magic bars

Call them what you will: magic bars, layer bars, 5-layer bars, 7-layer bars (if you can’t count), magic cookies, layer squares, or 7-layer cookie bars (if you can’t count or identify a cookie when you see one). I am always tempted by these messy-looking squares when I see them at parties and in bakeries. And I am always pleasantly surprised by their texture, crunch, and layers of sweetness that are revealed by each bite. So when I randomly craved one of these crumbly numbers the other day, it was time to find out what was actually in them and go about making them myself.

Seeing as how I didn’t know what traditionally composed a magic bar, I went in search of recipes. Each seemed to have it’s own take on the use of butterscotch chips vs. peanut butter chips. Some used pecans, some salted peanuts, some walnuts. Even chocolate (chocolate!) was absent in some versions. After much research and countless google searches, I settled on one from Paula Deen: Five Layer Bars. Paula’s take seemed the most classic to me, so I set forth to gather my ingredients.

These bars take all of five minutes to prepare, so be sure to preheat your oven while you’re assembling the layers. First, melt the butter and pour it over the graham cracker crumbs.

Mix together with a fork until the crumbs are thoroughly moistened.

Press the mixture into the bottom of a greased or sprayed 9″x13″ pan.

Next, sprinkle on your butterscotch chips…

…chocolate chips*…

*I’ve beaten this horse to death, but I swear by Ghiradelli 60% Cacao chips. And no, they don’t pay me to say that. But if they want to throw me some free chips, I wouldn’t object!

…chopped nuts (I used walnuts)…

…and flaked coconut.

Now here comes the tricky part. First, get in a fight with your can opener over a can of sweetened condensed milk. Eventually let the can opener win. Go down to your tool bench and grab a hammer and a chisel. Tell that can who its daddy is. Go to store. Buy a new can opener.

Pour the sweetened condensed milk over the bars. I found a small pitcher made this easier, probably because the can was hacked to death.

Try to distribute the milk as evenly as possible.

Bake for about 30 minutes. Let cool completely before cutting (I sped this process up by letting them cool slightly and then placing in the fridge. I’m antsy like that).

Marvel at the sweet, crunchy textures.

I love how the graham cracker base seems to meld with all of the other ingredients—the chocolate, butterscotch, nuts and coconut seem to sink in to form one unique flavor. Perhaps this is where the “magic” moniker stems from?

If you need a fast, easy dessert for a party or a bake sale, there is nothing faster or easier than these. And with their addictive sweet layers, they’ll fly off the plate like…dare I say it? Magic.

-RDG

Paula Deen’s Five Layer Bars, from Food Network

  • 1 1/2 cups graham cracker crumbs (about 14 graham crackers whirred in a food processor, if you don’t have the boxed crumbs)
  • 1 stick salted butter, melted
  • 1/2 cup chopped pecans
  • 1 cup butterscotch chips
  • 1 cup chocolate chips
  • 1 cup sweetened flaked coconut
  • 1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk

Preheat the oven to 350. Combine the graham cracker crumbs and melted butter in a bowl. Press into the bottom of a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Sprinkle pecans, chips and coconut on top. Pour the sweetened condensed milk over the mixture and bake for 30 minutes. Cool completely and cut into bars.

an announcement…and a list

I’ve given hints aroused suspicions here and there, but here it is quite officially: this family is expanding. And so is my waistline. But not from eating this or this.

I’ve gone and gotten myself knocked up again. We wanted our kids to be close together in age, and that they will be: Lucy will have just turned 2 when new baby arrives. I would be terribly excited and jumping up and down if I were able to muster more than a smile. This pregnancy has been wicked from the get-go and I’m just hoping to survive the next several months and make it to the good part. All those women who say that they love pregnancy, that they feel beautiful for the miracle that is growing inside of them, that their hair is shinier and their teeth are whiter, well….those women can kiss my expanding booty. I’m the type that prefers babies on the outside.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m incredibly grateful to be pregnant at all—so many women never have the opportunity. I have excellent prenatal care. I’m healthy. The baby is healthy. We are so very blessed.

