Monday, February 25, 2013

Easy Crock Pot Spaghetti Sauce

I know some of you probably have a fancy 100% from scratch spaghetti meat sauce, but this next recipe is an old family favorite (from my mom Cathy) that absolutely everybody loves.  From little kids, aunts and uncles, neighbors wandering by... everyone.  Hearty and easy enough for a weeknight, and tasty enough for any important weekend company to boot.  It makes a ton and extras are great to freeze and use for other dishes (lasagna, chicken Parmesan, etc).  Technically speaking we are going to doctor up a store bought sauce (gasp, the scandal), but we are going to add some of our own ingredients too, and that will give it a much fuller flavor.

Our family's favorite spaghetti
It cooks low and slow in the crock pot all day and makes the house smell fabulous. Serve with homemade french bread and a green salad and you have one of the best dinners known to man. So here is what you will need: (Free printable recipe at the end of the post)

2 lbs lean ground beef
1 onion chopped (or 1/2 bag of frozen chopped onions)
1 large (4lb 3 oz) jar of Prego spaghetti sauce
1 regular sized (24oz) jar of Prego Sauce (they recently made jar sizes smaller)
2 cans of Italian stewed tomatoes 
1 small can of tomato paste
2-4 freshed chopped tomatoes (optional)
2 Tablespoons of sugar
salt, pepper, and seasonings to taste

Cook up your 2 lbs of ground beef with 1 chopped onion (or 1/2 a bag of frozen chopped onions) and drain.

While the meat is cooking down, get out your canned stewed tomatoes and paste.  

Drain the cans then pour into the bottom of a 6 quart crock pot/roaster oven.  Add the tomato paste as well.

Italian stewed tomatoes are huge, so I tend to try and break them up into smaller bite-sized bits before I add anything else.  Once the meat and onions are cooked and drained pour them on top of the tomatoes.

makin' the sauce MEATY
If you have some fresh tomatoes feel free to chop a few up and throw them in there.  We loved using up tomatoes from our garden this summer for this very sauce.

After that dump in your one large plus one regular sized cans of Prego sauce.  Seriously, it can't be another sauce.  This one has the best flavor.  Also they recently reduced the size of the jars (but of course charged the same price), and you want to make as much sauce as possible if you are going to go to all the trouble, right?

Prego... it's in there...

Pour that in and stir around gently to mix everything together.  Add salt, pepper, any other spices you like, and here's a little secret my mom doesn't do, I add a few spoonfuls of white sugar to counteract all the acid in the tomatoes.  Its just mellows it out a tiny bit and doesn't sweeten it like you'd think.

Mmmmm Saucy....
Next it just needs to cook on low for at least 6 hours or so, longer is just fine too, up to 8 hours.  If you have one of those new "too hot crock pots" (see rant here) it might try to boil the snarf out of it.  That's why I love my new temperature controlled roasting oven so much.  Don't let the sauce boil up too much during the day, it will get a bit runny.  Low and slow is the key.  If you do come back and there is too much liquid on the surface I have been known to make a little slurry of cornstarch and warm water in a small bowl and pour it in there the last 30 minutes to tighten it up.  You also want to go ahead and taste it again and add any last minute seasonings before serving.  Speaking of serving, we are not ones to mix our noodles in with our sauce.  We are of the philosophy of putting noodles on the plate then scoop out a generous portion of sauce lovingly on the top and let it flow down over the sides like a hot lava meat mountain. MMmmmmm Yum!

The best spaghetti sauce!  We love it.

Sprinkle a bit of Parmesan cheese over the top and you're good to go.  Serve with some veggies or a salad to round out the meal. Our personal favorite thing to do is make homemade french bread topped with creamy butter, to help sop up any wayward sauce lingering about (recipe coming next, stay tuned).  

So that's it.  Nothing earth shattering here.  Just a quick, easy, and very VERY tasty sauce the whole family loves.  Enjoy!  Printable recipe found here.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Forget You Ugly Cake

Here's a little funny story of mom frustration I'd like to call "Forget You Ugly Cake".  

the ugliest cake you will ever lay eyes on
You know as mothers we would do anything for our kids.  Go above and beyond anything they would ask of us.  Whether it's cutting the crusts off a favorite sandwich, staying up late sewing a costume for a school play, holding them all night while they are sick, serving everyone first and always eating last, whatever it is, kids come first. It would feel more right if we were allowed to wear super capes or something.  How we are able to keep a smile on our face and kindness in our hearts is most likely an undocumented medical mystery.

