Monday, December 21, 2009

The Ultimate “Gag” Gift: Sandra Lee’s Kwanzaa Cake

Sandra Lee's Kwanzaa Cake I originally witnessed this monstrosity of a cake on a Food Network episode of Sandra Lee's Semi-Homemade a few years ago. Since then, the now infamous Kwanzaa Cake has taken on a life of its own on the web. Everyone wants to bad mouth this thing. But who can blame them?

There are some things that shouldn't be mixed. She begins with a store bought angel food cake and adds cinnamon and chocolate to white icing from a can. She then coats the angel food cake (which is already sweet) with the icing. If that's not enough, Sandra Lee then dumps a whole can of apple pie filling in the middle of the angel food cake. But wait, there’s more. The crazy looking cake is then sprinkled with pumpkin seeds, and get this, corn nuts.

So what makes this crazy, unappetizing and sickly sweet cake a Kwanzaa cake? None other than red and green candles that look like they belong in a candlestick. So what have we learned? Just because someone on TV says "do it", doesn't mean you should.

Watch the horror below. And obviously Sandra is confused, as she calls the corn nuts, “acorns.” The original video I witnessed, and the original recipe also calls for popcorn, yet it seems to have been edited out. And the recipe is now missing from the Food Network website. Hmmm.

Here’s the recipe if you want to give someone a “gag” gift.

1 (10 to 12-ounce) purchased angel food cake
1 container (16 ounce) vanilla frosting
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 (21-ounce) container apple filling or topping
1 (1.7-ounce) package corn nuts
1/2 cup pumpkin seeds, toasted
1/2 cup popped popcorn

Special Equipment:
Kwanzaa candles

Using a serrated knife, cut cake horizontally into 2 layers. Place bottom cake layer, cut side up, on a serving platter. Mix frosting, cocoa powder, vanilla, and cinnamon in large bowl until combined. Spread about 1/4 of the frosting over top of cake layer on platter. Top with second cake layer, cut side down. Spread remaining frosting evenly over top and sides of cake to coat completely. Spoon apple pie filling into hole in center of cake. Place candles atop cake. Sprinkle top of cake with some corn nuts, pumpkin seeds, and popcorn. Sprinkle remaining corn nuts and pumpkin seeds around base of cake.

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Thursday, December 17, 2009

Soft & Chewy Gingerbread Cookies

Soft and Chew Gingerbread Cookies The holidays wouldn’t be complete without gingerbread. Of course, this would be my first attempt ever at making the traditional cookie so I didn’t know what to expect. Even though you have to roll the dough and chill it, it’s a pretty simple cookie to make.

I used the food processor method to mix all the ingredients. But unless you have a large food processor bowl, I would use a regular stand mixer. The directions are simple. Just add your dry ingredients, then a little butter and gradually add the milk and molasses. Almost instantly you’ll know you’re making gingerbread. The aroma from the ginger and molasses and the deep color of the dough is a wonderful sight.

Once the dough was mixed, I divided it and rolled it flat between two pieces of parchment paper. If you hate rolling dough, this method is pretty simple. You don’t have to worry about dough sticking to the rolling pin, or flouring your work surface.

I prepared the dough the day before I need the cookies, then chilled the sheets of rolled dough between the parchment overnight. The next morning I used my new tree cookie cutter to cut out the cookies and gently put them onto a parchment-lined baking sheet. In my gas oven, each sheet of cookies only took about 8 minutes.

The cookies taste great. Even if you’re not a fan of gingerbread you may like these. They are slightly spicy, yet mild. And the soft texture of the cookie is great. I prefer chewy and soft gingerbread rather than the gingersnap style of cookies. I’d like to keep my teeth in one piece.

For a rolled cookie recipe, this one is super simple and great for the holidays.

Printable Version

For about twenty 5-inch gingerbread people or thirty 3-inch cookies

Because flour is not added during rolling, dough scraps can be rolled and cut as many times as necessary. Don't overbake the cookies or they will be dry. Store soft gingerbread in a wide, shallow airtight container or tin with a sheet of parchment or waxed paper between each cookie layer. These cookies are best eaten within one week.


