Homemade Vanilla Bean Sugar and Salt

A couple weeks ago, I shared my culinary bucket list, the 100 recipes I would love to make. One of the ingredients I've been wanting to work with since I started my blog was vanilla beans! As I began experimenting more with sweet recipes, I noticed what a difference higher quality vanilla can make in the desserts. I figured vanilla beans would take it up another notch!

I decided to start small and create some vanilla sugar and salt. The salt and sugar is simple, but enhances the flavor of any dish it is used in. You can use these anywhere you would use regular salt or sugar, it just adds another layer of flavor. The vanilla sugar would be perfect to add to your morning cup of coffee, or in a dessert recipe. The vanilla salt could be used in sweet dishes (such as salted caramels), or even savory dishes.

We personally created the vanilla salt and sugar to create a rich dark chocolate hot cocoa that we gifted our friends and family with for Christmas. (I'm sharing that recipe soon!)

Here's how we made the vanilla sugar and vanilla salt.

Vanilla Sugar instructions:
  • Carefully cut a vanilla bean in half and empty out the paste inside the bean
  • Mix the paste of one bean with a cup of sugar
  • Cut up the bean and store in the sugar to add additional flavor
Vanilla Salt instructions:
  • Carefully cut a vanilla bean in half and empty out the paste inside the bean
  • Mix the paste of one bean with 3/4 cup of salt
  • Cut up the bean and store in the salt to add additional flavor

Lemon Meltaway Cookies

Do you ever get a craving to bake something sweet only to discover you are missing key ingredients? It's been a while since I baked sweet treats, but the other night I was having a craving for cookies - specifically lemon cookies. I soon discovered, though, that I was out of eggs...typically a key ingredient to making cookies. I didn't want to head to the grocery, so I decided to find an eggless cookie recipe.

Besides saving me a trip to the store, it also gave me an opportunity to try my hand at alternate ways to bake. I've had a few requests for specialty baked treats that meet dietary restrictions including egg free, dairy free, and gluten free. I've really only tried egg free desserts that I hadn't had much luck with...until this cookie recipe!

Baking a cookie without eggs wasn't the only obstacle I ran into with this recipe. I started by following a recipe I found online. After following the directions to the letter, I ended up with a crumbly mess! The recipe definitely seemed like it didn't have enough liquid (especially with the exclusion of the eggs). But, I wasn't expecting it to be so crumbly. I decided to add some lemon juice until it got to a better dough consistency. Thankfully, that worked!

These cookies have such a light texture and consistency from the powdered sugar, they just melt in your mouth! I added even more lemon flavor by creating a lemon icing for the top of the cookies. It was a bit thick, so I iced them while they were still warm. I even added a dash of fresh lemon zest to the top of the cookies, for an extra kick of fresh flavor.

Individually Baked Mac 'n Cheese

When my husband and I got married we received so many wonderful wedding gifts, most of which came from our registry. One of our most used gifts, though, was a set of ramekins we had not even thought to ask for. I was surprised by just how useful the mini dishes are! Whether its with prep work, melting butter, storing sauces, or even being used as bakeware, we use the ramekins all the time! I've even shared a couple recipes on here that utilized these handy dishes - mini chicken pot pies and microwaveable deep dish cookie.

Today's recipe that uses ramekins was inspired by our favorite steakhouse. One of their best sides is the baked macaroni and cheese, which is baked and served in a ramekin. It got me thinking that we could cook our favorite baked macaroni in ours!

I love the look of mini dishes baked in ramekins, they are perfect for a dinner party. Another great aspect of the mini mac 'n cheese dishes are that you can individualize them to different tastes. You could mix in different flavors or ingredients in each ramekin to customize each dish. We kept ours simple with some bacon bits. We did personalize them slightly by topping them with different types of cheese for mine and my husband's. He used the sharp cheddar we used in the dish, while I used a spicy pepper jack cheese to give mine a little kick.

This baked mac 'n cheese recipe is delicious and I can't wait to make this mini version again!