Picture by David Cox - This tells it like it really is, right?

This story starts out as a happy request by two of my children.  They want to learn how to make a cake.  Not just a 9x13 pan cake, but a heart-shaped layered cake.  They have been helping me cook in the kitchen since they could stand on a chair and hold a measuring cup, so this means great excitement for me!  I think we are going to do this right!  Put a layer of jam in the middle, really make it beautiful.  Here's what my head envisions:

Such a far cry from what actually happened....

So we carefully mix all the ingredients, pour the batter into the two cake pans, and they bake up perfectly.  I let them cool a bit and then turn the two cakes out on the counter to finish cooling. I then decide to help my oldest child with her science fair tri-fold in the other room, which turned out to be a big mistake.  The younger two, unbeknownst to me had been sneaking into the kitchen and eating chunks out of the finished cakes.  Like not little picks here and there, full on handfuls of cake so that by the time I came around the corner, it looked like Swiss cheese.  No, it looked like a pack of varmints had scampered up and had nibbled their way in and out through the whole thing.  

Ug.  I was so upset I didn't even document it with a picture (now THAT is saying something - since I take pictures of everything). Just imagine crumbs and holes and sad tears. There was no way the cake would stand up to being layered.  I tell the girls dramatically we won't be able to make a fancy cake now, but they don't even seem to care.  They go off upstairs to play and leave me with shattered cake dreams.

Boo. Now what do I do?  We should probably still eat the cake, but it's highly unstable.  I fish the pans out of the sink and put each cake back in their original pan.  I'm still pretty ticked off so I think, okay girls, if you want ugly cake... I'm going to GIVE you UGLY cake!  So instead of making new frosting I go to the back of the fridge and pull out old left over canned frosting from who knows how long ago.  I slather multiple colors with big giant sweeps of the knife with little to no care.

blue, pink, and white frosting any which ol' way

By this time hubby has come over, observed my semi-rage, and finds the whole thing quite hilarious.  I don't find him very funny at the time, but he starts taking pictures of my frustration cake art.  Ironically the girls do not think this frosting is ugly at all.  They think it looks like cotton candy.

Hey, what's better than one ugly cake???  How about two ugly cakes.
I was so lackadaisical in my frosting attempt that a huge blob flew off the knife onto the counter.  Hubby found this just as funny as the ugly frosting so he took a picture of it.

Oh yes.  He thinks he is so funny.
Well then what should go on top of an ugly cake?  How about sprinkles that don't match.  I did a bit of searching until I found the perfect shade of ugly sprinkles to un-compliment the cake.  For hubby's benefit I decided to spell out a few letters.  One was an "F" for "forget" and the other was a "U" for you.

He was completely doubled over in laughter by this time
Then I figured I really don't want to explain what those two letters meant to the girls when they come back downstairs, so I should probably cover them up with more mismatched sprinkels.

On the second cake, I poured on some sprinkles, when I realized that I didn't have enough to justify keeping the almost empty container, so I just rage-dumped the rest on the middle of the cake.  Mr. D was laughing so hard at this point he could barely take pictures.  Matter of fact if you bring up the topic of the forget you ugly cake now one week later, he still can't stop laughing about it.

There. Take that ugly cake (notice the sprinkle pile in the middle)
So of course, the above monstrosity was no where near the awesome double layer cake I had dreamed about.  It was so ugly I wasn't even going to blog about it.  Mr. D insisted the story needed to be told.  The next day we took one of the Forget You Ugly cakes over to my folk's house and told them the quaint little story of rage that went along with it.  They were quite amused.  Matter of fact my dad decided to gussy up his slice of ugly cake with a few spiced gum drops.

About as near to ugly perfection as you can get.  So remember, when your mom goes out of her busy way and gets all excited to teach you something fun in the kitchen, and you sneak around and destroy that very thing we worked so hard to create without a shred of remorse... just prepare yourself, she might make you an ugly cake.


Monday, February 11, 2013

Chocolate Dipped Pretzel Rods

A few years back I was in charge of crafts for our MOPS (mother's of preschoolers) group.  One of our easiest and most fun hands on edible snacks were chocolate dipped pretzel rods.  They were a pretty big hit and made for wonderful gifts too.

It's really quite simple.  Melt some good quality chocolate chips with a little bit of vegetable oil or shortening, dip in your rods and roll in your sprinkles or toppings.  We were doing this on a grand scale of 50 women at one time, so we melted a giant 10-pound bag of chocolate chips from Costco into our crock pot.  

