Stollen Muffins

Merry Christmas in muffin form!

Finally!  It’s officially (past) time to start crankin’ the Christmas tunes, bustin’ out the holiday decorations and baking, baking, baking!  I’m one of those weirdos whose favorite season is winter, because faux fur throws, snow and CHRISTMAS!  Christmas is my happy place, and I hit it hard.  Today I whipped up a batch of my all-time favorite muffins – Stollen Muffins.

I’m not a massive fan of Stollen per se (too dry) but these muffins pack many of my favorite Christmas flavors into one moist, chewy and thankfully not-too-sweet package.  These babies are chock full of spices, nuts, fruits and candied rinds but only 1/3 cup of sugar!  If you don’t have or don’t like one of the ingredients, leave it out or swap something else in.  These taste so much like “Christmas” to me that I make them throughout the year when I need a dose of Christmas spirit.  I also individually wrap them in plastic wrap and freeze them for when a cheer emergency hits.  These freeze perfectly and are just the thing with a cuppa on your afternoon break.  Enjoy!

Preheat your oven to 400 and place a rack in the center of the oven.  In a large mixing bowl combine:

  • 2 1/4 cups flour
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/4 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 tsp. cardamom
  • 3/4 tsp. ground coriander seed
  • 1/2 tsp. nutmeg
  • 1/4 tsp. allspice

Add, and toss to thoroughly coat & combine:

  • 1/3 cup dried cherries, roughly chopped
  • 1/3 cup dried pineapple, chopped into small bits
  • 1/3 cup pecans, chopped
  • 1/4 cup candied lemon peel, chopped
  • 1/4 cup candied orange peel, chopped

In a 2 cup glass measure whisk together:

  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 1 egg
  • 6 Tbsp melted butter
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 10 drops Fiori di Sicillia – or – 1/2 tsp each lemon extract and orange extract (or equivalent of lemon and orange food grade oil)

Add to dry ingredients and stir gently just to combine.  Here’s where your trusty dough whisk comes in handy.  This dough is pretty stiff and full of goodies, so don’t panic if you think it’s not “wet” enough.

The batter will be fairly stiff and chock full of yummy bits. A dough whisk is a great tool for mixing muffins and other quick batters.

Generously grease a standard muffin pan and scoop the batter into the wells – an extra large #16 disher makes quick work of this!

Dishers make portioning cookie and muffin batters soooo easy!

Bake 18-20 minutes, rotating pan halfway through, until a toothpick inserted in the center of a muffin comes out moist but clean.  The muffins will be browned on the sides but not the tops.  DO NOT cook them till browned on top or you will have Stollen Hockey Pucks.

Bake till muffin tests done, the sides are browned but the top is not

Let the muffins cool in the pan 5 minutes and then remove them to a cooling rack.  A plastic knife is your friend here – easy to slide under the muffins without scratching your pan.

See?  Nicely browned on the sides – I love my USA Pans!  Use a plastic knife to avoid scratching your beloved pan.

When muffins are completely cooled, brush the tops with melted butter and dip the them in powdered sugar.

Any day I get to use my baby silicone basting brush is a good one!

I used King Arthur’s Non Melting Powdered Sugar – it’s a special type of powdered sugar that won’t melt into your moist baked goods like regular powdered sugar does.  It tastes and feels like the powdered sugar on a boxed powdered sugar donut (admittedly not fab, but hey, I gotta use it up!).  As you likely don’t have this stuff on hand, I would advise waiting to butter & sugar the muffins until right before you eat them.  Or – you can dip them warm from the oven in powdered sugar (which will melt) and then dip them again after they are completely cool (don’t use the butter).

These muffins will feel “firm” and dense in your hand, but the insides are moist, chewy and perfectly delicious!

Mmmm – moist, chewy and soooo flavorful!


Homemade Remineralizing Mouthwash

I am a bit of a stickler for oral hygiene.  Hand to God – I floss religiously! My dentist loves me!  But there is one thing he would like me to do that I just can’t get down with – swishing with some iteration of Listerine every day.  That stuff is excruciating!!! I dunno, pain is our bodies’ way of saying “yeah, not so much” so I’m just not keen on lighting my mouth on fire twice a day in the name of oral heath.

Due to a steady childhood diet of antibiotics to treat chronic ear infections, my husband’s adult teeth have especially vulnerable enamel.  He is the king of good oral hygiene and still faces a lot of challenges with his teeth.  Lately we have been thinking that all of this brushing, flossing, water piking, prescription pastes and rinses, etc. might be helping to stave off decay (though not very well!), but they aren’t really doing anything to promote health.  There is a big difference between eradicating or warding off disease and actually promoting health, right?

