and stir until the Jell-O is completely dissolved.  Then, let sit there on the counter for about 30 minutes.  This will cause the Jell-O to set up a TINY bit, but it will also bring everything to room temp.  This is also important.
  2. About twenty-five minutes into the cooling process, in a smaller bowl, mix the vanilla pudding mix and the milk.  You'll want to whisk it for about a minute so the pudding granules all dissolve.  DO NOT mix until it's setting up, though.  If it sets up a minute into the mixing, well, WOW.  That never happens to me.
  3. Pour the just-finished-mixing-it-up pudding into the Jell-O you have sitting there.  Mix it.  A lot.  Then pour everything into a 9x13 pan and put it in the refrigerator for three hours MINIMUM (I usually do this at night and let it set all night--but I also cover it with plastic wrap if I'm going to let it set all night).
  4. Using a smaller heart-shaped cookie cutter (roughly 2 inches--certainly not the one I use for the chocolate-filled heart French Toast or the sandwiches or anything like that), cut out your hearts.  I can get 24 out of a pan using a 2" cookie cutter.  You can store these, but you'll need to make sure that whatever you store them in is SERIOUSLY sealed.  Otherwise they go from being Jigglers to Rubbers.


Red Velvet Sandwich Cookies (The Editor calls them Whoopie-Pies, but they're better than those)

Ingredients:
Cookies:
2 cups regular flour
2 tbsp cocoa powder (I use Hershey's for this one)
1 stick REAL butter (if you use shortening, this won't work), room temp
1 cup sugar
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp baking powder
Slightly less than 1/2 cup buttermilk, remaining filled with coffee liqueur (alcohol will bake out)
1/4 tsp salt
A whole 1oz thing of red food coloring (I use Duff's, which I found at Michael's.  It's the best, brightest red out there and doesn't have an aftertaste to it)

Frosting (this makes a LOT, so watch out!)
2 sticks real sweet cream UNSALTED sweet cream butter, room temperature
4 egg whites
1/2 cup white sugar
1-2 tsp CLEAR vanilla extract (optional)

Directions:

To start with, we're going to make the cookies.  If you leave the red food coloring out of these, they still make terrific cookies!  The Cub Reporters eat them up!

  1. Preheat your oven to 350º F.
  2. Line a cookie sheet (I use one that doesn't have a rim on it) with a piece of parchment paper.  If you're great with just free-handing hearts, don't worry about what I'm about to say.  If you're like me and you suck at it, well, take your heart-shaped cookie cutter (I use the same one I use with the French Toast up there), set it on the parchment paper, and then trace around the inside of it with a pencil.  Stick as many as you can on a piece of parchment paper.  Trust me on this.
  3. In a large bowl, sift together the flour, cocoa, baking powder, and salt.  Set it aside.
  4. (If you have a Kitchen-Aid, this will be a LOT easier!)  Cream together the butter and sugar until it's light and fluffy (2-3 minutes), and then drop in the egg and vanilla.
  5. LOWER YOUR SPEED AS LOW AS YOU CAN GO!!!!  Add in 1/3 of the flour mixture, then 1/2 of the buttermilk/coffee liqueur mixture, then another half of the flour mixture, then the rest of the buttermilk/coffee liqueur mixture, and then the rest of the flour mixture.  Make SURE you're mixing it all in well before you add the next piece.  (Thank you Martha Stewart for teaching me this.  Even though I'm not a fan, I still do take your tips to heart.  Sometimes.)
  6. Finally, squirt in the red food coloring, and let it mix.  And mix.  And mix.  Until the color is uniform.
  7. (This step can be difficult.  Just warning you now.)  Cut a hole in the corner of a gallon-sized ziplock bag.  Open the bag, and put the cookie dough into it, then seal the bag back up.
  8. (Here's why I recommend drawing the hearts on your parchment paper):  Carefully pipe the batter into the middles of the heart on the parchment paper.  You'll want to start in the center, and work your way out until you have them filled about 3/4 of the way full.  Because they have butter in them, THEY WILL SPREAD.
  9. Bake for 8-10 minutes, or until they appear to be set (the tops aren't really shiny anymore), and then pull them out and let them set on the baking sheet for roughly 10 minutes to finish "baking."
  10. Do this until you don't have any batter left, and all the cookies are COMPLETELY cooled.
  11. Eat the odd one.  :)
This next piece is how to make the filling.

