I've been wanting to attempt pretzels for a while now.  What has kept me from it mostly is the lye.  I don't really want to use it.  I know how dangerous it can be (I have that master's degree in chemistry you know) but also know how to work with dangerous things.  Just chicken I guess!

Then an email from Tasting Table arrived with this recipe for Traditional Soft Pretzels.  Instead of lye, baking soda is used.  I can do that, right?  Today was the day.

I went out to the recipe to print it (no tablet in my kitchen) and noticed there were a couple of comments about the recipe, neither very flattering.  Yikes!  I was all set to make these and now there was a comment that they were so bad even the person's dog wouldn't eat them!  But I wanted to make pretzels!

I went out to my "Breads" board on Pinterest and looked up another recipe.  Maybe I could still make pretzels just with another recipe.  I had pinned a Michael Ruhlman recipe for pretzels.  I've never had a Ruhlman recipe fail, maybe I'd make those.  Well, they called for lye!  He did mention that baking soda could be used but he wasn't sure of the amount.  So, gosh darn it, I was making the original recipe.

To start, the baking soda is placed in a 250 degree F oven for an hour.  The recipe doesn't say specifically but I'm guessing this is to remove more moisture and make the soda more basic.  For you chemistry geeks out there, baking soda is a base.  It has a pH of about 8 while lye is more like a 13 or 14 on the pH scale.  I had no way of testing if the hour in the oven made the soda more basic, I'm just guessing!

The dough is simple to put together, bloom some yeast in warm water with some brown sugar.  To this flour, pilsner style beer, butter and salt are added.  I don't know beers.  I don't like beer.  I'm allergic to barley so most of them just congest me.  I like wine.  I'm lucky to have a husband who is a beer connoisseur.  I grabbed a beer from his beer frig behind the bar and walked it outside where he was shoveling the driveway.  "Is this a pilsner beer?"  His response (read this with a chuckle in his voice) "Um, no."  He then came in and found me a suitable beer.  He said a pilsner is a lighter beer and he doesn't usually drink lighter beers.  This is what he picked.

You are supposed to mix this until it makes a "shaggy mass."  I don't really know what a shaggy mass is but I'm guessing it looks like this, because this is what my mixture looked like!

Once you have the shaggy mass it's time to knead until you have an elastic dough.  I do know what an elastic dough is!  I did have to add 3 teaspoons of water to get my dough just right.

I have to say the dough smelled really good.  I found myself wondering how a dough that smells so good could create tasteless pretzels that a dog wouldn't eat.

According to the recipe, for best flavor the dough should be refrigerated for 8 hours or up to 24 hours but for "quick" pretzels you could just let it rise for three and a half hours.  That's what I did!

After the rise, the dough is punched down and separated into 8 pieces.

Each piece is rolled into about a 12 or 16 inch log.  Once they've all been rolled you can go back to the first one that has been resting and roll it into a 24 to 28 inch log.  These are then shaped into pretzel shapes.  Mine didn't look exactly like the once in the picture on the recipe but I wasn't worried!

The eight pretzels then get a little rest for a half hour or so before being soaked in a warm solution of water and the baking soda prepared earlier.  If I'd been thinking, I would have left one out of the bath just to see how different it was.  Next time!

Each pretzel is soaked for only about 20 seconds then put back on the baking sheet.  The directions say to cut a slit in the thickest part of the pretzel so I did.  Not sure what that got me.  They then get a little egg wash and some salt (or whatever topping you want) and into the oven they go.

They came out beautiful!  The smelled good!  But, according to that one reviewer, hers did too.  

So how did they taste?  Mine weren't terrible and I'm sure the dogs would have eaten them!  I might have had to put butter on Cider's but he would have eaten it!  

Flavor-wise I thought they were good.  I could taste the beer.  They weren't tasteless as reported.  They were soft and slightly chewy.  They didn't have that tough, really chewy crust of a good Bavarian pretzel.  My guess is had I used lye I would have gotten that crust.  Bottom line, they were good, they were fun and I will make pretzels again.  Maybe I'll try Mr. Ruhlman's recipe next time and maybe I'll see if I can find some lye.  Maybe I'll do a couple with no bath, a couple in lye and a couple with the baking soda and see what the differences really are.  Or maybe I'll just make them all the same way and eat them!