But for a quick moment I’m allowing myself a pity party and complaining about my cankles and never-ending sleepiness. So I’ve come up with a list to share with you all about my condition and how it has hindered this little blog o’ mine.

10 reasons why it sucks to be pregnant as a food blogger:

1. I don’t feel like eating. Which, when you write a food blog, is sort of an essential part of the blogging experience. Take away cocaine, hallucinogenics and the Hell’s Angels, and you’ve left Hunter S. Thompson with very little to write about.

2. When I do feel like eating, I crave something weird and complex that I don’t have the ingredients for.

3. By the time I gather the ingredients, prep them, make the dish, photograph it, and sit down to eat it, the thought of eating it makes me want to hurl.

4. Then I hurl.

5. You can’t blog about hurling.

6. Going through the photos of what I cooked, and trying to blog about it, makes me want to hurl.

7. See #4.

8. The time I would usually spend blogging I now need to spend napping, trying to nap, hurling, or trying to nap while hurling (which is never very successful).

9. I miss spending quiet time inventing recipes and chatting with you all on this lovely blog of mine. You’re one of the best parts of my day. I’m serious.

10. My jeans don’t fit. This is unrelated to blogging. Just saying.

I have to keep reminding myself of the light at the end of the tunnel.

First snuggles.

First personality.

First gap teeth and first peanut butter smiles.

Lots more snuggles.

And first “how the hell did you get so dirty?”s.

Thanks for listening to my down-in-the-dumps rant. I promise I’ll get better. And once the morning sickness subsides I’ll be back to a few recipes a week. In the meantime, I’ll be elegantly dining on Saltines and Gatorade. And that, my friends, is not worth blogging about.

-RDG

buffalo chicken mac and cheese

In the famous words of Jessica Simpson, “I’m sorry. I don’t eat buffalo.” Well Jess, I don’t either. It’s a tad gamey for my taste. But buffalo chicken? Wings drenched in a spicy, smoky, unnaturally orange sauce? Bring ‘em on by the plateful. Give me a cold beer, some celery and a side of blue cheese dressing and you’ll see one happy (and very messy) gal.

Trouble is, buffalo wings alone do not a meal make, no matter how much I wish they would. They’re especially not a meal for the family, and completely wrong for a toddler who thinks bones are for chewing and sticking up one’s nose. Luckily, word on the street is that folk are combining this spicy treat with another comfort food of fattening proportions: mac n cheese. Now that is a meal I can get behind. Buffalo chicken + mac n cheese = dinner.

Honestly, when I first spied this recipe from Food Network, I thought it might be a tad overkill. Homemade mac n cheese all on its own can sometimes be too rich for my blood*. So when attempting my own version, I decided to lighten it up a tad by using whole milk instead of half-and-half, reduced fat cheddar, and light sour cream.

*Raise your hand if you laughed and called me a hypocrite right there. After all, I am the one who makes bacon cinnamon rolls. My blood is probably half butter by now.

The result was still incredibly rich, but I didn’t feel so bad about its creamy noodles passing my lips, or the lips of my family. I also tweaked a few other small details: I omitted the panko (because I don’t believe in crunchy mac toppings), decreased the butter, and left out the parsley and garlic (because, quite honestly, I was being lazy).

Creamy cheese sauce, shredded chicken spiked with buffalo sauce, crunchy bits of celery, and a layer of blue cheese. Serve with some celery sticks or a salad topped with blue cheese dressing and your family will be doing an interpretive dance in your honor.

I’ll stop talking now. You’ve got to go. You must get to the grocery to snatch up the ingredients for this (slightly) sinful dish.

And Jessica Simp, I think you’d make an exception for this buffalo. But a quick FYI: it’s buffalo chicken mac n cheese. Not buffalo chicken of the sea. But I’m sure you already knew that.

-RDG

Buffalo Chicken Mac and Cheese, Slightly Lightened adapted from the Food Network

printable recipe

If you love the spice of buffalo sauce, feel free to add a bit more! If you can’t multitask (I can’t), and your macaroni gets stuck together while waiting in the colander, run warm water over it to un-stick before using.