  1. In a small bowl and using an electric hand mixer, beat the snot out of the butter until it's light and fluffy.  About four minutes.
  2. Wash and completely dry your Kitchen-Aid bowl, then put in the sugar and the egg whites.  Build a double-boiler, and put this bowl over it.  Whisk the eggs until they are frothy and steaming, and the sugar has dissolved.  Remove the bowl from the boiler.
  3. On medium speed, whisk until soft peaks form (about 3-5 minutes), then bump up the speed to high until it's shiny and stiff peaks have formed (about another 6 minutes).  
  4. Replace the whisk attachment with the paddle attachment, and set the speed to LOW.  Slowly mix in the whipped butter.  IF you are going to add any flavoring to this (I wouldn't, but that's just me), make sure it's clear and go ahead and do it at this point.
Time to make the cookies!
  1. Take half your hearts and flip them upside down on your work surface, so the flat side is facing up.
  2. Put the filling into another ziplock back that has the corner cut out of it.  Pipe the filling onto the hearts, but be careful about how close to the edge you get!  I fill them about 3/4 of the way full.
  3. Top those hearts with the remaining cookies, right side up.

That's all there is to it!  Your kids will LOVE these!  Especially the light, marshmallow-y filling.  Ooooh YUM!  Definitely not a diet food.  Which, yes, sucks.  Big time.


Cupid's Nipples (This is a variation on what I call Elf Nipples that I make at Christmas time.  I'm sure loads of people do.  They're easy, and they're YUM-O.)

Ingredients:
UNWRAPPED heart-shaped solid Hershey's chocolates (even better if you can find caramel-filled ones, but those are hard to find sometimes)
Red/pink/white M&Ms
Square pretzels (the kind that look like little square nets)

Directions:

  1. Lay out the pretzels on a microwave-safe plate.
  2. Place a chocolate heart onto each one.
  3. Nuke for about 15-30 seconds, watching them so they don't melt too much.
  4. Pull them out of the microwave, then IMMEDIATELY press an M&M into the center of each heart.
  5. Let cool completely!

Heart Treats (Going to do one first, then give you several variations on this same exact theme)

Ingredients:
5 cups Rice Krispies
1 bag mini marshmallows
1/2 stick butter
few drops of red food coloring

Directions:

  1. Melt the butter in a LARGE non-stick pot (or a pot that has been liberally sprayed with Pam or something along those lines).  Add in a few drops of red food coloring and mix until the butter turns red.  Don't worry about it being too dark, as it'll pink out as soon as you finish the next step.
  2. Add in the marshmallows.  Stir until the marshmallows are liquid goodness.  If it's still too red, don't worry.  It'll pink out as soon as you finish the next step.
  3. Add in your Rice Krispies, and mix completely.
  4. Put some butter on your hands, as well as the inside of your heart-shaped cookie cutter.  Set the cookie cutter in the corner of a long piece of parchment paper.  You're going to work your way down the paper.
  5. Spoon the Rice Krispie Treats into the middle of your cookie cutter, and press down until it's filled (yes, it's HOT, that's kind of the point here).  Pull off the cookie cutter and move down the way.  You'll have to re-butter your hands and the cookie cutter a little more than occasionally, but it's not too bad.  You'll need to work quickly, though.
  6. When you're done, pat yourself on your back AFTER you've licked the last of the Rice Krispies off your poor, slightly singed hands. 
  7. If you want to, you can also sprinkle these with little heart-shaped sprinkles, or red/pink/white candy beads, or whatever other festive thing you can think of.  I've been known to drizzle them with melted chocolate, too.  Or even dip them in chocolate.  The kids eat these up FAST!
As a variation on this theme, do the same thing with any kind of chocolate-flavored cereal (chocolate Cheerios, Count Chocula, Cocoa Puffs, whatever).  If you can find FrankenBerry cereal (I'm jealous), feel free to use that!  Just skip the red food coloring with these other variations.  


Well, that's pretty much all I have.  For this year, anyway.  Granted, these recipes ARE NOT figure-friendly for the most part.  The Wedding Soup isn't bad, but still...  But it's V-Day, so one day isn't going to kill you.

I hope you have a wonderful Valentine's Day this year.  Now go out and get your Better Half an awesome present.  You only have eight days.

And I'm already done with my shopping.

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