Not quite epic fail but definitely a flop!

My friends at work stopped by my desk with a couple of pages they had ripped out of a magazine.  They know I like to bake and have been known to bake fun things like cakes that look like spaghetti and meatballs or cakes with hidden flags in them.  They thought this cake from Better Homes and Gardens was right up my ally.  I didn't disagree!

Here is a link to the recipe.  I will admit to a bit of frustration that you have to register for the site with not only an email address (no, I didn't use my real one, I get enough junk email) but also your mailing address!  And again, they didn't get my real one there either.  

Better Homes and Gardens Hidden Snowman Cake

I read the article, looked at the pictures and thought, I can do that!  I've done more complicated cakes before.  So I made sure I had all the ingredients and got started.

First you make the snowmen.  A dense "vanilla" cake is used for the snowmen.  I put vanilla in quotes because even though they call it a vanilla cake, vanilla is not listed as an ingredient in the cake!  I added some.

The cake is baked in a 13x9 pan and you are supposed to get 12 to 15 three-inch snowmen out of this cake.  In what universe?  I didn't use a snowman cutter, I used gingerbread men cutters but they were 3 inch cutters.  Even in the picture in the article there is now way they are getting that many snowmen out of the pan.  I was able to cut 9 gingerbread men out of mine and as you'll see from the pictures, I'm not sure many more than that would even fit in the pan.  I tasted some of the waste and the cake tasted OK, not fabulous by any means but OK.

Next you put together the batter for the chocolate cake that will hide the vanilla snowmen (or gingerbread men in my case).  This is  A LOT of batter.  I started getting nervous when my Kitchenaid was nearly over-flowing with batter.  Really, all of this will fit in the pan WITH the gingerbread men?  It was Better Homes and Gardens, they must know better, right?

I put half of the batter in the pan and then put my gingerbread men in, upside down as instructed.  I then put the rest of the batter in the pan.  Anyone else nervous at the amount of batter in this tube pan?

The recipe said to loosely cover the cake with foil for the last 15 minutes of the hour and twenty minutes of baking.  Well, that was waiting too long!  Yes the batter over-filled the pan, yes it dribbled all over the bottom of my oven, and yes the top was a bit scorched.  I still wasn't too worried, I could just cut that off and no one would know about it!

It took much longer than an hour and 20 minutes for my cake to bake.  Closer to an hour and 40 minutes.  I made this after work one evening so I had started it later in the day.  It was now almost 9pm and the cake was just coming out of the oven!  The things I do for my coworkers!

After 15 minutes I cut the burned part off the top and tasted it.  It was OK.  Not great, just OK, then again, it was burned.  I removed the cake from the pan and the sides looked burnt too.  I made the decision at this point to throw in the towel on this cake.  This is not a cheap cake to make.  The two cakes used 8 eggs, 8 ounces of bittersweet chocolate, a cup and a half of butter and a cup of buttermilk in addition to the normal flour, sugar, etc. ingredients in cake.  The frosting called for another 6 egg whites I wasn't willing to throw away on a cake I knew wasn't going to be good.

So I looked for my hidden gingerbread men.  I'm not sure how they got the picture in the magazine but mine didn't work very well.  I did get one slice where you can sort of tell the thing in the middle of the cake is a gingerbread man. Maybe my choice of cookie cutter wasn't a good one?

So I won't call it an epic fail. The cake did eventually bake and I could have frosted it and it would have tasted OK, but it didn't nearly come close to some of the other fun cakes I've made in presentation or flavor.  

Turkey Cake
Santa Cake

Spaghetti and Meatballs Cake

Hidden Flag Cake

Cheeseburger Cake

Candy Bar Cake
Next?  The baked potato cake out of this month's FoodNetwork magazine!

Chickpea Tomato Minestrone Soup

Have you heard of Kitchen Daily?  I love it!  Every day they send me an email with delicious looking recipes in it.  Nearly every recipe gets Pinned to one of my Pinterest boards and I’ve even tried quite a few of them.  If you haven’t checked out Kitchen Daily, I highly recommend it!  Check out their website too, it’s filled with deliciousness!

Yesterday the email had a recipe for Chickpea Tomato Minestrone Soup.  I’m in a soup, chili, anything comforting and warm to eat mood with our fabulous below zero weather lately.  This recipe looked delicious and I had most of the ingredients in the house already.

