Birthday Baking

Well, I didn’t realize time was going to get away from me quite to this degree! Since we last posted, Mr. N wrapped up a successful run of his play; Mike traveled to and from Poland; school ended; Nana and Papa came for a visit from Florida; the kids’ camps started and Mike and I celebrated 14 years of marriage.

Most importantly though, we had a week-long birthday celebration for Mr. N who is now in the double digits – 10 years old! (We love our birthdays!) Now admittedly I have not been in the kitchen very often through this busy stretch – at least not to cook anything worth mentioning – but a birthday was not about to go by without some homemade baking. So rather than share more highlights from our last European destination, today we’ve actually got food!

Mr. N’s birthday celebration began with a surprise birthday party with the cast of the play and a karaoke night. He was completely surprised and filled with happiness. I even got an unprompted hug and thank you for one of the greatest nights of his life! karaoke night

Next up was his actually birthday. Unfortunately this also coincided with Mike’s trip to Poland, which Mr. N did not let him forget. Admittedly it was a tough week for Mr. N. Nana and Papa returned to Florida, his show ended, daddy was around the world and school let out for the summer. That’s a lot of goodbyes (and some of them rather difficult) for a little guy within a matter of days. So we needed something to bust through the melancholy. butters

I took a few days off of work and we spent Mr. N’s birthday doing exactly what he wanted to do – playing with the neighbors. We also planned a backyard pizza party and birthday celebration for the night complete with all of his neighborhood friends. Now as is customary, Mr. N requested my Grandma’s cobbler for dessert; however, I know that not all kids are crazy about berries, so we saved the cobbler for the next day. Instead we went with our old stand by – Peanut Butter Bars. dry ingredients

We’ve been making the peanut butter bars for about four years now. They have been a hit with kids and grown-ups alike, and best of all they are easy to whip up. I will warn you though, that if you’re not a fan of peanut butter, these are not for you. I should also warn, that if you’re looking for a lower calorie dessert, these are also not for you. peanut butter mixtuer

The recipe is simple – mix together the butter, peanut butter, sugars, eggs and vanilla. Next incorporate the flour, salt and baking powder. Then, of course, there is also the mandatory batter sampling. batter

Now, we’re still not done with peanut butter. An entire package of peanut butter chips is also stirred into the mix. peanut butter chip

Half of the batter is then spread over the bottom of a baking dish. This part is a little tricky. As you begin to spread it doesn’t feel like it’s going to go far enough, but it has every time. peanut butter spread

Next is the kids’ favorite part – the chocolate chips! We’ve used dark chocolate and milk chocolate for this recipe and both have gone over well. For Mr. N’s birthday we used milk chocolate since it is likely to go over better with kids. Now, the original recipe on Hershey’s site uses chocolate syrup. It’s another route to go, and it makes a pretty marbled appearance, but we prefer the chips. chocolate chips

Once the chips are sprinkled over (notice I leave a little row plain for me since I’m an odd non-chocolate eater), the rest of the peanut butter mix is spread over the top. peanut butter baking

The bars bake at 350F for about 35 minutes. We usually under cook ours just a bit so that they are nice and soft and chewy. PB brownies

After the bars cool slightly, they are sliced and ready to serve. While these can be served any time, they are especially delightful straight out of the oven. Or in our case, right after a loud and energetic rendition of “Happy Birthday!” birthday boy

The dessert was a hit with most of the kids. We did have one that didn’t really like peanut butter, but we had some gelato available too (no one goes without dessert here!). The adults, on the other hand, did their fair share of devouring the little bars. peanut butter bars

Most importantly Mr. N was happy. He gave the bars 3-1/2 spoons. They still don’t come close to the cobbler though. He could barely wait to the next day to dig into that beauty. peanut butter chocolate bars

Mike and I both give the peanut butter bars 3 spoons. They are chewy and a definite peanut butter indulgence. I also like that they come together so easily and serve lots. That said, I too would rather have the cobbler. cookie bars

Miss A gives them 5 spoons (because 4 is not enough) and likes to make sure she gets a middle piece (who can blame her – they are the most chewy). chewy bars

Miss A’s favorite part of the night though – helping with clean-up. She ran around collecting crepe paper and became the “crepe paper mummy.” (Notice the cobbler cooling on the stove in the background – rather risky of me to leave that lying about with Mr. N on the prowl!) crepe paper mummy

Print this recipe: Peanut Butter Bars

It was a great party and I have to admit it was rather fun to be back in the kitchen again. Hopefully that will start to happen more often. As for the rest of Mr. N’s birthday week…well, we took a little trip to the country where we enjoyed the cobbler, then we took Grammie and BoomBoom to Mr. N’s favorite Italian restaurant because his birthday is not complete without a piece of Rose’s homemade cheesecake.

