Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Halloween Sweet Treats: Peanut Butter Eyeballs

I married into a family of Buckeyes, the Ohio State kind. As a Wisconsin Badger, I've taken a lot of crap through the years as the Buckeyes climbed to the top of the sports rankings. In anticpation of the two teams meeting on the field or on the court, my father-in-law without fail tells me he's going to have "badger stew". So when I ran across the recipe for Peanut Butter Buckeyes a few years ago, I couldn't resist making them for a chance to devour their mascot.

When I was trying to come up with some scary homemade candy ideas for Halloween, the recipe for the peanut butter buckeyes seemed to be the perfect starting point for making eyeballs. The buckeyes are a sweetened peanut butter filling rolled into balls, then partially covered in semi-sweet chocolate. For the eyeballs, I painted an iris on the peanut butter filling and replaced the chocolate with white chocolate for the whites of the eye, then added a chocolate chip for the pupil. The plain white seemed a bit bare, so I painted on some blood vessels with red food coloring. Not bad for a little experimentation.

Next time I think I will try using mini chocolate chips - I think they would make more realistic pupils and would be easier to press into the cold peanut butter filling.

Peanut Butter Eyeballs

2 cups powdered sugar
3/4 cups smooth peanut butter (preferably all natural, containing no hydrogenated oils)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter melted
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt (or 1/2 teaspoon Diamond kosher salt)

6 ounces white chocolate, broken into pieces

Food coloring, a small clean paint brush, mini chocolate chips

In a medium bowl, stir together powdered sugar, peanut butter, butter, vanilla, and salt until combined. Roll mixture into 1 inch balls and place on a wax paper lined baking sheet that fits into your freezer. Paint blue, green, and brown iris on the eyeballs using food coloring. Place a few drops of the desired color on a small square of waxed paper, then dabbing the paint brush into the food coloring, paint a circular iris on each peanut butter ball. It doesn't have to be perfectly round, as the white chocolate will form the outer border of the iris.

Melt the chocolate in a small bowl set over a small pot of simmering water. Remove from heat.

To dip the peanut butter balls into the chocolate, stick a toothpick into the center of the iris, then swirl into the chocolate, leaving the iris visible. Allow the chocolate to set. Remove the toothpick and place a mini chocolate chip in the center of the iris, covering the hole left by the toothpick. To make them extra ghoulish, paint red blood vessels on the whites of the eyes using the paint brush with red food coloring.

Happy Halloween!

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Recipes for Homemade Halloween Treats: Mint Meltaways

Halloween is fast approaching, and I have been working on improving some old recipes for homemade Halloween treats. I never buy packaged cookies. Almost every label of a packaged cookie indicates that they contain partially, or now fully hydrogenated vegetable oils. They have to- the hydrogenation keeps them from spoiling on the shelf. But even before the evils of trans fats were realized, I rarely ate a cookie from a package. I stick to the mentality that they are too easy to access if you buy them- you must want them badly enough to go through the trouble of making them from scratch- that's right, no mixes either. Having said that, I am going to contradict this ideal by using packaged cookies in the recipe- a sleeve of graham crackers is in the bottom crust. To make them completely trans fat free, you could either make your own graham crackers or, you could buy trans fat free crackers from Trader Joes or a trustworthy natural food store, double checking the ingredients for partially hydrogenated oils. Unfortunately, hydrogenated fats could be lurking in the ingredients without specifically being listed...

On a recent trip to Safeway, I found that their "honey Graham crackers" indicate they have "0g Trans Fat Per Serving" right on the front of the box. Well we all know that doesn't mean they used no trans fats, there is just less than half a gram per serving. I checked the side of the box for the ingredients and found "interesterified" oil. Wondering what in the heck that was, I brought the box home to investigate. Turns out "interesterified oil" is fully hydrogenated oil mixed with un-hydrogenated oil and no that does not make it partially hydrogenated and so technically there are no trans fats. It still sounds unhealthy to me. Perhaps my best option would be to recreate the crust from scratch, but for now I will publish the recipe using the graham crackers. It is only a trace amount of hydrogenated oil and these are really good!

Mint Meltaways are a triple layer dark chocolate and mint bar cookie that my mom used to make every year for the St. Patrick's day bake sale at my grade school. They were appropriate for that occasion because the middle layer is a bright green. It happens to also be the spooky green of a witches face, which is why I like them for a Halloween spread. The peppermint makes them an easy choice for a fast Christmas treat or for a Holiday cookie swap, so if you don't get around to making them for Halloween, you've got two other Holidays these will be appropriate for.

I was tempted to try bittersweet chocolate for the topping, but it just isn't as good. The bitterness of the unsweetened chocolate contrasts with the sugary sweetness of the mint frosting. Also, an easy way to make graham cracker crumbs without getting a food processor dirty is to place them in a ziploc bag and use a rolling pin or heavy glass to crush them into crumbs.