3 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 12 pieces and softened slightly
3/4 cup unsulphured molasses
2 tablespoons milk


1. In food processor work bowl fitted with steel blade, process flour, sugar, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, salt, and baking soda until combined, about 10 seconds. Scatter butter pieces over flour mixture and process until mixture is sandy and resembles very fine meal, about 15 seconds. With machine running, gradually add molasses and milk; process until dough is evenly moistened and forms soft mass, about 10 seconds.

Alternatively, in bowl of standing mixer fitted with paddle attachment, stir together flour, sugar, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, salt, and baking soda at low speed until combined, about 30 seconds. Stop mixer and add butter pieces; mix at medium-low speed until mixture is sandy and resembles fine meal, about 1 1/2 minutes. Reduce speed to low and, with mixer running, gradually add molasses and milk; mix until dough is evenly moistened, about 20 seconds. Increase speed to medium and mix until thoroughly combined, about 10 seconds.

2. Scrape dough onto work surface; divide in half. Working with one portion of dough at a time, roll 1/4-inch thick between two large sheets of parchment paper. Leaving dough sandwiched between parchment layers, stack on cookie sheet and freeze until firm, 15 to 20 minutes. (Alternatively, refrigerate dough 2 hours or overnight.)

3. Adjust oven racks to upper- and lower-middle positions and heat oven to 350 degrees. Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper.

4. Remove one dough sheet from freezer; place on work surface. Peel off top parchment sheet and gently lay it back in place. Flip dough over; peel off and discard second parchment layer. Cut dough into 5-inch gingerbread people or 3-inch gingerbread cookies, transferring shapes to parchment-lined cookie sheets with wide metal spatula, spacing them 3/4 inch apart; set scraps aside. Repeat with remaining dough until cookie sheets are full. Bake cookies until set in centers and dough barely retains imprint when touched very gently with fingertip, 8 to 11 minutes, rotating cookie sheets front to back and switching positions top to bottom halfway through baking time. Do not overbake. Cool cookies on sheets 2 minutes, then remove with wide metal spatula to wire rack; cool to room temperature. (I did not switch positions of the cookie sheets in my gas oven. I just put the sheets on the top rack since they’re are no heating elements on the top.)

5. Gather scraps; repeat rolling, cutting, and baking in steps 2 and 4. Repeat with remaining dough until all dough is used.

From Cook’s Illustrated

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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

What the Experts Won’t Eat

microwave popcorn From Prevention Magazine

How healthy (or not) certain foods are for us, is a hotly debated topic among experts and consumers alike, and there are no easy answers. But when Prevention talked to the people at the forefront of food safety and asked them one simple question—“What foods do you avoid?”—they got some pretty interesting answers. And their answers are, well, food for thought:

1. Canned Tomatoes

The expert: Fredrick vom Saal, PhD, an endocrinologist at the University of Missouri who studies bisphenol-A

The problem: The resin linings of tin cans contain bisphenol-A, a synthetic estrogen that has been linked to ailments ranging from reproductive problems to heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. Unfortunately, acidity (a prominent characteristic of tomatoes) causes BPA to leach into your food. Studies show that the BPA in most people's body exceeds the amount that suppresses sperm production or causes chromosomal damage to the eggs of animals. "You can get 50 mcg of BPA per liter out of a tomato can, and that's a level that is going to impact people, particularly the young," says vom Saal. "I won't go near canned tomatoes."

The solution: Choose tomatoes in glass bottles (which do not need resin linings), such as the brands Bionaturae and Coluccio. You can also get several types in Tetra Pak boxes, like Trader Joe's and Pomi.

2. Corn-Fed Beef

The expert: Joel Salatin, co-owner of Polyface Farms and author of half a dozen books on sustainable farming

The problem: Cattle evolved to eat grass, not grains. But farmers today feed their animals corn and soybeans, which fatten up the animals faster for slaughter. More money for cattle farmers (and lower prices at the grocery store) means a lot less nutrition for us. A recent comprehensive study conducted by the USDA and researchers from Clemson University found that compared with corn-fed beef, grass-fed beef is higher in beta-carotene, vitamin E, omega-3s, conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), calcium, magnesium, and potassium; lower in inflammatory omega-6s; and lower in saturated fats that have been linked to heart disease. "We need to respect the fact that cows are herbivores, and that does not mean feeding them corn and chicken manure," says Salatin.