  • 1 lb elbow macaroni
  • 4 tbsp butter
  • 1 small onion, diced
  • 2-3 stalks celery, diced
  • 3 cups shredded cooked chicken (I bought a grocery store rotisserie bird to use)
  • 3/4 cup buffalo sauce (Frank’s is a widely available and tasty brand—look for it on the condiment aisle)
  • 2 tbsp flour
  • 2 tsp dry mustard
  • 2 1/2 cups milk (whole or 2%—nonfat might make the sauce too runny)
  • 1 lb reduced-fat sharp cheddar cheese, cut into 1/2? cubes
  • 8 oz pepper jack cheese (reduced fat if you can find it), shredded
  • 2/3 cup light sour cream
  • 1/2 cup crumbled blue cheese

1. Preheat your oven to 350F. Grease or spray a 9×13? baking dish. Boil the macaroni in a large pot of salted water just until al dente, about 6-7 minutes or according to package directions. Drain and set aside.

2. Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in a large skillet or pot over medium heat. Add the onion and celery and cook until tender, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes. Stir in the chicken and add 1/2 cup of the buffalo sauce. Cook 1 minute more then remove from heat.

3. In another pan, melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter over medium heat. Stir in the flour and mustard until smooth. Whisk in the milk and remaining 1/4 cup buffalo sauce and stir until thickened, about 3 minutes. Whisk in the cheddar and pepper jack cheeses until melted, then stir in the sour cream until smooth.

4. Spread half of the pasta into the bottom of the baking dish, top with the chicken mixture, then top with the remaining pasta. Pour the cheese sauce over as evenly as possible (a large ladle works nicely). Sprinkle with the blue cheese and set the entire baking dish on top of a cookie sheet before placing in the oven (the sauce may bubble and dribble out the sides of the pan). Bake until bubbly and slightly browned on top, about 30-35 minutes. Let rest 10 minutes before inhaling.


project empowering motherhood

Meet Stephanie. No, not above. That’s my Lucy. Scroll down.

Stephanie is a fellow mom, blogger, foodie, and creator of the cute-as-all-get-out site Confessions of a City Eater.

She recently began a project called “Empowering Motherhood” in which she interviews moms about, well…motherhood. Some of the answers are heartbreaking. True. Gross. Laugh-out-loud funny. And, above all, universal.

Check out Stephanie’s site to read my interview, read others’ responses, and dig into some of her delish recipes like homemade hot chocolate and loaded baked potato soup.

Mad props, Ms. Diaz. You’re one amazing gal. And if you give me your secret as to how you blog so much, I’ll bake you a cake. I can’t seem to manage 3 posts a week anymore.

-RDG

p.s. The pic of Lucy above may be the saddest shot ever. Doesn’t she look like a begging basset hound? I couldn’t resist sharing.

new york cheesecake with sour cherries

This weekend, I needed New York cheesecake. I craved it’s tall, creamy filling and crisp graham-crackery crust. I wanted it chilled and topped with tart fruit. I wanted to eat it with my feet soaking in Lucy’s kiddie pool, my sunglasses on and a glass of iced tea by my side. Trouble is, I don’t live in New York. And the most tolerable version I’ve found comes from a grocer who was out of stock. So I braved my 80° kitchen and set out to make my own version.

I’m terribly picky when it comes to cheesecake. For starters, it can’t contain any nuts in the crust—I don’t want a toothy crunch, although I’m okay with a small amount of hazelnuts crushed on top. It can’t use marscapone or ricotta or any other cheese other than cream cheese (marscapone seems to make it saggy, ricotta creates a grainy filling). It can’t be flavored, except for optional toppings. If it contains any amount of almond extract I will throw it out the window of a moving vehicle. But I suppose that goes for any baked good in my life—almond extract is my kryptonite.

So after much research and many recipes read, I was prepped and ready to make this version from Smitten Kitchen. It looked perfect: cream cheese only, a straight-up graham cracker crust, and a no-nonsense baking method that didn’t require a water bath. The only thing that could mess it up was me. And I did a superior job of fouling up this cheesecake.

I preface my follies by saying that the filling was simply perfect. Creamy and not at all fluffy. Dense but smooth. Cold, rich, and lightly (lightly) enhanced with the scent of lemon. For the topping, I used some sour cherries that I had left over in the freezer from this incredible pie and simply upped the sugar by 1/4 cup.