Individually Baked Mac 'n Cheese ingredients:
  • 1 lb elbow macaroni pasta (or your favorite small pasta)
  • 2 cups sharp cheddar cheese
  • 1/4 cup butter (half stick)
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1 tsp Kosher salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • Mix ins: bacon bits, veggies, ham, etc.
  • 1/2 cup breadcrumbs
  • 1/4 cup melted butter (for the topping)
Individually Baked Mac 'n Cheese instructions:
  • Preheat oven to 350F
  • Prepare pasta per instructions on box
  • Drain pasta and set to the side
  • Grate block of cheddar cheese
  • Melt butter in sauce pan over medium heat
  • Gradually whisk in flour and salt
  • Heat until mixture sarts to bubble and turns pale brown (approximately 3 mins)
  • Slowly mix in 1 cup milk
  • Once combined, mix in the second cup of milk
  • Continue cooking and whisking until sauce begins to thicken
  • Season with freshly ground black pepper
  • Slowly mix in cheese
  • Once melted, remove pan from heat
  • Stir in cooked pasta 
  • Mix in bacon bits or any other add ins (you could also mix them in the smaller dishes)
  • Split mac 'n cheese between ramekins
  • Mix together breadcrumbs and melted butter
  • Top mac 'n cheese with breadcrumbs and a little more cheese (I used spicy pepper jack cheese, my husband used just sharp cheddar)
  • Top with additional black pepper, if desired
  • Bake for around 15 mins

I've shared quite a few savory dishes lately. It's been fun experimenting with cooking, but I'll be back to sweet treats next week. I have some new lemon cookies I'm excited to share!

Maple-Bourbon Salmon with Roasted Asparagus

When I began my adventure in blogging, I first focused solely on sweet treats and dessert recipes. Slowly over time, I began to venture over into the savory side. While I still prefer baking, I have gained confidence in cooking and have started to experiment and expand my repertoire. There are so many ingredients and dishes I still want to work with though! 

I was thinking about this at the start of the year and decided to make a bucket list of 100 recipes I'd love to try out. The list includes a mixture of sweet and savory dishes. I'll make sure and mention when a new recipe I'm sharing is off the list, but check back to see which I've completed. You may notice recipes that are already marked off, I decided to include dishes from last year. In 2014 there were a few dishes I had been excited to try for a long time, and was particularly proud of (such as my Italian cream cake or homemade noodles).

Today I'm marking the first recipe off the list for 2015 - bourbon glazed salmon. One thing I've loved about the blog, and experimenting in the kitchen, is that it has helped evolve my palette. There are foods I was sure I used to dislike (or at least never wanted to try) that I've begun to rediscover. One of those foods is salmon. I used to dislike (or assumed I disliked) any and all seafood. Recently, though, I tried salmon for the first time in years and realized I had been missing out! 

I'm always up for discovering new recipes to add to the rotation, especially ones that are healthy, so I decided to try a salmon dish. I looked around online for a glaze to compliment the fish and found one from Better Homes and Garden that sounded perfect - a maple bourbon glaze. If your keeping track, this isn't the first dish I've made that has a bourbon glaze, I previously tried an ancho bourbon pork chop and a maple bourbon pork chop. I also used bourbon in the Whisky BBQ Sliders (which would be great for any upcoming game day parties). This glaze is slightly different than the others, it contains bourbon, maple syrup, orange juice, and pecans. Yum! The combination is sweet with a bit of a citrus kick. The pecans add flavor and  a bit of texture contrast.

Faux Fried Chicken

I typically share sweet treats and dessert recipes, but lately I've been on more of a savory kick. Today I am sharing a healthier alternative of one of my favorite dishes - fried chicken! I'm from Kentucky, so I've had my fair share of delicious fried chicken (and I don't mean from a certain fast food chain). I've even shared a spicy version I enjoy making. While fried chicken has many wonderful qualities, it's far from the healthiest dish... I've tasted (and attempted) some healthier versions of this Southern staple, but they've all come up short.

There's usually two issues with the dishes - lack of flavor and texture issues. In my experience, healthy dishes have a tendency to scrimp on flavor. Thankfully, though, this dish is quite tasty! The other issue can be texture. A crisp exterior is a key component to fried chicken, and it is hard to achieve without frying. After a few failed attempts of making the fried chicken healthier, I was a bit skeptical when I first saw this dish on Trisha Yearwood's Food Network show. She knows her Southern cuisine, though, so I decided to take her recommendation and attempt this fake fried chicken.