The solution: Buy grass-fed beef, which can be found at specialty grocers, farmers' markets, and nationally at Whole Foods. It's usually labeled because it demands a premium, but if you don't see it, ask your butcher.

3. Microwave Popcorn

The expert: Olga Naidenko, PhD, a senior scientist for the Environmental Working Group,

The problem: Chemicals, including perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), in the lining of the bag, are part of a class of compounds that may be linked to infertility in humans, according to a recent study from UCLA. In animal testing, the chemicals cause liver, testicular, and pancreatic cancer. Studies show that microwaving causes the chemicals to vaporize—and migrate into your popcorn. "They stay in your body for years and accumulate there," says Naidenko, which is why researchers worry that levels in humans could approach the amounts causing cancers in laboratory animals. DuPont and other manufacturers have promised to phase out PFOA by 2015 under a voluntary EPA plan, but millions of bags of popcorn will be sold between now and then.

The solution: Pop natural kernels the old-fashioned way: in a skillet. For flavorings, you can add real butter or dried seasonings, such as dillweed, vegetable flakes, or soup mix.

4. Nonorganic Potatoes

The expert: Jeffrey Moyer, chair of the National Organic Standards Board

The problem: Root vegetables absorb herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides that wind up in soil. In the case of potatoes—the nation's most popular vegetable—they're treated with fungicides during the growing season, then sprayed with herbicides to kill off the fibrous vines before harvesting. After they're dug up, the potatoes are treated yet again to prevent them from sprouting. "Try this experiment: Buy a conventional potato in a store, and try to get it to sprout. It won't," says Moyer, who is also farm director of the Rodale Institute (also owned by Rodale Inc., the publisher of Prevention). "I've talked with potato growers who say point-blank they would never eat the potatoes they sell. They have separate plots where they grow potatoes for themselves without all the chemicals."

The solution: Buy organic potatoes. Washing isn't good enough if you're trying to remove chemicals that have been absorbed into the flesh.

5. Farmed Salmon

The expert: David Carpenter, MD, director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University at Albany and publisher of a major study in the journal Science on contamination in fish.

The problem: Nature didn't intend for salmon to be crammed into pens and fed soy, poultry litter, and hydrolyzed chicken feathers. As a result, farmed salmon is lower in vitamin D and higher in contaminants, including carcinogens, PCBs, brominated flame retardants, and pesticides such as dioxin and DDT. According to Carpenter, the most contaminated fish come from Northern Europe, which can be found on American menus. "You can only safely eat one of these salmon dinners every 5 months without increasing your risk of cancer," says Carpenter, whose 2004 fish contamination study got broad media attention. "It's that bad." Preliminary science has also linked DDT to diabetes and obesity, but some nutritionists believe the benefits of omega-3s outweigh the risks. There is also concern about the high level of antibiotics and pesticides used to treat these fish. When you eat farmed salmon, you get dosed with the same drugs and chemicals.

The solution: Switch to wild-caught Alaska salmon. If the package says fresh Atlantic, it's farmed. There are no commercial fisheries left for wild Atlantic salmon.

6. Milk Produced with Artificial Hormones

The expert: Rick North, project director of the Campaign for Safe Food at the Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility and former CEO of the Oregon division of the American Cancer Society

The problem: Milk producers treat their dairy cattle with recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH or rBST, as it is also known) to boost milk production. But rBGH also increases udder infections and even pus in the milk. It also leads to higher levels of a hormone called insulin-like growth factor in milk. In people, high levels of IGF-1 may contribute to breast, prostate, and colon cancers. "When the government approved rBGH, it was thought that IGF-1 from milk would be broken down in the human digestive tract," says North. As it turns out, the casein in milk protects most of it, according to several independent studies. "There's not 100% proof that this is increasing cancer in humans," admits North. "However, it's banned in most industrialized countries."

The solution: Check labels for rBGH-free, rBST-free, produced without artificial hormones, or organic milk. These phrases indicate rBGH-free products.

