Category Archives: Food

Mmmmmocha

This recipe comes to you courtesy of Mr. CARO. He is a big coffee fan and used to frequent a certain popular coffee chain quite a bit. While we love all the fun flavors that come in with the winter season, lots of coffee mochas can seriously deplete your stocking stuffer budget. Let’s just say that this recipe has helped us save a lot of “Ourbucks”, if you know what I mean.

This single recipe makes two cups  – the measurement meaning of “cup”, not the beverage dish meaning of “cup” –  or one tall travel cup of coffee mocha. However, you can easily double or triple this recipe to serve more or fill larger coffee mugs or thermoses.

(The pictures you’ll see below are from us making the doubled recipe, which is two mugs/4 measurement cups of mocha. The ingredient quantities may look larger if you are making just the single recipe and I don’t want the images to confuse.)

Ingredients

  • 1 Tablespoon of ground coffee beans
  • 2 Tablespoons of cocoa powder (We use the Trader Joe’s brand.)
  • 1 cup of milk (We use 1% milk.)
  • 2 Tablespoons of sugar
  • Splash of cream or half-and-half (optional)
  • Whipped cream (We use Reddi-wip original because I can read all the ingredients and there are no preservatives.)

Preparation

Start by making a pot of your favorite coffee, regular or decaf, using this formula. For every Tablespoon of ground coffee beans you are using, put 1 cup of water in the coffee pot to make the coffee.

1 Tablespoon of ground coffee beans + 1 cup of water = 1 mocha

2  Tablespoons of ground coffee beans + 2 cups of water = 2 mochas

While the coffee is brewing, combine the sugar and cocoa powder in a glass Pyrex pitcher, preferably a wide one.

Pour in just a splash of milk and whisk the dry ingredients into a paste. (If we have it in the house, Mr. CARO will use cream or half-and-half for this splash part of the recipe. However, he warns that using cream for the milk outright makes it way too rich. Just a splash is enough.)

Add more milk, up to just the 1 cup mark on your glass measuring pitcher.

Whisk thoroughly. Then, very slowly, whisk in the hot coffee.

When all the ingredients are blended well, microwave your mix for 1 minute on high. The milk was added cold, so it has brought down the temperature of the hot coffee.

When the microwave dings, you can pour your mochas into their mugs. And what is a mocha without a little bit of real whipped cream?

Now comes the fun part….bottoms up! Watch out for whipped cream on your nose!  Mmmmmmmmmmmmmocha…….

Do like to start your day with a warm cup of joe? Are you as tempted by coffee stores as we are when you are out shopping? What is your favorite flavor to go with your coffee? I’m a sucker for peppermint and Mr. CARO likes caramel. Share your favorite in a comment!

Advent-tageous

Well, hello again!

It’s so nice to see you here! I’ve been away working extra long hours to help my clients get their homes ready for holiday entertaining. I’m happy to report that all of our goals and deadlines were met in time for some serious Thanksgiving feasts. My one worry was that when I returned to blogging that all of my readers had given up on me. (New Year’s Resolution #1: Find better work/rest life balance.)

Image courtesy of servicelearning.org

What have you been up to lately? Did you eat your fill of turkey and dressing? Did you get to enjoy some time off to relax? Are you ready for the calendar to roll over into December? December! Can you believe it has crept up this fast this year?!

Speaking of calendars, I thought I’d share sources for something to help us ease into the next big holiday. In my travels through the internet and stores at this time of year I see all kinds of holiday decor. (More eye candy coming on Wednesday!) Several of my friends have asked me to watch for these items, so I’m guessing some of you might be looking for them, too.

I’ve gathered a list of sources for Advent calendars. I grew up with these in Europe and they seem to be more popular every year over here. I have found both the candy ones and the ones you can fill yourselves, in case your kids don’t need more excitement through extra sugar.

I’ve also tried to find them in a variety of price ranges so we can all stay within our budgets. All of the images above and below are linked directly to their retailers to make shopping for them grabbing them before they disappear easier. You can just click on the pictures!

Candy-filled Advent Calendars

In my experience, all holiday planning goes more smoothly if you have a mouthful of chocolate. Exhibit A: Santa’s waistline. It seems to me that the only dilemma with candy-filled Advent calendars is making sure the candy tastes good. Here’s what I found:

Trader Joe’s

I found these chocolate-filled Advent calendars on Amazon. I’d never noticed any Trader Joe’s products on Amazon before, but maybe I just haven’t been looking since I live near two store locations.

Trader Joe's 24 Chocolate Days Till Christmas Santa's Workshop Advent Calendar Filled with 24 Milk Chocolates

I’ve had other chocolate products from Trader Joe’s before, so I can safely guess that this chocolate will taste good. These calendars are moving fast on Amazon, so if you want one before they run out of stock, I’d grab it now.

Trader Joe's 24 Days of Milk Chocolate Christmas Tree Advent Calendar

Moonstruck Chocolate Co.

The Advent calendar I showed at the top of this post seems more for adults, especially with it’s gourmet price tag. While I’m not familiar with this chocolate company, this calendar is certainly filled with  some mouth watering treats. Take a look:

Mmmmm. Chooooocooooolaaaaaate…. What? Sorry!