Ten pounds of melted chocolate.... you are welcome. (Try not to lick the screen)
If you are doing this at home with your kids or grandkids just take a bag of chocolate chips (and a tiny bit of vegetable oil or shortening) and melt for 30 seconds at a time until the chocolate is warm and ready for dipping.  It's a good idea to have all your toppings out and ready to go before hand.  We chose crushed honey roasted peanuts, mini chocolate chips, heart sprinkles, and red and white sprinkles.  Oh and here is a great tip for cheaper sprinkles.  Go to your local bakery (Fred Meyer, etc) and ask the baking department if you can buy some of their holiday sprinkles.  Often times they can give you a small container of them and you will get a lot more and it will cost a lot less then the tiny jars you get in the baking section.

Toppings, just ready for dippin'
For pretzel rods you want to buy the large ones, they come in a bag (usually in the chips section) but you have to watch out when you are buying them and try to find bags without any broken ones inside.

We found large paper plates worked good for each person to have their own "space" in which to create their dips
The crock pot was ideal in the fact that is was deep.  So try to melt your chocolate (if you are doing it at home) in a deep or even long microwave safe bowl so you can maximize dippage.  Another way is to spoon the chocolate over the area you want covered, or tip the bowl as you dip and spin the rod in the chocolate.

Dipped pretzel rods, fresh from the chocolate pond
Be sure to leave around 1/3 of the end not dipped for the "handle".  The dipping and dunking was the most fun we had that night.  Everyone loved the variety of toppings as well.  Because of our time constraints (a little over an hour) we ended up chilling ours in the big church fridge, so we could get to the cute packaging in time.

Imagine an unsuspecting church goer opening this baby up and finding liquid-dipped GOLD!
Of course if you are making these at home feel free to eat them as soon as your are done making them.  You can also let them cool on wax paper at room temperature, or in the fridge for 20 minutes to set up.  Store them in an air-tight container and they are best eaten in a few days.  I must say they make great gifts for care givers, teachers, neighbors, and friends.  An easy way to package them was only a quick trip to the dollar store away.

just a few bucks and cute packaging is yours
Some simple cellophane bags in holiday colors (that came with twist ties) and some free "thank you" printable tags, ribbon, and a hole punch was all that was needed to make these treats extra beautiful.

Who would not LOVE to get this as a little Valentine's thank you or pick me up?

So there you have it.  Just a few ingredients and a fun and yummy craft is within your arsenal.  This works great for any holiday by the way, just change out the colors of the toppings and the cellophane bags.  Enjoy and have a very happy Valentine's day.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Heart Shaped Cupcakes

My oh my it's been a busy week.  There has been out of town house guests, a science fair tri-fold project, I've designed a website for a friend, and I'm learning how to make comfy flannel blankets with satin binding (post on that coming soon).  In the mean time, I thought I would show you  some heart shaped cupcakes we made for my daughter's sweetheart party last year.

Heart shaped cupcakes
I want to say we got the idea out of a Disney Family fun Magazine because I can't remember if pinterest was around, or if I was even using it back in 2011, but luckily the technique is pretty simple.  First, you have to find a mesh bag of glass marbles.  That's harder than it sounds.  I ended up on a quest to find them.  Do kids even PLAY with marbles these days?

After some facebook post inquiries I finally found them in the "novelty" section of the toy section at walmart.  They were near the rubber balls and barrel o' monkeys.  You get a bag of 50 (plus a larger shooter) for pretty cheap.  Now you want to make your cake batter as usual and place your paper or foil liners in the cupcake pan.  Fill up your batter halfway, do not overfill.  Place one glass marble gently down the side of your cupcake until it touches the bottom of the pan.  Sometimes I had to "help" ease the liner as I dropped the marble in.

picture used from
After baking be sure to cool in the pan completely.  Don't touch them while the pan or the marble is still hot.  Once totally cooled you can pull the cupcakes out of the pan and either the marble will be left behind, or will be slightly stuck to the wrapper, which you can peel off.  The shape of the cupcake will still be a little pointy and not quite heart shaped.