7. Conventional Apples

The expert: Mark Kastel, former executive for agribusiness and codirector of the Cornucopia Institute, a farm-policy research group that supports organic foods

The problem: If fall fruits held a "most doused in pesticides contest," apples would win. Why? They are individually grafted (descended from a single tree) so that each variety maintains its distinctive flavor. As such, apples don't develop resistance to pests and are sprayed frequently. The industry maintains that these residues are not harmful. But Kastel counters that it's just common sense to minimize exposure by avoiding the most doused produce, like apples. "Farm workers have higher rates of many cancers," he says. And increasing numbers of studies are starting to link a higher body burden of pesticides (from all sources) with Parkinson's disease.

The solution: Buy organic apples. If you can't afford organic, be sure to wash and peel them first.

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Monday, December 14, 2009

Zesty Oven Steak Fries

Zesty Oven Steak FriesSteak fries are more satisfying than regular fries. But all store bought or restaurant variations have a more pillowey texture than what I have normally made at home. So I decided to take another stab at it.

Zesty Oven Steak FriesRather than just relying on the oven to bake these potato wedges of differing sizes, I went to the microwave. I poked holes with the tines of a fork into whole potatoes and microwaved about 8 or 9 of them for 5-6 minutes. Once done, and slightly cooled, I cut the potatoes into wedges. The microwaving seemed to help the potatoes with their final texture. Once the wedges were baked in the oven, they came out crispy on the outside, and more like a baked potato on the inside.

I also like this particular set of spices to turn these potato wedges into something zesty. I originally used 2 teaspoons of salt, but quickly discovered it was too much. I’ve dropped it to 1 teaspoon.

Printable Version
  • 8 medium russet potatoes
  • 1/2 c. grated parmesan
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 2 tsp. garlic powder
  • 2 tsp. paprika
  • 2 tsp. black pepper
  • Olive oil for drizzling over potatoes
  1. Heat oven to 450-degrees
  2. Spray a cooking sheet with cooking spray
  3. Combine all dry ingredients in a large bowl.
  4. Rinse potatoes and pierce the skin with a fork. Arrange on a microwave safe plate and heat in microwave for 5-6 minutes. (You still want the potato to be firm.)
  5. Remove from microwave, and cut potatoes into steak fry sized wedges.
  6. In a large bowl, drizzle the potatoes with the olive oil and mix with you hands until evenly coated.
  7. Add potatoes to your bowl of dry ingredients and coat well.
  8. Arrange potatoes on a single layer on baking sheet and bake for 30-35 minutes or until golden brown.


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Friday, December 11, 2009

Slow Cooker Root Beer Pulled Pork

Pulled Pork Sandwich I picked up a Crock Pot Slow Cooker on Black Friday. So I was eager to put it to good use. So while searching for slow cooker recipes, I found one for pulled pork that really stood out.

You know how two ingredients should never go together in a recipe, such as a Krispy Kreme doughnut and a hamburger. Well surprisingly, root beer and pork loin goes together quite well.

Yea it sounds weird. But it turned out great. I just put the pork loin in the Crockpot, sprinkled with some salt and pepper, added the onions and garlic and set it for 8 hours. Once it was done, I could still smell the root beer and it gave it a unique flavor, but not overpowering at all. I imagine you could also use regular beer.

Be sure to drain the meat well before adding your barbecue sauce. I missed that step, and ended up putting the meat through a strainer to get rid of all the extra juices.

Printable Version
  • 1 (2 pound) pork tenderloin or pork shoulder
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 (12 fluid ounce) can or bottle root beer
  • 1 medium onion, sliced into half rings.
  • 2 garlic cloves, cut in half
  • 1 (18 ounce) bottle your favorite barbecue sauce
  • 8 hamburger buns, split and lightly toasted
  1. Place the pork tenderloin in a slow cooker; pour the root beer over the meat. Cover and cook on low until well cooked and the pork shreds easily, 6 to 7 hours.
  2. Drain well.
  3. Stir in barbecue sauce.
  4. Serve over hamburger buns.

Note: the actual length of time may vary according to individual slow cooker.

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Thursday, December 10, 2009

White Chocolate Fudge with Pecans

White Chocolate Fudge with PecansI love white chocolate and it’s also approaching the holidays. So I wondered if it’s possible to make white chocolate fudge. Sure enough there’s plenty of recipes out there. I opted to try one that was simple and had the least amount of ingredients.