I was rather surprised at some of the places I didn’t find candy-filled Advent calendars. Really, Williams Sonoma and Godiva? This product seems to fit your brands so perfectly.

Whole Foods

Not only is this chocolate really good, it’s vegetarian, kosher and is guaranteed fair trade. You can eat this chocolate in the name of making the planet a better place to live.

Divine Chocolate Divine Milk Chocolate Advent Calendar

I haven’t seen this calendar in my store yet, but I’m going to look for it. Maybe they have already been bought out…yikes!

Fill-them-yourself Advent Calendars

I kind like the concept of these types of Advent calendars because they are open to more creative gift ideas. A cool eraser, a new matchbox car, a pretty hair clip…lots of potential for easy, affordable solutions. Plus, you only have to buy the calendar once and you can re-use it for years. Here’s what I found:

Ikea

New this year from the people who got you hooked on lingonberries, this very affordable ($10!) Advent calendar was flying off the shelves when I was at Ikea last weekend.

YRSNÖ Advent calendar (No idea how to pronounce that.)

I like that it has a non-boxy shape and weights only 1 lb. Easy storage for next year! It would even make a creative host/hostess gift.

Target

To be fair, I browsed Target for Advent calendars before Black Friday and Cyber Monday, so I can’t promise that their inventory has not been decimated  by that crazy Target commercial lady and her friends. I like the style option of this model…

Home Mirrored Advent Calendar

…but I would recommend buying these in the stores, so you can see that the quality of construction is good. Some of the individuals ones I found in the store had drawers that don’t close properly and/or wonky mirror application. Sorry, Target. Gotta keep it honest for my readers!

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Looking for something a little more artistically sophisticated  in your Advent calendar? You’d think this source would offer lots of pricey options, but all of their advent calendars come in under $20. I love the creative forms they offer, like this one:

Wiener Werkstätte Advent Calendar

As each day passes you open up the calendar page and add another little ornament to the paper tree. This would be great in a younger child’s room. How fun to have your own little tree!

This next calendar is actually pre-filled, but it replaces the traditional chocolates with Christmas stickers:

My Art Museum Sticker Advent Calendar

I like this idea. However, I have a friend who pointed out that the candy  sugar rush burns off rather quickly, but she could still be staring down a Christmas sticker next July. Any other parents out there want to weigh in on this?

I also like this calendar, because I love the colors and its design. You open each drawer to remove a Nativity scene character, which helps you build a Nativity scene by Christmas Day.  You also turn the drawer around to slowly create a tree full of graceful angels:

Christmas Tree Advent Calendar

It has nice sized drawers, which could be used for other little treats in future years. Aren’t those fun? You can see all of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s advent calendars in their online shop, linked right here.

Ballard Designs

This last source is a company I use a lot with my design clients because they have great quality of construction. If you are a fan of them, too, you might have already spotted some of their furnishing in some of my past client mood boards, which you can browse right here.

I love this advent calendar:

Holiday Countdown Advent Calendar

I like the almost-doll-house feel of it. This is another version of the drawer calendar openings. I like that you could decorate the house more with ribbons and garland to your own tastes. I like the size and that it can sit almost anywhere in a home.

Do you use an Advent calendar in your home during the holidays? Have you been looking for one recently? What is the best thing you ever got from an Advent calendar? Who else is still craving chocolate? Leave a comment and share some holiday cheer!

How to keep your holiday cooking sane

This time of year is a very busy time in my work with clients. Because the holidays are approaching, many of my clients need their projects completed in time to entertain family and friends. My work load at this time of year makes keeping myself organized at home for our holidays more than the usual challenge it is.

With the holidays approaching, the last thing I want is extra last minute trips to the grocery store for forgotten items. This post is about a solution I came up with to fight my own holiday food planning scatter-brained-ness. (Is that a word? It is now.) It looks like this:

Truth be told, a few years ago I had to really search for a favorite old family Christmas recipe. I thought I had lost it and couldn’t remember where I had put it away, very safely, the year before. I eventually found it, but I decided I never wanted to go through that again. For the next year, I needed a new plan.

So, I bought myself a small three-ring binder with a plastic cover, so I could wipe it clean easily. I bought some cheery scrapbook paper to slide into the cover and spine, to help me distinguish this cookbook binder easily when I need it. I labeled the spine and the cover clearly and then started my holiday recipe gleaning.

To protect each recipe, I filled the binder with plastic sheet protectors. I am normally relatively tidy when I cook, but at the holidays, when there are so many dishes and so much conversation going on at once, spills happen.

(Okay, those clear sheet protectors don’t photograph well, but you know what I’m talking about.) Next, I pulled out all of our favorite holiday recipes for the closest approaching holiday of the year, which was Thanksgiving. Then, I typed them up, little by little, over a couple of nights in front of the tv. (Martha Stewart really doesn’t live here.)

After they were all typed, they became the first pages in the new recipe binder. When I got to the next holiday, I just worked on the next batch of recipes. One month after another, I put them in the binder in the order of the year. Here’s a look at a page from December:

By the time Thanksgiving rolled around next year, my holiday recipe book was done. Not only do I now know where these recipes are stored, but my husband does, too, and can we can tag team organizing the grocery lists much more easily. It is also nice to have clean, printable versions of favorite family recipes to share with other family members and friends.

