Homemade Holiday Fudge

S'mores Fudge

Since I was itty-bitty my mom has always made homemade fudge for Christmas. It was such a treat as a kid because she would only make it one time a year and when it was gone, it was gone. As I got older and started hosting the holidays myself I continued the tradition of making homemade fudge at the holidays. It’s a treat that everyone always loves and even though it’s super easy to make everyone will be so impressed that you actually made homemade fudge!

The nice thing about this fudge is that you can change it up with whatever add-ins that you prefer. My mom would always make a plain batch and another batch with walnuts which is super simple and pleases most everyone.  For fun, I started making my fudge in different ways just to change up the flavor profile. I’ve made it with graham crackers and marshmallows for a yummy S’mores version, I’ve made it with Craisins® and shredded coconut and a few times I did batches of Rocky Road fudge which had both nuts and marshmallows. The possibilities are pretty limitless with this recipe so go ahead and add your own signature touch to the next batch you make!

Ingredients

  • 3 cups (18 oz) of semi-sweet chocolate chips (dark chocolate works as well)
  • 1 (14 oz) can of sweetened condensed milk
  • dash of Kosher salt
  • 1 1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
  • Red and green decorative sugar sprinkles
  • 1/2 -1 cup chopped walnuts or other add-ins (optional)

Instructions

In a pan set over low heat combine the sweetened condensed milk, chocolate chips and salt and stir until melted and smooth. Remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla extract and any add-ins such as nuts, marshmallows, etc.

Spread the fudge mixture into a 8X8 pan lined with wax paper and sprayed very lightly with cooking spray. Sprinkle with colored sugar sprinkles. Chill until firm and then cut into bite-sized cubes.

**Tip – Keep the cut-up fudge covered with plastic wrap and refrigerated until ready to serve. It becomes very soft at room temperature.**

 

“How-To” Cooking – Roasting (Vegetables)

Roasting is an excellent way to bring out an extra depth of flavor in most vegetables. The slight crisp to the edges that roasting gives also adds a nice textural component to the vegetable as well. Root vegetables such as potatoes and parsnips are traditional choices for roasting however, other vegetables such as brussel sprouts, broccoli, onions, and peppers are also excellent choices. The best thing about roasting is that it is super easy and requires very little effort.

To roast vegetables, first cut up the vegetables into bite sized chunks. Then toss them in a good olive oil until they are nicely coated and glossy. Season the vegetables liberally with Kosher salt and fresh black pepper and then spread them out on a cookie sheet leaving some space between the vegetables. Roast the vegetables at 425ºF until they pierce easily with a fork and there is some charred bits on the edges. The charred bits are what make the roasted vegetables taste so good therefore, don’t hesitate to roast the vegetables a little longer to get that char even though they might already be tender.

For more information on roasting, click here .

Thick and Fudgy Brownie Cookies

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I’ve been making these fudgy brownie cookies for years and they are always a hit with everyone. They are SO good. Soft, fudgy, and bursting with chocolate flavor. The best part? They are super easy to make and require only a few ingredients that most everyone will have on hand. For this batch I added some Sno-Caps® candy to the top but you can either leave them plain or add any other topping that you wish. Be sure to watch these cookies closely as they bake. They can go from perfect to overdone quickly and you want to be sure to not overbake them or you’ll lose that soft, fudgy middle.

These cookies also make great holiday gifts! I’ve made big batches of them, packaged them nicely into holiday cookie tins and then secured a bag of good quality coffee to the top of the tin with pretty, festive ribbon. It’s the perfect gift for bus drivers, teachers, group leaders or anyone else on your holiday gift list! You could even assemble the dry ingredients into Mason Jars and secure the recipe to a tag on the jar and that way your gift recipients can make a batch of fresh, warm cookies at home. These are also great cookies to bring for your next cookie swap! Enjoy!!

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
  • 2/3 cup brown sugar
  • 1/3 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 egg plus 1 egg yolk
  • 1 tsp pure vanilla extract
  • 1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup cocoa powder (the darker the better)
  • 1/4 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp Kosher salt
  • 3 tbs heavy cream
  • 1 cup chocolate chips

Instructions

Preheat oven to 350. Line cookie sheets with parchment paper or Silpats.

Cream the butter and sugars. Add in egg, yolk and vanilla.

In a separate bowl, whisk together flour, cocoa, baking soda, and salt. Gradually add half of the dry mixture to the butter mixture.