The result is a delicious and perfectly crisp piece of chicken! The dish even has a bit of heat from the hot sauce and pepper. I ended up doubling the red pepper flakes and cayenne pepper to get a bit more heat. Below is my slightly modified version of Trisha's flavorful recipe

Mini Pizzas with Canned Biscuits

It's the middle of January, which means it won't be long until the Superbowl. I'm not much of a football fan, but I do enjoy a tasty game day snack! Last year we made some delicious dishes for the big game, including pizza potato skins. Is it bad I remember the food more than who played in the game?

This year we won't get to enjoy making game day snacks, we will be traveling on the day of the big game! We had our own game day last weekend, though, cheering on our favorite (undefeated) college basketball team. We made some adorable and delicious mini pizzas to enjoy while we watched the game.

You've probably seen the popular Pinterest pin of pizza rolls made with canned biscuits. We've made them in the past, as well as an Italian chicken version and a caramel apple version. Instead of creating the pizza rolls this time, though, we decided to experiment with making mini pizzas out of the canned biscuit dough. These mini pizzas worked out well because my husband and I enjoy very different toppings on our pizzas, so we were able to make individualized ones.

These mini pizzas are easy to make, plus I think they are adorable! It's also a small handheld snack, making it perfect for game day.

Mini Pizza ingredients:
  • Grands biscuits
  • Pizza sauce
  • Freshly grated cheese (I used Monterey jack and pepper jack)
  • Favorite pizza toppings (onion, green bell pepper, red bell pepper, mushrooms, bacon, pepperoni, etc)
  • Italian seasoning
  • Red pepper flakes (optional)
Mini Pizza instructions:
  • Preheat oven to 400F
  • Grate cheese
  • Flatten out biscuits
  •  Place rolled out biscuits and place on baking sheet
  • Top dough with pizza sauce, shredded cheese, pizza toppings, and seasonings
  •  Bake around 15 mins

For more game day treats, check out this round-up of recipes!

The BEST Yogurt Parfait I've Ever Had

Confession time - I am not a fan of Greek yogurt. Everyone seems to be on the Greek yogurt bandwagon lately, but it's not something I have previously enjoyed. In all honesty, though, I'm not much of a fan of any kind of plain yogurt. I kept trying different brands or combinations with fruit to find something I would eat for breakfast (or snacks), but kept coming up short of a tasty treat.

I tried yet another attempt at eating Greek yogurt the other night when I decided to make a parfait. We were cooking breakfast for dinner, which usually consists of homemade biscuits, sausage, spicy hash browns, and some fruit dish. I looked online for ideas and found a recipe called the "Best Yogurt Parfait Ever". I was intrigued, but even more so when I saw it was The Pioneer Woman! If you've read my blog much lately, you know I am a HUGE fan (and I even got to meet her). Basically if I want to find a new recipe for a dish, I start by seeing if she has a version. Even Google has figured this out since her site is the top result for most recipes I search!

This yogurt parfait definitely truly is the best ever! It uses Greek yogurt, but adds some additional ingredients to sweeten it and add flavor. Now when reading the recipe you will notice it calls for 1/2 cup of both heavy cream and brown sugar. Ok...I know that doesn't sound the healthiest, but the recipe makes a ton of servings! 17.5 oz is quite a bit of yogurt, especially considering I only use a few spoonfuls in each parfait.  It might not be the best yogurt to eat by itself, but it's perfect in small quantities to sweeten fruit.

I used strawberries in the parfait, but you could use any kinds of berry (or a combination). I tweaked the recipe by including dark chocolate and oat granola. The dark chocolate is subtle in the granola, but it definitely elevates the flavor profile. I also love the texture contrast the granola provides to the parfait. The granola I used was even packed with protein, so that is an added benefit!

You should definitely go try this recipe, I can't wait to have some more for breakfast!

Santa Fe Salad Copycat Recipe

It's my third and final meal in the series of taco seasoned chicken recipes. Earlier this week, I shared a spicy Chicken Taco Soup and the simple (yet scrumptious) Southwestern Chicken Quesadilla. This meal is definitely the quickest to make, there's no cooking required after the chicken is prepared! 

As I mentioned in my previous posts, I've been on the lookout for quick and simple weeknight recipes that don't scrimp on complex flavors! Once you prepare several pieces of taco seasoned chicken early in the week, these meals will be simple to make even after a tiring day of work.