While I was making these pages, I also added in a couple of helpful cheat sheets, like this one from Real Simple:

No more digging around for random tips and slips of paper when we plan or while we cook. I glued my favorite holiday cheat sheets onto a pieces of cardstock and they all get stored together for their holiday between the relevant pages.

That’s my little system for sanity through any holiday cooking extravaganza. I can’t tell you how nice it is to never have to dig around for those recipes every year. Do you have a special way to store your favorite recipes? Have ever lost a favorite recipe? How many recipes do you cook up at your biggest holidays? Share your stories in a comment!

Looking for more home organizational ideas? You can see my running list of them right here, including one of my other favorite cookbooks. Looking for more recipes? Here’s the link to everyone I’ve posted so far.

The life of spice

I thought of the subject of this post months ago, but I decided I would save it until we were into the cooler Fall months. As the summer months pasted, I thought of more and more topics to include in this post. So, now that it is time to write this post, I can’t decide what category this post should fit into on this blog. My choices seem to be between:

  • Design Vocabulary
  • Organization
  • Furniture
  • Food topics

So, I have decided that the answer is: Yes. All of them. We’re talking about spice today. Just like any good spice that can be used in multiple dishes, this subject is a part of many larger topics.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

History

In the 16th century, finding islands with exotic spices was the Space Race of it’s day for sea-faring European countries. Massive fortunes were made or lost on the success or failure of a trading company’s ability to get its ships around the world and home again with a full cargo of spices to sell.

City states like Venice and countries like Portugal and Holland invested heavily in ships and trading ports designed to get spices back to their own European markets. Spices were in high demand to give flavor to foods and to work as preservatives in kitchens from every class of the European population.

"MAURITIUS off Rotterdam" in 1601. Image courtesy of gordonmiller.ca

Storage

Because it took so much work to bring the spices to the European markets from far away places, often a distance of over 6,000 miles, spices were expensive. With the experience gained from these arduous journeys, spice merchants quickly learned how to ensure that their precious cargo arrived as fresh as possible. No one wanted to pay for an expensive spice expedition and have the product arrive stale months later.

What the spice merchants learned is that heat and light are the most dangerous enemies of any spice. Whether it was an common black pepper or and elusive cinnamon, exposure to heat and light dried all of the flavor out of them. As a consequence, spice ships were large, with deep, dark holds for hundreds of thousands of pound of spice that were undisturbed on the return voyages.

Spice merchants around the world also needed to keep their merchandise fresh as they sold it to customers. We can see a common solution to the light and heat problem, on a shopkeepers display scale, in this example:

Image courtesy of artsofasiacorp.com

This spice chest, or apothecary chest, is from Asia, where spices were used for both cooking and medicinal purposes. Each drawer contained the spice label on the drawer’s front and was kept behind a store keeper’s counter to keep the costly spices protected.

Have you ever thrown away an old bottle of spice, well past its “use by” date? It always makes me rather mad at myself when I have to do it. In 16th century homes across Europe and, eventually, the New World, caddies and mini spice cabinets where carved to store these luxurious pantry items safe and functional for as long as they could be kept. These could be ornate and crafted by high-profile cabinet makers, like this Regency-style spice cabinet:

Image courtesy of pbs.org

or they could be simple and functional in a classic way, like this Shaker-style spice box:

Image courtesy of ebay.com

With the progresses in ceramics technology, canisters were eventually developed to keep storage functional (no light or heat!) yet still be decorative for the display of such luxury items. Here’s an example of a common spice canister shape:

Image courtesy of beetle2001cybergreen's photostream on flickr.com

Modern Storage

With the development of refrigeration techniques in the 19th century, spice demand dropped significantly. There were no longer needed for food preservations, but primarily food flavor. As transportation systems advanced, the lengthy travel routes to obtain the spices also became obsolete, causing a sharp drop in prices.

However, the two old enemies of spice are still around, yet we seem to have forgotten about them. Exposure to light and heat can cut the flavor and effectiveness of spices in your recipes by half their natural lifespan. That means your spices could only be good for 3 months if you are storing them in your kitchen like this:

Image courtesy of Amazon

Or some variation of this:

Image courtesy of Amazon

As a person who loves to cook, I hate to see this kind of waste in a kitchen. As a designer, I want to get the word out to help clients and blog readers to remember  the wisdom those spice merchants learned all those years ago.

There are so many great, affordable spice storage options available today that keep our spices handy yet still protected. Here are just a few examples from online retailers:

"Expand-a-drawer spice rack", is only $18 on Amazon

"Super Spicestack", $35 on Amazon (These hold 27 bottles each and can be stacked in multiples.)

"Copco Non-Skid 3-Tier Cabinet Organizer" only $10 on Amazon

"OXO Good Grips Rotating Spice Organizer", only $20 on Amazon

The round parts of that Oxo organizer are turntables, to make it easier to browse your spices. Nice design!

Wanna see my solution for my own kitchen. (I practice what I preach, my friends!) I use the high cabinets above our sink for spice and baking supply storage. Mr. CARO and I are both rather tall, so we can reach these shelves easily.