Pour in the heavy cream and mix until combined. Add remaining dry ingredients and mix well. Fold in the chocolate chips.

Scoop 2 tbs of dough (I use a medium cookie scoop) onto the cookie sheets. Flatten tops slightly and leave about 1.5″ between cookies. Bake for 9-11 minutes. The tops should be puffy, rounded and set. DO NOT OVERBAKE or they’ll be too dry. Let cool on cookie sheets for a few minutes and then transfer to wire racks to cool completely.

Makes exactly 2 dozen cookies.

 

Blog Roundup of the Best DIY and Cooking Blogs I’ve Found This Week

What an honor to be given a shout out!! Thank you!!!

DIY Home & Garden

Instead of a DIY or recipe today, I decided to share a Blog Roundup of the best DIY and cooking blogs I’ve found this week.

It’s been really super-hot and humid in Eastern NC the past couple of weeks. For almost three weeks, the heat index has been over 100 degrees almost every day (for my readers everywhere but Americans, that’s 32 Celsius) To be perfectly honest, it’s too hot for me to go out and work on my DIY projects. I have a stack of things to do, but it’s way too hot to worry about them!

That is why I decided to try something new and share a roundup of my favorite blogs that I’ve discovered this week. Since ya’ll like the same topics that I do, you may also enjoy them.

Thank you to all you bloggers for creating great reading material, fun content, and how-to videos. There are…

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“How-To” Baking – Making Sugar Cookies

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Making sugar cookies can either be fun or make you want to pull your hair out! Follow these simple steps to create beautifully decorated sugar cookies every time.

  1. Make the dough ahead of time – Sugar cookie dough works best when it is fully chilled. Make the dough at least a day before you’re ready to roll and cut. The dough will keep in the fridge for 3-4 days or in the freezer for up to a month. Here you will find a basic sugar cookie dough recipe from Williams-Sonoma®.
  2. Do not over-cream the butter – Over-creaming the butter will cause too much air to be incorporated into the cookie dough which in turn will cause them to expand and spread when baking and then collapse during cooling. Work the butter just enough so that it is incorporated with the other ingredients.
  3. Roll to the proper thickness – The perfect thickness for a sugar cookie is 1/4″. This will allow the cookies to be sturdy enough for decorating but not too thick where they taste icky. To help roll out the dough to the proper thickness you can purchase rolling pin guide rings that slip right on to your existing rolling pin. You can find them here .
  4. Chill the cookies – After the cookies are cut out, place them back into the fridge to chill. This will help to prevent spreading during the baking process.
  5. Do not overbake  – Bake the cookies until they are a light sandy blonde color. Allowing the cookies to bake until “golden brown” will result in rock hard cookies that will continue to harden as they age.
  6. Use royal icing to decorate – Basic royal icing is simply a mixture of powdered sugar and egg whites with added flavorings. If the icing is too thin, add more powdered sugar. If the icing is too thick, add in more egg whites or water. To help the icing dry more quickly add in an acid such as lemon juice or cream of tartar. Here you will find a simple royal icing recipe to get your started.
  7. Ice the cookies properly – First, using a thicker batch of royal icing, outline the edge of the cookies and then allow them to dry. Then, using a thinner batch of royal icing, “flood” the cookies inside of the outline and use a small offset spatula to spread the icing around. Decorate and then allow the cookies to fully and completely dry before packaging them.

Sugar Cookie Tip – Do NOT use overly intricate cookie cutters when making sugar cookies. The cookies won’t bake evenly and the tiny pieces will burn before the rest of the cookie is fully baked. Instead, use simpler cookie cutters such as Christmas trees, snowmen, bells, etc. and then embellish and make them fancy during the decorating process. Try using sanding sugar, dragées, or even small candies to make them pretty. If you’re feeling ambitious, try some of these cool decorating techniques from the Food Network® kitchen: Sugar Cookie Decorating Techniques

Mom’s Sweet Potato Casserole

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Thanksgiving is only a week away so naturally I am beginning to daydream about all of the delicious food I’ll be gobbling up in just a few short days. One dish that is a staple at our Thanksgiving dinner is my Mom’s Sweet Potato Casserole. It’s hands down the BEST I’ve ever had! I don’t even like sweet potatoes but I could eat this yumminess all day long. The sweet pecan topping is really what makes this dish, it adds just the right amount of crunchy sweetness to the potatoes without being too overpowering. It’s perfect! Consider adding this side dish to your menu, I promise you’ll be the star of Thanksgiving if you serve this casserole at your next holiday feast!