So I decided to look into more holistic approaches to having healthy teeth and gums. One of the first things I noticed was tons of people going on about homemade remineralizing mouth rinses.  Pretty much all of them contain calcium carbonate, trace minerals and purified water.  The variations come in how you sweeten it (if at all) and the essential oils you use for flavor and for their antibacterial/antifungal properties.

What the heck is a remineralizing mouthwash, and why should you use one?  Simple. We eat and drink a lot of acidic, sugary things that are no bueno for our teeth.  They create a plaque promoting environment in our mouths, and we end up with fur coated teeth by the end of the day.  A remineralizing rinse is a safe, all-natural liquid that bathes your teeth in a gentle, good-for-them, mineral-rich, neutralizing and quite tasty solution.

Can I say how much I LOVE this stuff???  It’s good for your teeth and gums, tastes amazing, leaves your mouth fresh and clean and doesn’t in the least bit hurt (unless you overdo it with the cinnamon oil – yikes!).  My husband and I both like how fresh it leaves our mouths feeling and tasting, and we’ve both noticed that our teeth are less “fuzzy” at the end of the day.  Plus, everything in it is natural, inexpensive, easy to find and can be used for other things around the house and kitchen.  You could actually swallow the stuff and it won’t make you sick – try that with Listerine.  Uh, don’t swallow it tho, because gross – you’re using it to flush the yuckies from your mouth!

Here are the ingredients you’ll need:

  • Calcium carbonate powder – this is just the powder form of calcium many of us take in our daily supplements.  Apparently you can also use it to make your own chalk paint!  You can find this online or in a vitamin store, and it’s very inexpensive.
  • ConcenTrace Trace Mineral Drops – this actually is a daily mineral supplement, made from water in the Great Salt Lake.  You can add it to juice or your smoothie, and some people add it to RO water to improve the taste.  I got mine on Amazon.
  • Xylitol – this is a natural sugar alcohol.  It is used in toothpaste, sugar free gum, etc. and it’s actually good for your teeth because it starves the bacteria in your mouth.  You can also use it to sweeten food or drinks, but I have read that you need to limit you daily intake to under 9 tsp. or it can have a laxative effect.  It tastes like “less sweet” sugar with no chemical or other off taste.  I like it in my iced tea!
  • Food-Grade Essential Oils – this is important – you need to use oils that are meant to flavor FOOD not make candles or perfume!  Lorann Peppermint and Cinnamon oils are fabulous (and extremely potent), and I’m a huge fan Boyajian citrus oils.  They can all be found at King Arthur, Sur la Table or Amazon.  At a minimum you need to have some peppermint or cinnamon oil in there for their antibacterial/antifungal properties.  Citrus oils are a flavor bonus.
  • Purified water – I use water from my Zero Water pitcher, but you can use RO or bottled as well.

Here’s how to make a batch:

In a clean, small jar with a tight fitting lid, combine

  1. 1 cup purified water
  2. 1 tsp. calcium carbonate powder
  3. 1 tsp xylitol (more or less to taste), optional but beneficial
  4. 8 drops ConcenTrace trace mineral drops
  5. Essential oils – my fave combos are: Cinnamint – 5 drops peppermint + 3 drops cinnamon; Cinnamon-Orange – 3 drops cinnamon + 5 drops orange;  and Lemon-Mint – 5 drops peppermint + 5 drops lemon.  *Tip:  cinnamon oil is POWERFUL, so go easy on that one unless you’re a big fan of fireballs!

Shake well every time you use it to distribute the oils and the calcium which will settle to the bottom, and swish a Tbsp in your mouth after you brush your teeth.  I also like to swish a bit after drinking coffee or tea.  Enjoy!

Not gonna lie – I get a kick out of repurposing this wee little vodka bottle for my mouthwash. It looks so cheeky sitting on my bathroom counter!

Coffee Reheating Hack

Coffee has a profoundly special place in my life.  If I saw irrefutable proof that coffee shortened your life by many years, I’d be like “see you soon, Jesus!”  Yep, I’m one of those crazies who buys fancy beans, grinds ’em herself in a fancy burr grinder, and brews it all up in fancy ways that use precise combos of time and temperature to get the best cuppa I can.  I even have a way-too-big (not really) collection of seasonally appropriate coffee mugs, because TRUTH coffee tastes better in a cute cup!

These are a few of my Easter mugs – that cotton tail kills me!

Sadly, I am also an easily distracted piddler who always abandons said perfect cuppa long before it’s finished.  For many reasons I hate thermal mugs, so it’s off to the microwave.  But, haven’t you noticed that a cup of coffee reheated in the micro tastes, um, well, gross?  To me it just gets burnt and flat tasting, which is hella disappointing considering the drama I go thru to make that cup!