On my way home I stopped for the few ingredients I didn’t have, a can of chickpeas and some Swiss chard.  The grocery store I stopped in didn’t have Swiss Chard or even kale (what’s up with that?) so I picked up some spinach instead.  It worked.

I make my own beef and vegetable stock.  I am lucky in that the farmer from whom we get our beef is very generous and gives me bones for free so I can make my own stock and freeze it.  I don’t have to buy the bones!  Vegetable stock is super easy and free when you make it at home whether you know the farmer or not!  I don’t know why anyone would ever buy it.

Vegetable stock is so easy.  Add the bits and ends of whatever vegetables you have in the house to a pot.  For this soup recipe you need onion, carrot and celery so at a minimum you can add the onion, carrot and celery buts to the pot.  If you have other veggies in the house throw them in too.  When I clean veggies I throw the “ends” in a bag in the freezer.  When I need to make more stock I throw them in a pot!  I also usually add some herbs, whatever I have in the house.  I had thyme so I used thyme this time.  :-)  I also threw in a couple of bay leaves.  Once you have your pot of veggies, fill it with water, get it boiling, turn it down to a simmer and let it sit for an hour.  Your house will smell wonderful!

After the stock has simmered for an hour, strain out the veggies.  I like using my Michael Ruhlman straining cloth.  It gets all the little bits out and you end up with a beautifully clear broth.  I needed four cups for the soup, the rest goes in one-cup containers in the freezer for the next time I need stock!  Don't have a Michael Ruhlman straining cloth?  You can get one at but be careful.  You may also end up with a bad ass egg spoon, a set of off-set spoons and lord knows what else!  Or you can find something around your house that will work!

Typically I would make my own noodles.  If I had been making this soup on a Saturday or Sunday I probably would have made the pasta but it was Wednesday after a long day at work and I didn’t have the time (the hour the stock was simmering was already spoken for!).  The recipe calls for “not long noodles.”  I did have some orechetti in the house but I thought Sunrise Creative Gourmet lasagnetta noodles would be prettier and I had some butternut squash lasagnetta in the cupboard!  I just broke up enough to make the cup I needed.

I cut my celery and carrots fairly large.  I like them to still be a little al dente in the soup, not mushy.  If you like softer veggies either cut them smaller or saute them a bit longer.

Once the veggies are cooked, a little chopped garlic is added.  I love the smell of garlic cooking!  Tomato paste, the vegetable broth, diced tomatoes and oregano are added next.  I really like the Muir Glen Fire Roasted Diced tomatoes if I have to use canned tomatoes.

If you found Swiss chard, you would throw the stems in now so they could cook down and lose a little of that bitter flavor, along with the chick peas and the pasta.  After about 10 minutes the leaves can be added.  I added the chickpeas and pasta and didn’t add the spinach until they had warmed through.

The soup definitely needs a little salt and pepper at this point and I may have added just a touch more crushed red pepper than the recipe called for.  We like a little heat in our house!

This is delicious soup.  The flavors of the vegetables come through, there’s nice texture if you cut the veggies big enough and who doesn’t love pasta?   Not only is it delicious it’s good for you too.   Look at all the colors from the vegetables!  And I think the lasagnetta worked just perfectly, it tasted great and looked pretty!

Per Serving: 175 Calories; 3g Fat (17.4% calories from fat); 6g Protein; 31g Carbohydrate; 5g Dietary Fiber; 1mg Cholesterol; 734mg Sodium.  Exchanges: 1 1/2 Grain(Starch); 1 1/2 Vegetable; 1/2 Fat.

Black Bean Burgers

I love veggie burgers!  No, I’m not vegetarian, I’m definitely a meat-o-saur, but I do love a good veggie burger.  The best veggie burgers in the Twin Cities (IMHO) were made at a place called Mill City Café in NE Minneapolis.   We would drive all the way over there (from where we live it’s a good 45 minute drive) for those burgers.  Mill City Café closed to move to a new location so I was really missing my black bean burgers!  They are now open in their new location and are called The Mill Northeast.  If you're in the neighborhood you should definitely check them out! I can’t wait to try them again!