Ingredients

For the sweet potatoes

  • 3 cups cooked mashed sweet potatoes (from 2 lbs raw OR two 16oz cans)
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup melted butter
  • 2 large eggs, well beaten
  • 1 tsp pure vanilla extract
  • 1/3 cup milk

For the pecan topping

  • 1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 1/2 tsp melted butter
  • 1/2 cup chopped pecans

Instructions

Preheat oven to 350ºF. Combine the mashed sweet potatoes, sugar, butter, eggs, vanilla and milk. Mix well. Spoon into a 2 qt. casserole dish.

Combine the brown sugar, flour, butter, and pecans until well mixed. Sprinkle over the top of the sweet potatoes.

Bake for 20 minutes or until heated through. Makes 8 servings.

**Tip – You can assemble the casserole in advance and bake later. The casserole can be refrigerated uncooked for up to 2 days. Increase the cooking time if baking the casserole directly from the refrigerator**

Handling the Holiday Stress Without Turning Into the Grinch

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Let’s be honest for a minute. Holiday stress can easily turn visions of sugar plums dancing in your head to nightmares over how it’s all going to get done. Between the shopping, the wrapping, the cooking, the baking, the family gatherings, and that damn Elf on a Shelf® it’s very easy to feel overwhelmed. Fear not because I have a very simple “recipe” to help you overcome the stress of the holidays and have a “very merry” instead of a “bah-humbug” holiday season!

PLANNING + ORGANIZING = STRESS FREE HOLIDAYS

I’m someone who doesn’t function in chaos and disorder. Because of that, I organize literally everything in my life. EVERYTHING. I have a slight obsession with storage totes and other organizational supplies and I most definitely have a very tight relationship with my label maker! I also keep binders, lists and notebooks for everything from coupons to recipes and I’m not ashamed to say that I even have a dedicated Christmas notebook. Yep. You read right, a Christmas notebook. I plan out my holiday meals, Christmas baking, gift giving, North Pole Breakfast, table setting ideas, and anything else that might get me through the holiday season. I love having everything I need at my fingertips and it’s so much easier to keep track of what needs to get done. I’m never scrambling around the house looking for a list, recipe, or idea because it’s all in one convenient place. Truly, you can never be too organized or plan too much. Words to live by………..at least in my book! When it comes to the holidays and getting it all done, the more organized you can get yourself the better!

Below, I’ve compiled some of my best tips to keep you organized and as stress free as possible this holiday season. I hope you find some of them helpful and please feel free to add your own holiday tips in the comments section!