I was pondering why that happens and it hit me.  Coffee is pretty sensitive.  It has to be brewed at very precise temperatures – too low and you’re losing out on flavor compounds and body, too high and you may as well drink charcoal water.  What if, when I’m reheating my cuppa in the micro, I’m overheating it and torching the flavor? BINGO!

I tried reheating my coffee at 40% power for the shortest amount of time necessary to get it drinkably hot.  Et voila!  That gently reheated coffee tastes exactly like it did when I first poured it, not like nasty ol’ burnt leftover coffee.  Here’s what I do:

  • heat the coffee at 40% for 30 seconds – STIR!  The microwave doesn’t heat your items evenly so stirring prevents flavor ruining scorched areas.
  • Repeat for 20-30 second intervals till your coffee is the temp you like.  Try it – I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
  • Bonus tip:  if you’re not brewing your coffee into a thermal carafe, the minute your coffee finishes brewing TURN THE MACHINE OFF!  No good comes from leaving coffee on a scorching hotplate for any length of time.  You’re better than that!

Happy coffee drinking, friends!

Waffled Potato Hash

I’m a pretty stiff critic of my own cooking, so when I say that this is one of the best dishes I have ever developed, that is saying something.  These little babies are waffled perfection!  Waffling things was all the rage last year, and I spotted a recipe in one of my fave mags, Eating Well, for a breakfast dish made by waffling a mix of potatoes, eggs, cheese and other add ins.  Looked so good!  Tasted so awful!  It had waaaaay too many eggs giving it a burnt scrambled egg taste (no bueno) a fussy first step of squeezing the potatoes in a kitchen towel (no thanks), and way too few add ins, making them (and me) sad.  BUT!  My desire for cheesy, crispy, savory waffle hash goodness was ignited and I set out fixing this mess.

After making several batches, tweaking ingredients and method, I have found the perfect mix of ingredients that come together in minutes.  Enjoy!

  • 20 oz frozen shredded hash brown potatoes (I like OreIda brand)
  • ¼ cup all purpose flour
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • ½ tsp fresh grated black pepper
  • 2 Tbsp grated parmesan cheese
  • 1 ½ cups finely shredded cheddar cheese (I use Kraft pre shredded Triple Cheddar or Mexican Blend, but you can use any cheese you like that melts well)
  • 3 scallions, finely sliced – or – 1 shallot, minced
  • 1 cup diced ham
  • 2 Tbsp grapeseed (or other neutral flavored oil)
  • 2 eggs

In a large glass bowl, thaw potatoes in microwave, using the “defrost” setting if your micro has one.  Just be careful not to heat the potatoes up AT ALL – you can leave them a bit frosty, but don’t let them get warm!  Sprinkle flour, salt and pepper over potatoes and gently toss to thoroughly combine.  You want the flour to absorb any moisture from the potatoes and evenly hydrate – this will keep the “waffles” crispy and cohesive while making sure they don’t seem gummy or floury in the interiors.  While the flour hydrates, prepare the rest of your ingredients (just let the potato/flour mixture sit at least 10 mins or so).  Sprinkle cheeses, ham and scallions/shallots over potatoes and gently toss to combine.

Drizzle oil over potatoes, and add eggs. Toss and fold mixture until eggs and oil are completely and evenly distributed.  You will have a moist mixture, not a “batter”.  Don’t worry – the heat will melt everything together in a perfectly cohesive waffle.

Preheat your waffle maker to medium hot and oil or spritz with cooking spray.  We have a large waffle iron with 4 sections, so I make 4 small waffles at a time.  The directions that follow are for making multiple smaller waffles, but you can certainly make one large waffle at a time too.  Using a serving spoon, or a ½ cup disher (cookie scoop) or a ½ cup measuring cup, portion out 4 scoops of mixture into center of each section of large waffle maker.

Close lid tightly and cook until well browned.  Makes 12-16 small waffles.

You can vary this recipe in lots of ways – change the meat or don’t use any at all; change up the cheeses; add some very well browned sautéed mushrooms or some diced roasted veggies.  The only things you want to keep in mind are: (1) make sure your add ins aren’t adding a bunch of moisture (that is why mushrooms must be well-browned, not raw) and (2) keep the add ins diced small.


Apple-Cheddar Pull Apart Bread with Variations


It’s finally cooling off around here (truth be told it’s literally freezing), and that means several things.  Clothes and bedding are swapped out for snugglier options, my army of space heaters is stationed at their posts, and I don’t have to think twice about heating the house up to do some baking!  This afternoon I felt like whipping up some bread to go with the roasted pumpkin, red pepper and potato soup we’re having for dinner.  My initial thought was hearty rolls to put that jar of Irish Wholemeal flour to use, but then I saw a recipe for Apple Cheddar Chop Bread that I saved off the King Arthur site.  That recipe made way more bread than I wanted and the dough seemed a little lean, so I used it as a springboard to make just want I wanted.  Because I bake frequently I did use some specialty baking ingredients I happened to have on hand, but there are easy peasy subs that should yield similarly delicious results!