I bought several bins and broke down my most commonly used spices into four sections of the alphabet to label the bins. The best part is, these bins weren’t designed to be spice containers at all. They were designed to be locker bins for high school students. I found them on clearance for $1 each after the back-to-school season years ago.

I love that these bins are easy to clean and I can tell at a glance if I am out of something. All I have do is label the tops of the bottles and toss them in their bins, although nowadays, many bottles already come labeled.


Kitchen Design

While we’re on the subject, and this was one of my points of inspiration for this post, there are a lot of custom cabinetry option returning to popularity again in new kitchens. Cooking fans have some beautiful and creative solution options that those spice merchants of old would be envious of…

Image courtesy of woatile.com

FYI: All of our cooking oils and vinegars like a cool, dark place for storage, too. They last longer and keep from going rancid it you store them with the same care that you store your spices.

I am a big fan of this design of built-in spice storage:

Image courtesy of thecabinetfactory.com

But whatever you may choose to do with a built-in spice rack, DON’T do this:

Image courtesy of jtphomeservice.com

Right by the oven?! Heat!!!!

Also, avoid putting a built-in spice rack by your dishwasher, which also generates a lot of heat on its side panels. Better to put your pretty and practical spice rack somewhere else in the cabinetry line up. Like this example I recently snapped in Home Depot:

Now you see it, safe, dry and cool next to the sink…

…and now you don’t. Beautiful, practical and functional.

Have you ever thought about how you store spices in your kitchen? How many bottles of spice do you use regularly use in your home? (Just guesstimate.) Do you cringe, like I do, when you have to throw away a wasted spice? Anyone out there have a creative way to store spices in their pantry? Share your spicy-ness in a comment!

Fighting ghoulish sugar crashes

We all love Halloween, but after your 18th Butterfinger you may want a little break. But what else can you do with all of that candy? What if there was a way to use that candy create other dessert over the next few months? It could cut down on your cooking time but still produce some yummy treats for your home.

Sounds good, right? Lucky for us, Real Simple magazine has had this idea, too, and has come up with some great ideas. Listed (and linked) below are 10 of their great desserts that use popular Halloween candies. You could even look at them as tools to make the most of those post-Halloween candy sales.

Frozen Reese’s Banana Pops

York Miniatures Peppermint Patties Brownies

Candy Corn and Pretzel Bark

Skittle Meringues

SweeTarts milk shake

Dulce De Leche and Snickers Terrine

Twizzlers-Popcorn Snack Mix

Twix Cheesecake Pie

Peanut M&M’s and Jelly Cookies

Kit Kat-Filled Angel Food Cake

All of the very tempting images in today’s post are courtesy of Real Simple magazine. Want more recipes that use Halloween candy? You can find a lot more of them in Real Simple’s recipe archive, which I’ve linked for you right here.

What kind of treats do you like to give out for Halloween? Do you have a favorite Halloween candy? Do you sneak candy from your kids or slyly take a few extra pieces at work? How long does Halloween candy last in your home? Leave a comment!

And, hey! Did you see the latest giveaway? You can still enter to win it until 1o pm tonight, Eastern time. It could make you feel better about scarfing down all that candy! It also makes a great gift. Enter to win right here, right now!

Freezer feasts

This is a recipe post. And it isn’t.

There are no food ingredients specified in this post, but it is a recipe for saving money and improving your health. It can also help you organize your kitchen to be more functional at mealtimes. Whether you live alone, have roommates, a spouse or even a large family, this post can help you improve your meals.

It starts here:

Tools

We’re at the grocery store, picking up the three, very affordable tools we need for this project. They are:

Generic grocery-store-brand plastic food storage tubs in a small size. Generic is always better because they are easy to replace as needed at the least amount of cost. Look for good sales, like you see in the picture above, and stock up on them. (Always recycle these responsibly when you need to buy new ones!)

Freezer-proof masking tape. It looks like regular masking tape but this tape’s adhesive is designed to stand up to cold temperatures. Most grocery stores have this if you look for it, as does Target and Wal-mart. One roll will last you a long time.

A fine-tip black Sharpie or other permanent marker. This works great on the freezer tape and is easy to write with and read clearly later.

Have you figured out what we are doing with these items?  We are our upgrading “leftovers” to the 21st century. They must be practical to store, easy to create and enjoyable to use. Based on conversations I’ve had with clients, many people have not been taught how to manage leftovers to work for them. This is my method and it has saved us THOUSANDS of dollars every year.

“Leftovers”

The most important thing strategy for using leftovers well is your attitude. It is easy to thing of them as “leftover food”. It is a meal that you are repeating, but have little surprise to look forward to regarding how it will taste.

Here’s how you change that: think of leftovers as “leftover money”. According to MSN.com:

$9 will generally cover a decent lunch most workdays. If you buy, rather than pack, a lunch five days a week for one year, you shell out about $2,340 a year.”

Let me just reiterate that for you: $2, 340 A YEAR!

Would you mind having another serving of last week’s casserole if it meant that you would use  one day’s worth of your ” leftover lunch money” to see a movie this weekend? What larger purchase could you afford faster if you were willing to put some daily  “leftover money” toward it? How much could you build your savings? This is a tried-and-true method of saving money.