  1. Keep a Holiday Notebook/Binder – Organize it by labeling each page with a specific heading such as: Christmas Day Dinner, Gift Giving List, To-Do, Elf on a Shelf® Ideas, Christmas Cookie Baking, Thanksgiving Dinner, Christmas Card List, Gift Ideas, etc. Use as many (or as few) headings as you need to get yourself organized. Use this notebook to write down all of your ideas, lists, and to-do’s and everything will always be in one handy, convenient place.
  2. Invest in a Label Maker – I have a Brother P-Touch®, they are fairly inexpensive but worth its weight in gold. I use it to label EVERYTHING in my house from snack bins in the pantry to my holiday boxes in the garage. It’s so much easier to read a label on the outside of a box then having to actually go through box after box looking for what you need, especially when it comes to holiday decorations that you only see once a year.
  3. Invest in Storage Bins – I use storage bins to organize everything. I have a bin for my Christmas linens, wrapping supplies, North Pole Breakfast/Elf on a Shelf® accessories, plastic serving platters and containers, etc. I like to buy a whole set of the same bin so that stacking and storing them is easier. I place a label on the outside of the box indicating its contents so that finding what I need is a cinch.
  4. Store Like Bins Together – Keep all of your holiday bins stacked together in one place according to holiday. (fall decorations, Halloween decorations, Christmas decorations, etc) It’s easy to forget what you have if you have bins scattered all throughout your house. Find an area where they can all be neatly stacked together so that you’ll be able to find and access everything more quickly and efficiently.
  5. Keep an Assortment of Food Storage Containers – Whether they are decorative and holiday themed or just basic plastic throwaways, keep an assortment of food storage containers handy. You will need them to neatly package all of your holiday baked goods AND they are great to have on hand for your guests to take home treats and leftovers. Grab a plastic storage bin, put them all inside, and label it “Holiday Food Storage” and everything will be in one convenient place when you need it.
  6. Set Up a “Wrapping Station” – Whether it’s a corner of your basement, a table in your den, or just a bin in the garage it’s so much easier to get all of the gifts wrapped if you have everything you need close at hand. I don’t have a place where I can keep everything out all of the time so instead I store everything in rolling drawer carts in the my garage. I also label each drawer so I can find everything more easily. When it’s time to wrap I just roll them into my den, sit in front of the tree, and get wrapping. To store my wrapping paper, I use tall plastic bins or long under-the-bed boxes. When I am done wrapping I just roll everything back into the garage.
  7. Keep All of the Gifts in One Place – You will surely forget to give that perfect gift that you spent months picking out if everything you purchased is scattered all around the house. Find a spot in your home such as a closet, garage, or attic and keep all of your purchased gifts in that one area so that nothing is forgotten.
  8. Print Out a Blank Calendar – Print out a blank calendar sheet and use it to plan out when you need to accomplish specific tasks for the holiday. For example, mark a day for baking holiday cookies, or cooking the side dishes for Thanksgiving, or for putting up the tree. Having a plan laid out alleviates the stress of wondering how you’ll get it all done and it makes things run much more smoothly. Tape it to the inside of a kitchen cabinet for easy access.
  9. Organize Your Favorite Holiday Recipes – We all have a set of family favorites at the holidays, recipes we make year after year. To make things easier, keep those treasured favorites together in one binder or recipe box labeled, “Holiday Favorites“. When it’s time to plan your menus and cook, you’ll appreciate having all of your holiday recipes in one spot.
  10. Plan Out Holiday Baking (and get your supplies early!!) – Look over your recipes, paying close attention to how long the baked goods will keep, and make a plan for when you should do your holiday baking. As you jot down ideas for what to bake, simultaneously write the ingredients you will need on a separate piece of paper. Doing these two things concurrently saves you the aggravation of having to go back into your cookbooks later to make a shopping list. Also, shop early. EVERYONE bakes at the holidays and you don’t want to be running around at the last minute from store to store trying to find almond paste or sugar when you’re ready to get busy in the kitchen. Having all of you ingredients ready to go will make your baking day run much more smoothly.
  11. Make a Holiday Baking Bin/Drawer – I like to keep all of my holiday baking goodies together in one spot. When it comes time to start my holiday baking I just have to pull out the drawer and all of my cupcake liners, cookie cutters, sprinkles, treat bags, doilies, etc. are there and ready to go!
  12. Host a Cookie Swap – For those that feel overwhelmed by all of the holiday baking host a cookie swap instead of trying to do it all yourself. You’ll only have to bake one or two favorites but you’ll end up with a full tray of varied holiday treats!
  13. Prepare Cookie Trays Ahead of Time – A day or two before the holiday assemble your cookie trays and platters and cover tightly with plastic wrap. When it’s time to serve dessert you won’t be scrambling around pulling out a million cookie tins trying to get everything together. Just remove the plastic wrap and serve.
  14. Label Your Serving Dishes – The last thing you want to do when you’re cooking is to have to hunt around looking for the perfect serving dish. Instead, plan your serving platters, bowls, dishes, etc. ahead of time and label each one with a sticky note indicating what food it will hold. As you’re getting ready to serve everything it’ll be as simple as “grab and go”, you won’t have to stress if you have enough serving pieces because everything will be planned ahead of time.