In the bowl of a stand mixer with the dough hook attached (or a bread machine set to the dough cycle) combine:

  • 2 cups King Arthur AP flour
  • 1 ½ tsp SAF Gold yeast (or regular bread machine yeast)
  • ¾ tsp. salt
  • 1 egg
  • 2 Tbsp grape seed oil (or other neutral flavored oil)
  • 1 Tbsp sugar
  • 1 Tbsp barley malt syrup (or 1 Tbsp of sugar, brown sugar or honey)
  • 2 Tbsp baker’s special dry milk (or regular powdered milk)
  • ½ cup warm water (if you don’t have powdered milk, use ½ cup warm milk)

Mix on low to combine ingredients, then knead for ~5 mins on med-low till you have a smooth, satiny dough.  Cover bowl and let dough rise till doubled – about 60 minutes.  I used a bread proofing box set at 85 degrees. A proofer is especially helpful when baking during the colder months, but I use mine year ’round.

Gently deflate dough and tip out onto a large piece of parchment paper; pat dough out into a 9″ x 13″ rectangle.  Leaving a 2″ border on both long sides, sprinkle over dough:

  • 1 cup chopped crisp, sweet-tart apple (such as Jazz or SweeTango)
  • 1 cup sharp cheddar cut into small cubes.

Fold both long sides of dough over the filling and pinch them together in the middle; pat ends to seal them as well. Using a long knife or a bench scraper, cut bread widthwise into 1″ strips (don’t worry if you cut through some apples or cheese bits).  Do NOT separate the strips – you want the “loaf” to stay together.  On a slight diagonal, cut bread into 1″ strips lengthwise.  If you’ve done this right the bread will be in 1″ slightly diagonal squares – again do NOT separate them.  I apologize for not taking pics of any of this, but you’re a smarty and get what I mean!

Lift bread on parchment and place on a 13″ x 9″ or 15″ x 11″ baking pan.  Let rise 30-45 mins or until puffed and almost doubled.  During the last 20 minutes of rising, preheat oven to 350.  Bake 25-30 mins or until evenly browned.  Remove bread to a wire rack to cool slightly. The squares easily pull apart for big or little servings.  This bread is soft and fluffy and the sweet-tart apples play off the melty cheddar perfectly.  Makes one 5″ x 13″ loaf.

This is a great bread to have with soup or salad for a light dinner or to bring to a potluck, and you can vary it endless ways:

  1. change the cheese – I think blue cheese with apples and walnuts would rock!  or apples and brie…or fresh figs and gorgonzola…or Fontina, craisins and walnuts…or oil cured sundried tomatoes, parm/peccorino shards and oregano…sigh…
  2. for a sweet dessert/coffee bread, add 1 tsp apple pie spice (or just some cinnamon, cardamom and allspice) and another Tbsp or two of sugar to the dough.  Sub in a cup of chopped pecans or walnuts for the cheese.  After baking, glaze bread with a simple glaze of powdered sugar and apple cider with a pinch more of those apple pie spices.  Yep, I see that variation in my near future!!!


FreshWorks – Miracle Boxes for Your Produce

freshworksY’all need to get yourself a set of these babies, STAT! (as ever, my product reviews are my own, unsolicited opinions – I don’t get anything for sharing about products I love).

Some people impulse buy in the candy aisle or the shoe department.  Not me.  I impulse buy in the produce aisle.  Those jumbo boxes of baby greens at the warehouse club are my crack.  Trays of Persian cukes, bags of organic sweet peppers, sleeves of sugar peas and haricots vert.  Can’t get enough.  And a Farmer’s Market?  Forget it – I will come home with my own weight in everything available.  Since it’s just the man and me, that means a lot of delicious, mostly organic, expensive veggies find their way into our compost bin.  Those baby greens are the worst.  You know what I mean – you open the bin, take out a few cups, go in there the very next day and blammo – slime city.  So frustrating.

Enter the FreshWorks bins.  I saw an ad for them and ordered a set from Costco. I figured if they didn’t work I would take advantage of Costco’s very generous return policy and get my $ back.  The set was $30 (currently on sale for $24!) and included 2 large bins and one medium bin.  The large bins hold 1 lb of baby greens (those big tubs they sell at the warehouse clubs) or 2 heads of butter lettuce or a large head of Romaine.  The medium bin holds a pound of green beans, sugar peas or a quart of berries.  I have a counter depth fridge (which I hate), and the two large bins fit on one shelf, front to back, with space left over, so not tooooo much of a space bully.  As I eat stuff down I combine different types of produce in one bin.