I’ve melted white chocolate chips before and they always seemed to have a higher melting point as compared to regular chocolate chips. Of course, I could be wrong since they seemed to melt just fine in the sweetened condensed milk.

White Chocolate Fudge with PecansI also wondered how in the world would this fudge set up, when it’s just white chocolate chips and sweetened condensed milk. Well, I don’t know how it works but it sets up great. Just chill the finished fudge for two hours, cut into squares and then it’s good at room temperature.

The best way to describe this fudge is creamy, but has a texture more like fondant (used to decorate cakes). But don’t let that scare you. It’s an incredible change to the holiday platters of chocolate fudge.

Printable Version
  • 3 cups white chocolate chips (1 12-ounce bag plus half of another)
  • 1 (14 ounce) can sweetened condensed milk 
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1 c. pecans
  1. Pour the chips, condensed milk and vanilla into a medium saucepan. Put the pan on the stove and turn the heat to low. (Stir occasionally while you prepare pan).

  2. Line an an 8-inch pan with foil. This makes it easier to remove the fudge when it’s time to cut.

  3. Stir the chips and milk until they melt together, about 3 minutes. Stir in pecans. Pour the fudge into the pan.

  4. Put the fudge in the refrigerator and chill until firm (about two hours, you can speed it up with the freezer). Lift the fudge from the pan and remove the foil. On a flat surface, cut the fudge into small squares to serve.


Feeling festive? Use 1 1/2 cups shelled pistachios and 1/2 cup dried, sweetened cranberries instead of the pecans.

Adapted from Rachael Ray

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Monday, December 7, 2009

The Discovery of Real Parmesan

Parmigiano-ReggianoSure. I knew Parmigiano-Reggiano was the best parmesan out there. But I’m used to the Kraft version, either grated or shredded. The grated is perfect for spaghetti and the shredded works great for my chicken carbonara. But now I know what I was missing all this time.

Real ParmesanThe Kraft version is approaching $5 most of year. So I decided to make the switch to a $4.99 wedge of the real deal. Of course a sale at $3.99 sale got me hooked. An 8 ounce wedge for $4.99 beats the 7 ounce can at $4.49, if you ask me. You’ll be amazed at the difference in taste.

Parmigiano-Reggiano has a more sharp flavor, and a little goes a long way. This fact makes the few extra cents worth it. I use a microplane to finely shred it for whatever I need it for.

From Wikipedia: Parmigiano-Reggiano, called parmesan in the English language, is a hard granular cheese, cooked but not pressed, named after the producing areas of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, and Bologna (all in Emilia-Romagna), and Mantova (in Lombardia), Italy.

Go ahead and try it out. If you can find the right brand, at the right store, it’s not as expensive as you think. And you just might make the switch.

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Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Ultimate Southern Macaroni & Cheese

Southern Macaroni and CheeseSouthern Macaroni and CheeseThis past Thanksgiving I was treated to some comforting, homemade macaroni & cheese, so I had to share the recipe. Now many of us have come to the conclusion that mac and cheese should be swimming in sauce. We can thank box dinners for that idea. But real macaroni and cheese is so much heartier.

Homemade Macaroni and CheeseI’ve eaten homemade macaroni and cheese before. But each recipe was hit and miss. Often times the whole dish was heavy or the cheese just turned it into a greasy mess. But not this recipe.

Southern Macaroni and CheeseIt has a great cheesy flavor, but even more significant, the pasta came out fluffy instead of weighed down. This is the recipe I’ll stick with from now on.  

Printable Version
  • 1 lb elbow macaroni, cooked - al dente, drained well
  • 2 overflowing cups of sharp cheddar cheese, shredded or cut into 1/4-in cubes
  • 1 can evaporated milk
  • 1 Tbsp sugar
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • Season salt - to taste
  • Fresh cracked black pepper - to taste
  • Dash or two or three or four of cayenne pepper


  1. In a bowl, mix cooked and well drained macaroni and cheese together.
  2. In another bowl whisk together eggs, milk, sugar and seasoning.
  3. Pour egg/milk mixture over mac and cheese mixture, stir until well incorporated.
  4. Pour into baking dish or tin, cover with foil.
  5. Bake at 350 degrees for about an hour.
  6. Remove foil, turn on broiler - broil top of mac and cheese until golden brown and bubbly.
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