It was definitely a fun-filled (and dessert-filled) birthday week. I’d like to say that we’ll post again soon, but we have a few summer trips, another summer birthday and more camps starting up. I do have another recipe already queued up, so hopefully I’ll get that to you sooner rather than later. I think we’re also hoping to cook another dish from Poland and a few more from Spain to test our hand at a few favorites we enjoyed on our trips, but until then, I hope you are all enjoying the summer (or winter) season as much as we are right now! Cheers!

Writer’s Block

Well, when we left for our spring break adventures, I certainly didn’t intend to take such a long hiatus from the blog. Little did I realize how busy we would get upon our return. I’ll be back in a few days to share our adventures, give a few updates and then we’ll launch into some cooking around the world again. For today, however, I figured I would provide a little flashback to our first year of blogging. You see, I was reminded by Charlie Louie at Hotly Spiced that today is ANZAC Day, a day of remembrance for Australian and New Zealand veterans. She shares a fabulous story of her grandfather in WWII, so in honor of him and all veterans, here’s our ANZAC post from three years ago. Cheers!

 

As promised, we have one more delicious recipe from New Zealand. I think that to-date this has been my favorite cooking destination on this adventure and I know that many of these recipes will become part of our regular rotation. Earlier this week, Mr. N and I baked up these little gems – ANZAC Biscuits.

They are a traditional treat from both Australia and New Zealand and were often sent to soldiers in the Great War; thus the name Australian and New Zealand Army Corp or ANZAC biscuits. The traditional recipe is easy to make and the biscuits last for weeks without perishing. Continue reading

A Dessert Worth Sharing

And by sharing, we don’t just mean sharing the recipe here, but actually sharing the dessert with family and friends. It’s far too dangerous to keep too many of these lying about the house! At least it would have been for us. So what is the dessert that earned the coveted 4 spoon vote all around (400 spoons from each of the kids in fact)? It’s the Paczki!
paczki ingredients

A few weeks ago, Miss A announced that she was ready to start cooking around the world again. It had been a while what with the whole Chopped Challenge thing. I asked her if she had a country in mind for our next culinary adventure and she announced it would be Poland. Mike then instantly suggested that we make the Polish dough nuts, paczkis. butter and sugar

The timing worked out perfectly. Paczkis are traditionally eaten in Poland on Fat Thursday (the Thursday before Lent). It was a way for families to use up the lard, sugar and eggs which was forbidden by Catholic fasting during Lent. Here in the states, and especially Chicago, paczki are more commonly eaten on Fat Tuesday (the Tuesday before Lent). In fact, here in the Chicago area, Fat Tuesday is more commonly known as Paczki Day; and wouldn’t you know that’s in two days! creaming butter and sugar

We’ve never once had a paczki. Nor have we ever come close to attempting to make dough nuts – particularly given my history of unsuccessfully working with yeast. So needless to say, I was nervous. proofing yeast

The sous chefs were a big help preparing the dough. Mr. N managed the proofing of the yeast, while Miss A worked on the dough ingredients. It’s a simple combination of butter, sugar, milk, yeast, salt, flour, eggs and a bit of rum. eggs and rum

The dough came together very easily in the stand mixer. It was soft and springy. paczki dough

Most importantly, though, it rose. My dough actually rose! This was the first victory and it made me much more hopeful. first rise

After the first rise, the dough gets punched down and then set aside to rise again. You can guess who was more than willing to punch the dough. punch the dough

After the dough rose yet again (another little victory), we rolled it out to a 1/2-inch thickness. rolling dough

Next we cut the rounds using a 3-inch biscuit cutter.
paczki rounds

Miss A loved smashing the leftover scraps and rolling it out again. I believe we ended up with 27 paczki rounds.
smashing dough

We then set the rounds aside for the final dough rise of about 30 minutes; and guess what? They rose again! paczki dough rounds

Now for the fun part, or as I told Mr. N, “Time to make the dough nuts!” Mike was right, I had wanted to use that line all day! We heated a gallon of oil to 350F. The thermometer is important to maintain the temperature (especially if you’re like me and afraid of heating oil!). thermometer

The paczki rounds are placed top-side down in the hot oil and fried for two to three minutes, or until golden brown. We fried just a few at a time to make flipping easier.
frying dough nuts