These things are MAGIC!  You actually get to eat all the baby greens!  The remains of 3 huge heads of butter lettuce and romaine I got at the CSA 2 weeks ago are still crisp and green.  The last few sugar snap peas I bought 2 ½ weeks ago were sweet and crunchy in our salad tonite.  My sister told me she got one and it kept raspberries fresh for 2 weeks.  I don’t know what kind of voodoo the magic membrane in the lid conjures, but it keeps produce fresh for days and days.  My guess is it keeps carbon dioxide in and oxygen out, but who cares?  It keeps your produce fresh and tasty and out of the compost bin!

Bird Feeding Tips – Keeping “Undesirables” Out of the Feeders

We have an amazing assortment of birds who come to our backyard and porch feeders.  I keep a list going in my bird guide and to date we have seen over 30 species in our yard!  Unfortunately we also have a few four-legged, furry varmints who try to horn in on the goodies.  We’ve had good results with three different types of “squirrel proof” seed feeders.  As ever, my opinions are my own – I receive no compensation or perks for any of my product reviews.

  1. Woodlink Absolute II Squirrel Proof Feeder:  This big boy holds over a gallon of seed and is pretty much squirrel proof.  The perch bars are spring-loaded so anything heavier than a bird pressing on them lowers doors over the seed trays.  The occasional smartyboots realizes he can lay flat on top and streeeeetch down and around to get his paws on a few seeds.  But for the most part the tree rats are thwarted.  Deer however, are another problem.  They just stroll up and lick the seed out of the tray.  Deer don’t like walking through tall bushes or grasses (I guess they are afraid a predator could be hiding in there) so we situate the feeder in the midst of perennials they don’t like, and that cuts down considerably on deer feeding.
    We keep this big boy tucked in the perennial garden to keep birds fed and deer at bay

    We keep this big boy tucked in the perennial garden to keep birds fed and deer at bay – even on snowy winter days.


  2. Brome Squirrel Buster Classic:  This large hanging feeder is awesome!  It holds about 1.5 quarts of seed so we don’t need to refill it every day, it vents the seed tubes to keep the seed safe to eat, and the design keeps the vermin away.  The outer metal cage is spring-loaded so if anything heavier than a bird lands on it or hangs on one of the perches, the cage slides down and closes over the seed cups.  I’ve watched squirrels jump on it and boo hoo, no seed for you!
    With four staggered perches there's plenty of room for hungry babies to hang out and wait for Dad to rustle up some grub

    With four staggered perches there’s plenty of room for hungry babies to hang out and wait for Dad to rustle up some grub

    Let's not think too hard about what's actually going on here! #kindagross

    Let’s not think too hard about what’s actually going on here! #kindagross

  3. Brome Squirrel Buster Mini:  This is the first Brome feeder we bought and it also works great.  It too is spring-loaded so anything heavier than a bird drags down the outer cage and closes the seed cups.  The only drawback is its size – it only holds 3 cups of seed, so we were filling it daily, sometimes twice daily.
    Male Rose-Breasted Grosbeak

    Male Rose-Breasted Grosbeak

    House and Goldfinches share the feeder

    House and Goldfinches share the feeder

We also like to offer suet to the birds year ’round.  At first the squirrels and the resident ‘coon ate us out of house and home, but then we discovered suet made with Cayenne Pepper.  This kind costs a few cents more so shop around for the best price (our local Ace Hardware consistently has the best price, and sometimes I even catch a sale).  Mammals hate its spicy taste, but birds do not have any pain receptors for capsaicin (the chemical that makes peppers hot) so they couldn’t care less about it.

We soon discovered, however, another type of “undesirable” at the suet feeders:  birds that are not true suet eaters!  Finches, cowbirds, thrashers and others sat at the suet cakes and tore them apart to get at the seeds inside, scattering most of the suet on the ground.  We were going through 3 or 4 of these pricey suet cakes a week, so it was very annoying to see so much waste.

While we were at our local Ace stocking up on black sunflower seeds and suet cakes we spied a funky looking suet feeder, the Songbird Essentials Recycled Upside Down Suet Feeder.  As you can see this feeder is a little recycled plastic house with access to the suet only on the bottom.  We could not imagine how a bird was going to flip upside down mid flight to get at the suet, so we read some reviews and other users swore the birds quickly figure it out.  Indeed they do.  Only true suet eaters are capable of or “like” feeding upside down, so this feeder perfectly suits the birds you want at the suet feeder – woodpeckers, nuthatches, chickadees, wrens, bluebirds and the like.  As a bonus, the squirrels can’t get at it either, so we can forgo the extra expense of the hot pepper suet!  We are now going through about a third of the suet cakes we used to, so this baby paid for itself in about 3 weeks.  Win, win, win!  Here’s a few of the beauties who now have exclusive use of the suet feeder:

Female Downy Woodpecker

Female Downy Woodpecker


Male Downy Woodpecker

Male Downy Woodpecker


Baby Boy Downy Woodpecker - even the babies figured it out!