I was inspired to make this salad after having a similar version at BJ's Brewhouse over the holidays. During our week back home, we went out to eat with my in-laws one night. Having had a lot of wonderful food at all the festivities, I decided to go with a salad for my meal. I choose the Santa Fe salad and it quickly became my new favorite salad! This version is slightly different, but the overall flavors are spot on. The dressing is a perfect replica, I found the recipe on a pub copycat recipe website.The restaurant version of the salad used blackened chicken, but I used taco seasoned chicken instead. It was a perfect complement to the other southwestern flavors within the salad.

Southwestern Chicken Quesadilla

This week I'm giving sweet treats a temporary break, I consumed more than my fair share during the holidays! While my blog used to be exclusively dessert recipes, I've slowly been expanding my savory recipe repertoire. I've experimented with flavorful savory meals, such as Maple Bourbon Pork Chops or my favorite version of a classic Chicken Pot Pie. I've discovered, though, that some of the more complex, scrumptious dishes require a significant amount of time. They may be dishes I enjoy preparing on the weekends, but not so much after a tiring day of work. I don't want to sacrifice flavor, but I'm all for finding a shortcut for weeknight cooking.

I love finding ways to use leftovers to create a new meal, or at least get some prep work done ahead of time. So this week I'm sharing a set of three meals that all feature a common ingredient - taco seasoned chicken. The set of meals work great if you cook up several pieces of taco seasoned chicken at the beginning of the week. With the chicken already prepared, you have a significant head start on the three meals. Each of these meals could be prepared with grilled chicken, but the taco seasoned chicken kicks up the flavor a notch!

Earlier this week I shared my favorite of the three meals - Chicken Taco Soup. The Southwestern Chicken Quesadillas, though, are a close second! They are definitely my husband's favorite. These quesadillas are fairly quick and easy, but complex in flavor. Besides the chicken, I added spice with peppers, onions, jalapenos and even threw in some spicy pepper jack cheese. To me, the more heat the better! You could tone down the spice with mild taco seasoning and non spicy cheese. I certainly can't take credit for this recipe, I didn't stray too far from the original

Chicken Taco Soup

After indulging a bit too much over the holidays, I'm taking a break from sweets and focusing on savory dishes this week. While I experiment significantly with desserts, I maintain a more limited repertoire when it comes to savory recipes. During the week we tend to get stuck in a culinary rut of a few standby dishes. There are plenty of dishes we enjoy cooking (hibachi and bourbon ancho chili pork chops are among are favorite), but most of them require a significant amount of time and energy. It's difficult to find dishes that are flavorful, but simple enough to cook after a tiring day of work.

One way around the dilemma is to use recipes that allow for some prep work, or key components, to be prepared ahead of time. This week I'm sharing a series of recipes that all contain one ingredient in common - taco seasoned chicken. Prepare a large batch of chicken seasoned with your favorite taco seasoning, and you will be well on your way to creating three different, but equally delicious, meals to eat throughout the week.

Why taco seasoned chicken you might ask? I enjoy all kinds of flavors, but southwestern spices and seasonings are at the top of my list! While taco seasoning may be more commonly used with ground beef, it is a delicious way to spice up chicken. The three meals I'm sharing could be made with regular grilled chicken, but the seasoning take the flavor to the next level.

This week I will be sharing my take on a taco soup, southwestern chicken quesadillas, and a delicious, yet simple, salad. These may all have the same main ingredient and spices, but the dishes are anything but boring. They will allow you to save some time, yet still have a variety in your meals.

First up, is my take on a chicken taco soup, based on a Pioneer Woman recipe. If you've read my blog much, you know The Pioneer Woman's recipes are among my absolute favorite. I even got to meet her recently!!

It's getting chilly outside, so what's better than soup on a cold winter's night? This soup is not only warm in temperature, but it is also packs some heat with the spices. If spicy is not your thing, you can definitely make a milder version by using a mild taco seasoning and not adding additional spices. I tend to be heavy handed with cayenne pepper and chili powder, to me the spicier the better! The soup is scrumptious on its own, but is also perfectly paired with cornbread (or even corn chips).