I then found a spot much closer to home, Ward 6, where the veggie burgers were pretty darn close to Mill City Café!  Thank you Eric and Bob for keeping them on the menu!
I’ve tried the frozen veggie burgers and they are ok too but I’ve wanted to find a good recipe for a while.  Enter Pinterest!  Sunday morning I was browsing Pinterest and came upon a spicy black bean burger recipe that looked really promising.  It had brown rice, garlic, onion, red bell pepper, corn and black beans seasoned with chili powder and cayenne, how could it not be good?

Here is a link to the recipe so you can Pin it too!  Spicy Black Bean Burgers

I threw the brown rice in my rice cooker while I prepped the rest of the ingredients.
I hand mashed the cooked black beans while the peppers and onions sauteed in a pan.  The peppers, onions and corn added to the black beans, the cooked rice and the seasonings.  

The recipe then called for blending half of this mixture into sort of a puree.  This makes the burgers less chunky and helps hold them together.  I love it when I get to use my immersion blender!

The halves are brought back together, an egg white and some Panko crumbs are added and it's time to make patties!

They smelled wonderful!

I topped one with a little habanero aioli I pick up from my friend's at San Pedro Cafe in Hudson, WI, some spinach and a little tomato.  Put all that goodness on a bun from PJ Murphy's bakery and you have dinner! 

They taste even better!   These are so delicious, especially topped with a little habanero aioli, tomato, and spinach on a bun from our favorite local bakery.   The batch made 10 burgers.  They are in the freezer just waiting for me to warm them up and devour them.  Keeper!

P.S.  Don't worry Mill Northeast and Ward 6, I'll still be in for your burgers! 

It's Chili Weather!

It’s cold in Minnesota.  I mean really cold.  The high temperature here on Monday was something like -14 F and that was without wind chills!  The first breath you took if you ventured outside was a shock to the lungs for sure.   When it’s cold I crave hot, filling, comfort foods like chili.

I am a huge fan of the Noble Pig blog.  Some of Cathy’s recipes have become standards in our house; halibut tacos, hoisin pork tenderloin, pumpkin pancakes with cinnamon syrup and butterscotch bananas with vanilla ice cream to name just a few.  So when I saw this recipe for slow cooker green chicken chili I just had to try it.

We are lucky enough to live very close to a Mexican food market, El Burrito Mercado so I was easily able to find all the ingredients for this chili which included fresh (not canned) tomatillo and Anaheim peppers, as well as jalapenos which you can get just about anywhere.

This is two-day chili.  You start by soaking Great Northern Beans overnight.  I’d read a lot of the comments about this chili and many folks had trouble with the beans being cooked enough.  I gave them an extra few hours of soaking and followed the instructions not to stir the chili hoping to not have beans with “bite.”

There is a lot of chopping for this chili too, four cups of tomatillos, eight Anaheim peppers and six jalapeno peppers in addition to an onion and garlic!  The directions say to seed the peppers.  My hubby and I like a little heat so I left at least half, maybe a little better, of the seeds in.  Neither tomatillos or Anaheim peppers are hot so it was really just the jalapeno seeds that added heat.

The beans go in the bottom of the crock pot so they cook.  They are topped with the peppers, onions, garlic, seasonings and some chicken broth.  This gets to cook for four hours before the chicken is added with a little lime juice.

I started it in the morning and we weren’t eating until dinner time so I left it on low for most of the day.  About an hour and a half before it was time to put the chicken in I turned it up to high (wanting to make sure the beans got done).  I added the chicken and a little masa harina (finely ground corn meal) and while the chili was cooking the last half hour I made cornbread muffins.  Famous Dave’s muffins of course, they are the BEST!

The chili looked great!

But how did it taste?  Well, I’ll admit I was a little disappointed.  I wanted more flavor and more heat.  Don’t get me wrong it is good chili, but not as good as I had hoped.  I would add more seasoning (cumin and cayenne) and more jalapenos.  I might also roast some of the peppers beforehand and throw them in at the end so they don’t overcook, just to give the chili more depth of flavor.  And finally, my beans still had “bite” even after making sure they soaked and didn’t move from the bottom of the crock pot.  Probably not going in the "keeper" pile but a good chili nonetheless.

Homemade Pita Bread

Jalapenos have come in at Farmer's Market which has me thinking of all recipes jalapeno.  I'll probably can some too, but that will ...

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