Baby Boy Downy Woodpecker – even the babies figured it out!


White-Breasted Nuthatch

White-Breasted Nuthatch



Tufted Titmouse


Black-Capped Chickadee

Black-Capped Chickadee


Carolina Wrens are my heroes. They are small but mighty, curious, industrious and they do things their own way. This guy was not injured - he was just having fun!

Carolina Wrens are my heroes. They are small but mighty, curious, industrious and they do things their own way. This guy was not injured – he was just having fun!  Like he was working on his Triangle Pose while grabbing a snack.  Don’t you just want to rub that fuzzy buff tummy?


Container Gardening & the Perfect Grape Tomato

Juliet Grape Tomatoes

Juliet Grape Tomatoes – plump, firm and perfectly tomato-y!

I am not much of a gardener, but I simply couldn’t do without my little container garden that I cram into the only corner of our back porch that gets any sun.  I love being able to nip out while I’m cooking and grab a handful of fresh basil, oregano, mint, lemon thyme, rosemary or parsley.  This year I added dill, cilantro and Mexican tarragon to the gang.  I have no idea what Mexican tarragon is, but it looked irresistible with its tiny golden flowers.  I also upgraded to new containers this year – some faux half barrels that I found at Lowes.  They are cute, sturdy, and the price was right!

The real tip I want to pass on here is a recommendation for a fabulous grape tomato that is perfect for container gardening – Juliet.  I have grown Juliet the past two summers and couldn’t love her more.  She produces gobs of tomatoes in grape-like clusters.  The fruit is firm and easy to slice, with a minimum amount of um, I believe “jelly” is the polite term (aka tomato snot), and the flavor is excellent.  The fruits are thumb sized and resemble wee little San Marzanos (see above).  The Park seed catalog classifies Juliet as a “saladette” tomato – somewhere between a grape and a Roma.  Never heard that term before!

Because they are so sturdy and don’t have gobs of jelly, they are perfect not only for salads, but also for roasting, sautéing for a quick pasta sauce, topping a pizza, or just dunking them, still warm from the vine, in blue cheese dip and popping in your mouth.  Heaven!  The sturdy, fleshy fruits last for about 2 weeks in a bowl on the counter – which is good because one Juliet will produce a good pint of tomatoes per week for about 4 months.   My porch doesn’t get a ton of sunlight, so just imagine how she would produce in full sun!

Juliet is not a common variety around here, but I have found plants at both Lowes and Walmart, and you can buy seeds from Parks.  I use organic garden soil which contains fertilizer that is supposed to last 3 months, so mid Summer I start feeding all my plants with Alaska Fish Emulsion (very smelly, do not get that stuff on your hands!), and the tomato gets the occasional dose of Epsom salts and finely crushed eggshells (use a spice grinder).  This year I am going to try Alaska Vegetable and Tomato Dry fertilizer, which has all the fishy goodness of fish emulsion with lots of the calcium tomatoes really need around here.

Juliette produces thumb size tomatoes in grape clusters

Juliette produces thumb size tomatoes in grape clusters


Even in partial sun Juliette is a vigorous producer

Even in partial sun Juliette is a vigorous producer.  As the stems grow upwards I tie them to a tomato cage and then train them to cascade back down again, making sure to evenly space the vines for good air and light penetration.

One more tomato growing tip I’ll pass along is something I discovered last summer.  Our hot, humid Southern summers can do a number on garden plants, and my Juliet developed quite a few brown, droopy leaves.  Since this plant is on my back porch I wanted to tidy up the look, so I carefully removed every browned leaf cluster on the plant.  To my surprise, everywhere I removed a leaf stem the plant regenerated a whole new one!  This regeneration kept the plant lush, full and bountifully producing all through summer right up till frost.

If you take a few minutes to remove any browned leaf clusters, the plant will regenerate itself.

If you take a few minutes to remove any browned leaf clusters, the plant will regenerate itself.