My troubles came with the crust. Deb’s recipe calls for 8 ounces of graham crumbs, and I had a fresh, unopened bag of 14.5 ounces. I thought I could estimate by simply pouring in a little over half of the bag. I overdid it and ended up with a bad graham crumb to butter ratio. It made the crust a bit too dry, harder to pry from the sides of the pan, and more prone to overcooking.

My other trouble was the spring-form pan I was using. For the most part, I adore my dark, nonstick bakeware. It generally allows you to shorten the baking time on most recipes. But on a few rare occasions I have cursed it and attempted to run it over with my Toyota. This was one of those occasions. The crust cooked more quickly than the filling, so I ended up with a perfectly baked filling and a burned crust. I could also blame my wonky electric oven, but a cheesecake pan is simply much easier to crush under the wheels of your car.

Crust issues aside, this cheesecake was unimaginably good. I will be making it again, over and over, to get it right. I hesitantly served it at our outdoor movie night to our best pals, where it was well received (after I warned folk to avoid the burned bits of crust). Deb, thank you for your perfect recipe. Self, try not to eff it up next time.

-RDG

You can find the recipe for Smitten Kitchen’s New York Cheesecake right here.

A few notes:

  • Use real graham crackers and a food processor. Don’t try to estimate ounces from a store-bought bag of graham crumbs (*kicks self in shin*).
  • If you use sour cherries for the topping, add an additional 1/4 cup sugar to the recipe. I cooked mine from frozen and they turned out just fine.
  • I omitted the orange zest and used slightly less lemon zest than called for, and I could still definitely taste the lemon. If you don’t like the hint of citrus, omit the zest(s).

rain, and the facebook of it all

Since we’re heading into the 90′s this weekend, and because the heat is starting to make me crabby, and because I live in Seattle for the rain and not in spite of it, I needed to look at some photos of my wet, happy garden from just a few days ago. I also wanted to tell you all a story about a funny little gathering that I attended last Saturday—a.k.a. my high school reunion.

Let me preface this by saying that I helped organize the event because I, being the goody-two-shoes that I was in high school (I say that with a devilish smirk), was senior class vice president. This is nothing to brag about, or at least it isn’t today. It brought me loads of perks when I was eighteen, but apparently I didn’t read the bylaws that the class officers have to get together ten years later and organize the reunion. If it hadn’t have been for the party planning, I probably wouldn’t have gone.

But I went. I showed up early, balloons in hand, and forced awkward conversations with folks I knew and folks I didn’t. It wasn’t horrible. It wasn’t my ideal saturday night either, but I had a decent time, and I’m sure that others would say the same. I’m constantly amazed at how people get better as they get older. More attractive, nicer, more cordial. And some people never change, for better or for worse. I hope that I have changed for the better.

We (and by we, I mean Kristi, the former senior class president and organizer extraordinaire—I am a slacker and she is amazing, staying true to our high school dynamic) promoted the event via Facebook. Many of my friends and acquaintances from high school are my friends on Facebook, so I’ve been able to catch up with them and they with me before this little shindig even came about. I know that their cat recently went to the vet for surgery and that they got divorced last year. I’ve seen pictures of them at Mariner’s games and fishing for trout with their kids. I know who their “friends” are, what music they like, what restaurants they go to. But do I know them in any real way?

The answer, unfortunately, is no. So when I’m with them face to face in a real setting where the ice from my drink is making my hands shake and you can tell that they are just as nervous, what do you talk about?

“I see pictures of your labradoodle on Facebook all the time—she is so cute!”

“Do you enjoy being a mime?”

“I didn’t realize that mall cops needed Segways.”

“Do you like olives?”

Not that I was expecting deep conversations about aging or poverty, but I didn’t know that conversations with people I supposedly “know” could be this dry. Then it went off light a lightbulb in my over-socialized brain: they’re not my friends. They’re my Facebook friends. I’m also friends with my butcher on Facebook, but stick me in a room with him and I’m sure all we’d talk about is lamb shank.