Mint Meltaways

1/2 cup unsalted butter
1 ounce unsweetened chocolate
1/4 cup sugar
Dash of salt
1 egg, beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups graham cracker crumbs
1 cup sweetened coconut (I used Angel Flake)
1/2 cup chopped walnuts

1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted
1/2 teaspoon peppermint flavoring
2 cups confectioners' sugar
pinch of salt
Green food coloring

3 ounces unsweetened chocolate

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

To make the crust, melt the butter and chocolate over low heat in a medium saucepan. Stir in sugar, salt, egg, and vanilla. Add the cracker crumbs, coconut, and nuts. Mix well and press into a prepared 13 x 9 inch pan. Bake for 10 minutes. Cool to room temperature and then place in refrigerator for at least 30 minutes.

For the frosting, beat all ingredients until smooth, adding the food coloring until it is the green of a witches face. Spread over the cooled crust and then refrigerate until the frosting has set.

Melt the unsweetened chocolate in a microwave safe bowl and immediately pour over the cooled layer of frosting, spreading to cover the bars with a thin coat of chocolate. Refrigerate until the chocolate has set and cut into squares.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Recipe: Easy Lasagna

There is nothing like Lasagna to feed a crowd or to have on hand for out of town visitors, especially when the visitors are your sister and her two teenage sons. When my sister, Marcy, visited in March I made two lasagnas- one sausage and one spinach. In response to her request for the recipe, I promised to blog about it. At the time, I was 6 months pregnant, so I hope she doesn’t mind that I am writing this almost 7 months later-I’ve been a little busy.

Basic lasagna, as we know it, usually includes noodles, a tomato sauce, and a Bechamel sauce. Bechamel is also known as white sauce, and it consists of butter, flour, milk, and salt. This is an “easy” recipe for Lasagna that instead uses eggs mixed with cheeses. Fresh homemade lasagna noodles would be the ultimate choice for any lasagna, but since this is an easy version of the classic, store bought noodles will do just fine. I particularly like Barilla’s “oven ready Lasagne”.
These perfectly flat noodles are extra thin and unlike those with the squiggly edges, are more like homemade. The very best part is you do not need to boil them first. They come in a smaller box, so do a double check at the store to make sure you’re buying the right ones. (The last time Lou was sent to the store to pick up noodles, he came home with Barilla’s other lasagne noodles, which require boiling before assembling.)


One package lasagne noodles, cooked as directed on package if required.

Tomato Sauce:
Olive Oil for sautéing
1 yellow onion, diced
4 to 6 (depending on size) crimini mushrooms, sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 28-ounce can whole tomatoes
1 16-ounce can tomato sauce
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon dried basil

Cheese Sauce:
3 eggs
2 Tablespoons sour cream or nonfat plain yogurt
1 teaspoon salt or 2 teaspoons Diamond kosher salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground white pepper (black pepper works too)
1 15-ounce carton ricotta cheese
½ pound mozzarella cheese, grated
¼ cup grated parmesan cheese

Extra grated parmesan cheese for the top.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees and coat the sides and bottom of a large baking dish with olive oil.

Heat some olive oil in a sauté pan. Add the onion and mushrooms and sauté until soft. Add the garlic and cook, stirring for about a minute. Add the tomatoes, tomato sauce, dried oregano, and basil. Bring to a low boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, breaking tomatoes up.

While the tomato sauce is simmering, beat the eggs in a medium sized bowl. Add the sour cream or yogurt, salt, pepper, and ricotta and stir until blended. Then stir in the grated mozzarella and parmesan cheeses.

To assemble, first spoon some of the tomato sauce into the bottom of the baking dish. Then layer the noodles, followed by the cheese sauce and then tomato sauce. Repeat layers ending with tomato sauce and top with additional grated parmesan cheese. If using the oven ready noodles, you’ll have 4 layers, each consisting of 4 sheets of pasta, alternating the direction of the noodles with each layer. They may overlap slightly and will spread out to fill in the gaps when baking. If using boiled pasta with the squiggly edges, you’ll have 3 layers, each consisting of 3 noodles, all layed out the long way.

Italian Sausage Lasagna:
Add one pound cooked and crumbled Italian sausage on top of each cheese layer. We like the spice of hot Italian sausage.

Spinach Lasagna:
Blanche ½ pound fresh spinach in salted water. Drain well and chop. Add to the cheese sauce mixture along with a couple pinches of ground nutmeg.

This is a very satisfying meal to have waiting for you in the fridge, but the best place for it might actually be the freezer. You’ll have an arsenal at the ready when you unexpectedly do not have time to cook for yourself or to give to a friend or family member who is in need of some home-cooking. You can freeze an uncooked, assembled lasagna or you can fully cook the lasagna first, allow to cool, then cover tightly and freeze whole or in smaller portions.