Then we flipped them over to fry the other side. So far so good! golden brown paczki

After another minute or so on the remaining side, we carefully removed the paczki and placed them on paper towels to drain. While they drained, Mike filled half the batch with a lemon custard filling by cutting a small hole in the side of the dough nut and squeezing the filling through a ziplock bag. Although we chose a lemon custard filling, paczkis can be made with a variety of jellies, jams and custards. The most traditional of fillings is the plum jam or rose hip jam.filling the dough nuts

Finally we rolled the dough nuts in granulated sugar (both the filled and unfilled paczkis) before serving. sugar dough nuts

The paczkis are best served the day they are made, which definitely was not going to be a problem for us. Paczki Day

We stood in amazement looking at the paczkis. They actually turned out exactly as planned! Not only did they look great, they tasted just like a dough nut! We decided that these little Polish dough nuts now hold a special place in our recipe hall of fame (reserved for seemingly hard recipes that not only turn out well, but are enjoyed all around). We currently have two such dishes in this esteemed category – the paczkis and our baklawa. Both are sure to be made again and again. paczkis

Needless to say, the paczki were a hit. We each had to sample both a lemon custard filled paczki and a plain paczki. They were equally delicious – light and airy on the inside and deliciously sugary on the outside. As we were licking our fingers we decided we had to share the rest of the dough nuts or we would find ourselves in some deep trouble. So we set a few aside for the next morning and packaged the rest up for the kids to deliver to the neighbors. fat tuesday paczkis

The best compliment and testament to our adventure came from one of our neighbors. As he and Mike were outside shoveling today, he told Mike, “Hey, those weren’t dough nuts you brought over. Those were paczkis!” fat thursday paczkis

All the neighbors greatly enjoyed the paczki, as did we again this morning. I’m very thankful they are all gone now though. These little devils would seriously derail our healthy eating.

Print this recipe: Polish Paczki
Polish Paczkis

Now that we’ve had our very first paczki, we highly suggest enjoying one this Tuesday. Many bakeries and churches in our area will be selling them this week, but you can make them at home too! Have a great Fat Tuesday everyone. We’ll be back next week with another Polish recipe selected by Miss A. Mardi Gras-Paczki

Mr. N in the Driver’s Seat

This is the last installment for Chopped Challenge 2014. I wish our dessert round was more inspired this year, after all Charles gave us a great basket to work with! Dessert Basket 2014

Sadly, however, after a long nine hours of cooking our creativity (and quite frankly motivation) was lacking. Don’t worry Charles, we’ve decided next year’s Chopped Challenge twist will be that the dessert round goes first. I know the kids won’t complain! So what to do with quinoa, chocolate, mango and Grand Marnier? Well, Mr. N suggested no bake cookies – they are easy, they are good and it should work. He also knows it’s the only way his mom will eat chocolate and figured it was a sure-fire way to win. conspiracy

So that’s what team Cleavers opted to do. We subbed the quinoa for oatmeal, the vanilla for Grand Marnier and added bits of dried, chopped mango in our regular recipe. The result was interesting. It certainly had the flavor of no bake cookies, but not quite the texture. Mr. N and Miss A both loved them and gave them a 4 spoon rating – the same as the regular recipe. Mike and I gave them 3 spoons each; although in retrospect they were more like 2 spoons. I didn’t eat them again. no bake cookies

I really didn’t even think it necessary to share the recipe, but the kids were insistent. They loved the quinoa cookies. They save well in the freezer and I saw Miss A sneak one out just yesterday. I guess this is one way to get her to eat some quinoa! Team Number Won was actually going to make no bake cookies too (a first in the Chopped competition to have both teams thinking along the same lines), but ultimately they opted for a no bake-inspired granola bar. The result didn’t quite go over as well, only garnering 2 spoons from all but Mike.

Long story short, stick with the regular recipe (unless you’re trying to get your kids to eat quinoa). The recipe provided here is our regular recipe passed down for several generations on my dad’s side of the family. It’s been a favorite for years and soothed many a broken hearts during the high school/teenage years. At the kids request we did include the quinoa option in the recipe for anyone interested.