Image courtesy of wikipedia.com

Assembly

We only have two people in our household, but we never cook for quantities less than 4 servings. This mean automatic leftovers get created with no additional planning required from us.

Here are my tools:

We use the “snack size” containers for our leftovers, for several reasons. We never waste a small part of a meal in the back of the fridge because we forgot to use it up. Snack-sized tubs help our leftovers go farther. More leftovers mean less work later and bigger savings now.

This size also gives us automatic portion control, which is a real health concern in most American restaurants and homes. We supplement the small portions of our leftover lunches with one or two servings of fresh fruits or vegetables. For example, Mr. CARO will take one of these tubs and some carrot sticks for lunch and an apple for a later snack in his workday.

Here is an example of how we do this in our home. In the picture below, you can see some leftover rice and cranberry pilaf. I have also cut up and mixed in the leftover herbed chicken breasts to make re-heating the meal easy.

This one pot of leftovers yielded 5 yummy freezer feasts to be used for lunches days or weeks later.

All we have to do is label these tubbies using the freezer tape and fine-tip Sharpie. Each tubbie gets the name of the dish and the date it was put in the freezer.

Just a side note: We NEVER re-heat these freezer feasts in their plastic tubs. We always pop the frozen meals out of the plastic ware and heat them in a microwave-safe dish. This way we avoid risking any unhealthy heated-plastic toxins becoming part of our meal.

Supplementing

We also supplement our automatic leftovers. Once or twice a month, we make one easy and/or favorite meal for direct storage in the freezer. Pictured below is 1 pound of beef mixed with 1 pound of fusilli pasta, leftover homemade marinara sauce and some grated Parmesan cheese. The dish only took about 20 minutes to make and made 8 lunches.

Storage

All of these feasts stack nicely in our freezer.  This is another reason to always buy square shaped food tubs, so you maximize your freezer space and your freezer’s energy efficiency.

We fill a whole shelf of our freezer with these feasts and every day we can choose exactly what we are in the mood to eat. All these feast are ready to go at a moment’s notice, which makes it that much more easy to get out of the door in the morning or make an easy dinner after a long day of work.

Do you use your leftovers effectively as later meals? A little organization goes a long way! What is the yummiest dish you would like to have as “leftovers”? Do you have a “freezer feast” that makes your co-workers hungry when you re-heat it for lunch? Leave a comment and dish!

Hint Hint: There is a free giveaway related to this very post coming later this week! You don’t want to miss it so be sure to check back and enter to win!

Savoring Home: Bistro fries

Is there anyone who doesn’t like French fries, chips, pomme frites or whatever they call them where you live? We had stopped eating frozen grocery store fries because they tasted too chemical-ly to us and we could not identify all of the ingredients on the labels. We had also stopped ordering them out because they were always so huge and heavy to eat.

But, every now and then, like when we are having a nice steak for dinner, we craved some crispy potatoes. When I saw this recipe on Rachael Ray, I knew we had found the solution. I really love this recipe because it has only four ingredients. Just 4!

Ingredients

  • 6 medium Russet potatoes (you must use very starch potatoes)
  • Olive Oil
  • Salt (we use ground sea salt)
  • Dried Parsley

Preparation

Pre-heat your oven to 400 degrees Farenheit, 200 degrees Celsius or Gas mark 6. Then, arrange cooling/wire racks on two baking sheets, like this:

The air that will circulate around your potatoes is what will make sure your fries are cooked evenly and with crispy edges.

Next, wash your potatoes thoroughly and peel them lengthwise, leaving the tips un-peeled, like this:

Cut the potatoes lengthwise, then slice them into fries on 1/4 inch (or just over 1/2 cm) thickness on each side.

When you are done cutting all of your potatoes, you should have a large bowl of fries like this:

Using the large bowl, toss all of the potatoes in a light layer of olive oil and ground sea salt.

If you are a parent, this recipe has a few steps your kids can help out with, like this tossing-with-oil-and-salt step. Letting your children taste what homemade fries taste like is a natural deterrent from fast food restaurants. This also works for adults, as we can attest.

Arrange the fires in a single layer on the wire racks/baking sheets, and try to avoid crowding.

Bake the fries in the oven for 30 minutes. You can put both baking sheets in the oven at the same time without any worries.

Now here is the secret tip that makes these fries different from all of the rest. After 30 minutes, remove the fries from the oven and raise the oven temperature to 425 degrees Farenheit, 220 degrees Celsius or Gas mark 7.

While you are waiting for the oven to reach its higher temperature, remove the fries from the baking sheet back into the big bowl. I recommend using kitchen tongs for this because the fries are hot.

Then toss the fries with more coarsely ground salt and parsley. You choose the quantity of parsley. Or you can use any other flavor combo you love in this step, like Herbes de Provence, garlic & rosemary, etc. (I forgot to take a picture of this step in progress because I was workin’ the tongs.)

Next, put the fries back on the wire racks/baking sheets and when your oven has reached the higher temperature put them back in the oven. Bake the fries for another 15-20 minutes, until the fries look crispy and brown.