Heart shaped cupcake before frosting
The real trick to getting this into more of a curvy heart shape is all in the frosting technique.

heart shaped cupcake with frosting
Use the frosting to really "round" out the top of the heart and I tended to pull the frosting in ever so slightly at the bottom to make the triangle end of the heart.  Otherwise you will have a more rounded, lumpy-bum shaped heart.

cupcake hearts with pink frosting, pink sprinkles, and heart toppers
These would be great for a class treat at school, gifts for friends and neighbors, or even a fun weekend project for the kids near Valentine's day.  My daughter wanted a heart party (her birthday is in November) so I just made two different flavors in contrasting colors and simply placed them around a larger heart shaped cake for fun.

I will post about the full heart party next time, as we came up with some cute ideas you might be able to use for a Valentines party or birthday party in the future.  All in all the hearts were a very big hit.

not to mention delicious!  Now go tell someone you "love" them with cupcakes today.  :)


Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Ham, Cheese, and Onion Frittata

So I was still a few days away from the end of the 31 nights of different dinners for January when our friends gave us a dozen eggs from their chickens. We had already had scrambled eggs earlier in the month, so according to the rules (no repeats) I had to think of something else to do with them.  I had left over ham I had chopped up and saved from one of the dinners, so I was thinking omelets at first, but then I remembered something I had seen like an omelet, only you bake it in a frying pan in the oven.  So now I give you my first attempt at a frittata.

A ham, cheese, and onion frittata
I went a "googlin" to see how to make them and checked out Alton Brown's recipe, which I used as sort of a base.  The nice thing about fritattas is that you can use any left over meat and veggies you have lying around.  Great for after a holiday party when you have both ham and a veggie tray to use up.  Alton used asparagus, but you can use anything you love and throw it in the pan.  I even heard some people put left over noodles in there.  Weird, right?  I just stuck with the basics.  Leftover ham, some diced onions, eggs, herbs, and a bit of shredded cheese.

This recipe is very loose and flexible.  The size of your pan and the number of eggs you use depends on how many people you are feeding.  Alton recommends using a 12-inch non-stick yet oven safe frying pan.  I do not have one like that (the handles would melt off) so I used my smaller medium sized (8in) cast iron because it was just me and hubby.  The number of eggs you use also depends on if you want a thick frittata or a thin one.

The difference between a frittata and an omelet is (besides the obvious flipping halfway through the cooking), is that you saute the meat and veggies before pouring the eggs over.  Also there is something usually added in the egg mixture, like herbs and Parmesan cheese.  First I sauteed the ham and onions together on medium for about 5 minutes until the ham was heated and the onions were translucent.  

This makes for a lovely smell...
Next preheat your oven on a low broil and then in a small bowl mix together:

6-7 eggs (or more if you want a thicker frittata)
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese (I used Kraft)
Johny's seasoning salt (to taste)
fresh cracked pepper
1 Tablespoon of dried basil or parsley (can use fresh too)

We used basil instead of parsley as the recipe suggested
Once your veggies and meat are ready to go, pour the egg mixture into the pan.

Add caption
At first you want to treat this like an omelet. The pan was pretty hot from the saute so I backed off the heat a bit before I poured in the eggs.  Move the ingredients around in the pan slowly with a spatula until they start to set up.

Mmmm.... yummy
As the sides start to set but it is still loose in the middle, I sprinkled on a tiny bit of grated cheese.

everything is better with cheese.
Put the whole pan in the oven and let it broil for 3-4 minutes until the top is set

It started to poof up just like our pannukakku recipe... always an impressive feat.

The frittata, the much easier omelet
This next step is exactly where a non stick, oven safe pan would come in handy, because as you pull it out of the oven you can easily slide the whole frittata onto a cutting board.  Since we had the higher sides of a cast iron skillet, we actually took two spatulas and lifted it out onto the cutting board.  I was relieved it came out in one piece.

The finished frittata on the cutting board

You can cut through this baby with a pizza cutter and I hear it is quite traditional to slice it into wedges.  After that serve it up with some hashbrowns or toast.

A few things to note about the frittata.  It is definitely more dense than a light and fluffy omelet.  The flavors of the cooked onions and ham, along with the basil and the Parmesan gave it a more "grown up" flavor.  I personally thought it was on the "dry" side but I like my eggs a little runny. I was thinking it needed some kind of dipping sauce next time, but I'm not sure what. The one great mommy bonus was that you can serve everyone at once, which is nice because when you make omelets, normally it's one at a time.  These also heated up nicely the next day for left overs.  So that was our first attempt at a frittata.  It's fun, it's different, it was quick (about 10 min),and it was very flavorful. Enjoy.

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