Print this recipe: No Bake Cookies

Before we sign off for the week, I figured we’d share a few pics from President’s Day this week. Unfortunately Mike had to work, but the kids and I had a fabulous day at the Arboretum. Since it had warmed up into the 20’s (F), we thought we should try to take advantage of some of the snow and try our hand at cross-country skiing. The kids did great for their first time. skiing

We were out for an hour and half (although we only got about 1/4 mile). Mr. N had a rough start, but quickly got the hang of it and had a lot of fun. Miss A had a difficult time staying upright. She remained determined and optimistic for a good while, but then collapsed in a heap flailing her skiis about, becoming quite contorted yelling, “I’m useless! I’m just useless! Don’t talk to me!” It was quite the dramatic scene. cross country ski

That was the end of our skiing adventure. Fortunately she calmed down after we warmed up and ate some lunch. We then decided to take a drive through the park and photo the snowy scene. We were in the midst of a solid blizzard. snowstorm

Each of the kids had a camera as we drove around. We’d occasionally stop the car and hop out for photos. snowy day

The kids were all giggles and we were having a lovely time. We found this particularly pretty spot and paused to play in the snow a bit (the park was virtually empty but for us). snowy forest

The kids had fun rolling around and catching snowflakes on their tongues. happy day

Then it was time to get moving – only we couldn’t move. I should have known this would happen. My car (which I loathe beyond words) is not the best in snowy, icy or wet weather. I shifted forward, shifted backward, but we were not moving. Not one bit. I tried again – nothing. I was beginning to think we might have to call the visitor’s center and request assistance, but I wasn’t quite ready to do that yet. I sat for a moment to think. We didn’t have any kitty litter in the trunk, there were no other cars/people in the vicinity…Then I hopped out of the car, opened the backseat and told Mr. N to hop in the driver’s seat. His eyes widened and he looked at me like I was crazy (and perhaps I was). He was a bit hesitant, but I explained he just needed to sit there, push the pedal with his foot and hold the wheel straight while I pushed the car. This he found quite amusing. snow play

So with Mr. N at the wheel, I stood with the driver’s door open for leverage and pushed with all my might. I rocked the car back and forth, back and forth. Miss A in the meanwhile was squealing with delight. “Wheee! This is like a ride!”

Mr. N was trying to play it cool and be all serious, but you could see the devious little twinkle in his eye. He was relishing this moment. After about five minutes of rocking, pushing, pausing, pushing we started to move. I quickly popped Mr. N to the passenger seat and took control. At first we were going back and forth sideways (maybe six inches either way). I didn’t even realize it was possible for the car to move this way. Then finally we began to slowly roll forward. Success!

We decided it was probably time to go home, and so ended our snow day adventure. It’s one we won’t forget anytime soon. We all had a lot of fun and Mr. N was quite proud to have saved the day – modest too. “Thank you Mr. N! Without you, we still would have been stuck and had to call for help. I couldn’t have done that without you.”

“I didn’t do anything. I just sat there and pushed a pedal,” he said. But you could see the gleam in his eye and the slight uptick in the corner of his lips.

What a winter! At least we have some fun stories to share now. And even though we’re facing another week of temps below zero and in the teens, we’re getting closer to spring. We did have one day this week where we hit 45F, some snow melted and I got out for a run. Spring is on the way. I know it!long shadows

Our shadows are getting longer!!! So while we continue to wait out spring, we’re going to get back in the kitchen and start cooking recipes from around the world again. First up are Miss A’s picks for a few dishes from Poland. See you next week!

The Proof is in the Pudding

Hi all! It’s been a while, I know. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve sat down to put this post up, but something else comes up. And I do apologize for not visiting as many blogs as usual these past few weeks as well. I will pop in as I can, I promise. We are just down right consumed by life (in good ways) right now, and the few moments that we’re not, I’m relishing in the kids.

We’re still doing most of our planning and cooking on the weekends, and we have some plans to get back to more regular posting soon. In fact tomorrow, I’m going to be learning how to cook authentic Indian food. You can bet we’ll be bringing some of that goodness to the blog!

So before we return to our international cooking adventures, we wanted to share a treat we made while in Michigan this past summer. I realize that peaches are well past their prime in the Northern hemisphere, but it’s one worth saving until next summer (or whipping up if you have any peaches stocked in the freezer). It’s also a great use for the kefir bread we shared in our last post. Really though it’s just further proof that we’ve been darn busy and I haven’t photographed any new meals lately!