When you are done, you’ll have a lovely bowl of delicious fries. They will be crispy on the outside and nice and fluffy on the inside. Be sure to test these fries before serving them (as if I have to tell you this) to make sure you are happy with the salt quantity.

By using the ground sea salt, as opposed to table salt, you can use less and get the same balanced flavor, without a heavy sodium intake. That’s right, these fries are healthier for you because you control the ingredients!

And here is our delicious dinner of marinated, grilled steak and bistro fries:

We serve this with a cool green salad and it is a fabulous dinner at home. (See my cloth napkin? You can read all about my habit with these in this post.)

Do you have a weakness for french fries? How do you like your steak prepared?Does anyone want the steak marinade recipe we used in the picture above? It is delicious and I could put it in a future post. Leave a comment and let me know!

Dinner is served

Have you ever struggled to decide what to make for dinner? Well, today’s post has two Design Vocabulary terms that should change the way you ever look at dinner again. We’re talking about two very different styles of serving dinner in the last two centuries and what prompted the change. But first, I have a guest hostess helping me with this post…

A most important introduction

Allow me to introduce you to Mrs. Isabella Beeton:

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Her husband was a successful publisher and in 1861, Mrs.Beeton published her own book with his firm. The Book of Household Management, more commonly referred to a “Mrs. Beeton’s”, was a best seller from its first publishing well into the 1920’s.

While there is now detailed evidence to suggest that many of her 100+ pages of recipes and much of her detailed household advice came from others, including her own servants, there is no question that her book was ground breaking as “a guide of reliable information for the aspirant middle classes”. In short, she was THE original Martha Stewart.

Mrs. Beeton is helping me today by supplying most of the images in this post from the many editions of her book. Like Martha Stewart, Mrs. Beeton included beautiful displays of finished recipes in her book to inspire her readers. While some of her dishes may seem a little frilly or even impossibly over dressed to our eyes today, the images provide valuable insight to what was stylish and desirable to hostesses of earlier eras.

And oh, sooooo many dishes were needed! Let’s grab a seat at the table to see what’s going on…

À La Française

Pronounced “ah-la-frawn-SAYS”, this was the style of serving dinner for many centuries across Europe. What was once the style of dining for nobility and the aristocracy had trickled down from the Middle Ages to be common in all middle class homes up until the mid 19th century.

The goal for this serving style was to show a bountiful display of food which, in turn, attributed wealth and hospitality to the host and hostess. This is the most important thing to remember about the “à la française” dinner service. The show of the food for the guests was essential.

To this end, multiple dishes of food were prepared, well beyond the quantity that would seem appropriate to us today. A dinner for six to eight would require a minimum of four courses and include the following quantities of food.

First course: (on the table when the guests enter the dining room)

  • Hare soup
  • Pigeon bisque (soup)
  • Oysters
  • Oyster sauce
  • Cod’s head and shoulders
Second course:
  • Boiled turkey
  • Mashed potatoes
  • Asparagus tips
  • Saddles of mutton
Third course:
  • Cheese fondue
  • A joint of beef, garnished with pasta
  • Spit-roasted ham
  • Two salads
Fourth course:
  • Covered cream pie
  • Punch jelly (from a jelly mold)
  • Brace of partridges
  • Warm paté
While you may not recognize the names of some of the above dishes, you can certainly see how much food this is for only eight people. And this isn’t a menu for a big Saturday night dinner party, either. This would just be a husband’s business or networking dinner party on an average Wednesday.

All of the dishes in each course would have been carefully and symmetrically put on the table simultaneously by servants, so as to show off the quantity the food. There is a whole separate list of rules about where on the table which food could and could not be placed in relation to other foods. It’s enough for a whole other post on this topic, but just take it from me, it is quite fussy.

Then the food would be carved, plated and served to each guest by the host and hostess at the heads of the table and passed to each guest’s place by other guests. This often meant that your portion of food did not arrive on your plate warm, but this was the norm. Did I mention the garnishing? Well, you can’t just place pork chops on a large platter! You have to dress them to look extraordinary:

It was not expected that everyone eat or even sample every dish placed on the table, but that the guests could pick and choose to suit their own tastes. You can probably imagine the havoc this could wreck on a household budget. We take it for granted that our food costs today will be significantly lower than our housing costs. In 19th century Europe, those household budget percentages were much closer together.

To make ends meet, a good mistress used what we all use today to make her food budget stretch further. Today, we call them “leftovers”. In fact the most common household family/non-dinner-party meal of Victorian England appears to have been nothing but creative courses of leftovers. The average middle class family was said to enjoy only three “fresh”/new dinners a week. There were even popular recipes in ladies magazines with detailed instructions on disguising the leftover dishes in ways that a hungry husband won’t complain about them.

Now imagine being a household cook, “below stairs”.  You must have your recipes memorized because “Mrs. Beeton’s” is really for the mistress of the house to read and use to direct the servants. At every meal, you must time all the dishes of each course to be served together.

Then, while preparing the next courses you must wait to see if the family and any guests at least try all of the dishes, thus proving them to be appetizing and therefore good work to your boss, the mistress of the house. A good cook was the pride of any Victorian household staff and a very highly coveted commodity among ladies of society.

Soooo much work for everyone from the servants to the guests, and so much money spent! When a change from this very expensive dinner service arrived, it caught on fast.