  15. Set Your Table Ahead of Time – If you have a separate dining area that you use for the holidays, set the table(s) a few days ahead of the holiday. It’ll be one less thing you’re rushing to do in the morning before your guests arrive.
  16. Make Dishes Ahead Of Time – If a dish can be made ahead of time, take advantage. You will feel much less harried on the actual holiday this way. To that end, also do as much food prep work as well. Dice up your onions, carrots, cheese, bread cubes, etc. a few days before the holiday and store them in either Ziploc® bags or airtight plastic containers. They’ll be all ready to go when you are!
  17. Make Ahead Holiday Breakfast – When you have young children Christmas morning is certainly filled with craziness and excitement. I would rather be in the middle of all that excitement then in the kitchen slaving away so I always like to prep our Christmas morning breakfast ahead of time. Some great options are quiche, frittatas, frozen homemade cinnamon rolls, or french toast casseroles. Breakfast will be as simple as warming something up in the oven.
  18. Plan Your Time – When hosting, it’s so important to plan your time on the big day as it ensures that everything runs smoothly. Jot down a “to-do” list and as you complete each task check it off so you don’t forget anything. Also be sure to calculate all of your cooking times beforehand so that the main dish and sides are finished at the same time.
  19. Holiday Menu Checklist – Make a checklist of all the dishes you’re serving and tape it to the inside of your cabinet door. As you put each dish out, cross it off the list. This ensures that you don’t accidentally forget to serve something. There is nothing worse than working hard to cook up delicious food and then forgetting it in the fridge on the big day!
  20. Streamline Your Holiday Cards – Enlist help from other family members to get your holiday cards stuffed, sealed, and stamped. Assign everyone a task and get busy. Also, prepare ahead of time by printing out address labels. It’s so much easier to slap a label on an envelope than it is to write everything out by hand.
  21. Clean and Purge – Prior to the holidays it’s a good idea to go through closets and toy chests and donate or trash toys that are no longer played with or that are old and broken. It can be overwhelming to try to a find a home for all of the new things when you’re dealing with so much old clutter.
  22. Don’t Leave Wrapping Until the Last Minute – It’s so much easier to tackle just a few gifts as opposed to an endless pile. As things get purchased or delivered, wrap them right away and then tuck them away. Also, save yourself time and take advantage of gift bags, they make “wrapping” gifts so much easier.
  23. Boxes, Bags, Bows, and Tags – Save as many of these things as you can as you open gifts throughout the season. Tuck them all away in your wrapping station so that the following year you’ll have plenty of extra wrapping materials on hand.
  24. Clean! Clean! Clean! – The last thing you want to do is add in a ton of holiday decorations to a home that is filled with dust and clutter. It will make everything feel messy and you’ll drive yourself crazy. Prior to bringing out the holiday decorations, clean your home top to bottom. Clean the floors, dust, and put away any clutter. It is far easier to decorate a clean and straightened up home then it is to work around a mess.
  25. Decorate in Stages – Pulling out a hundred bins full of decorations all at once can be overwhelming. So instead, decorate your home in stages. Start with your outside lights and decorations and pull out only those bins. Then pull out the bins for the inside decorations and get that all done before moving to the tree. It’s so much easier to break up the holiday decorating into manageable steps rather than face a towering pile of bins in the middle of your living room.
  26. Keep a Gift Stash – Buy a few, inexpensive gifts to have on hand in case you need a hostess gift or someone unexpected shows up on the holiday. Some great ideas are candles, ornaments, a bottle of wine, a pretty holiday dish, a box of candy, etc. You can even wrap them ahead of time and tag them with a sticky note so you know what is inside. When it’s time to gift something, just remove the sticky note, add a personalized tag and you’re all set!
  27. Keep Plenty of Trash Bags Handy – As my kids or guests open their gifts I always have a few garbage bags scattered around the room so that everyone can dispose of their wrapping paper as they open gifts. It prevents a huge pile of garbage from building up and more importantly, things don’t get lost. It’s easy to lose a small toy part, piece of jewelry, or gift card if everything is a mess.
  28. Elf on a Shelf® – Let’s face it, nothing stresses out a parent more than the fear of forgetting to move the elf! To avoid this catastrophe set a daily alarm reminder on your cell phone. You’ll never have to worry about forgetting to move your little friend again!
  29. Wish Lists – Some people scoff at them but I happen to LOVE them! I have a big family and with both sides of the family buying for my kids a Wish List is really a godsend. It gives everyone a few gift ideas, it prevents my kids from receiving age inappropriate toys, and we never get duplicates. I’ve been using the Amazon Wish List for my kids since they were born and it makes things so much easier for both me and my family. I highly recommend utilizing one, it’s so much easier than fielding a millions calls, emails, and texts from family asking what the kids want for Christmas.
  30. Just Breathe – Set aside some time every day to just breathe. Sit, relax, take in the merriment of the season and let yourself just “be”. It’s so easy to go a mile a minute at the holidays and it’s even easier to forget yourself this time of year. So make sure to take a few minutes every day to just refocus and relax. Make a mug of cocoa, put on some holiday tunes, and cozy up. You’ll be a lot more effective and get a lot more done if you take some time to recharge.