Roasted Sweet Potato-Red Pepper Soup

Roasted sweet potato-red pepper soup garnished with butter-fried sage leaves

Roasted sweet potato-red pepper soup garnished with butter-fried sage leaves

They say necessity is the mother of invention.  Well, last week I needed to bring something to small group and didn’t really want to hit the market.  On hand I had some fresh sweet potatoes, a jar of Trader Joe’s roasted red peppers, and a bunch of gorgeous sage from the CSA so I thought “soup!”  I wanted to add complexity to the soup and also tone down the sweetness of the potatoes and peppers so I seasoned the soup with shallots, a poblano from our garden, smoked Maldon sea salt and my beloved Dolin Dry Vermouth.  Ah, the joys of a well stocked pantry (or food hoarding, as my husband sees it).

Don’t be tempted to save time by either steaming or microwaving the sweet potatoes – you’ll just rob yourself of the luscious texture and rich, smokey, caramelized flavor of roasted sweet potatoes. Tip: sometimes when I roast sweet potatoes I roast a whole pan full, and if I won’t use the extras within a week in a casserole, soup, muffins, salad, or pizza (yes!), I freeze them.  Then, when the urge for sweet potato deliciousness hits, I’m halfway there!

  • 6 large sweet potatoes
  • 2 Tbsp. grapeseed oil
  • 3 large shallots, diced
  • 1 poblano*, seeded and diced
  • ¼ cup Dolin Dry Vermouth (or very dry white wine)
  • 2 tsp. smoked Maldon (or regular sea salt)
  • 1 large roasted red pepper (homemade or jarred), diced
  • 1 ½ qts. chicken broth

*Poblanos can range from “eh, why bother?” to “zoinks!” in heat, so take a little nibble to see what you’re cooking with and adjust accordingly.

Scrub potatoes and prick them all over; place on a foil or parchment lined heavy-duty baking sheet.  Bake sweet potatoes at 375 for 30 mins, then at 350 for 30-60 mins till soft, turning them every 30 minutes.  If your potatoes are not uniform in size, remove them as they are done to avoid burning the smaller ones. When potatoes are cool enough to handle, peel them and chop into large chunks.

Sauté shallots and poblano in grapeseed oil in 5 qt Dutch oven till softened (3-4 minutes). Pour in Vermouth and boil 1-2 minutes.  Season with Maldon, then fold in sweet potatoes and roasted pepper. Add chicken broth, bring to a boil and simmer 30 minutes. Adjust seasonings and add more broth if needed.  Let soup cool 10 minutes.

Puree in small batches in a blender (don’t fill blender jar past half way to avoid boiling hot overflows).  Reheat pureed soup over medium heat, adding more chicken broth if you want a thinner soup.  Serve with fresh sage leaves that have been fried in butter (see below), or with chopped peanuts or candied pecans.  Makes 3 qts.  Enjoy!

This soup is a perfect balance of sweet and savory - rich tasting with hardly any fat.

This soup is a perfect balance of sweet and savory – rich tasting with hardly any fat.

Butter Fried Sage Leaves

These babies are great to top a hearty soup or to toss with butternut squash raviolis or other filled pastas.  Don’t throw out the seasoned browned butter you’ll be left with – it’s perfect for tossing with said pasta, gnocchis or potatoes.  As you pull the sage leaves off the woody main stems, make sure you remove the thin leaf stems – when the leaves fry these will become very tough and inedible.  As you can see in the pix, I failed to do this – lesson learned!!!

  • 2 Tbsp organic butter
  • ½ cup fresh sage leaves, stems removed

Melt butter in small non-stick skillet.  Add sage leaves and fry over medium heat, stirring and turning leaves, 1-2 minutes or until butter browns.  Remove leaves to a small plate to cool.  Save the remaining delicious sage-browed butter for another use.

Homemade Velveeta – Perfected

Ballpark nachos - minus the chemicals and the high ticket prices.

Ballpark nachos – minus the chemicals and the high ticket prices.

A few months ago one of my favorite food bloggers, PJ Hammel of the King Arthur test kitchen’s blog “Flourish“, posted a recipe for homemade “Velveeta”.  I will admit a deep love of grilled cheese sandwiches and nacho cheese dip made with Velveeta.  I will also emphatically state that I choose not to eat Velveeta because of all the faux-food ingredients.  I’m no food saint, but I do try to keep the Frankenfood out of my diet.  A recipe for homemade “Velveeta” (which turns out to be a popular recipe on “the internets” but was news to me!) sounded great.  Commenters raved that it was “JUST LIKE the real deal”.  Um, nope.  It was close tho, in the same way fat-free, sugar-free ice cream is “close” to Ben and Jerry’s.

PJ didn’t satiate my desire for Velveeta, but she did spark a dream in my heart to figure out how to make creamy, silky, melty homemade “Velveeta”.  The recipes I found online and tried all had two fatal flaws – they didn’t perfectly melt like Velveeta and they all had that wee bit of grittiness that you always get when you melt cheese (think the texture of homemade mac and cheese sauce).