À La Russe

Pronounced “ah-la-ROOSE”, this “new” style of dinner service first made its appearance around the 1830’s when a Russian prince began entertaining guests in his Paris apartment in the style of his homeland. (“Russe” is the French word for “Russian”.)

Paris and its social elite quickly adapted this dining style as their own. And since Paris was the fashion and diplomatic center of the world in the 19th century, reports of the style soon spread to other world capitals. The actual arrival of this dining style in Washington D.C. (at The White House, no less!) was the talk of the town. By the late 1880’s, the “à la Russe” service was considered standard everywhere.

You, dear reader, are already familiar with dining à la Russe. See if this sounds familiar:

  • You enter the dining room and are seated at the table
  • The table features a decorative centerpiece
  • After all the guest are seated, the first course is served
  • The first course consists of the same dish, on identical plates, served to all of the guest at the same time by servants
  • All subsequent courses are served to and cleared from guests directly at their seats, by servants
  • There is no quest for symmetry in the placing of dishes on the table
  • Large dishes requiring carving or complex serving are kept on a sideboard (or buffet, as we call them today)
  • Large dishes on the sideboard are carved by servants so that each guest could choose their own size of serving
  • No serving of food arrives at your place setting cold
  • Desserts are placed on the table to tantalize you as you make your own dessert selection

Of course, this is the way we all dine in nice restaurants today, although the dessert course is now often represented in pictures in some restaurants. I’ll bet most of you serve your family dinners and your large holiday meals this very same way, too. So what was the attraction to such a huge change so quickly? A most basic reason: it was much cheaper.

The “à la Russe” service is estimated to have cost the host and hostess one-third of what the same dinner would have cost them in the “à la française” style. There was no more need to fill the table with so many dishes that may or may not be eaten. The dishes served need not be filled to the very rim with a large quantity of food either. And no one was suffering over the leftovers for the rest of the week.

Hello, new customers!

It wasn’t just the middle class household budget that appreciated this dining change. The manufacturers of tableware were delighted at all the new possibilities and took great advantage of them. Whole new lines of silver cutlery and tableware were created to serve the “à la Russe” dinner service.

The “à la Russe” table now has a much more visible service, since we removed all of those overflowing dishes of food. You can’t just get by with a simple colored tablecloth anymore. You need a beautiful embroidered one or a luxurious damask one or something in a delicately printed silk…

What are you going to put in the center of the table now? You could easily place lovely dishes and compotes of the dessert course fruit out to bring some delicious color to the center of attention. (See the photo above for examples.) Indeed, when “Mrs. Beeton’s” finally resolved itself to this new normal, the later editions even offered some inspiration for mixing in fruit and flowers. (Now you know where your great-great-grandmother’s silver centerpiece bowl comes from…)

Have you ever eaten with a salad fork? They never existed before the “à la Russe” dinner service. The same can be said for the soup spoon, the fish knife, the oyster fork, the cake fork, the egg spoon, the iced tea glass, the iced tea spoon, the mayonnaise ladle, the lemon fork, the olive fork, the sugar spoon, the asparagus serving fork, the ice cream cutting knife, the ice cream fork, the jelly scoop, the salt spoon, the tomato server, the bon bon tongs, the “one tine butter pick” and dozens of other rather expensive yet very specific utensils that are now (mercifully) no longer quite so in demand. And now you know why we dine like we do.

It’s feeling a lot less difficult to figure out what you’re serving for dinner tonight, isn’t it? Do you think you could prepare a meal worthy of Mrs. Beeton’s? This British couple didn’t think so…

…but then one day they decided to clean out their basement. You have to see it to believe what they found! You can read the full article with fantastic pictures right here.

So, what’s for dinner at your house tonight? No, seriously! Leave your dinner plans in a comment and let’s compare how we all eat in our homes today…minus all those servants!

Savor: Cinnamon Chocolate Chip Cake

This recipe is tried and true in our home. I stumbled upon it a few years ago in a catalog from a spice company I adore, Penzey’s Spices. I’m not lucky enough to live near one of their locations, so when their catalog comes in the mail it is kinda like the Dinner Inspiration Fairy landing in my kitchen. Do any of you live a Penzey’s Spices store location? Those stores must smell heavenly!

There is something about Fall weather that makes me want to bake. (Did I mention how much I love Fall?) Cooler weather outside and savory and sweet smells coming from our kitchen just seems to warm my soul. And nothing smells quite as delicious as the smell of cinnamon being baked into a cake wafting all over the house. Cinnamon is one of the smells realtors often recommend using for enticing buyers during home tours. Homemade desserts = Happy home.

Image courtesy of vegetarian-nutrition.info

So here is a favorite cake recipe of ours from Penzey’s. It has cinnamon AND chocolate baked into it. (You’re welcome!) It makes a great dessert and it can also work as a great coffee cake, in case you really need an excuse to eat cake for breakfast. I won’t argue with you.