Miss A and I made this recipe one morning at the farmhouse. It was a delightful morning – just the two of us chatting and cooking away. We started with our fresh peaches (as we had an entire basket of them). basket of peaches

Miss A then cracked some eggs for me. cracking eggs

Then we whisked them with butter, vanilla, cinnamon, almond milk and sugar. egg batter

Next we sliced and cut a loaf of our kefir bread into cubes, kefir bread cubes

and Miss A added our fresh peaches. peaches and bread

Finally, we poured the egg batter over the bread and peaches. We refrigerated the mixture for 30 minutes before pouring it into the baking dish. bread pudding

The pudding baked for an hour at 325F. We then let it cool slightly while we prepared a basic vanilla pudding sauce. bread pudding

We served the peach bread pudding warm with a drizzle of the sauce. As this was our last hoorah for the summer, we ate this for breakfast. While not exactly a breakfast of champions, it was vacation and well, we were living it up a bit. peach bread pudding

Needless to say, this dessert was a big hit. Even Miss A who wasn’t so crazy about the kefir bread loved it. It was a 4 spoon dish for her – me too. peach pudding

Mike and Mr. N ranked it a smidge lower at 3 spoons, still there wasn’t a bit left in anyone’s bowl. michigan peaches

It was sweet, it was comforting and oh yes, it was filling (to say the least!). peaches in bread pudding

Print this recipe: Peach Bread Pudding

Fortunately, this is just a sometimes food for us though. I don’t think our health would hold up too well if we ate like this regularly, but it was a delicious way to end the summer. breakfast or dessert

Now, I’m off to tuck the kiddos into bed. I hear them belly laughing upstairs as Mike is telling them one of his bedtime stories. (He is incredible at making up stories that get the kids rolling on the floor! I love that about him. And if I haven’t said this before, Mr. N’s laugh – his authentic laugh – is my favorite sound in the world. Hands down.) Then I’m popping a few loaves of kefir bread into the oven before joining Mike for a late dinner. It’s one of our rare quiet nights and I’m going to soak up every minute of it.

We’ll be back next time with some new Indian recipes…perhaps in a week – or maybe two. ;)

All is Quiet on the Homefront

Well, at least it was for an afternoon. This past Sunday I was part of a group, through my yoga studio, that volunteered to pull weeds in a meditation garden. This wasn’t just any meditation garden either – it was a walking labyrinth. We performed the service in silence and were able to participate in a guided walking mediation following our work. While it was initially quite a daunting challenge for me to think about not speaking for hours on end, I have to admit, it was one of the most peaceful experiences I’ve ever enjoyed. the labyrinth

Now as you can imagine, our house is anything but quiet. But a few weeks ago, I found the perfect way to get the kids to slow down on a restless summer afternoon. We made soufflés. As you may recall, we had just made a delicious Eggs Benedict which required the use of egg yolks. Now since these weren’t just any egg yolks, they were farm fresh, we didn’t want the whites to go to waste; and it just so happens that soufflés fit in nicely with our French cooking adventure. egg whites

As for what kind of soufflé, well this was a no-brainer. We had a lot of fresh raspberries on hand of which we are all fanatics. Now I’m sure you’ve all seen a cartoon or TV show gag somewhere along the line that involves a deflating soufflé due to a loud noise. Well, we told the kids about this as we started to make the soufflés and they were fascinated. I’ve never seen them so quiet – truly.

We started by simply pureeing the raspberries in the blender along with some sugar and a touch of flour. raspberry puree

Next we whipped the egg whites into stiff peaks before adding a bit more sugar and a pinch of salt. stiff peaks

After the whites were whipped, we folded in the raspberry puree. souffle folding

We then filled our butter greased ramekins with the mixture. The recipe makes enough to fill 6 to 8 ramekins depending on the size. pouring souffle

Next we used the back of the spatula to create flat tops for the soufflés. souffle ramekin

And then…it was time for silence. The kids walked slowly through the house so as not to disturb the soufflé as they baked, and for a while they even sat just watching them rise through the oven door. Believe me this is a trick I’m going to remember to use again! The soufflés rose beautifully in the oven, but unfortunately deflated while I was attempting the pictures. deflated souffle

Next time I will have to be quicker! The kids were a bit disappointed that they didn’t stay fluffy, but that didn’t stop them from giving the raspberry soufflés 4 spoons. raspberry souffle ramekin

The soufflés were light and airy and delightfully sweet. Not too bad for our first attempt at this French dessert. Mike and I gave the dish 3 spoons. They were very good, but hard to beat my other favorite raspberry treat…raspberry souffle

Print this recipe: Raspberry Soufflé

Let’s just say I put the leftover raspberry puree to good use. (It helps to have a homemade pie crust on hand in the freezer!) raspberry pie

And a few extra ramekins. This certainly got 4 spoons all around! individual raspberry pie