I’m not complaining about Facebook in any way, shape or form. I adore it. It’s the funnest waste of time on the internet. But what constantly surprises me about this little website is how it brings about feelings of false intimacy. If I have nothing to talk to these people with in real life, why do I feel the need to know when they’re going to the dentist and washing their car? And with people that I know very, very well—my best friends—does a Facebook update replace a phone call or a cup of coffee with them when I already know how their day is going? Has Facebook become a substitute for real life, face-to-face interaction?

Walking into my reunion, I craved something like a cross between Romy and Michelle and Grosse Point Blank. I would make up a fake profession (inventor of the Snuggie), see that all the jocks were washed up losers with beer guts, chat with the nerds who are now millionaires, and go out in a hail of gunfire from the hit man who was trying to kill me because I was secretly a hit man trying to kill him. Alas, Facebook has taken the surprise out of reunions. I didn’t get to fake a career. I already knew what all the jocks were up to (sadly, none playing professional sports as promised). I knew that the nerds were as nice and sweet and successful as ever. The hit man never found me, probably because he found out on Facebook where I was and didn’t want to subject himself to a high school reunion.

I decided to leave the bar at the late, late hour of 11:00 and meander back home, tail between my legs and a thousand awkward conversations still buzzing in my brain. As I was walking out of the bar a familiar voice called my name, and I turned to see none other than an ex-boyfriend. We hugged and exchanged polite hellos. I apologized for not having time to catch up at the moment—that I was pooped and headed home. “That’s okay,” he explained. “I’ll just Facebook you.”

-RDG

spaghetti with cheese, black pepper and tomatoes

Sometimes the most delicious meals come together when you don’t really mean them to. For months I had been coveting this spaghetti from Smitten Kitchen. It looked easy, delicious, and perfect for a last-minute supper since I usually keep all of the ingredients on hand. But while visiting the local farmer’s market one afternoon, I also began coveting these heirloom tomatoes.

Juicy, ripe, and half off (half off!) because of some minor imperfections. Being once bitten, twice shy about some $12 heirlooms last summer that were mushy as applesauce, I was pleased as pie when I took this whole bag home for $2. I thought that the cool juiciness of the tomatoes would be perfect atop the warm, peppery spaghetti.

It’s a simple dish to prepare: boil spaghetti then toss with olive oil, butter, pasta water, cheese and lots of freshly ground black pepper. I’d recommend starting with high quality ingredients since each flavor stands out—nothing is masked in a heavy sauce and a crappy batch of pasta would ruin the whole dish. So use good spaghetti, a hunk of parmigiano reggiano, pepper that has just been ground, and ripe summer tomatoes.

I adored the peppery richness of the noodles spiked with the sweet ripeness of the tomatoes. It transported this dish from comfort food to summer in a bowl. I’m already plotting what I’ll top it with for the rest of the seasons: wild mushrooms in the fall, squash in the winter, and asparagus in the spring.

I’ve reached seasonal pasta nirvana. Come join me.

-RDG

Spaghetti with Cheese, Black Pepper and Tomatoes, adapted from Smitten Kitchen

This pasta is completely Deb’s recipe—all I did was add the tomatoes. She is a culinary genius and I am a lowly weirdo who adds cold tomatoes to hot dishes. Serves 4.

  • 1 pound dry spaghetti
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 teaspoons coarsely grated black pepper
  • 3/4 cup finely grated parmigiano reggiano cheese, plus more for topping
  • Kosher salt, to taste
  • 3-4 small heirloom tomatoes, cut into 1″ chunks

Boil the spaghetti until al dente. Drain in a colander, reserving 1 1/2 cups of the pasta water.

In a large pot, heat the olive oil on high until almost smoking. Toss in the drained spaghetti and 1 1/4 of the pasta water and stir (Deb recommends to stand back during this step and I fully agree. My pot was snapping, crackling and popping! An apron, if you don’t normally cook with one, is also a good idea since some of the olive oil may spatter). Stir in the butter, pepper, cheese and salt to taste. If it looks a bit dry to you, add a bit more of the pasta water. Top with the tomatoes and a sprinkle of cheese. Serve immediately to hungry people who like pasta.