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) or 120 mL of butter at room temperature
  • 1 1/4 cups  or 295 mL of sugar, divided
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup or 235 mL of sour cream
  • 1 teaspoon or 5 mL of pure vanilla extract
  • 2 cups or 470 mL of flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons or 7.5 mL of baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon or 5 mL of baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon or 2.5 mL of cinnamon
  • 1 (12 oz. or 342 grams) bag of chocolate chips

Preparation

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F/ 180 degrees C/ Gas mark 4 in the UK ( I can’t let a little math stand in the way of sharing cake!)

Grease and flour a 13 inch x 9 inch baking pan, then set it aside.

In a stand mixer or using a hand mixer in a bowl, combine butter, 1 cup (235 mL) of sugar and the eggs. Beat until light and fluffy.

Add the sour cream and vanilla, blend throughly on low.

In another bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder and baking soda. If you don’t have a sifter, you can fold air into the mixture using a whisk.  Just make sure to “fold”, not “stir”.

Add this dry mix slowly to the beaten mixture.

Pour 1/2 of the batter in to the grease and floured baking pan.

In a separate bowl, combine the remaining sugar and cinnamon.

Pour half of the sugar-cinnamon mix over the batter in the pan.

Top with 1/2 of the chocolate chips.

Pour remaining batter over chocolate chips in pan. Layer the batter with the remaining sugar-cinnamon mix and top it with the remaining chocolate chips.

Bake for 30 minutes. Only 30 minutes!

Let the cake cool in the pan on a cooling rack.

This cake serves great with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream. Whipped cream looks more responsible when you eat this cake for breakfast. Plus, you can also use the cream in your coffee. Just sayin’.

This whole recipe takes only 15 minutes to prep and 30 minutes to bake. Delicious cake in under an hour?! You cannot go wrong with this recipe. It serves 12, unless you make a “terrible cutting mistake” and “accidentally” cut larger pieces. I understand this tragedy happens in many homes…including my own.

Do you have a favorite cinnamon recipe? Does anyone ever sprinkle a little cinnamon their coffee? I’ve heard this is a great tip, but I’ve never tried it. What spices mean “Fall is here!” in your home? All tips and recipes are welcome, please leave a comment!

Savoring Home: Mexican meal prep

I am a sucker for great Mexican food, which can be tricky, because I’m deathly allergic to avocado. Guacamole fans normally gasp in horror when I tell them this, but I never grew up with guacamole and I’ve never found the look of it appealing, so I really don’t feel any loss.

But, this makes ordering in Mexican restaurants tricky because I always have to worry about cross-contamination. And my allergy explanation tends to make hardworking waiters a little jumpy…like I’m a ticking time bomb they may have to try CPR on…

Mmmmmm...yes, please! Image courtesy of lunch.com

So, we make a lot of Mexican fare at home, for peace of mind. However, good Mexican food takes a lots of layering of spices and time to put it all together. I used to (in my new-to-cooking ’20’s) use the pre-mixed seasoning envelopes you can buy at the grocery store. And we all know that these are filled with not-good-for-you chemicals we can’t pronounce.

As I grew older/wiser, I searched everywhere to find a good spice combo that would work well and that I could assemble myself, allowing me to know exactly what was in it (Hint: No MSG!). After much tinkering with measuring spoons, I finally adapted a recipe of my own that really works.

I’d thought I’d share it today because it can make Mexican meals at your house faster and easier, too. We cook batches of meat (ground beef, chicken tenderloins, sliced steak, etc.) with the spices in advance and freeze the meat.

All of the spices we use are standard spices you probably already have in your pantry. Nothing new or exotic to buy. Image courtesy of ifood.tv

When we want Mexican food, we have only half a recipe to prepare. This means if we want tacos, dinner is on the table in as much time as it takes to wash and dice the produce. The same goes for fajitas, quesadillas, nachos and several baked dishes we love. Easy, satisfying and less work after a long weekday.

Sound good? I just made a batch of Mexican beef this weekend, so I can show you exactly what I mean…

Ingredients

  • 1/2 teaspoon of chili powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon of paprika (regular type, NOT Hungarian/sweet)
  • 1/2 teaspoon of ground cumin
  • 1/4 teaspoon of salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon of garlic powder
  • 1/8 teaspoon of cayenne pepper
  • 4 Tablespoons of water
  • 1/2-3/4 cup of chopped onions (fresh or frozen, quantity is your choice)
  • 1 pound of ground beef, chicken, steak – any type or cut of meat you want, in a 1 lb. quantity (This recipe can double, triple, etc. easily!)

Preparation

  1. In a small bowl, mix first 6 ingredients well and set aside.
  2. In a skillet over med-high heat, brown the meat.
  3. Add onions and saute with meat until meat is cooked through and onions are golden color.
  4. Add water to beef mixture then pour spices over meat. Mix thoroughly.
  5. Lower heat and allow skillet to simmer uncovered for 7-10 minutes, while water cooks off.
  6. Serve meat immediately or freeze for later use.

We love the spice combination of this recipe, but you can always make it hotter by increasing the cayenne and chili powder or smokier by increasing the cumin a little. It’s very easy to adapt to any taste preferences. I have also used this recipe many times to make pot luck dishes very easy to assemble.

I hope this recipe is helpful for your weeknight dinners like it is in our home. Mexican food with easy prep is always a great dinner here. Do you have any great tips for easy dinner prep? Leave a comment and share your knowledge!

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