 

HAPPY HOLIDAYS TO ALL!!

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Bacon, Egg and Cheese Crescent Ring

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I’ve been making this breakfast crescent ring for a few years now, it’s a recipe that’s been floating around Pinterest and the internet for some time. I’m not sure which recipe I actually followed the first time but below is my interpretation of this delicious meal. Not only does it make great breakfast but it’s also a perfect quick dinner too! On days when I am feeling lazy or just need something in a pinch I will make this and serve it alongside a nice fruit salad.

I like to use bacon and cheddar however, you can use whatever breakfast meat and cheese that you prefer. It would be equally delicious with crumbled breakfast sausage or even diced ham! When I make this dish I find it quicker and easier to dice up the bacon BEFORE cooking. Using kitchen shears I cut the bacon into large pieces and then I fry it in my cast iron skillet. Once the bacon is cooked but still slightly chewy, I remove it with a slotted spoon and set it aside on a paper towel lined dish. Then I drain all but 2-3 tbs of the bacon fat and scramble my eggs in the same pan. Cooking the eggs in the bacon fat makes it so much yummier however, if you’d like to keep it a little healthier just wipe out the skillet before adding the eggs to cook.

Just note, this will usually take a little more time to bake than if you were just baking the crescent rolls by themselves. On average, I bake mine around 18-20 minute in a cast iron skillet at 350ºF. Just keep an eye on it after around 12 minutes, it’s ready once the crescent ring looks nice and golden brown. Enjoy!

Ingredients

  • 1 can of Pillsbury® Crescent Rolls (regular or reduced fat)
  • 8 large eggs
  • 8 tsp half and half OR milk
  • 1 cup grated cheese (set aside 1/4 cup for the top)
  • 8-10 slices of bacon
  • Kosher salt and pepper, to taste
  • Poppy seeds, for garnish

Instructions

Preheat oven to 350ºF if using a dark colored pan. If using a lighter colored pan, preheat to 375ºF.

Using kitchen shears, cut up the raw bacon into big pieces. Fry over medium heat until cooked through but still slightly chewy. Remove with a slotted spoon to a paper towel lined dish. Set aside.

Drain all but 2-3 tbs of the bacon fat and reduce the heat to medium low. In a bowl, scramble the eggs with the half-and-half, salt and pepper. Add the eggs to the warm skillet and cook until fluffy. Remove from pan and set aside on a dish.

On a baking sheet or in a large skillet, assemble the crescent dough in a circular “star” pattern. The wider base of the crescent rolls should all touch at the center and the narrow points should be at the top. Spread the eggs in the center and halfway up each of the crescent rolls. Sprinkle the diced bacon all over followed by the cheese. Fold over the point of each crescent roll towards the center. Sprinkle the top with the 1/4 cup of reserved cheese and poppy seeds.

Bake 18-20 minutes or until the crescent rolls look golden brown. Let the crescent ring rest for 5 minutes then slice and serve.

Baked Macaroni and Cheese

Baked Mac and Cheese

My husband is a macaroni and cheese fanatic, even more than our kids, so I am always on the hunt for great mac n’ cheese recipes for him. Honestly, if left to his own devices, he’d eat it every day, all day. When I came across this recipe for baked mac n’ cheese I knew I had to give it a whirl. I do have a tried and true recipe for both baked and stovetop macaroni and cheese but this one looked too good to pass up. Plus, it was SO quick and easy to pull together. This recipe absolutely did NOT disappoint. It was very rich and flavorful and the pasta was cooked to perfection in the sauce.

The original recipe is from The New York Times and it can be found right here . The only changes that I made to the original recipe was to use ricotta in place of cottage cheese and I substituted mini penne regate pasta for elbows. The great thing about this recipe is that you do NOT need to precook the pasta. You simply toss the dry, uncooked pasta with the milk sauce and cheese then bake. It doesn’t get much easier than that! During baking, I recommend placing a piece of aluminum foil underneath your pan, the macaroni and cheese bubbles up a lot during baking and it did drip a little in the oven. The aluminum foil will help to catch the mess and avoid any cheese from burning to the inside of your oven.

Because this is a baked macaroni and cheese it will not be as creamy or “soupy” as a stovetop version. If you prefer it a little more on the “wet” side, cut down on the cooking time by a few minutes so that the pasta doesn’t have time to absorb all of the cheese sauce. Also, feel free to play around with what cheese you use in this recipe. Cheddar cheese is a classic choice but other cheeses such as Asiago or American will also work nicely in most macaroni and cheese recipes. Be creative and enjoy!