Chicken Taco Soup ingredients:
  • 1 lb taco seasoned chicken, shredded
  • 1/2 tbs olive oil
  • 2 packets taco seasoning
  • Additional spices: salt, pepper, cayenne pepper, chili powder, etc
  • 1 cup diced onion
  • 1/4 cup diced green bell pepper
  • 1/4 cup diced red bell pepper
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 can Rotel Tomatoes and Green Chilies
  • 3 cups chicken stock
  • 2 tbs tomato paste
  • 3 cups hot water
  • 1 small can whole kernel corn, drained (~10 oz)
Chicken Taco Soup directions:
  • Dice onions and peppers
  • Heat olive oil in pot over medium heat
  • Saute onion, peppers, and garlic for a few mins
  • Add drained corn 
  • Season veggies and with one packet of taco seasoning
  • Shred seasoned chicken and add to veggies
  • Add chicken stock, Rotel tomatoes, tomato paste, and water
  • Mix second taco packet and additional seasonings to taste (cayenne pepper, chili powder, etc)
  • Heat mixture until boiling
  • Reduce to simmer
  • Simmer at least 15 mins
  • Taste and adjust seasonings, if needed
  • Enjoy!
Check back later this week for southwestern quesadillas and a flavor packed salad!

    Bananas Foster White Chocolate Fondue

    If you've been on my blog the past week, you may have noticed my series of fondue recipes. I got a new fondue pot for Christmas and didn't wait long to test it out for a three course meal New Year's Eve. I found some copycat recipes online and experimented with my favorite Melting Pot courses. Earlier, I shared our take on the Fiesta cheese course and the Court Bouillon main course.

    The final recipe of the night was a Bananas Foster White Chocolate fondue. When we were creating the recipes, the first two courses went off with any issues. The dessert course...well it took a few attempts to get it right. After some experimenting, I think our issue was the type of white chocolate we were using. The flavor was spot on though, delicious!

    For the recipe, we used a Pioneer Woman Bananas Foster sauce that we love. The sauce simply mixes into the white chocolate, and the combination is fantastic! 

    We used all the delicious dippers from The Melting Pot including pound cake, strawberries, banana slices, and marshmallows. My favorite treats to dip are their Oreo covered marshmallows and graham cracker covered marshmallows. Turns out, the marshmallows couldn't be easier to make! 

    Here's how I made them:
    • Crush Oreos and/or graham crackers until they become a fine crumb
    • Roll marshmallows in water
    • Place crumbs in bag and toss marshmallows in the crumbs

    Court Bouillon Fondue Course

    I love collecting new kitchen gadgets. Our small kitchen is busting at the seams with all the tools and gadgets we have accumulated over the past couple years. Our latest addition is a fondue pot I received for Christmas. We love The Melting Pot, so I wanted to attempt to replicate the dishes at home. Copycat recipes can be tricky, but we were pleasantly surprised with how the courses turned out! 

    We went all at on New Year's Eve and did a three course meal. It required a ton of prep work, and hours to get through the courses, but it was well worth the effort. Next time, though, we will probably stick to one course an evening! 

    For our fondue dinner, we prepared our favorite dishes from The Melting Pot: the Fiesta cheese appetizer, Court Bouillon main course, and Bananas Foster white chocolate dessert. Earlier this week, I shared the cheese course - it was probably my favorite of the evening.

    After our cheese course, we moved on to the main course. There are several different cooking styles at The Melting Pot, but we usually stick with the complimentary court bouillon style. We made a very similar style broth using a vegetable bouillon substitute. 

    Fiesta Cheese Fondue Course

    Happy New Year! How is it already January?! It seems like Halloween was just a couple weeks ago. It certainly has been quiet on my blog the past few months...yikes! One of my New Year's resolutions is to return to the blogosphere and post a bit more frequently than once a month. I'm ready to jump back in with new recipes I've been trying, and a couple cakes I have coming up. No promises, but I have missed the blog world!

    There's not much to report on from the past few months, we've just been busy with work and holiday festivities. I was lucky enough to spend a week in my home state for Christmas visiting with friends and family. We decided to come back before New Year's Eve, though, and enjoy an evening at our home. Our schedules are about to get a tad hectic with some work and personal trips coming up, so it was nice to spend a couple days home relaxing. Well...relaxing and doing lots of cooking of course.

    Here's a few food highlights from my Christmas:

    Delicious Pioneer Woman sweet rolls I made for a family breakfast