My “research” led me to discover a cooking ingredient called sodium citrate.  It is a naturally occurring salt found in citrus foods – as in a natural product that is safe to eat.  It is also a miracle-working emulsifier.  A small amount added to melted cheese buffers the proteins in the cheese and prevents them from banding together in clumps (that grittiness you feel on your tongue in a homemade cheese sauce is milk proteins hanging on to each other for dear life).  I saw a recipe on a food science/gastronomy site for a cheese dip that contained a bit of sodium citrate which was supposed to create a completely silky-smooth melty texture.  Huh.  Why couldn’t I add that to my favorite “Velveeta” recipe?  Maybe that would solve those soul crushing texture problems.

I ordered the smallest packet I could find and hoped for the best. Oh yeah.  Success!!!  My Velveeta set up perfectly, melted perfectly and made the silkiest, smoothest, yummiest nacho cheese dip EVAH!  One unfortunate side effect is that my husband has converted from a nacho cheese loather to someone who gives me stiff competition whenever I whip up a bowl.

Sodium citrate can be used for other things, most of which are well beyond your average home cook (food spherules anyone?).  But, you can add a bit to any cheese sauce recipe (like this one for my Italian Mac and Cheese) to give your sauces the most amazingly smooth texture.  I’ve even used it to create a low fat Fettuccini Alfredo.  Normally all that butter is what keeps the cheese proteins from clumping – the sodium citrate does the work of many Tbsp. of fat, and bonus: leftovers can be reheated without the sauce breaking into clumps of cheese and pools of grease! Currently you can get a 2 oz packet of sodium citrate on Amazon for $7.  Wherever you get yours, make certain you are buying food-grade sodium citrate that is intended for cooking.  And I know this is obvious, but this is a very different product from citric acid – they are not interchangeable.

Let’s make some Homemade “Velveeta”!

  • 1 ½ tsp. powdered gelatin (such as Knox)
  • 1 Tbsp water
  • ½ cup plus 2 Tbsp. milk (I use whole)
  • 1 Tbsp. dry milk powder
  • ¾ tsp. kosher salt
  • ¾ tsp. sodium citrate
  • 12 oz freshly grated (NOT pre shredded) sharp white cheddar (you can use yellow, but go for sharp as it gives the best flavor)

Line a small loaf pan or small baking dish with cling wrap, making sure plastic extends over each side by several inches.  Combine gelatin powder and water in small bowl and set aside for a few minutes to allow gelatin to soften.  In a 1 cup glass measuring cup combine milk, milk powder, salt and sodium citrate.  Microwave on high for about a minute – you want the milk just below the boiling point.  Add softened gelatin to milk mixture and stir till everything is dissolved.  Place shredded cheese in a blender, pour hot milk mixture over cheese and process, stopping to scrape down sides if necessary, until you have a totally smooth sauce.  I have a Vitamix and I process my cheese mixture about 45 seconds.  I believe you can also use a food processor, but haven’t tried that.

Process cheese and milk mixture till completely smooth - get in there and taste it to make sure!

Process cheese and milk mixture till completely smooth – get in there and taste it to make sure!

Working quickly use a spatula to scoop out the cheese mixture into your lined pan.

Work fast - as you can see this stuff sets up quickly!

Work fast – as you can see this stuff sets up quickly!

Smooth the top of the cheese mixture and try not to just grab a bag of chips and go nuts.

I use a 5

I use a 5″ x 7″ ceramic baker as my mould.

Fold the excess plastic over the surface of the cheese mixture, making sure it is completely covered.

Ready to go in the fridge

Ready to go in the fridge

Place your homemade “Velveeta” in the fridge for an hour or two to firm up.  You now have 1 lb of faux-free American cheese to use in sauces and dips or slice onto sammies and burgers.  Of course, if you plan to use the whole pound in the classic Rotel and Velveeta dip, you don’t need to bother with chilling it in the fridge.  Scoop the mixture straight from the blender and add it to your recipe.  If you don’t need the whole pound for your recipe, it’s easiest to mould the whole thing and slice off what you need.

Oh, if you want some killer nacho sauce:  combine a hunk of your “Velveeta” with a few Tbsp of milk and any seasonings you like.  Heat on low power in the microwave, stirring every 15 seconds, until melted.  I’ve made dips seasoned with diced pickled jalapeños, diced roasted chiles, and even a mix of Sriracha and Sambal Oelek for a smokin’ hot Thai cheese dip, and I think horseradish and diced bacon would make a great dip for pretzels (think Pub Cheese).  Enjoy!

That is what I'm talking about - creamy, smooth, chip-coating goodness!

That is what I’m talking about – creamy, smooth, chip-coating goodness!

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