Ingredients

  • 2 tbs unsalted butter
  • 1 cup full fat ricotta cheese
  • 2 cups milk (not skim)
  • 1 tsp dry mustard
  •  Pinch cayenne
  •  Pinch grated nutmeg
  • ½ tsp Kosher salt
  • ¼ tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 lb sharp or extra-sharp cheddar cheese, grated
  • ½ pound elbow pasta, uncooked

Instructions

Heat oven to 375ºF and position an oven rack in upper third of oven. Use 1 tbs butter to butter a 9-inch round or square baking pan.

In a blender, purée ricotta cheese, milk, mustard, cayenne, nutmeg and salt and pepper together. Reserve ¼ cup grated cheese for topping. In a large bowl, combine remaining grated cheese, milk mixture and uncooked pasta. Pour into prepared pan, cover tightly with foil and bake 30 minutes.

Uncover pan, stir gently, sprinkle with reserved cheese and dot with remaining tablespoon butter. Bake, uncovered, 30 minutes more, until browned. Let cool at least 15 minutes before serving.

Italian Tomato Sauce

Sauce

I am often asked for my recipe for tomato sauce which I always struggle with because when it comes to sauce, I don’t follow a recipe. When I first started making sauce over 20 years ago I asked my mom for her “recipe” and she gave me a bunch of vague measurements and ingredients to throw together and then…..”VOILA!!”………sauce! So I’ll now pass along my list of vague measurements and ingredients to throw together and hopefully you’ll end up with a delicious pot of sauce as well.

Really good, flavorful sauce develops in time so if you can, let it cook for hours on the stovetop. The longer, the better! If you can’t be home all day to babysit it, use your Crock-Pot! I’ll usually brown the sauce and onions first and then add everything to the Crock-Pot to cook. You can put the meat and onions in raw however, I don’t think you get the same depth of flavor as when you brown them first so I recommend not skipping this step. Taste your sauce periodically and adjust your seasonings as it cooks because there is nothing worse than bland tomato sauce. My favorite way to taste the sauce, and I’ve been doing it since I was a kid, is to have a piece of “gravy bread“. Dip a slice of folded white bread in the sauce and enjoy! So yummy!!!…………….and very hard to eat just one slice!!

Try adding some red wine, make it with meat or without, let your meatballs cook in the sauce or don’t. There really is no one way to make sauce and depending on my mood and what’s in the house, my sauce will turn out a little different each time. My favorite way to make it though is with sausage meat and red wine. Cooking the onions and garlic in the sausage fat really adds so much flavor to the finished product as does a good, rich red wine. It’s also a great way to deglaze your pan! Fresh basil is the perfect finishing touch!

Use this “recipe” as a guide and don’t be afraid to substitute ingredients or adjust the amounts to suit your own tastes. Part of being a good cook is learning to become intuitive in the kitchen, following a recipe is great (and I do it often) but learning to cook using what you know about flavors and ingredients is a skill worth developing. Sauce is the perfect thing to practice on because most sins are easily correctable. So tap into your inner Italian and get cooking!!

Ingredients

  • 1 – 1.5 lbs sweet or hot Italian sausage with fennel, casings removed OR 1 – 1.5 lbs ground beef
  • 1 large yellow onion, finely diced
  • 4-6 garlic gloves, smashed then minced
  • Red wine, about 1/4 – 1/3 of the bottle
  • 2 (28 oz) cans of crushed tomatoes
  • Kosher salt and black pepper, to taste
  • Pinch of red pepper flakes
  • 1-2 tbs dried parsley
  • drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil
  • handful of fresh basil, cut into thin ribbons

Instructions

In a large pot set over medium heat cook the sausage/ground beef until nicely browned. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside.

Add the onions to the fat and cook until slightly softened and translucent, about 5-7 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about a minute. Pour in the wine and scrape up any browned meat bits and onion stuck to the bottom of the pan.

Add the meat back into the pot along with the crushed tomatoes, salt, black pepper, red pepper flakes and parsley. Drizzle a little extra-virgin olive oil over the top. Cover and allow the sauce to simmer for at least 2 hours, longer if possible.

In the last few minutes before serving, toss in a nice handful of fresh basil and stir.

**Tip – I like to freeze cleaned fresh basil leaves in a Ziploc bag so that I always have fresh basil on hand. When you need some for a recipe just grab a frozen handful and crumble it right into your dish**